I have been told that Oscar Wilde was a clever man. In books of quotations I have found hundreds of quotes attributed to Wilde on a variety of topics, and some of them do indeed strike me as being quite clever. They have a certain wit and porcelain white charm that makes them excellent for impressing people when spoken at the right time and the right place. If your prime ambition in life were to delight your friends at dinner parties, I suspect that the only quotes you would ever need on the tip of your tongue would be Wilde’s.
But, fortunately for us all, life is not a hoity-toity tea party. Those great things that drive the engine of civilization, things ranging from electrical engineering to consumer spending models, are considerably more complex than a few punchy one-liners could do justice to. It seems that Oscar Wilde suffered from that very common and very human ailment of not knowing one’s limits. As long as his specialty remained dinner party banter or elegant prose, Wilde was firmly in his element; this was where his genius was able to soar with outstretched wings. The problem, however, comes from Wilde’s fumbling with politics.
I am referring to one 1891 essay in particular, the curiously titled, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” To Wilde’s credit, even if one disagrees with practically every point he makes, the essay is still an enjoyable read. Wilde, much like George Orwell, was one of those men who had such independence of thought that even if one despises his conclusions, one might still find his reasons intriguing. It is for this purpose alone that the essay, despite its flaws, is still worth reading on a rainy afternoon with not much else to do.
Let us begin by analyzing the most commendable bits of this essay. That is to say, let us start where Wilde himself would most likely want us to start: by displaying the finest China in his collection.
The things people say of a man do not alter a man. He is what he is. Public opinion is of no value whatsoever.
Public opinion whirls like a pinwheel. It is favorable one day and the very next day it might be scathing. A deed, however, remains forever the same deed as the day it was done. And if we consider a man to be the sum of his actions, then we can say just as confidently, a man is what he is. On the worthlessness of public opinion, Wilde was spot on.
High hopes were once formed of democracy; but democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.
Any red-blooded reactionary can agree to this. Democracy means that a feckless mob can set aside its clubs and torches and use its votes to bludgeon people into obeying the herd. In this respect, democracy is superior to anarchy, but only slightly.
In old days men had the rack. Now they have the press.
The press is awful today and there is no reason for us to assume that the press would have been any less awful in 1891. What the rack can do to a man’s joints the press can do to a man’s reputation through lies, fallacies, exaggerations, and cherry-picked truths.
A man who does not think for himself does not think at all.
This is a truism but it is well-phrased and well-intended; overall, an excellent dinner party quote.
Now that we have looked at the best that this essay has to offer, let’s roll up our sleeves and begin a slow dissection of the nitty-gritty details. It is time to deal with the worst.
Wilde makes it abundantly clear from the beginning that he despises private property. He says that private property is comparable to slavery in that the solution to poverty is not to be more charitable to the poor any more than it is to be more charitable to one’s slaves. The solution to poverty is a thorough detonation of the institution that, according to Wilde, caused the poverty in the first place. Private property must go.
It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair.
Wilde goes on to make the case for socialism as a kind of quinine pill against the evil infection that is poverty. There will be no more beggars hunched in dark alleys, no more barefoot children with holes in their trousers, no more stinking, choleric slums. Most importantly socialism will not only strike a death blow to poverty but it will also lead to the birth of a never-before-seen Individualism. This is individualism that is so grand, so original that Wilde saw fit to give it a towering capital “I”. We have reached levels of individualism that even Yoko Ono cannot reach.
Property, Wilde tells us, is really just a nuisance. It requires work and work is degrading and an incredible bore. It is amusing, of course, to read an essay by a flamboyant socialite who came from monied parents and was educated at Oxford telling his audience what a nuisance property is. But back to our summary.
It is from this terrible nuisance that mankind has grown into a disobedient creature, and that is, in fact, our greatest virtue, since disobedience is a natural response to the oppressive reality of private property. Wilde writes, “Disobedience, in the eyes of any one who has read history, is man’s original virtue.” The agitator is, therefore, a kind of virtuous gadfly who buzzes angrily in the hair of society to remind it of its sins.
