A Few Maxims for the Instruction of the Over-Educated by Oscar Wilde
By Maria Popova
Oscar Wilde (October 16, 1854–November 30, 1900) was not only the twentieth century’s first pop-culture celebrity, but also arguably the most tragic one — at the height of his literary celebrity, his strong opinions and the socially unacceptable romance behind his exquisite love letters led to a protracted series of trials, the last of which landed Wilde in prison to serve two years of “hard labor” for charges of libel and “gross indecency.”
During the trials, Defense Attorney Edward Carson cross-examined 41-year-old Wilde (who, in making a characteristically Wildean complete mockery of the testimony, stated that he was 39 but had “no wish to pose as being young”) about two of his most controversial public texts, particularly a short collection of maxims and aphorisms titled “A Few Maxims for the Instruction of the Over-Educated” — the origin of the famous Wilde remark that Steven Pinker quoted in his excellent modern guide to elegant writing. The piece was first published anonymously in the November 17, 1894, issue of the Saturday Review and eventually included in the posthumous tome The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde: Stories, Plays, Poems & Essays (public library).
The aphorisms in the piece, while decidedly witty, are not merely so — from behind the veneer of satirical pomp, they also shine a wise sidewise gleam on such immutable issues as the tyranny of public opinion, why friendship eclipses romantic love, the usefulness of “useless” knowledge, and the gift of imperfection.
A Few Maxims for the Instruction of the Over-Educated
Education is an admirable thing. But it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.
Public opinion exists only where there are no ideas.
The English are always degrading truths into facts. When a truth becomes a fact it loses all its intellectual value.
It is a very sad thing that nowadays there is so little useless information.
The only link between Literature and Drama left to us in England at the present moment is the bill of the play.
In old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody.
Most women are so artificial that they have no sense of Art. Most men are so natural that they have no sense of Beauty.
Friendship is far more tragic than love. It lasts longer.
What is abnormal in Life stands in normal relations to Art. It is the only thing in Life that stands in normal relations to Art.
A subject that is beautiful in itself gives no suggestion to the artist. It lacks imperfection.
The only thing that the artist cannot see is the obvious. The only thing that the public can see is the obvious. The result is the Criticism of the Journalist.
Art is the only serious thing in the world. And the artist is the only person who is never serious.
To be really medieval one should have no body. To be really modern one should have no soul. To be really Greek one should have no clothes.
Dandyism is the assertion of the absolute modernity of Beauty.
The only thing that can console one for being poor is extravagance. The only thing that can console one for being rich is economy.
One should never listen. To listen is a sign of indifference to one’s hearers.
Even the disciple has his uses. He stands behind one’s throne, and at the moment of one’s triumph whispers in one’s ear that, after all, one is immortal.
The criminal classes are so close to us that even the policemen can see them. They are so far away from us that only the poet can understand them.
Those whom the gods love grow young.
The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde: Stories, Plays, Poems & Essays remains the most comprehensive selection of Wilde’s wit and wisdom ever published or publishable. Complement it with Wilde’s spectacular love letters to Sir Alfred “Bosie” Taylor, undoubtedly among history’s most enchanting queer love letters.
Published October 16, 2014