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Baltasar Gracián y Morales (1601-1658)


Spanish baroque moralist, philosopher, and Jesuit scholar, whose works influenced La Rochefoucauld, and later Voltaire, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer, who considered Gracián's El criterión one of the best books ever written. Gracián wrote in concentrated, terse style. His Oráculo manual y arte de prudentia (1647), a collection of three hundred maxims, was translated by Joseph Jacobs in 1892 as The Art of Wordly Wisdom. It is Gracián's most famous book outside of Spain. When Ignatius Loyola's Exercitia was a manual of prayer and devotion, Oráculo offered practical advices for social life.

"KEEP YOUR IMAGINATION UNDER CONTROL. You must sometimes correct it, sometimes assist it. For it is all important for our happiness and balances reason. The imagination can tyrannize, not being content with looking on, but influences and even often dominates our life. It can make is happy or burden us, depending on the folly that it leads us to. It can make us either content or discontent with ourselves. Before some people it continually holds up the penalties of action and becomes the mortifying lash of fools. The others the imagination promises happiness and adventure with blissful delusion. It can do all this unless you lord over it with the most prudent self-control." (in The Art of Worldly Wisdom, tr.  Joseph Jacobs, 1892)

Baltasar Gracián y Morales was born in Belmonte, near Calatayud, the son of a doctor. During his childhood Gracián lived with his uncle, who was a priest. From 1616 to 1619 Gracián studied at a Jesuit school in Saragosa. At the age of 18 he became a novice with the Jesuits. Between the years 1621 and 1623 he studied philosophy at the College of Calatayud. After studying theology in Saragosa, he was ordained in 1627 as a priest and in 1635 he took his final vows.

Gracián taught philosophy and theology at several Jesuit schools in Aragon, the University of Gandia (1633-36), and the Colegio de Huesca from 1636. He also worked as the rector of the Jesuit college at Tarragona. In Huesca he befriended the rich patron of letters, Vincencio Juan de Lastanosa, who financed the publication of his most important books, and helped him when he had troubles with the Jesuits.

In 1640 the traveled to Madrid, where the court was located, and gained fame as a preacher, partly due of his criticism of aristocrats and their servants and lackeys. Once in Valencia he jokingly announced that he has a letter sent to him straight from the Hell. During the war in 1646 Gracián served as a military priest in Lerida, witnessing horrors of war first hand. Almost all Gracián's publications were published under pseudonyms. As a master of style, he could not expect that his writings would improve when lesser talented authorities had tampered with them. Gracián was repeatedly disciplined, he also lost his professorship, and was put on bread and water for punishment. His superiors characterized him as colericus (choleric), biliosus (ill-humored), and melancolicus (melancholic). Embittered Gracián tried unsuccessfully to leave the Jesuits and become a monk. The third part of El criticón, came out in 1657 under the pseudonym of Lorenzo Gracian. It was denounced by ecclesiastical authorities. The three-part allegorical novel had strained Gracián's relationships with the Church since the publication of the first part in 1651 under the pseudonym of Garcia de Marlones, but before his death he partly reconciled with the Order. "A wise man gets more use from his enemies than a fool from his friends," he once said. Baltasar Gracián died in Tarragona on December 6, 1658.

"KNOWLEDGE AND COURAGE. These are the elements of greatness. Because they are immortal they bestow immortality. Each is as much as he knows, and the wise can do anything. A person without knowledge is in world without light. Wisdom and strength are the eyes and hands. Knowledge without courage is sterile." (in The Art of Worldly Wisdom)

Along with Quevedo (1580-1645) Gracián became known as one the leading Spanish exponent of conceptismo, a stylistic form and practice which sought to express witty and original ideas by puns, antitheses, epigrams, twisted metaphors and other verbal devices. The conceptistas disapproved arcane language and insisted that language should be precise and correct. In Agudeza y arte de ingenio (1648, The Mind's Wit and Art) Gracián set forth his views on different kinds of conceit and defined the numerous varieties of literary agudeza (fine distinction; ingenuity). Noteworthy is that Gracián doesn't take examples from Cervantes' Don Quixote, the most famous Spanish novel of all times.

