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The Political Philosophy of Oscar Wilde

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The renowned playwright Oscar Wilde once said, “A man who can dominate a London dinner-table can dominate the world.” At the height of his career in 1895, Wilde dominated London dinner-tables, stages, and opinion. Two of his plays opened that year to rave reviews by both critics and the public. His epigrams and activities were repeated — often by him — in the best of homes while his philosophy of art and life were printed in newspapers of note. Wilde was intensely admired and intensely disliked because he was, among other things, a propagator of radical ideas.

Aesthetically, Wilde advocated art-for-art’s-sake — the theory that art should be judged on its own merits rather than upon the morality or politics it expressed. Personally, he declared pleasure to be the purpose of life even though the Victorian era surrounding him assigned that role to “duty.” He was also homosexual. These aspects of Wilde have been documented in hundreds of books and essays but Oscar Wilde “the libertarian” and advocate of social reform has received comparatively little attention.

In the book Liberty and the Great Libertarians, Charles Sprading includes an excerpt from Wilde’s essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” This essay and the lengthy poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” — of which Benjamin Tucker published the first American book edition in 1899 — are Wilde’s most important political works. Wilde was primarily a playwright, a poet, and a novelist who only occasionally strayed into political theory. His importance as a libertarian stems from the events and consequences of his life as much or more than from his political writing. This is particularly true in the area of penal reform.

Part of the reason Wilde’s libertarianism is overlooked is because like many 19th-century libertarians, including Tucker himself, Wilde sometimes called himself a “socialist.” Just as the term “liberal” has evolved, however, the term “socialist” was often used in a different way than it is today.

“The Soul of Man under Socialism” is Wilde’s most direct commentary on politics but the ideal of socialism expressed is confused and contradictory. For example, Wilde assumes socialism will create a society in which production problems are solved and machines perform all drudgery, leaving the individual free to express himself. Thus, self-expression or “individualism” is the goal of Wilde’s socialist vision. Individualism is defined as the ability to pursue artistic goals without submitting to the “tyranny of want.” Wilde presents a paradox: namely, embracing “the collective” will not only result in individualism but also in artistic expression without social or state control. Thus, the essay does not argue for socialism on economic or moral grounds but on rather naive artistic ones.

Wilde’s arguments against private property are equally vague, contradictory, and aesthetic. Wilde believed private property had a “decaying” effect on man’s soul. “It [private property] has made gain nor growth its aim,” he explained. “So that man thought that the important thing was to have, and did not know that the important thing was to be.”

What the essay consistently expresses without confusion is Wilde’s rejection of state control over the individual. He writes,

What is needed is Individualism. If the Socialism is Authoritarian; if there are Governments armed with economic power as they are now with political power; if, in a word, we are to have Industrial Tyrannies, then the last state of man will be worse than the first…. I confess that many of the socialistic views that I have come across seem to me to be tainted with ideas of authority, if not of actual compulsion. Of course, authority and compulsion are out of the question. All association must be quite voluntary. It is only in voluntary associations that man is fine.

In its final form, Wilde’s socialism closely resembles Tucker’s libertarian anarchism. Wilde writes,

Individualism, then, is what through Socialism we are to attain to. As a natural result the State must give up all idea of government. It must give it up because, as a wise man once said many centuries before Christ, there is such a thing as leaving mankind alone; there is no such thing as governing mankind. All modes of government are failures. Despotism is unjust to everybody, including the despot, who was probably made for better things. Oligarchies are unjust to the many, and ochlocracies are unjust to the few. High hopes were once formed of democracy; but democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people…. The form of government that is most suitable to the artist is no government at all.

This essay is not considered important by the English Socialist movement, perhaps because its voluntaryism opposed the movement’s dominant tendencies. But according to Wilde biographer Robert Sherard, the essay was popular with the public.“ [M]illions of copies were sold in Central and Eastern Europe…. In America large pirated editions were printed and sold by revolutionary groups. In England its most immediate result was to create feelings against Wilde among the influential and moneyed classes.”

Wilde’s ideas created a backlash and his transparent homosexuality caused gossip. When the prominent father of one of Wilde’s lovers decided to make a public stir, Wilde ignored the advice of friends. On April 3, 1895, he brought the Marquis of Queensberry to trial on charges of libel based on a note that Queensberry had written to Wilde, accusing him of posing as a “somdomite” [sic]. The trial was a disaster. Not only did Wilde lose his case but information from it made him liable for criminal prosecution.

On Friday, April 26, 1895, Wilde was tried under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1895. The Act had come into effect four months prior with a clause that created the new offense of indecency between male persons in public or in private. Until this point, private acts had been outside the legal sphere. On the basis of private and consenting acts, Wilde was prosecuted twice and eventually sentenced to two years at hard labor. The last one-and-a-half years were spent in Reading Gaol.

