70: The Mathematical Necessity of Happiness

As our last post and, indeed, the daily state of this rounding planet suggests, there is always the tumult. To counter which, there are, of course, Wordsworth’s famous and wonderful lines, written 1802 (and published in 1807):

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. –Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

When Wordsworth wrote, the Industrial Revolution was newly underway and just beginning its concerted attack on the lovelinesses of Nature with which the poet lamented we had already lost touch.

By the time he was in full authorial stride a half century later, the time during which the Industrial Revolution was at its peak, the tumult that Ruskin saw in his Britain was considerably worse than anything the poet of Dove Cottage had laid his worried eyes upon. (The pair, Ruskin much the younger, had a modest relationship. All his life, Ruskin lauded Wordsworth’s works and frequently cited his lines and insights.) Here’s an idea of what Ruskin would’ve seen as he entered Bradford (extolled by its locals as “the most prosperous city in England”!!) that day in 1864 when he would deliver one of his greatest lectures–“Traffic”–about the soul-wrenching problems which, like the cruel flood which follows an unanticipated downpour, were visited on Nature and society in the wake of his fellows’ widespread and enthusiastic worship of the deity he called in that lecture “The Goddess of Getting-On”:’


For comparison (a myriad of other examples might be introduced), had Ruskin stopped for lunch on another day while en route to Wordsworth’s Lake District, in Preston (a city made justly infamous by Dickens in Hard Times) he would have been greeted by an almost identical view:


If anything, Ruskin loathed the despoliation of Nature which attended by the desire of so many of his fellow citizens to accumulate ever greater caches of cash, power, and prestige, even more than the great poet. It seemed to him that all this getting and spending had not only lain waste our powers, it was, despite an unflagging promise of producing the opposite, making us all miserable! It was surely with such things in mind that he set down the following gentling and helpful lines in the third volume of Modern Painters, hoping by them to convince his anxiety-riddled readers that true happiness was neither an impossibility nor some vague state waiting in some perpetually just-out-of-reach future. It was here, now and, to boot, with modest refocus, absolutely assured for all.

Gradually, thinking on from point to point, we shall come to perceive that all true happiness and nobleness are near us, and yet neglected by us…

The delights of horse racing and hunting, of assemblies in the night instead of the day, of costly and wearisome music, of costly and burdensome dress, of  chagrined contention for place and power or wealth, or the eyes of the multitude, and all the endless occupation without purpose and idleness without rest of our vulgar world are not, it seems to me, enjoyments we need to be ambitious to communicate.

All real and wholesome enjoyments possible to man have been just as possible to him since first he was made of the earth as they are now. And they are possible to him chiefly in peace: to watch the corn grow, and the blossoms set, to draw hard breath over ploughshare or space, to read, to think, to love, to hope, to pray. These are the things that make men happy. They have always had the power of doing this; they never will have the power to do more.

The world’s prosperity or adversity depends on our knowing and teaching these few things–but on iron, or glass, or electricity, in no wise. And I am utopian and enthusiastic enough to believe that the time will come when the world will discover this. It has now made its experiments in every possible direction but the right one–and it seems that it must, at last, try the right one, in a mathematical necessity. 

sunset-over-seneca-lake-15-september-2016Sunset over Seneca Lake last night, 15 September 2016

Wishing you the peacefulest and happiest of weekends.

Until next time!



P.S. That said, it may be worth including these “lest we forget” images, the first of the state of the sky over today’s Beijing, the other of the empyrean surrounding today’s New Delhi. Nor should we forget that, in essence, such skies, though happily hidden away in faraway places, are our creation, for, from them, we get much cheaper jeans, TVs, and iPhones.



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1 Response to 70: The Mathematical Necessity of Happiness

  1. Tim says:

    Thanks, Jim – that’s a beautiful photo of your lake, and all your pictures are expertly chosen to illustrate Ruskin’s and Wordsworth’s (and your own) eloquent admonitions. I’m attaching a couple more images. They’re of woodcuts that were recently exhibited at Dulwich Picture Gallery (Ruskin’s local gallery when he was young). They are by the Norwegian painter Nikolai Astrup. One is of a figure (Astrup himself) drawing “hard breath over ploughshare”. And the other illustrates Ruskin’s point about watching “the corn grow, and the blossoms set” – in this case it isn’t corn but the figures (Astrup’s family) are clearly watching their seeds grow, and they are doing so among blossoms that are a leitmotif for Astrup and so must have been among his principal sources of happines each year when the snows melted. Also, like you, he lived by the side of a lake (the one in the picture).


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