Book: The Art of Worldly Wisdom
Author: Balthasar Gracian

The Art of Worldly Wisdom By Balthasar Gracian

Format: Global Grey free PDF, epub, Kindle ebook
Pages (PDF): 121
Publication Date: 1647: this translation by Joseph Jacobs, 1892

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A long-lost, 300-year-old book of wisdom on how to live successfully yet responsibly in a society governed by self-interest. As acute as Machiavelli yet as humanistic and scrupulously moral as Marcus Aurelius.

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WE may certainly say of Gracian 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 Gracian's time it had again been Christian and Spanish for many generations, and Gracian 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 Gracian, 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 Gracian 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 Gracian'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 Gracian'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 bric-a-brac. Gracian 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 Gracian 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 Gracian, Rector of the Jesuit College at Tarragona, died there 6th December 1658, at the age of nearly fifty-eight years.

Of Gracian'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 Gracian 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 Gracian, a supposititious brother of Gracian'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 far-fetched allusions go with long and involved sentences of the periodic type. But with Gracian 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 Gracian 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 Gracian'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. Gracian'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 Gracian, as it was the only book of his that appeared under his own name.