Gracián, mystic(?)

Whoso enjoys fine manners and likes to sharpen his/her claws on bright things, I can recommend two books by the same author: Baltasar Gracián, a seventeenth century Spanish Jesuit and philosopher. I might have added “mystic,” but there is, pshaw, no proof. He is, nevertheless, still respected for his contributions to literature.

I know these books only in translation: (1) The Art of Worldly Wisdom, translated by J. Jacobs; and (2) The Compleat Gentleman, translated by T. Saldkeld. If you can read them in the original, all the better. I read them, along with The Critick, at an impressionable age. 

I am not sure what led me to Gracián. Probably upon reading that Churchill, on the war-path, had read Jacobs’s translation of Oráculo Manual, then did I spring on that translation. I’d have been familiar with Jacobs, because of his fairy tale collections. But The Art of Worldly Wisdom seemed to call to me cooingly. Even as I first read it, I could feel that its advices were there, with the Law, on my heart. And so they are for you, too.

The Art of Worldly Wisdom exists in a string of pithy paragraphs, somewhat like Escrivá’s Way. I think it a very suitable companion for the chapel. The Compleat Gentleman, on the other hand, is the mecum of vade mecums. It is a collection of little essays concerning Virtue, or Excellence. There is nothing unsatisfying or false in either book. To Gracián, the enemy is always the same: Mediocrity. Indeed, as our Lord said: “Being what thou art, lukewarm, neither cold nor hot, thou wilt make me vomit thee out of my mouth!” (Rev 3:16)

Gracián did not promote a philosophy in a systematic sense. Instead, he proposed an ethic, which can be like a philosophy, and even better than a philosophy, if lived. Perhaps you would say that a true philosophy is an ethic—and I can shake hands to this. For, an ethic without substance is a farce. Just as etiquette without some ground in ethics is ridiculous.

Were I to use one word to describe Gracián’s teaching, I would choose “Courage,” with all its etymological richness. This is courage in its fundamental form,—heroic courage—and  it is what makes all other kinds of courage stand.   

With all due respect to Jesuits everywhere: I think Gracián would have been happier a Dominican. That fire in his soul derived from the stuff of stars,—all of which, we know, were given to Dominic. Let us pray for his canonization, meanwhile.