19: The Living Inhabitation of the World


I usually have a number of possible posts running around in my head at any given moment, and then something else of Ruskin’s edges them out because it seems more immediately important. Today’s post provides an example of such an intruder. I hope you’ll agree that it was worth whatever was coming, although you’ll have to wait until the next offering to judge!

As earlier posts have mentioned, Ruskin was a lover of nature like almost no one before or anyone after (if you want to look at these posts, go to the right hand side of this page, open the “Previous Posts by Category” window, and choose the “Nature” option; they’ll all come up). His ability to make the world in which we live and breathe come alive in new ways was without parallel. So, since it is beautiful summer and the subject of his life-long love is in full flower about us every day, and also because I recently came across the bits below during my usual morning minutes reading on our wonderful porch overlooking wonderful Seneca Lake (which, on many mornings, looks like this⇓⇓shortly after sunrise), I offer them in “substitution.”

Seneca Sunrise

In the mid-1880s, knowing his useful time was rapidly coming to its close, Ruskin began, as I’ve mentioned, an autobiography, Praeterita, a record of the things which, over the course of his life, had given him the most pleasure. It published serially. As he completed a chapter, it was issued in pamphlet form, only much later being collected into a single volume. It is a stunning book still, truly a joy to read, so glorious are its descriptions of his days, his friends, his travels, of art, of nature. Of Praeterita, John Rosenberg, in The Genius of John Ruskin, his superb collection of some of the best of its subject’s paragraphs and essays (easily, and relatively cheaply, available at addall.com), says that it is “the most charming autobiography in English,” adding that Ruskin’s “late voice is rich in all the nuances of speech, capable almost of physical gesture. We, its readers, become oblivious of the printed word and follow instead the elusive soliloquy of a mind so habituated to solitude that we seem to overhear it thinking aloud. Nothing else is quite so daringly inconsequent, so immediate, so capable of communicating the music of consciousness itself. Joyce’s interior monologues are, by comparison, contrived declamations.” (If you are interested, Francis O’Gorman has just published, with Oxford University Press, the first complete version of Praeterita to print in over a century, his version full of marvelously helpful editorial notes.) Unfortunately, Ruskin never finished his story because, as the 1880s progressed, he did not. His periodic mental attacks became more frequent and more debilitating and, after June 1889, he never again used his pen for anything more than a few letters to friends. (However it is worth mentioning, especially in this context, that the last thing he ever wrote for print was Praeterita‘s “concluding” chapter, “Joanna’s Care,” a touching tribute to his adoring cousin, Joan Severn.)

With that, hardly veiled, suggestion for summer reading finished (just imagine what various folks, friends, and neighbors would say to find you deeply engrossed in Praeterita on the beach!), let’s return to Ruskin’s love of nature, our immediate subject. I offer what comes next in reverse chronological order, the idea of the later (earlier) bits being proof of the case Ruskin makes in the first (later) passage, that being, specifically, from Praeterita‘s ninth chapter–astonishing and beautiful, as I hope you’ll agree:

The living inhabitation of the world–the grazing and nestling in it–the spiritual power of the air, the rocks, the waters–to be in the midst of it, and rejoice and wonder at it, and help it if I could (happier if it need no help of mine), this was the essential love of Nature in me, this the root of all I have usefully become, and the light of all that I have rightly learned.

Ruskin's View Kirkby Lonsdale

(“Ruskin’s View,” Kirkby Lonsdale, England)

A quarter century before, in 1860, he had written what comes next. It appears near the end of Unto this Last, his scathing attack on the inhumanities visited, in one guise or an another, on everyone by laissez-faire capitalism:

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.

wildflowers, italy

(Wildflowers near Geneva, Switzerland)

Earlier still, in 1856, writing on subjects at some remove from political economy in Modern Painters III, we find the next passage, explaining, in certain terms, the vital importance of nature in our lives:

If we take full view of the matter, we shall find that the love of Nature, wherever it has existed, has been a faithful and sacred element of human feeling…[When it is present, it] will be found to bring with it such a sense of the presence and power of a Great Spirit as no mere reasoning can either induce or controvert… [Indeed,] it is precisely the most healthy element which distinctively belongs to us, and that, out of it, cultivated no longer in levity or ignorance, but in earnestness and as a duty, results will spring of an importance at present inconceivable; and lights arise which, for the first time in man’s history, will reveal to him the true nature of his life, the true field of his energies…


(View of a village in the Valley of the Cluse, France)

And finally, completing the retreat, we have this from Modern Painters I, written in 1842 when he was but 24. As always with Ruskin, even a very young Ruskin, it is good to take every word and phrase seriously, as he means exactly what he says:

Ideas of beauty are among the noblest which can be presented to the human mind, invariably exalting and purifying it according to their degree…[T]here is not one single object in Nature which is not capable of conveying them, and which, to the rightly perceiving mind, does not present an incalculably greater number of beautiful than of deformed parts, there being, in fact, scarcely anything in pure, undiseased nature like positive deformity, but only degrees of beauty, or such slight and rare points of…contrast as may render all around them more valuable by their opposition–spots of blackness in creation, to make its colors felt!


