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Balthasar Gracian.


bgracianAMONGST THE PAPERS of Schopenhauer there was discovered by Dr. Julius Frauenstädt a manuscript quite ready for the printer. On examining it he found that it contained three hundred maxims by Balthasar Gracian, translated by Schopenhauer himself from the Spanish, and accompanied by a short notice of that author and his work. From this notice it is evident that Schopenhauer attached great importance to the original, and prided himself upon having been the only person who ever made a readable translation of it. It is, he says, absolutely unique, and no book on exactly the same subject was ever written before, “nor could any one but a Spaniard (ein Individuum aus der feinsten aller Nationen) have attempted it. It teaches the art which all would fain practice, and is therefore a book for every one; but it is especially fitted to be the manual of those who live in the great world, and peculiarly of young people who wish to prosper in that world. To them it gives at once and beforehand that teaching which they could otherwise only obtain through long experience. To read it once through is obviously not enough; it is a book made for constant use as occasion serves—in short, to be a companion for life.”

Schopenhauer’s translation was published in 1862, and a copy of it was given to me soon afterwards; but it is only within the last few weeks that I have succeeded, through the kindness of a friend at Madrid, in getting the Spanish original, and in comparing it with the translation, which I find to be absolutely faithful in every case to the spirit, and in all but a very few quite insignificant instances to the letter, of the original. It is indeed a most finished piece of work, and one can quite understand why its author, unwilling to be confounded with the tribe of ordinary translators, kept it by him for long years.

Taking the book as a guide, especially for those who intend to enter public life, I have never chanced to meet with anything which seemed even distantly to approach it.

I do not think that any one who takes the pains to become acquainted with the Oraculo Manual, either in Shopenhauer’s translation or in Spanish, will think that the words of commendation which I have quoted above are at all too strong. It would be easy to find, especially in the works of the great French maxim writers, higher truths, and truths more brilliantly expressed;1 but taking the book as a guide, especially for those who intend to enter public life, I have never chanced to meet with anything which seemed to me even distantly to approach it.

Balthasar Gracian was a Jesuit, who was born in 1584 at Calatayud, in Aragon. Calatayud, in spite of its Moorish name, which means the Castle of Ayub, or Job, is the modern representative of Roman Bilbilis; so that Gracian was a townsman, or nearly a townsman, of Martial, for the modern town is about two miles from the ruins of the ancient, which are at a place called Bambola.

He published his works, which are numerous, under the name of his brother Lorenzo, and died at Tarragona in 1658, where he was rector of a school.

The Oraculo Manual was thrown into its present form by Don Vincencio Juan de Lastanosa. An English version of it seems to have appeared in 1694, but I have never been able to pick up either that, or the French translations or paraphrases by Amelot de la Houssaye and Courbeville.

Ticknor, in his history of Spanish literature, criticizes at some length one of Gracian’s books, El Criticon, and just alludes to the Oraculo Manual, but it is clear that he had no very intimate acquaintance with the latter, and that Schopenhauer’s strong language would have startled him not a little.

GRACIAN SEEMS TO have been the first important writer who introduced into prose the affected style which is identified in poetry with the name of Gongora, and is known in Spanish literature as “Cultismo.” I have no doubt that a certain grudge against him on this account made Ticknor pass him by with too little notice.

The Nouvelle Biographie Générale, speaking of Gracian’s works, observes, “Les observations exactes qu’ils renferment, leur style élégant, n’ont pu compenser l’obscurité de quelques idées trop métaphysiques et la prolixité des réflexions morales. »

Bouterwek seems to have given some little attention to the Oraculo Manual, and his opinion is as follows: —

This has been more read than any other of the author’s works. It is intended to be a collection of maxims of general utility, but it exhibits good and bad precepts, sound judgments and refined sophisms, all confounded together. In this work Gracian has not forgotten to inculcate his practical principles of Jesuitism,2 to be all things to all men (‘hacerse a todos‘), nor to recommend his favourite maxim, ‘to be common in nothing’ (‘en nada vulgar‘), which, in order to be valid, would require a totally different interpretation from that which he has given it.”

The reader will judge for himself as to how far these criticisms are fell founded; but it is clear that, from one cause or another, a writer who was once widely known has become practically forgotten. The last Spanish edition was published, as far as I can discover, in the year 1773, but I venture to think that Balthasar Gracian is decidedly not one of those people of whom we can say with Omar Khayyám,—

And those who husbanded the golden grain,
And those who flung it to the winds like rain,
Alike to no such aureate earth are turn’d,
As, buried once, men want dug up again.”

