174: On Reading the Bible (If You’ve a Mind)

He hath shown thee, O man, what is good, and what doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God? (Micah 6:8; KJV)

Ruskin began speaking on political economy systematically in 1857 in two lectures which, not long after, he would publish as The Political Economy of Art. In 1860, these were  followed by what he would always regard as his most important book, the four essays of Unto this Last (they appeared in book form in 1862). In both, but especially the latter, to buttress the arguments he was advancing for creating a society where a concern for the welfare of each other would predominate, he either alluded to, paraphrased, or, occasionally, quoted verbatim, more than a few Bible verses.

He did so for at least three reasons. First, from those initial moments when he seemed capable of comprehending the Bible’s contents, he had been steeped in its content in a rigid series of daily sessions supervised by his mother, Margaret, who, devout Evangelical as she was, believed that all of The Book’s nearly 800,000 were true, revelations from God intended to provide human beings with all the moral principles we needed to know if we were to live as He intended. The sessions continued for well over a decade and, as a result of them, Ruskin would come to know huge swaths of the Bible by heart and have deeply absorbed not only its moral precepts but all the arguments pointing out why it was a good idea to follow them (prime instances are The Ten Commandments at Exodus 20: 1-17, and the Two Great Commandments at Matthew 22: 37-9). Second, because he knew the vast majority of his audience, whether they were readers or members of his lecture audiences, had themselves been trained in the Christian version of the Bible. And, third, because he was acutely aware that most of those who turned his pages or came to hear him were fairly slack observers when it came to diligently following The Good Book’s moral recommendations, and, for that reason, were ripe for criticism for averring subscription to a belief system which they treated cavalierly or even, in some cases, with disdain. 

Because of his fame, Ruskin received letters from many. Sometime in the mid-1860s, he found one on his desk that had been written by a Thomas Dixon, a successful cork-maker of Sunderland who sold his product predominantly to pubic houses for use with their wines and beers. They began an exchange of letters–with the cork-maker posing serious questions and Ruskin responding. In the process, our subject came to much admire Dixon, partly because, by dint of hard work, he had made himself into a successful and honest businessman, but also because, as Ruskin always applauded, he was completely self-taught (coming from a poor background, there had never been a choice of Oxford or Cambridge).

As the second half of the 1860s began, Ruskin was starting to believe that all his writings arguing that it was imperative that a humane economic system be developed had fallen on deaf ears, at least when the ears belonged to the rich, famous, and powerful. In contrast, Dixon had understood what he had said in his writings on economic life and, even better, had shown himself to be most curious about various aspects of his proposals that had not been fully spelled out in his writings. Hence, it was not long before Ruskin, as he sent back his various elaborations and explanations to Sunderland, began to think that this form of communicating with a working man might point to a new path that he might travel. [In four more years it would transmute into his extended series of “Letters to the working men and Laborers of Great Britain” that he would call Fors Clavigera (1871-84).]

The thought was followed by another: that he, Ruskin, might collect his “letter-answers” to Dixon and publish them as a series of commentaries explaining in greater detail, albeit more colloquially, many of his principles of political economy. And so was born a little book bearing the title, Time and Tide by Weare and Tyne; 25 Letters to a Working Man of Sunderland on the Laws of Work. (The Wear–why Ruskin added the “e” we don’t know–and Tyne are rivers not flowed toward the sea not far from Dixon’s home. (For more, see Thomas Dixon’s Sunderland.) It was published in 1867. Read by few then, it is even more neglected today.   

Thomas Dixon (Artist: Andrew Dixon)

One of the things Dixon noticed in Ruskin’s works, he told the writer in one of his early letters,  was how often Ruskin cited Biblical passages. While he, Dixon, was a Christian and believer in the essential truths taught in the great book, he had met many who questioned the authority of the nearly two thousand year old text as a useful guide for modern life. Would Mr. Ruskin explain what his thinking was regarding the authority of the Bible as moral guide? In the eighth letter, Ruskin replied to the request:

What follows is that response. It is fairly long, and while I realize that many of us don’t wax enthusiastic about long passages these days (perhaps particularly if they are about the Bible!), we now have it on the best medical authority that longer reads accomplished in these days of flying digits are good for keeping our minds sharp, and, as an extra added incentive, when such reads are about important questions and issues, they seem to be good for our souls to boot. So, with these beneficent consequences in mind, here are the paragraphs the cork-maker of Sunderland read when he opened Ruskin’s letter: “My dear friend” (Ruskin always saluted him in this way):

The Four Possible Theories Respecting the Authority of the Bible
March 7, 1867]


You must have seen long ago that the essential difference between the political economy I am trying to teach, and the popular science [which unfortunately and inaccurately bears the same name], is, that mine is based on presumably attainable
honesty in men, and conceivable respect in them for the interests of others, while the popular science founds itself wholly on their supposed constant regard for their own, and on their honesty only so far as thereby likely to be secured. It becomes, therefore, for me, and for all who believe anything I say, a quite primal question on what this presumably attainable honesty is to be based.

Is it to be based on religion? you may ask.  Are we to be honest for fear of losing heaven if we are dishonest, or (to put it as generously as we may) for fear of displeasing God? Or, are we to be honest on speculation, because honesty is the best
policy, and invest invest in virtue as in an undepreciable stock?