(The Aiguilles of Mont Blanc, from “Ruskin’s Rock,” Chamouni, France)

Thus, working backwards, we find abundant evidence establishing the truth of our first quote of today: the importance for Ruskin, throughout his life–and perhaps ours–of being in tune with and reverencing “the living inhabitation of the world.”

Enjoy summering (and, of course, that special book on the beach!).



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4 Responses to 19: The Living Inhabitation of the World

  1. Steven Lee says:

    Thanks for the post. I have two questions about the second Ruskin quote. First, what is the sense in which he speaks of all lovely things being necessary? Second, why does he regard, as it seems he does, tended nature, as in herds of cattle (what ecosystems were destroyed to create that grazing meadow?) as on a par with undisturbed nature? This is counterintuitive, certainly to much of the writing of those who appreciate nature, where human interruptions, except where they are designed to repair the natural ecosystem, are seen as disruptions. Why wouldn’t this seem even more so to him at the dawn of the industrial age when humans were perpetrating violent actions on nature?
    Steve Lee

    • jimspates says:

      Hi, Steve,

      Thanks for your nice comment about this post and your good questions. Let me have a go at each of them.

      To the FIRST: in the second volume of MODERN PAINTERS (1846, about 15 years before the quote you mention), Ruskin spent the first half of his book working out a clear definition of Beauty, what constituted it, what didn’t, with various examples and careful arguments justifying his conclusions. One of those conclusions was that, when we are in touch with or surrounded by something truly beautiful, it always has a salutary effect on our consciousness. The beautiful can be the sight of sunrise by a lovely lake, a flower, a mountain, a person’s face, a poem, the delight a parent feels when her or his child takes a first step or utters a first word, and some thousands of other things, thoughts, or emotions. He gives the “list” he does in this quote because it is precisely these things of which the “science” proposed by the classical economists–Smith, Ricardo, Bentham, J. S. Mill (the targets of his critique in UNTO THIS LAST)–takes no notice because they have no exchangeable value in the market. And yet, Ruskin argues, they are among the vital things that make for joy in our days and lives–they are WEALTH, unpurchasable. Hence, “as the art of life is learned, it will be found at last that all lovely things are also necessary,” the message being that, as long as we think and act as though money can buy us life, we have no notion of what life really is.

      My comment on your SECOND question is related. You are quite right in your last sentence: Ruskin’s reaction to the despoliations caused by the Industrial Revolution was intense. Indeed, it can be argued that he was, if not the first, then one of the first real environmentalists, his rages against the ravaging of the natural environment by what his mentor, Thomas Carlyle, called the “captains of industry,” are legion in his works. (If you want a particularly powerful example, see his unremitting critique in a late–1884–lecture, “The Storm-Cloud of the 19th Century–1884: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/20204/20204-h/20204-h.htm.) But more directly to your point: Ruskin did not see nature and human life in contest with one another, because, when “the art of life was learned,” it would be obvious that they “two sides of the same coin,” each a vital part of the “living inhabitation of the world.” A passage from Linnaeus which he particularly loved appears in the “Preface” to MODERN PAINTERS II and points to this recognition of mutual interdependence between ourselves and nature: Linnaeus: “I saw animals dependent on vegetables, vegetables on things earthly, things earthly on the globe of the earth, [and] then, by never shaken law, the globe of the earth to revolve around the sun from which it has its loan of life.” Regarding your remark about human interference with ecosystems, I suppose he would say two things: first, that it would not be possible for us to live without some sort of “interference” with nature and, second, that being the case, such “interference” should always be gentle and salubrious, meaning, as minimal and reverential and protective of the natural world as possible. That he would loathe our modern mega-agricultural techniques, our genetic modifications of nature’s produce, likely goes without saying. The key to me in this quote is his use of the word “tended” (twice) to suggest that tender care should be given to both cattle and corn, as well as to the good, helpful land on which they grow.

      If anyone else out there wants to join this discussion, please do!

  2. Mark Frost says:

    Just to add a couple of points to this interesting discussion, and in overall response to the two questions posted by Steve Lee. The first thing to note is that for Ruskin nature has been given to us by God and represents both an infinite resource (in terms of beauty and utility) and a sacred trust. In Chapter I of Modern Painters V (such a glorious book), he speaks of: the service which the flowers and trees, which man was at first appointed to keep, were intended to render to him in return for his care; and the services they still render to him, as far as he allows their influence, or fulfils his own task towards them.

    It’s a reciprocal relationship, then. But Ruskin also suggests that we are, in the end, in tremendous debt to nature. The passage I’ve just quoted is immediately followed by this exclamation: what infinite wonderfulness there is in this vegetation, considered, as indeed it is, [as] the means by which the earth becomes the companion of man–his friend and his teacher!

