baroque casuistry

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    Ronald H. McKinney, S.J.

    T HE B A R O QU E C A S U I S T RY

    O F B A L T A S A R G R A C I A N

    Few general histories of the Society of Jesus give more than a brief paragraph ortwo to the achievements of the 17th century Spanish Jesuit, Baltasar Gracian(1601-58). One reason might be the fact that he published the final installment of

    his allegorical masterpiece,The Master Critic, in 1657 without the permission of

    his superiors, and so he was severely punished.1 According to David Mitchell, they

    censored him because he was judged to have shown symptoms of occultism andhad also criticized the fossilization of the Jesuit educational system.2 We might

    find it understandable, then, that a Jesuit who asked to leave the Society and died in

    solitary confinement before permission was granted might well have future histori-

    ans of the Society less than enthusiastic to trumpet his accomplishments. Another

    reason for this neglect might well be the perception of his personal life by some,

    despite the fact that we know little about it. Alban Forcione compares him favor-

    ably to the 20th century Latin American writer, Jorge Luis Borges; even though

    Virginia Foster points out that Borges himself wrote a vicious poem condemning

    both Gracian as a person and his art as well.3Nevertheless, contemporary scholars outside the Society of Jesus have been

    less reticent in their praise regarding the importance of his work. Arturo Ruiz con-

    tends thatThe Master Criticdeserves to be considered in the same class as Don

    Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Gullivers Travels,andCandide.4 According to the

    noted scholar, Ernst Curtius, GraciansThe Minds Wit and Artis the first system-

    atic attempt in history to articulate a theory of literacy mannerism.5 Moreover,

    Omar Calabrese calls this same work one of the most fascinating tests in baroque

    culturea text that, not surprisingly, has recently returned to the limelight in a dra-

    matic way.6 Indeed, another of Gracians works, a book of maxims entitled TheArt of Worldly Wisdom, was not only a favorite of Nietzsche and Schophenhauer,

    but also became a best seller in the 1990s. Accordingly, a group of scholars has

    recently published a collection of essays that considers Gracians relevance for the

    New World Order following the collapse of Communism around the globe.7

    However, their misinterpretation of his work, resulting in their negative assessment

    of his achievement, has prompted the present essay.

    I contend that Gracians famous book of maxims, considered so

    Machiavellian by his critics, can best be understood as an instance of Jesuit casu-

    istry, provided we explain away the latters pejorative connotations. Only a fewscholars like Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin, in their influentialThe Abuse of

    The Modern Schoolman, LXXXI, January 2004

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    Casuistry, point out the resemblance between casuistry and the art of the Baroque

    era.8 Gracians originality lies in the fact that he not only is a Jesuit casuist of the

    first order, but that he also provides the theoretical foundation for his collection of

    maxims in his critical account of baroque literature itself. Just as Pascal and the

    critics of Jesuit casuistry in the seventeenth century failed to see its baroque char-acter, the same can be said of Gracians critics today.

    I will therefore first provide a brief hypothesis concerning the nature of the

    relationship between casuistry and the baroque mindset, something that Jonsen

    and Toulmin fail to offer their readers. I will make this link through an examination

    of the Jesuit way of proceeding. Then I will explore Gracians The Minds Wit

    and Artfor his theory of baroque art, followed by howThe Art of Worldly Wisdom

    illustrates this theory in the realm of moral prudence. By making this connection, I

    hope to refute contemporary criticisms of Gracians casuistry. I will leave it to

    readers themselves, however, to take the further step in seeing Gracian's relevancefor our contemporary world. After all, in a postmodern culture that Calabrese calls

    neo-baroque in its orientation,9 we are seeing the rise of a new casuistry.10


    To define the baroque today would seem as difficult as defining the post-

    modern, since both appear to find their identity precisely in resisting our penchant

    for facile formulations. It is no wonder, then, that Calabrese and others find the

    baroque and the postmodern linked in some analogical or causal way. 11

    Timothy Hampton, in his introduction to a recently edited collection of essays on

    this topic, labels the baroque as a phenomenon defying conventional categories

    of periodization and description.12 However, his nominalistic reason for making

    this claim (Labeling homogenizes.13) would appear to eliminateeveryconven-

    tional quest to separate historical periods or styles. It is true that every definition

    of the baroque will either leave out a trait possessed by some work of art we

    want to call baroque, or contain a trait not possessed by some other work we also

    want to call baroque. Nevertheless, as long as we keep in mind this fact that

    Alices Looking-Glass cake always resists being sliced, we need pragmatically to

    adopt Wittgensteins family resemblance notion of a definition or give up talking

    altogether about historical periods and styles.

    Hampton points out another ambiguity in baroque studies as to whether we

    are referring to a particular historical moment (Europe and Latin America in the

    late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) or to a particular mode of representa-

    tion employing paradox, illusionism, precocity, the thematics of melancholy, and

    so on.14 The former refers to a specific period in time while the latter points to

    some trans-temporal style that can be present in any age whatsoever, hence the ref-

    erence to postmodern poetics as neo-baroque in character. Those advocating a

    trans-temporal definition of style, however, necessarily arrive at it by means of

    an inductive survey of the prevailing traits within baroque periods.

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    The Baroque Casuistry of Baltasar GracianRonald H. McKinney, S.J.


