The Art of Worldly Wisdom, by Balthasar Gracian, tr. by Joseph Jacobs, , at sacred-texts.com
Having thus proved à priori that the ideal book of maxims was destined to be the Oráculo Manual of Balthasar Gracian, let us proceed to prove our proof, as schoolboys do with their sums. That it is the best book of maxims is a foregone conclusion, because there is none other. Schopenhauer, who translated the book, observes that there is nothing like it in German, and there is certainly none approaching it in English, and if France or Italy can produce its superior, it is strange that its fame has remained so confined to its native country.
Not that there are not books teaching the art of self-advancement in almost all languages. The success of Dr. Smiles's volume on Self-Help is a
sufficient instance of this. 1 Curiously enough, Dr. Smiles's book has had its greatest success in Italy, where it has given rise to quite a letteratura selfelpista, as the Italians themselves call it. Or rather not curiously, for if you wish to find the most unromantic set of ideals nowadays you must go search among the Romance nations.
Gracian does not, however, compete with Dr. Smiles. He does not deal with Brodweisheit; he assumes that the vulgar question of bread and butter has been settled in favour of his reader. He may be worldly, but he is thinking of the great world. He writes for men with a position and how to make the most of it. Nor is the aim he puts before such persons an entirely selfish one. "The sole advantage of power is that you can do more good" is the only rational defence of ambition, and Gracian employs it (Max. cclxxxvi).
Indeed the tone of the book is exceptionally high. It is impossible to accuse a man of any meanness who is the author of such maxims as—
"One cannot praise a man too much who speaks well of them who speak ill of him" (clxii).
"Friends are a second existence" (cxi).
"When to change the conversation? When they talk scandal" (ccl).
"In great crises there is no better companion than a bold heart" (clxvii).
"The secret of long life: lead a good life" (xc).
"Be able to boast that if gallantry, generosity, and fidelity were lost in the world men would be able to find them again in your own breast" (clxv).
"A man of honour should never forget what he is because he sees what others are" (cclxxx).
And there are whole sections dealing with such topics as Rectitude (xxix), Sympathy with great Minds (xliv), a genial Disposition (lxxix), and the like.
Not that he is without the more subtle devices of the worldly wise. One could not wish to have anything more cynical or stinging than the following:—
"Find out each man's thumbscrew" (xxvi).
"A shrewd man knows that others when they seek him do not seek him, but their advantage in him and by him" (cclii).
"The truth, but not the whole truth" (clxxxi).
"Keep to yourself the final touches of your art" (ccxii).
"Do not take payment in politeness" (cxci).
"Have a touch of the trader" (ccxxxii).
"Think with the few and speak with the many" (xliii).
"Never have a companion who casts you in the shade" (clii).
"Never become paradoxical in order to avoid the trite" (cxliii). 1
"Do not show your wounded finger" (cxlv).
The characteristic of the book is this combination or rather contrast of high tone and shrewdness. Gracian is both wisely worldly and worldly wise. After all, there does not seem to be any inherent impossibility in the combination. There does not seem any radical necessity why a good man should be a fool. One always has a certain grudge against Thackeray for making his Colonel Newcome so silly at times, though perhaps the irony, the pathos, the tragedy of the book required it. As a matter of fact the holiest of men have been some of the shrewdest, for their friends at least, if not for themselves.
The explanation of the combination in
[paragraph continues] Gracian is simple enough. He was a Jesuit, and the Jesuits have just that combination of high tone and worldly wisdom as their raison d’être. And in the case of the Oráculo the mixture was easily effected by Gracian or his friend Lastanosa. For Gracian had written at least two series of works in which this contrast was represented by separate books. Two of these describing the qualities of the Hero and the Prudent Man (El Heroe and El Discreto) were published and are represented in the Oráculo. 1 Two others dealing with the Gallant and the Cautious Man (El Galante and El Varon Atento) are referred to by Lastanosa in the preface to El Discreto, and are also doubtless represented in the book before us. One may guess that the section on Highmindedness (cxxviii) or on Nobility of Feeling (cxxxi) comes from El Galante, while "Better mad with the rest of the world than wise alone" (cxxxiii) smacks of El Varon Atento. At times we get the two tones curiously intermingled: "Choose an heroic ideal" (lxxv) seems at first sight a noble sentiment, but Gracian goes on to qualify it by adding, "but rather to emulate than to imitate."
The modernness of the tone is the thing
that will strike most readers apart from these contrasts. Here and there one may be struck by an archaic note. "Never compete" would scarcely be the advice of a worldly teacher nowadays. But on the whole there is a tone of modern good society about the maxims which one would scarcely find in contemporary English works like Peacham's, or even in contemporary French authors like Charron. The reason is that modern society is permeated by influences which Gracian himself represented. The higher education of Europe for the last two and a half centuries has been in the hands of Jesuits or in schools formed on the Ratio Studiorum. And Society in the stricter sense traces from the Hôtel Rambouillet, where one-half the influence was Spanish. Gracian thus directly represents the tone of the two Societies which have set the tone of our society of to-day, and it is no wonder therefore if he is modern.
