84: Inspiration


During darker days, whether outside or in, I have always found it a good and useful thing to take a few minutes to glance up at the walls in my study carrel in the library where I work. There, in various forms of tatter or brightness (signaling their time of placing), reside a number of Ruskin’s thoughts (and a few of admired others) which, when first I found them, inspired me so much that I decided to keep them in front of me for just such times, as on-going reminders, helpers designed to bring a drifting or misdirected ship back to course. Below, for whatever help they might offer you, whether on dark days or bright, are some of these.

But before I get to them, I want to take a moment to (re)consider (cf. Post 16) that wonderful word used above:”inspire” As I’ve frequently mentioned, Ruskin was always interested in the origin of words, his thought being that, given that words frequently alter their meaning, sometimes radically, over time, their first definition can be trusted to point us to their core meaning, their raison d’etre for taking up space in our dictionaries and lives.

Take “economy,” for an instance. To us–as well as to nearly everyone in Ruskin’s day–it means, meant, what transpires when we buy and sell, whether locally or nationally. “How’s the economy doing?” we ask, wondering whether a city, region, or nation is trading a lot or a little, our assumption being that “a lot” is worthy of applause, while “a little” is lamentable. But note (as did Ruskin) that our question is generic. It doesn’t ask what we are buying or selling–healthy foods or child pornography are both possibilities–and, he would argue, there’s a wide difference regarding the intensity or even the appropriateness of applause when we know specifics such as these! In other words, once we add the specifics, it becomes apparent that buying and selling are not, as our common, uncritical, understanding implies, neutral events indicating simple exchange activity; they are always moral events, trades which, depending on their nature, either help or harm real living, breathing human beings.

Understanding this, Ruskin went hunting for the origin of the word “economics,” finding that it had originated with the Greeks–in, specifically, their word “oikonomia,” a word which, for them, designated “the laws governing the running of a house.” Unpacking further, he found that this last phrase signified “the rules one needs to follow if everyone in a house–family, family, servants, friends–are to be as healthy and strong as possible.” It is important to note, too, that the Greeks were not disposed to make distinctions when they used “oikonomia,” applying its meaning not only to an actual household, but to a town, city, or nation. In their minds the laws which one had to follow to create a healthy house were identical to those we had to follow if we desired to create a healthy and strong town, city, or nation. (Who would not, in her or his right mind, so desire?) Meaning–to return to the example above–that the production and selling of healthy foods was true economy while the production and selling of child pornography was something drastically else–anti-economy? So important was this original definition of “economy” to our collective understanding and, in train, our well-being, Ruskin devoted the last paragraphs of his great critique of capitalism, Unto this Last, to it, arguing that any true economy would be dedicated only to those things which made their all their “houses,” small or large, local or distant, healthier and stronger.

And so, in this, we have one example of why and how the original meaning of a word, once we have unearthed it, can change our understanding, for the better.

Now, to “inspire.” Frequently we say that a book or a film or a lecture “inspires” us. But what, in its essence, does that marvelous word really mean? This (and, here, I am duty-bound to say that I was inspired to gather what’s below by Ruskin’s own earlier search for the deep meaning of “inspire”):

Our word, it appears, has two antique sources. The most recent derives from an “Old French” (14th Century) word, “enspiren,” “to fill the mind or heart (or both) with grace (!)”; that fetching French meaning, in its turn, was an outgrowth of the Latin, “inspirare,” “to ignite, to breathe the fire, or breath, of life into” (!) In short, and literally, then, to “inspire” means to “in-spirit,” to “put the spirit of life into.” Knowing these derivations, we can now come back to our own modern word with, I trust, a magnified sense of its deeper connotation when we contrast that with, say, Mr. Webster’s: “to exert an animating, enlivening, or exalting influence on; to spur; and [even less interestingly!] “to bring about, to occasion.”

That said, and keeping those good Old French and Latin meanings far forward in our minds, here are some of the Ruskin words which, over the years, have inspired me to place them on my carrel wall. Not surprisingly, given that this place is where I do my Ruskin work, most point the way to getting done that which most deserves and must be done.

From the second volume of Modern Painters: 

All earnest people act with an unpretending simplicity. They do what they love and feel. They seek what the heart naturally seeks, and give back what it most gratefully receives.

From The Seven Lamps of Architecture: 

Know what you can do and do it. [This is] the great principle of success in every direction of human effort.

From one of his Fors Clavigera letters to the working people of Britain; a Bible verse he referred to almost daily to inspire his own work:

I must work the works of him that sent me while it is day; for the night cometh when no man can work. (John 9: 4

From The Queen of the Air–a suggestion difficult for we moderns to take seriously, so steeped are we in the notion that the individual and his own thoughts are the sine qua non of dignity and that to admit the need for help from others wiser than ourselves is a sign of weakness; so steeped are we, as well, in the notion that the greats of the past have nothing much to teach us. (Asked about his own, Ruskin would immediately proclaim that, among a host of the great masters who inspired his own life and work, would be Plato, Dante, Carlyle, Turner, and, always, the wisest writers of the Bible.)

Having done your best to understand your chosen master, obey him and no one else until you have strength to deal with the nature around you and others. Then be your own master and see with your own eyes.

Lastly, from a sweet unpublished letter to his artist friend, Kate Greenawayin 1885 (a bit attesting to one of the best aspects of Ruskin’s greatness, a few sentences taken from one of his thousands upon thousands of letters to friends, acquaintances, and relatives, which show him to be as inspiring in his private communications as he is in the thousands upon thousands of pages he placed in print): 

It is your birthday!…[A]nd so I will wish you on this,and every birthday, this: Some new love of lovely things, and some new forgetfulness of the teasing things, and some higher pride in the praising things, and some sweeter peace from the hurrying things, and some closer fence around the worrying things. And longer stay of time when you are happy, and lighter flight of days which are unkind.

And then, also on my wall, are these, which, so much did I admire them, I could not help but share them earlier: “Fiat Voluntus Tua” (Post 45), “A Book” (Post 52), and, from the first days of this series, Helen Viljoen’s lovely tribute, “A sheen upon their wings” (Post 12).

Until next time and wishing you all the things that Mr. Ruskin wished Ms. Greenaway, be well–and inspired–out there.







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1 Response to 84: Inspiration

  1. Nick Alexander says:

    Hi, Jim, good post. The origin of “economy” brings up a host of moral conflicts, and in this day and age of globalization and commodification these questions have only increased and become more complex.

    Thank you for that last quote, it’s my little brother’s birthday today. 🙂

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