Quotes from The Soul of A Man Under Socialism

Oscar Wilde was a Irish writer in the late 1800. Writing in many different forms; plays, novels, essays, and poetry. Many of his works are now considered classics. He is also the author of one of my favorite works of fiction, “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”

Recently I read one of his shorter essays, The Soul of A Man Under Socialism. Written in 1891, I found many of the quotes relevant to today.

Here are a sample of some of my favorite quotes from the essay. I highly recommend reading the entire essay to get better context. I’m leaving this quotes mostly comment free. Please leave your own interpretation of them in the comments.

On property, minimalism, and personal growth.

For the recognition of private property has really harmed individualism, and obscured it, by confusing a man with what he possesses. It has led individualism entirely estray. It has made gain not growth its aim. So that man thought that the important thing was to have, and did not know.

On the past, classics, individualism, and progress.

The fact is, the public make use of the classics of a country as a means of checking the progress of Art. They degrade the classics into authorities. They use them as bludgeons for preventing the free expression of Beauty in new forms. They are always asking a writer why he does not write like somebody else, or a painter why he does not paint like somebody else, quite oblivious of the fact that if either of them did anything of the kind he would cease to be an artist. A fresh mode of Beauty is absolutely distasteful to them, and whenever it appears they get so angry, and bewildered that they always use two stupid expressions—one is that the work of art is grossly unintelligible; the other, that the work of art is grossly immoral. What they mean by these words seems to me to be this. When they say a work is grossly unintelligible, they mean that the artist has said or made a beautiful thing that is new; when they describe a work as grossly immoral, they mean that the artist has said or made a beautiful thing that is true. The former expression has reference to style; the latter to subject-matter.

On American Journalism.

We are dominated by Journalism. In America the President reigns for four years, and Journalism governs for ever and ever. Fortunately in America Journalism has carried its authority to the grossest and most brutal extreme. As a natural consequence it has begun to create a spirit of revolt. People are amused by it, or disgusted by it, according to their temperaments.

On information overload. 

The fact is, that the public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing.

On being present. 

For the past is what man should not have been. The present is what man ought not to be. The future is what artists are.

On human nature and change.

The only thing that one really knows about human nature is that it changes. Change is the one quality we can predicate of it. The systems that fail are those that rely on the permanency of human nature, and not on its growth and development.

On selfishness, self-development, and society. One of the more philosophical quotes where Wilde talks more about why socialism is how society should be structured.

Or a man is called selfish if he lives in the manner that seems to him most suitable for the full realisation of his own personality; if, in fact, the primary aim of his life is self-development. But this is the way in which everyone should live. Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live. And unselfishness is letting other people’s lives alone, not interfering with them. Selfishness always aims at creating around it an absolute uniformity of type. Unselfishness recognises infinite variety of type as a delightful thing, accepts it, acquiesces in it, enjoys it. It is not selfish to think for oneself. A man who does not think for himself does not think at all. It is grossly selfish to require of ones neighbour that he should think in the same way, and hold the same opinions. Why should he? If he can think, he will probably think differently. If he cannot think, it is monstrous to require thought of any kind from him.

I encourage you to read the essay for yourself, and gain some better context. Even if you don’t agree with what Wilde suggests, its always good to get another perspective. This work is available for free on archive.org.

Let me know your thoughts and favorites in the comments .

All Art Is Quite Useless

This is the preface to the Oscar Wilde book, The Picture of Dorian Gray.  I read this book a while back and revisited it recently.  Remembering how much I enjoyed the preface and how I wanted to publish it last time I read it, it’s a bit overdue.

The artist is the creator of beautiful things.  To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.  The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.

The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming.  This is a fault.

Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.  They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.  Books are well written, or badly written.  That is all.

The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.  The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium.  No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.  No artist has ethical sympathies.  An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.  No artist is ever morbid.  The artist can express everything.  Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art. Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.  From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician.  From the point of view of feeling, the actor’s craft is the type.  All art is at once surface and symbol.  Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.  Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.  It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.  Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.  When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself.  We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it.  The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

All art is quite useless.