*Gracián, Baltasar

Baltasar Gracián

Baltasar Gracián



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Gracián, Baltasar

Spanish, 1601–1658
The work of this Spanish baroque moralist exemplifies the unresolvable tension between Christian values, on the one hand, and the practical philosophy geared at earthly success, on the other. A Jesuit theologian, Baltasar Gracián’s unquestioned Catholicism contrasts with his elitist attitude of one who professes that most human beings are condemned to stupidity and intellectual mediocrity. The purity of his religious faith is not directly questionable; he even published a beautiful manual of preparatory prayers for Holy Communion (El comulgatorio, 1655); however, it is significant that almost all of Gracián’s work was published under pseudonyms outside the official circles of the Jesuits. His superiors noted certain excessively “mundane” elements in his maxims, which caused him continual problems in his religious career and led to repeated disciplinary measures.
Gracián influenced La Rochefoucauld and, especially, Schopenhauer, who considered El criticón one of the best books ever written. The Spanish Academy has always considered Góngora, Calderón, and Quevedo to be literary figures superior to Gracián; the latter, however, has remained, alongside Cervantes, the most frequently translated author of the Spanish Golden Age.
Apart from the above-mentioned brief collection of prayers, Gracián wrote six books, of which the first three—El héroe (1637; The Hero), El político D.Fernando el Católico (1640; The politician Ferdinand the Catholic), and El discreto (1646; The discreet man, translated as The Complet Gentleman)—continue the Renaissance tradition of Castiglione, and to a lesser degree, of Machiavelli. In these, he charts a characterological map of the ideal man. The fundamental difference between these heroes and Castiglione’s in Il cortegiano lies in the distinction we find between the Renaissance and the world of the baroque era. The themes and ethos of the baroque are the same as those of the Renaissance, displaying similar references to classical heroes and authors and to the same Arcadian ideals, but the pathos has radically changed: although Reason and Nature remain as inspiring entelechies, the human condition is no longer perceived in the same way. In this period of religious crises, wars, and economic decadence the world had become a battlefield of ambitions and moral misery where one had to survive amid constant attacks of envy and general vulgarity. More than ever, the discreet man must be judicious, individualistic, astute, and outstanding in letters, arms, and politics. For Gracián, this ideal image of the politician is incarnate in King Ferdinand the Catholic, who demonstrates characteristics of valor and prudence, all the while surrounding himself with the best company.
In The Complet Gentleman, the profile of the perfect man is drawn with greater precision. The book’s structure demonstrates a varied discourse based on allegories, maxims, dialogues, and commentaries; it is comprised of 25 chapters, each one dedicated to a different quality. Gracián’s pessimism is intensified here and the importance of astuteness is underscored, which gradually becomes the most significant element of his later work. The discreet man is one who at any moment can read the minds of others and remain in control, all the while covering those errors which are inevitable in the human condition. Gracián also values the wise man who knows to retreat in time.
Agudeza y arte de ingenio (1642, 1648; The Mind’s Wit and Art) is Gracián’s most stylistically difficult work. In it he attempts to take the cultivated reader by surprise and force him to navigate through plays on words, apparent antitheses, and twisted metaphors. Basically, the text is a system of principles in the form of aphorisms and allegories, whose fundamental premises are repeated in his following book, which is much easier to read. The Oráculo manual y arte de prudencia (1648; The Oracle, a Manual of the Art of Discretion), Gracián’s most successful book outside of Spain, consists of 300 philosophical maxims which comprise a practical message on worldly triumph, followed by an explanatory commentary.
But Gracián’s most ambitious and extensive book is El criticón (1651–57; The Critick). The title of the book does not refer to he who criticizes a great deal (which would be the accepted use of the word in modern Spanish), but rather to he who knows how to analyze or critique society. Here the ideal man, Critilo, with whom the author clearly identifies, teaches his spiritual son and disciple, Andrenio (an archetype of the common man), the secrets of life by means of a series of novelistic episodes. The world, as Calderón had already perceived it, is depicted as a great theater in which most of the actors are motivated exclusively by egoistic impulses. Once again, the value of this work lies in the philosophical digressions made by Critilo, who repeatedly advises Andrenio not to allow himself to be swayed by appearances, since great value is to be found in virtue and in the ability to survive the moral misery of one’s contemporaries without being contaminated by it. The Critick demonstrates, like none of Gracián’s other works, the contradiction inherent in the coexistence of the virtues of honesty and authenticity with astuteness and worldly wisdom.
In Gracián, the long European nonreligious moralist tradition (Cicero, Seneca, Guevara, Castiglione) converges with the baroque preference for the laconic and the stylistically hermetic. But the most interesting aspect of this work, from the point of view of intellectual history, is that it represents a milestone in the textual construction of the modern “I.” Pessimism combines with emphasis on individual success and points to an intensification of the secularization process in which the individual self becomes independent of the social and religious constraints of the Old Regime. This process will be dramatically accelerated with the Enlightenment and later with Romanticism. This may be a slightly exaggerated claim, but it is significant that in the early 20th century Gracián was deemed the “Spanish Nietzsche.”