His manner is to begin with two or three pithy words, “Saberse dexar gañando con la fortuna,” “Obrar con Buenos instrumentos,” and the like, explaining each phrase by a short Tacitean paragraph, in which the greatest possible number of ideas are packed into the smallest possible number of words.

I translate in full a few maxims as specimens.

  1. Leave off the game with fortune while you are in luck.—That is what all the best players do. A fine retreat is worth just as much as a gallant attack. Let a man bring his deeds, when there are a great many and enough of them, into safety. Felicity which lasts very long was ever suspicious. That which is interrupted is safer, and in that it has a certain sour sweetness, is even pleasanter to the taste. The more happiness heaps itself upon happiness, the more danger is there that some part of it will slip out of its place and the whole pile crush down. The intensity of the favour of fortune is often balanced by the shortness of its duration, for fortune gets tired of carrying any one very long upon her shoulders.
  2. Renew your brilliance.—It is the privilege of the Phoenix. Excellence is wont to grow old, and with it fame. The staleness of custom diminishes admiration, and a novelty which does not pass mediocrity often eclipses the greatest eminence grown old. Let a man then work to be born again in valour, in genius, in fortune, in all things. Let him connect himself with novelties of a gallant and startling kind, dawning and re-dawning like the sun. He should alter, too, the theatre of his brilliance, that if here the want of it excite longing, there the novelty of it may excite applause.
  3. One half of the world laughs at the other, and fools are they all.—Everything is good or everything is bad, as the suffrages of the world will have it. What one man follows another man persecutes. He is an intolerable blockhead who wishes to order everything according to his own ideas. Perfection does not depend upon what pleases a single person. As many tastes as heads, and as different. There is no fault which has not some one enamoured of it, nor must we lose courage if what we do does not please some, for there are sure to be others who will value it; and yet we should not be made vain by their applause, for there are equally sure to be again others who will wholly disapprove. The real measure of true satisfaction is the applause of famous men, and men who have a right to speak about the matter in hand. One does not live dependent on one vote, or on one fashion, or on one century.
  4. Better be mad with everybody else than prudent alone.—So say politicians. For if all are mad one who is not behind anybody else, and if the prudent man is alone he will pass for mad, so important it is to follow the current. Sometimes the greatest wisdom lies in ignorance, or the affectation of it. We have got to live with others, and the ignorant are in the majority. To live alone one must be very like a god or quite like a beast; yet I would modify the aphorism, and say, better be prudent with the majority than mad by one’s self. There are some people who seek for originality in chimeras and crochets.
  5. Have the art to let it alone, and the more so the wilder as are the waves of public or private life. In human intercourse there are whirlwinds and storms of passion, and before them it is wise to retire into a secure haven. Remedies often make illnesses worse; let us then leave in such cases free course to physical and moral influences. The physician requires as much knowledge not to prescribe as to prescribe, and sometimes the highest art consists in not applying remedies. The way to still storms in great multitudes is to hold one’s hand and let them go down of themselves. A timely giving way for the present assures victory later. A fountain gets turbid by a little movement, and does not become clear by our trying to make it so, but by our leaving it to itself. The best remedy against discord and confusion is to let them run their course, for so they quiet down.
  6. Contradict not the contradicter.—One must observe whether the contradiction comes from craft or from vulgarity. It is not always conceit, but sometimes artifice. One should in the first case be careful not to get into difficulties, and in the other not to be ruined. Care is never better expended than in dealing with spies, and against the picklocks of the mind there is no better defence than to leave inside in the lock the key of caution.
  7. Know the star of your fortune.—There is no one so infirm as not to have one, and if any one is unfortunate it is because he knows it not. Some stand high in the favour of princes and of the powerful, without knowing why or wherefore, except just that good luck has facilitated their acquiring favour, helped and only helped a little by taking trouble. Other acquire the good-will of the wise. Sometimes a man is more acceptable in one nation than in another, and better seen in this city than in that. Just in the same way he has more fortune in this office or profession than in others, and all this although his merits in these respective positions are equal, nay, absolutely identical. Fortune shuffles the cards as and when luck wishes. Let every man know his own luck as well as his own peculiar talent, for on this it depends whether he loses or wins. Let him know how to follow his fortune and to help it, by no means exchanging or missing it, for that would be to miss the north, though its neighbor calls us to it like a speaking trumpet (i.e. to miss the north though the pole-star points to it.).
  8. Understand how to renew your spirit by the help of Nature and of Art.—They say that every seven years the disposition alters. Well, then, see that it does so by improving and making more noble the taste. Reason makes its appearance after the first seven years, so then let a new perfection be added with every lustrum. Man should observe this natural change, and help it on, and hope also for improvement in others. It comes from this that many have changed their behaviour with their profession or their office. Sometimes no one perceives it till it appears in the highest degree. At twenty a man will be a peacock; at thirty, a lion; at forty, a camel; at fifty, a snake; at sixty, a dog; at seventy, an ape; and at eighty—nothing.
  9. Have friends.—It is the second existence. Every friend is good and wise for his friend, and among them all gets well managed. Every man will be worth just so much as other people please, and in order that they may please, one has to gain their mouths by their hearts. There is no enchantment more powerful than to do a good turn, and the best way to gain friendships is to do friendly things. The most and best that we have depends upon others; we must live either amongst friends or amongst enemies. Try every day to acquire one, not exactly to be a near friend, yet to be a well-wisher. Some will later, after they have gone through a period of probation, remain behind as confidential friends.
  10. Reality and appearance.—Things pass not for what they are, but for that which they appear. Few are they who see into the inside of things. Many are they who hold wholly to appearances. It is not enough to be right, if that right have an appearance of falsity and ill.
  11. Be a man of your century.—Extraordinary men are dependent upon their time. Not all have found the century of which they were worthy, and many have found it indeed, but have not been able to profit by it. Some were worthy of a better century, for it is not always that every good thing triumphs. Things have their periods, and even the highest qualities are subject to fashion. The wise man has, nevertheless, this advantage, that he is immortal. If this is not his century, at least a great many others will be.

