This collection of three philosophical works by Renaissance men offers timeless advice on how to prosper and live morally in business, romance, religion, and society. Although written in the Renaissance era, these guides still resonate today and are collected here for easy reference.
In The Art of Worldly Wisdom, Baltasar Gracián advises people of all walks of life how to approach political, professional, and personal situations in a dog-eat-dog world. Comprised of three hundred pithy aphorisms, this influential work of philosophy offers thought-provoking and accessible advice. Some subjects include “Never Compete,” “The Art of Letting Things Alone,” and “Anticipate Injuries and Turn Them into Favours.”
Reflections; or Sentences and Moral Maxims by François de La Rochefoucauld offers hundreds of brief, brutally honest observations of humankind and its self-serving nature. The perfect read for any realist—or anyone with the desire to evaluate their moral standing—this edition includes three supplements with additional maxims and essays.
In Maxims and Reflections, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe takes a detour from his usual literary endeavors and offers snippets of his musings on life, literature, science, nature, politics, and the human condition. Essential for fans of Goethe’s works, it provides unique insight into the mind of the last true Renaissance man.
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About the Author
François Duc De La Rochefoucauld, Prince de Marsillac (1613–1680) was a French author best known for his memoirs and pithy maxims. Rochefoucauld was born into wealth at a time when the French royal court threatened the noble class. As an adult, he was a leading rebel in these class wars. After the noblemen lost the war, Rochefoucauld wrote his memoirs and collections of aphorisms, many of which he published anonymously. He died of gout in 1680, and has remained an exemplar of the French noblesse.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) was a German statesman and writer. He first received acclaim at the age of twenty-five with the success of his first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther. His works spearheaded Germany’s Sturm und Drang literary movement. The Sorrows of Young Werther had a profound cultural influence, inspiring young men to dress in the style of Werther.
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By Baltasar Gracián, François Duc De La Rochefoucauld, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
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I. Of Balthasar Gracián and his Works
WE MAY CERTAINLY say of Gracián what Heine by an amiable fiction said of himself: he was one of the first men of his century. For he was born 8th January 1601 N.S. at Belmonte, a suburb of Calatayud, in the kingdom of Aragon. Calatayud, properly Kalat Ayoub, "Job's Town," is nearly on the site of the ancient Bilbilis, Martial's birthplace. As its name indicates, it was one of the Moorish settlements, and nearly one of the most northern. By Gracián's time it had again been Christian and Spanish for many generations, and Gracián himself was of noble birth. For a Spaniard of noble birth only two careers were open, arms and the Church. In the seventeenth century arms had yielded to the cassock, and Balthasar and his three brothers all took orders. Felipe, his eldest, joined the order of St. Francis; the next brother, Pedro, became a Trinitarian during his short life; and the third, Raymundo, became a Carmelite. Balthasar himself tells us (Agudeza, c. xxv.) that he was brought up in the house of his uncle, the licentiate Antonio Gracián, at Toledo, from which we may gather that both his father and his mother, a Morales, died in his early youth. He joined the Company of Jesus in 1619, when in its most flourishing state, after the organising genius of Acquaviva had given solid form to the bold counter-stroke of Loyola to the Protestant Revolution. The Ratio Studiorum was just coming into full force, and Gracián was one of the earliest men in Europe to be educated on the system which has dominated the secondary education of Europe almost down to our own days. This point is of some importance, we shall see, in considering Gracián's chief work.
Once enrolled among the ranks of the Jesuits, the individual disappears, the Jesuit alone remains. There is scarcely anything to record of Gracián's life except that he was a Jesuit, and engaged in teaching what passes with the Order for philosophy and sacred literature, and became ultimately Rector of the Jesuit College at Tarragona. His great friend was Don Vincencio Juan de Lastanosa, a dilettante of the period, who lived at Huesca, and collected coins, medals, and other archæological brica-brac. Gracián appears to have shared his tastes, for Lastanosa mentions him in his description, of his own cabinet. A long correspondence with him was once extant and seen by Latassa, who gives the dates and places where the letters were written. From these it would seem that Gracián moved about considerably from Madrid to Zarogoza, and thence to Tarragona. From another source we learn that Philip III. often had him to dinner to provide Attic salt to the royal table. He preached, and his sermons were popular. In short, a life of prudent prosperity came to an end when Balthasar Gracián, Rector of the Jesuit College at Tarragona, died there 6th December 1658, at the age of nearly fifty-eight years.
