We have nothing of our own but time: Baltasar Gracian's strategy of disrespectful opportunism.

Author:Campagna, Federico
Position:Critical essay

Seventeenth-century Spain staged the final act of a geopolitical drama. After reaching the peak of its power during the early conquest of the New World, the Spanish empire was slowly sinking into geopolitical decline. As often happens to dying empires, the setting Spanish sun shone one last time with an extraordinary blossoming of art, literature and culture, going under the name of Baroque.

Generated by a land in political turmoil, Baroque spread throughout Europe carrying within itself religious revolution and a complete overturning of the relationships between individuals and their societies. As Protestant Northern Europe embraced the individualism of modern capitalism, the Catholic lands embarked on the parallel yet opposed political project of so-called counter-reformation. In their iconoclast fervour, Protestants emptied their churches of any images and decorations. Catholics meanwhile enhanced more than ever the theatrical element of their religion. But Baroque theatricality was not limited to religious liturgy. The age of Baroque came to terms with an understanding of power and society as one huge theatre, where actors played according to circumstances, rather than blindly obeying the strict requirements of a transcendental moral sense.

In heaven everything is good, in hell everything bad. In the world, since it lies between the two, you find both. [...] Our life is arranged like a play, everything will be sorted out in the end. Take care, then, to end it well. (1) The convergence of social life and theatre perhaps found its pinnacle in the first incarnation of the Societas Iesu (Society of Jesus, or Jesuit Order), between 1540 and 1773. The Jesuits not only established theatre practice as a fundamental part of the education of young men, but also applied theatrical knowledge and sensibility to the art of diplomacy on a global scale. Yet, it was not an adventurous, world-travelling Jesuit who first managed to theorise the practice of social theatre, but one of their much more sedentary brothers. Born in Aragon in 1601, the Jesuit priest, novelist and philosopher Baltasar Gracian never left his native Spain. Still, his homeland was hardly a provincial place: still bright under the receding light of its Golden Age, Spain was the perfect location for any scholar of ethics endowed with the insightfulness and sensitivity of Gracian. His experience of the complex and dangerous world of the Spanish aristocracy and of the hierarchy of the Spanish branch of the Society of Jesus informed his literary production of novels and aphorisms--and eventually also lead to his downfall. Having repeatedly published without permission from his superiors, Gracian was demoted and exiled almost until the end of his life to the small village of Graus, in North-Eastern Spain.

In the following pages I will present and interpret a few aspects of Gracian's philosophy, as expressed in aphoristic form in his Art of Prudence (also translated as The Pocket Oracle, or The Art of Worldly Wisdom). I will attempt to read Gracian's philosophy as part of a theoretical project around the emancipatory potential of a practice of 'disrespectful opportunism'. (2) Conscious of the partiality of my interpretation of Gracian's work--as my analysis will only marginally touch his earlier production and his religious career--my critical reading of his thought will perhaps resemble more closely the looting of an armoury rather than orthodox academic research. As I will contend in the next pages, I believe that Gracian's legacy is invaluable for the elaboration of a project of radical atheism and existential anarchism.


The notion of engano (illusion) is one of the pillars of the Baroque mind. While its most spectacular expression is probably the mesmerising paintings and architecture of the era, its deepest roots are to be found in a new understanding of society and of the role of individuals within it. Baroque illusion-making exceeds the field of visual representation, and it takes on a strategic role for the individual stuck within the ever-shifting and dangerous territory of society. Baltasar Gracian's Art of Prudence is a manual entirely devoted to helping the 'wise' and 'shrewd' person to navigate society, understood as a field of power struggles, domination and structural inequality, crawling underneath the veil of traditional and moral legitimacy. 'Open your eyes in time. It is hard to give understanding to someone lacking will, and even more will to someone lacking understanding. Those all around play Blind Man's Buff with them, to everyone's amusement'. (3) Within such a landscape, individuals must plan their actions on the back of a clear understanding of the supreme importance of strategy and of the illusory character of traditional morality.

Society emerges from Gracian's description as an enigma to be deciphered, within which every action or crystallised institution should be interpreted as the deceitful appearance of underlying strategies of domination. Almost anticipating the work of Michel Foucault, Gracian encourages critical, hermeneutic work on the text of society, with the aim of unveiling its true nature and of allowing 'the wise' to navigate it skilfully. 'Penetrating intelligence, ever attentive [...] understands the opposite of what it's intended to understand, and immediately detects any attempts at concealment;' (4) '[w]hat is needed here is extraordinary reflection, profound observation, subtle scrutiny and judicious analysis'. (5)

Every aspect of one's socially defined identity, teaches Gracian, has to be understood as a strategic and theatrical device, which individuals can manipulate to pursue their own autonomous goals. If they do not, society will employ these devices to further their submission. In their dealings with their own socially defined identity--especially in its congealed form of reputation or caudal (6) (symbolic capital)--individuals must use the utmost shrewdness and caution. As if replying to the optimism of many of today's liberals, Gracian warns his readers that identity should not be reclaimed as the place for an honest expression of one's 'true self', but rather that it should be understood and constructed as a safety mask, behind which the self can hide.

A fool is not someone who does something foolish, but someone who, once this is done, doesn't know how to hide it. [...] The shrewd dissimulate what they've done, while the fools blab about what they're about to do. Reputation is more a matter of caution than of deeds; if you're not pure, be cautious. (7) Gracian does not say what lies behind such a mask: anticipating Max Stirner, he seems to imply that one's individual self is a pre-identitarian, pre-social, and even pre-moral 'creative nothing' (8) of which one cannot even talk.

Conscious of the nature of the surroundings and of his/her position within the great play of the world, the wise person does not shy away from ruthlessly and amorally employing similar weapons to those that are often directed against him/ her. If the mark of a 'fool' is the naivety of taking the world at face value and acting in accordance with those social rules which are devised to keep him/her in check, the supreme quality of the wise person is his/her ability to move beyond the realm of social illusions and to come back to it with renewed will and understanding. 'Half the world is laughing at the other half and all are fools. [...] Life doesn't depend on any one opinion, any one custom, or any one century.' (9)

Gracian's idea of the wise outlined in the Art of Prudence is at odds with his earlier, idealistic work The Hero (10) but it nonetheless appears as a perverse reinterpretation of the figure of the hero in classical and primitive mythology. As Joseph Campbell argues, mythological heroes become so by moving beyond the realm of illusions, transcending their own socially defined individuality, and then returning to society with the boon of a renewed and penetrating vision of the world. (11) Gracian's wise person shares with the mythological hero such transcendence beyond the realm of illusions, and the final return to his/her original society. However, while the traditional mythological hero brings back the boon of knowledge to society--understood as a redeemable, unitarian whole--the knowledge acquired by...

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