Whether we like it or not, the Gods demand that we acknowledge their presence, force us to decide whether we will belive in none, one, or a committee of them. As we’ll see, after a long and complicated series of earlier acknowledgements, Mr. Ruskin was drawn to the third option as an essential subcategory of the second.
He began his religious life in a very strict Evangelical household; was daily exposed–quite literally at his mother’s, Margaret’s, knee–from the moment his attention (earlier than most) could grasp what was being imparted, to the Bible, from first page to last and back again; was steeped in its chapter and verse, whether the day or house was hot or cold, the passages difficult or easy; was taught, along this traverse, the essential Evangelical conviction: that the great book was the repository of the revealed word of God, every word of it true from the story of the creation in Genesis to the final apocalyptic verses of Revelation.
Considerably later, he would have his own revelation, and set aside as irrational this “indubitably true” element, the disposal occasioned by, on the one hand, his own regular and deep reflections on the immense text (his mother had made him memorize thousands of verses and passages, some chapters in their entirety) and, on the other, by the growing–and, each day, seemingly more incontrovertible–evidence submitted by the geologists and biologists that made it clear that it simply could not have been the case that the earth was created as the sacred pages stated (those million year old trilobites discovered at the top of mountains were hard to argue with).
In the late 1850s, he had an “unconversion.” In Turin, after listening to “execrable sermon” by a magnificently uninspired preacher, he set aside the entirety of the Evangelical doctrine, “to be debated no more”; became, by his own description, a “pagan.” But not really. Although he renounced the organized religions of his day as willing promulgators of lies about life and the universe, as well as pontificating handmaidens in the service of laissez-faire capitalism, he never relinquished his belief in a benevolent Creator and in Christ as the exemplar of a life which all should emulate.
Still later–in the 1870s–he had a “reconversion”; proclaimed himself a believing Christian again. But not really. Never again would he be a member of any church, believing to his end that such establishments still embraced in their roles as promoters of lies about life and the universe and self-interested handmaidens of laissez-faire. (Many of his public letters of the last two decades of his working life–the 1870s and 1880s–contain fusillades of invective directed at various established religious institutions or those who were their mouthpieces.)
That aside, other gods regularly inhabited his days. Lovely ones. Often he wrote about them or mentioned them in his lectures, telling his audiences of their importance both to us and the earth that they had been charged with protecting. At one point, it occurred to him, while he was writing his autobiography, Praeterita in the early 1880s, that maybe his readers were unclear about what he meant when he spoke of these gods. So, in a passage in the second volume, he told them:
I must here once and for all explain distinctly to the most matter-of-fact reader the sense in which, throughout all my earnest writing of the last twenty years, I use the plural word “gods.” I mean by it, the totality of spiritual powers delegated by the Lord of the universe to do, in their several heights, or offices, parts of His will respecting men, or the world that man is imprisoned in. Not as myself knowing, or in security believing, that there are such, but in meekness accepting the testimony and belief of all ages, to the presence, in heaven and earth, of angels, principalities, powers, thrones, and the like: with genii, fairies, or spirits ministering and guardian, or destroying or tempting, or aiding good work and inspiring the mightiest.
For all these, I take the general word “gods” as the best understood in all languages, and the truest and widest in meaning, including the minor ones of seraph, cherub, ghost, wraith, and the like, and myself knowing, for an indisputable fact, that no true happiness exists, nor is any good work ever done by human creatures, but in the sense or imagination of such presences.
Clear enough. After which, he went on to give an instance demonstrating the likely existence and importance of these gods. Perhaps we’ll have a look at that sometime. But, for this moment, here’s another example suggesting the presence and significance of this vital committee of benevolent spirits: Apollo, and that sweet company of essences called the Muses.
Apollo was, is, as we know, the Greek god of the Sun. But because he was such an important fellow, he was given other aspects of life to oversee as well. And so, in addition to his duties as protector of the Sun, he also was appointed as the god of healing–and prophesy–and truth–and music, his spirit eternally charged with encouraging these things in their highest form (for only in that elevated capacity could they do their most salubrious work). Like all the gods to whom Ruskin referred, he is usually invisible, but, on occasion, his image can be caught by the discerning. Here he is, watching from his high perch:
And the Muses. Goddesses, all nine of them, almost always found in company with or not far from Apollo. They are the spirits which inspire music, art, and all forms of the spoken or written word. (It is a truly awful thing when artists of any stripe report that their muses have deserted them!) Here’s a lovely bas-relief showing them with Apollo, an image that is particularly good at depicting their essential joie d’vivre:
Apollo and the Muses are doubly delighted when we who pass our days on solid ground choose to live in accord with the energies they oversee, for, when that happens, they immediately set to using all their various powers to make our lives, and that of the earth, most beautiful and healthy. Here’s an image which would delight them: a picture of a portion of the magnificent countryside that lies between the towns of Bakewell and Buxton in Derbyshire:
So, it’s an interactive thing. When we decide to live in good concert with each other and nature, Apollo and the Muses simply cannot contain their joy and spontaneously break out in a dance of celebration, a dance which celebrates us, the earth, and the great spirit of Life that underlies all things.
Being the occasion of such a dance is a consummation devoutly to be wished, don’t you think?
Until next time.
Be well out there!