Of Gracián's works there is perhaps more to say even while leaving for separate consideration that one which is here presented to the English reader and forms his chief claim to attention. Spanish literature was passing into its period of swagger, a period that came to all literatures of modern Europe after the training in classics had given afresh the sense of style. The characteristic of this period in a literature is suitably enough the appearance of "conceits" or elaborate and far-fetched figures of speech. The process began with Antonia Guevara, author of El Libro Aureo, from which, according to some, the English form of the disease known as Euphuism was derived. But it received a further impetus from the success of the stilo culto of Gongora in poetry. Gongorism drove "conceit" to its farthest point: artificiality of diction could go no farther in verse: it was only left for Gracián to apply it to prose.
He did this for the first time in 1630 in his first work, El Heroe. This was published, like most of his other works, by his lifelong friend Lastanosa, and under the name of Lorenzo Gracián, a supposititious brother of Gracián's, who, so far as can be ascertained, never existed. The whole of El Heroe exists, in shortened form, in the Oráculo Manual. The form, however, is so shortened that it would be difficult to recognise the original primores, as they are called, of El Heroe. Yet it is precisely in the curtness of the sentences that the peculiarity of the stilo culto consists. Generally elaborate metaphor and farfetched allusions go with long and involved sentences of the periodic type. But with Gracián the aim is as much towards shortness as towards elaboration. The embroidery is rich but the jacket is short, as he himself might have said. As for the subject-matter, the extracts in the Oráculo will suffice to give some notion of the lofty ideal or character presented in El Heroe, the ideal indeed associated in the popular mind with the term hidalgo.
A later book, El Discreto, first published in 1647, gives the counterpoise to El Heroe by drawing an ideal of the prudent courtier as contrasted with the proud and spotless hidalgo. This too is fully represented in the book before us, but the curtailment is still more marked than in the case of El Heroe. There is evidence that Gracián wrote a similar pair of contrasts, termed respectively El Galante and El Varon Atento, which were not published but were incorporated in the Oráculo Manual by Lastanosa. The consequences of this utilisation of contrasts will concern us later.
Reverting to Gracián's works somewhat more in their order, his éloge of Ferdinand, the Magus of Columbus' epoch, need not much detain us. It is stilted and conventional and does not betray much historical insight. Gracián's Agudeza y Arte de Ingenio is of more importance and interest as the formal exposition of the critical principles of Cultismo. It is concerned more with verse than prose and represents the Poetics of Gongorism. A curious collection of flowers of rhetoric in Spanish verse could be made from it. Of still more restricted interest is the Comulgador or sacred meditations for holy communion. I do not profess to be a judge of this class of literature, if literature it can be called, but the fact that the book was deemed worthy of an English translation as lately as 1876 seems to show that it still answers the devotional needs of Catholics. It has a personal interest for Gracián, as it was the only book of his that appeared under his own name.
There remains only to be considered, besides the Oráculo Manual, Gracián's El Criticon, a work of considerable value and at least historic interest which appeared in the three parts dealing with Youth, Maturity, and Old Age respectively during the years 1650-53. This is a kind of philosophic romance or allegory depicting the education of the human soul. A Spaniard named Critilo is wrecked on St. Helena, and there finds a sort of Man Friday, whom he calls Andrenio. Andrenio, after learning to communicate with Critilo, gives him a highly elaborate autobiography of his soul from the age of three days or so. They then travel to Spain, where they meet Truth, Valour, Falsehood, and other allegorical females and males, who are labelled by Critilo for Andrenio's benefit in the approved and frigid style of the allegorical teacher. Incidentally, however, the ideals and aspirations of the Spaniard of the seventeenth century are brought out, and from this point of view the book derives the parallel with the Pilgrim's Progress which Ticknor had made for it. It is certainly one of the most characteristic products of Spanish literature, both for style and subject-matter.
