133: Real Kings

Enough. What is enough?

Enough to live comfortably, and decently, enough to delight in the short time we have been alloted and share that delight with others. A vital question, this of enough. The question posed in our last (Post 132) by a young Ruskin as he traveled with his father, John James, on a business trip during which his parent’s goal was to persuade some of England’s and Scotland’s richest that it would be a lovely thing if they purchased a good quantity of his firm’s finest sherry.

In that post, we left that younger Ruskin, a recent visitor to some of his country’s most elegant houses, looking at and thinking hard about Warwick Castle, an house of even more elevated sort, a fortification ordered built by William the Conqueror in 1068, and ever since that first construction, the home of the dozens who bore the title–and responsibility of–The Earl of Warwick.

Ruskin’s answer that day, as he gazed at the castle from a distance, was that it might very well be better to live modestly and have marvelous things to wonder at than to possess all those terrific things and grow tired of them. Less, in short, was surely enough.

Not unlike most of the kings, queens, and earls of history–who are but ourselves with more power, prestige, and money–many of us still have a bit of trouble settling on an answer to this question of enough. Pressed, if we are honest, most of us would likely say that we don’t and really can’t know what is enough, life’s vagaries and our changing needs and wants being unpredictable. In train of which response, if we are pressed a little further, our answer to the uncertainty is usually something to the effect that we have to get as much as we can for ourselves, both for our own satisfaction and to gather some protection against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Which response, of course, sets us at each others’ throats both overtly and covertly, for the simple reason (as Ruskin would say clearly in his later sociological works) that, there being only so much to go around, it is literally impossible for everyone to have as much as she or he might like–because the more of any critical scarcity I have, by definition, the less of it you have, a condition which, in its turn, ensures–especially if I am in the category of the less possessed–that I am likely to envy you and try to find ways to get some of what you have too much of , while you, learning of this most unreasonable desire on my part, in response, buy locks and build castles and mansions of various sorts to keep me at bay.

In recent posts–(129) and (130) –we read (and heard sung!) a fairy tale of Ruskin’s in which he shared with us a portrait of a king who lived in his imagination, a king who, as you’ll recall, was lord over–of all things!–a Golden River! It was a recent discussion with some thoughtful students and my recollection of that fancied kingship that got me thinking about this question of enough and what the nature of real kings–many of whom, in our modern era, we have elected to their positions of majesty–might  be.

Leaders, Ruskin was well aware, we must always have. How could the army, the family, the church, the synagogue, or the business, run otherwise? Accepting this as a principle of social life, what then is the proper attitude for those assuming such onerous tasks to have regarding both the services he or she must perform and how does that relate to this question of enough?

Ruskin was anything but naive when it came to the record left by those who had been, at one time or another, our living kings. He had read and reread his Shakespeare histories and had learned from these and many other books that, with the fewest of exceptions, their performance record had been dismal. Most of those these once living kings had used their power to gratify their whims and desire for excess, wanting to aggrandize themselves and their cronies, in the process of doing which, without much compunction, they subjugated those whom they had been charged with protecting and strengthening, by using their power to steal some portion of the very things those weaker folk needed to live decently. They were, in other words, thieves (Post 125).

Reflecting on this lamentable record in the same Fors Clavigera letter where he had recalled his thoughts about Warwick Castle, Ruskin went back once again to his early years to recollect how it had happened that he came to believe that the responsibilities of real kings were quite different from what most of those who had occupied those rarefied and privileged positions over the centuries thought. The conviction had taken shape as a result of his repeated readings of the novels of Sir Walter Scott and Homer’s poems. From these masters, he told his readers, he had

learned…a most sincere love of kings and dislike of everybody who attempted to disobey them. [By] Homer and Scott, I was taught strange ideas about [them, ideas] which I find, for the present, much obsolete. For I perceived that both the author of Waverly and the author of the Iliad made their kings, or king-loving persons, do harder work than anybody else! Tydides or Idomeneus always killed twenty Trojans to other people’s one, and Redgauntlet speared more salmon than any of the Solway fishermen, and—which was particularly a subject of admiration to me—I observed that they not only did more but, in proportion to their doings, got less than other people! Nay…the best of them were even ready to govern for nothing [!] and let their followers divide any quantity of spoil or profit.

Of late it has seemed to me that the idea of a king has become exactly the contrary of this, and that it has been supposed the duty of superior persons generally to do less and get more than anybody else. So that it was, perhaps, quite as well that, in those early days, my contemplation of existent kingship was a very distant one…and my childish eyes wholly unacquainted with the splendor of [today’s actual] courts.

Years later, he returned to the same thought more forcefully in one of his greatest lectures, “Traffic,” delivered in 1864 to an audience of the rich, famous, and powerful in the industrializing-at-breakneck-speed-smog-enshrouded city of Bradford. Nearing the end of his remarks,  he asked his audience how it had happened that they who had come to hear him this night and who had created, owned and ran the machinery of the Industrial Revolution, were getting so fabulously rich while the great majority of those who worked for them were, at best, scraping by, often being very sick and depressed into the bargain. How much, he asked them to reflect on in this context, is enough? “I beg you to observe,” he said, beginning his answer,

that there is a wide difference between being captains or governors of work, and taking the profits of it. It does not follow, because you are general of an army, that you are to take all the treasure, or land, it wins… Neither, because you are king of a nation, that you are to consume all the profits of the nation‘s work. Real kings, on the contrary, are known invariably by doing quite the reverse of this—by their taking the least possible quantity of the nation‘s work for themselves.

There is  no test of real kinghood so infallible as that. Does the crowned creature live simply, bravely, unostentatiously? Probably he is a King. Does he cover his body with jewels, and his table with delicates? In all probability he is not a King. It is possible he may be, as Solomon was, but that is when the nation shares his splendour with him. Solomon made gold, not only to be in his own palace as stones, but to be in Jerusalem as stones. But, even so, for the most part, these splendid kinghoods expire in ruin, and only the true kinghoods live which are of royal labourers governing loyal labourers, who, both leading rough lives, establish the true dynasties.

Conclusively, you will find that because you are the king of a nation, it does not follow that you are to gather for yourself all the wealth of that nation. Neither, because you [who are here tonight] are king of a small part of the nation, and lord over the means of its maintenance—over field, or mill, or mine—are you to take all the produce of that piece of the foundation of national existence for yourself.

In which frame, it seems obvious that enough is never a calculable quantity, whether in fantasy or the bank. It is, rather, an attitude, a quality of thought which recognizes that while, yes, I need so much of this or that if I and mine are to live decently, I need only that much, and will determine to live on that much. As well, it would be unconscionable, in both human and humane terms, if I tried to gather more than that reasonable amount, because such gathering can only come from the remaining store of necessities needed by others who, like myself, wish and deserve to have enough to live decently.

A view of kingship, or better said human responsibility generally, that, or so it seems to me, trumps all competing views.


Until next time!

Be well out there.


P.S. My thanks to Professor Jack Harris and the fine students in his Classical Social Theory course for having been a prime inspiration for this post. (We read and discussed “Traffic” together not too long ago.)

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