Historians have finally identified the inventor of “cool.” Back, way back before the Fonz, before James Dean or Brando, before Clark Gable, almost before Columbus even landed, there was the originator of cool: Baldassare Castiglione.
How can you not be cool with a name that rolls off the tongue like that?
Back in the days of the Italian courts of the early Renaissance, writers and artists were rediscovering the Aristotelian notion of the ideal form. When you set about creating something, you aspired to make it as close to the theoretical ideal form as you possibly could. In this way, you could approach perfection.
Right about the same time Machiavelli published his work on the ideal form of a ruler, our friend Baldassare published The Book of the Courtier. In it, he laid out the ideal for the new Renaissance Man – the man who could master many diverse talents and areas of expertise. We get the modern idea of the Renaissance Man from Castiglione’s work, just as much as we do from examples of the famous polymaths of the day: Leonardo da Vinci, Leone Battista Alberti, Matteo Ricci and others.
Castiglione thought that it was improper for gentlemen to refine all these talents only to show off at court, and become immodest scene-stealers. In the time of Machiavelli and palace intrigue, influence itself became the coin of the realm. If you were a gentleman of the court, and you wanted to do the most good, you had to influence the royalty to act in virtuous ways. Talent and refinement were useless if they kept you from holding sway over the actions of the court.
So Castiglione coined the term sprezzatura. There is no direct translation, but now we would call it “coolness,” “smoothness,” “intrigue,” or “nonchalance.” The idea behind sprezzatura is that when you exercise your talent in any way – in their case things like poetry, recitation, classical mastery, sports, intellectual gaming, etc. – you do it without any affectation or pretense. You don’t call attention to the effort you put into it and don’t come across as showing off. This had three benefits:
1) It showed courtesy and humility when a gentleman did not overtly try to show off.
2) It allowed people to disguise their agendas and feelings behind ironic detachment, so their intentions could not be as easily read.
3) It made you look way cooler by providing an air of mystery – if you can give one masterful demonstration, and then refuse to do more, people will assume you have a mountain of talent that you’re just sitting on.
Here’s a quotation on sprezzatura from The Book of the Courtier.
I have found quite a universal rule which in this matter seems to me valid above all other, and in all human affairs whether in word or deed: and that is to avoid affectation in every way possible as though it were some rough and dangerous reef; and (to pronounce a new word perhaps) to practice in all thing a certain sprezzatura [nonchalance], so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.
Today, most of us do the exact opposite of this, and shoot ourselves in the foot with regard to the status transaction. If I asked you to think of someone you know who always has to be right, or can’t stop talking, or who forces him/herself into the spotlight, most of us would have no trouble doing so. I know one person who has to sit down and play any piano he comes into contact with, and he can only play one song and always plays it badly.
We all want validation and approval at some point. We all get a secondary emotional payoff from coming off as impressive. So most of us choose to wave our meager, unrefined skills in the face of the group and say, “Look over here! I can play chopsticks!” And though you think you’re trumping everyone else, you’re coming off as insecure and low-status. People can see that you’re trying.
There’s a saying I heard once that goes, “Those who speak don’t know, and those who know don’t speak.” In other words, those in the inner circle don’t need to prove that they are. High-status players, like the ones Keith Johnstone talks about, do not need to put forth effort into display or pretense. Why? Because there’s nowhere to climb; they’ve already arrived. If you are reluctant to put your skills on display, but when you do they are first rate, how much better does that come across?
I have a friend who’s very good in social groups, and he tells me that one of his favorite games is to see how little actual information he can give away when meeting new people. So he meets someone new, and they ask him what he does for a living…what do nine out of ten guys say? “I’m an investment banker, wanna see my BMW?”
My friend says nothing. He gives a smartass answer. “I’m an astronaut.” I’m a hand model.” Or if he’s talking to a woman, he’ll say something like, “What you don’t even know my name yet, and you’re already trying to dig for my gold??” (He says this in a very light-hearted way, by the way). He finds a way to bat away the attention playfully, while never actually saying what he does. And just that little light sensation of pushing attention away rather than trying to pull focus ensures that he is constantly surrounded by people.
Have you ever seen a truly cool person trying to come across as cool? No, of course you haven’t. As soon as the try comes in, it kills the cool, and makes it comedy. Cool is a reaction, not an attempt.
Most of us have very little game, yet try constantly to call attention to it. Imagine how we would come across if we developed a ton of game (i.e. interesting skills, talents and experiences), and acted very low-key about it. Imagine how that changes entire interactions. How rare and refreshing would that be for other people? The Sprezzatura Ideal seems like something worth aspiring to.
[Editor’s Note: Please take a moment right now, if you are so inclined, and Google a truly fascinating man: the late Minor Myers Jr. He was President of Illinois Wesleyan when I went there, and one of the last real Renaissance Men of the modern age. He was an accomplished academic, author and musician, and had a lifelong fascination with the Renaissance Ideal. He died early, and being a true sprezzatura, I never figured out the depth of his awesomeness until it was in retrospect.]
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