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Baltasar Gracián’s Art of Worldly Wisdom (1647) offers practical advice on how to make your way in a chaotic world, and how to make it well. But what sets this book apart from other manuals on the art of living is the sharp edge of the three hundred aphorisms it contains. Although Gracián wrote almost four centuries ago, the elements that describe his times bear a striking resemblance to those of our own era--political transformations, economic battles that pit local interests against global forces, competing religious outlooks seeking to shape secular worlds, and new technologies torn between democratization and centralization. Gracián wrote for an up-and-coming middle class during Spain’s Golden Age, a period of transition and upheaval when new powers were emerging on the global economic and political scene. The mercantile system that now dominates the world economy was just coming into being in a political context shaped by both democratic and authoritarian tendencies. The concept of the “person” as an agent struggling for autonomy in a world of competing political and economic forces was just arising. Meanwhile, the world of arts and letters was expanding and shifting toward new forms of participation that extended beyond existing elites. Gracián’s aphorisms remain relevant today as practical guides for civility in an often uncivil world. They may also serve as invitations to participate in making an uncivil world as civil as possible.
Baltasar Gracián y Morales was born in 1601 in Belmonte, near Calatayud, in Aragon, Spain. He studied at a Jesuit school in Zaragosa and became a novice atthe age of eighteen. He went on to study philosophy in Calatayud and theology in Zaragosa before being ordained in 1627. Gracián joined the Society of Jesus--commonly known as the Jesuit order--in 1633 and, like many members of that order, dedicated himself to teaching and writing. He taught philosophy and theology at Jesuit schools in Aragon, Gandia, and Huesca before moving to the Jesuit College of Tarragona, He served as rector there until he was banished to the village of Graus by the Jesuit Provost General after publishing, without proper permission, the third part of his novel Criticón
in 1657. Though some commentators imply otherwise, it is generally agreed that Gracián’s transgression was not the content of the book, an allegorical journey in which civilization is contrasted with nature, so much as his failure to secure the permission of his superiors, a requirement that was routine for clergy and was particularly expected of Jesuits, whose obedience is described by the Catholic Encyclopedia
as “the characteristic virtue of the order.” Don Vincencio Juan de Lastanosa, a wealthy patron of the arts who Gracián befriended when he taught in Huesca and who was responsible for gathering the three hundred aphorisms published here (which first appeared as Oraculo Manual y Arte de Prudencia
in 1647), credits Gracián with twelve volumes, but only seven are known: The Hero
1637), a critical alternative to Machiavelli; The Politician Don Fernando the Catholic
(El político Don Fernando el Católico,
1640); Art of Ingenuity
(Arte de ingenio
, 1642, revised as Agudeza y arte de ingenio
, 1648); The Complete Gentleman
, 1646); and the three volumes of The Critic
1651–1657). These works were published under pseudonyms to avoid censorship, yet another reminder of the competing forces that complicated the task of making one’s way in the world, then as now. Gracián died in Tarragona in 1658.
In the case of Spain, the “golden” of its Golden Age has to be taken literally, as the period coincides with a massive influx of gold from the territories in the so-called “new world” defeated and occupied by Spain beginning at the end of the fifteenth century. But the term is also meant figuratively to describe the period during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in which art and literature flourished throughout the Spanish Empire as the political power of the Habsburgs collapsed. This is the period of Diego Velázquez and El Greco in art; Tomás Luis de Victoria and Alonso Lobo in music; Miguel de Cervantes, Lope de Vega, San Juan de la Cruz, and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in literature. And, of course, Gracián, whose Criticón
is recognized as a masterpiece of the period and whose aphorisms were acknowledged as sources of inspiration by Goethe, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche and influenced work such as the Maxims
of La Rouchefoucauld. The political unification of Spain following the Reconquista
that ended Moorish occupation and expelled or forcibly Christianized Jews, the far-flung empire that developed rapidly in the sixteenth century, and the subsequent sudden influx of wealth all contributed to cultural, economic, and political instability that created space in an Absolute State for an emerging middle class. (An earlier Jewish Golden Age depended on the Moorish occupation to make space by expelling the hostile powers that returned with the Reconquista
.) Forces at work during the period combined contradictory impulses toward “purification” that (in writers like Bartolome de las Casas) precipitated new reflection on the nature of humanity and its relation to the inhumanity witnessed repeatedly in the course of conquest. Spain was the superpower of the age, but it was competing with steadily developing English economic and military power (as evidenced by the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588) as well as the power of its neighbor France.
