‘The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence’ by Baltasar Gracian

Gracian is the Macchiavelli most have never heard of. He was a Jesuit priest in 17th century Spain, but the ‘Soldier of God’ side doesn’t come out in this work. In fact, besides the occasional quote or reference to Ignatius (the Jesuit order’s founder), the text is entirely secular in tone.

What does come across quite strongly though is his inspiration from and adherence to Stoicism. He regularly quotes and alludes to Seneca and Epictetus, and many of his aphorisms promote Stoic themes in life:

‘We climb the ladder of life, and the rungs — the days — disappear one after another, the moment we move our feet. There is no way to climb down, nothing to do but go forward.’

So why Macchiavellian? This, his most famous book, is a collection of exactly 300 aphorisms inspired by, and meant to help navigate, the backstabbing world of 17th century Baroque Spain. His ‘tips’ were for negotiating not just the higher echelons of government (he was confessor to the viceroy of Aragon at one point) but all levels of social strata and the competition that was natural in society. Gracian’s lumping in with the spirit of Macchiavelli is due to the directness of some of his advice, particularly where he endorses the idea that the end justifies the means. Gracian also has some apparently cold opinions about friendship and the usefulness of friends.

Gracian wrote in a popular style of the period known as ‘Conceptism’, the aim of which was to be as brief, direct, intelligible and witty as possible. This gives his work a simplicity and accessibility which makes it easy on the eyes of modern readers. The short aphorisms themselves allow the reader to read one and then spend time to digest it before moving on to the next (and often, thematically unrelated) one.

The Pocket Oracle is also eminently quotable. I’ve always read with a pen and notebook to hand to scribble down any interesting sentences – some books will make me stop frequently to do this while others, though not necessarily any less profound, have no memorable sentences. With the Pocket Oracle, you can end up highlighting or re-writing the entire book – it’s chock full of witty phrases, memorable analogies and colourful metaphors.
So it wouldn’t be worth writing all of my favourite quotes from the book here – just get a copy and read it. I will quote one odd little sentence here though, which caught my eye because I’m 6’3”:

‘It’s a commonplace that a tall person is rarely wise – not so much long-legged, as long-winded.’

Thanks Baltasar…

I have two regrets about the reading of this book: first, I read it as I would read a novel; that is, several or many pages at a time. The disadvantage of this is that, as each aphorism rarely takes up even half a page, there is no time to reflect on each one without going back and spending more time on it. So if/when I come back to this book in the future I’ll read one aphorism at a time; in this sense it makes the perfect book to keep on your bedside table and read one aphorism a night.
My other regret is not having known about it when I was in my teens having only got around to it in my, ahem, late-thirties. I imagine this would be the ultimate fount of knowledge for someone in their late teens or twenties, just as they’re starting to need practical wisdom to navigate adult life. In fact, that reminds me of of one aphorism in The Pocket Oracle which summarises the entire work; that is, how to live:

‘What use is knowledge, if it isn’t practical? And today, knowing how to live is true knowledge.’ 

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