Oscar Wilde? A. H. Cooper-Prichard? Alvin Redman? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The Irish playwright Oscar Wilde achieved his greatest fame in London. The historically fractured and deadly relationship between Ireland and England has led some intellectuals of the isles to adopt a skeptical attitude toward patriotic fervor. Intense emotions have been inspired by both patriotism and opposition to patriotism. The following remark has been attributed to Wilde:
Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.
I haven’t been able to find this saying in famous wit’s oeuvre. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde died in 1900. The earliest match located by QI appeared in the 1931 book “Conversations with Oscar Wilde” by A. H. Cooper-Prichard. The author presented statements he heard spoken by Wilde during discussions and social events. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
“How is it,” I once asked him, “that people who are not possessed of a single other virtue should come out at times as patriots?”
“Exaggerated patriotism,” he answered, “is the most insincere form of self-conceit.” And at another time he said, “Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.”
The accuracy of the quotation is based on the memory of Cooper-Prichard, and his book appeared decades after the words were spoken. Nevertheless, the citation is significant because it presents direct ear-witness testimony.
According to Cooper-Prichard another dialog reflecting Oscar Wilde’s attitude toward patriotism occurred in the early 1890s in a drawing-room in South Kensington, London: 2
AN AUNT. Oh, come, let us be patriotic!
OSCAR WILDE. ‘Let us sing unto the Lord a new song!’ and let that song be that to-day the World has become altogether too wide for mere Patriotism, which, after all, now is only the virtue of small minds.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1952 “The Epigrams Of Oscar Wilde” edited by Alvin Redman was published. Oscar Wilde’s son, Vyvyan Holland, contributed the introduction. Redman included the quotation with a note stating that it had been heard during a conversation: 3
Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious. In Conversation.
In 1954 the statement achieved wider circulation when Redman’s collection was examined in “The Saturday Review”. Here were three items that the journal reprinted from Redman’s volume: 4
I SOMETIMES think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated His ability.—”In Conversation.”
PATRIOTISM is the virtue of the vicious.—”In Conversation.”
HE HASN’T a single redeeming vice.—”In Conversation.”
In 1957 “The Book of Unusual Quotations” compiled by Rudolf Flesch included the remark: 5
Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.
In 1964 “The Windsor Star” of Ontario, Canada printed the saying while acknowledging another newspaper: 6
The flag controversy brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s comment: “Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.”
In 1995 Davis Coakley published “Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Irish”, and he included the remark under examination together with a citation for the crucial 1931 book by Cooper-Prichard. 7 Coakley also presented a paragraph from Wilde describing his position on Irish independence which can be found in “The Daily Picayune” of New Orleans, Louisiana in 1882: 8
He shrank from fanatical patriotism, however, which he described privately as the ‘most insincere form of self-conceit’. On another occasion he spoke of patriotism as ‘a virtue of the vicious’. On the subject of Irish politics, as on other subjects, Wilde managed to adopt a number of positions, often apparently contradictory, as can be seen in the following answer which he gave to a reporter in America when questioned about his politics:
I do not wish to see the empire dismembered, but only to see the Irish people free, and Ireland still as a willing and integral part of the British empire. To dismember a great empire in this age of vast armies and overweening ambition on the part of other nations, is to consign the peoples of the broken country to weak and insignificant places in the panorama of nations; but people must have freedom and autonomy before they are capable of their greatest result in the cause of progress.
In conclusion, there is substantive evidence that Oscar Wilde did craft this statement; however, uncertainty remains. The supporting testimony came from A. H. Cooper-Prichard who asserted that he heard the remark directly from Wilde during a conversation, but Cooper-Prichard published his observation in 1931 long after Wilde’s death in 1900.
Image Notes: Assemblage of flags in a heart shape from GDJ at Pixabay. The image has been cropped to produce a rectangular shape, and the image has been resized.
(Great thanks to Dave Kahn and Jim Cornelius whose discussion and inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1931, Conversations with Oscar Wilde by A. H. Cooper-Prichard (Arthur Henry Cooper-Prichard), Chapter 1: My Introduction To Oscar Wilde, Quote Page 20, Philip Allan, London. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1931, Conversations with Oscar Wilde by A. H. Cooper-Prichard (Arthur Henry Cooper-Prichard), Chapter 5: Oscar Wilde at Afternoon Tea, Quote Page 99, Philip Allan, London. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1962 (First Printing 1952), The Epigrams Of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Alvin Redman, Chapter 16: Politics, Quote Page 135, Alvin Redman Limited, London, England. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1954 October 16, The Saturday Review, Oscarisms for Today (Quotations reprinted from “The Epigrams of Oscar Wilde” edited by Alvin Redman), Quote Page 23, Column 3, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz) ↩
- 1957, The Book of Unusual Quotations, Compiled by Rudolf Flesch, Topic: Patriotism, Quote Page 205, Column 1, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1964 July 11, The Windsor Star, Irish Abolish Rope: Except for Killing Police, Politicians by John Monahan, Quote Page 8, Column 5, Windsor, Ontario, Canada. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1995 (Copyright 1994), Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Irish by Davis Coakley, Chapter 13: A most recalcitrant patriot, Quote Page 195 and 196, Town House, Dublin, Ireland. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1882 June 25, The Daily Picayune (The Times-Picayune), Oscar Wilde: Talks of Texas, Where He Was Dubbed a “Colonel” and Fell in Love with Galveston and San Antonio, Quote Page 11, Column 5, New Orleans, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