186: How to Read (Or, Milton and Ruskin meet the Bishops)

For Mike and all my Students who found Life and Direction when reading “Of Kings’ Treasuries”

Good Folks,

NoteThis post below is longer than most. I know that condition makes it off-putting in our hurried world. Nevertheless, I would like to make a special plea for your time and indulgence, as I am quite sure that you will find as you go, however slowly such going may transpire (there’s no rush; good reading is definitely not a contest!), that it attempts to lay out one of Mr. Ruskin’s most crucial arguments. Indeed, I am sure that he would say that the well-being of the world rests on our personal reactions to the issues he raises. 


All his life, as he often told his readers, Ruskin was a teacher. For whatever complex reasons, in the course of life he had come to know some important and useful things that he was quite sure that others did not, and so, believing, as we have often read in these posts, that it was his responsibility as a human being to help others negotiate their paths, he wrote or lectured about these things. Sometimes what he had to relate was well-received; sometimes it wasn’t. Even suspecting the second reaction would be the most likely wake regarding something he needed to say, he went ahead anyway, willing to brook the opprobrium so that, at the very least, even a discomfiting message would be “out there” for cogitation and debate. As Al Gore, the former American Vice-President, put it when he was vociferously announcing the reality of Global Warming some years ago, he was about to tell us “an inconvenient truth.” Ruskin specialized in inconvenient truths.

Our last post was written to make visible the dedicated way he set about finding out about things he knew little or nothing about (185: How to Learn [Or, Discovering the (hitherto unsuspected) Connections between Ruskin’s Publisher, George Allen, Little Agnes Stalker, and those very Mysterious Bees!). Hopefully, in the process of reading that story, some of us began to think a little about how his discovering methods applied (or not) to our own sleuthing efforts in life.

At the beginning of his detecting was, first, the search for and, then, a dedicated reading of the expert sources which had been written about, in this case, his quick-winged subject, bees. Indeed, he insisted, reading well, regularly, and deeply was the key not only to understanding but to a meaningful life. Which thought took me to another: that I should share with you some of the particulars attending his remarkable lecture stressing “the importance of reading” with an audience, that, on the 6th of December, 1864, had come out hear him speak on a topic he called “Of Kings’ Treasuries.”

Rusholme Public Hall circa 1866

Rusholme Public Hall and Library, mid-1860s

The lecture was delivered in Rusholme Public Hall and Library. Rusholme was a new suburb (for, primarily, rich people) near Manchester. Actually, the above picture doesn’t really give us a very accurate impression of what that august building must have looked like–even at close range–on the evening when Ruskin walked to the podium. Although it was, at the time, less than a decade old, the Hall was not far from the dead-center of one of the most thriving cities of the British Industrial Revolution. Consequently, it is more than likely that what Ruskin saw, as he approached Manchester from the south earlier that day was something more like what’s pictured below.

15th February: Mike Nevell – Housing in 19th century Manchester ...

Manchester, Mid-Nineteenth Century

In 1864, Ruskin, despite the controversies occasioned by his recent series of essays criticizing laissez-faire capitalism in Unto this Last (1860) and Munera Pulveris (1862), was, for speaking engagements, still one of the most sought after of Britain’s famous figures. Knowing he was on published record as being a strong advocate for public libraries (then as rare as hen’s teeth in the whole of the industrializing world), and desirous of establishing one of these modern advancements in their progressive new suburb, the Rusholmians who had been allotted the power to organize events, decided to ask him if he would like to speak on the subject, hoping that he would sanction their effort and thereby, his fame going before him, would help loosen the still- zippered pockets of some they hoped would become major donors. As it turned out, Ruskin would do as requested (but not until he came to the last paragraphs of his long talk), by which moment, as we shall see, many of those who had been in his audience had been thoroughly upset by much of what they had heard. It happened thus:

