Individualism and Higher Aims

 

Oscar Wilde has an utterly romantic view of human nature in his essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism.  He comes at the topic with the idea that the nature of man is basically good.  It is the institution of private property that has led man astray, he appears to believe.  Here are some quotes to illustrate his point of view:

“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 for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”

 

“Wealthy people are, as a class, better than impoverished people, more moral, more intellectual, more well-behaved. There is only one class in the community that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor. The poor can think of nothing else. That is the misery of being poor.”

Wilde doesn’t like for people to be poor. He sees it as degrading, demoralizing.  He sees the abolition of private property and the realization of socialism as the remedy to this degradation.  He also thinks it would relieve the wealthy of what he views as their unhealthy obsession with gain.  He blames private property for what he sees as the ills of mankind.

As I have written before, he has to have a fundamental misunderstanding of economics to believe that socialism is going to remedy poverty.  I think that is very common misunderstanding seen in that era as people tried to come to grips with the apparent contradictions they were seeing in the world around them after the onset of the industrial revolution.  More and more people moved to the cities to find work in factories, and these people were very poor.  There was also great wealth in the cities, and to the common observer, this seemed unjust, that one man should suffer extreme poverty while another lived in fantastic wealth.  It is what spurred Henry George to write Progress and Poverty, where he too put forth his own socialist remedy to this reality.  As much as I disagree with socialism, I believe that Wilde is a product of his time and that his motivations are positive.  He wants to relieve the suffering he sees, and he wants people to realize a better, more fulfilling life.

He thinks men were meant for more. He thinks if they were freed of the burden of accumulation of wealth, that they could realize their true and unique individualism.

“they will have delightful leisure in which to devise wonderful and marvellous things for their own joy and the joy of everyone else.”

I look at what he is talking about, and I see echoes of my own thoughts regarding the abundance that capitalism and the division of labor has actually brought to us.  I think it is fantastic because it gives us all time to pursue those things that bring us joy.  Am I like Wilde then in some regard, who I have been so highly critical of?  I’ve praised the market over an over for the abundance and labor saving devices it has brought to us.  I’ve claimed this is excellent because it frees us up to pursue higher aims, such as art and religious worship.

One thing I do not want to do is pretend that the market is a panacea for all men’s ills.  Yet, I think I might come across like that with such optimistic claims reminiscent of Wilde’s delightful leisure to devise wonderful things statement.  I want to be a realist.  I don’t want to paint a picture of a Utopia that will not emerge.

What is the truth then?  In the West, we live in abundance that the world has never known before.  We have way more free time on our hands that our ancestors could have ever imagined.  We still work, but it is not sun-up to sun-down, it is just a 1/3 or a little more of our day.  Alright, so parents spend much more of their time working because of the care necessary for children, but that is usually just a short period of our lives given the limited number of kids most of us have.  Hopefully that is also a labor of love.  The truth is that we do overall have much more time to pursue what Wilde or I would consider higher aims.  I don’t know how this could not be considered a good thing.

Has this freeing up of our time led to a state where we are all pursuing these wonderful higher aims?  No.  We don’t all value that kind of thing in the same manner.  When I was young, with way more free time on my hands, I recall valuing drinking binges.  I dare to say that there are a lot of people that would pursue physical pleasures like that versus spending their time honing an art, practicing a craft, studying history, or deepening their knowledge of the religion they practice.  Abundance of goods and abundance of time did not lead to this fantastic place where we are all realizing our wonderful individualism to the benefit of mankind.  We still have all the ills that have always plagued us.  There is still pride, greed, lust, gluttony, wrath and sloth.  Abundance hasn’t changed the nature of man.

As long as there are temptations to be had, then mankind will continue to wallow in those temptations.  No changing of the social order for realization of a world where starvation is not a risk is going to change the nature of man.  Freeing man from the necessity of hard work will not change the nature of man.  We may think these are good things, that no person would be in danger of starvation, that no one has to destroy their health through back breaking labor.  Indeed, they appear to be very positive.  However, those are not the things that cause men to sin.  It is in our very nature that we should succumb to various temptations, and that we need redemption as a result.

