By the maintenance of a State [or Society] is to be understood the support of its population in healthy and happy life and the increase of their numbers so far as that increase is consistent with their happiness. It is not the object of [social policy] to increase the numbers of a nation at the cost of common health and comfort, nor to increase indefinitely the comfort of individuals by sacrifice of surrounding lives or possibilities of life.
–Munera Pulveris (1862)
Wherever art is practiced for its own sake and the delight of the workman is in what he does or produces instead of what he interprets or exhibits, there art has an influence of the most fatal kind on brain or heart and issues, if long so pursued, in the destruction both of intellectual power and moral principle; whereas art devoted humbly and self-forgetfully to the clear statement of the facts of the universe is always helpful and beneficent to mankind, full of comfort, strength, and salvation.
—The Two Paths (1859)
I have already noticed the example of very pure and high typical beauty which is to be found in the lines and gradations of unsullied snow. If, passing to the edge or sheet of it upon the lower Alps early in May, we find, as we are nearly sure to find, two or three little openings pierced in it, and through these, emergent, a small, slender, pensive, fragile flower, whose small, dark, purple-fringed bell hangs down and shudders over the icy cleft it has chosen as if partly wondering at its own recent grave and partly dying of very fatigue after its hard-won victory, we shall be, or ought to be, moved by a totally different impression of loveliness from that which we receive from the dead ice and idle clouds. There is now uttered to us a call for sympathy, now offered to us an image of moral purpose and achievement, which, however unconscious or senseless the creature may indeed be that so seems to call, cannot be heard without attention, nor contemplated without worship by any of us whose heart is rightly tuned, or whose mind is clearly and surely sighted.
–Modern Painters II (1846)
The Alpine Soldanella in Spring
Three Ruskin quotes we have not, as yet, considered: one on society, one on art, on one nature; each subject a principal theme weaving its way through the 99 posts which have preceded this, our 100th. The task of all being to demonstrate, as I said in our very first post (“Every Dawn of Morning: An Introduction to this Site”), the continuing relevance of Ruskin and his thought as an eminently useful, albeit all but forgotten, means for understanding and coping with our own still very troubled (and seemingly more so every day) days: Ruskin, the great, widely celebrated nineteenth century seer, as truth teller, teacher, revealer of vital things hidden or missed, for twenty-first century eyes, thoughts, and hearts.
In an earlier post (#67), I included a lovely line where Ruskin said that “nothing that I tell you is mine. It is either David’s, or Solomon’s, or Plato’s, or Hesiod’s, or Chaucer’s…” By which he meant, of course, that, in the end, he could not, indeed would not, take credit for having said anything truly new. He was but repeating, for his time and readers, the essence of the wisdom which had come down through the ages concerning how human beings must choose to live if they wished to live well and happily, with themselves and with others.
Many during his time clearly saw what he was trying to do and were sufficiently moved by his works and words to use his rephrasings of ancient wisdoms as guides for not only their own lives but as frames for the various endeavors in which they had become involved which were dedicated to finding ways to ease the lives of others.
One was Vida Dutton Scudder. On her graduation from Smith College in 1884, Scudder’s intellectual abilities were so keenly developed, she was asked by Oxford University to come there and study for a year, one of the first women ever to be so invited. As it happened, that year at Oxford coincided with the last year of Ruskin’s professorship. Having already read a number of his books with care and enthusiasm during her undergraduate days, she made it a point to go to all his lectures, coming away from these deeply inspired and committed to the idea that his thought would serve as a foundation for her own thought and work for the rest of her life–as indeed proved to be the case.
Vida Scudder, 1890
After receiving her M.A. degree at Smith (her dissertation was on “The Great English Poets”), the following year, 1887, she was asked to join the faculty at Wellesley College as Professor of English Literature, a post she would hold until her retirement in 1924 (she died in 1954, at 93). At Wellesley, she became a prolific writer on social justice (always arguing for aid to the weaker and critiquing, vociferously, the exploitative practices of the rich and powerful), as well as a tireless campaigner for immigrants’, workers’, and, especially, women’s, rights. In 1890 she became a founding member of The College Settlements Association (CSA) on Rivington Street in New York City’s Lower East Side, at the time one of the worst slums in the world outside of the UK. Before that decade was out, the CSA had two more centers–one in Boston, one in Philadelphia–and more than 2000 members. With all this, Mr. Ruskin would’ve been delighted and proud that he had inspired such a soul.
