Worldly Wisdom

A recent reading of Baltasar Gracian’s Art of Worldly Wisdom, a 17th century bestseller which has again become popular, left me unimpressed. While the Spanish Jesuit was an astute observer of human nature, he urged wisdom mainly in the pursuit of material aims. Ironically he failed even in that. This man who was so good in urging tact and subtlety in others failed to heed his own lessons. That said, a lover of philosophy does not have to be naive or impractical.

When considering a zealous Stoic like Epictetus (frequently quoted on this blog) it’s easy to see the severely “idealistic” side of his thought. For example, he censures those who forget their true moral destiny.

Men act like a traveler on the way to his own country who stops at an excellent inn, and, since the inn pleases him, stays there.

In another passage, Epictetus says that while we must make use of physical things, like our feet, it would be better to have them cut off then let them trip us up. In this he echoes the admonition of the Gospels — “And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out” (Mar. 9:47). But in one chapter of The Discourses the Greek philosopher moves beyond the typical Stoic view that unspiritual things are “indifferent.” He indulges in an Aristotelian realism. We must value all good things, he explains, no matter how small. Epictetus here is specifically urging one to use the gifts of eloquence, since they make truth pleasing to the student. To reject such basic skills is not wisdom but a sign that one does not wish to take the effort necessary to live properly in this world and to set an example for others.

Man, be neither ungrateful for these gifts, nor yet forgetful of the better things, but for sight and hearing… for life itself and for it is conducive to it, for dry fruits, for wine, for olive oil, give thanks unto God; and at the same time remember that he has given you something better than all these things—the faculty which can make use of them, pass judgment upon them, estimate the value of each…. Does a man despise his other faculties? Far from it! Does a man say there is no use or advancement save in the faculty of moral purpose? Far from it! That is unintelligent, impious, ungrateful towards God. Nay, he is but assigning its true value to each thing

Only the shallow thinker disdains normal accomplishments. Some gifted people hide behind the “higher life” to mask their own lack of maturity. It may seem clever to avoid the petty trials of the workplace or family life, but it is by dealing such things that we test our character. As Burke has said, “virtue is never tried but by some difficulty and some struggle.”

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