Gracián’s edge derives at least in part from the time and place in which he wrote. One important factor, noted by many critics and commentators, is the secularization of society in the previous century. Monroe Z. Hafter locates Gracián in a reaction to this secularization that he characterizes as Christian and, after 1583, anti-Machiavellian. In Hafter’s reading, this reaction comes in three phases, each of which attends to divine action (and divine purpose) in the world but also takes human imperfection seriously as a given. The first phase starts with human imperfection and judges it in the light of a “rule of virtue” associated with divine purpose. It is explicitly theological and moralistic in the sense of condemning any departure from what is taken to be obedience to divine imperatives. The point is to identify sin and evoke confession. The second phase continues to take human imperfection as a point of departure while compromising on the divine imperative. The point is to ask only as much as can reasonably be expected of imperfect human beings. It is less important to identify sin and confess than to do as much as one can in the circumstances of real human existence. The third phase is well on its way to being completely secular, proposing the “use of human means for human ends” regardless of what happens to divine purpose in the world. The point is not to deny divine purpose, but rather to bracket it as peripheral to human action, to separate this
world from another where divine purpose rules unambiguously. In one form or another, Augustinian visions of two kingdoms were dominant by the end of the sixteenth century, and Gracián is one example of this. The effect is to move, as Hafter puts it, “from perfect to possible,” leaving the perfect to the kingdom of God while discerning the possible in the various human kingdoms where we live. If politics is the art of the possible, then this third phase is decidedly political.
And Gracián is the embodiment of the third phase--certainly Christian, certainly consistent with the Jesuit outlook, and eminently practical. Gracián is quintessentially Jesuit in this regard, taking up a pragmatic Ignatian tradition that is impatient with otherworldly spirituality and committed to practical action in the world. An order that has been identified more than once as the storm troopers of the Counter-Reformation can be expected to be this-worldly--and Gracián delivers on this expectation. Like his spiritual father Ignatius, he is interested in results. And, in spite of being a critic of Machiavelli, he has a Machiavellian interest in a science of politics. Human beings are political animals, and the challenge is to make it possible for political animals to live well. So Gracián, like Machiavelli, observes human behavior in the human world and seeks to discern patterns or regularities that might become bases for laws of behavior. His close observation is part of his appeal, and it is his ability to discern and apply patterns that makes his work so durable.
Stylistically, Gracián’s aphorisms have much in common with poetry. Rather than using the narrative structure of an argument to sweep readers along to a conclusion, they invite us to stop--sometimes insist that we do so--and attend to the play of words itself. Gracián delighted in language. That delight and the skill with which he pursued it have led to his acknowledgment as a literary master of the Spanish Golden Age. Some commentators have suggested that this will prove problematic for impatient modern readers, but Gracián’s continued popularity suggests otherwise. His aphorisms, at least, invite reading in fits and starts rather than demanding one sustained engagement. Even if this is a trick, it may entice readers who would not take up an intricate philosophical or theological argument.
His aphoristic style is partly rooted in Jesuit practicality--a continuation of sorts of the tradition of casuistry in moral philosophy, which holds that the best way to communicate and inculcate moral principles is not by repeating them abstractly but by demonstrating their application case by case. It is partly rooted in the reaction to Machiavelli. The best way to counter a cynically practical Machiavellian political science is by developing a practically idealistic and equally scientific alternative. It is also partly rooted in a scientific tradition inherited from Hippocrates. Aphorisms are as well suited to empirically derived descriptions of particular political behaviors as to empirical descriptions of symptoms and their treatment. And in both medicine and politics, description paves the way for analysis of what works. At its best, the aphoristic style invites an experimental approach that takes it a few steps beyond proverb. An aphorism is not simply a statement of an abstract truth or an imperative. It is, more properly an invitation to action--along the lines of “this has worked before, why don’t you give it a try now?”
The practicality of this is particularly appealing to readers impatient with theory. For an audience confronted with a bewilderingly complex world and asking “what do we do now?” the compact form and particularity of an aphorism looks like an answer. Twenty-first-century readers who have lived with Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and their literary offspring should know better. But even for those who know better, the appeal remains. And what carries the aphorism beyond mere proverb is its invitation. Contrary to appearances, theory is not abandoned. It is made at once provisional, implicit, and participatory. A collection of aphorisms like Gracián’s is a collection of descriptions. But it is the pattern under the descriptions that gives them lasting impact; and theory is constructed on the fly in the discernment of those patterns and their application to the world. Because the world changes, the application changes; and the continuing relevance of the aphorisms depends on a community that brings the application back to the collection. Like casuistry at its best, it becomes a conversation that involves readers as equal partners with authors.
