Manners and Morals

Manners and Morals

Not so ancient wisdom: Baltasar Gracian and the art of prudence

Monday, August 15, 2011

By Pendar

A while I ago I came across an advertisement for a new translation of a most interesting book by Baltasar Gracián, the 17th century Spanish writer: The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence. I ordered it immediately and have been so inspired by the book that I have decided to run a series of blogs on it.

The “pocket oracle” is a collection of 300 aphorisms that address a great deal having to do with manners and morals. The aphorisms are intended to guide people to success – and to what the author calls “happiness after disillusionment.”

I should not really say “people” here; it sounds dishonestly “democratic.” In fact, the kind of “people” Gracián addresses is a select highly intelligent few. But… who doesn’t think of themselves or their offspring as deserving to belong to those highly intelligent few?!

 What I’m going to do with these blogs is to run a selection of the aphorisms that strike me as having particular application to raising children. I don’t really know how these aphorisms can be applied in everyday life with children but I think they can and do seep into your unconscious and thus color and guide your child-rearing efforts. I would also like to use them to open some discussions on different aspects of “manners and morals.”

Gracián’s position on “manners” is clear and undisputed. His view is that in a world too much dominated by appearances, success and indeed happiness depend on certain kinds of negotiation with appearances. These “negotiations” ideally take the form of behavior driven by self restraint and good taste – that is, good manners.

On the question of morals, however, Gracián’s position is often criticized. He is frequently called Machivallian and elitist. There is certainly an element of both in his writing. But quite apart from the fact that there is a great deal that can be said about both Machiavelli and what is called elitism, what Gracián is up to in the Pocket Oracle is to offer observations and guidance based on how the world works. It really is up to the individual to employ those methods toward a moral end. (Perhaps this is where the “select few” come in!)

I will launch my blogs quoting from the decidedly morally un-ambiguous aphorism # 300, the last in The Pocket Oracle:

Virtue links all perfections and is the centre of all happiness. It makes a person prudent, circumspect, shrewd, sensible, wise, brave, restrained, upright, happy, praiseworthy, a true and comprehensive hero… Nothing is worthy of love but virtue, nor of hate but vice. Virtue alone is real, everything else a mere jest. Ability and greatness must be measured by virtue, not by good fortune. It alone is self-sufficient. Whilst someone is alive, it makes them worthy of love; when dead, of being remembered.

 It is worth repeating Gracián’s list of the qualities of a person of “virtue”: prudent, circumspect, shrewd, sensible, wise, brave, restrained, upright, happy, praiseworthy, a true and comprehensive hero. “Shrewd” can very much be an extension of circumspection and completely compatible with wisdom and bravery.

And why shouldn’t they all lead to happiness?



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