Monday, 8 February 2016

Plato and The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray by celebrated author Oscar Wilde contains within its midst the teachings of Plato, for Plato taught that the soul of man had an independent reality rather like the painting of Dorian Gray in the book which, as the artistic representation of Dorian's soul, has a life of its own. 

As Dorian proceeds from innocent youth to corrupt maturity, ultimately committing first degree murder as well as coercion and leading innocent friends astray, so does his painting gradually grow in ugliness and deformation, even showing, at the latter stage of the book, signs of hypocrisy for good deeds performed with ulterior motives. 

It is clear to me that Wilde was familiar with the Greek thinker Plato and The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the best novelisations of Plato's ethics, at least concerning the intangible emanation that is the ψυχή. 

Indeed, for Plato bad actions and immorality taint and mutilate the soul just as much as battle wounds leave scars on the physical body. Plato took this concept so far that in his dialogue Gorgias he painted the afterworld as a ruthless process of judgement of the naked souls of human beings, devoid of all appendages such as body, wealth, friends, family. 

The soul in its unique isolated reality was to determine whether one was sent to Hell or what the Greeks called Tartarus or to the Heaven that was the Isle of the Blessed. In other words both Plato and Oscar Wilde believe in the absolute reality of the soul which is coloured by one's deeds and thoughts in earthly life. 

Although one to stretch the boundaries of public morality, Oscar Wilde reveals himself in his novel as being the opposite of a moral relativist who denies any objective difference between right and wrong, thinking that anything goes. 

Rather the moral message of the book is unambiguously clear, speaking against murder, blackmail, or service to self above all else, for such ill deeds cause the soul, whether for all to see through the medium of a painting or not, to be denatured, diseased and corrupted. 

Wilde thus joins the tradition started by Plato according to which our thoughts, emotions and actions leave a trace on our soul which may or may not be judged in the afterlife, as is the case in Christianity. 

In summary, Oscar Wilde may have played with the superficial aspects of public morality, such as the prohibition against sodomy or the preaching of assistance to the poor (see, in this regard, his formidable essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism), but when it came to the deep internal realities of private morality which impact the individual soul, Wilde was as aware of Natural Law principles as the thinker Plato. 

Addendum - The title of the book is semantically quite rich and it should be noted that it is not: The Portrait of Dorian Gray. The 'Picture' of Dorian Gray refers both to the painting of him in the book as well as the image the character projects or is perceived as having by his contemporaries (his 'picture'). Moreover the novel itself provides us with the full picture of Dorian Gray.