79: Work

Good Friends,

Today is the anniversary of Ruskin’s death, 20 January 1900. He was, on that last day, less than a month shy of his 81st birthday. We have it that he passed away quietly in his sleep, after a fine dinner (not, given the alternatives, a bad way to go). Millions (no exaggeration) mourned his passing, the vanishing of one of the great minds, the silencing of one of the most heralded prophetic voices of the nineteenth century. Fortunately, he left behind his words, and via these the magnificence which constituted his thought continues on, as do we.

Today is also the day on which the 45th president of the United States will be inaugurated. I doubt that anyone reading this would disagree that any idea of what the future holds for us all (and I am one of those who believes that, like it or not, America is the glue holding the world’s pieces together) appears murky–at best.

Unless I miss my guess, few of us are, or will be, in a position to directly influence the monumental policy decisions soon to be made in Washington. Still, we are all in a position to do something which avails toward life.

We work.

Near the end of the last post I quoted one of my favorite Ruskin’s passages, a paragraph from an early lecture where, countering those who are always saying that there is “nothing anyone can do to change things for the better” and those who deride anyone who has the temerity to suggest that they can make a difference for good as “Utopian,” he said (to repeat–and reminding that the “Canongate” is a street in Edinburgh where the lecture was delivered):

Utopian! There’s another of the devil’s pet words! I believe the quiet admission which we are all of us so ready to make, that, because things have long been wrong, it is impossible they should ever be right, is one of the most fatal sources of misery and crime from which this world suffers. Whenever you hear a man dissuading you from attempting to do well on the ground that perfection is Utopian, beware that man!  Cast the word out of your dictionary altogether. There is no need for it. Things are either possible or impossible. You can easily determine which… If the thing is impossible, you need not trouble yourselves about it. If possible, try for it. It is very Utopian to hope for the entire doing away with drunkenness and misery out of the Canongate. But the Utopianism is not our business, the work is.

The work is. Whatever else we do, in our several ways, we work–and in that fine fact lies the continuance of the audacity of hope, hope for making the foggy future stretching before us somewhat, perhaps much, brighter.

One of Ruskin’s greatest lectures was, in fact, entitled “Work” and, in it, another of my favorite passages. In due course, he said, “men will be taught that an existence of play sustained by the blood of other creatures is a good existence for gnats and jellyfish–but not for men! [Will learn] that neither days, nor lives, can be made holy or noble  by doing nothing in them; that the best prayer at the beginning of a day is that we may not lose its moment; and the best grace before meat, is the consciousness that we have justly earned our dinner.” It was with this remark in mind, that, with some hope of inspiring us in the weeks and months and years lying ahead, I thought it might be useful if I set out just a few of the dozens of comments Ruskin made about work and its imperative, beneficent, and perpetual role in each and all of our lives.

Extending the thought above–and excising even the anticipation of helpful calories!–he wrote the following in 1876 in one of the monthly letters he addressed to the working people of Britain: “If you wish to be satisfied in this life, here are the first terms I put to you for oath: that you will do good and helpful work whether you live or die, and if you do, when you come to lie down at night, whether hungry or weary, at least it will be in peace of heart and surety of honor.”

Which sentiment reminded me of another of those treasured quotes I keep before me every day. It is not Ruskin’s, but Martin Luther King‘s. I learned of it for the first time when visiting a dear friend, Nazerine Griffin. Naz works for an organization called The Doe Fund in New York City. The Doe Fund is dedicated to taking homeless people from the city’s harsh streets, housing them, clothing them, and then setting them to regular weekday work, which working, over the course of a year or so, trains them so that they will be capable of re-entering the city’s work force as productive citizens. Wonderful work, that. At all events, on that day when I found Naz in his Doe Fund office in Harlem, I noticed that, on the wall facing his desk, where he would see and be reminded of their importance each time he looked up, were these sentences of Dr. King’s (whose birthday, memory, and good life we very appropriately celebrated earlier this week). When I told him how much I liked the sentences, he walked over to the frame containing them, took it down and gave it to me. They now live in my office in my home and are the first thing I see when I enter that working space. One more thing worth mentioning: almost everyone knows that Dr. King’s inspiration for his philosophy of generating vital social chance via non-violent action was Gandhi. Not so well known is the fact that one of Gandhi’s greatest inspirational heroes was Ruskin. Here are Dr. King’s sentences: “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness. This is the judgment. Life’s most persistent question is ‘What are you doing for others?'”

Ruskin, in another place, said this: “The highest reward for a man’s labor is not what he gets for it, but what he becomes by it.”

