Lord Henry Wotton is one of the chief characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde. He is a young aristocrat who seeks to bring himself attention by an apparent careless attitude and wit. His flippant tongue drips with hedonic philosophy which he dolls out for the purpose of sensation alone. However, amongst all his lies there is one time where he unknowingly speaks one of the truest lines in the entire book. He says,
“[T]here is no doubt that Genius lasts longer than Beauty. That accounts for the fact that we all take such pains to over-educate ourselves. In the wild struggle for existence, we want to have something that endures, and so we fill our minds with rubbish and facts, in the silly hope of keeping our place.”1
Shocking, yes, but there is no doubt of its truth. Lord Henry Wotton, in his search for sensation, lays bare human need in its most desperate sense. The soul thirsts for meaning that endures. It knows physical beauty does not. But does Genius? Jill Pole says to Eustace in The Last Battle, by C.S. Lewis that she would “rather be killed fighting for Narnia than grow old and stupid at home.”2 And Aragorn, upon laying down to death in the House of Kings, says to Arwen, “ask whether you would indeed have me wait until I whither and fall from my high seat unmanned and witless.”3 Genius lasts longer than Beauty, perhaps, but certainly not forever, not even for the lifespan of a man.
Yet why are we so eager to send our children into school at such a young age? Why are we obsessed with reading the news? Why do we subscribe to hundreds of blogs, Facebook pages, and Instagram profiles?
The soul needs connection. However, often connection is confused with prestige: connection, but connection with the elite. In order to achieve prestige, one often must have at least the appearance of wisdom, as wisdom is nearly always held in awe and respect. In turn, wisdom is confused with knowledge: facts, simply knowing many things. But wisdom (or knowledge confused for wisdom) is not the answer either, as those who achieve it will soon find. For there will always be someone who knows a little more than we.
The reason Man finds it so challenging to satisfy his soul is because the soul is immortal and nothing on earth is. The only answer to the soul’s perpetual thirst is the One God. For He alone always was, always is, and always will be.
1Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Chapter 1
2C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle, Chapter 9. It is challenging to find this full colour collection sold as single books. The copy I have linked here is a hardcover. The one I own is part of this softcover set.
3J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Appendix A