The above will give an idea of Gracian’s method, and I now proceed to run through his maxims, translating none of the others in their entirety except the last, but giving, I trust, enough of them to make some few people desire to possess the whole.

  1. Character and intellect.—The two axes of the brilliance of our accomplishments. To possess one without the other is only to have half fortune. Understanding is not enough. There must be geniality.
  2. Leave people in uncertainty about your purposes.—… Imitate the heavenly powers in keeping men full of speculation and unrest.
  3. Let a man reach his perfection.—We are not born finished. With every day that passes we should perfect ourselves in ourselves and in our calling, till we reach the point of our completed being, when all our accomplishments and best qualities are at their highest.
  4. Take care not to attain victories over your superior.—All conquest is detested, and to conquer your master is either a folly or a calamity. All superiority is abominated: how much more superiority over superiority!
  5. Avoid the faults of your nation.—Water shares in the good or bad qualities of the veins through which it passes, and a man in those of the clime in which he is born…. There are family faults and faults of position, faults of office and faults of age. If they all meet in one person, and are not opposed by attention, they make an intolerable monster.
  6. Fortune and fame.—The one is as enduring as the other is inconstant—the first for life, the second for the after-time; the one against envy, the other against forgetfulness. Fortune is wished for, and sometimes helped. Fame is won by diligent search…. Fame was, and is, the sister of the giants.
  7. Live with those from whom you can learn. Let friendly intercourse be a school of knowledge, and conversation a teaching that may fashion the mind.—Make teachers or your friends, and let the profit of learning and the pleasure of conversation interpenetrate one another…. There be personages high in reputation for their discretion who are not only themselves, by their example and their intercourse, oracles of all nobleness, but even the people about them form a very academy of good and noble discretion in every kind.
  8. The thing, and the way the thing is done.—Substance is not enough, circumstance is important too. A bad manner spoils everything, even justice and reason; a good one, on the contrary, supplies everything; gilds No, sweetens truth, and reddens the very cheek of age. The how is a mighty matter in affairs, and a good manner wins the affections like a lucky gamester.
  9. Keep ministering spirits.—That is a privilege of the great ones of the earth which far transcends the barbarous taste of Tigranes, who had a fancy for having captive kings as his servants…. If, however, you cannot have sages in your service, have them for your friends.
  10. Application and ability (Aplicacion y Minerva).—There is no attaining eminence without both, and when they unite there is the greatest eminence. With application a mediocrity goes farther than a superiority without it. Reputation is bought at the price of toil. What costs little is little worth. Even for the highest posts some have only wanted application. It is but rarely that they have failed from sheer lack of ability. To desire to be rather moderately successful in a great, than very successful in a humble employment, has the excuse of generosity of mind; but to be content with being moderately successful in the humblest employment, when one might be brilliant in the greatest, hath it not. Nature and art, then, are both wanted, and application sets on them the seal.
  11. Find every man’s thumbscrew.—… All are idolaters—some of honour, some of interest, some of pleasure. Have the knack of knowing what their idols are, so as to affect each through his idol.
  12. Be common in nothing, above all not in taste.—Oh, what a great wise man he was who was wretched when what he said pleased the multitude!
  13. Be an upright man.—Such an one stands always on the side of reason, with so much fixity of purpose that neither the passion of the masses nor the violence of tyrants forces him ever to cross the line of reason. Yet who is this Phoenix of rectitude, for uprightness has few adepts? Many praise it, but not for their own house.
  14. Have nothing to do with occupations which stand in ill repute, and still less with crotchets which bring with them rather dishonor than credit. There are all sorts of fanciful sects from which the man of prudence keeps himself aloof. There are some exotic tastes which always take up with everything which the wise repudiate.
  15. Never open the door to an evil, however small, for other and greater ones will creep in after it from their ambush.
  16. Have the reputation of being gracious.—… The only advantage of power is to be able to do more good than other people.
  17. A man should know in what he shines most—his best accomplishment, so that he may cultivate that and improve his other qualities. Every one would have been eminent in something if he had known his vantage-ground. Each should observe his master attribute, and throw his energy in that direction. In some, judgment is the strong point, in others valour. The majority do violence to their natural turn, and so in nothing become superior.
  18. Think with the few, and speak with the many.
  19. Overcome your antipathies.
  20. Thoroughness and depth.—Only in so far as one has these can one play a part with honour. What is within must always be as big again as that which is without.
  21. Be able to wait.—… First be master of yourself if you would be master of others. Only through the spaces of time do we come to the centre of opportunity…. He spake a great word who said, Time and I against any two.
  22. Have presence of mind, the child of a happy promptitude of spirit. There are natures of antiperistasis,3who work best in an emergency. They are a kind of monster which can do everything successfully if they do it off-hand, and nothing successfully if they take time to consider of it. What does not strike them at first, they never find at all. In their heads there is no court of appeal.
  23. Know how to suit yourself to your company.—… There should be no unnecessary expenditure either of knowledge or of power. The clever falconer does not allow more birds to fly than the sport requires.
  24. Think of ending well.—When one enters into the house of fortune by the gate of pleasure, one leaves it by that of sorrow, and vice versa…. The important thing is not the vulgar applause at the outset—that comes to all—but the general feeling at the exit; for few are those who are wished back, and seldom does fortune conduct a parting guest as far as the threshold.
  25. Work with good instruments.—Some are anxious that the keenness and subtlety of their wits should be conspicuous through the meanness of their instruments—a perilous satisfaction which deserves a punishment from Fate…. Fame always holds to the first personage. She never says “he had good or he had bad assistants;” but “he was a good or he was a bad artificer.”
  26. It is an excellence to be the first of the sort, and a double excellence to be eminent in so being.—… Those who are first in any line are the eldest sons of fame, and go off with the entailed estates.