After he had been given the expected effusive introduction, as soon as he arrived at the podium, Ruskin announced that, before he got to the heart of what he wanted to share with them that evening, he trusted they would not mind if he took a few moments to remind them of something they all already knew: about the importance of reading in life; but not just reading, he said, rather that sort of reading which led not only to new information but to a greater understanding of life itself and how we should live it. He wanted to remind them about the significance of something else they already knew about, of the existence of a relatively small collection of books that he thought should be thought of as “Kings’ Treasuries.” Such were not, he said–as a cursory reading of his metaphor might suggest–anything like those other treasuries they had always heard about, the collections of precious metals that, since time immemorial, had been sequestered away in padlocked boxes in padlocked rooms, rooms to which only a tiny and powerful few had keys. No, he wanted to remind them about the real kings’ treasuries, the deep human truths that are embedded in the greatest books of all time. The greatest books, he repeated, those few books that demanded not only to be read, but re-read, and then re-read again, always with the deepest devotion, if their priceless rewards were to be unlocked and possessed.


Most people, he continued–he knew they would all agree with him on this–did not read well. Most read “to get the gist,” to be entertained, to pass the time, or “get the news.” Such reading had its place, of course (but not a very important one). But he meant real reading, including all the careful steps one had to take to do that well. Let me take a little time to explain the significance of such reading to you, he said: it may take a little while, but, if you stay with me, I think you’ll find that it will be more than worth it, worth it not in rare metals, but in something much more important, rare thoughts.

Then assuming by their silence that they had agreed to his proposal, he began: First, I want to remind you that

books of this [greatest] kind have been written in all ages by their greatest men—by great leaders, great statesmen, and great thinkers. [And these books] are all at your choice–and Life is short.

You have heard as much before. Yet have you measured and mapped out this short life of yours and its possibilities? Do you know–that if you read this, that you cannot read that, that what you lose to-day you cannot gain tomorrow? Will you go and gossip with your housemaid, or your stable-boy, when you may talk with queens and kings? Or flatter yourself that it is with any worthy consciousness of your own…that you jostle with the hungry and common crowd for entrée here and audience there, when, all the while, this eternal court is open to you, with its society, wide as the world, multitudinous as its days, the chosen and the mighty of every place and time? Into that you may enter always; in that, you may take fellowship and rank according to your wish; from that, once entered into it, you can never be outcast but by your own fault. By your aristocracy of companionship there, your own inherent aristocracy will be assuredly tested, and the motives with which you strive to take high place in the society of the living, measured, as to all the truth and sincerity that are in them, by the place you desire to take in this company of the Dead.

The place you desire, and the place you fit yourself for, I must also say. Because, observe, this court of the past differs from all living aristocracy in this: it is open to labor and to merit, but to nothing else. No wealth will bribe, no name
overawe, no artifice deceive, the guardian of those Elysian gates. In the deep sense, no vile or vulgar person ever enters there. At [these gates,] there is but one brief question: Do you deserve to enter? Pass. Do you ask to be the companion of nobles? Make yourself noble, and you shall be. Do you long for the conversation of the wise? Learn to understand it, and you shall hear it. But on other terms? No. If
you will not rise to us, we cannot stoop to you. The living lord may assume courtesy, the living philosopher explain his thought to you with considerate pain. But here we neither feign nor interpret. You must rise to the level of our thoughts if you would be gladdened by them, and share our feelings, if you would recognize our

This, then, is what you have to do–and I admit it is much. You must, in a word, love these people if you are to be among them. No ambition is of any use. They scorn your ambition. You must love them, and show your love in these…ways. First, by a true desire to be taught by them, and to enter into their thoughts. To enter into theirs, observe, not to find your own expressed by them. If the person who wrote the book is not wiser than you, you need not read it. I he be, he will think differently from you in many respects. Very ready we are to say of a book: How good this is! That‘s exactly what I think! But the right feeling is: How strange that is! I never thought of that before, and yet I see it is true; or, if I do not now, I hope I shall, some day.

But whether thus submissively or not, at least be sure that you go to the author to get at his meaning, not to find yours. Judge it afterwards if you think yourself qualified to do so, but ascertain it first. And be sure, also, if the author is worth anything, that you will not get at his meaning all at once. Nay, that at his whole meaning you will not for a long time arrive in any wise. Not that he does not say what he means, and in strong words too, but he cannot say it all. And what is more strange, will not, but in a hidden way and in parables, in order that he may be sure you want it… They do not give it you by way of help, but of reward, and will make themselves sure that you deserve it before they allow you to reach it.

