In this excerpt from De Profundis, Oscar Wilde delivers a useful definition of Philistinism as it was in Christ’s day and is still to this day. Above: Wilde’s commerorative pane in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey.
[Christ] waged war chiefly against the Philistines. Every child of light has to do the same. Philistinism was the keynote of His age and the community in which He lived. The Jews of Jerusalem, in Christ’s time, are worthy counterparts of the British Philistines of our times, in their clumsy impenetrability, their stupid respectability, their tiresome orthodoxy, their admiration for the idols of the day, their devotion to the exclusive pursuit of coarse, material things, their preposterous self-sufficiency and self-importance. Christ often derided the “whited sepulchres” of respectability and fixed this designation for all time. He treated worldly success as an absolutely negative quantity ; He saw nothing in it. He looked upon riches as a drawback to a man. He did not believe that life should be sacrificed to any philosophical or ethical system. He taught that forms and customs existed for the sake of man, not man for the sake of customs and systems. He considered the principles preached by the Sabbatarians futile and useless. With utmost and unrelenting contempt He scourged cold-hearted philanthropy, the showy spectacle of public charity and charitable institutions and those formalities of charity which are so dear to our middle classes.
What we commonly call an orthodox is one who says “Yes” and “Amen” without troubling his mind very much about what he believes; but the orthodox Jews of old Jerusalem were tyrants, ready to strike down those who differed from them. Christ proved that the spirit, not the creed, was the essential element. He delighted in proving to them that while they were unceasingly reading the law and the prophets, they, in reality, had not the faintest conception of what either meant. In opposition to their fixed humdrum performance of prescribed duties regarding the tithing of each day, Christ taught them how important it was to live for the moment. Those whom He freed from the bondage of their sins, were freed for the sake of the beauty which was in store for them in their lives. When Mary Magdalen saw Christ, she broke the precious cruse of alabaster given her by one of her seven lovers and poured the fragrant ointment over His tired, dust-covered feet; for the sake of this one moment she sits, for all time, in Paradise, with Ruth and Beatrice, under an arbour garlanded with snow-white roses.
Christ softly admonishes and reminds us that every moment is beautiful, that the soul should always be prepared to receive the bridegroom and should always listen for the voice of the lover. Philistinism is simply that part of man which is not illumined by imagination.