64.—… Some people waste their ears on the sweetness of Flattery, others on the bitterness of Scandal, and there are people who cannot live without a daily annoyance, as Mithridates could not live without poison.

  1. Understand the art of refusing.—… The No of some people is more esteemed than the Yes of others, for a gilded No satisfies more than a dry Yes….. Let courtesy fill up the vacuum left by the want of favour, and let good words supply the want of works…. No and Yes are short to say, but they ask much thinking.
  2. Do not be unsociable.—In the most populous places live the true wild beasts.
  3. Choose a heroic ideal, but rather to emulate than to imitate.
  4. Do not always be jesting.—… Many people win themselves a reputation for being witty fellows at the cost of their credit for being sensible. Jest may have its little hour, but let all the rest of time belong to seriousness.
  5. Know how to adapt yourself to all men.—Be a discreet Proteus, learned with the learned, a saint with a saint.
  6. Be of genial disposition.—If you are so with moderation, it is an accomplishment, not a defect. A grain of gaiety seasons all.
  7. Attention in informing yourself.—We live chiefly by information. It is but little that we can see for ourselves. We live on the faith of others, and while the sense of hearing is the back door of truth, it is the front entrance of lies.
  8. Drain nothing to the dregs, neither good nor evil.
  9. Allow yourself some venial fault.—… Let Homer sleep now and then, and affect a want of care either in intellect or in valour, but never in prudence, in order that you may lull malevolence, and so prevent it bursting with its own poison. That will be like throwing your cloak to the bull of Envy, so as to save your immortality.
  10. … To the wise man his enemies are more useful than his friends to the foolish one.
  11. The art to live long is to live well.—Two things soon make an end of life, folly and dissoluteness.
  12. Be a universal man.—He who unites all perfection counts for many. He makes life very happy by communicating the enjoyment of his gifts to those who live with him. Variety with perfection is the delight of life…. It is a great art to know how to assimilate to yourself all that is good.
  13. A man without illusions. A wise Christian, a philosophical denizen of Courts.—Be these things, but do not appear to be them, let alone affecting to be them.
  14. Have a stomach able to digest great mouthfuls of fortune.
  15. … Have felt the pulse of various offices. It is a toilsome business to rule men, and especially madmen or boobies. It is necessary to have a double portion of wits when one is with those who have none.
  16. Don’t be a bore.—The man of one occupation and one way of speaking is tiresome. Brevity is fascinating, and better suited for business…. What is well said is soon said.
  17. Wait not till you are a sinking sun.—It is a maxim of the prudent to leave affairs before affairs leave them…. Let the beauty wisely break her glass in time, that she may not do so with impatience when she sees herself undeceived.
  18. Win affection and regard.—… Some trust so much to their worth that they despise winning people’s good-will, but the man of experience knows that the road of merit without favour is a very long one.
  19. Never speak of yourself.—Either you will praise yourself, which is vanity, or blame yourself, which is poverty of spirit.
  20. Accustom yourself to the faults in the dispositions of those with whom you live, as you do to ugly faces.
  21. Live practically, and accommodate yourself to the times.—… The prudent man should live as he can, if he cannot live as he would. He should deem of more importance what fate has conceded to him than what it has denied.
  22. Do not make a business of what is no business.—… Many things which were really of some importance have become of none because they were left alone; and other things which were of no importance have become grave because people have occupied themselves about them. At the beginning everything can be easily quieted down, but afterwards not. It is frequently the remedy that causes the disease, and not the worst rule of living is to let it alone.
  23. Be without affectation.—… Do not, however, out of fear of affectation, fall into it by affecting to be unaffected.
  24. Do not be a green book (i.e. a register of other men’s sins).—It is a symptom of having tarnished your own fame to be much occupied with the bad fame of others.
  25. Act, and let your acts be seen.—… A good exterior is the best recommendation of the perfection within.
  26. Do not listen to yourself.—… It is a weakness of the great to speak with a ground tone of “I say something worth hearing,” to the torture of their hearers.
  27. Never out of obstinacy take the wrong side, because your opponent has got before you and taken the right one.
  28. Do not, in trying to escape from the trite, become paradoxical.