Wilde assures us the Individualism that has been lying dormant in man, building up pressure like constipation in a man’s bloated gut, will come spewing out thanks to the glorious laxative of socialism. We will see things in our soul that we never imagined before. Private property has obscured Individualism by making one-half of the world’s population underfed and the other half overworked. The true personality of man would astound us all, it would grow “naturally and simply, flower-like, or as a tree grows.”
Wilde then goes on to draw connections between his notions of socialism and Individualism with the teachings of Christ. The poor are praised because Christ understood that only among the poor has Individualism reached fulfillment. Christ had urged his followers to give up their cloaks, their cares for the future, and their pride. All of this was so that they would not be burdened with property and so their true Individuality would never be compromised.
I cannot help but interrupt here to say that it is easy to give this kind of advice when you have a closet full of feathered scarves and woolen coats, like Wilde did, and it is no trouble at all to give one or two to the poor when the mood strikes you or on the rare occasion that you get mugged. But I digress.
Jesus, at least in the eyes of Wilde, also renounced family life in much the same way as socialism encourages us to renounce it. Christ shrugged off his obligations to find a wife, to have children, to even bury his father formally which led to his uttering of those famous words, “Let the dead bury the dead.” It was all for the purity of his individual personality. It is in this existential realm that Christ intersects with great men like Wagner and Shelley, who we are told, are saintly for their non-conformity and unshakeable Individuality.
What, then, is the state to do if both Christ and Marx have declared private property to be void? The individual is to “make what is beautiful” while the state is to “make what is useful.” Wilde imagines the state not as a code of law and its enforcers, but as a labor board, which through voluntary associations alone will organize workers and produce what needs to be produced. The harshest, most brutal labor is to be done by machines. This might put some men out of work until they can find alternative jobs that strike their fancy, but they need not fear, because under socialism a man will still be provided for even if he does not work. Why any man would work under such conditions is another matter, and it is one that Wilde does not bother addressing.
Once machines have taken over the worst jobs, man can set about fulfilling his purpose in life: to make beautiful things. Wilde then goes on a long, meandering analysis of art and its relation to public opinion. As you might imagine, Wilde sees public opinion as art’s most daunting hurdle; it seeks to trample the kind of Individualism that Wilde cherishes. It deforms art into a pitiful imitation of the whims and opinions of the herd. Art will overflow like the fertile banks of the Nile once private property is abolished because, we are told, art will then be freed from the evils of public opinion.
In this respect, public opinion is considered to be a form of authoritarianism, and according to Wilde, all original thought is ruined by authority. Just how the abolition of private property is supposed to prevent the public from forming opinions, and then sharing it with one another, goes unexplained.
The essay proceeds to link different artistic mediums such as theater, literature, and the decorative arts to the tyrannizing influence of authority. The prince, the pope, and people are all tyrants and, according to Wilde, the art that is born from their authority can never be very good. The essay concedes that especially in the case of princes and popes, good art has sometimes been made, but we are told that it was only from men who were wholly bad at being princes or popes. This is, of course, not very convincing when one realizes just how much fine art, perhaps the majority of the world’s fine art, came from the meddling of princes and popes. But Wilde must have his soapbox.
In fact, let’s cut the summary short. We have the gist of it by now. To the modern reader, Wilde’s essay seems anachronistic and naïve and hardly worth much consideration at all. I do, however, see the value of studying it in relation to the attitudes of modern progressives. Despite how much progressivism has changed since 1891, despite how many dreams were crushed with the collapse of the Soviet Union, progressives truly are the same as they have always been.
The first dogma of the progressive canon that Wilde endorses is one that underlies the entire essay. He places an emphasis on capital “I” individualism, or to speak more precisely, he promotes individualism to the exclusion of all else — individualism taken to such an extreme that it disrupts the order of society. Agitators are held up as heroes. Rabble-rousers are anointed as the new saints. If disobedience is a virtue then the most unruly, the most troublesome men in society are also the most virtuous.
