Since I first wrote my book reinterpreting Machiavelli’s The Prince for municipal politicians, I have been reading the works of other writers, and adding quotations from them to my chapters to further buttress my interpretation of Machiavelli’s words. These recently have included William Shakespeare and Francis Bacon, among others.
I recently turned to reading Balthasar Gracian for his words from The Art of Worldly Wisdom. Gracian’s 1647 book of 300 aphorisms is not specifically meant for leaders, but rather is advice and observations for the middle-to-upper classes and professionals of his day. He writes on behaviour, attitude, leadership, friendship, gossip, wisdom and more. There are some elements of faith in it, but it is not a religious or moralizing book, and not specifically political.
Some of it, however, complements Machiavelli’s words quite well, and I am assembling a selection of aphorisms to add to this book. Gracian’s book has had many appreciative fans since it was first published, and a recent translation by Christopher Maurer was a bestseller a few years back.
Despite its age, much of what Gracian says is common sense and still applicable today. I recently posted a blog piece, listing several of his aphorisms that I felt were worth weighing when pondering local issues and social media threads. With 300 of these aphorisms, it is, of course, possible to pick something that would be applicable in almost any situation.
Gracian, however, was not a fan of Machiavelli.He was an ordained Jesuit priest and would probably have found Machiavelli’s comments about separating the church from the state offensive. Machiavelli’s distinction between morality and politics would also have run counter to Gracian’s Catholic education.
Balthasar wrote an earlier book, The Hero, which was a response to The Prince, and offers a more moralistic guide to behaviour for leaders, with less emphasis on governing a state and acquiring power.During this period, there were other Spanish authors who wrote counterpoints to Machiavelli and similar guides, as this essay notes. The author, Angelo J. Di Salvo, writes,
The Spanish guides are most probably a product of the conflict between Medieval and Renaissance political, economic and religious conditions, and, in particular, they were mostly produced as a reaction to Machiavelli’s ragion di stato. The writers of these works also offered their solutions to the abuses as well as the corruption of the modern European states. These works were written by humanists, royal counselors, former soldiers, writers of religious literature, and authors of secular literature such as Gracián and Quevedo. First and foremost, they promote the concept of the prince as the representative and upholder of Roman Catholicism. Several treatises combine the concept of the ideal Christian prince with the practical advice garnered through the writer’s own experiences in court and in the battlefield. As a rule, these guides support the ideal of a prince who will embody and reflect the Christian virtues, and, thus, enable him to be a model for his subjects. In this capacity, he/she may direct the reform of Christian society.
The difficulty to collating other writers with Machiavelli is that political and social conditions in their countries were, for the most part, greatly different from Machiavelli’s Italy.Often there are no direct parallels between situations.
In England and Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries, for example, strong monarchs governed a cohesive and relatively stable state, and were not under attack by external forces. In both, as well, the relationship with the church and religion were quite different than among the city states of Italy (where the Pope fielded armies). Finally, Spain was one of the military contenders in Italy for ownership of some of these states, and Spanish writers and leaders had a vested interest in contradicting Machiavelli’s call for an Italy united against the “barbarian” invaders.
Political conditions in Spain, however, were very different from those in Italy. First, the nation had been united by what Spaniards and Machiavelli himself considered to be model princes, Ferdinand and Isabell; second, the monarchy and the Church consolidated their power and influence with the introduction of the Inquisition; third, there was no internal strife in Spain except for that represented by the Moriscos; fourth, foreign powers did not vie for control of Spain as was the case in Italy. Another model prince, Charles V, increased the power of the monarchy and expanded its empire. In addition, Machiavelli’s political theories threatened Spain’s hegemony in Italy.
Despite the differences and the antagonism, there are often remarkably similar words of advice in these authors, although sometimes cloaked in moralizing. My task is to select which fit, rather than trying to force them. I hope to post some of Gracian’s most relevant aphorisms within this work, in the next a week.
In Christopher Maurer’s book, A Pocket Mirror for Heroes (which includes content from The Hero and other works by Gracian), Balthasar is quoted as saying The Prince was better suited for governing “a stable than a state.” I’d like to read more about Gracian’s thoughts on Machiavelli. He seems to have been part of a general anti-Machiavellian movement among Catholic writers of the time, but it is also part of the dialectics where arguments were presented in classical rhetorical form.
Renaissance political ideas penetrated to a large extent the political thought of the Catholic Reform and this Antimachiavellism resulted from the widespread triumph of Machiavelli’s ideas in Western Europe.
It’s an interesting comment that Machiavelli’s ideas triumphed in Western political thought despite what seems to have been a concerted and aggressive assault on them by writes in numerous nations. I will have to pursue that line of thought some time.
Gracian would also write El político Don Fernando el Católico in 1646, a book specifically about governing, dedicated to his ruler, King Ferdinand. It was a more direct counterpoint to Machiavelli. However, I have not found an English translation, and while I have found Spanish editions, my own my Spanish is not competent to tackle something that complex and that old. If anyone has an English translation or can point me to one online, please contact me.
I continue to read books about Machiavelli, about reactions to his works, and about that historical period in general. I will no doubt find more to add to this work (and will list major sources in the bibliography). I recently added one of Machiavelli’s most important letters to a page here, and am working on another page about Machiavelli’s use of rhetoric in making his arguments. This might take a while to complete, because there is much to read, and I was not schooled in rhetoric or oratory, so I have to educate myself further in these fields.
- Machiavelli and Sejanus - October 14, 2022
- A Meeting of the Minds? - July 3, 2021
- Machiavelli’s Prince as satire - June 8, 2017
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