    Hampton also indicates that, whether as a period or style, we most often

    define the baroque in contrast to what is labeled as classical or neoclassical.15

    However, Hampton ignores the issue of whether this contrast is to be under-

    stood in terms of dialectical opposites or in terms of a higher level concept con-

    taining a lower level one, thus resulting in continuity as well as discontinuity. Forexample, Calabrese contrasts the classical values of stability, certainty, unity,

    linear interpretation, and normative behavior with the baroque values of insta-

    bility, uncertainty, fragmentation, and change.16 Nevertheless, and I think rightly

    so, he argues that the baroque does notsimply consist of those factorsopposed

    to the classical.17 For he recognizes that the destabilization of a normative sys-

    tem does not result in its elimination altogether, but rather simply makes problem-

    atic its ability to authoritatively decide on values. The classical past, for

    Calabrese, is thus recycled, but in an ironic manner; its norms are reaffirmed at

    the very same time as they are put into question, since the baroque is necessarilyparasitic upon the classical.

    Our efforts to define the baroque are further complicated by the evolution of

    art history itself. Only in this century, for example, have we differentiated man-

    nerism from the baroque, with some even seeing the latter as a reaction

    against the former.18 Moreover, we also have to contend with this disciplines pen-

    chant for cross-fertilization, such that a term grounded in the visual arts of archi-

    tecture and painting can also be transferred to the fields of literature and music as

    well.19 Consequently, such transfers make it even more difficult to pin down the

    precise meaning of critical concepts relating to the baroque.And finally, the most problematic feature of proposed definitions of the

    baroque is the fact that they often contain pronounced contradictions. For exam-

    ple, Hampton points out the conflict in many baroque works of art between their

    exemplification of the absolute power of the state and their representation of the

    subjects capacity to challenge tyranny.20 The astute student of the baroque

    should therefore come to suspect that this style or period is fond of paradox and

    committed to the view that changing circumstances often dictate our values.

    I will conclude this discussion of the baroque by assembling continuities

    of the Baroque in Spanish and Latin American literature from RobertoEchevarrias recent study.21 It will serve as our paradigmatic family resemblance

    definition of this troublesome concept for the rest of our study. This is not an arbi-

    trary choice, however, since Echevarria often cites Gracians authority in the devel-

    opment of this concept.

    Echevarria agrees with Octavio Paz that the purpose of baroque art is to

    astonish and astound and so it is productive of many outrageous conceits.22 The

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    baroque loves to mix conflicting elements to indicate chaos and confusion, since it

    questions ideological commonplaces in the very act of supporting them.23

    Indeed, Echevarria argues that the Baroque is not an idealistic art, but an art that is

    attached to the coarse and brute materiality of the world with all its contrasts and

    contradictions.24 Nevertheless, the baroque does not deny tradition as much as itexaggerates it; baroque poetic practice consists in an ambiguous homage to the

    model, since its monumental presence is still nothing but the setting for the new.25

    For example, the baroque combines previous texts by means of a wit that trans-

    forms them into something new.26 Thus it may seem ornate and artificial in

    comparison to classical symmetry, but it is thoroughly grounded in its classical

    heritage at the same time.


    For centuries it has been a commonplace to connect the Jesuit Order and

    Baroque Art.27 If so, we might well anticipate that the same ambiguities and para-

    doxes surrounding the baroque would also be found in our consideration of the

    Jesuit way of proceeding. For such a concept not only has its roots in a specific

    period of time (the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), but is also very much alive

    in the way the Order conducts its affairs today.

    In the beginning, St. Ignatius seems to have bequeathed to his Order two con-

    flicting ways of proceeding. In The Spiritual Exercises, he tells exercitants that

    we must hold fast to the following principle: What seems to me white, I will

    believe black if the hierarchical Church so defines.28 And thus Jesuits have always

    valued obedience to a central authority. But Ignatius also remarks that these

    Exercises must be adapted to the condition of the one who is to engage in them.29

    From this and other instructions in theConstitutions, Jesuits have grown to revere

    the necessity for flexibility and accommodating their mission to the specific needs

    and circumstances of others.

    Accordingly, the question arises as to whether there existed some uniform

    Baroque style that Jesuit authorities in Rome imposed on the architects and artists

    involved with the Orders missions all over the globe.30 Or did the spirit of adapting

    to local needs and customs prevail, resulting in a Jesuit art full of pluralistic forms?

    Rudolf Wittkower examines the evidence and suggests that, while there did devel-

    op a certain measure of uniformity surrounding the use of the Gesu Church in

    Rome as a baroque model to imitate, nevertheless Roman authorities were more

    concerned with practical, rather than stylistic matters.31 Moreover, he asserts that,

    though there were early attempts to establish Jesuit artistic standards, with the

    passage of time more liberal views gained ascendancy.32 Finally, he points out an

    important creative tension that existed early on: the battle between the artistic

    ideals of propriety and delight, or put differently, the conflict between plain auster-

    ity (in keeping with the vow of poverty) and lavish decoration.33 In actual practice,

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    The Baroque Casuistry of Baltasar GracianRonald H. McKinney, S.J.


    it seems Jesuits paid only lip service to the former, as their art works became ever

    more extravagant over the years.

    If Wittkowers insights are accepted, we are left with a puzzling conclusion.

    The Society of Jesus in the beginning seems constituted by the creative tension

    between the classical drive for uniformity and proper decorum and thebaroque hunger for diversity and delight. Nevertheless, if Wittkower is right, that

    the spirit of adaptation wins out, then we are left with the paradox that the

    baroque does indeed become the Jesuit style, even though Rome did not uni-

    formly impose it.

    In one of the more recent treatments of this issue, Gauvin Bailey argues that

    we must finally put to rest any talk of a uniform Jesuit style.34 For he argues that it

    is facile to identify the Jesuit style with the pejorative concept of the baroque,

    on the stereotypical basis that Jesuits desire to make extravagant appeals to the

    senses as a vehicle for control. On the contrary, Bailey argues that, if there exists adistinctive Jesuit way of proceeding in the arts, its strategy is defined by a com-

    plex and fluid mixture of experimentation and creativity, combined with a willing-

    ness to adapt and learn from the surrounding cultural landscape.35 He adds, almost

    whimsically, instead of dominating everything around it as critics have for so long

    maintained, it ends up accommodating and assimilating. Fornoster modusis not a

    product but a process.

