187: The Despisings (Or, The Not Altogether Pleasant Consequences of Not Reading)

Good Folks,

In today’s post, we continue on from our last, 186: How to Read (Or, Milton and Ruskin meet the Bishops). It, as you’ll recall, was based on Ruskin’s brilliant lecture, “On Kings’ Treasuries,” delivered near Manchester in Rusholme’s Town Hall in the early December of 1864. (It would be good to review that post before proceeding with what follows.) Ruskin’s proposition, in the first part of his talk, was that the careful reading great works of literature was essential for the development of a complex understanding of the world and gaining a sense of one’s moral responsibility in that world. At the post’s end, we noted that, even though the speaker did not say so directly, it was clear that he suspected that most of those who had come to hear him speak that night had neglected this responsibility, a shirking which would lead inevitably to consequences of the most dire sort–as he was about to tell them.


The lecturer looks up from the podium; says: We have now determined, have we not, that if those who can read well commit the time doing so, a much more salubrious society, a society beneficial for all, would be the likely result. Even our brief consideration of a few lines from Milton’s wonderful poem, “Lycidas,” shows us that, because those lines are capable, so well are they conceived and written, of teaching us things of import of which we had not been aware: how corruption can quietly seep into the ranks of some of the most important figures who serve us: the clergy, our chosen interpreters of God’s message! But Milton’s lines taught us even more by implication, because, it seems obvious that, if the clergy are susceptible to those who try to climb, creep, and intrude into their fold, would it not be the likely case that, all professions, if they are not carefully watched, might be beset by similar climbers, creepers, and intruders? And if this happens, as it has happened with infected priests, those who will suffer the most are those whom these professions have been brought into being to serve, their parishioners, clients, customers? It is a true insight, one that can only take deep hold in us if we study with care the lines in which that insight has been carefully embedded. And it is a true insight for still another reason: coming to it we automatically know what must be done to correct the malaise: we must rouse ourselves to take the steps which are needed to ensure that the miscreants are dismissed and only those who are “true bishops,” will assume the highest positions of authority. Such is the power of these Kings’ Treasuries to inform and guide us.

At which point Ruskin paused. Then went on as follows: But I suspect that there is a problem with this conclusion. For surely you will agree with me immediately on this next point: that it does not take much exercise of genius to know that we are not living together very salubriously now. We are surrounded—even here, I am exceedingly sorry to say, in your great city of Manchester—by immense human misery, confusion, political chaos, and, as I saw as I drove here this afternoon, by so much harmful and ugly smoke that it is barely possible to breathe. How could such things come to be if we had taken the time to read the Kings’ Treasuries with care? Is it possible that, perhaps, we have not read them with that care? Is it possible that, somehow, we have been otherwise distracted and have left these golden paragraphs lying on our shelves gathering dust in the dark, rather than helping them to fulfill their reason for being: doing their best to foster our most vital brain and heart connections? If this is so, it can explain much, perhaps almost all, of what has gone amiss in our current collective life. Let us see what comes if we entertain this unhappy possibility.

At which point, Ruskin went on as related below. His audience was at first surprised at the shift in his tone and the subject of his discourse, and then, shortly thereafter, increasingly discomfited and, finally, angered at what they were hearing, as his list of despisings grew:

My friends, I do not know why any of us should talk about reading. We want some sharper discipline than that of reading. But, at all events, be assured, we cannot read. No reading is possible for a people with its mind in such a state. No sentence of any great writer is intelligible to them. It is simply and sternly impossible for the English public, at this moment, to understand any thoughtful writing, so incapable of thought has it become in its insanity of avarice… No nation can last which has made a mob of itself, however generous at heart. It must discipline its passions, and direct them, or they will discipline it, one day, with scorpion whips.

Above all, a nation cannot last as a money-making mob. It cannot with impunity, it cannot with existence, go on despising literature, despising science, despising art, despising nature, despising compassion, and concentrating its soul on Pence!

