156: The Purpose of Fors

Good folks,

I am keenly aware that I have not fulfilled a promise. Some time ago, some of you asked me to explain Ruskin’s the enigmatic title–Fors Clavigera–he chose for the series of longish letters he wrote to the working people of the UK in the 1870s and early 1880s. I  said I would, but haven’t. I still will. Promise (again)! It’s a fairly complicated thing to do, but, ever since I said I would, I’ve been collecting what I’ll need to do so. But not today.

Easier to explain is Ruskin’s purpose in writing the letters. Briefly: by 1870, he was convinced that his social criticism of the 1860s had failed to gain its end–to get his well-off contemporaries to realize that the greed they daily fed in the market was, whatever they might tell themselves, destructive of the well-being of many others, for the simple reason that what one person has another person cannot have [thus, if there is $2000 available and I have $1500 of it, everyone else has to “share” the remaining $500, a most stressful situation that, in its turn, means that someone(s), somewhere, will have no dollars at all.] Comprehension of this truth, he hoped, would encourage his fellows to adopt more humane, less acquisitive, ways of dealing. Almost no one who read them had any liking for this argument, preferring, instead, to keep going about their acquisitive ways. So Ruskin decided there was nothing for it but to reach out to those who had been disadvantaged in this disadvantaging process.

Fors Clavigera was his vehicle for reaching them. From the first, it was a planned, unplanned venture. Ruskin always knew what he wanted to say but left the saying of it to be suggested by fors itself–by an idea which came to him that seemed promising. By the time he arrived at the 31st Fors letter in July, 1873, he had the thought that it was time to share the story of Sir Walter Scott, whom he regarded as Britain’s greatest novelist (sorry, Mr. Dickens). He wanted to show his readers how, as Scott grew from a child into adulthood, all of his good early influences contributed to his brilliance and his acutely moral vision of the world. In the next letter, the 32nd, he continued Scott’s story.


Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)

Many loved what he wrote in these two missive and so informed him. The reactions occasioned, at the beginning of the next, 33rd, letter (September, 1873), the following response–which speaks directly to the purpose of Fors:

I find some of my readers are more interested in the last two numbers of Fors than I want them to be. “Give up your Fors altogether, and let us have a life of Scott,” they say!

They must please to remember that I am only examining the conditions of the life of this wise man so that they may learn how to rule their own lives, or their children’s, or their servants’–and for the present, with this particular object, that they may be able to determine, for themselves, whether ancient sentiments [which prevailed in Scott’s day] or modern common sense is to be the rule of life…

Clear enough, this seems to me. Ruskin was always a teacher, his belief being that if he had learned something which he thought might do others some good, he was duty-bound to tell them. All his books, lectures, even his personal letters to friends, are exercises in communicating those things that he thought would be helpful.

A perfect example is the lesson relayed later in the same  letter. In earlier paragraphs, he has told of Scott’s formal and informal education, praising the fact that all of it occurred within moral frameworks, communicated by teachers or family members who believed in the importance of treating others as they themselves would like to be treated. Which brought him to a consideration of the nature of the early training we all received which we don’t remember, because it transpires before our memories have been tuned to retain specifics.

To a sociologist like myself, what he writes next is a perfect statement of the signal importance of the context in which our initial learnings take place. To a psychologist, it would have the same critical valence (nor should it be forgotten that the approaching wise words were composed at least quarter century before Freud’s ideas began to ascend to the center of the cultural stage). Particularly insightful (as if Ruskin was in pre-possession of our current love of the phosphorescent gods, which, whether large and small, we worship these days) is the passage that recommends that little ones should be left to examine the world by the use of their own powers only:

When do you suppose the education of a child begins? At six months old, it can answer smile with smile, and impatience with impatience. It can observe, enjoy, and suffer acutely, and, in a measure, intelligently.

Do you suppose it makes no difference to it that the order of the house is perfect and quiet, the faces of its father and mother full of peace, their soft voices familiar to its ear, and even those of strangers, loving–or [if] it is tossed from arm to arm among hard or reckless or vain-minded persons in the gloom of a vicious household…? The moral disposition [of each of us] is, I doubt not, greatly determined in those first speechless years. I believe especially that quiet, and the withdrawal of objects likely to distract by amusing the child, so as to let it fix its attention,, undisturbed, on every visible least thing in its domain, is essential to the formation of some of the best powers of thought. It is chiefly to this quitetude in his own home that I ascribe the intense perceptiveness and memory of the three year’s old child [Scott] at [his home] at Sandy-Knowe.

A comparison of states for child-rearing for his readers to contemplate. The purpose of Fors. What his readers might do with these paragraphs, Ruskin knew, would be, as it should be, as it must be, up to them, but at the very least he had put the comparison before them, had shown them in paragraphs surrounding the comparison, that, in Sir Walter’s case, a particular mode of child-caring had borne exceedingly fine results, for himself, for all who knew him, for the world.

Until next time! Be well out there.



P.S.: I suppose I shouldn’t miss this chance to mention another, intentionally tacit, purpose of this and the other Fors letters Ruskin gave to the telling of Sir Walter’s story. To wit, that it wouldn’t be a bad idea if some of his readers indulged any impulse they might have to go out, buy, and then read a few of his prose wonders. (He was particularly partial to Waverly, Old Mortality, and The Bride of Lammermoor, not very much enthused about Ivanhoe and The Fortunes of Nigel. There are many others.

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