Perhaps, we could be angry with God for making us so.  Without the ability to choose to succumb to temptation, we would lack free will.  Free will is a gift beyond compare.  Let us not be angry at our Creator for this gift he has bestowed upon us, for he has also Redeemed us.  Our desire to not see our fellow man suffer is good.  Relieving physical suffering of hard work and hunger are worthy aims.  However, human suffering goes much deeper than the physical, and as such, we must not imagine that through our own acts we might save humanity.

Disdain for Manual Labor

This is what Oscar Wilde thought about manual labor in his essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism.

There is nothing necessarily dignified about manual labour at all, and most of it is absolutely degrading. It is mentally and morally injurious to man to do anything in which he does not find pleasure, and many forms of labour are quite pleasureless activities, and should be regarded as such. To sweep a slushy crossing for eight hours, on a day when the east wind is blowing is a disgusting occupation. To sweep it with mental, moral, or physical dignity seems to me to be impossible. To sweep it with joy would be appalling. Man is made for something better than disturbing dirt. All work of that kind should be done by a machine.

 

 

Labor is required for human life to be possible.  Hunting and gathering was work.  Agriculture is work.  Making cloth, making pottery, that is work too.  How we work has changed through the ages, but people always worked.  Even in the Garden of Eden, Genesis 2:15 says “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”

I don’t get Wilde’s disdain for labor.   Through labor, we provide the goods of life. Through laboring and exchange, we serve one another.  He goes on to present some wild ideas about how we can fulfill our potential if we were freed from the degradation of labor.  From my point of view, we improve our own lives by labor, and we help others as well.  We have come to abundance in the West through labor.  This gives us free time to pursue the kinds of things that Wilde loves, the arts.  It can be both.  We can labor, and thus we serve one another, and we can then spend our spare time on those things we find pleasurable.  Our garbage stays collected, our gutters cleaned out, our plumbing free flowing because people are willing to serve us in those capacities.  We ought to be thankful to them for their service, not think them bereft of dignity.

 

Charity

Oscar Wilde wrote an essay called The Soul of Man Under Socialism.  In it, he takes a harsh view of charity, which I found a bit shocking at first.

The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism – are forced, indeed, so to spoil them. They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence; and, as I pointed out some time ago in an article on the function of criticism, it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.

They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.

But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim. Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good; and at last we have had the spectacle of men who have really studied the problem and know the life – educated men who live in the East End – coming forward and imploring the community to restrain its altruistic impulses of charity, benevolence, and the like. They do so on the ground that such charity degrades and demoralises. They are perfectly right. Charity creates a multitude of sins.

His view that charity is degrading is used to put forth the idea that the abolition of private property and socialism will relieve this degradation.  I want to write about that at a later point, but here I just want to tackle the idea that Charity is harmful to our fellow man.

He goes on later to discuss the problems he sees with charity:

We are often told that the poor are grateful for charity. Some of them are, no doubt, but the best amongst the poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so. Charity they feel to be a ridiculously inadequate mode of partial restitution, or a sentimental dole, usually accompanied by some impertinent attempt on the part of the sentimentalist to tyrannise over their private lives. Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table? They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it. As for being discontented, a man who would not be discontented with such surroundings and such a low mode of life would be a perfect brute.

It sounds like he believes in the zero sum game version of economics.  He thinks that the rich are robbing the poor of what is due to them.  I guess I am going to have to cut him some slack for his lack of economic understanding.  It is no wonder he would find charity degrading if he thinks the rich are stealing from the poor.  I had felt very critical of him for thinking something as wonderful as man giving freely to another man is degrading, when the love of Christ is found in such acts.

Matthew 25:35 ‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in’

Charity is not degrading, it is an act of love. We help people because we see their humanity.  When we act in love toward those that suffer, it is meant not to just help them physically, but to help them spiritually.  If someone cares about their plight, that can give them hope for the future, hope that things can turn around for them.

This is why understanding economics is so important.  When people don’t understand that trade and the division of labor are the source of economic progress, the source of reducing poverty, they seek solutions to problems that will not fix them.