Translated by Christopher Maurer
The Art of Worldly Wisdom: A Pocket Oracle is a book of strategies for knowing, judging, and acting: for making one’s way in the world and achieving distinction and perfection.
It is a collection of three hundred aphorisms too delicious not to share with friends and colleagues, too penetrating not to hide from enemies and rivals.
Its ideal reader is someone whose daily occupation involves dealing with others; discovering their intentions, winning their favor and friendship, or (on the other hand) defeating their designs and “checkmating their will.”
Like all aphorisms, these are meant to be read slowly, a few at a time.
The pocket oracle revolves around a duality dear to the seventeenth century and to our own: it sees life as warfare involving both being and seeming, both appearance and reality. It provides advice not only for modern “image makers” and “spin doctors,” but also for the candid: for those who insist that substance, not image, is what really matters. “Do, but also seem,” is Gracian’s pithy advice. It assumes that good people are those most easily duped----sheep in the midst of wolves----and it teaches us to temper the innocence of the dove with the wisdom of the serpent, governing ourselves accordingly to the way people are, rather than the way they would like to be or to appear.
The Oracle has spoken in many tongues, has been heard with admiration and greeted with praise. It was imitated by La Rochefoucauld, valued by writers as diverse as Joseph Addison and Friedrich Nietzsche, and lovingly translated into German by Arthur Schopenhauer. Nietzsche observed that “Europe has never produced anything finer or more complicated in matters of moral subtlety,” and Schopenhauer believed the Oracle “absolutely unique.”
It teaches the art which all would fain practice, and is therefore a book for everyone; but it is especially fitted to be the manual of those who live in the great world, and peculiarly of young people who wish to prosper in that world. To them it gives at once and beforehand that teaching which they could otherwise only obtain through long experience. To read it once through is obviously not enough; it is a book for constant use as occasion serves----in short, to be a companion for life!
What sort of person composed these strategies for perfection? The voice that emerges from the Oracle is not, as some have argued, an entirely cynical , Machiavellian one. Baltasar Gracian (1601-1658) a wordily Jesuit priest, felt undying hatred for human folly.
But the Oracle insists on the perfectability of man and the capacity of goodness, assisted by art, to triumph over evil. It is true that in the Oracle perfection depends not upon religious revelation (God appears only rarely in these pages) but upon human resources and industry: attentiveness, mastery of one’s emotions, self-knowledge, and other forms of prudence.
There is, however, nothing irreligious or overly “pessimistic” about this emphasis on human reason. It was, after all, from St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of his order, that Gracian learned aphorism 251: “Use human means as though divine ones didn’t exist, and divine means as though there were no human ones.”
In the Oracle, Gracian has all but ignored “divine” means, aware of Ignatius’ advice and of the Spanish proverb it elaborates on: “Pray to God, but hammer away...”Gracian assumes, without saying so, that God helps those who help themselves.
What is disconcertingly “modern” about this book is the apparent subordination of ethics to strategy. Moral generalizations, the immutable “hard rules” of ethics, yield, in these pages, to the conviction that to reach perfection one must adapt to circumstances.
To achieve Gracian’s prudencia (wisdom or prudence) one avoids generalities----among them, generalizations about morals. The Oracle bids us to speak the truth but to administer it skill-fully, with a touch of artifice; the “most practical sort of knowledge lies in dissimulation” We are to be “learned with the learned, saintly with saints....observe (others’) temperaments and adapt (ourselves) accordingly.
The wise are as mutable as Proteus. But even mutability and dissimulation must not harden into guiding principles. Gracian’s insistence on adaptability, on metamorphosis and camouflage, reveals a poignant sense of man’s fragility and vulnerability.
Nor can Gracian be accused of indifference to the spiritual or material well-being of others. Avoid fools, he tells us repeatedly, but beyond that his injunctions are clear: Speak what is very good, do what is very honorable” “Know how to do good”: little by little, with moderation.
“Love if you would be loved.” Friendship is a recurrent theme, both here and in Gracian’s other works, as it was in his life, and so in his conversation.
As for the “pessimism” of which he is often accused, the concept is anachronistic.
What many of us call “optimism”----a belief that people are basically good and that things will turn out for the best----Gracian would have regarded as a hoax of the imagination: Hope is a great falsifier. Let good judgement keep her in check.”
Like other moralists of his age, from Francis Bacon and Jeremy Taylor to Francisco de Quevedo, gracian labored painfully towards desengano, the state of total “disenchantment” or disillusionment in which one gains control of one’s hopes and fears, overcomes deceitful appearances and vain expectations, and weans oneself from false wordily values. Much of theOracle, with its insistence on curbing the imagination, concerns strategies for reaching the bittersweet beatitude. To entertain no illusions about things or people was a large part of wisdom.
The modern notions of pessimism and optimism seem shallow in comparison.
Optimism would have seemed out of place, anyway, in seventeenth-century Spain----the Spain of Velasques and Zurbaran----a kingdom in social turmoil and political decline. Like Quevedo, Gracian had the sense that his country’s moral strength was waning. From time to time we hear a melancholy, unmistakably elegiac sigh: Good conduct has departed, debts of gratitude now go unpaid, and few people give others the treatment they deserve....” Only strategy----incessant plotting against one’s own weaknesses and those of others----allows us to push forward to perfection. “It takes more to make one sage today than it did to make the seven of Greece.”
