Of all attainable liberties, be sure first to strive…to be useful. Independence you had better cease to talk of, for you are dependent not only on every act of people whom you never heard of, who are living all around you, but on every past act of what has been dust for a thousand years. So also does the course of a thousand years to come depend upon the little perishing strength that is in you.
So wrote John Ruskin, in 1871, to the readers of the third of his monthly letters addressed to the workers of Great Britain. It was a series which would eventually span more than a dozen years, ending only after its 96th installment printed in 1884. The sentiments expressed in these sentences are quintessential, for, if ever there was a great thinker devoted to our collective welfare, it was Ruskin. Indeed, if there is a single, overriding message embedded in the more than forty books he published over the course of a five decades long career that went through the heart of the Victorian era, it was this: that, in truth and perpetuity, we exist only for each other’s benefit, and further, that, when we find ways to live in concert with this truth, we will thrive, as will those yet to be born who will follow us. Other sentences, from the much-earlier Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), say as much beautifully and poignantly:
God has lent us the earth for our life. It is a great entail. It belongs as much to those who are to come after us…as to us. And we have no right, by anything we might do or neglect, to involve them in unnecessary penalties or deprive them of benefits which it was in our power to bequeath… Every human action gains in honor, in grace, in all true magnificence, by its regard of things that are to come… Therefore, when we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them…
Here’s a third instance, one of my favorites, from a dialogue composed in 1866, in which Ruskin imagines a series of discussions between an “Old Lecturer” and some girls at an English private school. To these, the antiquing teacher remarks:
The will of God respecting us is that we shall live by each other’s happiness and life, not by each other’s misery and death. Men help each other by their joy, not their sorrow. They are not intended to slay themselves for each other, but to strengthen themselves for each other.
Seven years ago, in the wake of an unexpected and devastating personal tragedy, after a 99th posting, I stopped sending out on e-mail what had become a semi-regular series of Ruskin quotes to a group of friends and acquaintances. My heart wasn’t in it anymore. The list had begun as a result of a suggestion made by a dear friend, who, staying at our home over the weekend with her husband, noticed a number of skin sayings around the house–taped beneath pictures, stuck on monitor edges, or magnetized–of course!–on our refrigerator door. She was much taken by them. Later, she asked if there were more. I said that there were hundreds. Hundreds? she asked. Yes, I reiterated, hundreds! At which juncture she said that, given that she was sure she and her husband would not be the only folks who might find such sentences worth reading and thinking about, I should start a Ruskin Quote of the Week list. I thought it might be worth a try. The initial post, sent to about a dozen friends who knew of my interest in Ruskin, made its way into cyberspace on September 19, 2000. The quote I used for this mailing was the one my friend had liked best of those she discovered in our house. It comes from the same set of imagined chats between the Old Lecturer and his students. Good advice for them, of course. Good advice, perhaps, for all of us:
Do not think of your faults; still less of others’ faults. In every person who comes near you, look for what is good and strong. Honor that. Rejoice in it, and, as you can, try to imitate it–and your faults will drop off like dead leaves, when their time comes.
By the time the last quote on this Quote of the Week e-list went out, five and a half years later (mathematicians will quickly calculate that the list never lived up to that “Quote of the Week” description), over 150 people were on it. In the years that have gone their way since that final posting, more than a few of the list’s recipients have said that they miss the Ruskin mailings. In due course, I did too.
So, if you are reading this, it is almost surely because, for some reason, accurate or misguided, I entertained the thought that you might find some pleasure and usefulness in encountering some of Mr. Ruskin’s thoughts in this new, more technologically complex, blog (what a word!) format. The idea is this: Each week, assuming I can get my act together (probably a dubious assumption given my track record), I’ll send out a Ruskin quote (or, maybe, as here, two, three, or more!) which seems to me to be worthy of your reflection. Reading it, you can do a number of things: Nothing. Make a comment (critical or laudatory). Send me some ideas for future mailings. Or suggest some new approach or ideas which have yet to rise to the surface of a too-often overboiling brain. We might get some good chats going (we did in the case of many of the quotes that circulated on the earlier list). It might be fun! At the very least, given who Ruskin was and remains, it should be interesting.
The goals of these postings are two. First, I want to convince you that Ruskin is one of the greatest geniuses Western Civilization has produced. Second, I want to demonstrate that the great majority of his works still retain remarkable relevance for our time, not simply because of their literary brilliance (few who know Ruskin well would deny that this mesmerizing quality percolates throughout almost all his paragraphs no matter how arcane their subject), but because of their perspicacity and ability to suggest reasonable and persuasive solutions to serious predicaments which, very much abroad and troubling in his day, continue, in our variant, their disturbing run.
