Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Baltasar Gracian: Appearances

No. 130

Do, and exhibit your doing.  Things do not pass for what they are, but for what they seem: to have worth, and to know how to show it, is to be worth double; that which is not made apparent is as though it were not, for even justice is not venerated, unless it carry the face of justice; those who are fooled, outnumber those who are not: for it is sham that rules, and things are judged by what they look, even though most things are far different from what they appear; a good exterior is the best recommendation of the excellence of the interior.

-- Baltasar Gracian --
from The Art of Worldly Wisdom
trans. Martin Fischer

You can't tell a book by its cover.
Appearances can be deceiving.
All that glitters is not gold.

I suspect there are more of these aphorisms of conventional wisdom that warn us that things may not be what they seem to be.

What is frightening though is that even a good action has to take on the appearance of being good because most people are fooled by appearances--for it is sham that rules.  Therefore it's safe to commit bad acts as long as one can give it a good appearance, for that will fool most people.

We can see this today: many politicians insist they are patriots and that those who disagree with them aren't real Muricans! Real Muricans are those who are exactly like them.  Then they pass the most outrageous laws and shout that they are doing this to protect all Americans, to keep America on the one TRUE path, which only they are privy to.  They insist they are protecting the Constitution and yet, state courts and the Federal Supreme Court regularly declare their laws unconstitutional. In spite of this, voters don't see the truth and  obviously are convinced by that flag they wrap around themselves which covers the nastiness inside. 

External appearances appear to be more important than the internal reality.


  1. I'm suddenly thinking about Plato's allegory of the cave. Hmmm.

  2. R. T.,

    Shadows on the wall. Think he was on to something?

  3. The words sound almost like an indictment of the arts. Well, I prefer to be fooled by books than confronted by too much reality.

  4. Harper,

    In what way are his words "an indictment of the arts"? It isn't books that he's warning against, but the appearance of things.

  5. Fred -- and Harper -- if books are representations of objects and ideas (as are all arts), then perhaps in a Platonic sense there are original forms of objects and ideas which means that everything is derivative (appearance rather than reality). Is that the point? I'm confused.

  6. R. T.,

    As far as I can tell, Gracian makes no reference to the Platonic world of ideals. He appears to be saying that, for example, if one commits a just or merciful action, it should done in such a way that others can see it as just or merciful. One should not leave it to chance because it may appear to be the opposite, and most people will accept the appearance without looking more deeply into it and seeing for what it really is.