In yet another place, he said this about the finishing of one’s work: that we should fee, as our task ended, that it “could not have been better done, that it could not have been made otherwise, and be thankful that it is no otherwise…. that we ought all to be doing human work which would appear better to creatures above us than it does to ourselves.”

Here’s another working passage, a truth coupled with some castigation (this last seeming to me in this self-indulgent, riches obsessed, age, to remain remarkably apt; perhaps even more apt given the ascension to power of America’s new, billionaire administrators on this day): “The law of nature is that a certain quantity of work is necessary to produce a certain quantity of good of any kind whatever. If you want knowledge you must toil for it; if food, you must toil for it; if pleasure, you must toil for it. But few acknowledge this law, or strive to avoid it, hoping to get their knowledge, and food, and pleasure for nothing, and, in this effort, they either fail of getting them and remain ignorant and miserable, or they attain them by making others work for their benefit–and then they are tyrants and robbers.” 

And here is another drawn from the earlier mentioned lecture, “Work” (which I think so much of, I include a link to it below, so that, if you’ve a mind, you can print it out to read in its entirely). It is a reminder of one the most important of lessons about the work we do: “Generally, good, useful work, whether of the hand or head, is either ill-paid or not paid at all. I don’t say it should be so, but it always is so. Five thousand [pounds] a year to your talker, a paltry shilling a day to your fighter, digger, and thinker, is the rule. None of the best work in art, literature is ever paid for! How much do you think Homer got for his Iliad? Or Dante for his Paradise? Only bitter bread and salt and going up and down other people’s stairs! In science, the man who discovered the telescope and first saw heaven was paid with a dungeon, the man who invented the microscope and first saw earth died of starvation, driven from his home. It is indeed very clear that God means all thoroughly good work and talk to be done for nothing…” 

And, for last, this, from the same “Work”lecture, just a little further on. Given the reality that we pay so poorly for good work and, so often, so well for foolish or exploitative work, he said, we might take it as our responsibility, in each of our various working ways, to find means for altering the equation, and resolve that “we shall pay people not quite so much for talking in Parliament and doing nothing, as for holding their tongues out of it and doing something; we shall pay our plowmen a little more and our lawyers a little less…; But at least, we may, even now, [we must] take care that whatever work is done shall be fully paid for, and the man who does it paid for it, not somebody else; and that it shall be done in an orderly, soldierly, well-guided, wholesome way, under good captains and lieutenants of labor; and that it shall have its appointed times of rest, and enough of them; and that, at those resting times, the play shall be wholesome play, not in theatrical gardens with tin flowers and gas sunshine, but in true gardens, with real flowers, and real sunshine, and children dancing in their gladness.”

Which brings us back to today’s beginning. To the passages above, many will scoff and say immediately and with verve that it is all so utterly “impossible,” so “utterly Utopian.” But, as we know, the utopianism is not our business. The work is.

We ended that last post with W. G. Collingwood’s lovely painting of Ruskin working at his desk at Brantwood, in 1882. Nearer the day on which he died eight years later, days during which he wrote no more, he could still be found in that same room looking out the same window, looking at the lovely green pasture in front of his house, looking at the stone fence that surrounds that field (still), looking at, a bit further down, the beautiful glacial lake known called Coniston Water, looking at the magnificent mountain towering above the whole scene, the mountain everyone calls The Old Man  of Coniston. In those days, he looked like this.


John Ruskin died a hundred and sixteen years ago this day. For his many gifts, our enduring thanks.

Have a good weekend. On Monday we go back to work.


PS: Here’s the link to his lecture on “Work”: crownofwildolive-work

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5 Responses to 79: Work


    I needed that wonderful read. 🙂

  2. George P. Landow says:

    lovely, Jim!

    g >

  3. David Lustgarten says:

    Jim, I finished reading your most recent and lengthy post. Thanks so much for making the connection from Gandhi to Ruskin, one which should be more on the minds of educators who currently find it sufficient in merely mentioning to their students Martin Luther King in relation to a very superficial understanding of racial justice. For people to truly appreciate MLK, they must first appreciate Ruskin’s message. But that seems too difficult to do in today’€™s education environment, one focused on in your post, i.e. indulging in rewards before the hard work is done.

    Yes, back to work Monday.

    Sincerely, David

  4. Jack Harris says:

    Thanks, Jim! A moving commentary, your own insights amplifying Ruskin’s. I am reading Charles Handy’s The Age of Unreason. Thought you and your readers might find this comment appropriate:

    “It is not the devil who finds work for idle hands to do, it is our own human instincts which make us want to contribute to our world, to be useful, and to matter in some way to other people, to have a reason to get up in the morning. Put that way, work is the purpose of life, it also gives us a pattern or structure for our days and a chance to meet new people. Purpose, pattern, and people–the three Ps at the heart of life.”

