Epicurus (342-270 B.C.E.), a Greek philosopher active during the Hellenistic period, had a defining influence on those identified as Aesthetes and Decadents, particularly Walter Pater and his occasional disciple Oscar Wilde. Most of the philosopher's beliefs about art, the soul, and education —which survive only in several letters and a collection of maxims — are adapted to nineteenth-century Decadent ideals in Pater's Marius the Epicurean (and, in a more diffused way, in Appreciations). His thoughts also inform Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray.
A survey of Epicurus's philosophy helps complete the picture of what the Aesthetes believed and allowed to influence their work.
Pleasure and Taste
Epicurus found pleasure to be the highest good, and although he rejected pain as an evil, he knew that some pain was necessary as a means to achieving pleasure. Thus, contrary to the contemporary appropriation of the term "epicurean" to signify a person given to indulgence in hedonistic pleasures, Epicurus advocated what the Victorians would think of as refinement or "taste." He taught that "just as [someone] does not unconditionally choose the largest amount of food but the most pleasant food, so he savors not the longest time but the most pleasant," and that "Self-sufficiency is a great good… being genuinely convinced that those who least need extravagance enjoy it the most." Hence, Dorian Gray's greatest sin is not surrounding himself with beautiful things-on the contrary, these objects foster pleasure, the supreme good-but depending upon those objects to retain interest in life. "Prudence," the cornerstone of taste, "is the principle of all these things and is the greatest good." It is not opulence and materialism in themselves, but materialism that substitutes for spiritualism that is undesirable.
"Sense Perception," "Wholeness," and the Soul
In Appreciations, Pater quotes Gustave Flaubert:
There are no beautiful thoughts without beautiful forms, and conversely. As it is impossible to extract from a physical body the qualities which really constitute it without reducing it to a hollow abstraction, in a word, without destroying it; just so it is impossible to detach the form from the idea, for the idea only exists by virtue of its form (28).
Flaubert and Pater concern themselves with "wholeness" of being; both believe strongly that the object must be studied in its entirety, or else it is not the object that is being considered, but a fragment that has no meaningful relationship with the whole. To use the example that Oscar Wilde paints in The Picture of Dorian Gray, the exterior beauty of a man conceals inner moral decrepitude to those who do not contemplate in earnest. But, students who are trained to observe seriously-Basil Hallward in Wilde's work, who tries to form a complete portrait of Gray-are not inclined to admire refinement of the snail because its shell forms a pleasing pattern.
Much of this comes from Epicurus, who states simply that "There exists nothing in addition to the totality." Therefore, the ideal training for a child —or adult —is "constant activity of the study of nature," which brings "calm to life" by allowing the pupil to observe herself and others as a whole unit made up of both externalities and soul. "Calmness" means being free from disturbance, and to exist in such a state requires that the individual use sense-perception to achieve self-sufficiency —which is mostly the cultivation of soul necessary to see objects and people in their entirety. Thus, the soul is given high priority as the body's most important sense-perception tool:
There is also the part [of the body] which is much finer and because of this is more closely in harmony with the rest of the aggregate too. All of this is revealed by the abilities of the soul, its feelings, its ease of motion, its thought processes and the things whose removal leads to our death the soul is most responsible for sense-perception.
So, it is not only important to observe with acuity, but to be prepared to do so requires a nurtured soul. The Picture of Dorian Gray, of course, depicts the hard lesson of a gentleman who finds that a handsome aspect does not constitute a beautiful creature, and that the unhealthy soul of a man who cannot regard his entire self does not really prosper. Tormented by spiritual blindness, Dorian never approaches the Epicurean goal of being free from disturbance; rather, he is continually troubled. To Basil Hallward, the ideal Epicurean, "death is nothing" —although martyred, his body is reduced to purity by the Dorian's blackmailed scientist. Rejected by Wotton and Gray in life because he understood them too deeply, he dies relatively naturally, humanly, and cleanly in a symbolic gesture indicative of the purity of his calm, cultivated, and observant soul. In opposition, Gray becomes hideous in death:
Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was (241).
Gray's failure to develop his soul reaches its pinnacle when he destroys the only extension of himself that exemplifies good sense-perception: the painting, which alone responds to the body and soul as a whole. Destroying it, he deprives himself of hope for recovery of his soul —he has eliminated his last grasp on sense-perception; the painting was the only way in which he could possibly have regarded himself as a complete person possessing soul in addition to face. The dead man's knife points to the heart —traditionally the dwelling of the soul —revealing the source of his destruction, and all that remains for others to identify him by —all he has ever been identified by —are his rings, the superficial and misleading accoutrements of the soul. A harsh end, perhaps, for one who does not take a philosopher seriously enough, but it is indicative of the importance that Epicurus held for Aesthetes like Wilde —and illuminating in the confounding world of Dorian Gray.
Oscar Wilde was well punished for taking popular Ancient Greek approaches to the ideal education to an extreme. His affection for younger Oxford boys —Lord Alfred Douglas ("Bosie") was the most infamous — was not just sexual. More so, it was a realization of the ideas found in Plato, particularly his Symposium, and Epicurus. Philippe Juilan suggests that the garden of Basil Hallward's house in The Picture of Dorian Gray is based on Wilde's idealized recollection of Oxford University, where attractive young men were affectionately tutored by older students in pacific surroundings. In Hallward's garden, beautiful Dorian meets the slightly older Lord Henry Wotton, who cultivates him, and who begins a chain of discovery that will teach him that the a comely face can hide the most haggard soul.
The first book of Pater's Marius the Epicurean (which, incidentally, was a Bible to Wilde long before he thought of Dorian Gray) is devoted to an education that feeds the soul by teaching the student ideas of sense-perception and wholeness. Marius is most content during a childhood which allows more time for contemplation than action, and when he attends a school which is devoted "at once to strengthen and purify a certain vein of character in him. Developing the ideal, pre-existent there, of a religious beauty," and the "aesthetic" benefit of bodily health (29). The world occupied with Flavian-who, like Wilde's Lord Wotton, is slightly more mature and an intellectual superior-allows Marius true happiness as he cultivates wholeness by improving simultaneously his soul and his powers of perception.
The Aesthetes follow Epicurus not only abstractly in the subject matter of Marius and Dorian Gray's educations, but literally in the master-disciple relationship that Pater and Wilde use to enlighten their fictional students. Like most philosophers, a famous teacher who maintained that "No one is either too young or too old for the health of the soul," Epicurus himself established a school of philosophy in a beautiful garden in which older men taught younger as Flavian instructed his pupil. Much imitated in Epicurus's time and after, this format also clearly takes shape in Wilde's idealized Oxford, in Hallward's garden, and in Marius's Roman juvenile paradise.
I've used the Inwood and Gerson translation of Epicurus (Hellenistic Philosophy. Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing Company, 1988.), generally considered the standard for the philosopher's work.
Pater, Walter. Marius the Epicurean. New York: Macmillan, 1907.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1995.
Last modified 6 December 2004