Baltasar Gracián y Morales. Born 8 January 1601 in Belmonte, near Calatayud. Lived with and taught by his priest uncle in Toledo during childhood; studied at a Jesuit school in Saragossa, 1616–19; novice with the Jesuits, Tarragona, at age 18; studied philosophy at the College of Calatayud, 1621–13; studied theology in Saragossa, 1623–27. Ordained as a priest, 1627, and took solemn vows, 1635. Taught philosophy and theology at several Jesuit schools in Aragon, the University of Gandía, 1633–36, and the Colegio de Huesca, from 1636, where he befriended the rich patron of letters, Vincencio Juan de Lastanosa, who financed the publication of his most important books. Had problems with censorship for most of his publications (disciplined twice), which embittered him and left him with enemies. Attempted unsuccessfully to leave the Jesuits and become a monk. Died in Tarragona, 6 December 1658.

Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
El héroe, 1637; corrected edition, 1639; edited by Adolphe Coster, 1911; as The Heroe, translated by John Skeffington, 1652; as The Hero, translated anonymously, 1726
El político D.Fernando el Católico, 1640; edited by E.Correa Calderón, 1961
Arte de ingenio, 1642; revised edition, as Agudeza y arte de ingenio, 1648; edited by E.Correa Calderón, 2 vols., 1969; as The Mind’s Wit and Art, translated by Leonard H.Chambers, 1962
El discreto, 1646; edited by Miguel Romera-Navarro and Jorge M. Furt, 1960, and Arturo del Hoyo, 1963; as The Complet Gentleman, or a Description of the Several Qualifications, Both Natural and Acquired, That Are Necessary to Form a Great Man, translated by T.Saldkeld, 1730
Oráculo manual y arte de prudencia, 1648; edited by Miguel Romera-Navarro, 1954, E.Correa Calderón, 1968, Benito Pelegrin, 1983, and Emilio Blanco, 1995; as The Art of Worldly Wisdom, translated by Joseph Jacobs, 1892, Martin Fischer, 1934, Otto Eisenschmil, 1947, and Christopher Maurer, 1993; as The Oracle, a Manual of the Art of Discretion, translated by L. B.Walton, 1953; also transiated under other titles by John Savage, 1702, and Lawrence C.Lockley, 1967; selection as Practical Wisdom for
Perilous Times: Selected Maxims, edited and adapted by J. Leonard Kaye, 1992
El criticón (allegorical novel with essayistic qualities), 3 vols., 1651–57; edited by Miguel Romera-Navarro, 1938, Antonio Prieto, 2 vols., 1970, and E. Correa Calderón, 1971; as The Critick, translated by Paul Rycaut, 1681
Tratados políticos, edited by Gabriel Julía Andreu, 1941
The Best of Gracián, translated by Thomas C.Corvan, 1964
Other writings: the collection of prayers El comulgatorio (1655).
Collected works editions: Obras completas, edited by E.Correa Calderón, 1944, Arturo del Hoyo, 1960, Miguel Batllori and Ceferino Peralta, 1969– (in progress), and Emilio Blanco, 2 vols., 1993.

Further Reading
Anceschi, Luciano, La poética di Gracián in Europa, Naples: Istituto Suor Orsola Bernincasa, 1989
Ayala, Jorge M., Gracián: Vida, estilo, y reflexión, Madrid: Cincel, 1987
Batllori, Miguel, Gracián y el barroco, Rome: Storia e Letteratura, 1958
Bell, Aubrey FitzGerald, Baltasar Gracián, London: Oxford University Press, 1921
Bouillier, Victor, Baltasar Gracián et Nietzsche, Paris: Champion, 1926
Chiappini, Julio O., Borges y Baltasar Gracián, Rosario, Argentina: Zeus, 1994
Correa Calderón, Evaristo, Baltasar Gracián: Su vida y su obra, Madrid: Biblioteca Románica Hispania, 1961
Ferrari, Angel, Fernando el Católico en Baltasar Gracián, Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1945
Foster, Virginia R., Baltasar Gracián, Boston: Twayne, 1975
Hafter, Monroe Z., Gracián and Perfection: Spanish Moralists of the Seventeenth Century, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1966
Hidalgo-Serna, Emilio, Das ingeniöse Denken bei Baltasar Gracián: Der “concepto” und seine logische Funktion, Munich: Fink, 1985
Kassier, Theodore L., The Truth Disguised: Allegorical Structure and Technique in Gracián’s “Criticón”, London: Tamesis, 1976
Krabbenhoft, Kenneth, El precio de la cortesía: Retórica e innovación en Quevedo y Gracián, Salamanca: University of Salamanca, 1994
Krauss, Werner, Gracians Lebenslehre, Frankfurt-on-Main: Klostermann, 1947
Patella, Giuseppe, Gracián o della perfezione, Rome: Studium, 1993
Pelegrín, Benito, Le Fil perdu du “Criticón” de Baltasar Gracián, objectif Port Royal: Allégorie et composition “conceptiste”, Aixen-Provence: University of Provence, 1984
Pelegrín, Benito, Éthique et esthéique du Baroque: L’Espace jèsuitique de Baltasar Gracián, Arles: Actes Sud, 1985
Werle, Peter, “El héroe”: Zur Ethik des Baltasar Gracián, Tübingen: Narr, 1992

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