  29. Look into the inside of things.—They are usually very different from what they seem.–… Lies always come first in everything, dragging blockheads after them by the chain of their continued vulgarity. Truth comes in the last, and very late, limping along on the arm of Time.
  30. Have the art of conversation, in which the perfected man shows himself. It is the commonest thing in life, and yet there is no human exercise that requires more attention.
  31. Think by anticipation to-day for to-morrow, and even for many days…. The pillow is a silent sibyl, and it is better to sleep on things before they are begun than to lie awake about them afterwards.
  32. Avoid entering there where there is a great gap to be filled.
  33. Do not believe and do not love lightly.
  34. Understand the art of getting discreetly into a passion.—… To master a passion you must always have the bridle in the hand of attention. If you do, you will be the first person who was ever prudent on horseback, not to say the last.
  35. Let your friends be the friends of your deliberate choice.
  36. Know how to use your friends.—… Some are good to be near, and some to be far. Many are useless for conversation, excellent as correspondents.
  37. Know your pet faults.—… Even the most perfect man does not escape them, and lives with them either as a wife or as a mistress.
  38. Suffer fools.—… Out of patience comes forth peace the priceless, which is the happiness of the world.
  39. Know how to take your own part.—… In great dangers there is no better companion than a bold heart…. One must not surrender to evil fortune, for then it becomes intolerable…. The prudent man comes victoriously out of everything, and triumphs over ever the stars.
  40. Be an honourable opponent.—… Be able to boast that, if gallantry and generosity were lost out of the world, men might look for and find them in your breast.
  41. Know how to choose well.—It is the most important thing in life. It needs good taste and a most accurate judgment, for neither study nor natural intelligence is enough. Without choice there is not perfection…. There are many of fruitful and subtle spirit, and keen judgment, and sharp intelligence, and learning and circumspection, who nevertheless, when they come to choose, go to wreck and ruin—they always choose the worst course, as if they tried to be wrong.
  42. Keep always something behind in store.–… Even in one’s knowledge there should be a force in reserve.
  43. Do not get into a contest with one who has nothing to lose.
  44. Do not be like glass for fragility in your intercourse with others, and still less in your friendship.—… Some people have a disposition more sensitive than the eye itself, and cannot be touched either in jest or earnest…. The disposition of the lover (amante) is half that of the diamond (diamante) in its power of duration and resistance.
  45. Believe your heart, especially when it has been proved.
  46. Reticence is the seal of capacity.—A breast without a secret is an open letter.
  47. A grain of boldness in everything is an important requisite of prudence.—We should moderate our conceptions of others so as not to think so highly of them as to fear them. The imagination should never over-master the heart…. No one overpasses the narrow limits of humanity. All have their imperfections, some in the intellect, some in the disposition.
  48. Do not hold your opinions all too firmly.—Every blockhead is thoroughly persuaded that he is in the right, and every one who is all too firmly persuaded is a blockhead, and the more erroneous is his judgment the greater is the tenacity with which he holds it.
  49. Do not be devoted to ceremonies and etiquette.—… The robe of folly is woven of such things.
  50. Never stake your credit on one single cast.—… Things depend upon all sorts of chances. That is why the felicity of success is so rare.
  51. Know faults when you see them, however high they may stand in public estimation.—Rectitude should not mistake vice, even when it clothes itself in brocade—nay, it will sometimes even wear a crown of gold, and not be able the more for that to hide its evil…. Vices may well be highly placed, but that will not make them high and splendid.
  52. Find some consolation in everything.—Even useless people may find it in the fact of their being immortal. There is no trouble without its comfort. The stupid have the advantage of being fortunate, and the ugly woman is proverbially so. The best means to live long is to be worth little. It is the cracked vessel which never gets broken…. To the unfortunate man it seems that both good luck and death (la suerte e la muerte) conspire to forget him.
  53. Do not be carried away by excessive courtesy, for it is a kind of deceit.—There are some people who, in order to bewitch, do not need the herbs of Thessaly, for they enchant and turn the head of the stupid by the mere grace with which they take off their caps.
  54. A man of great peace, a man of long life.—… The peaceful-minded do not only live, their reign. Hear, see, but be silent. The day that passes without dispute brings peaceful sleep in the night.