The trials of Wilde were sensational. The best legal professionals of the day were brought into conflict over a notorious man being prosecuted under an unpopular law — the recent Act was nicknamed “the blackmailer’s charter.” Although Wilde retained a tenuous foothold in the sophisticated society he had charmed, he was now thoroughly disliked by the general public.

The first prosecution (April 26, 1895) ended inconclusively with the jury unable to agree on some of the counts. The government could have dropped the case at this point. Nevertheless, on May 20, 1895, Wilde was tried again on similar but amended charges. He was found guilty.

The impact of the last case was immense. Considering the controversy it caused and the reform that followed, the ensuing imprisonment of Wilde was a mistake even from the government’s point of view. “In view of the sensation which he had created,” the biographer Hesketh Pearson observed, “he should have been told to leave the country.” Why did the matter continue? Sir Frank Lockwood, then Soliciter General, is reported as saying that he dared not drop the matter for “if I did so it would be said all over the world that we dropped the case owing to the names mentioned in the Marquis of Queensberry’s letters.” These letters had been introduced by the marquis into the first trial and identified various members of “high society” as homosexuals. Among them was Lockwood’s nephew by marriage.

Wilde did not receive a fair hearing in court or in public opinion. Newspaper coverage was so prejudiced that one editor risked being sent to jail for contempt of court by publishing the details of the jury’s voting in the second of the three trials even though Wilde had not yet been convicted of any offense. The atmosphere of the court in the third trial was best expressed by Justice Willis who, in passing sentence declared it to be totally inadequate as the case had been the worst one he had ever tried. Presumably this included murder trials.

One of the few newspapers to strongly protest the prosecutions and imprisonment was Benjamin Tucker’s Liberty. “[T]he imprisonment of Oscar Wilde,” Tucker wrote, “is an outrage that shows how thoroughly the doctrine of liberty is misconceived. An man who has done nothing in the least degree invasive of any one; a man whose entire life, so far as known or charged, as been one of strict conformity with the idea of equal liberty … is condemned to spend two years in cruel imprisonment at hard labor… Men who imprison a man who has committed no crime are themselves criminals.”

Controversy continued during Wilde’s imprisonment. Prison life was brutal. Hard-labor prisoners were confined to badly ventilated cells for twenty-three hours of every day, with only primitive sanitation. They slept on planks of wood. Letters in the London Daily Chronicle complained loudly about the miserable conditions in which Wilde lived and his resulting mental state. The controversy prompted R.B. Haldane, a Liberal M.P. and member of the Home Office Committee, to visit Wilde and investigate the claims.

Wilde was released from prison on May 19, 1897. That same month a letter from him was published in the Daily Chronicle under the heading “The Case of Warder Martin, Some Cruelties of Prison Life.” The letter described a small child who spent 23 hours a day in hideous conditions in solitary confinement for stealing food, an offense for which he was not convicted. When the child refused to eat the wretched prison food, Warder Martin tried to encourage him with a sweet biscuit; Martin was dismissed for doing so.

Most of this letter dealt with the treatment of children in prison. Children were subjected to the same brutality as adults but as Wilde observed: “a child can understand a punishment inflicted by an individual such as a parent or guardian, and bear it with a certain amount of acquiescence. What it cannot understand is a punishment inflicted by society. It cannot realize what society is.” The letter continues to describe individual children Wilde had seen during his imprisonment. “The child’s face was like a white wedge of sheer terror … the next morning I heard him breakfast-time crying and calling to be let out. His cry was for his parents…. Yet he was not even convicted of whatever little offense he has been charged with.” Wilde also described the plight of a retarded prisoner who was punished constantly for his harmless but strange behavior. The man went insane.

This letter attracted a great deal of attention and, according to Francis Winwar, it “succeeded in bringing prison reform.” Biographer Frank Harris credited the letter with bringing about improvement in the treatment of children in British prisons.

On March 24, 1898, Wilde published another controversial letter in the Chronicle. This letter, headed “Don’t Read This If You Want to Be Happy Today,” was prompted by the Home Secretary’s Prison Reform Bill which was then under debate in the House. The Bill suggested such reforms as increasing the number of inspectors and official visitors who had access to the prisons. Such reforms were “useless,” Wilde argued, and again pointed to the wretched conditions of prison life.

The misery and tortures that prisoners go through in consequence of the revolting sanitary arrangements are quite indescribable. And the foul air of the prison cells … is so sickening and unwholesome that it is no uncommon thing for warders, when they come in the morning out of fresh air and open and inspect each cell, to be violently sick.

The reform measures he suggested were: adequate food, improved sanitation, adequate reading material, visitors once a month, the right to send and receive a letter at least once a month, non-censorship of mail, and adequate medical care. The letter ends: “And the first and perhaps the most difficult task is to humanize the governors of prisons, to civilize the warders, and to Christianize the chaplains.” The letter was signed “the author of ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol.’”

