Francesco Guicciardini (1487-1540) was an Italian statesman and writer. During his lifetime he created 221 maxims which ranged from living a better life to military matters. Here are ten of our favourites.
On Proverbs – One finds almost all the same or similar proverbs, though in different words, in every country, and the reason is that proverbs are born of experience or observation of things which are everywhere alike.
On Friends – Nothing is more precious than friends, therefore waste no opportunity of acquiring them, for men are perpetually in contact with one another, and friends may help and enemies harm at quite unexpected times and places.
On Money – Do not spend money against your expectations of future earnings, for they often do not materialize or they turn out to be less than you hoped. On the other hand, the expenses are constantly mounting. This is the fallacy which causes so many merchants to go bankrupt when they borrow money at interest to make greater profits. Every time these either fail or are delayed, they fall into danger of being overwhelmed by an interest on their debts which never stop or diminish but continually grow and have to be fed.
On how things change – If you look closely you will see that from age to age not only do words and men’s way of speaking change, but their clothes, building methods, agriculture, and such things; what is more, even tastes change, so that a food which is prized in one age is often thought less of in another.
On Courage – The real test of men’s courage is when a sudden danger comes upon them; the man who can stand up to this – and there are very few who can – may really be called brave and fearless.
On Tyrants – To save oneself from a bestial and cruel tyrant there is no effective rule or sure specific, except what one does for the plague – flee as far and as soon as possible.
On clever men – Messer Antonio da Venafro used to say with great truth: “Put six or eight clever men together and they become as many madmen.” For they cannot agree, and so place everything in question rather than revolve their problems.
On Miracles – I find it easy to believe that in every age many things have been regarded as miracles, which were nothing of the sort. Yet this much is certain, every religion has had its miracles, so that miracles are but a feeble proof of the truth of one religion rather than another. Possibly miracles do demonstrate God’s power but no more that of the Gentile’s God than that of the Christian’s God. Indeed it may not be blasphemous to say that miracles, like prophecies, are secrets of nature, that causes of which man’s intellect is incapable of reaching.
On War – Those who believe that victory in campaigns depends on their being just or unjust are quite wrong, for every day we see the opposite proved true. For not right, but prudence, strength, and good fortune win military victory. It is very true that those who are in the right gain a certain confidence based on the belief God gives victory to just causes. This makes men bold and obstinate, and from these two qualities victory is sometimes born. Hence having a just cause may indirectly help, but it is false to say that it does so directly.
On helping others – I do not censure fasting, prayer, and such pious works which are ordained by the church or recommended by the friars. But the best of virtues is – and by comparison all others are of little weight – not to harm anyone, to help others to best of one’s ability.
The Ricordi by Francesco Guicciardini has been translated several times – these were taken from Francesco Guicciardini: Selected Writings, by Margaret Grayson (Oxford University Press, 1965). You can also read an 1890 edition – Counsels and Reflections of Francesco Guicciardini, translated by Ninian Hill Thomson, which is available through Archive.org