It is not surprising, then, that if disobedience is a virtue, Robin Hood becomes the quintessential hero of the progressive. He is the eternal fantasy that the progressive seeks to live out in his own life, or rather, he is the fantasy the progressive creates to shroud his violent subconscious in more appealing drapery. Robin Hood robs from the rich to give to the poor, mostly because the progressive cares more about robbing the rich than he does feeding the poor. Robin Hood is touted as virtuous precisely because he is disobedient; he shuns taxes, plowshares, tedium, hereditary titles and just about anything else that does not involve a “noble cause.” But what happens when Robin Hood kills the sheriff and becomes the new ruler of Nottingham? He will have to ruthlessly suppress any man who would disobey him, just as the original sheriff had done, in order to prevent being ousted. And if he stood on his principles, and refused to punish the new masked man hiding out in Sherwood Forest, he would be out of the job in short order. It is quite clear that if a man cares about civilization at all, disobedience for its own sake can never be a virtue. It is thoroughly self-defeating.
This leads me back to a point that I have mentioned before in other writings and will certainly go on mentioning in the future: the left is a perpetual opposition party. It can never build civilizations with its philosophy, but it can most certainly tear them down. I am sure Wilde would agree with me when I say that the progressive aim is to eventually reach anarchy. The difference, however, is that I would curse this anarchy whereas he would cheer for it.
Moving on to the next point, Wilde falls prey to the most common failure of all progressive thought; it is the one shortcoming that hounds every word a progressive speaks or writes. The eternal enemy of the progressive is his own misunderstanding of human nature.
When private property is abolished there will be no necessity for crime, no demand for it; it will cease to exist.
I think that if I were to gather all human naïveté into one place, at one time, and then concentrate it into one single quote, this would be the inevitable result. Why is it so painfully naïve? It presupposes that all crime has a financial motive and overlooks entirely the role that irrationality plays in the formation of deviancy. What if your neighbor wants to murder you, not because you have a lawn mower and he does not, but because he does not like the way that you wheeze when you laugh? What if a man took your daughter to bed but did not bother to make sure that she approved first? What if, after all of the means of production are made public, the government caretakers keep most of the property for themselves and do not distribute it as equitably as you imagined? Irrational obsessions, power dynamics, sexual fetishes, sadism; there are innumerable causes for crime that Wilde, in his Victorian innocence, reduces to a mere financial squabble. He could not have been more mistaken. Private property is just a passing variable whereas crime is a constant.
Mankind must accept that there will never be a lasting solution to crime. Humanity will never reach a point where we can throw up our hands and say that we are done with crime now and forever. Crime is the human equivalent of entropy: the crime-stoppers exist not to “solve the problem” of crime, but to keep it perpetually in check, to prevent it from overpowering a civilization and ending it. Crime is like a disease waiting patiently for the immune system to weaken so that it can overwhelm the body and silence the man forever.
Now that we have dealt with the issue of crime, let’s deal with the issue of private property. The crux of this essay, and as far as I can tell, the crux of socialism in its broadest sense, is the vilification of private property. Nothing can mar a philosophical principle or aesthetic insight faster than basing it on a superficial scapegoat. One of Wilde’s quotes in particular will illustrate this point.
To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.
This is a seemingly brilliant sentence. It is timeless wisdom and speaks to those of us who try to have some special perception beyond just the everyday surface level understanding of things. When placed in its proper context, however, this quote is not so profound at all.
With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.
Here is where Oscar unfortunately botches it. He correctly identifies a universal problem of the human condition, namely that most people just exist and do not live with any vibrancy or perception. Wilde has forged a diamond out of dirt which he then scratches up horribly by suggesting a very childish solution to this problem. He might as well have said that the solution to lightning strikes is to abolish bad weather.
Private property is the basis of all civilized society and we have to admit that such an outcome is not coincidental. It is something fundamental in human nature. There are different degrees to which a society might embrace private property, some might regulate it, some might leave it alone entirely, but all societies, if they are to be civilized, must admit the necessity of it.