    Curiously enough, by displacing the notion of a Jesuit baroque uniformity in

    favor of a Jesuit style of accommodation, we still arrive at a notion of the baroque.

    For as Echevarria points out, the baroque is constituted by a mixture of contradic-tory elements, and the Jesuit wedding together of Italianate baroque and local cus-

    toms and traditions across the globe precisely achieves this kind of mixture. In fact

    the whole spirit of the Order can be called baroque in its contradictory desire

    to live up to the Ignatian ideals of obedience andflexibility.


    Most moral thinkers tend to fit into either the class of Platonists or

    Aristotelians. The former prefers the axiomatic application of first principles to

    concrete cases and regards exceptions as unfortunate deviations from the idealistic

    rigor of the moral law. The latter believes that practical wisdom requires not only

    knowledge of universals but the perception of the particular circumstances

    involved in a moral case as well. Exceptions are viewed as ways to improve the

    necessarily imperfect scope of moral principles.

    According to Alison Simmons, St. Ignatius himself and Jesuit educators early

    on clearly show a preference for following Aristotle.36 Now Marc Fumaroli argues

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    that it is precisely rhetoric, and its sophistic version, which is the creative driving

    force of [Jesuit] ethics.37 For it is in the argumentative discourse surrounding the

    cases presented by penitents in the confessional that Jesuits developed their own

    brand of casuistry in the sixteenth century. The new circumstances resulting from

    the incredible changes in science, economy, and politics seemed to call for a differ-ent approach from the standard ones.

    Three major schools can be distinguished.38 Tutiorists argue the rigorous,

    more Platonic stance that, when in doubt, one should take the safest course by

    obeying the moral maxim in question. Probabiliorists advocate following

    whichever position has the most probability, intrinsically and/or extrinsically.

    However, Jesuit probabilists claim that, when there is a reasonable doubt regard-

    ing the validity of a maxim, the individual is free to disregard it, even if the prepon-

    derance of the evidence is on the side of following the maxim.

    There are various reasons why the Jesuit way of proceeding resulted in theirchampioning a moral approach that their critics argued could only foster a spirit of

    laxity. First, St. Ignatius wrote about the problem of scrupulous souls in his

    Spiritual Exercises.39 A compassionate approach that tries to relieve the penitent of

    needless guilt is thus in keeping with Ignatian spiritual direction. Second, Fumaroli

    argues that the Jesuit casuists contextualized and narrative description and evalu-

    ation of sins had its epistemic model . . . in the ethical-rhetorical investigations of

    the Humanists, who were ardent champions of human freedom in opposition to

    Jansenist dogmatism.40 Third, according to Rivka Feldhay, though exaggerated

    freedom is indeed rejected, still, a variety of opinions in everything not concern-ing faith is allowed as a necessary condition for intellectual vitality in Jesuit edu-

    cation.41 Accordingly, even deviations are not completely excluded from Jesuit

    discourse . . . and acquire the epistemological status of possible opinions.

    Marcus Hellyer also notes this vital tension in the Society between enforcing uni-

    formity and permitting intellectual liberty.42 Thus if obedience to prescribed

    norms comes naturally to Jesuits, it is never cadaver-like, but requires articula-

    tion through initiative and personal judgment.43 Likewise, pentinents who go to

    Jesuits could expect to receive the same respect for the freedom of their individual

    conscience.44 Finally, the charge that probablism inevitably fosters Machiavelianunscrupulousness is countered by the fact that Jesuits were the prime advocates of

    an anti-Machiavelian theory of the prince-hero.45

    Like our own legal systems bias for the defendant, Jesuit casuistry thus

    claims that, when there is reasonable doubt, we ought to decide in favor of the

    moral agents freedom to choose. That there exists a baroque flavor to this

    approach must now be demonstrated. First, Aristotelian bias for privileging the

    particulars of a case mirrors the baroque reverence for the course and brute mate-

    riality of the world in opposition to any Platonic idealism. Indeed, the baroque

    love for complexity is in sync with the casuists convoluted consideration ofnumerous possibilities before the resolution is achieved. Second, if the tutiorist

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    approach functions in a classical manner of finding the harmony between rigor-

    ous norms, the probabilist is far more open to undermining social norms by allow-

    ing for greater freedom for moral agents in an ever changing, chaotic world. After

    all, the Jesuit use of equivocation and mental reservation in Elizabethan England

    created great political instability. Third, Jonsen and Toulmin rightly point out thenecessity for a casuist mindset for Jesuit missionaries, who must strive to creative-

    ly mix the norms of Rome with the strange circumstances of worlds far away.46 A

    more relaxed baroque approach in times of doubt thus proves far more effective

    in accommodating the faith to newer places.

    Fourth, like the baroque sublation of the classical, Jesuit probabilistic casu-

    istry does not do away entirely with the tutiorist position. For even Jonsen and

    Toulmin point out that the circumstances might dictate in some situations that we

    follow the tutiorist approach.47 Kenneth Kirk argues that Jesuit casuists taught

    precisely this, that when some vital interest was at stake, one is obliged to followthe safer or more authoritative course of literal obedience.48 Fifth, the paradoxes

    and ambiguities of the dual citizenship of the hero-prince (he belongs to both

    heaven and earth) mirror the baroque love for contradictory mixtures. Finally, if

    casuistry dies as a viable moral discourse in the Enlightenment, the reason is due

    to the latters preference for the neo-classical virtues of clarity, simplicity, coher-

    ence, and brevity.