[I]t is the same with the physical type of wisdom, gold. There seems, to you and me, no reason why the electric forces of the earth should not carry whatever there is of gold within it at once to the mountain tops, so that kings and people might know that all the gold they could get was there and, without any trouble of digging, or anxiety, or chance, or waste of time, cut it away, and coin as much as they needed. But Nature does not manage it so. She puts it in little fissures in the earth, nobody knows where. You may dig long and find none; you must dig painfully to find any! 

And it is just the same with men‘s best wisdom. When you come to a good book, you must ask yourself: am I inclined to work as an Australian miner would? Are my pickaxes and shovels in good order, and am I in good trim myself, my sleeves
well up to the elbow, and my breath good, and my temper? And–keeping the figure a little longer, even at cost of tiresomeness, for it is a thoroughly useful one–the metal you are in search of being the author‘s mind or meaning, his words are as
the rock which you have to crush and smelt in order to get at it. And your pickaxes are your own care, wit, and learning, your smelting furnace your own thoughtful soul. Do not hope to get at any good author‘s meaning without those tools and that fire. Often you will need sharpest, finest chiseling, and patientest fusing before you can gather one grain of the metal.

And, therefore, first of all, I tell you earnestly and authoritatively (I KNOW I am right in this!), you must get into the habit of looking intensely at words, and assuring yourself of their meaning, syllable by syllable—nay! letter by letter…  [You might} read all the books in the British Museum (if you could live long enough), and remain an utterly illiterate, uneducated person. But, if you read ten pages of a good book, letter by letter—that is to say, with real accuracy—you are for evermore in some measure an educated person. The entire difference between education and
non-education (as regards the merely intellectual part of it), consists in this accuracy.

A well-educated [person] may not know many languages, may not be able to speak any but his own, may have read very few books. But whatever language he knows, he knows precisely… [H]e is learned in the peerage of words; knows the words of true descent and ancient blood, at a glance, from words of modern [colloquialisms], remembers all their ancestry, their intermarriages, distant relationships, and the extent to which they were admitted, and offices they held, among the national noblesse of words at any time, and in any country. But an uneducated person may know, by memory, many languages, and talk them all, and yet truly know not a
word of any, not a word even of his own…

A few words, well-chosen and distinguished, will do work that a thousand cannot, when every one is acting, equivocally, in the function of another. Yes–and words, if they are not watched, will do deadly work sometimes. There are masked words droning and skulking about us in Europe just now [Communism! Socialism! the catch-phrase of almost any mass movement.] There never were so many, owing to the spread of a shallow, blotching, blundering, infectious information, or rather deformation, everywhere, and to the teaching of catechisms and phrases at school instead of human meanings.

There are masked words abroad, I say, which nobody understands, but which everybody uses, and most people will also fight for, live for, or even die for, fancying they mean this or that, or the other, of things dear to them. For such words wear chameleon cloaks…of the color of the ground of any man‘s fancy. On that ground they lie in wait, and rend them with a spring from it. There never were creatures of prey so mischievous, never diplomatists so cunning, never poisoners so deadly, as these masked words. They are the unjust stewards of all men‘s ideas. Whatever fancy or favorite instinct a man most cherishes, he gives to his favorite masked word to take care of for him; [and] the word…at last comes to have an infinite power over him, [and] you cannot get at him but by its ministry…

Now, in order to deal with words rightly, this is the habit you must form. Nearly every word in your language has been first a word of some other language–of Saxon, German, French, Latin, or Greek… And many words have been all these—that is to say, have been Greek first, Latin next, French or German next, and English last, undergoing a certain change of sense and use on the lips of each nation, but retaining a deep vital meaning… [Get] good dictionaries of all these languages, and whenever you are in doubt about a word, hunt it down patiently…and, after that, never let a word escape you that looks suspicious. [How amazingly easy it is to do all this in our day in contrast to Ruskin’s! Today, we all carry around with us all the time all the dictionaries and encyclopedias he mentions, and as many variants of these as we wish (!) in our pockets: the whole of the world’s uncounted billions of facts and deepest wisdoms instantly available to our touch or typing finger! All of the Bible! All the Koran! All Shakespeare. All Ruskin! Not to mention good images of all of Turner’s paintings and the entire poetical works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning!] It is severe work. But you will find it, even at first, interesting, and at last endlessly amusing. And the general gain to your character, in power and precision, will be quite incalculable…

