116: Sure Good


It is early 1868, and Ruskin, who had started the decade, his fifth, believing firmly that all his previous writings had failed to hit their mark–convincing his compatriots that they must abandon their headlong and heedless pursuit of riches, power and prestige, and substitute in their stead a sincere and enduring commitment to protect and cherish the natural and human wonders surrounding them, found himself thinking he had failed again. For the whole of the 1860s, with few detours, he had written social criticism, most of it intent on showing how the social structure of modern Britain systematically discriminated, usually viciously, against the multitudes of poor who lived alongside the thriving few, who, as a matter of course, applauded themselves as genetically superior to those they disdainfully designated as the “lower classes.”

This entrenched discrimination against the poor (massive unemployment; when employed, methodical underpayment; steadfast refusal to institute on a national basis health care or even the most elementary education), Ruskin knew, had already destroyed the lives of millions and, as the horrifying slums in every major city proclaimed daily, there was no reason to think that it would not devastate millions of others. Years before, when studying the great cathedrals of the Continent (Post 99), he had exposed the lie lurking in the “genetically inferior” argument, had learned, when back in England, of the ruination that descended on the desperate when their powerless lives came into “conflict” with the dominant few (Post 53). The exploitation was intolerable, as was the eagerly embraced myopia subscribed to by the elite classes, their firm belief that the poor had earned their suffering just as they had earned their comfortable heights, coupled with the conviction that they had played absolutely no role in creating the pain and suffering which greeted them on nearly every street.

And so, when the invitation came for him to speak to at the Royal College of Science in Dublin in May of that year, Ruskin readily accepted. It would provide a chance to speak directly to these willfully myopic. The talk was scheduled the 13th of the month, but weeks before that date arrived, the lecturer’s fame and eloquence as a speaker preceding, the demand for tickets had proved so great, the event had to be moved to the largest facility in the city. Thus it happened that, as he walked to the podium on the appointed evening, Ruskin saw before him no less than 2000 faces eager to hear what he would tell them about “The Mystery of Life and its Arts.” So important was the talk, he would recall later, he tried to put into it everything he thought might be of use.

Among the greatest of his lecture’s arguments was his contention that the task of all our lives is to use their fleeting moments to do some sure good in and for the world. Yes, he said, charitable he knew they all were, but, in the end as in the beginning, the only charity that mattered was the kind that actually makes real, living and breathing human beings stronger, healthier, and happier. All else was fluff and, usually, an utter waste of time. Yes, he said, a concept like “sure good” could be debated; indeed, it has been for ages. But, finally, it was quite a simple thing to know what constituted it: it meant doing those things which their acknowledged master had repeatedly demanded that they do: to treat all others as we ourselves would like to be treated.

Imagine, he went on, the following: that each of you has come at last to your Day of Judgement, to that moment when you will be required to give an account of the actions of your life to the One who graciously gifted you with that life. Now, I am quite sure that most of you think that this Day of Judgment lies somewhere in the distance, that it resides in some vaguely conceived future. And it is because you think this that you also think you can keep at bay the important subjects which this moment’s arrival will make palpable. But what if you are quite wrong in entertaining this notion? What if there is not one day of judgment, but hundreds, thousands if we are fortunate? What if, as I believe to be the case,

for us, every day is a Day of Judgment? Every day is a Dies Iræ which writes its irrevocable verdict in the [book of eternal record]? Think you that judgment waits
till the doors of the grave are opened? It waits at the doors of your houses! It waits at the corners of your streets! We are in the midst of judgment! The insects we crush are our judges, the moments we fret away are our judges, the elements that feed us, judge as they minister. And the pleasures that deceive us judge, as they indulge. Let us then, for our lives, do the Work of Men while we bear the form of them, if indeed those lives are not as a vapor, and do not, [like the vapor,] vanish away! {Daniel VII:  10]

The Work of Men! And what is that? Well, we may any of us know very quickly, on the condition of being wholly ready to do it. But many of us are, for the most part, thinking not of what we are to do, but rather of what we are to get… We
want to keep back part of the price [especially when the question touches on the possibility of abandoning our comfortable “station in life” so that others might live better ones!] How many of us are ready to quit that? Is it not always the great objection where there is a question of finding truly something useful to do [that we contend that we] cannot leave our stations in life?

Those of us who really cannot—that is to say, those of us who can only maintain themselves by continuing in some business or salaried office–they  already have something to do, and all that they have to see to is that they do it honestly and with all their might. But with most people who use that apology, “remaining in the station of life to which Providence has called them” means keeping all the carriages and all the footmen and large houses they can possibly pay for. And, once for all, I say, that if ever Providence did put them into stations of that sort—which is not at all a matter of certainty!—Providence is just now very distinctly calling them out again!

[Let me be specific:] whatever our station in life may be at this [moment of national and international] crisis, those of us who mean to fulfil our duty ought, first, to live on as little as we can. And, secondly, to do all the wholesome work for it we can, and spend all we can spare in doing all the sure good we can. And sure good is, first, in feeding peoplethen in dressing people, then in lodging people, and, lastly, in rightly pleasing people, with arts, or sciences, or any other subject of thought.