    Although nature provides resources it offers so much more, and when Ruskin comes to describe vegetation, it becomes virtually sentient so powerful is its potential effect on us: it is a veil of strange intermediate being: which breathes, but has no voice; moves, but cannot leave its appointed place; passes through life without consciousness, to death without bitterness; wears the beauty of youth, without its passion; and declines to the weakness of age, without its regret.

    The long passage that follows is stunning, but also answers the question about environment and responsibility:

    And in this mystery of intermediate being, entirely subordinate to us, with which we can deal as we choose, having just the greater power as we have the less responsibility for our treatment of the unsuffering creature, most of the pleasures which we need from the external world are gathered, and most of the lessons we need are written, all kinds of precious grace and teaching being united in this link between the Earth and Man; wonderful in universal adaptation to his need, desire, and discipline; God’s daily preparation of the earth for him, with beautiful means of life. First, a carpet to make it soft for him; then, a coloured fantasy of embroidery thereon; then, tall spreading of foliage to shade him from sun heat, and shade also the fallen rain, that it may not dry quickly back into the clouds, but stay to nourish the springs among the moss. Stout wood to bear this leafage: easily to be cut, yet tough and light, to make houses for him, or instruments (lanceshaft, or plough-handle, according to his temper); useless it had been, if harder; useless, if less fibrous; useless, if less elastic. Winter comes, and the shade of leafage falls away, to let the sun warm the earth; the strong boughs remain, breaking the strength of winter winds. The seeds which are to prolong the race, innumerable according to the need, are made beautiful and palatable, varied into infinitude of appeal to the fancy of man, or provision for his service: cold juice, or glowing spice, or balm, or incense, softening oil, preserving resin, medicine of styptic, febrifuge, or lulling charm: and all these presented in forms of endless change. Fragility or force, softness and strength, in all degrees and aspects; unerring uprightness, as of temple pillars, or unguided wandering of feeble tendrils on the ground; mighty resistances of rigid arm and limb to the storms of ages, or wavings to and fro with faintest pulse of summer streamlet. Roots cleaving the strength of rock, or binding the transience of the sand; crests basking in sunshine of the desert, or hiding by dripping spring and lightless cave; foliage far tossing in entangled fields beneath every wave of ocean—clothing, with variegated, everlasting films, the peaks of the trackless mountains, or ministering at cottage doors to every gentlest passion and simplest joy of humanity.
    Being thus prepared for us in all ways, and made beautiful, and good for food, and for building, and for instruments of our hands, this race of plants, deserving boundless affection and admiration from us, becomes, in proportion to their obtaining it, a nearly perfect test of our being in right temper of mind and way of life; so that no one can be far wrong in either who loves the trees enough, and every one is assuredly wrong in both who does not love them, if his life has brought them in his way.

    So, in many ways, this is closer to Natural Theology than ecology. But in other ways Ruskin is fostering exactly the kind of commitment to environmental care that would come to dominate the post-1860 period. If you want a sense of just how ecological his thinking can be there’s no better place to look than “The Work of Iron,” an 1858 lecture, and the “Introduction” to The Crown of Wild Olive, 1866. [JS: Both of these essays can be found in the collection of Ruskin’s complete works at The Ruskin Library site in Lancaster, UK: http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/users/ruskinlib/Pages/Works.html; the first is in Volume 16, the second in Volume 18.] Certainly Ruskin could fall into exactly the kind of environmental insensitivity so common in the period–see his grand plans for taming the Rhone in the 1870s, for example–but there is no nineteenth-century author more attuned to the infinity, wonder, and potential to be found by going to nature in the right spirit.

  3. Tim Holton says:

    Yes, for all his concerns (not, in fact, doubts) about Darwin’s theory, Ruskin seems to have grasped better than most the impossibility of humanity evolving through a totally antagonistic relationship to the rest of creation—a creation which, after all, he saw as governed by the “Law of Help” and therefore inhospitable to unhelpful elements or species. The nineteenth century idea of environmentalism that calls for a wall of protection around wilderness areas in order to preserve their pristine condition seems ripe for radical rethinking—as it is getting. Our great project today is to restore, primarily through our own creation, our relationship to nature’s creation. I think of the Indians who, having cultivated the floor of Yosemite Valley for centuries, were horrified that the Europeans allowed everything to grow. The modern mind seems to universally consider humans as an invasive species.

    Here’s a quote from a living thinker who seems to me to have it right—and to be very much in the tradition of Ruskin:
    “There is no such thing as a human community in any manner separate from the Earth community. The human community and the natural world will go into the future as a single integral community or we will both experience disaster on the way. However differentiated in its modes of expression, there is only one Earth community—one economic order, one health system, one moral order, one world of the sacred.” —Thomas Berry, “The Ecozoic Era”

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