And now, merely for example‘s sake, I will, with your permission, read a few lines of a true book with you, carefully, and see what will come out of them. I will take a book perfectly known to you all. No English words are more familiar to us, yet
few perhaps have been read with less sincerity. I will take these few following lines of “Lycidas”…


At this point, the speaker shifted gears. After having explained to his listeners what they needed to do if they aspired to read true books truly well, he now would like, in the tradition of all great lecturers, to give them an example that will prove his prior points beyond question.

[Hwever, while it was the case in Ruskin’s time that epic poems like Milton’s “Lycidas” would have been on the curricula of most universities, such is decidedly not the case any longer. Indeed, in our own day, “Lycidas” and Milton’s great masterpiece, “Paradise Lost,” like most of Shakespeare, all of Plato, all of Dante, and certainly all of Ruskin, no longer resides on the “must read” lists of even the most prestigious universities in the UK, US, Canada, or, as far as I know, anywhere else. Hence, before we can follow our lecturer much further, a few framing comments are needed.

John Milton | Biography, Works, & Facts | Britannica

John Milton, 1608-1671

Whether we know it, or him, or not, Milton remains (for those few who still read him) in the pantheon of English poets, his fame first established with the epic poems “Comus” and “Lycidas” (1638), and then cemented for the centuries to come by what is regarded as one of the greatest lyric poems ever written in English, “Paradise Lost” (1661). For our purposes, it is good to know that “Lycidas” was written as a eulogy celebrating the life of Milton’s Cambridge friend, Edward King, who drowned while crossing the Irish Sea. But, as always with any resident in the Kings’ Treasuries, there is more. A dedicated, even rabid, Protestant, Milton was infuriated by what he (and not a few) others saw as the unethical excesses of the Roman Catholic Church (the selling of indulgences, for example), and, for this reason, his poem brims with criticisms of that church and its priests.

Ruskin, of course, knew all this from his own tutorings, and knew as well that, however cursorily they may have attacked the subject, most of those who were sitting in front of him in Rusholme Town Hall that night, would have had at least some exposure to Milton’s epic. He will read a few lines to them, and then, line by line, word by word, letter by letter as necessary, will work them through them, so that, together, they will be able to unearth the depth of Milton’s thought, a depth which he already knows, as they do not, awaits their scrutiny, a depth which, once gained, will allow them to see Milton’s issue and the world in a considerably wiser way. Such is the promise and reward to the diligent of the Kings’ Treasuries.

For interest, after reproducing Milton’s lines, I have shared a list of my own initial reactions to the vocabulary Milton has used. As I made that list years ago, I realized that, if I was to follow Ruskin’s most reasonable directive, that, if I wanted to be a truly educated person, I should never let a word escape me, I would have to allot some serious {pre-cell phone) dictionary time before I could even begin to make sense of his coming analysis of the poet’s passage!]

John Milton - Lycidas, Part 1 - YouTube

“Lycidas,” woodcut (Dr. Scott Masson)


Last came, and last did go,
The pilot of the Galilean lake.
Two massy keys he bore of metals twain,
(The golden opes, the iron shuts amain,)
He shook his mitred locks, and stern bespake,
“How well could I have spared for thee, young swain,
Enow of such as for their bellies‘ sake
Creep, and intrude, and climb into the fold!
Of other care they little reckoning make,
Than how to scramble at the shearers‘ feast,
And shove away the worthy bidden guest;
Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold
A sheep-hook, or have learn‘d aught else, the least
That to the faithful herdman‘s art belongs!
What recks it them? What need they? They are sped;
And when they list, their lean and flashy songs
Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw;
The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But, swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread;
Besides what the grim wolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing said.