    Best as always,

  5. Given the subject of your post, Jim, I thought your readers might be interested in an essay I’ve written about the current political quandary in which we find ourselves. Since its writing, the Presidential Memoranda of this past Friday make it even more germane. I paste it below.
    Thank you for making this valuable forum available to us. —DL

    Great? Perhaps we first should start with Good.
    A Letter from Vermont

    Written between the birthdate of Martin Luther King and the inauguration of Donald J. Trump

    All that we can really know of the man we have elected to occupy one of the most powerful seats in the world comes to us in the form of short sound bites–ranging from entertaining, to shocking, to astounding—repeated ad nauseam by a happy media, whose ratings are boosted by this willing player among an otherwise drab cast of candidates hurling predictable polarized barbs at one another. To any credit he might deserve, Mr. Trump has worked it brilliantly. His reality-TV experience taught him how to communicate with America. Serious study of political science, economic policy, and statesmanship no longer are prerequisites. “There are some bad hombres out there,” repeated enough in nightly news reports, rose in the public consciousness to certifiable ‘fact.’ Welcome to ‘Survivor DC,’ with Mr. Trump not so much a legitimately elected leader as simply the last one standing after a well-televised popularity contest.

    Why should we be surprised? Have we already forgotten Ronald Reagan’s slogan as he moved toward his successful presidential bid in 1980, “Let’s Make America Great Again?” Interesting that the media did not pick up on that. Reagan, like Trump, was briefly teased for low-end acting, in his case in B-movies with a chimpanzee co-star. But he swept us off our feet–handsome and confident–convincing us that prosperity and happiness without sacrifice was a happy ending to the dramatic film in which he would play the lead role. He went on to guide us on a great end-run around the challenges then facing us, promising, with a vague faith, that wealth would trickle magically down to the historically oppressed, and that deploying nuclear missiles in Europe would bring peace and prosperity. Trump (as best we can tell) has promised, and is about to attempt, similar hopes. Despite Reagan’s long-term failure to deliver us from challenges too painful to face head-on, we still lack the ability to see through hollow promises to difficult truths.

    The theme common to both candidates–“making America great again”–forces the question, “When had America last been great?” And, even more importantly, what exactly do we mean by “great”? The word conjures many things–big, righteous, indomitable, reliable, inspiring, successful. One thing may be assumed about anything described as “great,” that it is also “good.” I argue that our motto at this point really should be, “Let’s make America good again.”

    Come to think of it, have we ever really been ‘good’? I mean in the truest sense of the word. We like to think of ourselves as good. I grew up during a time–the late ‘50s through the mid-‘70s–when America was, in its own mind, unquestionably good. After all, only two decades earlier we had played a decisive role in saving the world from tyranny across the globe, and we were leading the world toward a universally shared vision of a brilliant “technotopia.” We were so good, in fact, and so confident in our goodness, that we moved on to loftier things. We were going to put a man on the moon by 1970! I can still hear JFK’s speech and, thinking then as a seven-year-old, doubting it was possible and that he was really just kidding–right? Our self-image was that of the cowboy in the white hat who speaks humbly but carries a big gun; who defends his woman; who boldly speaks his truth; who acts on the faith in his heart; who rises above hate; who knows good from evil; and who acts not from fear, but love. Can we, today, truly describe ourselves as such? No, we cannot.

    However there was indeed a time—-the early 1930s—-when arguably we nudged toward goodness. FDR’s New Deal invested in the building of structures—-physical, political, and social—- designed to serve all our citizens with the greatest possible equanimity. The unemployed were put to work building roads, dams, bridges, civic structures; a social safety net was created to catch those who fell; increased industrial production brought more than goods to the populace, it brought hope for all who worked. The goodness of it was proved when tyranny struck in the later ‘30s. The solid foundation and high spirit of the nation made possible a six-month conversion from civilian to military production, and we rode our white steed at the head of the column to a glorious victory. And we were good.

    Fast forward to twelve o’clock noon on September 11, 2001, when we found ourselves looking into each others’ confused, tear-stained faces asking, “How can they hate us that much?” Aren’t we the good guys?! When, in the eyes of the world that we were then leading, did we stop being ‘good’?

    There is a definable answer to that question, an exact date. It was April 4, 1968, the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. On that day American goodness died, for it was then that we cowered, buckling before the difficult path we knew full well loomed ahead. It was the day we sidestepped the real challenge facing us—- a challenge so powerfully and eloquently elucidated by King—-namely, to shape our earthly life, as Jesus had taught, toward equality, justice, and fairness. But on that day, we chose instead the easier path, not the one toward a truly just and righteous society, but rather one of empty words and hollow promises.