Do you think these are harsh or wild words? Have patience with me but a little longer. I will prove their truth to you, clause by clause.

I say first, WE HAVE DESPISED LITERATURE. What do we, as a nation, care about books? How much do you think we spend altogether on our libraries, public or private, as compared with what we spend on our horses? If a man spends lavishly on his library, you call him mad, a bibliomaniac. But you never call anyone a horsemaniac, though men ruin themselves every day by their horses—and you do not hear of people ruining themselves by their books! Or, to go lower still, how much do you think the contents of the bookshelves of the United Kingdom, public and private, would fetch, as compared with the contents of its wine-cellars? What position would its expenditure on literature take as compared with its expenditure on luxurious eating? We talk of food for the mind as of food for the body. Now, a good book contains such food inexhaustibly. It is a provision for life, and for the best part of us. Yet how long would most people look at the best book before they would give the price of a large turbot for it?

Though there have been men who have pinched their stomachs and bared their backs to buy a book, [their] libraries were cheaper to them, I think, in the end, than most men‘s dinners are. We are, few of us, put to such trial–and more’s the pity, for, indeed, a precious thing is all the more precious to us if it has been won by work or economy. And if public libraries were half so costly as public dinners, or books cost the tenth part of what bracelets do, even foolish men and women might sometimes suspect there was good in reading, as well as in munching, and sparkling, whereas the very cheapness of literature is making even wise people forget that if a book is worth reading, it is worth buying. [He refers here to modern cheap editions of which he disapproved.]

No book is worth anything which is not worth much. Nor is it serviceable, until it has been read, and re-read, and loved, and loved again—and marked so that you can refer to the passages you want in it, as a soldier can seize the weapon he needs in an armory… Bread of flour is good. But there is bread, sweet as honey, if we would eat it, in a good book… We call ourselves a rich nation, and we are filthy and foolish enough to thumb each other‘s books out of circulating libraries!

I say, WE HAVE DESPISED SCIENCE. What!? You exclaim. Are we not foremost in all discovery, and is not the whole world giddy by reason, or unreason, of our inventions? Yes, but do you suppose that is national work? That work is all done in spite of the nation, by private people‘s zeal and money. We are glad enough, indeed, to make our profit of science. We snap up anything in the way of a scientific bone that has meat on it, eagerly enough… but…what have we publicly done for science? We are obliged to know what o‘clock it is for the safety of our ships, and therefore we pay for an observatory, and we allow ourselves, in the person of our Parliament, to be annually tormented into doing something…for the British Museum, sullenly apprehending that to be a place for keeping stuffed birds in to amuse our children. If anybody will pay for their own telescope, and resolve another nebula, we cackle over the discernment as if it were our own. If one in ten thousand of our hunting squires suddenly perceives that the earth was indeed made to be something else than a portion for foxes, and burrows in it himself, and tells us where the gold is, and where the coals, we understand that there is some use in that, and very properly knight him… 

I say: YOU HAVE DESPISED ART!. What!? You again answer: have we not art exhibitions, miles long? And do we not pay thousands of pounds for single pictures? And have we not art schools and institutions, more than ever nation had before? Yes, truly. But all that is for the sake of the shop. You would fain sell canvas as well as coals, and crockery as well as iron; you would take every other nation‘s bread out of its mouth if you could! … …You care for pictures, absolutely, no more than you do for the bills pasted on your dead walls. There is always room on the walls for the bills to be read, never for the pictures to be seen. You do not know what pictures you have [in your museums]…nor whether they are false or true, nor whether they are taken care of or not. In foreign countries, you calmly see the noblest existing pictures in the world rotting in abandoned wreck [at the time Ruskin was writing, the glorious Tintorettos in the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice were open to the weather as a result of recent bombing], and if you heard that all the fine pictures in Europe were made into sand-bags to-morrow…it would not trouble you so much as the chance of a brace or two of game less in your own bags in a day‘s shooting. That is your national love of Art!