As I said: a prolific writer. One of the earliest of Scudder’s nearly two dozen books was one she would always cherish as one of her best, An Introduction to the Writings of John Ruskin, 1890 (easily–and cheaply!!–available on the web: try addall.com, used books tab). Of all the compendia excerpting Ruskin’s thought which appeared near the end of his life and during the first decade following his death in 1900 (there were dozens!) this is, to my mind, one of the very best (for some excellent others, see Post 3), because, like few others, Scudder understood the greatness and importance that was Ruskin (and had seen him lecture–often–to boot!). Readers grasped the excellence of her collection as well, because the book went into a second edition not long after the first sold out. What she was trying to impress on those readers, as one after another of her carefully chosen and placed selections followed the one before–not unlike a host of new soldanellas emerging from Alpine snow drifts in Spring–was the ongoing relevance of Ruskin’s thought to the times in which they lived. An intent with which, a century and more later, I very much empathize.
All three of the Ruskin quotes which opened this post are to be found in her book. Like most compilers of such selections, Scudder arranges her passages in themed sections–one is focused on matters social, another on art and architecture, a third on nature. Also like most of her compiling colleagues, she introduces each section with some framing comments. What follows is one of these introductions. To my mind, it is one of the best ever written about Ruskin, one which shows how well this special editor understood him and his importance for us all:
We see the same great faith pervading all the phases of Ruskin’s work. In Nature, he beholds the vision of a Spirit that creates and controls all Beauty. In Art, he pleads for the self-expression of the soul as the source of all nobleness and truth. In his Sociology, he reiterates with earnestness the necessity of moral law. Thus life is to him one harmonious unity, the worship of Man inspired by the Spirit of God.
He never shrank from proclaiming unpopular truths–and the truths to which his nature most deeply responded are unpopular in our generation [not to mention our own]. In an age that prides itself on independence, he proclaimed the necessity of faithful obedience. At a time when the thoughts of men were wonderingly arrested by the vast sweep of mechanical [or, today, technological] law, he proclaimed the vaster sweep of Life. Always in his direct moral teachings, we find him fearlessly practical. He dealt little with theological speculations. To questions of creed he opposed the answer of silence. He pleaded [with all the power of his pen, that we acknowledge meaningful] work as the one salvation for body and soul…
Yet, in spite of all the events he mourned with the fervor of a Hebrew prophet, he never faltered in his belief that human life is meant to be thing of grace and joy. No taint of skepticism was upon him, no touch of morbid craving for sacrifice. Delight in the works of God was to his thought the true destiny of Man.
Not without struggle did Ruskin keep his vision clear. Doubt was not native to him, yet upon him was it forced in bewildered days. But the struggle meant victory [and] there can be no doubt concerning his own essential attitude: in his earliest and his latest books alike he shows a high serenity of Spiritual sight. We may say of him in the noble words which, belonging first to Robert Browning, belong also to every seer from Homer to Carlyle: “He at least believed in Soul, he was very sure of God.”
John Ruskin, by W. G. Collingwood (1890s)
I want to end this hundredth post with what I believe to be one of Ruskin’s greatest and most important paragraphs, one not often cited these days (Scudder includes it in her book!). It appears near the end of the fourth and final essay of Unto this Last (1860), our subject’s no-holds-barred attack on the unconscionable and immoral avarice which lay at the center of the laissez-faire enterprise, a cupidity which he knew to be destroying all that was best in his country and nature. It was a passage intending to recall for his readers the importance of learning to see and love the Beauty that surrounds us each and every moment of our lives, a passage designed to teach us that, if we would try to do this small but immensely important recognitional thing, riches undreamed of would be ours, no coin needed, no coin spent.
No scene is continually and untiringly loved but one rich by joyful human labor. Smooth in field; fair in garden; full in orchard; trim, sweet, and frequent in homestead, ringing with voices of vivid existence. No air is sweet that is silent; it is only sweet when full of low currents of undersound—triplets of birds, and murmur and chirp of insects, and deep-toned words of men, and wayward trebles of childhood.
As the art of life is learned, it will be found at last that all lovely things are also necessary: the wild flower by the wayside, as well as the tended corn, and the wild birds and creatures of the forest, as well as the tended cattle. Because man doth not live by bread only, but also by the desert manna, by every wondrous word and unknowable work of God. Happy, in that he knew them not, nor did his fathers know; and that round about him reaches yet into the infinite, the amazement of his existence.
Until next time.
Be well out there!