Oscar Wilde: The Soul of Man

Our today’s addition to the Library: Oscar Wilde’s essay “The Soul of Man”

In his recent article “The Men Who Brought Political Radicalism to Oscar Wilde” (Literary Hub), Christian Williams tells us that Oscar Wilde’s interests in political economy and questions related to the nature of poverty “likely originated at Oxford, under the tutelage of John Ruskin” and were subsequently “shaped by his acquaintance with another of Ruskin’s disciples, William Morris “.

A number of others influenced Wilde’s ideas on these subjects – for instance, William Goodwin, a political philosopher (the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, the first feminist writer, and the father of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the author of Frankenstein – available in our Library), and Piotr Kropotkin, a Russian social scientist, revolutionary and philosopher.

“The Soul of Man” was originally published under a different title: “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”.

“Socialism” is a loaded term, in many senses. What significance does it hold for Wilde?

Read his essay to discover; and be sure to read the essay in full, for any of Wilde’s points, if taken out of context, will give you a highly inaccurate view of his position. His view is complex, as the nature of the question demands, and you must consider his thoughts on the subject in their entirety.

The Literary Hub article relays Ruskin’s words:

“it is not, truly speaking, the labour that is divided; but the men;—Divided into mere segments of men—broken into small fragments and crumbs of life.”

The industrial system of production requires:

“…one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working . . . whereas the worker ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen in the best sense. As it is, we make both ungentle, the one envying, the other despising, his brother; and the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers and miserable workers. Now it is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity. It would be well if all of us were good handicraftsmen in some kind, and the dishonor of manual labour done away with altogether.”

Today, when automation is making large spheres of industrial production obsolete, amplifying the divisions in society, these words acquire a new poignancy. All, “broken into crumbs of” people, remain “ungentle”, one group “envying”, the other “despising”, the other.

Oscar Wilde, in The Soul of Man, proposes, to the “broken”, the “envying”, and the “despising” – to the “morbid thinkers” and the “miserable workers” – a solution. It leads to this aim:

” The note of the perfect personality is not rebellion, but 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 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.  The personality of man will be very wonderful.  It will be as wonderful as the personality of a child.”

Oscar Wilde: The Soul of Man

Did Oscar Wilde write a supplement to Corinthians 13?