Following is my list of the words in the excerpt above, the meaning of which, the first time I read the passage, I either did not know or was unsure of:

“the Pilot of the Galilean Lake”; not sure who this is, check;
“opes”; var. of “opens” ?
“amain”; ?
“mitered”; check
“swain”; surely a medieval designation; a person from the country ?
“enow”; ?
“blind mouths”; a strange combination!?
“recks”; ?
“they are sped“; ?
“list”; here, unclear; perhaps “listen,” or, “lean” ?
“scrannel”; ?
“swoln”; must be a var. of “swollen” ?
“privy paw”; its meaning here?
“apace”; ?

A day later, the above words and phrases now being (for the most part) secured, I am ready, or so I like to tell myself, to have Mr. Ruskin carry on!

Let us think over this passage, and examine its words. First, is it not singular to find Milton assigning to St. Peter [“the Pilot of the Galilean Lake”] not only his full episcopal function, but the very types of it which Protestants usually refuse most passionately: his mitred locks?! Milton was no Bishop-lover! How comes St. Peter then to be “mitred”? And: “Two massy keys he bore”? Is this, then, the power of the keys claimed by the Bishops of Rome? And is it acknowledged here by Milton only in a poetical licence, for the sake of its picturesqueness, that he may get the gleam of the golden keys to help his effect?

Do not think it! Great men do not play stage tricks with the doctrines of life and death. Only little men do that. Milton means what he says. And means it with his might too; is going to put the whole strength of his spirit presently into the saying of it. For though not a lover of false bishops, he was a lover of true ones. And the Lake Pilot is here, in his thoughts, the type and head of true episcopal power. For Milton reads that text, “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven” [Matthew XVI: 19], quite honestly. Puritan [note to self: look this up] though he be, he would not blot it out of the book because there have been bad bishops. No, in order to fully understand him, we must [first] understand that verse.

First, it will not do to eye it askance or whisper it under our breath, as if it were a weapon of an adverse sect. It is a solemn, universal assertion, deeply to be kept in mind by all sects. But perhaps we shall be better able to reason on it if we go on a little farther, and come back to it. For clearly this marked insistence on the power of the true episcopate is to make us feel more weightily what is to be charged against the false claimants of the episcopate, or, generally, against false claimants of power and rank in the body of the clergy–they “who, for their bellies‘ sake, creep, and intrude, and climb into the fold.”

Never think Milton uses those three words to fill up his verse, as a loose writer would. He needs all the three–especially those three and no more than those: “creep” and “intrude” and “climb.” No other words would or could serve the turn, and no more could be added. For they exhaustively comprehend the three classes, correspondent to the three characters of men who dishonestly seek ecclesiastical power. First: those who crept into the fold, who do not care for office, nor name, but for secret influence, and do all things occultly and cunningly, consenting to any servility of office or conduct, so only that they may intimately discern, and
unawares direct, the minds of men. Then, those who “intrude” (thrust, that is) themselves into the fold–who by natural insolence of heart, and stout eloquence of tongue, and fearlessly perseverant self-assertion, obtain hearing and authority with the common crowd. Lastly, those who “climb,” who, by labor and learning, both stout and sound, but selfishly exerted in the cause of their own ambition, gain high dignities and authorities, and become lords over the heritage, though not ensamples [def: “example: a rank imitation”; now archaic; used here, in this form, by Ruskin to remind us both of Milton’s eloquence and our own unawareness of a perfectly good word] to the flock. Now go on:

Of other care they little reckoning make,
Than how to scramble at the shearers‘ feast.
Blind mouths…”

I pause again, for this is a strange expression! A broken metaphor, one might think, careless and unscholarly. Not so: its very audacity and pithiness are intended to make us look close at the phrase and remember it. Those two monosyllables express the precisely accurate contraries of right character in the two great offices of the Church—those of “bishop” and “pastor.”

A ―Bishop means: “a person who sees.”
B ―Pastor means: “a person who feeds.”

