This article was last modified on November 16, 2010.


On the Art of Worldly Wisdom

“The Art of Worldly Wisdom” is a book by Baltasar Gracián y Morales (or simply Baltasar Gracian). It is a collection of maxims or aphorisms. The book, originally titled Oráculo manual y arte de prudencia, was written in 1637, and became popular throughout Europe. The book is a collection of 300 paragraphs on various topics giving advice and guidance on how to live fully, advance socially, and be a better person.

Gracian was a Spanish Jesuit, influenced by Machiavelli’s “The Prince” (1532), who went on to influence such philosophical giants as Goethe, François de LaRouchefoucauld, Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche. He would later inspire Winston Churchill and Andre Gide. The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica wrote of Gracian that “He has been excessively praised by Schopenhauer, whose appreciation of the author induced him to translate the Oráculo manual, and he has been unduly depreciated by (American scholar George) Ticknor and others. He is an acute thinker and observer, misled by his systematic misanthropy and by his fantastic literary theories.” Nietzsche wrote of the Oráculo, “Europe has never produced anything finer or more complicated in matters of moral subtlety,” and Schopenhauer, who translated it into German, considered the book “Absolutely unique… nor could any one but a Spaniard (ein Individuum aus der feinsten aller Nationen) have attempted it. It teaches the art which all would fain practice, and is therefore a book for every one; 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 made for constant use as occasion serves — in short, to be a companion for life.”

Brief Analysis of Selected Maxims

Gracian wrote on every topic imaginable, with the overall theme being how to live life successfully, but also pragmatically. One of his first suggestions is, “Live with those from whom you can learn… To make teachers of your friends is to join the need of learning to the joy of conversation.” [Gracian: 4] This is a lesson that we should all take with us throughout life. Whether it be academic teaching or more practical skills, one of the best things about a good friend — besides their company — is what they can teach you and you them. Reciprocal growth.

We should never live by luck alone or think streaks will continue, because “luck always compensates her intensity by her brevity.” [Gracian: 13] This is just a fact of probability: the luckier something is, the less often it occurs. To expect luck to strike more than once is a risky endeavor.

Perhaps the best advice for those finishing high school: “Choose an occupation that brings distinction.” [Gracian: 22] Gracian is not saying that you necessarily need to be famous, but your occupation should reflect your skills. What you do best and enjoy is what you ought to do with your life. Even a job one might consider lowly, such as a custodian or plumber, can be looked upon with respect if done with vigor an professionalism.

“Poor execution is not as bad as indecision” [Gracian: 24] Some may disagree. Some choices, when bad, would certainly have been better off never having been done. But if the goal of life is personal growth, decisions must be made: to not decide will teach you nothing, and it is perhaps best for oneself to make a mistake and know not to repeat it than to wait forever, always wondering. As another wise man once said, it is better to regret what you have done than what you haven’t done.

Although perhaps not great advice, an interesting historical quotation lies here: “Fools always rush in, for all fools are rash.” [Gracian: 26] Most interestingly, the phrase “fools rush in” is traditionally attributed to Alexander Pope, who wrote “An Essay on Criticism” in 1709, containing the line: “For Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.” As Gracian’s book appeared 70 years earlier, perhaps this attribution should be reconsidered.

A sad fact, still repeated today, is that “Philosophy stands discredited today, even though it was once the major pursuit of the sages.” [Gracian: 33] One wonders how many deaths philosophy will have. Gracian has declared it dead centuries ago, Stephen Hawking has declared it dead today (2010), and countless others have written it off as a useless passion. If philosophy is truly dead but still carrying on, what are we to make of that?

Gracian anticipated Richard Nixon: “No enemy list: It is a fault in yourself to point to the shame of another.” [Gracian: 125]

And then there’s the sad truth that “there are many who do not know that they know nothing… others who think that they know, but know nothing… Some would be wise if they did not believe themselves wise.” [Gracian: 60] It is an interesting problem. Many who think themselves wise know that others who think themselves wise are in fact fools. But how are they to know if they, themselves, are not fools? Is it as Socrates once said, that the only wise man is the one who knows that he really knows nothing?

Thoughts on Moderation

When reading Gracian, I noticed a running theme of moderation, or a variation on what Aristotle would call the Golden Mean. Perhaps that is not precisely what to call it, but Gracian here makes a point of stressing the importance of never going all the way.

He begins by saying “do not speak the whole truth.” [Gracian: 62] While he, as a Christian, understands that truth is the moral imperative and bearing false witness is a sin, there is wisdom in not revealing everything. This could be in everyday matters (telling your girlfriend she looks nice, but not commenting when her outfit is ugly) or bigger issues, where a whole truth could expose yourself or a friend, compromise your secrets, or something else. We all understand the importance of reporting crimes to the police, but every day we witness small crimes and instinctively know that society functions best when such things are left to go unchecked. And even when speaking, perhaps be not clear. “Good to be a bit vague: Most people have low regard for what they understand, and venerate only what is beyond them.” [Gracian: 86]

We have often heard that the chase is better than the catch, or at least more thrilling. Gracian seems to agree when he says, “Leave something to be desired… When all is yours, all turns to ashes and disappoints.” [Gracian: 68] In general, it is important to have goals, and perhaps even goals you will never attain. Life is striving, but when the striving ceases, so does life.

Likewise, Gracian advises, “Leave hunger unsated… Desire is the measure of value, wherefore it is the trick of good taste even for the thirst of the body, to satisfy but not to sate.” [Gracian: 101] Moderation is key: take in enough of something that you enjoy it, but not so much that you grow weary of it. Be it friendship, music, food… it is better to leave yourself hoping for the next adventure. But what is a strength can also be a weakness, if used against others. “Know how to make use of another’s want; for if it rises to the level of lust, it becomes the most effective of thumbscrews.” [Gracian: 64] As they say, every man has his price, and the price is not always money.

Sources

Gracian, Baltasar. The Art of Worldly Wisdom Barnes and Noble, 2008.

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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