“The Ballad of Reading Gaol” is one of the most acclaimed poems of the English language. It is also a major piece of literature in penal reform. The Ballad deals with the hanging of a prisoner named C.T. Wooldridge that occurred while Wilde was imprisoned. It chronicles Wilde’s horror and despair.

Like two doomed ships that pass in storm
We had crossed each other’s way:
But we made no sign, we said no word,
We had no word to say;

In the Ballad, Wilde does not question the validity of any particular law, but deals with the cruelty and degradation caused by all Law:

I know not whether Laws be right,
Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol
Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
A year whose days are long.

But this I know, that every Law
That men have made for Man,
Since first Man took his brother’s life,
And the sad world began,
But straws the wheat and saves the chaff
With a most evil fan.

Because of Wilde’s notoriety, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” was published under the pseudonym C.3.3. — the number assigned to Wilde at Reading Gaol — Block C, third cell on the third floor. The poem was immensely popular. The first edition of 800 copies (plus 30 copies on vellum) sold within the first week and was quickly followed by a second edition of 1000. Within three months there were six printings and translations appeared in almost every European language. It has remained one of the most published works in English.

It was widely and loudly received. Even the London Times devoted a lead article to praising it. Although the ballad was poetry, it was received as though it were a pamphlet on prison reform. The Daily Chronicle’s review was typical; the Chronicle devoted two-thirds of a column on the leader page and concentrated heavily on the horrors of prison life portrayed by the poem rather than the poem itself.

Liberty devoted a column to reviewing this (as Tucker put it) “incomparable poem.” He urged “every reader of Liberty … to help this book to a wide circulation by asking for it at the bookstores and newsstand in his vicinity.” One-quarter of the next issue’s space was used in reporting the response of other publications to the Ballad.

Shortly after its publication Wilde wrote to George Ives, a criminologist and leading figure in penal reform: “I have no doubt we shall win, but the road is long and red with monstrous martyrdoms. Nothing but the repeal of the Criminal Law Amendment Act would do any good.” Wilde planned another work on prison life but he died before it could be actualized.

The aftermath of prison killed Wilde, both psychologically and physically. During his imprisonment, his beloved mother died. His wife divorced him and Wilde never again saw the two sons for whom so much of his work had been written. He was bankrupt and deserted by friends. Upon release Wilde left England but even in France, where he initially settled, many hotels refused to house or feed him. Although money was a constant problem and inhibited his ability to write, he sent checks to prisoners he knew were being released. Other than “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” Wilde produced no work of quality after his release.

Physically, Wilde’s death was the result of an injury to his ear caused when he fainted one Sunday during compulsory religious services. Despite his complaints of great pain, Wilde was denied treatment for months. It was only through the pressure of Wilde’s friends and officials that he was eventually hospitalized for the injury. Unfortunately, it formed into an abscess.

Many people considered Wilde’s social conscience to be a break with his past but Wilde had consistently opposed injustice. Years earlier in 1886, a bomb exploded in the Chicago Haymarket killing several policemen; a show trial resulted and ended in the hanging of a group of socialist anarchists who became known as the “Chicago Martyrs.” In England, George Bernard Shaw assumed the thankless task of circulating a petition on their behalf. With one exception he was unable to obtain a single signature of note to protest the injustice. Shaw wrote that of all “heroic rebels and sceptics on paper, there was only one of them who had sufficiently the courage of his convictions to make a public gesture on behalf of the anarchists. This was Oscar Wilde.”

Wilde’s sympathy toward radicals was shown again when a young poet, John Barlas, felt impelled by social indignation to commit an act of “propaganda by deed.” It consisted of firing a revolver in the House of Commons. Although he and Barlas were not on good terms, Wilde went forward to bail him out and afterwards stood as his security when Barlas was bound over.

His sympathy toward penal reform can be traced back to “The Soul of Man” in which he wrote, “One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted; and a community is infinitely more brutalized by the habitual employment of punishment, than it is by the occasional occurrence of crime.”

Throughout his career, Wilde also spoke out against censorship. The rehearsals for his play “Salome” were in their third week when, in June 1892, a license necessary for public performance was denied on the grounds that the play introduced biblical characters onto the stage; this was prohibited by an ancient law whose original purpose was to suppress Catholic mystery plays. Wilde deplored this action in a lecture at the Author’s Club and in interviews. In more dramatic moments he declared intentions to renounce his British citizenship. Nevertheless, “Salome” was not produced in England until 13 years later, 5 years after Wilde’s death.

Today Wilde is remembered, and rightly so, on the merits of his later plays which satirized the moral/political/social customs and standards of his day. He was a brilliant man with a tragic life that — as Benjamin Tucker put it — was “one of strict conformity with the idea of equal liberty.”

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).