This slim volume must be mass-printed and given to any teenager about to embark on adult life. I am only sorry that I had to wait for longer to be introduced to it. Had I been given it as a teen my life would have taken a different, and better, course.
Gracian's world is one that is eerily similar to ours despite the 400 years that separate them: a world were deceit and treason are the order of the day, where competition is fierce even over trifles, where today's friend is tomorrow's bitter enemy. The world of Baroque Spain is one in which everyone is observed all the time by others and is pathologically self-conscious because of that. Gracian offers a guide to survival and prosperity in this world but his lessons are hard. Those of us who prefer to see the world through rose-tinted glasses will chuck this book away; the rest will adopt it as a trusty mentor and friend.
Gracian wants us to win. He teaches us unstinting realism, the ability to see the world around us just as it is. He is the enemy of positive thinking, narcissism, idealism and self-deception. The difference between a thinker and a fool is that of realism and self-control. The fool is doomed to failure, exploited and led to ruin by those who cotton on to his obvious passions or hopes while the thinker retains perfect self-mastery through all of life's ups and downs. No one knows his wants or needs and no one holds him in thrall.
Gracian is a subtle and whimsical thinker, a writer of vertiginous style. The hard lessons he offers us are sweetened by his reasoning and comment. One can hear the confessor, the Jesuit, the practical psychologist as well as the courtier and the ethicist in his words.
He is both erudite and irreverent, gentle even when he is being harsh. This book is really a survival manual for the intelligent, the self-critical and the ambitious; Gracian teaches us what we need to know to survive and flourish. He tells us when to speak and when to be silent; when to act and when to wait it out. He tells us how to make friends, with whom to make them and how to nurture and protect our friendships. He tells us how to identify our needs and get them met. How to lay our plans and how to act on them. How to ask and how to be asked. How to handle a 'no' and how to deliver a 'no'. How to avoid ridicule and upstaging. How to neutralize those who would harm us from envy or plain malice. How to keep that which is most sacred to us hidden in plain sight.
Gracian is, in fact, profoundly compassionate. He full of compassion towards the thinking, feeling, aspirational people who are determined to survive and do well in a world of dangerous make-believe and this book is the practical outcome of his compassion. So don't believe those who describe him or his book as cynical or cold.
Buy it, read it, carry it with you in your bag and give it to any teenagers and young people you know.
Baltasar Gracián’s Pocket Oracle gives more or less cynical advice for all those who want to dominate in the world and to become a ‘true hero’ (300). The end justifies all means. His Oracle has often been compared to ‘Il Principe’ by Niccolò Machiavelli. But, Machiavelli’s book is an urgent call to Lorenzo de’Medici, il Magnifico to seize power and stop the bloodshed brought on the population by the constant fighting between the aristocratic power houses in Italy in the 15th/16th century. His aim was forced peace, not war. In the Pocket Oracle, we are dealing with a Jesuit whose only aim is to get a maximum return on one’s own strength and to exploit the weaknesses of one’s opponents. His aim is (psychological) warfare, not peace, although also for him ‘from tolerance arises peace, the inestimable joy of the world’ (159).
As basic axioms one could choose the following aphorisms: ‘you are as much as you know’ (4), ‘trust in today’s friends as if tomorrow’s worst enemies’ (217), ‘the circumspect are always on the side of reason, not passion’ (142) and ‘things don’t pass for what they are, but for what they seem’ (130).
His tactics are Slyness: ‘When you can’t wear a lion’s skin, wear a fox’s skin.’ (220) Dissimulation: ‘The most practical kind of knowledge is dissimulation; whoever plays their hand openly runs the risk of losing.’ (98) Opportunism: ‘Live as circumstances demand. Ruling, reasoning, everything must be opportune.’ (288) Caution: ‘A person who is cautious is clearly prudent. The tongue is ferocious; once let loose, it’s very difficult to chain it up again.’ (222) Temperance, self-control, peace of mind (Epicurianism): ‘Imperturbability, the spirit’s most sublime quality. (8), and ‘Practice sels-restraint.’ (207) Manipulation, Deception: ‘Know how to deflect trouble on to someone else.’ (149)
World-view and religion Baltasar Gracián’s world-view is fundamentally pessimistic: ‘life is a campaign against malice’ (13), ‘sincere people are loved, but deceived’ (219), ‘lies are commonplace’ (154), ‘stupidity has sized hold of the world (201), ‘few can do good, but almost everyone harm’ (257) and ‘there are whole nations inclined to false conduct: treachery, fickleness, deceit’. (280) For a Jesuit as Baltasar Gracián, even in religious matters, manipulation is the name of the game: ‘Even in matters concerning heaven, Christian teachers recommend such holy astuteness. It’s an important kind of dissimulation, because the perceived benefit is just the bait to catch another’s will.’ (144)
The plebs Baltasar Gracián has a deep contempt for the plebs: ‘Take no pleasure in the miracles of the mob, which are merely foolish bedazzlements, common stupidity being astonished.’ (28); ‘A lukewarm ‘yes’ from an outstanding man is worth more than the applause of the rabble, whose belches don’t inspire.’ (281), and ‘Common anger is normally like an angry dog which, not knowing the reason for its pain, attacks the instrument that inflicts it.’ (187)
This book is an excellent and easily readable text by Jeremy Robbins, who also wrote a very informative introduction. Not only for the cynical.