The most unbishoply character a man can have is, therefore, to be blind.
The most unpastoral is, instead of feeding, to want to be fed, to be a mouth.
Take the two reverses together, and you have: “blind mouths.”

We may advisably follow out this idea a little. Nearly all the evils in the Church have arisen from bishops desiring power more than light. They want authority, not outlook; whereas their real office is not to rule–though it may be vigorously to exhort and rebuke. It is the king‘s office to rule. The bishop‘s office is to oversee the flock–to number it, sheep by sheep, to be ready, always, to give full account of it.

Now it is clear he cannot give account of the souls if he has not so much as numbered the bodies of his flock. The first thing, therefore, that a bishop has to do is at least to put himself in a position in which, at any moment, he can obtain the history, from childhood, of every living soul in his diocese, and of its present
state. Down in that back street, Bill and Nancy, knocking each other‘s teeth out!

Bill Sykes and Nancy from Dickens’ Oliver Twist (Sol Eytinge, Jr., 1867; image from The Victorian Web)

Does the bishop know all about it? Has he his eye upon them? Has he had his eye upon them? Can he circumstantially explain to us how Bill got into the habit of
beating Nancy about the head? If he cannot, he is no bishop, though he had a mitre as high as Salisbury steeple. He is no bishop. He has sought to be at the helm instead of the masthead; he has no sight of things.

“Nay,”  you say, “it is not his duty to look after Bill in the back street.” What! The fat sheep that have full fleeces—you think it is only those he should look after while (go back to your Milton) “the hungry sheep look up, and are not fed, besides what the grim wolf, with privy paw‖ (bishops knowing nothing about it), daily devours
apace, and nothing said?”

But that‘s not our idea of a bishop! Perhaps not. But it was St. Paul‘s–and it was Milton‘s. They may be right, or we may be. But we must not think we are reading either one or the other by putting our meaning into their words. I go on:

“But swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw.” This is to meet the vulgar answer that, if the poor are not looked after in their bodies, they are in their souls; they have spiritual food! [To which,] Milton says, “They have no such thing as spiritual food; they are only swollen with wind.” At first, you may think that is a
coarse type and an obscure one. But again it is a quite literally accurate one.

Take up your Latin and Greek dictionaries, and find out the meaning of “Spirit.” It is only a contraction of the Latin word, “breath,” and an indistinct translation of the Greek word for “wind.” The same word is used in writing: “The wind bloweth where it listeth” [Acts XX: 28], and, and in another writing, “So is everyone that is
born of the Spirit, born of the breath” [John II: 8]…for it means the breath of God in soul and body. We have the true sense of it in our words―inspiration” and “expire.”

Now, there are two kinds of breath with which the flock may be filled, God‘s breath and man‘s. The breath of God is health, and life, and peace to them, as the air of heaven is to the flocks on the hills. But man‘s breath…is disease and contagion to them, as the fog of the fen. They “rot inwardly” with it; they are puffed up by it, as a dead body by the vapors of its own decomposition.

This is literally true of all false religious teaching. The first and last–and fatalest–sign of it, is that “puffing up.” Your converted children, who teach their parents; your converted convicts, who teach honest men; your converted dunces, who, having lived in cretinous stupefaction half their lives, suddenly awaking to the
fact of there being a God, fancy themselves therefore His peculiar people and messengers. Your sectarians of every species, small and great, Catholic or Protestant, of high church or low, in so far as they think themselves exclusively in the right and others wrong–and, pre-eminently, in every sect, those who hold that men can be saved by thinking rightly instead of doing rightly, by word instead of act, and wish, instead of work. These are the true fog children—clouds, these, without water; bodies, these, of putrescent vapor and skin, without blood or flesh; blown bagpipes for the fiends to pipe with—corrupt and corrupting, “Swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw.”

Lastly, let us return to the lines respecting the power of the keys, for now we can understand them. Note the difference between Milton and Dante in their interpretation of this power. For once, the latter is weaker in thought [See Purgatorio, ix. 117, seq.]. He supposes both the keys to be of the gate of heaven: one is of gold, the other of silver. They are given by St. Peter to the sentinel angel, and it is not easy to determine the meaning either of the substances of the three steps of the gate, or of the two keys. But Milton makes one, of gold, the key of heaven; the other, of iron, the key of the prison in which the wicked teachers are to be bound, who have taken away the key of knowledge, yet entered not in themselves.