The shift from perfect to possible is paralleled by a shift from essence to appearance that contributes to Gracián’s contemporary appeal. Whether or not there is some Platonic “essence” above, beyond, or behind the world, what is accessible for us in the world--and what we have to deal with in the world--is appearance
. What one is matters less than what one is taken to be. As Gracian writes in aphorism 99, “The real, and the apparent. Things do not count for what they are, but for what they seem; they are few who look into the depths, and they are many who are satisfied to pay at face. It is not sufficient even to be right if it carry the face of being wrong.” And so the practical question is how one can maintain some control over what one is taken to be. It is all about spin. What could be more contemporary than that?
But it would be a mistake to limit Gracián to a superficial or cynical obsession with spin alone. More properly, he is a pragmatist who has read both Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli and his increasingly Machiavellian world with care. His response to superficiality and cynicism is a critical reading that invites the kind of depth necessary to full personhood and responsible participation in human community. Cynical attention to appearances can pave the way for mere manipulation. But more critical attention to appearances may lay the foundation for an empirical description of human behavior in human worlds--and perhaps also for empirically valid participation in making worlds more human. This is clear, for example, in his attitude toward friends: “we have to live,” he writes in 111, “either with friends, or with enemies, wherefore try daily to make a friend, and even if not as an intimate, at least as one well disposed, that some may remain afterwards as confidants having passed the ordeal of selection.” In the same aphorism, he says that “every friend is something good,” that having friends is “a second life.”
Gracián understood “person” as a goal rather than a given, and his attention to appearances was directed to developing tools by which to achieve that goal. “A man at his best. You are not so born: strive daily to develop yourself in your person,” he writes in aphorism 6, “in your calling, until perfection is attained: the fullness of your every gift, of your every faculty.... Some never attain the perfect, something always being lacking, and others are late in coming to themselves. The man complete, wise in speech, wise in action, is admitted, yea, he is welcomed into that rare fellowship of those who understand.” It is interesting and important that Gracián participated in creating a literary and artistic world that cultivated human autonomy and thus played a role in contributing to democratic participation. A number of critics and commentators have compared Gracián’s investigation of the “person” with that of Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes distinguished “natural” from “artificial” persons and built a theory of sovereignty on the distinction. That theory of sovereignty has become the basis for seemingly contradictory visions, totalitarian and democratic. But the Hobbesian constant is a struggle, a war of each against all that is resolved provisionally and repeatedly where States and other human institutions establish sovereignty with sufficient force to hold off competitors. Gracián’s attention to the imaginative exercise of autonomy in negotiating appearances highlights personal sovereignty--reasons of State for individuals. To the extent that his aphorisms are invitations rather than directives, this imaginative autonomy becomes the basis for a civil community, a community of persons.
Reading with the experience of the twentieth century behind us, it should come as no surprise that Gracián’s philosophy is as susceptible as that of Hobbes or Machiavelli to totalitarian impulses. All three take up an image of struggle that makes human existence appear to be a perpetual war, and each is therefore inclined to focus on winning. That focus, of course, could partly explain the continuing appeal, since the audience that wants to win is likely to be a large one. But it also encourages an elitism that may undercut democracy. The paradoxical tension of democracy and elitism is illustrated in aphorism 133:
Better a fool with the crowd, than a sage by yourself; the politicians say, that if all men are fools, no one of them can be counted such; wherefore the wise man who stands apart, must be a fool: it is important therefore to go with the current: the greatest knowledge, at times, to know nothing, or to affect to know nothing; we have to live with others, and the stupid make up the majority; to live alone one must have within himself, either much of God, or much of the beast: I am strongly urged to turn this aphorism about, and say: better wise with the rest of the wise, than a fool by yourself: still some find distinction in making fools of themselves.
Gracián, more than Hobbes or Machiavelli, walks this razor edge and invites his readers to do so as well. What encourages elitism may also encourage excellence--and that is not a surprising legacy of Aristotle by way of Thomas Aquinas in a Jesuit writer. Steven Schroeder
is a poet and philosopher who lives and writes in Chicago.