I neither wish to please nor displease you, but to provoke you to think.
–Ruskin, Fors Clavigera, Letter 6
Ruskin was unrelenting in his insistence that each of us is charged to take moral responsibility for all that we think and do. The standard equally applied to those he believed unconscionably corrupt (the world’s most ravenous capitalists and disdainful destroyers of beautiful nature–sometimes one and the the same) or those whom he knew to be basically kind and generally concerned for the welfare of humankind.
In the 46th of his Fors letters, titled “The Sacristan” because he had recently been staying in one of the sacristans’ cells at Assisi, he is again involved in answering a question he was frequently asked: “What can we do to make things better?” As often as not, he saw, the questions was asked slightly insincerely, its posers tacitly suggesting that, our lives being what they are, what with all their complexities and our obligations, we can’t see our way clear to doing much of anything–hoping, in other words, that he’d let them off the hook.
But of course he was having none of it, as will be clear in the passage from Fors 46 I’ll cite in a moment. Before we come to it, I need to note that, by this juncture–fairly late in his letter–he has already proposed a series of ideas detailing how various folks, from milkmaids to carpenters to hoteliers, can easily do a whole slew of things that will improve the lot of others.
At which point, moving from these readers to his more well-off friends–in this case some of his very dear and very rich ones, he says (and it is important here, as in some earlier posts–our last for example–to keep in mind that the great majority of those who read him were avowed Christians, people who acknowledged Him as their Master, as their moral guide in all things, people who would say immediately, easily, and sincerely that they tried in all they did and said in life to live as He had directed),
By the way, I wrote a letter to one of my lady friends who gives rather frequent dinners the other day, which, [if I reproduce it] may perhaps be useful to others…
“You probably will be having a dinner-party today. [If so,] please do this, and remember I am quite serious in what I ask you.
“We, all of us, who have any belief in Christianity at all, wish that Christ were alive now. Suppose, then, that He is. “I think it very likely that if He were in London, you would be one of the people whom He would take some notice of.
“Now, suppose He has sent you word that He is coming to dine with you, [but has said] that you are not to make any change in your guests on His account, that He wants to meet exactly the party you have [invited] and no other.
“Suppose you have just received this message, and that St. John [also in town] has left word, in passing, with the butler, that his Master will come alone, so that you won’t have any trouble with the Apostles.
“Now this is what I want you to do. First, determine what you will have for dinner. You are not ordered, observe, to make no changes in your bill of fare. Take a piece of paper, and absolutely write fresh orders to your cook… That done, consider how you will arrange your guests: who is to sit next Christ on the other side, who opposite, and so on. Finally, consider a little what you will talk about, supposing—which is just possible–that Christ should tell you to go on talking as if He were not there , and never to mind Him.
“You couldn’t, you will tell me? Then, my dear lady, how can you in general? Don’t you profess—nay, don’t you much more than profess—to believe that Christ is always there, whether you see Him or not? Why should the seeing make such a difference?”
The party-providing lady was one Lady Georgina Mount-Temple, who, with her husband, Lord William Mount-Temple, were, for decades, among our subject’s dearest friends. So dear that he would sometimes stay with them at Broadlands, their expansive (and expensive) estate not far from Southampton in the south of England. What follows is a brief description of one of these visits. It is taken from W. G. Collingwood’s wonderful book, Ruskin Relics (if you can find a copy, you won’t be disappointed: as always, addall.com.)
One winter, [Ruskin] spent several weeks [at Broadlands. Of this visit,] Lady Mount-Temple recalled, “We found him, as always, most delightful and instructive company, his talk full and brilliant, and his kindness increasing to all the house, giving a halo to life. He set us all to manual work! He himself undertook to clean out the fountain in the garden, and made us all, from Juliet [the Mount-Temple’s adopted daughter] to Mr. Russell Gurney [a Conservative Member of Parliament between 1868-78] pick up the fallen wood and make it up into bundles of faggots for the poor.”
A second guest.
Until next time.
Be well out there!