Friday, January 25, 2013

The Banality of Banality

This meme turned up in my feed at Facebook yesterday, and when I checked I found, to my surprise, that it was authentic: Wilde did write these words, in his essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism.  No doubt he had in mind the gospel saying "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal" (Matthew 6:19-20).

But then I began to wonder, and not for the first time, why people choose a platitude like this from the writings of someone who produced a huge store of genuinely witty, intelligent, thought-provoking and meaningful sayings.  (One example out of many: "A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it.")  Almost anyone could have said the words in that meme, and many have.  Jesus himself was hardly original: the transience of material possessions was a cliche in his own time.  (Helpful hint: if a religious or philosophical teacher preaches against accumulating material possessions, that is a sign that he lives in a culture where most people accumulate material possessions.)  Many of the quotations I see on Facebook consist of putting banalities into the mouths of famous people who didn't say them, which is why this one almost fooled me.