Today in Literary History – January 8, 1601 – Baltasar Gracián, the great 17th century aphorist, is born

Baltasar Gracián, the Jesuit philosopher and aphorist, was born in Aragon, Spain on January 8, 1601. The Art of Worldly Wisdom is the book he is best known for (and one I love). It is a collection of over 300 pithy Maxims (or aphorisms) with Gracián’s commentary on them.

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There have been many translations of Worldly Wisdom over the years. (When a new English translation, by Christopher Maurer, appeared in 1992 it spent weeks on The New York Times bestseller list.) It continues to provide worthwhile advice and witty perspectives on how to live an ethical life.

Worldly Wisdom has had many admirers among later philosophers. Gracián’s style influenced La Rochefoucauld and Voltaire. Arthur Schopenhauer called it “Absolutely unique . . . a book made for constant use—a companion for life, ” and Friedrich Nietzsche said “Europe has never produced anything finer or more complicated in matters of moral subtlety.”

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Gracián joined a Jesuit order at the age of 18 and later was ordained as a priest. He served as an army chaplain and saw the horrors of war firsthand. He wrote a book criticizing Machiavelli’s The Prince, replacing its scheming advice with reflections on a truly ethical leader. Gracián died in 1658.

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Here are some of his Maxims:

“A wise man gets more use from his enemies than a fool from his friends.”

“Never compete with someone who has nothing to lose.”

“Two kinds of people are good at foreseeing danger: those who have learned at their own expense, and the clever people who learn a great deal at the expense of others.”

“Don’t show off every day, or you’ll stop surprising people. There must always be some novelty left over. The person who displays a little more of it each day keeps up expectations, and no one ever discovers the limits of his talent.”

“Attempt easy tasks as if they were difficult, and difficult tasks as if they were easy; in the one case so that confidence may not fall asleep, in the other so that it may not be dismayed.”

“The wise does at once what the fool does at last.”

“Oh life, you should never have begun, but since you did, you should never end”

 

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