Baltasar Gracian and the Art of Wisdom

Baltasar Gracián y Morales (1601-1658)

Baltasar Gracián y Morales (1601-1658)

On January 8, 1601, Spanish Jesuit and baroque prose writer and philosopher Baltasar Gracián y Morales was born. He is best known as the leading Spanish exponent of conceptism (conceptismo), a style of dealing with ideas that involves the use of terse and subtle displays of exaggerated wit. His writings were lauded by Nietzsche and Schopenhauer.[7]

“If you cannot make knowledge your servant, make it your friend.”
— Baltasar Gracian, The Art of Worldly Wisdom, Maxim 15 (p. 9)

Baltasar Gracian – A few Biographical Facts

There are few details known of Baltasar Gracián‘s life. He was baptised in Belmonte de Gracián, a suburb of Calatayud in province Zaragoza, kingdom of Aragon, today Spain. His father was a physician and he spent most of his youth together with his three brothers in the city of Toledo under his uncles’ care, who was a priest. Baltasar studied Latin and Greek at a Jesuit school, Philosophy in Calatayud, and Theology in Zaragoza. He was ordained in 1627 and took his final vows in 1635. In 1632 he was appointed Chair for Philosophy at the University of Gandia and furtheron dedicated himself to teaching in various Jesuit schools. He spent time in Huesca, where he befriended the local scholar Vincencio Juan de Lastanosa, who helped him achieve an important milestone in his intellectual upbringing and become a lifelong patron, friend, and primary publisher of Gracian‘s works. He acquired fame as a preacher, although some of his oratorical displays, such as reading a letter sent from Hell from the pulpit, were frowned upon by his superiors. He was named Rector of the Jesuit college of Tarragona and wrote works proposing models for courtly conduct such.

Literary Works

El héroe (1637, The Hero), published under the pseudonym `Lorenzo’ criticises Niccolo Machiavelli [1], and describes his ideal model of courtly conduct in Christian man.[2] Gratian was confessor to the Viceroy Nochera, whom he accompanied to Madrid where he became friends with the poet Hurtado de Mendoza.[5] During the Spanish war with Catalonia and France, he was chaplain of the army that liberated Lleida in 1646. Gracián’s reputation as a baroque writer arises mainly from his Agudeza y arte de ingenio (Mental Alertness and Ingenuity as an Art), in which he characteristically followed such baroque form patterns as use of neologisms, antitheses, parallelisms, inversions, epithets, obscure metaphors, and ellipses. In order to collect and anthologize his innermost thoughts, Gracián thoroughly combed his own works published before 1647 to compile Oráculo manual y arte de prudencia (The Art of Worldly Wisdom). This book is one of the great modern collections of maxims.[6]

“The right kind of leisure is better than the wrong kind of work.”,
— Baltasar Gracian, The Art of Worldly Wisdom, Maxim 247

The Criticón

In 1651, he published the first part of the Criticón (Faultfinder) without the permission of his superiors, whom he disobeyed repeatedly. This attracted the Society’s displeasure. Ignoring the reprimands, he published the second part of Criticón in 1657. The Jesuit superior ordered an official investigation of his defiance of Jesuit authority. As a result, Gracián was watched, his quarters were searched regularly, and no ink, pen, or paper was permitted him. Under this humiliation, Gracián petitioned for permission to resign from the order, a petition not only denied but punished by denying him his pulpit at the beginning of 1658.[6] The three parts of the Criticón, published in 1651, 1653, and 1657, achieved fame in Europe, especially in the German-speaking countries. It is, without a doubt, the author’s masterpiece and one of the great works of the Siglo de Oro. It is a lengthy allegorical novel with philosophical overtones. In it, Critilo or the `critical man’ represents disillusionment, and his disciple Andrenio, the `natural man’ represents man’s innocent and primitive state, an early `noble savage’ of future Jean Jacques Rousseau fame.[2.3] Moreover, Gracian’s philosophical novel is considered by the 19th-century German pessimistic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer one of the most important books ever written.[8]

“Knowing how to keep a friend is more important than gaining a new one.”,
— Baltasar Gracian, The Art of Worldly Wisdom, Maxim 158 (p. 90)

Later Years

The emergence of classical study caused Gracian to develop a didactic writing style of the conceptismo school that placed him among the leaders in concise and sophisticated use of stylistic pun, aphorism and metaphor, representing the periods’ “conceits”, which can be seen in The Mind’s Wit and Art.[2] Soon Gracian wrote to apply for membership in another religious order. His demand was not met, but his sanction was eased off: in April of 1658 he was sent to several minor positions under the College of Tarazona. His physical decline prevented him from attending the provincial congregation of Calatayud and on 6 December 1658 Gracian died in Tarazona, near Zaragoza in the Kingdom of Aragon after a long period of punishment on a diet of bread and water imposed by Jacinto Piquer, the provincial of Aragon.[5]


Gracián is the most representative writer of the Spanish Baroque literary style of Conceptismo, of which he was the most important theoretician; his Agudeza y arte de ingenio (Wit and the Art of Inventiveness) is at once a poetic, a rhetoric and an anthology of the conceptist style. While Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince are generally concerned with affairs of the state,[10The Art of Worldly Wisdom ranks among the most notable and popular works of philosophical advice. Gracian influenced other such timeless and notable authors as Nietzsche, La Rochefoucauld, Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire, and Schopenhauer, who translated his works to German.[2,7,9].

Travis Lee Clark, Lecture 04 The Baroque in Italy and Spain Part 1, [12]

References and Further Reading:

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