The Art of Worldly Wisdom: 12

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It has been sometime since I visited the core purpose of this blog – the continued exploration of Baltasar Gracian’s The Art of Worldly Wisdom. As a person who strongly believes philosophy plays a vital role in understanding our world, I rely heavily on the concept of ‘the state of nature’. In many ways I look to this hypothetical state of being – this pre-social world, as an ideal. It is ideal, as it is a structure that is self sustaining but exists at the lowest possible common denominator. In Baltasar’s twelfth maxim we get a sense that he too appreciates the basic nature of being but clearly understands that if a person wants to achieve more than mere survival, then something more needs to be done.

xii Nature and Art: material and workmanship. There is no beauty unadorned and no excellence that would not become barbaric if it were not supported by artifice: this remedies the evil and improves the good. Nature scarcely ever gives us the very best; for that we must have recourse to art. Without this the best of natural dispositions is uncultured, and half is lacking to any excellence if training is absent. Every one has something unpolished without artificial training, and every kind of excellence needs some polish.

I know if I were sitting in a college classroom and my professor presented the idea that something created naturally is not as beautiful as it could be, I would have argued vehemently that by its very nature it is exactly the way it should be. The Grand Canyon can’t be made to be more beautiful. A Pacific coast sunset is stunning the way it is. Young minds are naive like that and easily confused on subtle points. The reason why we value art is it takes what is natural and enhances it. A painter could easily remove an unsightly mole on his subject’s face, make his subject thinner, enhance a landscape by removing or adding elements. It is this reason why we wear cut and polished gems instead of lumps of rock. Why we melt down precious metals and sculpt them into intricate delicate patterns instead of wearing the raw metal around our necks.

We cannot make the mistake of thinking that Baltasar spoke only of natural elements. His reasoning applies to ourselves as well, as indicated in his final line, ‘Every one has something unpolished without artificial training, and every kind of excellence needs some polish.’ When we come into this world, we are pure and natural, beautiful but far from perfect. From that moment on, our decisions will adorn and polish our lives, at least if we make the effort to adorn and polish our lives. Every moment in our lives is a brushstroke made by an artist. The artist may start off with little skill and make errors, applying the wrong colors, the wrong strokes, the wrong lines, but over time, if the artist applies effort and thought, the errors can be painted over with more masterful strokes.

Seek culture, knowledge, and refinement in order to perfect oneself.