We are punished for our refusals. Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind, and poisons us. The body sins once, and has done with its sin, for action is a mode of purification. . . . Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful. It has been said that the great events of the world take place in the brain. It is in the brain, and the brain only, that the great sins of the world take place also.
Lord Henry begins his seduction of Dorian’s mind with these words in Chapter Two. Lord Henry advocates a return to the “Hellenic ideal,” to the sensibilities of ancient Greece where the appreciation of beauty reigned. He strikes a contrast between those glory days and the present mode of living, which, he believes, is marked by a morality that demands self-denial. The outcome of denial, he goes on to say, is only a stronger desire for that which has been denied. This passage is a bold challenge to conventional and restrictive Victorian morality; it dismisses the notion of sin as a figment of the imagination. Interestingly, if sin is relegated to the mind, as Lord Henry would have it, then it should follow that the body is free from the effects of sin. According to this line of thinking, Dorian’s tragedy, then, is that he is unable to purge his “monstrous and unlawful” acts from his conscience. One must remember, however, that Lord Henry has failed to put his philosophy to the test. Although he is a great advocate of sin, he is hardly a sinner, and his understanding of the soul—sickened or otherwise—never incorporates the knowledge that Dorian gradually acquires.