94: The Spirit of Life

Good Friends,

All politics aside, summer’s begun!  Life goes on. Which remembering reminded me of this remarkable passage from Ruskin’s The Queen of the Air (1869). To provide a frame for understanding it, a few sentences only.

By 1869, Darwin’s theory of evolution had been ten years in circulation (The Origin of Species was published in 1859). The idea that all living creatures had evolved one out of the other for millions of years, that the evidence was overwhelming and increasing daily that, not only had the world not been created in the short time allotted for it in The Bible, but that human beings had not sprung ex nihilo into that creation at the direction of a Supreme Being, but, rather, had, like the fishes and trees, slowly come into their own as species over eons, was gaining ground everywhere.

Ruskin was, of course, aware of all this–indeed, he and Darwin had been at Oxford together as undergraduates. Nor is it surprising that he had thought deeply about the theory of evolution and its implications. It is to those implications that he is speaking in today’s passage. As what’s below makes clear, he was not opposed to the theory of evolution, but he was opposed to–and it was a vital opposition–the “inevitable conclusion” which many, all too hastily, had arrived at when interpreting what they took to be the central lesson of Darwin’s and his colleagues’ findings: that the lower functions contained life’s raison d’etreNot so, Ruskin replied: the higher functions–the Living Spirit Dancing Differently in All Things–are the essence of our, and indeed all, Life:

Here is how he said it (most of the italics, for easier reading, are mine). The passage is a bit long and sometimes a bit difficult, but, if you persevere, you may find it to be the best reading of this summer!

It is not advisable to apply the word “spirit” or “breathing” to [things when they are] only enforcing chemical affinities.  But, when those chemical affinities are brought under the influence of the air, and of the sun’s heat, the formative force enters an entirely different phase.  It does not now merely crystallize indefinite masses, but it gives to limited portions of matter the power of gathering, selectively, other elements proper to them, and binding these elements into their own peculiar and adopted form.

This force, now properly called Life, or breathing, or spirit, is continually creating its own shells of definite shape out of the wreck around it.  And this is what I meant by saying, in the Ethics of the Dust [1866]: “You may always stand by form against force.”  For the mere force of junction is not spirit. But the power that catches out of chaos charcoal, water, lime, or what not, and fastens them down into a given form, is properly called “spirit.”  And we shall not diminish, but strengthen, our conception of this creative energy by recognizing its presence in lower states of matter than our own—such recognition being enforced upon us by a delight we instinctively receive from all the forms of matter which manifest it—and yet more, by the glorifying of those forms, in the parts of them that are most animated, with the colors that are pleasantest to our senses.

The most familiar instance of this is the best, and also the most wonderful—the blossoming of plants.  The Spirit in the plant—that is to say, its power of gathering dead matter out of the wreck round it and shaping it into its own chosen shape—is, of course, strongest at the moment of its flowering, for it then not only gathers, but forms, with the greatest energy.

And where this Life is in it at full power, its form becomes invested with aspects that are chiefly delightful to our own human passions—namely, first, with the loveliest outlines of shape: and, secondly, with the most brilliant phases of the primary colours, blue, yellow, and red or white, the unison of all, And, to make it all more strange, this time of peculiar and perfect glory is associated with relations of the plants or blossoms to each other, correspondent to the joy of love in human creatures, and having the same object in the continuance of the race.  Only, with respect to plants, as animals, we are wrong in speaking as if the object of this strong life were only the bequeathing of itself. The flower is the end or proper object of the seed, not the seed of the flower. The reason for seeds is that flowers may be; not the reason of flowers that seeds may be. The flower itself is the creature which the spirit makes—only, in connection with its perfectness, is placed the giving birth to its successor.