And my answer is—not in any hesitating or diffident way–[and I say this] with no shadow of doubt): your honesty is not to be based either on religion or policy. Both your religion and policy must be based on it. Your honesty must be based, as the sun is, in vacant heaven; poised, as the lights in the firmament, which have rule over the day and over the night. If you ask why you are to be honest, you are, in the question itself, dishonored. Because you are a man is the only answer; and therefore [as] I said in a former letter…to make your children capable of honesty is the beginning of education. Make them men first, and religious men afterwards, and all will be sound…

It is not, therefore, because I am endeavoring to lay down a foundation of religious concrete on which to build piers of policy that you so often find me quoting Bible texts in defense of this or that principle or assertion. But the fact that such references are an offence, as I know them to be [!], to many of the readers of [my] political essays, is one, among many others, which I would desire you to reflect upon (whether you are yourself one of the offended or not), as expressive of the singular position which the mind of the British public has at present taken with respect to its worshiped Book. The positions honestly tenable…I must try to define for you. All the theories possible to…disputants respecting the Bible are resolvable into four, and four only.


The first is that of the illiterate modern religious world, that every word of the book known to them as The Bible was dictated by the Supreme Being, and is in every syllable of it His ―Word. This theory is of course tenable by no ordinarily
well-educated person.

The second theory is that, although admitting verbal error, the substance of the whole collection of books called the Bible is absolutely true and [was] furnished to man by Divine inspiration of the speakers and writers of it, and that every one who honestly and prayerfully seeks for such truth in it as is necessary for his salvation will infallibly find it there. This theory is that held by most of our good and upright
clergymen, and the better class of the professedly religious laity.

The third theory is that the group of books which we call the Bible were neither written nor collected under any Divine guidance, securing them from substantial error…that they contain, like all other human writings, false statements mixed
with true, and erring thoughts mixed with just thoughts–but that they nevertheless relate, on the whole, faithfully, the dealings of the one God with the first races of man, and His dealings with them in after time through Christ; that they record true miracles, and bear true witness to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. This is a theory held by many of the active leaders of modern thought.

The fourth, and last possible, theory is that the mass of religious scripture contains merely the best efforts which we hitherto know to have been made by any of the races of men towards the discovery of some relations with the spiritual world; that they are only trustworthy as expressions of the enthusiastic visions or beliefs of earnest men oppressed by the world‘s darkness, and [that they] have no more authoritative claim on our faith than the religious speculations and histories of the Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, and Indians–but are, in common with all these, to be
reverently studied, as containing a portion, divinely appointed, of the best wisdom which human intellect, earnestly seeking for help from God, has hitherto been able to gather between birth and death. This has been, for the last half-century, the theory of the soundest scholars and thinkers of Europe.

There is yet indeed one farther condition of incredulity attainable, and sorrowfully attained, by many men of powerful intellect—the incredulity, namely, of inspiration in any sense, or of help given by any Divine power to the thoughts of men. But this form of infidelity merely indicates a natural incapacity for receiving certain emotions, though many honest and good men belong to this insentient class.

The educated men, therefore, who may be seriously appealed to in these days on questions of moral responsibility, is modified by scripture, are broadly divisible into three classes, severally holding the last three theories above stated. Now, whatever power a passage from the statedly authoritative portions of the Bible may have over the mind of a person holding the fourth theory, it will have a proportionately greater [power] over that of persons holding the third or the second.


I, therefore, always imagine myself speaking to the fourth class of theorists. If I can persuade or influence them, I am logically sure of the others… Addressing, then, this fourth class of thinkers, I would say to them, when asking them to enter on any subject of importance to national morals, or conduct, [the following:]

“This book, which has been the accepted guide of the moral intelligence of Europe for some fifteen hundred years, enforces certain simple laws of human conduct which you know have also been agreed upon,in every main point, by all the religious, and by all the greatest profane writers, of every age and country.

“This book primarily forbids pride, lasciviousness, and covetousness, and you know that all great thinkers, in every nation of mankind have similarly forbidden these mortal vices. This book enjoins truth, temperance, charity, and equity; and you know that every great Egyptian, Greek, and Indian, enjoins these also. You know besides, that through all the mysteries of human fate and history, this one great law of fate is written on the walls of cities or in their dust, written in letters of light, and
letters of blood: that where truth, temperance, and equity have been preserved, all strength, and peace, and joy have been preserved also; [and] that where lying, lasciviousness, and covetousness have been practiced, there has followed an
infallible, and, for centuries, irrecoverable ruin. And you know, lastly, that the observance of this common law of righteousness, commending itself to all the pure instincts of men, and fruitful in their temporal good, is by the religious writers of every nation, and chiefly in this venerated scripture of ours, connected with
some distinct hope of better life, and righteousness, to come.”

Let it not then offend you if, deducing principles of action first from the laws and facts of nature, I…fortify them also by appliance of the precepts, or suggestive and probable teachings, of this Book… On these grounds [then,] and in this temper, I am in the habit of citing passages of scripture in my writings on political

Ruskin Museum Coniston - John Ruskin

Ruskin, 1867 (Image: Eliot and Fry)

And with these words, our subject left it to the cork-maker to determine for himself whether he had received adequate reply to his question. Almost surely, Dixon was still cogitating about these crucial matters when, three days later (March 10), another bulging envelope from Ruskin appeared was delivered to his home, this one, which would become the ninth in the Time and Tide series, responding to another of his queries. As he read “The Use of Music and Dancing under the Jewish Theocracy compared with their Use by the Modern French,” he would learn (the question of the authority of the Bible as moral guide now settled beyond dispute) that Ruskin, once again, in order to buttress his principal argument–that the long gone Jews had sang, played, and danced joyfully and respectfully, while the modern French (and English and…) had slid far from that fine pole toward the lascivious end of the spectrum–he cited a new lot of illustrative Biblical passages.

Until next time.

Be well out there.


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