Gracián lived in a time when Spain's power was declining. Wars, corruption and inflation undermined economy and restrictions were placed on civil and religious freedom. At the same time the baroque culture in the country was thriving. Gracián was the contemporary of the painters Velasquez (1599-1660), Murillo (1617-1682), and Zurbaran (1598-1664), and the writers Lope de Vega (1562-1635) and Calderón (1600-1681).

El héroe (1637) criticized Machiavelli and drew a portrait of the ideal Christian leader. By 1646 the book had been translated into French and Portuguese and plagiarized by a French Jesuit. Gracián's ideal image of the politician, as presented in El político Don Fernando el Católico (1640), was King Ferdinand the Catholic. In El discreto (1646, The Complet Gentleman) Gracián continued the Renaissance tradition of Castiglione and described the qualities which make the sophisticated man of the world. The English translation of El criticón (1651-1657, The Critick) by Paul Rycaut appeared in 1681. Gracián examined society and contemporary moral decline from the standpoint of two characters. Andrenio, a young savage, is a kind of literary ancestor of Rousseau's Émile (1762), although Gracián emphasizes in his other books the importance of personal improvement. Andrenio is the disciple of Critilo, an ideal man, who advises Andrenio to rely on his reason, not instincts, and not to be swayed by appearances. Gracián doesn't hide his pessimistic views about stupidity and egoism of human beings. In Madrid Andrenio is seduced by Falsirena and Critilo finds a good opportunity to criticize women. Then the companions meet the wise Salastano (an anagram of Lastanosa), travel to France, and finally arrive Rome at their old age.

For further reading: Borges y Baltasar Gracián by Julio O. Chiappini (1994); La poética di Gracián in Europa by Luciano Anceschi (1989); Gracián: Vida, estilo, y reflexión by Jorge M. Ayala (1987); The Truth Disguised by Theodore L. Kassier (1976); Baltasar Gracián by Virginia R. Foster (1975); Gracián and Perfection by Monroe Z. Hafter (1966); Baltasar Garcián: Su vida y su obra by Evaristo Correa Calderón (1961); Gracián y el barroco by Miguel Batllori (1958); Baltasar Gracián et Nietzsche by Victor Bouillier (1926)

Selected works:

  • El Héroe, 1637 - The Heroe (tr. John Skeffington, 1652) / The Hero (tr. anonymously, 1726) - Sankarin taskupeili (suom. Tarja Härkönen, teoksista El Héroe, El Criticón, Agudeza y arte de ingenio ja El Discreto, 1996)
  • El Político Don Fernando el Católico, 1640 (ed.  E. Correa Calderón)
  • Arte de ingenio, 1642 (rev. ed. Agudeza y arte de ingenio, 1648) - The Mind's Wit and Art (tr.  Leonard H. Chambers)
  • El Discreto, 1646 - The Complet Gentleman (tr.  T. Saldkeld, 1730)
  • Oráculo manual y arte de prudentia, 1647 - The Art of Worldy Wisdom (tr.  Joseph Jacobs, 1892) / The Oracle, a Manual of the Art of Discretion (tr.  L.B. Walton, 1953) / Practical Wisdom for Perilous Times (selection, ed.  J. Leonard Kaye, 1992) - Viisauden käsikirja: kolmesataa sääntöä maailmanviisautta (suom. Sirkka Salomaa, Arthur Schopenhauerin saksannoksesta "Hand-orakel und Kunst der Weltklugheit", 1950) / Maallisen viisauden käsikirja (suom. Annikki Suni, 1994)
  • El Comulgatorio, 1655
  • El Criticón, 1651-57 (3 vols.) - The Critick (tr.  Paul Rycaut, 1681)
  • Tratados políticos, 1941 (ed.  Gabriel Julía Andreu)
  • Obras completas, 1944 (ed.  E. Correa Calderón)
  • Obras completas, 1960 (ed. Arturo del Hoyo)
  • The Best of Gracía, 1964 (tr.  Thomas C. Corvan)
  • Obras completas, 1993 (2 vols., ed.  Emilio Blanco)

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