    It is vital for us now to face the true nature of our claim to goodness as a nation. This requires us all to understand the truth MLK arrived at toward the end of his spiritual pilgrimage. It differs from the common understanding of his legacy. The latter phase of his life was not simply to utter a cry for racial equality–by then the “Black Power” movement had usurped his leadership on that front, a leadership he willingly released because he already had moved on to what he considered a deeper truth regarding all injustice.

    That truth is economic disparity. If you doubt this, I invite you to listen to two later speeches of King’s: his “Street-Sweeper” speech, and his “Riverside Address.” The former was a call for respect for all who work, regardless of what they do. The latter was his condemnation of the Vietnam War, which he viewed as a political exploitation to reinforce an endemic economic imbalance. It was clear to King that the weight of that war was disproportionately borne by young black men, as evidenced by the numbers in which they were serving and dying in Vietnam, fighting, ironically, for the rights of people in a land on the other side of the globe in the name of a nation where they did not enjoy those same rights! This speech was delivered on April 4, 1967, one year to the day before his death, an uncanny coincidence. Clearly, whereas his racial message had been a thorn in the establishment’s side, his economic one was downright dangerous—-one not to be tolerated. Some scholars and those close to him believe it was that speech that cost King his life.

    Had King been heeded rather than silenced, he would have channeled for us a long line of important voices—-first Gandhi, then further on, to Tolstoy, Ruskin, Carlyle, Blake, More, Erasmus, Augustine and ultimately Jesus—-the common thread among these being the connection of earthly comfort to metaphysical peace. From that lineage arises the wisdom that should guide us. Happiness stems not from wealth, but from honest work; true religion rises not from hypocrisy, but from righteousness; and social harmony comes not from charitable mandates but from individual free will in balance with communal respect.

    But at the dawn of the modern era, as we departed from the medieval period, we faced a choice—-between the path of competition and that of cooperation. We chose wrongly, chose to live according to the rule of our profits, rather than to the teachings of our prophets. The reason for that choice is clear: we chose out of a fear of insecurity. And, ever since, we have been paying a tithe to the devil, our collective soul diminishing with each installment.

    This letter comes to you from the great (dare I say good?) state of Vermont—-that quiet little New England enclave that has the interesting habit of, when pinched hard enough, emitting a roar heard the world over. The second least populous state in the union, it has, within the recent past, sent two of the most resounding common-sense progressive voices-—Howard Dean in 2004 and Bernie Sanders in 2016—-deep into the presidential election cycle. In 2000, our Republican Senator, Jim Jeffords, in answer to the political bullying of then newly-elected President George W. Bush, reversed the balance of legislative power by defecting from the Republican party.

    Historically, there is a “common sense goodness” at work here. Vermont was the first state to officially abolish slavery in 1777, the same year of our statehood, long before the U.S. Proclamation of 1863 or even England’s abolishment in 1838. Vermont played a pivotal role in the Underground Railroad. Colonel Oliver Howard, founder of Howard University, settled and lived out his final days in Burlington. It was the first state to allow homosexual marriage, or, as it was first called, Civil Union. The State’s environmental protection laws are among the toughest in the nation. As one drives through, they may see billboards admonishing their readers to not desecrate our cherished landscape. We pay the price of goodness with high taxation rates. (Vermont also historically has paid the highest price per capita in soldiers lost in almost every military conflict engaged by the nation.) It is dilemma for us, now, at this strange juncture, as to how we might meaningfully respond to the election of Donald Trump, whose rhetoric thus far has broadcast anything but goodness, in the sense of the word I have described.

    Yet Vermont will respond as it always has. Long ago, when committing to statehood, we made an oath to the nation, and as always has been the case, will remain true to our word. But though we stand with the nation, we will do so with our distinctive, independent streak. We will be listening closely to you, Mr. Trump, and we will hold you not only to your word, but also, and more importantly, to our standard for what we think to be good in this life–that all individuals have a right to a fulfilled life, regardless of which side of some artificial border they happen to reside; that God’s beautiful creation, of which we are lucky to be a part, and upon which we depend for material life and spiritual enrichment, should be cherished and cared for regardless of how much convenience it “costs” us; that every one of our children should be trained in their profession and further educated with the understanding that our shared cultural heritage serves as the glue binding us as a society, and that that education should be publicly provided regardless of social or economic position; that true strength stems from confidence in one’s ideals and not from the fear of what is unfamiliar; and that each person should be respected for who they are, and not judged for what they are not.

    So, here is my message from Vermont, with Martin Luther King’s words echoing in my mind: Let us first make America good. Then, and only then, can we hope to make any claim toward “greatness.”

    David A. Lustgarten MFA
    Burlington, Vermont
    January 20, 2017

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