    In conclusion, the reader hopefully grasps the intricate relationship between

    the notions of the baroque, the Jesuit way of proceeding, and their probabilistic

    type of moral casuistry. Those who prefer a more classical approach to art andmorality will, of course, disdain the baroque, and see the Jesuit approach to casu-

    istry as sophistic in intent. However, if the critic learns to appreciate the value of

    the baroque penchant for mixing contradictory elements, then what seems blatant-

    ly Machiavelian in Jesuit casuistry is really just an attempt to do justice to the

    demands of both heaven and earth. Now we must consider a prime exemplar of

    this baroque mixing of aesthetics and moral reasoning.


    I will first examineThe Minds Wit and Artto discover how Gracian articu-

    lates a critical theory for baroque literature. Then I will consider contemporary

    criticisms of his casuistic work, The Art of Worldly Wisdom. I will defend Gracian

    from such charges by means of linking his casuistry to his aesthetic theory and by

    demonstrating how his final allegorical classic reinforces my interpretation.

    However, that we are dealing with a person who revels in paradox should be kept

    in mind from the start.

    The Baroque Casuistry of Baltasar GracianRonald H. McKinney, S.J.

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    InThe Minds Wit and Art, Gracian claims to be the first to truly understand

    and articulate the nature of the minds most important function, for the ancients

    never came to observe wit carefully, and so never found a system for it, much less

    perfection.49 Those before (as well as many after) Gracian view wit and its cre-

    ation of conceits as simply literary ornaments (often abused) added on to prioracts of understanding.50 For them, Gracian simply articulates a theory of bad taste.

    Gracian himself, however, holds that mere understanding without wit or conceit

    is a sun without light.51 Or more precisely, understanding, for Gracian, is itself an

    operation of wit that displays itself in poetry, prose, art, and action itself. He admits

    that wit is easier to recognize than to define, and so his work is more properly a

    collection of examples demonstrating the various kinds of wit.52

    However, he does make various stabs at providing a definition. His simplest is

    that the conceit is an act of understanding which vividly expresses the apt relation

    that it found between objects.53 For Aristotle, knowledge consists in knowing theabstract class to which an object belongs. For Gracian, on the contrary, one only

    comes to know a particular object by grasping its connections to other things,

    that is to say, through the perception of similarities and differences. This vision of

    reality as a web of interconnections resembles the present-day science of complex-

    ity. For Gracian, the subject about which someone reflects . . . is like a center from

    which the discourse distributes lines of deliberation and cunning to the entities that

    surround it; that is, to what is adjacent and perfects the subject, as do its causes, its

    effects, attributes, qualities, contingencies, circumstances of time, place, manner.54

    A simile or metaphor would be an example of a conceit. However, it is neverentirely clear for Gracian whether a tired, simple simile like My love is like a

    rose, is complex or imaginative enough to merit being called a conceit. For

    Gracian repeatedly claims that just any comparison does not enclose wit, for

    without subtlety or liveliness of imagination, some comparisons are just mere

    rhetorical figures as in the case of similitudes and others.55 Yet elsewhere he

    remarks that when the comparison takes some extraordinary contingency as its

    basis, it is more laudable or a conceit of the first class.56 These latter observa-

    tions would suggest that every simile is a conceit, but some are simply better than

    others are. And the criterion for judging the creative superiority of conceits is onthe basis of how unusual is the comparison being made.57

    There is probably no greater catalogue of the kinds of comparisons possible in

    literature than Gracians own treatise itself. He examines everything from paradox-

    es, hyperboles, puns, and allusions to enigmas, riddles, maxims, and ingenious acts

    of heroism. Gracian is well aware that not only can conceits be poorly constructed,

    but that they can also be so exaggerated and excessively used as to constitute an

    abuse of the imagination.58 Obviously one persons abuse is another persons rea-

    son to glory, as witness the diverse reactions to the conceits of Gracians peers, the

    English Metaphysical poets. At one point, Gracian claims to prefer the composi-tions of the ancients to those of the moderns, since the former are more full of

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    The Baroque Casuistry of Baltasar GracianRonald H. McKinney, S.J.


    soul and clever liveliness, and the latter have not so much fruit of wit.59 Yet else-

    where he claims that erudition in modern things is often even more flavorful than

    that in antiquity, since modern examples, if sublime, delight with their novelty.60

    What remains constant for Gracian, however, is his insistence that we should use

    conceits with a grain of tact: ones practical sense must season everything. 61What critics often forget is that Gracian is always calling for appropriateness and

    not just a mindless use of wit.

    Thus the most important kind of wit, for Gracian, is the prudent judgment

    in which sagaciousness and subtlety share equally.62 To understand the reason

    for his privileging of casuistic maxims, we have to realize that, for Gracian, wit is

    an act of understanding that grasps the beautiful possibilities in things, while

    judgment is that act which sees if there is a correspondence of wit with reality.63

    Thus the prudential maxim is the grandest action of the mind because in it con-

    cur the vividness of imagination and felicitousness of prudence.64 To have bothtruth and beauty is far preferable to have only one but not the other. And what

    makes a maxim witty is precisely its imaginative attention to a particular occa-

    sion, or some special circumstance or an unusual contingency.65 Moreover,

    the mature person honors those maxims directed toward disillusionment

    above all, for they are the most useful and delightful precisely because of their

    difficult wisdom.66

    It follows that Gracian refuses to prefer amplification to brevity, the Asiatic

    excessive style to the laconic, concise style, as his critics would claim. For

    Gracian, on the contrary, each style has its perfection and occasion.67 If the sen-tentiousness of Seneca is more appropriate for prudential maxims, it is far more

    prudent to use an amplified style for oratorical purposes. Indeed the wit of a maxim