We have above seen that the duties of bishop and pastor are to see and feed, and of all who do so it is said, “He that watereth, shall be watered also himself.” [Proverbs 9: 25] But the reverse is truth also. “He that watereth not, shall be withered himself; and he that seeth not, shall himself be shut out of sight, shut into the perpetual prison-house.” And that prison opens here, as well as hereafter. He who is to be bound in heaven must first be bound on earth… [bound by] every help withheld, and for every truth refused, and for every falsehood enforced. So that he is more strictly fettered the more he fetters, and farther outcast as he more and more misleads, till at last the bars of the iron cage close upon him, and as “the golden opes, the iron shuts amain.”



We have got something out of the lines, I think, and much more is yet to be found in them. But we have done enough, by way of example of the kind of word-by-word examination of your author which is rightly called reading: watching every accent and expression, and putting ourselves always in the author‘s place, annihilating our own personality, and seeking to enter into his, so as to be able assuredly to say, “Thus Milton thought,” not “Thus I thought, in misreading Milton.” And by this process you will gradually come to attach less weight to your own “Thus I thought” at other times. You will begin to perceive that what you thought was a matter of no serious importance—that your thoughts on any subject are not perhaps the clearest and wisest that could be arrived at thereupon.

In fact, that unless you are a very singular person, you cannot be said to have any “thoughts”at all, that you have no materials for them in any serious matters; no right to think–but only to try to learn more of the facts [here bringing it back to George Allen, little Agnes Stalker,and those mysterious bees!]Nay, most probably all your life (unless, as I said, you are a singular person) you will have no legitimate right to an opinion on any business, except that instantly under your hand.

What must of necessity be done, you can always find out, beyond question, how to do. Have you a house to keep in order, a commodity to sell, a field to plow, a
ditch to cleanse? There need be no two opinions about these proceedings. It is at your peril if you have not much more than an opinion on the way to manage such matters!

And also, outside of your own business, there are one or two subjects on which you are bound to have but one opinion–that roguery and lying are objectionable, and are instantly to be flogged out of the way whenever discovered; that covetousness and love of quarreling are dangerous dispositions even in children, and deadly dispositions in men and nations; that, in the end, the God of heaven and earth loves active, modest, and kind people, and hates idle, proud, greedy, and cruel ones. On these general facts you are bound to have but one, and that a very strong, opinion.

For the rest, respecting religions, governments, sciences, arts, you will find that, on the whole, you can know NOTHING, judge nothing; that the best you can do, even though you may be a well-educated person, is to be silent, and strive to be wiser every day, and to understand a little more of the thoughts of others, which so soon as you try to do honestly, you will discover that the thoughts even of the wisest are very little more than pertinent questions to put the difficulty into a clear shape, and exhibit to you the grounds for indecision, that is all…

This writer, from whom I have been reading to you, is not among the first or wisest. He sees shrewdly as far as he sees, and therefore it is easy to find out his full meaning. But with the greater men, you cannot fathom their meaning. They do not even wholly measure it themselves, it is so wide. Suppose I had asked you, for instance, to seek for Shakespeare‘s opinion, instead of Milton‘s, on this matter of church authority? Or for Dante‘s? Have any of you, at this instant, the least idea what either thought about it?… 


And here, for the moment, he left things. It had been, he knew, a long exegesis, especially as it had been dedicated to interpreting a very few lines written by one of the princes (not one of the kings) of literature. But to make his argument about the critical importance of careful reading this night, he thought it had probably served well enough. He had hoped to show them how such reading demanded a commitment from each of them, to convince them that to spend any but the least amount of time necessary communing with the non-kings was time wasted and lost, to make them see that the inestimable reward of such efforts, however far one found oneself from a full understanding of a matter when their work was finished, was the infusion of a new appreciation of and compassion for the world or aspects of it which one had not, or had only superficially or partially, before. No small rewards these. 

