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.
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