What Did Oscar Wilde Mean

When he said “Only the shallow judge by more than appearances.”

Cuz I don’t get that one. At all.


I read it as similar to Vonnegut’s quote in Mother Night: *We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be. * But I might be wrong.

Had I to take a wild guess, I’d assume the meant that a lot of people judge others not but what features are actually present (i.e. the ones that appear) but with their own preconceptions, including features that are assumed but don’t actually appear at all. For example, meeting a person might include a series of judgements and assumptions based on their appearance, including assuming he was a manual labourer if he has on shabby clothing. The truth might be that the person has on scrappy clothing because he was in the middle of doing some relaxing hobby gardening on his 5-acre plot of land overlooked by the 15-room house he bought with the money he made as an anesthesiologist.

Or it could be Wilde was trying to sound profound but didn’t have a clue because of all the opium he’d smoked. It happens.

I read it simply as a comment about pretentiousness and the shallowness of over-interpretation. He was saying that the attempt to verbalize too much meaning is in itself rooted in superficial motives.

Of course, there is an inherent irony in analyzing the meaning of the quotation.

I don’t know the context, so I can’t be sure what Wilde was getting at. But there are two possibilities:

  1. Wilde was just being contrary. A lot of his “wit” amounts to little more than non-chalantly contradicting the conventional wisdom.

  2. MOST of the time, things are exactly what they seem to be. MOST of the time, what you see is what you get. MOST of the time, superficial impressions are correct. So… if you meet someone who appears to be a sleazeball, chances are, he IS a sleazeball. If you meet someone who appears to be a blithering idiot, chances are, he IS a blithering idiot. And only a fool wastes time trying to look beneath the surface, in hopes of finding hidden virtues.

Well the quote directly challenges common wisdom that shallow people judge by appearances and refined people look for deeper meaning. So I guess it compels one to figure out what the hell Wilde was thinking flipping common wisdom on its head this way.

Some good insights here though. Thanks.

IIRC Wilde was not known to be a big opium smoker. He used hashish on at least one occasion and was extraordinarily fond of absinthe, but his biographers that I’ve read don’t make mention of opium usage beyond saying that he “wouldn’t have been averse to it.”

Oscar Wilde was a famous aesthete so in his view beauty is the important virtue in art. Someone who can’t appreciate beauty is missing out, in his opinion.

Oscar Wilde would take a lot of care in his appearance, or in surrounding himself with beautiful things, because in his philosophy, that’s what’s divine. The beauty in the world is what matters.

It’s not a shallow point of view. But the cliche is that caring about appearances makes one shallow so he turns it around and -Quip!- bob’s your uncle, another famous one liner from our favourite wit.

Ooops. I looked it up and saw the rest of the quote but I closed the window. It is something along the lines of what’s visible being more interesting than what’s invisible.

Are you serious? MOST of the time you would be able to detect those traits in a person just by mere appearances, unless you shallowly conflate some meaningless physical phenomenon to hold some deeper meaning. What is a sleazebag or a blithering idiot supposed to look like, anyway?

Sampiro is on the right track. Wilde was not one of the Aesthetics, but rather one of the Decadents, but he took appearances very seriously. The person that someone is projecting was much more important to him than other information about him, most of which was hearsay, anyway. Wilde judged a man on his ability to project a self somewhat greater than the person inside. Reading that projection gave him a keener insight into both the person behind it and his competence. That was Wilde’s approach, anyway.

My SO informs me that the quote is from Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Taken in that context, it makes perfect sense, no? The life you have lived is reflected not just in you, but also on you.