1823 | London

The Perfect Murder

What’s the use of virtue?

When a murder is in the paulo-post-futurum tense—not done, not even (according to modern purism) being done, but only going to be done—and a rumor of it comes to our ears, by all means let us treat it morally.

But suppose it over and done and that you can say of it, It is finished, or (in that adamantine molossus of Medea), Done it is, it is a fait accompli. Suppose the poor murdered man to be out of his pain, and the rascal that did it off like a shot nobody knows whither; suppose, lastly, that we have done our best, by putting out our legs, to trip up the fellow in his flight, but all to no purpose—“abiit, evasit, excessit, erupit,” etc.—why then, I say, what’s the use of any more virtue? Enough has been given to morality; now comes the turn of Taste and the Fine Arts. A sad thing it was, no doubt, very sad; but we can’t mend it. Therefore let us make the best of a bad matter; and, as it is impossible to hammer anything out of it for moral purposes, let us treat it aesthetically and see if it will turn to account in that way. Such is the logic of a sensible man—and what follows? We dry up our tears and have the satisfaction, perhaps, to discover that a transaction which, morally considered, was shocking and without a leg to stand upon, when tried by principles of Taste, turns out to be a very meritorious performance. Thus all the world is pleased; the old proverb is justified: that it is an ill wind which blows nobody good. The amateur, from looking bilious and sulky by too close an attention to virtue, begins to pick up his crumbs, and general hilarity prevails. Virtue has had her day; and henceforward, Virtù, so nearly the same thing as to differ only by a single letter (which surely is not worth haggling or higgling about)—Virtù, I repeat, and Connoisseurship, have leave to provide for themselves.


Thomas De Quincey

From “Murder as One of the Fine Arts.” Known for his memoir Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, first published in 1821, de Quincey was a prolific writer in multiple genres—fiction, essay, treatise, and poetry. He first tried opium while enrolled at Oxford University’s Worcester College. Enamored of the Romantics, de Quincey later donated five hundred pounds to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a fellow opium addict, and lived for a time with William Wordsworth.