Even in his style there is something of a modern epigrammatic ring. At times there is the euphuistic quaintness, e.g. "One must pass through the circumference of time before arriving at the centre of opportunity." But as a rule the terseness and point of the maxim approximate to the modern epigram. "El
escusarse antes de ocasion es culparse "might be both the source and the model of Qui s’excuse s’accuse. The terseness is indeed excessive and carried to Tacitean extremes. "A poco saber camino real," "Ultima felicidad el filosofar," "Harto presto, si bien." Gracian jerks out four or five words where a popular preacher would preach a sermon. Yet I cannot agree with the writers who call him obscure. He is one of the writers that make you think before you grasp his meaning, but the meaning is there, and put plainly enough, only tersely and very often indirectly, after the manner of proverbs. There is indeed no doubt that he and his predecessors were influenced by the form of the Spanish proverb in drawing up aphorisms and maxims. I say predecessors, for aphorismic literature at any rate was no novelty in Spain. Among the long list of books on aphorisms possessed by the late Sir William Stirling-Maxwell, and still at Keir, there are fully a dozen Spanish ones who precede Gracian(Hernando Diaz, Lopez de Corelas, and Melchior de Santa Cruz are the most important, though the latter is more full of anecdotage). Among them is a book of Aforismos by Antonio Perez, whose Relaciones has been the chief means of blackening Philip II.'s
character. 1 The former are undoubtedly of the same style as Gracian, and probably influenced him, though, as they are aphorisms and not maxims, I have not been able to quote parallels in the Notes. Thus "Una obra vale millares de graçias" (Perez, Afor. i. 198) has the same proverbial ring. It is curious to see Lytton's "The pen is mightier than the sword" anticipated by Perez' "La pluma corta mas que espadas afiladas" (ibid. 199), or Voltaire's "Speech was given us to conceal our thoughts" in Perez' "Las palabras, vestido de los conçeptos" (ii. 130). This last example has all Gracian's terseness, while Perez' "Amigos deste Siglo, rostros humanos, coraçones de fieras" 2 (ii. 71) has both terseness and cynicism. Certainly the only other work in Spanish or any other literature preceding Gracian on anything like the same lines is this book of Aforismos by Antonio Perez.
It is somewhat of a question, to my mind, how far Gracian was the author of the final form of the maxims as we have them in the Oráculo. Those taken from El Heroe and
[paragraph continues] El Discreto differ from their originals with great advantage. They are terser, more to the point and less euphuistic. Now the Address to the Reader has all these qualities, and we may assume was written by its signatory, Don Vincencio de Lastanosa. It is just possible that we owe to him the extreme terseness and point of the majority of the maxims of the Oráculo Manual. It must not, however, be assumed that they are all as pointed and epigrammatic as those I have quoted. Gracian seems advisedly to have imbedded his jewels in a duller setting. At times he vies with the leaders of the great sect of the Platitudinarians, and he can be as banal as he is brilliant. Even as it is, his very brilliancy wearies, and after fifty maxims or so one longs for a more fruity wisdom, a more digressive discussion of life like those learned, wise, and witty essays of Mr. Stevenson, which may some day take higher rank as literature than even his novels.
Perhaps, after all, the weariness to which I refer may be due to the cautious tone of the book. To succeed one must be prudent; 1 that is the great moral of the book, and if so, does it seem worth while to succeed? If life is to be
denuded of the aleatory element, is it worth living? Well, Gracian meets you when in that temper too. It is indeed remarkable how frequently he refers to luck; how you are to trust your luck, weigh your luck, follow your luck, know your unlucky days, and so forth. Is all this a confession that after all life is too complex a game for any rules to be of much use? Granted, but there is one thing certain about life, and that is put by Goethe in the lines which I, following Schopenhauer, 1 have placed at the head of my translation. One must be either hammer or anvil in this world, and too great an excess of idealism only means that the unideal people shall rule the world. To guard against both extremes we have the paradoxical advice I have heard attributed to Mr. Ruskin, "Fit yourself for the best society, and then—never enter it."
Whether any ideal person will learn to rule the world by studying Gracian's or any one else's maxims is somewhat more doubtful, for reasons I have given above in discussing proverbs. The man who can act on maxims can act without them, and so does not need them. And there is the same amount of contradiction
in maxims as in proverbs. Thus, to quote an example from the book before us, from Max. cxxxii it would seem best to keep back an intended gift: "long expected is highest prized"; whereas from Max. ccxxxvi we learn that "the promptness of the gift obliges the more strongly." Which maxim are we to act upon? That depends on circumstances, and the judgment that can decide on the circumstances can do without the maxims. I cannot therefore promise success in the world to whomsoever may read this book; otherwise I should perhaps not have published it.
But whether Gracian's maxims are true or useful scarcely affects their value. To the student of literature as such, the flimsiest sentiment or the merest paradox aptly put is worth the sublimest truth ill expressed. And there can be little doubt that Gracian puts his points well and vigorously. I cannot hope to have reproduced adequately all the vigour and force of his style, the subtlety of his distinctions, or the shrewdness of his mother-wit. But enough, I hope, has emerged during the process of translation to convince the reader that Gracian's Oráculo Manual has much wisdom in small compass and well put.
xxxvi:1 One of our public men, I have been told, is known among his friends by the sobriquet of "Self-help by smiles."
xxxviii:1 Mr. Oscar Wilde's attention may be respectfully called to this maxim.
xxxix:1 See supra, p. xxi. and notes.
xlii:1 On Perez see Mr. Froude's paper in his Spanish Story of the Armada. Perez was over in England and was of the Sidney set.
xlii:2 "Friends nowadays, human faces, hearts of brutes."
xliii:1 The second title of the book is Arte de Prudencia, which I have adopted as the main title of my version.
xliv:1 Gracian was his favourite author; "Mein Gracian" he called him on one occasion (Memorabilien, p. 505).