Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Balthasar Gracian

A Spanish Jesuit, Gracian wrote at a time when the glorious days of Spanish supremacy were coming an end.  He was already looking backward to the exploits of such as Hernan Cortes whom he admired for his flexibility and boldness in unfamiliar and trying circumstances.  In 1637 he wrote a book of maxims often translated as The Art of Worldly Wisdom.  These aphorisms and their accompanying short explanations may seem quite barbed as well as sneaky.  However, whether at a corrupt Court of his day or today's office politics, these sayings still ring true.  A few examples: 

    5  Make people depend on you.
    7  Avoid outshining your superiors.
  19  Arouse no exaggerated expectations when you start something.
  75  Choose a heroic ideal.
  97  Obtain and preserve a reputation.
117  Never talk about yourself.
127  Grace in everything.
163  Never--out of sympathy with the unfortunate--involve yourself in their fate.
172  Never contend with someone who has nothing to lose.
187  Do pleasant things yourself, unpleasant things through others.
228  Do not be a scandalmonger.
238  Know what is lacking in yourself.
253  Do not explain too much.
278  Avoid notoriety in all things.
282  Make use of absence to make yourself more esteemed or valued.
294  Be moderate in your views.
297  Always act as if others were watching.

One could go on and on, at first one wonders, is this guy totally cynical, or is his attitude actually realistic?  One gets the impression that here all ideals are internalized and in the outer world one sees oneself pitted against unscrupulous as well as ignorant and self-indulgent characters who would treat one as trash if they could get away with it.  One has to know oneself as well as others without illusion to survive. 

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