Influential books: The 17th century Spanish book of proverbs recommended by the richest man in the world | Culture

Silicon Valley guru and space explorer Elon Musk this week recommended a couple of books of aphorisms written by a 17th-century Spanish philosopher. World’s richest man was cryptically specific when quoting one of the author’s works on social media: “Baltasar Gracián, Oráculo Manual y Arte de Prudencia (or, The Art of Worldly Wisdom).” However, Musk wasn’t particularly original. The works of Gracián, a Baroque intellectual who lived during the Spanish Golden Age of art and literature, have enjoyed multiple popularity over the centuries. The Jesuit priest’s recent renaissance has been as a self-help author for 21st-century entrepreneurs.

In fact, it describes Gracián’s US publisher Penguin The Art of Worldly Wisdom as “possibly the first self-help book in history”. It makes sense, concedes Luis Sánchez Laílla, professor of literature at the University of Zaragoza in northern Spain and editor of the complete works of Baltasar Gracián. “The very title suggests that this is a handbook intended to accompany the reader and to be consulted at any time in search of advice.” The book contains aphorisms that are still used today. Sentences like: “What is good is twice as good in short” and “Where desire ends, fear begins”.

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They’re clever and easy to remember, but they also have a certain depth. Gracián remains aloof from the pejorative connotation that the term self-help has been associated with in recent years, and even more so than the sub-industry dedicated to business people. He’s not a testosterone-fueled tome laying out how to start a company, do business, or be your own boss. “Simple formulas and simple answers for the general public will not be found on its pages,” says Sánchez Laílla. Gracián wrote for an exclusive minority in his day: the few who could read in the 17th century. Similarly, in later centuries his work was limited to those who could understand Baroque aphorisms. However, due to an updated version with modernized language and a marketing campaign by Penguin, that now includes many people.

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The Art of Worldly Wisdom was first published in 1647, but only rose to prominence in the United States in 1992. Writer Gail Godwin was the first to praise the book. In conversation with The New York TimesIn response to what book she would recommend to the two presidential candidates for the White House (George HW Bush and Bill Clinton), she referred to Gracián’s work, which she described as “Machiavellian but with scruples.” Other newspapers quickly reviewed the book, which made it onto best-seller lists and into the leather briefcases of Wall Street high-flyers, who showed their copy to their peers and evoked the same mixture of envy and admiration as the first cell phones. The baroque oracle even found its way into the Oval Office: The New York Times heeded Godwin’s suggestion while sending copies to Bush and Clinton, who was elected president that year That Art of Worldly Wisdom sold 100,000 copies in the US alone.

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Elon Musk photographed in the New York Times building in 2016.
Elon Musk photographed in the New York Times building in 2016.Sasha Maslow / AMC

In his second reincarnation That Art of Worldly Wisdom got a makeover and was renamed as Why do executives play golf? It’s 2007 and the book was as popular as sushi in Japan. It sold 140,000 copies and reached number three on the country’s best-selling business list. In reality, of course, the Jesuit priest was not inspired to improve the momentum of Japanese stockbrokers. The name change was part of a marketing strategy to attract the attention of this type of reader, said Goma Books editor Satoshi Kawakami El Mundo in an interview at the time. “The majority of people who play golf in Japan are business people,” he said. “The word golf implies a certain social status.”

The Spanish publisher Áltera applied a similar criterion in 2013 when it compiled Gracián’s most beautiful aphorisms under the title Gracián: el jesuita que enseñaba a triunfar (or, Gracián: the Jesuit who taught success). But despite the renaming and the diffuse popularity stemming from studying in virtually every high school in Spain, Gracián was never a prophet in his own country. “It’s one of the classics that’s constantly being reissued in Spain,” says Antonio María Ávila, executive director of the Spanish Federation of Publishers’ Guilds. “Nevertheless, it’s always been more widespread outside of Spain.”

Luis Rafael Hernandez agrees. A university lecturer, author and publisher of Verbum and Perelló, who edited Gracián’s most important works, Hernández says that historically the philosopher’s writings have had more influence in the United States than in Spain, partly due to the Baroque literary movement, he explains Conceptism . “It features a short, focused, and ambiguous style in which sophisticated associations are made between the words and the ideas they convey.” It’s similar to a snappy tweet, but in a baroque style. This might explain his success in modern society, where big ideas need to be captured in a handful of characters to grab a reader’s attention.

Clinton, Bush and Barack Obama, three potential readers: Gracián's work is described as
Clinton, Bush and Barack Obama, three potential readers: Gracián’s work is described as “Machiavellian but with scruples”.EFE

Gracián’s works also influenced other literary movements and currents. He is considered a “forerunner of existentialism and postmodernism,” says Hernández. His fingerprint is found not only on movements in general, but also on certain authors “like Schopenhauer or Nietzsche”. His importance for literature has increased in recent years, which Hernández puts into perspective: “In these times in which we live, with wars, pandemics and other catastrophes, a writer like Gracián helps us to better understand our existence.”

That seems especially true of Silicon Valley tycoons. But why has the Aragonese theologian’s works gained such a global reputation among entrepreneurs, brokers, cryptocurrency speculators and those who wish to join them? “Gracián is a classics author, and the classics have the power to keep readers interested over long periods of time, and readers can legitimately interpret them according to their own interests and mental frameworks,” says Sánchez Laílla. That entrepreneurs have made it their own is remarkable, because The Art of Worldly Wisdom paints a human ideal that transcends age, occupation and boundaries. “It is fundamental to understand one thing: if we forget the ethical and humanistic principles that inspired Gracián, we can quote him, but we don’t understand anything.”

Another new incarnation of The Art of Worldly Wisdom might appear soon. Musk’s tweet generated tens of thousands of likes and came at a time when the billionaire was locked in a public standoff with Twitter following his failed bid to buy the social media platform. Many observers interpreted his tweet as an allusion, although it’s difficult to say exactly which: 300 Gracián aphorisms to choose from. Either way, the knock-on effect could be huge in terms of book sales and fame. Or not. Musk is used to gigantic virality. For example, the day before he recommended Gracián, he had posted an image on Twitter with a fake quote attributed to Mediocrates, with the comment: “Ehh, good enough.” It garnered over 250,000 likes. A few days earlier, he tweeted a popcorn emoticon. That brought in more than 50,000. Nobody really thinks that the popcorn emoticon or the non-existent Mediocrates will suddenly be on everyone’s lips. But then again, maybe they will.

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