To my mind Oscar Wilde more or less nailed the answer to this question in his 1891 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. In the words of Dorian's mentor, Lord Henry:
The aim of life is self-development. To realize one's nature perfectly--that is what each of us is here for. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to one's self.
No deities or superstitious beliefs required.
If more people were to attend to optimizing their own potential without regard for tribal or social dictates (or for the extent to which other people are or are not conforming to such dictates) there would be far less conflict.
As a more contemporary writer put it in more incisive terms,
. . . the extremes of nationalism (sacrifice of self for nation-state), communism (absorption of self in collective), and individualism (self only matters) are, frankly, all extremes that push natures too far from nature, though it takes strong doses of individualism to realize the importance of the individual. It is also clear that religion may function as any one of these extremes with the same consequences of intolerance and permanent conflict.
--Tobias Churton, The Beast in Berlin
Excellent choices both.The reason I like the Oscar Wilde is that it mirrors on the intellectual level the fundamental idea of physical evolution. It is from the immense variety of individuals that the successful modifications are discovered. If there is any evolution on the intellectual level, it comes from individuals developing themselves to their peak.
There are quite a few other passages along these lines. One that was very popular in intellectual circles at the end of the nineteenth century and which may have inspired Wilde was the conclusion of Walter Pater's book on the Renaissance:
as Victor Hugo says: we are all under sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve -- les hommes sont tous condamnés mort avec des sursis indéfinis: we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among "the children of this world," in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion -- that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments' sake.
Thanks Dr. Clark.
> If there is any evolution on the intellectual level, it comes from individuals developing themselves to their peak.
A very Nietzschean idea. He said somewhere that the entire purpose of a culture is the development of a few exceptional individuals.
He definitely inspired Wilde. He's one of the larger entries in the index of Ellman's biography. Oscar to some extent saw his mission as carrying on Pater's message.
I've forgotten, but I believe Wilde, as a student at Oxford, actually knew Pater. Is that in Ellman?
T. S. Eliot, with Wilde in mind and sounding a bit like somebody's maiden aunt, said of Pater's Renaissance:
His view of art, as expressed in THE RENAISSANCE, impressed itself upon a number of writers in the 'nineties, and propagated some confusion between life and art which is not wholly irresponsible for some untidy lives.
"Untidy" hardly begins to describe Wilde's life—what an odd choice of words.
Yes, they were friends after Wilde's sending Pater some of his work resulted in a bit of a mutual admiration society. You're right, "untidy" is a somewhat euphemistic epithet for Oscar's life.
I have that book by Dan Barker - I am glad he wrote it.
I should have said that I wasn't driven to entertain anyone but myself. The audience didn't matter much, except that it was flattering to get a paycheck, skimpy as it was. It was entirely for myself; when the music started I HAD to dance or skate. Traveling the US and Mexico was an extra treat.
That sounds wonderful to me sk8eycat