  55. Have reasonable views about yourself and your affairs, especially at the commencement of life.
  56. Understand how to value.—There is no one who cannot be the teacher of another in something…. To understand how to pluck the fruits of every one is a useful science.
  57. Know how to transplant yourself.—… Their native land is everywhere stepmotherly towards extraordinary talents…. The statue on the altar is never properly reverenced by him who has known it as a trunk in the garden.
  58. Have something left to wish for, so as not to be unhappy from very happiness.—… If there is nothing to desire, there is everything to fear.
  59. They are all fools who seem to be so, and half of those who do not.—… Yet the greatest fool is he who thinks that he is not one, and that everybody else is.
  60. Words and deeds make a perfected man.—… Words are the shadows of deeds, the first feminine, the second masculine, in their nature.
  61. Know the great men of your century.—There are not many of them. There is one Phoenix in a whole world. You have a great captain, a consummate orator, a sage, in a century; a really illustrious king in many centuries…. Many have taken the title of “the Great” from Caesar and Alexander, but in vain, for without deeds words are nothing but a little air. There have been but few Senecas, and fame has told but of one Apollos.
  62. The easy should be undertaken as if it were difficult, and the difficult as if it were easy; in the one case in order that confidence should not be put off her guard, in the other that she may not become faint of heart.
  63. Know how to play the card of contempt.—… It is a firm maxim of the wise never to defend themselves with the pen, for such a defence leaves a mark, and tends more to the glorification of the opponent than to the punishment of his boldness…. Presumptuous persons dream of making themselves eternal by setting fire to the wonders of the world and of the centuries.
  64. Know that there are vile and vulgar natures everywhere, even in Corinth.—… All folly is vulgarity, and the vulgar is composed of fools.
  65. Know how to play the card of truth.—It is a dangerous thing, yet the honest man cannot omit to speak it, but in saying it art is wanted.
  66. Understand the art of contradiction.—… An affected doubt is the most subtle pick-lock which curiosity can employ to find out what it wants to know.
  67. Do not turn one piece of stupidity into two.—It is very common in remedying one to commit four others.
  68. … There are people who out of everything make a little war—the very brigands of social intercourse…. The only way to manage with monsters of this kind is to flee from them, even to the Antipodes, for the barbarism of the people there is better than their wild-beastishness.
  69. Neither from affectation nor carelessness be all too individual and eccentric.
  70. Understand how not to take things against the grain, however they come.
  71. Do not be the slave of first impressions.—There are people who marry the very first account they hear, so that all the accounts that follow come to them only as concubines.
  72. Know how to divide your life prudently: not as chance would have it, but with foresight and choice.—… The first day’s journey of a noble life should be passed in conversing with the dead. We live to know and to know ourselves, and books faithfully used make us men. The second day’s journey should be passed with the living, in seeing and noting all that is good in the world. Everything is not found in one country. The Father of all has divided His gifts, and sometimes has most richly dowered a land which is ugly. On the third day’s journey a man should belong wholly to himself. The last felicity is to philosophize.
  73. Have just a touch of the trader about you.—Life should not be all contemplation; there should be action as well…. Let the prudent man accordingly take care to have something of the trader, just enough not to be cheated, and so to become a laughing-stock.
  74. Know how to ask.—There are some people in dealing with whom nothing is so difficult, and some in dealing with whom nothing is so easy.
  75. Never share the secrets of your superiors.—You may think that you are going to share pears with them, but you will only share pebbles. Many have perished because they were confidants. Such people are like spoons made of bread, and run the same risk afterwards that these do. It is no favour in a prince to communicate to you a secret; he does so to relieve the fullness of his heart. Many have broken the mirror because it has made them aware of their ugliness. We do not like to see a person who made them aware of their ugliness. We do not like to see a person who has had an opportunity to see through us, and he is not seen with pleasure who has seen evil in him that sees him.
  76. We should know that quality we want.
  77. Do not be intensely acute and subtle.—It is more important to be prudent…. Better is a good solid head which does not invent and imagine more than just what the matter in hand amounts to.