The first objective may strike some as a tad antic, especially given the fact that, today, few remember Ruskin. The British Nineteenth was, after all, the century of Wordsworth, Turner, Dickens, Gladstone, Disraeli, Spencer, Swinburne, Morris, Millais, Rossetti, Carlyle, Thackeray, Tennyson, Coleridge, two Brontes, two Brownings, and an Austen, not to mention some noteworthy imports like Oscar Wilde (once Ruskin’s student at Oxford), and Karl Marx. But yes: every bit as significant as any of these! Indeed, more significant than many. The second objective may seem just as dubitable. After all, if he was that good and had so much to say of use, why don’t we know anything about him? We know a lot about the others on the just-rehearsed list!
Reasonable reactions, both. To be countered in posts pending–along with, in its due place, an explanation of why the subject of this site, one of the most prominent men of his age, is now so deeply buried in our cultural consciousness.
Such objectives, objections, and promises noted, I’ll bring this first missive to a close–with a short story and one last quote.
Recently, I received a great honor. Two of my finest former students, students who had studied with me over the course of a semester in Vietnam and who deepened our connection after returning home in a series of “out of class” chats, revolving, mostly, around Plato and Ruskin, decided to get married. Decided, too, that they wanted me, their former teacher, now their friend, to marry them. Naturally, when they called to suggest this sacred service, I said that, while I was more than a little touched by their lovely thought, there was a problem: I was a professor not a minister. “Oh,” they rejoined immediately, obviously having anticipated my remark, “That’s not a problem! You can become a minister on the web in minutes these days!” And true enough it proved to be. Though serious seminaries everywhere must be aghast and furious over this recent turn of .com events, I soon found that, if you are willing to fill out a simple form (answering during that parsimonious process not a single ecclesiastical question!) and forward a few credit card underwritten dollars to the (in my case, Universalist Life) Church, you can be legally ordained. Following which certification of piety you are able, at least in the States allowing it (now many!), to baptize, bury, or marry as many people as you, or they, like.
And so it came to be that, in early October of the year which most of us would still think of as 2013, after having consulted with our marvelous former minister on a number of small details, like how to walk in, out, vow, and put rings on fingers properly during such a ceremony, by the authority granted to me by the internet, I married Tess Wiggins and Trevor Gionet. It was a great entail! But it was also a great deal of fun and an exceedingly joyous event. They are the greatest kids! As the service neared its close, having known from earlier experiences at such life-transfiguring unions that a benediction (literally: a “speaking of good words”) would be expected, I was ready. For, from the first moments which followed my acceptance of their pastoral request, I knew I would use what I knew to be two especially fine sentences of Mr. Ruskin’s, sentences he shared with his Oxford students in 1870. I believe Trevor and Tess found them appropriate for their blessing. To me, these (very good) words reprise the vital thought which lies at the heart of all the quotes above, the perpetual responsibility we bear for enhancing each other’s welfare (our, their, “faring well”) as we wend our way through our days.
Let every dawn of morning be to you as the beginning of life, and every setting sun be to you as its close. Then let every one of these short lives leave its sure record of some kindly thing done for others, some goodly strength or knowledge gained for yourselves.
Until next time.
Be well out there.
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As mentioned, getting this blog up and launched has been a bit of a challenge, a fairly steep series of steps up an impressive new learning curve. I certainly could not have come has far as I have up this hill without the good help of two folks who were both understanding and patient in the presence of my ignorance, folks who, in addition to being remarkably accomplished, were uniquely capable of sharing what they knew with a seriously technochallenged brain! Juliet Boisselle and Stan Weaver, both Digital Learning Consultants in our Department of Information Technology here at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, are those people. Stan helped me with the lovely banner of pictures at the top of the home page and other images throughout the site; Juliet did almost everything else, spending many hours over many weeks patiently explaining (often, re-explaining!) how to do many things–from how to create and edit text and pages, to, at last, showing me how to send, not without a modicum of trepidation, posts into the cyberworld. My abiding thanks to both! Unhappily (as, surely, they suspect), their tasks aren’t finished! Like the bad penny, I am sure to keep turning up. Finally, from across the Atlantic waters, I was helped on more than one occasion by Stuart Eagles, the most accomplished webmaster for The Guild of St. George site (for which, see the Ruskin Resources Page). Having been there before me, he helped me go there for the first time.
My thanks to my wife, Jennifer Morris, are of another sort. When I first got the idea of this blog, she was the one who immediately told me to seek out the accomplished people just noticed. Then, as time passed and drafts and possible images surfaced, she was, as always, the epitome of my supporters and editors. Immensely grateful for such helpings, I am so very much more grateful for the fact that she is there, every day, to share my life!
Of course, when blunders appear on this site (as they will; perhaps some have already made their entry!), they are the result of my own ignorances and overlookings. In other words, the four fine souls just acknowledged have nothing to do with gaffes.