128: The Roots of Honor (A Talk)


As the Monty Python people used to say, now for something completely different. Well, that is overstating the present case, so let’s settle for something at least modestly different.

Not long I was in Los Angeles, invited there to give a talk on Ruskin by Gabriel Meyer, Executive Director of the Ruskin Art Club, to a group he regularly convenes as “The Ruskin Circle.” He asked if I could speak and lead a discussion on “The Ethics of Business,” a prime focus of Ruskin’s after his sharp left-hand turn to social analysis and critique in 1860 (see, as instances of the veering, Post 103Post 104Post 105,  Post 106). Given that I am well into writing a book on that subject, believing it, of all marvelous things Ruskin, the most important contribution he made, not only to his time, but, would we but heed his words, our own, I readily agreed.

The group assembled in a lovely home in hills above the city. Among those in attendance was Jim Hanink, retired Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount College in Los Angeles and his wife, Elizabeth. Jim asked if he might record the talk. I had no objection.  And so, what’s below is a link to that talk  which, a few days later, Jim broadcast on his show, “The Open Door,” on WCAT Radio in LA.

The subject was on the first of Ruskin’s four essays in Unto this Last, a text often mentioned in these posts, our subject’s brilliant, no-holds-barred critique of laissez-faire capitalism, first published in 1860. Originally, the intent was for us to work our way through “The Roots” and then go on to Unto this Last’s second essay, “The Veins of Wealth.” But, as so often the case when presenting and discussing Ruskin, the thought-challenging content of the first essay proved sufficient. We decided to save his second and subsequent essays for later nights.

A couple of notes before you listen: First, I prepared a few of Ruskin’s more broadly based quotes to share with the assembled before we took on “The Roots” directly. These appear below. The first two long-time followers of this blog have encountered (Post 1 and Post 16). They are eminently worth encountering again! The last, a demonstration of Ruskin’s fury at the wanton destruction of the earth by the avaricious deserves a post and discussion of its own: sometime!

Second, to make it easy for those in attendance to follow the important passages I intended to read aloud, Gabriel had kindly prepared photocopies of the first two Unto this Last essays as they appear Clive Wilmer’s still-the-best-Ruskin-sociology-book-available, Unto this Last and Other Writings of John Ruskin (Penguin Books, 1985; easily to buy on the web). If, as you listen, you would like to read these selections, I’ve attached a link to “The Roots” essay as it appears in this book. Before I read any passage, I made it a point to indicate the page in Wilmer where it can be found. If you find these bits enticing, the entire essay is very much worth a perusal or four when you have time.

Third, the audio recording was made on an iPhone and, as a result, does not always exhibit pristine audio quality. Sometimes you hear paper rustling (my notes moving about!), sometimes folks in the audience ask questions, etc. But, on the whole, I think it  listenable. Thanks very much to Jim and Elizabeth for passing the recording on to me.

Last, at the very beginning, Gabriel is heard introducing me; at the end, once my presentation is over, we begin a lively discussion, always the capstone of any Ruskin evening. All else aside, Ruskin makes you think, wonder, and debate! Alas, the good folks who asked the penetrating questions and offered the fine observations are unidentified, but I extend my thanks to everyone who participated and to Gabriel for all his work in making this evening happen. A marvelous experience for, I think, all.

That said, below is the link to the talk. Let me know what you think.

WCAT Radio The Open Door – John Ruskin Special Feature

Below are the Ruskin quotes I read during the first part of the talk, below them is a link to the whole of “The Roots of Honor” [Sorry, “Honour”!] as it appears in Clive’s book.

The Quotes

[From The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1848] 

God has lent us the earth for our life. It is a great entail. It belongs as much to those who are to come after us, and whose names are already written in the book of creation, as to us. And we have no right, by anything that we do or neglect, to involve them in unnecessary penalties, or deprive them of benefits which it was in our power to bequeath… Every human action gains in honor, in grace, in all true magnificence, by its regard to things that are to come. 

[From: The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1848]

No frost-ploughed, dust-encumbered paths of ancient glacier fret the soft Jura pastures; no splintered heaps of ruin break the fair ranks of her forest; no pale, defiled, or furious rivers send their rude and changeful ways among her rocks. Patiently, eddy by eddy, the clear green streams wind along their well-known beds; and under the dark quietness of the undisturbed pines, there spring up, year by year, such company of joyful flowers as I know not the like of among all the blessings of the earth.  It was Springtime, too; and all were coming forth in clusters crowded for very love; there was room enough for all, but they crushed their leaves into all manner of strange shapes only to be nearer each other.  There was the wood anemone, star after star, closing every now and then into nebulæ; and there was the oxalis, troop by troop, like virginal processions of the Mois de Marie, the dark vertical clefts in the limestone choked up with them as with heavy snow, and touched with ivy on the edges—ivy as light and lovely as the vine; and, ever and anon, a blue gush of violets, and cowslip bells in sunny places; and in the more open ground, the vetch, and comfrey, and mezereon, and the small sapphire buds of the Polygala Alpina, and the wild strawberry, just a blossom or two, all showered amidst the golden softness of deep, warm, amber-colored moss.

[From: “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century,” 1884]

Blanched Sun! Blighted grass! Blinded man! If, in conclusion, you ask me for any conceivable cause or meaning of these things, I can tell you none—according to your modern beliefs. But I can tell you what meaning it would have borne to the men of old time. Remember that, for the last twenty years, England, and all foreign nations, either tempting her, or following her, have blasphemed the name of God deliberately and openly, and have done iniquity by proclamation, every man doing as much injustice to his brother as it is in his power to do. Of states in such moral gloom every seer of old predicted the physical gloom, saying: “The light shall be darkened in the heavens thereof, and the stars shall withdraw their shining.” [Isaiah 5: 30] All Greek, all Christian, all Jewish prophecy insists on the same truth through a thousand myths… [And so] I leave you to compare at leisure the physical result of your own wars and prophecies [and leave you to consider a newly risen truth]: that the Empire of England, on which formerly the sun never set, has become one on which he never rises.

Link to Wilmer’s version of “The Roots of Honor” in his edition of Unto this Last.

The Roots of Honor

One important note regarding this text. One of the great features of Clive’s edition are the impeccable notes he included for his selections, the great strength of which is to explain for we 21st century types, much less educated in many matters (Bible and historical references, for example) than those who read his books in his day, the additional things we need to know to properly understand Ruskin’s references in the text. Don’t skip them!

Finally, as inducement, here’s a picture of the cover of Clive’s book, which is, as I said, easily found on the web. I promise to explain the cover art: sometime!


Until next time!

Be well out there!


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2 Responses to 128: The Roots of Honor (A Talk)

  1. James G. Hanink says:

    Many thanks, Jim, for your engaging talk. Ruskin lives! I suspect that were he among us now, he’d be keenly interested in the American Solidarity Party. We hope you return soon.

  2. Was thinking of you today at the Birmingham Museum…

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