Pontificating On A Few Baltasar Gracián Aphorisms
Baltasar Gracián (1601-1658) is largely forgotten today but was once a renowned Spanish writer and philosopher. After studying Theology at Zaragoza, he was ordained in 1627 and took his final vows into the Jesuit order in 1635. From there, he dedicated himself to teaching for the Jesuits while also establishing himself as an author. However, his life as a teacher and literary celebrity was not without friction. In his later years, he was censured and exiled by his superiors for repeatedly publishing without their permission.
His early works include El héroe (1637; The Hero) and El discreto (1646; The Complete Gentleman). The novel that made him famous during his life was El Criticón (The Critic), published in three installments between 1651–1657. However, Gracián's lasting fame came from The Art of Worldly Wisdom, a book of witty aphorisms on navigating life's social and ethical minefields. His unique writing style was known as Conceptismo (Conceptism), a now largely forgotten literary style that sought to pack as much wit and meaning as possible into as few words as possible. Gracián's aphorisms reflect this style by being short and to the point.
This essay takes three of Gracián's aphorisms from The Art of Worldly Wisdom and reflects on them in a modern context. The art featured here is by one of my favorites, the great Paul Klee (1879-1940).
"Either know or listen to someone who does"
You can't live without understanding, whether your own or someone else's. There are many, however, who don't know that they don't know, and others who think they know, but don't. Stupidity's faults are incurable, for since the ignorant don't know what they are, they don't search for what they lack. Some individuals would be wise if they didn't believe that they already were [wise].
Discussion. One of my heroes is Socrates, the Christ of Philosophy, who died for our ignorance. Here was a guy who walked around ancient Athens asking people uncomfortable questions and having difficult conversations. My man! He understood that the road to true wisdom begins with the humbling confession that each of us knows next to nothing. Start there and never forget it. Admitting our basic ignorance about most things is the first step toward a better understanding of the world. Call this a self-aware ignorance that opens the mind to new experiences and knowledge. But there's also oblivious ignorance that does the opposite. This kind of ignorance is often based on the lazy assumption that we understand more than we do. Pointing out that ignorance is never popular, and so it went for Socrates. They killed him for his trouble.
He had a point, though. When we admit we don't know much about anything, we become open to those who know more, whether through experience or expertise. That is the beginning of wisdom: to know that you don't know. Gratian had a point as well, though, in that the trouble with the ignorant is that they don't realize they are ignorant. Even worse, they delude themselves into thinking that they know more than they do. We're all cursed with this type of delusional ignorance to a certain extent. We're wired that way. After all, the world is hopelessly complex. This encourages us to manufacture fantasy to impose order out of the anarchy. Otherwise, it's overwhelming. I get that. Viewed sympathetically, our grasping for certainty is an instinct against the terrifying realization that we know so little about this ocean of chaos we find ourselves adrift on.
Nevertheless, I believe Gratian's comment wasn't meant to extend that far out into existential outer space. He was making a more down-to-earth point that there's an arrogance to ignorance that inoculates it from correction. If you've ever come across someone who answers the question "what facts or evidence would it take to change your mind?" with a response of "nothing at all would change my mind!" then you've met the kind of proudly ignorant fool Gratian was talking about. And if you're ever in the mood, grab a metaphorical mirror and ask yourself that same question about something you believe with certainty. What's your answer?
To me, few things are more discouraging and uninteresting than a person wholly locked into an opinion. Counter-evidence and facts bounce off of them like ping pong balls. Worse still are the people who live an entire lifetime without ever substantively changing their worldviews. They believe exactly the same things now that they did ten or twenty or thirty years ago. I have no idea whether that's from laziness, a lack of curiosity, arrogance, or some combination of the three. No matter the credentials or innate intelligence - and I might add that some of the most ignorant people I have met have advanced degrees and high IQs - these people choose arrogant ignorance instead. Sad.
"Know how to appear the fool"
The wisest sometimes play this card, and there are times when the greatest knowledge consists in appearing to lack knowledge. You mustn't be ignorant, just feign ignorance. With fools, being wise counts for little, and similarly with madmen, being sane: you need to talk to everyone in their own language. The person who feigns stupidity isn't a fool, just the person who suffers from it. Whilst real stupidity is just simple, feigned stupidity isn't, for genuine artifice is involved here. The only way to be well-loved is to put on the skin of the most stupid animals.
