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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Wilde and Slavery

In bringing up the issue of slavery, Wilde present what may have been the Victorian opinion on the US Civil War:

"Slavery was put down in America, not in consequence of any action on the part of the slaves, or even any express desire on their part that they should be free. It was put down entirely through the grossly illegal conduct of certain agitators in Boston and elsewhere, who were not slaves themselves, nor owners of slaves, nor had anything to do with the question really. It was, undoubtedly, the Abolitionists who set the torch alight, who began the whole thing. And it is curious to note that from the slaves themselves they received, not merely very little assistance, but hardly any sympathy even; and when at the close of the war the slaves found themselves free, found themselves indeed so absolutely free that they were free to starve, many of them bitterly regretted the new state of things." (p. 23)

This is an interesting perspective on the war, though not many today would agree. Wilde believers that northern abolitionists provoked the slaves to rebel against their masters, though the slaves had no real interest in doing so. Nevertheless, one should not interepret this to mean that Wilde was a supporter of slavery, as he clarifies later in the essay. The only slavery permitted should be the slavery of the machine: "Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralising. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends." (p. 33) Instead, man should be free to choose work for which he is best fit, with no government intervention.

The role of the State is "to be a voluntary association that will organise labour, and be the manufacturer and distributor of necessary commodities. The State is to make what is useful. The individual is to make what is beautiful." (p. 32) The State is not to interfere with man but to assist man in his aims, especially since "the form of government that is most suitable to the artist is no government at all." The more liberated the artist, the more that artist will be able to develop the gift with which he has been blessed. Though Wilde labels his beliefs socialism, his ideas approach anarchism.

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