    lies in its paradoxical, copious brevity precisely because it tries to combine differ-

    ent extremes in as condensed a manner as possible. Moreover, his preference for a

    beautiful variety in styles is also inclusive of a more clear and coherent style,

    since by variety he means an alternation of styles, difficult artifice (and his own

    exemplification of such a style in his own works) actually allows for more simple

    and natural art,when the circumstances make it appropriate, as in his correspon-

    dence not meant for publication.Finally, the last topic Gracian deals with in his aesthetic masterpiece concerns

    how wit is to be acquired: the easiest and most efficient instruction is by imita-

    tion.69 And that is why he provides so many examples of wit from the classics of

    the past. Good taste is not acquired in any other way than by mastering the recog-

    nized paradigms from the past. However, wit does not just result in a slavish imita-

    tion of the past, for such a state of affairs would merely result in the ongoing

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    perpetuation of the status quo in politics and the arts. On the contrary, on the very

    last page of his own very original treatise, Gracian argues that true imitation does

    not involve duplication or robbery, but rather it lies in transfiguring the

    thoughts, transposing the elements of the past in a creative way that conceals

    ones borrowing.70 Indeed, Leland Chambers argues that what is original aboutGracians theory of imitation is that he wants his readers to imitate the manner of

    wit in its modes and species, not the witticisms themselves.71

    Hugh Grady observes that most Spanish and English poetry of the seven-

    teenth century is remarkably un-self-reflexive, while Gracian decisively formu-

    lates the meta-level of a new poetic methodology at the same time that he

    exemplifies it.72 Arturo Ruiz agrees that the rambling structure of Gracians trea-

    tise seems in accord with the Spaniards theoretical commitment to difficult obscu-

    rity in order to challenge his readers to think more deeply.73 Moreover, Ruiz adds

    that, though the Society of Jesus officially discouraged the stylistic excess associ-ated with Gracians baroque theory, the very way it trained its men encouraged,

    especially in the pulpit, a reliance upon just such an emotional, ornamental style.74

    Perhaps the same could be said about the Jesuit practice of casuistry.


    Nicholas Spadaccini and Jenaro Talens introduce their collection of critical

    essays about Gracians relevance for our contemporary New World Order by

    spelling out the leftist viewpoint shared by most of the authors in their collection.75

    They argue that the Spanish Baroque era is similar to our own postmodern age in

    so far as it is dominated by an absolutist court as ours is ruled by the mass media.

    In both eras there is much political ambiguity with declining empires struggling to

    survive by utilizing the weapons of culture. Indeed, in both, a new power elite is

    trying to establish itself in opposition to the democratic masses. The early

    Renaissance stress on virtue is now replaced by the need for a prudential, worldly

    wisdom, as is the case with the rise of Christian neorealism in our own time.

    According to Spadaccini and Talens, Gracian is not interested in changing the

    established order, to correct its injustices, but rather in finding the necessary means

    to survive in such a vice-filled world. Accordingly, his maxims often call for self-

    control, caution, preparedness, and the creation of an external self to protect the

    inner self. Indeed, the manipulation of appearances means everything to Gracian,

    such that his quest for success through rhetorical ploys resembles the philosophy

    of Machiavelli. In short, Spadaccini and Talens label Gracians moral philosophy

    as reactionary and conservative as they do the rest of the ostentatious Baroque

    culture, for both are geared towards controlling the lives of the many by the few.

    Alban Forcione argues that, though Gracian stresses the individuals right to

    create works of art free from traditional creeds of imitation, he also requires that

    same individual to submit to an absolutist view of the monarchical state.76 Isabel

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    The Baroque Casuistry of Baltasar GracianRonald H. McKinney, S.J.


    Livosky adds that Gracian is able to reconcile his advocacy of brutal methods for

    power with the dictates of Christian morality by means of the sophistic dictum that

    the noble end justifies the means.77 She compares very similar passages regarding

    the means for success in both Gracian and Machiavelli and observes that they both

    point to Ferdinand of Aragon as the ideal ruler.78 Moreover, she shrewdly observesthat, though Gracians probabilism challenges the principle of authority as

    embedded in a hierarchy, it applies to someone who belongs to an elite group, not

    the common man.79 Indeed, she notes that if his earlier enthusiastic veneration for

    Ferdinands nation-state mirrors modernity, then perhaps in the atomization of

    the nation-state and the selective individualism reflected in his later work we can

    perceive the ethos of our own postmodernity.80

    Malcom Read agrees that the shift from the Renaissance to the Baroque

    resembles the transition from modernism to postmodernism.81 He contends that

    Gracian is a writer who awaits discovery by the New Right. Neoliberals are noto-riously less easily shocked than their classical forebears. Appropriately read,

    Gracian might well be deployed to justify a little corporate fraud.82 William

    Egginton agrees with this cynical reading of Gracian, since he maintains that what

    is central for Gracian is that he desires the recognition of others in order to gain

    power over them.83 Accordingly, he argues that, for Gracian, substance itself is

    nothing other than a matter of degrees of appearance and that one can cultivate the

    impression of interior substance through careful attention to the representation of

    ones existence.84 Indeed, according to Egginton, Gracian is only concerned with

    success in this world and he is not concerned with the other-worldly matters.85He concludes with the intriguing suggestion that Kant represses the pathological

    morality of Gracian, based as it is on self-interest, with his own enlightened sense

    of the moral law that transcends mere inclination.86

    I want now to refute this sophistic, Machiavelian interpretation of Gracians

    The Art of Worldly Wisdom summarized above. I hope to show that its fundamental

    bias is due to the failure to understand correctly the nature of baroque art that

    Gracians book of maxims exemplifies in a special way. Moreover, I will also

    argue that it makes the same mistake as Pascal commits in reducing the art of casu-

    istry to mere sophistry, ignoring entirely the progressive dimensions to this dynam-ic enterprise.

