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The Soul of Man under Socialism

The Soul of Man under Socialism - Oscar Wilde Other than reading The Picture of Dorian Gray and attending a production of The Importance of Being Earnest, I've spent very little time with the works of Oscar Wilde. I stumbled upon the title of this work while reading The Nation magazine. I'm glad I did!

For those curious about what Noam Chomsky means when he calls himself a Libertarian Socialist (aka anarchist), The Soul of Man under Socialism offers a good explanation.

Wilde argues that non-authoritarian socialism leads to individualism. He writes:

"The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. ... Under Socialism ... [t]here will be no people living in fetid dens and fetid rags, and bringing up unhealthy, hunger-pinched children in the midst of impossible and absolutely repulsive surroundings. ... Each member of the society will share in the general prosperity and happiness of the society... . Socialism itself will be of value simply because it will lead to Individualism. Socialism, Communism, or whatever one chooses to call it, by converting private property into public wealth, and substituting co-operation for competition, will restore society to its proper condition of a thoroughly healthy organism, and insure the material well-being of each member of the community."

For Wilde, with everyone in society sharing in prosperity and not encumbered by the suffering linked to poverty, the inevitable divide between haves and have-nots in a private property-based society would disappear. All people would become haves, removing the soul-deadening false need to accumulate material things for the sake of status, hence empowering individuals to lead meaning-filled lives of perfection and peace.

"It will be a marvellous thing—the true personality of man—when we see it.  It will grow naturally and simply, flowerlike, or as a tree grows.  It will not be at discord.  It will never argue or dispute.  It will not prove things.  It will know everything.  And yet it will not busy itself about knowledge.  It will have wisdom.  Its value will not be measured by material things.  It will have nothing.  And yet it will have everything, and whatever one takes from it, it will still have, so rich will it be.  It will not be always meddling with others, or asking them to be."

A beautiful utopian ideal reminiscent of swords being beaten into plowshares and wolves lying with lambs. Wilde anticipates criticism of his utopian yearnings:

"A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.  And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail.  Progress is the realisation of Utopias."

Personally, I've never encountered a simpler, more beautiful defense of both utopian thought and progressivism.

Wilde's arguments in favor of Socialism and Individualism include making Jesus sound a bit too much like a self-help guru:

"He said to man, ‘You have a wonderful personality.  Develop it.  Be yourself.  Don’t imagine that your perfection lies in accumulating or possessing external things.  Your affection is inside of you.  If only you could realise that, you would not want to be rich.  Ordinary riches can be stolen from a man.  Real riches cannot." 

While I like a good inspirational message as much as the next person, Wilde worries me by appearing to ignore Jesus' clearing of the temple and his constant counter-example and revolutionary critique of Secular and Religious authorities that led to his torture and execution. Hitler and many other tyrants throughout history prove the danger of shoe-horning the teachings of religious figures into one's own worldly philosophy.

After the gospel lesson, Wilde applies his philosophy to his work as an author/artist. For him, artists of all stripes represent the ultimate Individualists, while Public Opinion/journalists/critics represent the reactionary and "immoral" forces of the democratic horde:

"[I]t is the fact that Art is this intense form of Individualism that makes the public try to exercise over it in an authority that is as immoral as it is ridiculous, and as corrupting as it is contemptible. ... Art should never try to be popular.  The public should try to make itself artistic."

I wonder, did Wilde's embracing of Individualism follow a particularly nasty round of criticism of his work? I'm not sure. I do sympathize with much of what he has to say in The Soul of Man under Socialism. That said, I'm all for leaving Jesus out of this argument. Pat Robertson's already WAY too much to stomach.