  78. Bear raillery; but do not practice it.—… The very gravest matters have constantly arisen out of a jest.
  79. Push advantages.—… Let the prudent man strike down his quarry, and not be satisfied merely with flushing it.
  80. …. Unite in yourself the dove and the serpent, not as a monster, but as a prodigy.
  81. Do not let the last person who speaks to you always carry you with him.—There are people ever dependent on the last report, whose folly goes beyond all bounds. Their thinking and willing is of wax; the last person who approaches them fixes his seal on them and obliterates all his prdecessors.
  82. … Not all praise of a thing is speaking well of it, for some praise likewise the bad in order that they may not praise the good. For him for whom nothing is bad, nothing will be good either.
  83. Procure and use human remedies as if there were no divine ones, and divine remedies as if there were no human ones.
  84. Do not belong wholly to yourself not wholly to other people.—… He who holds a public office must be a public slave.
  85. Do not despise an evil because it is small; they never come alone, but are linked together just like happinesses. Fortune and misfortune usually go thither where there is already the most of either.
  86. Know how to do good to people a little at a time and often.
  87. Never let matters come to a breach with any one, for our reputation always comes injured out of anything of the kind. Every one is of importance as an enemy, though not as a friend. Few can do good to us, and almost all can do harm. The eagle himself does not nestle securely in the very bosom of Jove the day on which he has quarreled with a beetle.
  88. Look out for some one who may assist you in bearing misfortune.—… It is for that reason that the sagacious physician, if he has failed in the cure, does not fail in looking out for some one who, under the name of a consultation, may help him to carry out the coffin.
  89. Be able to forget; it is more a piece of good fortune than an art.—We remember best the things adapted to be forgotten…. Often the only remedy for our ills consists in forgetting them; and we forget the remedy. It is well, however, to fashion ourselves to so convenient a habit, for it is enough to give happiness, or hell.
  90. Have no days of carelessness.—Destiny loves to play tricks, and will pile chance on chance to take us unawares.
  91. Do not become bad out of pure goodness.—He is so who never gets angry.
  92. Know how to make use of your novelty; for so long as any one is new he is prized…. Observe, however, that this glory of novelty is of short duration. After four days people will lose their respect for it.
  93. Comprehend the dispositions of those with whom you have to deal.—… Know how to decipher a countenance and to spell out the soul from the features. Recognise in him who always laughs a fool, and in him who never laughs a knave (conozea al que siempre rie por falto, y al que nunca por falso).
  94. Know how to obtain the favour of men of understanding.—The lukewarm Yes of a remarkable man is more to be esteemed than all the applause of the multitude…. The judicious Antigonus reduced the theatre of his fame to Zeno alone, and Plato called Aristotle his whole school.
  95. Use absence to make yourself more respected or valued.—… Even the Phoenix avails itself of its retirement to be admired, and of the desire which its absence creates to be highly prized.
  96. Always act as if you were full in view.—He is a man of insight who sees that he is seen, or that he will be seen.
  97. … Some people are born more fortunate than others. Such are able to do good, while others can only receive it…. The sole real convenience of power is to be able to do more good.
  98. … The wise man knows that the very pole-star of prudence consists in conforming to the occasion.
  99. Three things make a prodigy and are the highest gift of Heaven’s liberality.—A fruitful intellect, a profound judgment, a pleasant and elevated taste…. At twenty years of age the will rules; at thirty the intellect; at forty the judgment. There are intelligences which ray out light like the eyes of the lynx, and always are clearest where there is the greatest darkness.
  100. In one word be a saint.—So is all said at once. Virtue is the common bond of all perfections, and the centre of all felicities. She makes a man discreet, circumspect, sagacious, prudent, sage, brave, reflective, honest, happy, accommodating, truthful, and a universal hero. Three SSS render a man happy, Sanctity, Soundness of body, and Sageness. Virtue is the sun of the micocrosm or lesser world, and has for hemisphere a good conscience. She is so beautiful that she finds favour with God and man. Nothing is loveable but virtue, and nothing detestable but vice. Virtue alone is serious, and all else is but jest. One should measure capacity and greatness according to virtue, and not according to the circumstances of fortune. Virtue alone is sufficient to herself; she makes men loveable in life and memorable in death.