Discussion. Call this the art of blending into the crowd, or the version I learned as a kid that "no one likes a smarty pants." However, Gratian's advice here falls flat for me, even if I understand the point he's trying to make, which is that intelligence, culture, and wisdom are wasted on ding dongs. Therefore, discretion is often the best option in situations where higher culture is poo-pooed in favor of slathering oneself in a never-ending stream of gooey pop culture sludge. When you find yourself trapped in this unfortunate situation, Gratian advises us to play along and act stupid to not stand out from the crowd. This is "genuine artifice" and the only way to be "well-loved." Okay, point taken, Baltasar, and at times, there is no other option, but at what cost? If you're surrounded by stupidity and act stupid to fit in, you will eventually become stupid too. If your outer social world exhibits nothing but philistine vulgarity, your inner world will ultimately be no different. Input equals output.
"Moderation in forming opinions"
Everyone forms ideas as they see fit and has abundant reasons for their views. In most people, judgment yields to feeling. Often two people meet who have opposite views, and each thinks reason is on their side, but reason, ever true, never serves two masters. A wise person should proceed cautiously in such a delicate situation. Cast doubt on your own position and so reform your opinion of your opponent's. You should see things on occasion from the other's point of view and examine their reasons. You'll thereby neither condemn the other person, nor defend yourself so blindly.
Discussion. These days people have strong opinions about everything. Perhaps it was always so, though today the destructive power of the irrationally subjective gets amplified by our radically democratized media ecosystems. These threaten to unravel modernity's gains, which rest on science, reason, and the humanities. Those created our world of material abundance and intellectual freedom. The average person now has instant access to all the information in the world. Enlightenment is there for the taking. The path to wisdom, clarity, and well-being is open to all. Freedom, true freedom, and not the false freedom to enslave our eyeballs to little glowing screens that monetize our attention; no, true freedom means choosing to pursue this path. Or not.
No one starves or has to fear for their lives anymore. This is progress, right? Yes, I believe it truly is. Those halcyon days of yore never were. We're living them right now, such as they are. But how long can this golden age endure in a world where facts serve the whims of opinions?
Does the pendulum begin to swing back the other way?
Does our very prosperity become our undoing?
Is the future a world of devolved homunculi?
In this foggy dream world, one opinion is just as valid as another. Everyone has opinions. Many think climate change is a hoax or that vaccines are more dangerous than the pandemics they were created to cure. And I think that's bullshit. Who's to say who's right or wrong? I'm sure they did their "research." We've come to a place where many are semi-literate experts who can't tell sense from nonsense. I've never met so many epidemiologists over the last two years! This is postmodernism triumphant, embraced across the ideological spectrum as the crumbling of the grand old metanarratives leaves behind shabby shard narratives instead. This is what happens when a common center is lacking; then everything is centrifugal.
And so here we are.
From the Left, this was expected, embraced even; the comforting narratives of God, country, and the nuclear family became mocked as oppressive patriarchal problematic power structures of blah blah blah. Instead, we're offered homogenous diversity and hierarchies of victim-trauma worship. Still, these are so many more shards destined to break into ever smaller ones until there's nothing left but me, myself, and I. The retreat into ever more esoteric identities screaming for recognition suffocates the growth of a truly diverse culture that embraces all identities and ideas.
Yet on the Right, stupidity is owned with pride. No conspiracy theory is too crazy. Ignorance is embraced if it spits in the face of condescending elite know-it-alls. One of the great ironies of our age is that the very trends the Right derided for so many years - a drift toward relativism and secularism - ended up thoroughly colonizing their own minds. The Right became what it hated and seems none the wiser for it. It's now led by grifters willing to accept political and ideological relativism over core principles if that means gaining power. They'll burn the whole motherfucker down as long as they get to be in charge of the rubble. So they forge their own jagged shards of conspiracy, grievance, and political nihilism, but all polished up to sound legit by some Founding Father Fetishism.
Welcome to the dissolution, my friends! So glad you could join us!
However, both Left and Right agree on something: the untouchable sanctity of one's opinion trumps any recognition of an objective, shared reality. Those opinions fortify themselves into little cults of shared identity. And what is a cult but a misshapen, grotesque, homunculus version of a wider community?
Gratian's antidote for all this will sound familiar. Suppose we can't fix society and its trends. In that case, we can improve ourselves, or at least how we approach the world intellectually. We must cast doubt on our own opinions, all of them. See them from the other side; question your most unquestioned assumptions, and then see where that leads. That's where you'll find the most profound insights. It's easy if you try. You can't set yourself free until you've unlocked the chains of your own unassailable dogmas.
"Although the world is full of fools, nobody thinks, or even suspects, that they are one"
Discussion. You might be thinking at this point that this applies to me. You might very well be right.
Gracian, Baltasar. Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence. Penguin Books Ltd, 2011.