Those Whom The Gods Love Grow Young: Some Notes on Wilde, Greece & Youth

In 1895, the notorious Irish playwright and public wit Oscar Wilde was put on trial for sodomy while the whole world watched. Persisting with his magnificent tendency to aesthetic delusion, Wilde withstood his legal interrogation like any of his society-play’s extravagant characters, parrying simple questions with one-liners and quips of whimsical and acidic fortitude. These antics bedeviled audiences and newspaper readers as far away as Fort Worth, Texas, whose reports you can still read today thanks to certain governmentally-funded archive projects. 

Like Socrates, twenty-two hundred years earlier, Wilde’s freedom was in jeopardy following a lifetime of public arrogance, subversion and comedy, lately pushed to its crisis when one individual, riled up beyond repair, decided to take him down for good. Also like Socrates, the charge was centered on matters of gross impropriety, irreverence, and corrupting youth. Socrates may have been a hardy soldier, no easy comparandum for Wilde’s career in explosive flamboyance, delicacy and dandyism, but they both shared a love for snark, beauty and young people. 

For Wilde, there was no match for a young man among the beautiful things of the world. For anyone who’s read Dorian Gray with even an ass’s sense of subtlety, the scene in Chapter II when Lord Henry first meets Dorian ought to provide ample evidence on its own. Lord Henry, with his mellifluent, skyscraping panegyric on youth, utterly shatters Dorian as he sits posing for Basil’s brush. You can read this scene in order to enjoy its palpable homosexual thrust, but there’s more to it than that. The sexual is somewhat secondary. 

What matters is the consensual and intellectual union between the elder and the younger, the wise and the beautiful, the desiring and the desired. This is more or less what Socrates prescribes in the Symposium as he recounts denying any carnal realization to Alcibiades, whose youthful beauty and chameleonlike ambition were unequalled in antiquity. 

There’s good reason to believe Wilde imported a great deal of his romantic preferences from the Greeks. Wilde was a phenomenal classics scholar, winning an ultra-rare double-first in Classics and Greats from Magdalen College, Oxford. He travelled through the ruins of the ancient world with his tutor and studied extensively in ancient Greek. The Greeks celebrated male-male intergenerational relationships according to a practice called “pederasty”, which paired young men with older ones in a relationship of mutual moral and democratic development that had a sexual component. The Greek infatuation with young male beauty permeates their literature, philosophy and statuary. 

Wilde was a frequent patron of young male prostitutes. He writes with dripping rapture of going down in the silver mines of Nevada to enchant the young men there with tales from the life of Italian silversmith Benevenuto Cellini. The incomparably beautiful Lord Alfred Douglas, known affectionately as “Bosie” to Wilde in his role as Wilde’s closest and most infamous lover, was younger than Wilde by a degree of sixteen years. In letters to Bosie and other lovers presented as evidence at his sodomy trial, Wilde calls them “Greek and gracious”, “Hyacinthus” (the young, Greek male lover of Apollo, god of wisdom) and “Dorian” a double-reference to both the novel’s eponymous star and the Dorian peoples of Greece. 

In the center of the prosecution’s reticle lay a poem, titled Two Loves and penned by Bosie that described the relative pleasure and plight of the one love, between a boy and a girl, and ‘The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name.’ When asked to explain just what this possibly-incriminating Love was, Wilde replied courageously to the barrister with the following proclamation: 

"The love that dare not speak its name" in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as "the love that dare not speak its name," and on that account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an older and a younger man, when the older man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.”

And later, when asked “You exalt youth as a sort of god?” he replied “I like the study of youth in everything. There is something fascinating in youthfulness.” Whether Wilde was reaching back to the Greeks to justifying his pre-existing dispositions, or he was attempting to deliberately resurrect Hellenistic culture in late 19th century London is not terribly germane to the important question: what did Wilde and the Greeks love so much about youth? The injustice obstructing an authentic answer to that question is due to our latter day concept of youth being glued almost irremovably to our socially-constructed sham concept of childhood, a relatively new invention.

Wilde entered the literary scene just after the so-called Golden Age of Children’s literature had begun. With modern media platforms and the hyper-incentivization of capitalism, the damaging processes begun in the nineteenth century that have selfishly constructed our cultural assumptions of what it is to be a child have been accelerated beyond reversal. It is the rare author, like Edward Eager or Roald Dahl, who attributes anything like full humanity to children. 

The dominant narrative is that children are categorically weak, are unaware of their actions, are incomplete people, are essentially stupid and all need the protection and policing of all adults. Babytalk, bright colors and pretty much all children’s television tell them lies about what they are when they’re most impressionable. And they believe it, having no alternative. This winds up stunting their maturity and halting much of their native intelligence and creativity. 

    But when you subtract all of our warped assumption, you’re left with just youth. Youth is just a quality any human can have, potentially at any age. Youth is a freshness and a beauty and form of strength that can be shared with another human in exchange for wisdom and strength of other varieties. We forget that a fifteen year old is as much a complete human as a fifty year old because society has been built in order to let the old dominate, exploit and indoctrinate the young according to the tenets of the child / adult dichotomy. But as a complete human, they deserve the same rights, respect and liberty to which anything born with humanity is heir. 

Also, thanks to limited channels through which younger and older humans are permitted to interact, our beliefs about the dangers of intergenerational interactions of any kind are restricted to pedophilia. Until very recently (and even still today), extremely gifted scholars of classics went to absurd lengths to avoid confronting Greek homosexuality and pederasty because they could only read through sexual grids of their own era. But as iconoclastic testimonies like those inherited from Wilde and Socrates make clear, pederasty was more about union of beauty, intellect and personal improvement than about sex, and that power by necessity is balanced between the elder and the younger. 

    Certain objective psychological facts may rule out the possibility of safe, ethical sexual relationships of an intergenerational nature, though the prevailing (albeit controversial) research shows that at least many American male homesexuals have freely participated in a sexual relationship with a significant age difference that they continue to rate as a positive experience. 

But sex aside, what Wilde and the Greeks teach us about the value of youth is more pressing when it comes to matters of basic human decency. We have an immeasurable responsibility to the young to encourage them to realize themselves as fully as possible in all the ways that we missed. Imposing chimeric, patronizing limitations of their self-concepts is wrong and obliterates the possibility of many kinds of loving, affectionate, educative intergenerational relationships. In Matilda, Dahl encouraged adults to get down on their hands and knees for a day and crawl around to know what it’s like to be a child. Through my own transition from youth to young adulthood I’ve kept this challenge in mind as a reminder that, except for a drop in altitude, the experience never changes. I was never a child, but I regret to say I was once much younger: 

“A boy’s will is the wind’s will,

And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.”