A few days ago I wondered about a curious dichotomy that I find in Wilde's writing, that most of his major characters are sharp people with little respect for conventional mores in theory but very conventional lives in practice. I see it as Wilde's well-thought out tacit approval of some of society's seemingly stifling customs. I came across a few lines from Bertrand Russel which seem appropriate here. For those who do not know, Russel was a philosopher whom one could actually understand and respect but that was probably because he was also a gifted mathematician. He had the common sense which the best of philosophers so often lack (My God I hate it when people like Descarte can't figure out whether the table in front of them is real or not). The lines:
The civilized man is distinguished from the savage mainly by prudence, or, to use a slightly wider term, forethought. He is willing to endure present pains for the sake of future pleasures, even if the future pleasures are rather distant...
Civilization checks impulse not only through forethought, which is a self-administered check, but also through law, custom, and religion. This check it inherits from barbarism, but it makes it less instinctive and more systematic. Certain acts are labelled criminal, and are punished, certain others, though not punished by law, are labelled wicked, and expose those who are guilty of them to social disapproval... On the one hand the purposes of the community are enforced upon the individual, and, on the other hand the individual, having acquired the habit of viewing his life as a whole, increasingly sacrifices his present to the future.
It is evident that this process can be carried too far, as it is, for instance, by a miser. But without going to such extremes, prudence may easily involve the loss of some of the best things in life. The worshiper of Bacchus reacts against prudence. In intoxication, physical or spiritual, he recovers an intensity of feeling which prudence had destroyed; he finds the world full of delight and beauty, and his imagination is suddenly liberated from the prison of everyday preoccupations... Much of what is greatest in human achievement involves some element of intoxication, some sweeping away of prudence by passion. Without the Bacchic element, life would be uninteresting, with it, it is dangerous. Prudence versus passion is a conflict that runs through history. It is not a conflict in which we ought to side wholly with either party.
-Bertrand Russel in The History of Western Philosophy