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15 Oct

Sailing to Utopia: Oscar Wilde on Altruism and Anarchism

Gustave Dore. Dudley street, seven dials. Busy street scene with sets of shops which can be seen on the right. The shops are selling shoes which are lining up on the floor around the opening from under the ground. Children and their mothers are in front of them. This image was first published in 'London, a Pilgrimage' 1872, on p.158.

Seven Dials, by Gustav Dore (1872) Wikimedia, Public Domain

In Fortune Linsey McGoey asks Do today’s philanthropists hurt more than they help?. The article quotes Oscar Wilde:

In his essay, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” Oscar Wilde berated the tendency of benefactors to use their charity as a bulwark against redistributive demands.

“The best among the poor,” Wilde wrote, “are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so … 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.”

Wilde’s essay covers much more ground than this, however, ranging from the purpose of living, the effects of contemporary capitalism, the possible results of mechanisation and the question McGoey cites as one of the biggest questions facing 19th-century philanthropy, the ironic possibility that “growing charity simply exacerbated economic inequality by thwarting demands for better wages and the right to unionize.”

To that question, Oscar Wilde gives an emphatic yes. Many people are truly concerned with poverty and are going as far as spoiling their lives in an attempt to relieve it. “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.” Just as slave owners who were kind made slavery seem less horrible and therefore encouraged it to persist, altruists perpetuate the system that creates poverty.
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10 Apr

Mysticism and Better Business: George William Russell (AE)

St. John Ervine’s play Changing Winds (1917) includes the following line: ‘Was there any one on earth less like the typical Ulsterman than George Russell, who preached mysticism and better business?” Russell’s story seems a radical divide between two aspects: the ‘strayed angel’ (as W. B. Yeats’ sisters nicknamed him): artist, poet, spiritualist, visionary and the practical man: agricultural economist, organiser of the Irish co-operative movement, journalist and newspaper editor.

Born on 10th April 1867 at William Street, Lurgan, Co. Armagh, Russell lived there until 1878 when the whole family moved to Dublin. Russell spent every second summer in Armagh and on a visit in 1883 began to experience supernatural visions which continued into adult life, affecting both his art and his sense of self. His artistic talents had been clear from a young age and he took classes at the Metropolitan School of Art where he came to know the poet William Butler Yeats around 1883. Yeats wrote a pen portrait of him about this time.
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25 Jul

Fairy Field of Fiction

[Passions] borrow the language of reason to seduce us from her maxims. Our sex is more particularly exposed to this illusion. Our whole course of education is, in general, calculated to give additional force to the power of imagination, and to weaken, in a correspondent degree, the influence of judgment. You, my Harriet have in this respect an advantage over many of your sex. […] Your mind has not been suffered to run wild in the fairy field of fiction; it has been turned to subjects of real and permanent utility.

From Elizabeth Hamilton’s novel Memoirs of Modern Philosophers.

Elizabeth Hamilton (1756?–1816) was born in Belfast, probably on 25th July 1756, but lived much of her life in Scotland. Like her friend Maria Edgeworth she wrote novels and also philosophical pieces, mostly on education.

The primary aims of Modern Philosophers was to explore the role of women and to argue against “Jacobinism” or New Philosophy, that philosophy espoused by William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine. However, she also shared some of the concerns of that radical group. This passage, a letter written by Mrs Martha to her niece Harriet, criticises the education given to women; a topic that equally concerned Hamilton, Maria Edgeworth and Mary Wollstonecraft.

The first sentence is part of a larger quote from Rousseau.