    The Art of Worldly Wisdomis a non-systematic collection of 300 maxims, of

    which 78 of them have been recycled from some of Gracians previous works.87

    Their focus is on how we are to live life in this world full of deceit. The baroque

    mode of juxtaposition is quite evident in the fact that his maxims reflect the tension

    between sacred and temporal concerns. Indeed, Aubrey Bell bluntly states that

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    these maxims may even seem to contradict each other, so wedded is Gracian to

    keeping a paradoxical mixture of idealism and the spirit of pragmatic adaptation.88

    For example, Gracian urges us to put ourselves into someone elses shoes

    (#294) but also never to involve ourselves in the fate of the unfortunate (#163). He

    tells us that the natural is always the more pleasing (#123) but also that natureneeds to be perfected through art (#12). He maintains that luck goes to the wise

    and virtuous (#21), but he also admits that even wisdom cannot at all times bring

    luck (#139). He advises the making of witty remarks to extricate ourselves from

    difficult situations (#73), yet he also argues that being serious is far more important

    (#76). He urges us to always be prepared (#151), but also that we should live for

    only the present moment (#288). He claims it is always prudent to have a scape-

    goat in mind (#149), and yet also that we should always be forgiving of the failings

    of others (#109). He tells us not to look for the applause of the crowd (#28), yet he

    also argues that the desire for fame springs from the best part of ourselves (#10).He warns us to beware of novelty (#143), and yet also claims that novelty will win

    you applause (#81). At one point he advocates the value of living alone (#137), at

    another that we should not be unsociable (#74), and still elsewhere that we should

    belong neither entirely to ourselves nor to others (#252). Sometimes he praises

    deceit and concealment when it is prudent (#94), at other times he tells us to do

    what is right even if imprudent (#29), and still elsewhere he argues that we should

    alternate between the cunning of the serpent and the candor of the dove (#243). He

    proposes that the promptness of giving a gift is crucial (#236), whereas he also

    claims it does not matter much at all (#132). Finally, Gracian asserts that the break-ing of the rules is okay if one can succeed in no other way (#66), and yet elsewhere

    he asserts that virtue is its own reward (#90).

    What are we to make of such contradictions? How are we to know which

    maxim to follow? Joseph Jacobs gives the proper answer to the second question:

    That depends on circumstances.89 Indeed, we should expect nothing less than a

    set of maxims that contradict each other from a Jesuit casuist, precisely because

    the valid scope of every maxim is dependent upon the particulars of the situation at

    hand. Egginton, for one, acknowledges that these contradictions are the result of

    Gracians desire to rate the contingency of action on circumstances above anymetaphysical standard of behavior.90 But then he foolishly proceeds to reduce the

    motivation of the human agent, in Gracians viewpoint, to the single aim of self-

    aggrandizement. And, of course, for a baroque casuist, human beings are always

    necessarily double natured, not so singular in their aims as Egginton presumes.

    Indeed, many of the other scholars in Rhetoric and Politics also come up

    with their Machiavelian interpretations of Gracian because they ignore one half of

    the maxims that are meant to be kept in creative tension together. Livosky, for

    one, acknowledges Gracians contemptuous rejection of Machiavelli, yet

    argues that the text cannot lie regarding their similarity.91 She cites a whole list ofcynical maxims and then contends that a reference to virtue is only tacked on in

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    The Baroque Casuistry of Baltasar GracianRonald H. McKinney, S.J.


    the final maxim as an afterthought.92 She conveniently ignores a score of other

    maxims detailing Gracians claim that more than the mere appearance of virtue is

    necessary in this life. Read also reluctantly admits that, true, the Jesuit some-

    times strives for balance: we should live (he recommends) neither entirely for

    ourselves, nor entirely for others.93 The next word, of course, is but, for heclaims to know that the real drift of Gracians thought is that individualism is

    the order of the day. These attempts to make Gracian into a coherent thinker, of

    course, betray the very baroque mode of his thought: his desire to revel in ambi-

    guity and paradox.

    Alban Forcione commits an even greater hermeneutic sin.94 He argues that in

    The Master Critic Gracian portrays the contemporary court world in the most

    grotesque manner: as a labyrinthine masquerade of duplicity. He even points out

    Gracians portrayal of Machiavelli in these passages as a grotesque charlatan.

    Nevertheless, despite his own depiction of Gracians description here as a satiricalepiphany, he proceeds to argue that this Jesuit is an ardent advocate of calculat-

    ed stratagems for succeeding in such a corruption-laden court life. Surely an

    author who acknowledges Gracians recoil from his own modernist insights into

    the realities and consequences of political power should be the first to question

    scholars who identify Gracian with just such a simple Machiavelian philosophy.

    One author in the collection edited by Spadaccini and Talens has managed to

    propose a different reading that respects the complexity underlying Gratians pru-

    dential maxims.95 Carlos Hernandez-Sacristan argues that, if Gracian seems so

    pessimistic, it is not because he sees social interactions in a dog-eat-dog Hobbesianmanner. Rather, such a tone conceals Gracians real insight that knowledge is only

    acquired in a dialogical manner through an ethics of cooperation between different

    social ranks. Far from trying to defeat the other, Gracians hero is merely interested

    in applause, indeed, an admiration that can only come from giving it as well.

    According to Hernandez-Sacristan, the set of fictions and strategies employed

    cooperatively by the participants in a social encounter should be properly consid-

    ered as a set of instruments for a critical approach to reality.

    Ruiz argues for a more critical conception of casuistry in Gracian as well.

