During the COVID pandemic shutdown, one of the memes making the rounds in the US was that the seclusion forced people into a time of reflection – of what Oscar Wilde would call capital “C” Contemplation. After the pandemic, the meme goes, something new will be done with American society, people will come to a new understanding of each other, society will not go back to “normal”, because normal, for so many hit hardest by the pandemic, was cruel and unconscionable.
What came out of Oscar Wilde’s contemplation of society was his vision of a socialist revolution.
The most well-known version of Wilde, the society dandy and sparkling wit, with his black and white evening clothes, his green carnation, and his gold-tipped cigarettes, seems like the last person you would suspect of wanting to be a philosophical monk. Yet, only a year or two before he shot to fame and fortune with his society comedies, he wrote that Contemplation, while frowned upon by his industrious Victorian contemporaries, is a profound and transformative experience–the best thing a person can do. And not an easy one: “let me say to you now that to do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual.”
This quote comes from what he considered his best philosophical dialogue, “The Critic as Artist” (1891), which begins with the epigraph, “With some remarks on the importance of doing nothing.” The playfulness is never far away.
In the course of praising the virtues of contemplative stillness, Wilde approvingly references Chuang Tzu, the Taoist philosopher from the 4th century BC. Wilde’s fascination with Chuang Tzu–who “even in his metaphysics, is intensely humorous”–goes back to a book review he wrote a year before “The Critic as Artist” was published in response to a collection of Tzu’s writings translated in 1890 by the British consul in Taiwan.
Chuang Tzu, Wilde says, “spent his life preaching the great creed of Inaction. ‘Do nothing, and everything will be done,’ was the doctrine he inherited from his great master Lao Tzu…the perfect man does nothing beyond gazing at the universe. His mental equilibrium gives him the empire of the world.”
Smug, prosperous Victorians “should tremble” at this philosophy, Wilde teases, because it would make ridiculous the earnestness of bustling businessmen and quickly undermine British imperial supremacy.
In “The Critic as Artist”, in which Chuang Tzu is either inspiration or kindred spirit, Wilde credits contemplation–most often of Beauty–not just with producing mental equilibrium but also as the guide to the transformation of society. It is through the quiet stillness of Contemplation that we become “cosmopolitan”, that we “rise superior to our race prejudices” to envision and desire an equally shared world of equally respected citizens–a beautiful society.
Contemplation, Wilde says, “will give us the peace that springs from understanding.”
In the same year that Wilde published the contemplative “The Critic as Artist”, he also published “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” (1891). Wilde’s vision of socialism finds, again, an inspiration or kindred spirit in Chuang Tzu, who, Wilde tells us, called the accumulation of wealth the origin of evil in the world. Competition for wealth results in the waste and destruction of human energy: “weariness and war,” Wilde concludes from his reading of Chuang Tzu, “are the results of an artificial society based on capital.” A headline from the 4th century BC.
“The Soul of Man Under Socialism” was one of the first of Wilde’s works to be resurrected after his years in prison. It was translated into many languages and was widely reprinted across Europe and Russia. The essay is unapologetically Utopian: “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 realization of Utopias.”
Ever sly, and wary of sentimentalism, Wilde begins the essay by bemoaning the constriction on artistic freedom that comes from having to worry about the suffering of the poor. He critiques the feebleness and hypocrisy of philanthropy and, in a vision contemporary US Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would embrace, says that “the proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible…so that there 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.”
Wilde’s socialism is not what would emerge in Russia a few decades later. He was adamantly opposed to a centralized, bureaucratic government holding economic power, which would only become another form of tyranny. Wilde’s socialism leads to another of his capital letter words, Individualism.
Under socialism, “we will finally see the perfect man. What I mean by the perfect man is one who develops under perfect conditions; one who is not wounded, or worried, or maimed, or in danger…it will be a marvelous thing–the true personality of man–when we see it. It will grow naturally and simply, flower-like, or as a tree grows. It will not be at discord. It will not always be meddling with others, or asking them to be like itself. It will love them because they will be different. And yet while it will not meddle with others it will help all, as a beautiful thing helps us, by being what it is.”
Socialism was in the air in 1891, in many versions, from Marxism to Fabianism. Wilde’s vision is closest to that of his contemporary (by whom, some say, Wilde was influenced), the Russian revolutionist Peter Kropotkin, author of Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1890), a phrase that has been used more widely in recent years by groups creating communities that aim to ameliorate suffering.
Kropotkin sometimes called himself a socialist, and sometimes, as Wilde did also, called himself an anarchist. Kropotkin and Wilde’s anarchism and socialism were based on a deep trust in the beauty and benevolence of people. If people are freed from the anxieties and suffering of poverty, they will blossom, and treat each other with love.
Wilde believed that with economic justice comes cultural beauty.