The Art of Worldly Wisdom, by Balthasar Gracian, tr. by Joseph Jacobs, , at sacred-texts.com
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. 1 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 1. 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. 1 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. 1 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. 2
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
[paragraph continues] Gracian, as it was the only book of his that appeared under his own name.
There remains only to be considered, besides the Oráculo Manual, Gracian'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, 1 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. 1 It is certainly one of the most characteristic products of Spanish literature, both for style and subject-matter.
Nearly all these works of Gracian were translated into most of the cultured languages of Europe, English not excepted. 2 Part of this ecumenical fame was doubtless due to the fact that Gracian 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 Gracian'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
[paragraph continues] Gracian'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 Gracian, 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 Gracian and his works.
xvii:1 The ordinary authorities vary between 1594 and 1604. I follow Latassa y Ortin, Biblioteca nueva de los escritores Aragoneses, Pamplona, 1799, iii. 267 seq., practically the only original source for Gracian's life and works.
xviii:1 Gracian mentions his brothers in his Agudeza.
xx:1 On Gongora and his relation to Cultismo see Ticknor, Hist. Span. Lit. iii. 18 seq.; also Appendix G, "On the origin of Cultismo." Ticknor is, however, somewhat prejudiced against any form of Cultismo.
xxi:1 See Notes to Maxims xxvi, xxxviii, xl, xlii, xliv, xl, lxiii, lxv, lxvii, xciv, xcviii, cvi, cxxvii.
xxi:2 See Notes to Maxims ii, xx, xxii, xxv, xlix, li, liii, lv, lvi, lix, lxix, lxxi, lxxvi, lxxxvii, cxxii, cxxvii, cclxxvii, ccxcv.
xxiii:1 It is not impossible that the English translation of The Critick by Rycaut, 1681, may have suggested the Friday incidents of Robinson Crusoe, which was intended to be a more didactic book than it looks.
xxiv:1 Ticknor also suggests that the Criticon was derived from the Euphormion of Barclay, the author of Argenis.
xxiv:2 See the details in the Bibliographical Appendix to this Introduction.