The 17th-century Spanish book of proverbs recommended by the richest man in the world

Elon Musk gave a nod to ‘The Art of Worldly Wisdom,’ described as ‘possibly the first self-help book in history,’ but he is not the first to do so. It was hugely popular on Wall Street in the 1990s and among Japanese businessmen in the 2000s

Baltasar Gracián and three of the men he has inspired: Bill Clinton, Elon Musk and George H. W. Bush.
Baltasar Gracián and three of the men he has inspired: Bill Clinton, Elon Musk and George H. W. Bush.Getty Images / Blanca Lopez (collage)

Silicon Valley guru and space explorer Elon Musk this week recommended a couple of books of aphorisms written by a 17th-century Spanish philosopher. The world’s richest man was cryptically specific when he cited 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 being particularly original in doing so. The works of Gracián, a Baroque intellectual who lived during the Spanish Golden Age of arts and literature, have enjoyed several periods of popularity over the centuries. The latest renaissance of the Jesuit priest has been as a self-help author for 21st century entrepreneurs.

In fact, Gracián’s US publisher, Penguin, describes The Art of Worldly Wisdom as “possibly the first self-help book in history.” It makes sense, concedes Luis Sánchez Laílla, a professor of literature at the University of Zaragoza in northern Spain and editor of the complete works of Baltasar Gracián. “The title itself suggests it is a manual, that is to say designed to accompany the reader and to be opened in search of advice at any time.” The book contains aphorisms that remain in use today. Phrases such as: “What is good, if kept short, is twice as good,” and “Where desire ends, fear begins.”

They are clever and easy to remember, but they also possess a certain depth. Gracián remains distanced from the derogatory meaning that the term self-help has found itself associated with in recent years, and even more so than the sub-branch dedicated to business people. His is not a testosterone-fueled tome laying out how to set up a company, wheel and deal, or become your own boss. “Simple formulas and simple answers for the public at large won’t be found in its pages,” says Sánchez Laílla. Gracián wrote for an exclusive minority in his day: the few people who were able to read in the 17th century. To a similar extent, his work in later centuries 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 encompasses a lot of people.

The Art of Worldly Wisdom was first published in 1647, but it was not until 1992 that it achieved fame in the US. The writer Gail Godwin was the first to praise the book. In an interview with The New York Times, in answer to which book she would recommend to the two presidential candidates running for the White House (George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton), she pointed to Gracián’s work, which she described as “Machiavellian, but with scruples.” Other newspapers were quick to review the book, which made its way up the bestseller lists and into the leather briefcases of Wall Street high-fliers, who showed their copy to their colleagues and elicited the same mixture of envy and admiration as the first cellphones did. The Baroque oracle even found his way into the Oval Office: The New York Times heeded Godwin’s suggestion and sent copies to Bush and Clinton, who was elected president that year, while The Art of Worldly Wisdom sold 100,000 copies in the US alone.

Elon Musk photographed at The New York Times building in 2016.
Elon Musk photographed at The New York Times building in 2016.Sasha Maslov / AMC

In its second reincarnation, The Art of Worldly Wisdom got a makeover and was rebaptized as Why do executives play golf? The year was 2007 and the book was as popular as sushi in Japan. It sold 140,000 copies, reaching number three on the list of economic bestsellers in the country. In reality, of course, the Jesuit priest was not inspired by improving the swing of Japanese stock brokers. The name change was part of a marketing strategy to attract the attention of that type of reader, the editor of Goma Books, Satoshi Kawakami, told El Mundo in an interview at the time. “The majority of people who play golf in Japan are businessmen,” he said. “The word golf implies a certain social status.”

A similar criterion was applied by Spanish publisher Áltera in 2013 when it compiled Gracián’s finest aphorisms under the title Gracián: el jesuita que enseñaba a triunfar (or, Gracián: the Jesuit who taught success). But despite the rebranding and the diffuse popularity that comes from being studied at practically any high school in Spain, Gracián has never been a prophet in his own land. “It is one of the classics that is continually reprinted in Spain,” says Antonio María Ávila, executive director of the Spanish Federation of Publishers’ Guilds. “That said, he has always been more widely read outside of Spain.”

Luis Rafael Hernández agrees. A university lecturer, writer and editor of the publishers Verbum and Perelló who has edited Gracián’s most important works, Hernández says the philosopher’s writing has historically had more impact in the US than in Spain due in part, he explains, to the Baroque literary movement of conceptism. “It is characterized by a brief, concentrated and polysemic style, in which ingenious associations are established between the words and the ideas that they convey.” It is akin to a snappy tweet, but in the Baroque style. This could explain its success in modern society, where big ideas have to be captured in a handful of characters to catch the attention of a reader.

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

Gracián’s works also influenced other literary movements and trends. He is considered “a precursor to existentialism and post-modernism,” says Hernández. His fingerprint can be found not only on movements in general, but also in specific authors “such as Schopenhauer or Nietzsche.” His importance to literature has been galvanized in recent years, something Hernández puts into context: “In these times we are living in, with wars, pandemics and other catastrophes, a writer like Gracián helps us to better understand our existence.”

That appears to be especially true of Silicon Valley tycoons. But why have the works of the Aragonese theologian achieved such global prestige among entrepreneurs, brokers, cryptocurrency speculators and those who wish to join their ranks? “Gracián is a classical author and the classics have the power to keep readers interested over long periods of time, and readers can legitimately interpret them in accordance with their own interests and mental frameworks,” says Sánchez Laílla. That entrepreneurs have made it their own is striking, because The Art of Worldly Wisdom paints a human ideal that transcends age, employment and borders. “It is fundamental to understand one thing: if we forget the ethical and humanistic principles that inspired Gracián, we can quote him but we are not understanding anything.”

Another new incarnation of The Art of Worldly Wisdom could be about to appear. Musk’s tweet generated tens of thousands of likes and came at a time when the billionaire is engaged in a public stand-off with Twitter after his failed bid to buy the social media platform. Many observers interpreted his tweet as an insinuation, although it is difficult to pinpoint which: there are 300 Gracián aphorisms to choose from. In any case, the knock-on effect in terms of sales and the book’s fame could be huge. Or not. Musk is accustomed to a gargantuan virality. For example, a day before recommending 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 an emoticon of some popcorn. That reaped more than 50,000. Nobody truly believes that the popcorn emoticon or the non-existent Mediocrates are suddenly going to be all the rage. But then again, maybe they will.

More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS