Gracián y Morales, Baltasar (1601–1658)

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Baltasar Gracián y Morales was a Spanish Jesuit and author of several baroque, obscure, laboriously polished books in which he expounded and illustrated conceptism, or metaphysical wit. Conceptism (from concepto, thought) is the quest for fine, brilliant, subtle thoughts expressed in antitheses, ambiguities, new words, and elaborate conceits.

Gracián published only one book under his real name, El Comulgatorio (Sanctuary meditations for priests and frequent communicants; 1655). A book of devotion, it enjoyed great success in several languages until the nineteenth century but is little used today. All his other books were published under pseudonyms without the permission of his superiors, for which offense he was disciplined because their subjects were thought too worldly for a priest, especially at a time when the Society of Jesus was struggling against Jansenism. The first was El héroe (1637), a portrait of a Christian political superman, similar to scores of books printed in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in answer to Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince. Governance, then in the hands of absolutist rulers, was thought to be an art that could be taught in analytical character studies of the "exceptional man." Unfortunately, Gracián's model was Philip IV of Spain. However, in El político (1640) he took Ferdinand the Catholic as a more plausible subject for another panegyric on the Great Man. Such works fell from favor as government came to be conceived more democratically, but romanticism revived the cult of the hero, and Gracián's books were annotated by Napoleon Bonaparte and admired by Friedrich Nietzsche.

In El discreto (1646) Gracián continued his portraits of perfect types, descending to the level of the man of the world to describe the perfect gentleman as seen by provincial Spanish society. This book is remembered for its formula for the ideal life: First converse with the dead, then with the living, finally with oneself. In other words, first book learning, then travel and worldly experience, and last, meditation and preparation for death. From these three books, and others like them that remained unpublished, Gracián extracted an anthology of 300 aphorisms, published as El Oráculo manual (1647), or Art of Worldly Wisdom. These wise sayings have enjoyed constant success. La Rochefoucauld echoed many of them in his Maximes, and Arthur Schopenhauer translated them into German.

La agudeza y arte de ingenio (16421648) is a treatise on rhetoric and aesthetics that codifies the taste of the baroque age with its thirst for conceits, subtlety, eloquence, and artifice. Composed in a tortured hermetic stylethe style Gracián praised as literary perfectionthe book has never been translated into English. Literary historians consider it the beginning of the decadence of Spanish literature.

Gracián then wrote a quite unexpected book, for which his uneventful, sheltered existence offers no explanation but on which his fame rests. After extolling heroism, kingliness, savoir-faire, and poetic beauty in the works so far mentioned, he composed El criticón (16511657), a bitterly critical satire of the very society he had been exploring so complacently. It is a long philosophical novel, painstakingly allegorical and overadorned to the point of obscurity, which has been compared with the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. A noble savage, Adrenio, is brought to Europe and shown all the inventions and refinements of civilization. Critilo, a man of the world, directs an "experiment" that becomes an inventory of human knowledge at that date, reviewing most of the questions that then interested moralists, scholars, and statesmen. The idea, later used by Blaise Pascal and Voltaire, was not new; such didactic allegories were already known in Spain, perhaps because Indians really had been taken on "conducted tours" of civilization there. What was striking was the extent to which Gracián's characters came to pessimistic conclusions; their judgments on civilization were uniformly unfavorable.

Long before Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Gracián said that, although man was created pure in the state of nature and left God's hands perfect, civilization corrupted and debased him. Yet, he added, as man grows older, he can acquire wisdom to free himself from slavery to worldly illusions, to begin the hard apprenticeship of renunciation and preparation for death. Gracián's pessimism was redeemed by faith in salvation beyond life. The world is not wholly bad; it is a mixture of true and false values, of misleading images and authentic shadows of eternal life. This world is a profoundly ambiguous tragicomic farce, with a concealed sense that is to be sought in another world of eternal being. This combination of extreme pessimism and a confident religious faith introduced a curious ambivalence into Gracián's view of the world, notably of the things that he most admired: social success, worldly glory, and political power. Perhaps on only one subject was he utterly pessimisticwoman, whom he called "a Satanic creature, vile, inferior." Schopenhauer agreed with him here, but on other matters the German misrepresented the Spanish Jesuit's pessimism by taking it out of its religious context. To be sure, some critics have argued that Gracián's piety was pretense, designed to get his work past the Inquisition's censorship. Voltaire knew El criticón, so resemblances to Candide might not be accidental; but Gracián's clearest philosophical influence was over Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.


works by graciÁn y morales

The Heroe. Translated by J. Skeffington. London, 1652.

The Critick. Translated by Sir Paul Rycaut. London, 1681.

The Complett Gentleman. Translated by T. Saldkeld. London, 1726.

The Art of Worldly Wisdom. Translated by Joseph Jacobs. New York: Macmillan, 1943. Also translated by Otto Eisenschiml. New York: Essential, 1947.

Obras completas. Madrid, 1960.

The Oracle: A Manual of the Art of Discretion. Translated by L. B. Walton. London and New York, 1963.

works on graciÁn y morales

Acker, Thomas S. The Baroque Vortex: Velázquez, Calderón and Gracián under Philip IV. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.

Bell, A. Baltasar Gracián. Oxford: Oxford University Press, H. Milford, 1921.

Correa-Calderon, E. Baltasar Gracián. Madrid: Editorial Gredos, 1961. Includes a bibliography of the extensive literature on Gracián.

Foster, Virginia R. Baltasar Gracián. Boston: Twayne, 1975.

Hafter, Monroe Z. Gracián and Perfection: Spanish Moralists of the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966.

Romera-Navarro, M. Estudios sobre Gracián. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1950.

Sánchez, Francisco J. "An Early Bourgeois Literature in Golden Age Spain: Lazarillo de Tormes, Guzmán de Alfarache and Baltasar Gracián." PhD diss. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 2003.

Serna, Emilio H. "The Philosophy of Ingenium: Concept and Ingenious Method in Baltasar Gracian." Philosophy and Rhetoric 13 (1980): 245263.

Spadaccini, Nicholas, and Jenaro Talens, eds. Rhetoric and Politics: Baltasar Gracián and the New World Order. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Neil McInnes (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)