Baltasar Gracián


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Baltasar Gracián y Morales, S.J., better known as Baltasar Gracián, was a Spanish Jesuit and baroque prose writer and philosopher. He was born in Belmonte, near Calatayud (Aragón). Schopenhauer and Nietzsche lauded his writings. The son of a doctor, in his childhood Gracián lived with his uncle, who was a priest. He studied at a Jesuit school in 1621 and 1623 and theology in Zaragoza. He was ordained in 1627 and took his final vows in 1635.

He assumed the vows of the Jesuits in 1633 and 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. 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. He wrote works proposing models for courtly conduct, such as El héroe (The Hero), El político (The Politician), and El discreto (The Discreet One). During the Spanish war, he was chaplain of the army that liberated Lérida in 1646. In 1651, he published the first part of the El Criticón (Faultfinder) without the permission of his superiors, whom he repeatedly disobeyed. 

That attracted Society's displeasure. Ignoring the reprimands, he published the second part of Criticón in 1657, and so he was sanctioned and exiled to Graus in early 1658. Soon, Gracián wrote to apply for membership in another religious order. His demand was not met, but his sanction was eased off. In April 1658, he was sent to several minor positions under the College of Tarazona. His physical decline prevented him from attending Calatayud's provincial congregation. 

On 6 December 1658, Gracián died in Tarazona, near Zaragoza, in the Kingdom of Aragón. Gracián is the most representative writer of the Spanish Baroque literary style known as Conceptismo (Conceptism), 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, rhetoric and an anthology of the style of the concept.

The Aragonese village in which he was born, Belmonte de Calatayud, changed its name to Belmonte de Gracián in his honor. The three parts of the El Criticón, published in 1651, 1653, and 1657, achieved fame in Europe, especially in 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. 

It recalls the Byzantine style of a novel in its many vicissitudes and in the numerous adventures to which the characters are subjected, as well as the picaresque novel in its satirical take on society, as evidenced in the long pilgrimage undertaken by the main characters, Critilo, the "critical man" who personifies disillusionment, and Andrenio, the "natural man" who represents innocence and primitive impulses. 

The author constantly exhibits a perspectivist technique that unfolds according to both characters' criteria or points of view but in an antithetical rather than plural way, as in Miguel de Cervantes. The novel reveals a philosophy, pessimism, with which one of its greatest readers and admirers, the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, identified. The following is a summary of the El criticón, reduced almost to the point of a sketch, of a complex work that demands detailed study.

Critilo, a man of the world, is shipwrecked on the coast of the island of Santa Elena, where he meets Andrenio, the natural man who has grown up completely ignorant of civilization. Together they undertake a long voyage to the Isle of Immortality, traveling the long and prickly road of life. In the first part, "En la primavera de la niñez" ("In the Spring of Childhood"), they join the royal court, where they suffer all manner of disappointments; in the second part, "En el otoño de la varonil edad" ("In the Autumn of the Age of Manliness"), they pass through Aragon, where they visit the house of Salastano (an anagram of the name of Gracián's friend Lastanosa), and travel to France, which the author calls the "wasteland of Hipocrinda," populated entirely by hypocrites and dunces, ending with a visit to a house of lunatics. 

In the third part, "En el invierno de la vejez" ("In the Winter of Old Age"), they arrive in Rome, where they encounter an academy where they meet the most inventive of men, arriving finally at the Isle of Immortality. He is intelligent and contributed greatly to the world. One of his most famous phrases is, "Respect yourself if you would have others respect you."

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