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the Complete Review
the complete review - self-help

The Oracle

Baltasar Gracián

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Title: The Oracle
Author: Baltasar Gracián
Genre: Advice
Written: 1647 (Eng. 1953)
Length: 277 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: this translation out of print in the US and UK
Hand-Orakel und Kunst der Weltklugheit - Deutschland
L'art de la prudence - France
  • Spanish title: Oráculo manual y Arte de prudencia
  • A Manual of the Art of Discretion
  • Translated by L.B.Walton
  • The edition referred to here (and on which our review is based) is the Everyman's Library one (volume 401, published in 1962). Beside an Introduction by Walton it offers both the original Spanish text and Walton's translation. Sadly, this edition is out of print.

  • Note: there have been other translations into English, notably the 1892 one by Joseph Jacobs, published as The Art of Worldly Wisdom. The Jacobs translation is widely reprinted (presumably because it is out of copyright and thus cheap) and readily available. Note, however, that Walton (admittedly probably not the most objective guy to have a say here) describes Jacobs translation as "a combination of good, bad, indifferent, and nonsensical" and says one can hardly call the result "anything more than a paraphrase in, at times, badly tortured English." Readers who want to see for themselves can get the book from Amazon:
  • The German translation, Hand-Orakel und Kunst der Weltklugheit, is by none other than Arthur Schopenhauer (1861) -- "treu und sorgfälltig übersetzt" ('faithfully and carefully translated').

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Our Assessment:

B+ : useful edition of an interesting work

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Baltasar Gracián's Oráculo manual y Arte de prudencia, variously translated as The Art of Worldly Wisdom (by Joseph Jacobs) and The Oracle (by L.B.Walton) -- as well as as Hand-Orakel und Kunst der Weltklugheit by Gracián-fan Arthur Schopenhauer)--, is a collection of maxims and the like. Words to live by, basically: three hundred ideas, succinctly expressed, which Gracián expands upon, suggesting how life is best lived and what course most advantageously taken.
       We read L.B.Walton's translation -- a marvelous bilingual (!) Everyman's Library edition, which unfortunately has been allowed to fall out of print. Jacobs' translation is the one you're likely to find at your local bookstore; be warned that Walton believes that version can hardly be considered "anything more than a paraphrase in, at times, badly tortured English." The Everyman's edition has the Spanish text facing the English one, so the reader can compare (and even with the rustiest Spanish one is able to read more into the words than if one only had access to the English text). (Note, however, that Walton also has his quirks -- consider nr. 240 ("Saber usar de la nacedad"), translated as "Know how to play the daft laddie".)
       Gracián's collection isn't worldly wisdom of his own invention. As Walton explains in his introduction, the maxims are "original in their mode of expression rather than in their content". These are familiar, common-sensical suggestions and observations -- even including such platitudes as "live virtuously".
       The pleasure lies in the language and the presentation. The language is tough -- old Spanish, refracted through occasionally stilted English. Still, the bilingual edition allows one to get a good sense of how he expresses himself.
       The presentation is more interesting. As Walton suggests:

A maxim of the Oráculo is rather like one of those Chinese boxes which were fashionable playthings in the Edwardian era. It appears to be a complete object in itself but on opening it another box is revealed, and on opening that, another, and so on until one reaches the core, a miniature so small that it can barely be handled.
       Each maxim begins ... well, as a maxim. "Conceal your purpose", for example. Then come the reasons, explanations, elucidations, conclusions. Not neatly, logically built up, but still supporting each idea.
       It's generally fairly sensible stuff, with some interesting twists. Wisdom is not all for Gracián; getting on with others is also important (and, over the longterm, likely more advantageous). Gracián doesn't offer airy preaching that no can live up to, but rather makes sensible suggestions as to how one might act to one's best advantage.
       Nuggets that struck us along the way include:
Unhappy the talent devoted to evil ends ! Knowledge without wisdom is doubly folly. (from nr. 16)

The ability to reason was once the art of all arts; it is no longer enough; you must be able to guess at things, and more especially in times of disillusionment. (from nr. 25)

The most practical kind of wisdom consists of dissimulation. (from nr. 98)

Things do not pass for what they are but for what they seem; few look within, and many are satisfied with appearances. (from nr. 99)

[Be] a man without illusions, a wise Christian, a courtier-philosopher, but do not look like one: much less pose as one. (from nr. 100)

The habit of telling the truth and keeping one's word is unknown to-day and seems to belong to a bygone age; and good men, though always loved, appear to belong rather to the good old days, so that if any now exist they are not in the fashion and nobody follows their example. What a misfortune it is for our age that it should look upon virtue as peculiar and vice as normal. (from nr. 120)

Do not be eccentric, either out of affectation or through carelessness. (...) To be different from others merely serves to brand oneself with a special mark of folly which excites, in turn, derision in some people and annoyance in others. (from nr. 223)
       And there are many other nice ones, offering all sorts of good advice (nr. 155 -- "The art of getting into a rage" -- we found particularly helpful).
       We're not much for self-help manuals and the like, and ultimately that is what this is. Still, it's nicely presented and expressed, and it is amusing to see how little the world changes. ("What a misfortune it is for our age that it should look upon virtue as peculiar and vice as normal" is an often-heard sentiment in our times, but apparently a very old complaint).
       Certainly, we can think of any number of people (politicians, in particular) who could benefit from a good dose of this stuff. And it can't do much harm.
       Worth a look.

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Oráculo manual y Arte de prudencia: Baltasar Gracián: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Spanish author Baltasar Gracián y Morales (1601-1658) wrote numerous highly acclaimed works.

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© 2002-2010 the complete review

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