A number of times in our past postings, I’ve mentioned Fors Clavigera, Ruskin’s great, late, masterpiece, a “book” much neglected these days (like so many of his works). Now, as we begin a new year, it seems the right time to offer a few first reflections on these 96 letters which were written during the 1870s and early 1880s to the working people of Britain.
Ruskin began writing the Fors letters in 1871 under difficult personal circumstances. As the 1850s ended, he had became convinced that his widely read, intensely applauded art and architecture criticism had helped virtually no one. In all his works to that point, he had tried to help his readers see the manifold, manifest, and precious beauties of nature, after which perceivings, he believed, they would stop their unconscionable destruction of the environment and begin to embrace ways to live together harmoniously. It hadn’t worked. Rather, his readers, loving his wonderful descriptions of moss, mountains, and paintings, and wanting to place his picture recommendations prominently in their parlors so that their guests would be suitably impressed, had bought many works created by the artists his pages had most admired, driving up the price of these works in the process. Good for the artists, of course, but not what he had had in mind.
As a consequence, in 1860, beginning with the publication of Unto this Last, he radically changed course, taking up sociology, writing scathing critique after scathing critique of the exploitative economic and social system of his time. Such arguments he thought would not only show his contemporaries the errors of their self-serving economic ways, they would provide a vision of a better, more humane, honest-dealing social world toward which all could proceed. But–and shockingly to the author–this “political economy” (as it was called during his time) had not been met not with “thank-goodness-you-finally-made-all-this-clear” applause (he had essentially said, as George Bernard Shaw later put it, that his contemporaries were “a parcel of thieves”). Instead, these works were met by a fusillade of vituperative denunciations by capitalists and elites of all stripes. Another failure.
Thus it happened that, on January 1, 1871, determined to start again, Ruskin decided to start a series of monthly letters to the “workers of England,” hoping that this new audience would see from his missives how they had been eagerly and willfully crippled by their “betters,” after which, joining with him, they would collectively work toward making England–and after, the world–a “green and pleasant land” once again.
The first paragraphs of his first Fors letter–today’s post–are, in effect, his New Year’s Resolution, or perhaps it would be better to say, his “new life’s resolution.” There are a number of references in what you will read that could use some annotating, but I’m not going to bother to explain them because it seems to me that much of what he specifies applies to us and our lives still. Maybe you’ll agree. While the excerpt is a little longer than usual, I hope you’ll forgive the extra lines because this is not your usual run-of-the-mill-quickly-forgotten-by-the-end-of-the-week-resolution. He gave this letter the title “Looking down from Ingleborough,” that last word being the name of the highest mountain in northern England, from the summit of which the view of the landscape and of everything going on in it is clearest. “My friends,” he began,
We begin to-day another group of ten years–not in happy circumstances. Although for the time [we have been] exempted from the direct calamities which have fallen on neighboring nations, believe me, we have not escaped [entirely] because of our better deservings nor by our better wisdom–but only [because of] one or two bad reasons: [because] we have not sense enough to determine which [way of life] is right, or [because] we have not courage to defend the right when we have discerned it.
I believe that both these bad reasons exist in full force, that our own political divisions prevent us from understanding the laws of international justice, and that, even if we did, we should not dare to defend, perhaps not even to assert, them, being, on this first of January, 1871, in much bodily fear: …afraid of the Russians, afraid of the Prussians, afraid of the Americans, afraid of the Hindus, afraid of the Chinese, afraid of the Japanese, afraid of the New Zealanders…And very justly [afraid, because] our only real desire respecting any of these nations has been to get as much out of them as we could…
I have listened to many ingenious persons, who say we are better off now than ever we were before. I do not know how well off we were before, but I know positively that many very deserving persons of my acquaintance have great difficulty in living under these improved circumstances. [I know] also that my desk is full of begging letters, eloquently written either by distressed or dishonest people, [know too] that we cannot be called, as a nation, well off, while so many of us are either living in honest or in villainous beggary.
For my own part, I will put up with this state of things, passively, not an hour longer. I am not an unselfish person, nor an Evangelical one. I have no particular pleasure in doing good. Neither do I dislike doing it so much as to expect to be rewarded for it in another world. But I simply cannot paint, nor read, nor look at minerals, nor do anything else that I like, nor see the light of the morning sky when there is any (which is seldom nowadays near London)…because of the misery that I know of…which no imagination can interpret too bitterly.
Therefore, as I have said, I will endure it no longer quietly [and] henceforward, with any few or many who will help, will do my poor best to abate this misery…
As I said, not your usual New Year’s Resolution! But, I hope, one worth pondering.
In which January context, I wish you all a Happy New Year. May your own good resolutions hold fast and your year ahead flourish in the light of, and the consequences which arise from, them.