    He observes that Gracian was sometimes criticized for his probabilist tendenciesas a confessor.96 Yet he rightly points to Maxim # 271 (If you know little, stick to

    the safest.) as exemplifying Gracians awareness that there are situations in which

    the tutiorist stance is preferable. If Gracian seems suspicious of the possibility of

    social reform (at least when the Wheel of Fortune is on the downside), this does

    result in his recognition of the political importance of clemency.97 Moreover, Ruiz

    is quick to point out that Gracians pessimism regarding society did not extend to

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    his view of the possibilities for personal moral development.98 Indeed, Ruiz coun-

    ters the aristocratic interpretation of Gracians doctrine of mastery by maintaining

    that it refers to the person who rises above the crowd, the latter, however, not

    being intended to refer to the lower social classes, but to those who are living a life

    of illusion and malice.99 The life of virtue is open to everyone, not just the few.Monroe Hafter echoes Ruiz in presenting a balanced view of Gracians casu-

    istic maxims. He argues that it is in Gracians final work, The Master Critic, that he

    most forcefully asserts that we should be looking for the discriminating mean

    between two extremes, instead of either striving to achieve an unattainable ideal

    or succumbing to the depths of pure sophistry.100 Indeed, one of the illusions that

    we need to lose for Gracian is the desire for absolute heroism. What is important

    for the later Gracian, according to Hafter, is not our willingness to jeer at all the

    follies of others, but our compassionate awareness that we too are very frail.101 Far

    from being hostile to the deluded masses, we need to have pity for this all tooimperfect world we live in, for it is only in our interaction with others that we can

    achieve salvation. Finally, Hafter makes it clear that, while the great person needs

    to have genuine and not just feigned integrity, she cannot allow herself to be

    abused or to go unknown.102 On the contrary, we need to realize that clever guile

    can and must coexist with genuine virtue in the great person if anything good is to

    be achieved in this world.

    Foster also highlights the importance ofThe Master Criticfor understanding

    Gracians casuist wisdom. Despite its pessimistic tone, she argues that, for

    Gracian, we can escape the mediocre and deceitful world by means of our artistic,political, and artistic achievements.103 Indeed, Gracians own literary classic is

    quite baroque in its collage-like combination of various genres that seeks to attain

    a discordant unity.104 It revolves around the rambling misadventures of a father and

    son, each representing a different side to our nature (reason and passion), but both

    in need of being integrated into some kind of paradoxical baroque creation. 105

    Moreover, far from advocating a quietistic withdrawl from the world, Gracian

    advocates a strategy of intense engagement that results in the greatest truth: the

    truly wise man, the man who has himself and God, has all that he needs.106

    Finally, if Spadaccini and Talens quote only selectively, we need to end ourdiscussion with some significant maxims that they have omitted from their consid-

    eration. In #50, Gracian acknowledges that our own conscience must be our ulti-

    mate standard, not the dictates of external authorities. However, ones judgments

    will only be authentic if one is a man without illusion, a wise Christian, a philo-

    sophical courtier (#100). And indeed, for Gracian, wisdom stems from the real-

    ization that things depend upon many circumstances: what constitutes triumph in

    one set may cause a defeat in another (#107). Accordingly, to presume that his

    seemingly cynical maxims are the sole wisdom he has to share is folly, for the

    slightest change in circumstances can alter the merits of any maxim. In short, if wewish to achieve the middle way, then we must use our baroque wit by joining

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    The Baroque Casuistry of Baltasar GracianRonald H. McKinney, S.J.


    extremes (#108). Indeed, far from living by fixed rules, he contends that pru-

    dence lies in steering by the wind, that is, be always shifting this way and that as is

    necessary (#288). If Gracian urges us to be modern in taste, it is only because he

    wants us to lead it to higher things (#120). If there are no absolute goods that are

    always to be sought in every situation, it also follows for him that there are noabsolute evils as well: There is nothing that has no good in it (#140). This applies

    to people, strategies, ideas, and things, for such is in keeping with the Ignatian

    principle of finding God in all things. Consequently, though he is suspicious of

    the defects of the vulgar masses, he is well aware that it is only by intercourse with

    others that we can attain salvation: Better mad with the rest of the world than wise

    alone (#133). And so, his final maxim sums it all up: In one word, be a Saint

    (#300). But by this imperative, he is not suggesting that the demands of heroic

    virtue always trump the pragmatic compromises we are sometimes forced to

    make. On the contrary, the saint is precisely equated with the prudent person whoknows what is appropriate in each particular situation.

    The critics of Gracians thought in our time do precisely what Pascal did to

    Jesuit casuistry in the seventeenth century. They equate it with Machiavelian

    sophistry intent upon power and pleasure in an uncertain age. But by robbing casu-

    istry of any possibility of serving as a critical voice for change, they leave in

    place the very authoritarian structures they so desperately want to replace or put

    into question. However, if the baroque dimensions of casuistry can be appreciated,

    then it may be possible for Gracians wisdom to have some relevance for our post-

    modern age as well.1Aubrey Bell, Baltasar Gracian (Oxford,

    1921), 3.2David Mitchell,The Jesuits: A History(NY,

    1981), 139.3See Alban Forcione, At the Threshold of

    Modernity: GraciansEl Criticon, inRhetoricand Politics: Baltasar Gracian and the New

    World Order, eds., Nicholas Spadaccini andJenaro Talens (Minneapolis, 1997), 4, andVirginia Ramos Foster, Baltasar Gracian

    (Boston, 1975), 70-71.4Arturo Zorate Ruiz, Gracian, Wit, and theBaroque Age(NY, 1996), 134.

    5Ernst Curtius,European Literature and theLatin Middle Ages, Willard Trask, trans. (NY,1953), 301.

