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.