The main fact, then, about a flower is that it is the part of the plant’s form developed at the moment of its intensest life.  And this inner rapture is usually marked externally for us by the flush of one or more of the primary colours. What the character of the flower shall be depends entirely upon the portion of the plant into which this rapture of spirit has been put.  Sometimes the life is put into its outer sheath, and then the outer sheath becomes white and pure, and full of strength and grace; sometimes the life is put into the common leaves just under the blossom, and they become scarlet or purple; sometimes the life is put into the stalks of the flower, and they flush blue; sometimes in its outer enclosure or calyx—mostly into its inner cup. But in all cases, the presence of the strongest life is asserted by characters in which the human sight takes pleasure, and which seem prepared with distinct reference to us, or rather, bear, in being delightful, evidence of having been produced by the power of the same spirit as our own.

And we are led to feel this still more strongly, because all the distinctions of species, both in plants and animals, appear to have similar connection with human character.  [To this sentence, Ruskin attaches a note: “The facts on which I am about to dwell are in no wise antagonistic to the theories which Mr Darwin’s unwearied and unerring investigations are every day rendering more probable. [But I would like the reader to recognize that] the aesthetic relations of species are independent of their origin.”]

 Whatever the origin of species may be, or however those species, once formed, may be influenced by external accident, the groups into which birth or accident reduce them have distinct relation to the spirit of man.  It is perfectly possible, and ultimately conceivable, that the crocodile and the lamb may have descended from the same ancestral atom of protoplasm, and that the physical laws of the operation of calcareous slime and of meadow grass on that protoplasm may, in time, have developed the opposite natures and aspects of the living frames. But the practically important fact for us is the existence of a power which creates that calcareous earth itself—which creates that, separately, and quartz, separately, and gold, separately, and charcoal, separately; and then so directs the relations of these elements that the gold may destroy the souls of men by being hard and bright, and the quartz represent to them an ideal purity, and the calcareous earth, soft, may beget crocodiles, and dry and hard, sheep—and that the aspects and qualities of these two products, crocodiles and lambs, may be, the one repellent to the spirit of man, the other attractive to it, in a quite inevitable way, representing to him states of moral evil and good and becoming myths to him of destruction or redemption and, in the most literal sense, “Words” of God…

And observe, again and again, with respect to all these divisions and powers of plants; it does not matter in the least by what concurrences of circumstance or necessity they may gradually have been developed: the concurrence of circumstance is itself the supreme and inexplicable fact.

We always come, at last, to a formative cause which directs the circumstance, and mode of meeting it.  If you ask an ordinary botanist the reason of the form of a leaf, he will tell you it is a “developed tubercle,” and that its ultimate form “is owing to the direction of its vascular threads.”  But what directs its vascular threads?  “They are seeking for something they want,” he will probably answer.  What made them want that?  What made them seek for it thus?  Seek for it, in five fibres or in three?  Seek for it, in serration or in sweeping curves?  Seek for it in servile tendrils, or impetuous spray?  Seek for it, in woolen wrinkles rough with stings or in glossy surfaces green with pure strength, and winterless delight?

There is no answer.  But the sum of all is, that over the entire surface of the earth and its waters, as influenced by the power of the air under solar light, there is developed a series of changing forms—in clouds, plants, and animals—all of which have reference in their action, or nature, to the human intelligence that perceives them….And this forming power has been by all nations partly confused with the breath or air through which it acts, and partly understood as a creative wisdom, proceeding from the Supreme Deity, but entering into and inspiring all intelligences that work in harmony with Him.  And whatever intellectual results may be in modern days obtained by regarding this effluence only as a motion or vibration, every formative human art hitherto, and the best states of human happiness and order, have depended on the apprehension of its mystery (which is certain) and of its personality (which is probable).

In which light, the photos to come are illustrations of what he means.


IMG_1315IMG_0045_LI (2)

Beautiful Lily


(Well, perhaps not all politics aside! 🙂 )

Live well out there in the summer air.

Until next time.



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1 Response to 94: The Spirit of Life

  1. ‘Ruskin and Darwin had been together as undergraduates at Oxford’…Not so, Professor Spates!
    Darwin was at Cambridge, and was also 10 years older than Ruskin…
    Kind regards,
    Cynthia Gamble

    Thanks for this correction, Cynthia. I’ve been under the “Oxford delusion” for years! 🙂 Jim

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