What of Gracian’s own life, his own struggle towards wordily wisdom? It was not, as so many have written, an entirely uneventful one. He was born in 1601 in Belmonte, a village in Aragon, not far from the birthplace of the great Latin satirist Martial, a coincidence which must have delighted him. As an adolescent he studied philosophy and letters in Toledo and Zaragoza and in 1619, at the age of 18, entered the novitiate of the Jesuit order.
For the remaining fifty years of his life Gracian labored as a chaplain and confessor, preacher, professor, and administrator of several Jesuit colleges. Though he never held an important position in public life, he kept company with those who did, and his aphorisms draw on long and careful observation of human behavior, both in peace and in warfare
As young man, he served as confessor of the Viceroy of Aragon, the Neapolitan aristocrat Francesco Maria Carafa, accompanying him on several occasions to the court, and in 1646, in the bleakest days of the Revolt of Catalonia, Gracian served as chaplain of the royal armies that freed the Aragonese city of Lerida from the French. The only Chaplin who neither fell ill nor was captured, Gracian went bravely to the front lines and, he said proudly in a letter, “exhorted the troops as they went into battle.” The soldiers hailed him, he says, as “el Padre de la Victoria.”
When he extols friendship as a pleasant way to acquire learning, he is thinking, no doubt, of blissful hours spent in the salon and library of his friend and protector Vicencio Juan de Lastanoas, six years younger than he, one of the wealthiest and most learned of seventeenth-century Spanish humanists. Lastanosa was patron of an important literary and cultural athenaeum, a true microcosm of all human learning, and it would be difficult to exaggerate his importance to Gracian.
Gracian’s first assignment after he took his vows was to the Jesuit College at Huesca, an ancient town in the northeast of Zaragoza. From the college it was only a few tempting steps to the Lastanosa mansion, an astoundingly rich Baroque “museum” of books and manuscripts, paintings, sculpture, and objects of classical antiquity; there were, Lastanosa once wrote, “more than eight thousand coins and medals of Greek and Roman emperors....and two thousand cameos and stones from ancient rings.
Lastanosa was especially proud of his library, his collection of armor, and his botanical gardens, whose rare plants, trees, and shrubs were cared for by eight French gardeners, several of whom had held that post for more half a century. There was even a small zoological garden: “in four caves, behind strong bars, were a tiger, a leopard, a bear and a lion. In a cage, two voracious ostriches.” To Lastanosa’s literary and cultural treasurers, Gracian was granted access: an incalculable boon for one who thirsted for esthetic perfection and infallible taste, and hungered to “be vulgar in nothing.”
It was Lastanosa who paid for the publication of several of Gracian’s books, and many of the aphorisma of The Art of Wordily Wisdom may have been tried out for the first time on listeners in his salon.
The records of the Jesuits give us a glimpse of Gracian as a priest and administrator, and he seems less stern, less forbidding in those pages than in these. In 1637, for example, he is rebuked for having been too lenient towards a fellow Jesuit guilty of “weakness” with the opposite sex. A year later, the general of the Jesuit order suggests, from Rome, that Padre Gracian be reassigned: ....because he is a cross and a burden to his superiors, a source of problems and disturbances....., and because, displaying little prudence, he has been caring for the child of one who has left the order, asking for money to support him; and (also) because he has published a book, under the name of a brother of his.”
The book alluded to is his first, El heroe, The hero (1637,1639), an imaginary portrait of the perfect leader. Other treatises followed, most of them published under the pseudonym, Lorenzo Gracian, without permission from the Jesuit order
Over the years Gracian was warned repeatedly not to publish his works without permission. So troubling was his continual disobedience that when he published the third and final volume of his masterpiece El criticon, a vast satirical allegory of human existence, he was removed from his chair of Sacred Scripture in Zaragosa and “exiled” to the country town where he died.
From Rome came instructions to watch him closely, “to observe his hands,” to “visit his room from time to time,” and look over his papers. Were he to write anything against the Jesuits, he was to be locked up and forbidden the use of paper, pen, and ink.
Not that his writings were regarded as heretical. It was somewhat unseemly for a Jesuit priest to write so brilliantly on worldly wisdom and on political behavior, but the Jesuits never accused Gracian of contradicting Catholic doctrine. What rankled his superiors was his persistent disobedience, and perhaps his nonchalance.
“I am prohibited from publishing.” he writes in 1653, “and have no lack of envious people. But I bear it all patiently, and am still able to eat lunch and dinner, to sleep, etc.” Gracian’s enemies cruelly exploited his problems with his superiors, and some of their allegations are delightful: in a sermon delivered in Valencia, Gracian is said to have told his listeners that he was reading from a letter he had just received from hell.
No doubt he was a difficult person, with a large dose of stubbornness for which the Aragonese are famous. Gracian may have shown poor judgement in publishing his vast works without authorization. But Time acquitted him.. His works emerged unscathed, he won immortality, and no one remembers his accusers.
Need more? Read the 10 lessons.
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