But there had been more of import–thus far, unmentioned. He had wanted them to realize, without him saying so, that, by and large, they were not reading, perhaps never had read, as he had described it; that they, being the elites, the rich, powerful, and famous of their, his, society, had regularly and willfully shirked the singular duty of their class, to resolutely undertake to do the things that were needed which would allow them to ease the path through life for all those others with whom they drew breath. He would come to this point directly in the next few minutes…

Do continue to be well out there! 

Until next time!



P.S.: Many years ago, I was resisting the ever-intensifying move to computers. Truth was, I was afraid of them and of what I was sure would be the astonishing learning curve I would have to climb if I started to type on tiny electronic screens. I made up excuses, rationales I shared with others, explaining that I didn’t  want to get involved with these infernal machines because they were dehumanizing and alienating, and–and here was what I thought was my strongest argument–I didn’t want to become one of the bad guys. My friend Jack Harris, who had been learning about the new technology by that time for some time, wasn’t convinced by the excuses and eventually convinced me to buy and set up my first computer, a Radio Shack TRS-80 (the then–and still–infamous “Trash 80”). As we were getting it ready to boot up for the first time, I gave him (probably for the twentieth time), this strongest argument again. To which he replied: “Jim, the bad guys are already there and have been from the beginning. Woe unto us if the good guys don’t come aboard and find ways to counter them!” And so here we are, a third of a century and more later, talking to each other around the world in nanoseconds about the genius and wonder that is John Ruskin, one of the very good guys! Which thought brings me to a final (for now) point for this already very long post: to remind us that, if the good guys are going to win, that there really is no longer any excuse. During these electrifying decades, no one, ever again, can say, with any hope of being credulous, that a word escaped them because they didn’t have a dictionary to (in) hand. 🙂


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5 Responses to 186: How to Read (Or, Milton and Ruskin meet the Bishops)

  1. Colin Parker says:

    Manchester Town Hall!


  2. James G. Hanink says:

    Thanks much for this chastening post!
    Two further thoughts come to mind. First, Ruskin and Mortimer Adler (How to Read a Book) are on the same page (ouch). Second, isn’t it the selling of indulgences, not absolutions, that you want to reference? Jim Hanink

    • jimspates says:

      Thanks Jim. I appreciate, as always, your appreciation of the post and I acknowledge that you are absolutely right; it was the selling of indulgences I meant. I will make the change!

      I trust you are keeping well in this difficult time. We are way over here in Upstate New York! Jim

  3. Frank Gordon says:

    Yes, Colin is right. the photograph is of Manchester Town Hall. My wife worked there for a time shortly after we were married fifty two (52!) years ago. A bit odd when you think about it as Manchester is a city, not a town.

    I really wanted to say that I enjoyed reading this latest post; no need to apologise for length as anybody with more than a passing interest in Ruskin must be prepared to knuckle down and, yes, do some proper reading. Even if (or especially if) it is chastening as James says – you get so used to skimming instead of reading in any real sense that concentrating for lengthy periods becomes quite demanding . Must try harder.

    I also wanted to pass on a message of greeting from Professor Ray Haslam. We were at art school together back in the last century and when I told him of your site he asked to be remembered. He told me that you had been friends for many years – through the usual Ruskin Mafia connection of course!

    Best wishes

    Frank Gordon

    • jimspates says:

      Dear Frank,

      Thanks much for this comment. Colin led me to a website that had (as far as I know) the only extant picture of the Rusholme Hall that Ruskin lectured in. I copied it out and inserted it in the post to substitute for the mistaken Manchester Town Hall.

      I’m, of course, very pleased that you are enjoying the posts. As you know from how I framed it, I believe it is Ruskin’s most brilliant and important lecture in a veritable treasure trove of them. The consequences of not reading the classics as they deserve are visited on us every day, as today’s post–a continuation of Ruskin’s lecture–hopefully makes clear.

      Yes, Ray and I go back a long time now. He’s a fine soul and has, I believe, the best personal JR collection in the UK!

      All my best wishes,


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