Oscar Wilde, in writing "The Decay of Lying," uses the Socratic dialogue as the model for his tirade against realism. With the two stock characters, the know-it-all sage, Vivian, and the naïve, questioning apprentice, Cyril, he creates a dialogue that echoes, to a tee, that of the Simile of the Cave in Plato's Republic. Wilde's ideas about the lack of imagination in contemporary literature and the overall decline of creativity in art in general, appear during the course of a conversation between Vivian and Cyril, in which Vivian, expressing Wilde's views, elaborates at length, while Cyril makes vague efforts to disagree, prompting Vivian to explicate further in an attempt to educate his companion. In wholly appropriating the Socratic dialogue form (which Plato used in The Republic, among other works), Wilde reverses its effect, in which the wise elder leads the apprentice in a search for truth via questioning and answering. Instead, Vivian leads Cyril to the conclusion "that Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art."

Cyril, towards the end of the dialogue, asks Vivian to summarize his new theory of aesthetics that he has been developing to be published as an article.

Cyril: But in order to avoid making any error I want you to tell me briefly the doctrines of the new aesthetics.

Vivian: Briefly, then, they are these. Art never expresses anything but itself . . . .The second doctrine is this. All bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature, and elevating them into Ideals . . . It follows, as a corollary from this, that external Nature also imitates Art.

Reading Questions

1. What is the effect of using the traditional Socratic dialogue, with which many are familiar from Plato's Simile of the Cave, to promote the exact opposite theory than that of Plato?

2. Why does Wilde use the word "Lying" instead of "Creativity" or "Imagination"?

3. Is Wilde's theory convincing? Does his technique of using colloquial expressions and substituting one word in order to change their meaning 180 degrees make his theory more or less easy to digest? Is it possible that he is just joking, since he treats all conventional wisdom as a joke?


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Last modified 16 October 2003