FROM THE ABOVE the reader may form a perfectly just idea of the teaching of Gracian.

Mr. Buckle, who devotes to him two lines, observes that he was once considered a great writer, and it is just possible that in spite of his extraordinarily compressed style, more avaricious of words than any I know, some may think that they who considered him to be a great writer were not quite wrong.

Those who look into his book for themselves will find here and there a maxim which will remind them of the age in which he live as the subject of Philip II, Philip III, and Philip IV, but such exceptional cases are rare, and most people will rise from the perusal of the work understanding much better how Spain became great, than how she fell. It ought to be remembered, too, that, as I have already said, the maxims were not collected into one whole by Gracian himself, but by his friend, Lastanosa, to whom also is to be attributed the proud, though perhaps not too proud, title.

It would possibly be rather difficult to disprove the thesis that the Spanish nation has produced the best maxims of practical wisdom, the best proverbs, the best epitaph, and the best motto in the world.

If I had to sustain it, I would point with reference to the first head to the Oraculo Manual. For the second, any one who knows Ford’s Handbook would hardly require me to produce a proof. In support of the third I would quote the epitaph of Columbus:

A Castilla y a Leon
Nuevo mundo dió Colon;”4

while, in support of the fourth, I would adduce the cognizance which was given to Sebastian de Elcano, who brought back to the ports of Spain Magellan’s Expedition, viz. the globe with the motto, “Primus circumdedisti me.” Unless, indeed, I chose that of St. Francis Borgia, who took the same cognizance with the words, “Todo es poco.”

I do not, however, for a moment assert that the Spaniards are in these kinds of writing superior to all their neighbours, but I do think that their performances in them and some other branches of literature deserve a greater amount of appreciation and more study than they usually receive. Sad that they should so nearly fulfil the popular idea of Charles II, in saying so many wise, and doing so many foolish things!

Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff (1829–1906) was a Scottish politician, administrator, author and governor of the Madras Presidency from 1881 until 1886. This essay was first published in the March 1877 issue of The Fortnightly Review.



  1. Nay, there are certain merits in quite subordinate French writers of that class to which Gracian has little claim. I open, for example, almost at random the l’Pensées Grises by M. D’Yzarn Freissinet, and I find at once, “Il ne faut pas être trop incrédule: il y a des faits vrais quoiqu’ils soient dans l’histoire.” “On se conduit comme étant certain de la mort des autres et doutant un peu de la sienne. » « Une coquette, cet être élégamment féroce, torture des gens d’esprit quelquefois vengés par un imbéciles. » « Les diamants sur une tête laide sont comme un phare sur un écueil : ils avertissent. » « Ceux dont la seule occupation est de tuer le temps doivent être des bourreaux bien malheureux. » « Un titre dont les événements de notre époque ont dissous la valeur est celui d’homme d’État. A présent, un homme d’État n’est qu’un ministre dans un État. »
    « Vauvenargues a dit vrai : Les grandes pensées viennent du cœur, mais c’est l’esprit qui va les y chercher. »
  2. He might have added—of St. Paul, and of reasonable people elsewhere.
  3. This word is used both in the original and in Schopenhauer’s translation. It seems to have tried in vain to become a settler in England. Johnson thus defines it: “Antiperistasis: The opposition of a contrary quality, by which the quality opposes becomes heightened or intended; or the action by which a body attacked by another collects itself and becomes stronger by such opposition, or an intention of the activity of one quality caused by the opposition of another. Thus quicklime is set on fire by the effusion of cold water; so water becomes warmer in winter than in summer; and the thunder and lightning are excited in the middle region of the air, which is continually cold, and all by Antiperistasis.” This is an exploded principle in the Peripatetic philosophy.“Th’ antiperistasis of ageMore inflamed his am’rous rage.” –COWLEY.“The riotous prodigal detests covetousness; yet let him find the springs grow dry which feed his luxury, covetousness shall be called in; and so by a strange antiperistasis prodigality shall beget rapine.” –Decay of Piety.
  4. Washington Irving quotes it—

    Por Castilla y por Leon
    Nuevo mundo halló Colon.”

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