Nearly all these works of Gracián were translated into most of the cultured languages of Europe, English not excepted. Part of this ecumenical fame was doubtless due to the fact that Gracián was a Jesuit, and brethren of his Order translated the works of one of whom the Order was justly proud. But this explanation cannot altogether account for the wide spread of Gracián's works, and there remains a deposit of genuine ability and literary skill involved in most of the works I have briefly referred to — ability and skill of an entirely obsolete kind nowadays, but holding a rank of their own in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when didacticism was all the rage. It is noteworthy that the Testimonia I have collected for the most part pass over the Oráculo, the only work at which a modern would care to cast a second glance, and go into raptures over El Criticon and its fellows, or the reverse of raptures on Gracián's style, which after all was the most striking thing about his works.
That style reaches its greatest perfection in the Oráculo Manual, to which we might at once turn but for a preliminary inquiry which it seems worth while to make. It is a book of maxims as distinguished from a book of aphorisms, and it is worth while for several reasons inquiring into maxims in general and maxim literature in particular before dealing with what is probably the most remarkable specimen of its class.
Before, however, doing this we may close this section of our introductory remarks by "putting in," as the lawyers say, the Latin inscription given by Latassa from the foot of the portrait of Gracián, which once stood in the Jesuit College at Calatayud, a portrait of which, alas! no trace can now be found. The lines sum up in sufficiently forcible Latin all that need be known of Balthasar Gracián and his works.
P. BALTHASAR GRACIÀN VT IAM AB ORTV EMINERET
IN BELLOMONTE NATVS EST PROPE BILBILIM
CONFINIS MARTIALIS PATRIA PROXIMVS INGENIO,
VT PROFVNDERET ADHVC CHRISTIANAS ARGVTIAS BILBILIS
QVÆ PNE EXHAVSTA VIDEBATVR IN ETHNICIS.
ERGO AVGENS NATALE INGENIVM INNATO ACVMINE SCRIPSIT
ARTEM INGENII ET ARTE FACIT SCIBILE QVOD SCIBILES FACIT ARTES.
SCRIPSIT ITEM ARTEM PRVDENTIAE ET A SE IPSO ARTEM DIDICIT.
SCRIPSIT ORACVLVM ET VOCES SVAS PROTVLIT.
SCRIPSIT DISERTVM VT SE IPSVM DESCRIBERET ET VT SCRIBERET HEROEM HEROICA PATRAVIT.
HÆC ET ALIA EIVS SCRIPTA MOECENATES REGES HABVERVNT
IVDICES ADMIRATIONEM LECTOREM MVNDVM
TYPOGRAPHVM ÆTERNITATEM. PHILIPPVS III. SÆPE ILLIVS ARGVTIAS
INTER PRANDIVM VERSABAT NE DEFICERENT SALES
REGIIS DAPIBVS. SED QVI PLAVSVS EXCITAVERAT
CALAMO DEDITVS MISSIONIBVS EXCITAVIT PLANCTVS VERBO
EXCITATVRVS DESIDERIVM IN MORTE QVA RAPTVS FVIT
VI. DECEMBRIS AN. MDCLVIII SED ALIQVANDO EXTINCTVS ÆTERNVM
II. Of Maxims
Many men have sought to give their views about man and about life in a pithy way; a few have tried to advise men in short sentences what to do in the various emergencies of life. The former have written aphorisms, the latter maxims. Where the aphorism states a fact of human nature, a maxim advises a certain course of action. The aphorism is written in the indicative, the maxim in an imperative mood. "Life is interesting if not happy," is an aphorism, of Professor Seely's, I believe. "Ascend a step to choose a friend, descend a step to choose a wife," is a maxim of Rabbi Meir, one of the Doctors of the Talmud.