For my final complaint with this essay, I have to depart from the political commentary that I have provided thus far and stray into the deep and shady thicket of aesthetics. It might seem counterintuitive to discuss aesthetics in a political essay on socialism, but considering the vast proportion of “Soul of Man” that Wilde devotes to aesthetics, and how tightly bound his aesthetic notions are with his political views, it would be a shame not to mention it.
Much like we observed with Wilde’s politics, Wilde’s aesthetics are tragically colored by his obsession with capital “I” individualism. He seems to admit no possibility of tradition or common culture; all art is either individual or it is not art at all. This is a sentiment frequently echoed by our post-modern art institutes and architectural schools, much to the detriment of civilization. As art has veered steadily away from tradition to individualism, art has turned from polished marble statues and Biblical irony to pink vaginas dangling from a ceiling and canvasses smeared with manure. This will never be art. Undoubtedly, a man who loved glamorous things as much as Wilde would agree that such buffoonery could never be art. I would like to know, however, whether Wilde could admit that his own aesthetic philosophy helped contribute to this decline.
The artist can fashion a beautiful thing; and if he does not do it solely for his own pleasure, he is not an artist at all.
This quote of Wilde’s exemplifies the modern attitude toward art. Even though it might seem strange to speak of aesthetics in a political way, I put forward that this attitude toward art is distinctly leftist. Only a leftist would place so much emphasis on the individual that the artist is permitted to overshadow his art. But this is exactly what has happened in our era: men like Picasso, Warhol, and Pollack are remembered solely for their personalities, not for their art, because their works are simply an extension of their personalities. There is no artistic value to these works once the egos of these men have been removed.
If we contrast this attitude with that of the Renaissance masters, we find that the opposite is true. Even if history knew nothing of Michelangelo or Raphael, even if their names were lost forever and not one fact was recorded about their lives, their works of art would still be as magnificent and awe-inspiring as ever. We might lament the fact that history forgot such talented men, but we would always treasure their work. If history were to forget Picasso and his colossal ego, however, his work might be regarded with some amusement, in the same way that clowns in brief encounters can be mildly amusing, but it would never rise above that level; it would never be anything more than a gimmick.
There is also another approach to criticize this quote of Wilde’s. It could not be more wrong once historical evidence is evaluated. Wilde rightfully regards Michelangelo as an artistic genius of the highest order. Yet, according to Wilde’s own definition of an artist working solely for his own pleasure, even the likes of Michelangelo would not be considered an artist. He would be just another hack fashioning beautiful things on behalf of those tyrannical princes and popes that Wilde mentioned earlier in the essay. Even though the tale about Pope Julius II chaining Michelangelo to some scaffolding to force him to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is probably apocryphal, there is one thing that is true: Julius made Michelangelo an offer he could not refuse. Julius was not the type of man who would suffer being refused by a pipsqueak sculptor. Michelangelo’s life itself proves Wilde wrong. Despite the papal authority pressing down firmly on Michelangelo’s shoulders, despite Michelangelo’s own incessant moaning, “I am not in the right place — I am not a painter,” can anyone say that the Sistine Chapel is not top-notch art?
Perhaps authority plays a much more significant role in both good government and good art than the progressive will ever admit. Perhaps human nature will never fit into the little idealistic cage that progressives have built for it. For the time being, we have poked a sufficient number of holes in Wilde’s essay to let the pus drain. Unfortunately, however, we will never be done poking holes in bad theories. As long as eloquent and clever men like Wilde fall prey to the progressive virus, there will never be an end to the sores and pestilence that society will have to suffer.
I would like to conclude this paper with one of Wilde’s finest quotes. It was spoken originally in reference to drinking absinthe, but it can just as easily describe the progression of the human mind from adolescence to adulthood, or rather, from a progressive to a reactionary.
After the first glass you see things as you wish they were. After the second glass you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.