I say first in feeding. And, once for all, do not let yourselves be deceived by any of the common talk of indiscriminate charity. The order to us is not to feed the deserving hungry, nor the industrious hungry, nor the amiable and well-intentioned hungry, but simply to feed the hungry! It is quite true, infallibly true, that if any man will not work, neither should he eat. Think of that, and every time you sit down to your dinner, ladies and gentlemen, say solemnly, before you ask a blessing,  “How much work have I done to-day for my dinner?”

But the proper way to enforce that order on those [whom you think to be] below you, as for yourselves, is not to leave vagabonds and honest people to starve together, but… [instead, to begin together] the production of the wholesomest food, [and commit to the] proper storing and distribution of it, so that no famine shall any more be possible among civilized beings. There is plenty of work in this business alone–and at once for any number of people who like to engage in it!

Secondly, in dressing people: that is to say, urging every one within reach of your influence to be always neat and clean and giving them means of being so. In so far as they absolutely refuse, you must give up the effort with respect to them, only
taking care that no children within your sphere of influence shall any more be brought up with such habits, and that every person who is willing to dress with propriety shall have encouragement to do so… All [of] which appears for the present quite impossible, but it is only…as difficult as it is difficult to conquer our vanity, frivolity, and desire to appear what we are not.

And then, thirdly, in lodging people, which you may think should have been put first. But I put it third, because we must feed and clothe people where we find them, and lodge them afterwards. And providing lodgment for them means a great deal
of vigorous legislating and cutting down of vested interests that stand in the way. And, after that, or before that, so far as we can get it, thorough sanitary and remedial action in the houses that we have. And then the building of more–strongly, beautifully, and in groups of limited extent–kept in proportion to their streams, and walled round so that there may be no festering and wretched suburb anywhere, but clean and busy streets within, and the open country without, with a belt of beautiful gardens and orchards round the walls, so that from any part of the city perfectly fresh air and grass and sight of far horizon, might be reachable in a few minutes‘ walk.

[Such is] the final aim. But in immediate action every minor and possible good is to be instantly done when and as we can. Roofs mended that have holes in them, fences patched that have gaps in them, walls buttressed that totter, and floors propped that shake. Cleanliness and order enforced with our own hands and
eyes, till we are breathless, every day. And [if we do these things] all the fine arts will healthily follow. I myself have washed a flight of stone stairs all down with bucket and broom in a Savoy inn, where they hadn‘t washed their stairs since they first went up them, and I never made a better sketch than that afternoon.

These, then, are the three first needs of civilized life. And the law for every…man and woman is that they shall be in direct service toward one of these three needs, as far as is consistent with their own special occupation. And if they have no special business, then [they should live] wholly within one of these services. And out of such exertion in plain duty, all other good will come. For in this direct contention with material evil, you will find out the real nature of all evil. You will discern by the various kinds of resistance what is really the fault and main antagonism to good. Also, you will find the most unexpected helps and profound lessons given, and truths will come thus down to us which the speculation of all our lives would never have raised us up to. You will find nearly every educational problem solved as soon as you truly want to do something. Everybody will become of use in their own fittest way, and will learn what is best for them to know in such use.

Sure good, all such endeavors. Not debatable. All creating, as they are accomplished, stronger, healthier, happier human beings, human beings rising as beautiful new flowers rise in the spring as the sun’s rays warm. These on Sure Good being just some of the thoughts for the 2000 plus Dubliners who came out to hear Ruskin speak on that May evening in 1868, some thoughts to ponder as they made their way back to their commodious homes in their well-outfitted and well-serviced carriages. Thoughts perhaps in some way still pertinent a century and a half after they were first expressed.

NPG x12958; John Ruskin by William Downey, for  W. & D. Downey

Ruskin as he would’ve looked while delivering “The Mystery of Life and its Arts” 

Until next time.

Be well out there!



P.S.: Occasionally, I feel a bit unsettled about a given post. Ruskin’s texts are often much more complicated than can be easily conveyed within this format. It’s the nature of the man combined with I surmise might be the boundaries of what modern readers may be willing to read. As a consequence, I sometimes snip a bit of this or that out (always indicating such excision with an ellipsis) from a longer argument. Sometimes, too, I will leave out entirely something he discusses which, in my judgment, would, if included, derail the point the post is trying to make. Both of these varieties or excerpting were exercised in this post. But here’s a way to check me up if you’ve a mind: click on the link below and you’ll be able to read the entire text of “The Mystery of Life and its Arts” (not a bad thing to do of an evening or on a Saturday afternoon). The passage I’ve presented here can be found on pp. 180-185. Better still: if you read the lecture in its entirety in a sitting, you’ll discover that there is an enormous amount of wonderful material I didn’t mention. And, perhaps best of all, you will get a sense of what the 2000 plus who came to Ruskin’s lecture experienced. (Wish I could’ve been there!) Let me know how it goes! 🙂

Ruskin,The Mystery of Life and its Arts

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