Now it is indeed curious how few maxims have ever been written. Wisdom has been extolled on the housetops, but her practical advice seems to have been kept secret. Taking our own literature, there are extremely few books of practical maxims, and not a single one of any great merit. Sir Walter Raleigh's Cabinet Council, Penn's Maxims, and Chesterfield's Letters almost exhaust the list, and the last generally contains much more than mere maxims. Nor are they scattered with any profusion through books teeming with knowledge of life, the galaxy of English novels. During recent years extracts of their "beauties" have been published in some profusion — Wit and Wisdom of Beaconsfield; Wise, Witty, and Tender Sayings of George Eliot; Extracts from Thackeray, and the rest — but the crop of practical maxims to be found among them is extremely scanty. Aphorisms there are in plenty, especially in George Eliot, but he that is doubtful what course to pursue in any weighty crisis would wofully waste his time if he sought for advice from the novelists.
Nor are the moralists more instructive in this regard. Bacon's Essays leave with one the impression of fulness of practical wisdom. Yet, closely examined, there is very little residue of practical advice left in his pregnant sayings. Even the source of most of this kind of writing, the Biblical book of Proverbs, fails to answer the particular kind of test I am at present applying. However shrewd some of them are, startling us with the consciousness how little human nature has changed, it is knowledge of human nature that they mainly supply. When we ask for instruction how to apply that knowledge we only get variations of the theme "Fear the Lord." Two thousand years of experience have indeed shown that the Fear or Love of the Lord forms a very good foundation for practical wisdom. But it has to be supplemented by some such corollary as "Keep your powder dry" before it becomes of direct service in the conduct of life.
It is indeed because of the unpractical nature of practical maxims that they have been so much neglected. You must act in the concrete, you can only maximise in general terms. Then, again, maxims can only appeal to the mind, to the intellect: the motive force of action is the will, the temperament. As Disraeli put it: "The conduct of men depends on the temperament, not upon a bunch of musty maxims" (Henrietta Temple). It is only very distantly that a maxim can stir the vague desire that spurs an imitative will. True, at times we read of men whose whole life has been coloured by a single saying. But these have generally been more appeals to the imagination, like Newman's "Securus judicat orbis terrarum," or the "Heu! fuge crudeles terras, fuge litus avarum," which had so decisive an effort on Savonarola's life. It is rare indeed that a man's whole life is tinged by a single practical maxim like Sir Daniel Gooch, who was influenced by his father's advice, "Stick to one thing."
Perhaps one of the reasons that have led literary persons to neglect the Maxim as a literary form has been their own ignorance of Action and, still more, their exaggerated notions of its difficulties and complexities. Affairs are not conducted by aphorisms: war is waged by a different kind of Maxims from those we are considering. Yet after all there must be some general principles on which actions should be conducted, and one would think they could be determined. Probably the successful men of action are not sufficiently self-observant to know exactly on what their success depends, and, if they did, they would in most cases try to "keep it in the family," like their wealth or their trade secrets.
And perhaps after all they are right who declare that action has little to do with intellect, and much with character. To say the truth, one is not impressed with the intellectual powers of the millionaires one meets. The shadiest of journalists could often explain their own doings with more point than they. Yet there are surely intellectual qualifications required for affairs: the Suez Canal must have required as great an amount of research, emendation, sense of order, and organisation as, say, the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum. But there is no such punishment for slovenly scholarship in action as there is in letters. The Suez Canal can be dug only once: Lucretius or Latin inscriptions can be edited over and over again. Altogether we need not be surprised if the men of action cannot put the principles of action into pointed sentences or maxims.
And if men of action cannot, it is not surprising that men of letters do not. For they cannot have the interest in action and its rewards which is required for worldly success, or else they would not be able to concentrate their thoughts on things which they consider of higher import. To a man of letters the world is the devil, or ought to be if he is to have the touch of idealism which gives colour and weight to his words. How then is he to devote his attention to worldly wisdom and the maxims that are to teach it? It is characteristic in this connection that the weightiest writer of maxims in our language is Bacon, who attempted to combine a career of affairs and of thought, and spoilt both by so doing.
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