    6Omar Calabrese,Neo-Baroque: A Sign of theTimes, Charles Lambert, trans. (Princeton,1992), 132.

    7See Spadaccini and Talens.

    8Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin, TheAbuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral

    Reasoning(Berkeley, 1988), 145, 372.9Calabrese, xii.10Jonsen and Toulmin, 271.11Calabrese, 11-18.12Timothy Hampton, Introduction:

    Baroques, in his edited Yale French Studies(No. 80): Baroque Topographies: Literature/

    History/Philosophy (1991), 1.13

    Ibid., 3.14Ibid.15Ibid.16Ibid., 25, 28, 130, 144, 173, 184, 193.17Ibid., 26, 279, 184.18Roy Daniells, Milton, Mannerism, and

    Baroque(Toronto, 1963), 6, 52.19John Shearman, Mannerism: Style and

    Civilization(Baltimore, 1967), 32-33.20Hampton, 8.

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    21Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, CelestinasBrood: Continuities of the Baroque in Spanishand Latin American Literature (Durham andLondon, 1993).

    22Ibid., 81.23Ibid., 82, 84.24Ibid., 111.25Ibid., 164.26Ibid., 166.27Irma Jaffe, Preface toBaroque Art: The

    Jesuit Contribution, eds., Rudolf Wittkower andIrma Jaffe (NY, 1972), ix.

    28St. Ignatius of Loyola, The SpiritualExercises, trans., Louis Puhl, SJ (Chicago,1951), 160.

    29Ibid., 7.30Rudolf Wittkower, Problems of the

    Theme, in Wittkower and Jaffe, 2-3.31Ibid.32Ibid., 7.33Ibid., 6-12.34Gauvin Alexander Bailey, Le style jesuite

    nexiste pas: Jesuit Corporate Culture and theVisual Arts, in The Jesuits: Cultures, Sciences,and the Arts, 1540-1773, eds. John OMalley, SJet al (Toronto, 1999), 38-39.

    35Ibid., 73.36Alison Simmons, Jesuit Aristotelian

    Education: The De Anima Commentaries, inOMalley et al, 522-23.

    37Marc Fumaroli, The Fertility and theShortcomings of Renaissance Rhetoric: TheJesuit Case, in OMalley et al, 90-91.

    38Camille Wells Slights, The CasuisticalTradition in Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, andMilton(Princeton, 1981), 13-14.

    39St. Ignatius, 154-56.40Fumaroli, 97.41Rivka Feldhay, The Cultural Field of Jesuit

    Science, OMalley et al, 115.42Marcus Hellyer, Jesuit Physics in

    Eighteenth-Century Germany: Some ImportantContinuities, in OMalley et al, 540.

    43Steven Harris, Mapping Jesuit Science:The Role of Travel in the Geography ofKnowledge, in OMalley et al, 230.

    44James Keenan, SJ, Jesuit Casuistry orJesuit Spirituality? The Roots of Seventeenth-Century British Puritan Practical Divinity, inOMalley et al, 630-31.

    45Irving Lavin, Berninis Iamge of the IdealChristian Monarch, in OMalley et al, 442-46.

    46Jonsen and Toulmin, 148.47Ibid., 261.

    48Kenneth Kirk, Conscience and itsProblems: An Introduction to Casuistry(Louisville, 1999), 387-88.

    49Baltasar Gracian,The Minds Wit and Art,trans. Leland Chambers (Diss. University ofMichigan, 1962), 85.

    50Ruiz, 3-4.51Gracian, 89.52Ibid., 92.53Ibid., 97.54Ibid., 116.55Ibid., 243, 276, 278.56Ibid., 279, 283.57Ibid., 303.58Ibid., 406.59Ibid., 440.60Ibid., 840.61Ibid., 859.62Ibid., 485.63Ruiz, 160-61.64Gracian, 505.65Ibid., 505.66Ibid., 673.67Ibid., 870.68Ibid., 867.69Ibid., 898.70Ibid., 900.71Chambers, introduction to Gracians Wit, 22.72Hugh Grady, Rhetoric, Wit, and Art in

    GraciansAgudeza, MLQ 41 (1980), 37.73Ruiz, 5.74Ibid., 36, 50.75Spadacccini and Talens, Introduction: The

    Practice of Worldly Wisdom: RereadingGracian from the New World Order, inRhetoric and Politics, ix-xxxii.

    76Forcione, 42.77Isabel Livosky, On Power, Image, and

    Gracians Prototype, in Spadaccini andTalens, 72.

    78Ibid., 74-75.79Ibid., 79-80.80Ibid., 84.81Malcolm Read, Saving Appearance:

    Language and Commodification in BaltasarGracian, in Spadaccini and Talens, 122.

    82Ibid., 105.83William Egginton, Gracian and the

    Emergence of the Modern Subject, inSpadaccini and Talens, 154.

    84Ibid., 158.85Ibid., 161.86Ibid., 163-66.87Foster, 133.


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    88Bell, 30-31.89Jacobs, xiv.90Egginton, 153.91Livosky, 74.92Ibid., 77.93Read, 106.94Forcione, 43-47.95Carlos Hernandez-Sacristan, The Art of

    Worldly Wisdomas an Ethics of Conversation,in Spadaccini and Talens, 287-303.

    96Ruiz, 32.97Ibid., 127.

    98Ibid., 135.99Ibid., 158, 168.100Monroe Hafter, Gracian and Perfection:

    Spanish Moralists of the 17th Century

    (Cambridge, 1966), 119.101Ibid., 111, 144, 151, 160.102Ibid., 127, 142-44.103Foster, 25, 71.104Ibid., 64, 72.105Ibid., 71.106Ibid., 75-76.


    The Baroque Casuistry of Baltasar GracianRonald H. McKinney, S.J.