Famous for the witty dialogue of his plays, Oscar Wilde’s epigrams often serve as vehicles for his somewhat scathing satire and pointed social commentary. He was, undoubtedly, a man of words, and it is his skill with language that makes the plays so incredibly enticing. 115 years after his tragic death from meningitis, we look at some of the playwright’s most inspiring and radical aphorisms, taken from both his plays and his essays.
1. “To recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less.”
This quotation, taken from Wilde’s essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism (of which we at Radical Tea Towel are huge fans!) and featured on our Wilde tea towel, is one of our favourites. Its sentiment is frighteningly apt today, when public services are suffering huge cuts, benefits are being slashed and over a million people are using food banks every day, just to survive.
2. “With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols of things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”
Another quotation taken from The Soul of Man Under Socialism, this demonstrates not only Wilde’s radical left-wing beliefs, but also his steadfast commitment to Individualism. Weary of the stringent morality of the Victorian age, Wilde rebelled against this austere lifestyle and instead chose to embrace dandyism and aestheticism. However, he was later imprisoned for his homosexuality and for his refusal to abide by the mores of his time – tragically, it was the time he spent in Reading Gaol that led to his death, making the injustice of his arrest all the more poignant.
3. “Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion. ”
One could also argue that Wilde was an anarchist – he believed that protest and action were central parts of our democracy and vital if laws are going to progress and develop. Indeed, as he suggests, England has a proud history of protest: the Levellers, the Diggers, the Ranters, the Suffragettes, the civil rights movement, the LGBT rights movement and many more. It is only through making our voices heard that we can create change.
4. “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
This quotation is spoken by Lord Darlington, one of Wilde’s many dandies, in his play Lady Windermere’s Fan. Though it represents Darlington’s unrequited love for Lady Windermere, and though it helps to symbolize Darlington’s failure as a true dandy, it was certainly penned by Wilde as a wider reflection on life and our hopes for change and progress – he was clearly somewhat of a revolutionary.
5. “Work is the curse of the drinking classes.”
Karl Marx famously said that “Drink is the curse of the working classes,” and though we at Radical Tea Towel adore Marx, we are not so mad about his rigid (and occasionally condescending) moral beliefs. This aphorism from Wilde is a perfectly witty inversion of Marx’s reflection, serving as an excellent satire of Marx’s prohibitive opinion and of general pomposity.
6. “The English country gentleman galloping after a fox – the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable”
This is one of our favorite epigrams. Spoken by Lord Illingworth in A Woman of No Importance, this quotation perfectly summarizes our opinion of fox hunting and blood sports.
7. “The best amongst the poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient and rebellious. They are quite right to be so.”
This is perhaps one of the most radical of Wilde’s epigrams, and yet again it demonstrates his commitment to anarchism and socialism. He believed that, until all men are equal and until everyone can “reap the fruits of his labour” (in the words of socialist thinker William Morris), then the fight is not over – again, Wilde is showing his revolutionary traits (which we love!).
8. “Keep love in your heart. A life without it is like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead.”
Wilde was an incredibly loving and compassionate man – though in his plays his characters occasionally laugh about charity and sympathy, the playwright himself devoted much of his time to socialist causes. This quotation, though somewhat ironic considering his later reflection that “Each man kills the thing he loves” (referring to his relationship with his male lover), demonstrates his compassion.
9. “An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.”
Taken from Wilde’s essay The Critic As Artist, this maxim shows the importance of radicalism – because unless you are fearless and brave in your commitment to your ideals, no matter how shunned or dangerous they are, it is difficult to bring about change.
10. “As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular.”
All of Wilde’s writing exhibits his fascination with evil, most evident in his excellent novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. He thoroughly believed that human nature is inherently attracted to and fascinated by the evil and the wicked, and perhaps this is true. At Radical Tea Towel, we hope that one day we will see war for what it too often is – a tragic waste of human life. As Wilde argues, it is because we regard war with fascination that we are not afraid to wage it.
These adages and witticisms effortlessly show Wilde’s perpetual relevance in both politics and life as a whole. If this blog has done anything, we hope it has inspired you to go away and read some of Oscar’s excellent work!