Balthasar Gracián’s ‘The Art of Worldly Wisdom’: the first self-help book ever written.

Spanish Jesuit, writer and philosopher, Balthasar Gracián wrote ‘The Art of Worldly Wisdom’ (Spanish: Oráculo Manual y Arte de Prudencia) in 1647. The book consists of a series of 300 witty maxims, wise sayings which typically express a general truth, or advise a course of conduct. Gracián’s aphorisms contain practical advice, easily implementable into your everyday life; often Senecan in tone, and Machiavellian in nature: placing strategy above ethics. Despite being written for the courtiers, officers and politicians of Golden Age Spain, this book is still highly relevant to the 21st century. I think that due to its individualist themes, deeply layered cynicism and lack of apparent religious content (surprising, considering Gracián himself was a Jesuit priest), it comes off as astoundingly modern.

However, it is often a challenge to decipher the meaning in Gracián’s words. This is because he was a principal figure in the Conceptismo movement: a literary style which emerged during the Baroque period of Spanish literature. The main aim of Conceptismo was to present the maximum amount of meaning in the most concise way possible, that by using few words, by compressing your vocabulary, you will be able to explain multiple meanings of great importance in short statements. The method of doing this successfully however, involves having to use every rhetorical trick in the book – zeugma, polysemy, antithesis, etc. This leads to some of Gracián’s statements appearing rather twisty, baffling, possibly poetic, though, once decrypted, there is always rather straightforward advice behind his words; the majority of it concerning how to be successful at anything in life.

This little-known book of aphoristic wisdom went on to be surprisingly influential. It was lauded by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche; the former deciding to learn Spanish solely so that he could translate it, and the latter stating that “Europe has never produced anything finer or more complicated in matters of moral subtlety.”

I have decided to pick out some of my favourite aphorisms from this unique and wonderful book, hoping that they will be able to aid you on your journey into the world of writing, or help guide you through everyday life.

Carry things through. Some people put everything into the beginning, and finish nothing. They come up with something, but never press on with it, revealing their fickle character. They never receive any praise because they don’t press on with anything; everything ends with nothing being ended. In others, this arises out of impatience, a characteristic vice of the Spanish, just as patience is a virtue of the Belgians. The latter finish things, the former finish with them. They sweat until a difficulty is overcome, and are happy simply to conquer it, but they don’t know how to carry their victory through; they show they have the ability, but not the desire. This is always a defect, arising from taking on the impossible or from fickleness. If an undertaking is good, why not finish it? And if it’s bad, why was it started? The shrewd should kill their prey, not give up after flushing it out.”

When you start something, don’t raise other people’s expectations. What is highly praised seldom measures up to expectation. Reality never catches up to imagination. It is easy to imagine something is perfect, and difficult to achieve it. Imagination marries desire, and conceives much more than things really are. No matter how excellent something is, it never satisfies our preconceptions. The imagination feels cheated, and excellence leads more often to disappointment than to admiration. Hope is a great falsifier. Let good judgment bridle her, so that enjoyment will surpass desire. Honorable beginnings should serve to awaken curiosity, not to heighten people’s expectations. We are much better off when reality surpasses our expectations, and something turns out better than we thought it would.”

Choose a heroic model, more to emulate than to imitate. There are examples of greatness, living texts of renown. Select the best in your own area, not so much to follow as to surpass. Alexander wept, not for Achilles in his tomb, but for himself, not yet risen to universal fame. Nothing so incites ambition within the spirit as the trumpeting of another’s fame: it demolishes envy and inspires noble actions.”

Never lose your self-respect. Even when alone, don’t be too lax with yourself. Let your own integrity be the measure of your rectitude; owe more to the severity of your own opinion than to external rules. Stop yourself doing something improper more through fear of your own good sense than of some stern external authority. Stand in fear of yourself and you will have no need of Seneca’s imaginary tutor.”

Undertake what’s easy as if it were hard, and what’s hard as if it were easy. In the first case, so that confidence doesn’t make you careless; in the second, so that lack of confidence doesn’t make you discouraged. It takes nothing more for something not to be done than thinking that it is. Conversely, diligence removes impossibilities. Don’t think over great undertakings, just seize them when they arise, so that consideration of their difficulty doesn’t hold you back.”



Researcher for Kirsten Rees Editing - Michael O'Hare Written by

Michael O’Hare



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