I say, YOU HAVE DESPISED NATURE! That is to say, [you despise] all the deep and sacred sensations of natural scenery… [Y]ou have made stables of the cathedrals of France; you have made race-courses of the cathedrals of the earth. Your one conception of pleasure is to drive in railroad carriages round their aisles, and eat off their altars. You have put a railroad-bridge over the Falls of Schaffhausen. You have tunneled the cliffs of Lucerne by [William] Tell‘s chapel; you have destroyed the Clarens Shore of the Lake of Geneva. There is not a quiet valley in England that you have not filled with bellowing fire; there is no particle left of English land which you have not trampled coal ashes into, nor any foreign city in which the spread of your presence is not marked among its fair old streets and happy gardens by a consuming white leprosy of new hotels and perfumers‘ shops. The Alps themselves you look upon as soaped poles in a bear-garden, which you set                yourselves to climb and slide down again with shrieks of delight!                       

When you are past shrieking, having no human articulate voice to say you are glad with, you fill the quietude of their valleys with gunpowder blasts, and rush home, red with cutaneous eruption of conceit, and voluble with convulsive hiccup of self-satisfaction. I think nearly the two sorrowfullest spectacles I have ever seen in humanity, taking the deep inner significance of them, are the English mobs in the valley of Chamouni, amusing themselves with firing rusty howitzers, and the Swiss vintners of Zurich expressing their Christian thanks for the gift of the vine by assembling in knots in the towers of the vineyards and slowly loading and firing horse-pistols from morning till evening. It is pitiful to have dim conceptions of duty; more pitiful, it seems to me…to have conceptions like these of mirth.

Lastly, I say,” YOU DESPISE COMPASSION. There is no need of words of mine for proof of this. I will merely print one of the newspaper paragraphs which I am in the habit of cutting out and throwing into my desk drawer. Here is one from a Daily Telegraph of an early date this year (February 13, 1864). It relates only such facts as happen now daily… I will print the paragraphs in red; be sure the facts themselves are written in that color in a book which we shall, all of us, literate or illiterate, have to read our page of, some day.

An inquiry was held on Friday by Mr. Richards, deputy coroner, at the White Horse Tavern, Christ Church, Spitalfields, [London,] respecting the death of Michael Collins, aged 58 years. Mary Collins, a miserable-looking woman, said that she lived with the deceased and his son in a room at 2, Cobb‘s Court, Christ Church. Deceased was a “translator of boots.” Witness went out and bought old boots; deceased and his son made them into good ones, and then witness sold them for what she could get at the shops, which was very little indeed. Deceased and his son used to work night and day to try and get a little bread and tea, and pay for the room (2 shillings a week), so as to keep the home together. On Friday-night-week deceased got up from his bench and began to shiver. He threw down the boots, saying, “Somebody else must finish them when I am gone, for I can do no more.” There was no fire, and he said, “I would be better if I was warm.”

Witness therefore took two pairs of translated boots to sell at the shop. But she could only get 14p [pence] for the two pairs, for the people at the shop said, “We must have our profit.” Witness got 14 lb. of coal, and a little tea and bread. Her son sat up the whole night to make the “translations,” to get [try and get more] money, but deceased died on Saturday morning. The family never had enough to eat.

Coroner: “It seems to me deplorable that you did not go into the workhouse.” Witness: “We wanted the comforts of our little home.” A juror asked what the comforts were, for he only saw a little straw in the corner of the room, the windows of which were broken. The witness began to cry, and said that they had a quilt and other little things. The deceased said he never would go into the workhouse. In summer, when the season was good, they sometimes made as much as 10 shillings profit in the week. They then always saved towards the next week, which was generally a bad one. In winter, they made not half so much. For three years they had been getting from bad to worse.

Cornelius Collins said that he had helped his father since 1847. They used to work so far into the night that both nearly lost their eyesight. Witness now had a film over his eyes. Five years ago, deceased applied to the parish for aid. The relieving officer gave him a 4 lb. loaf, and told him if he came again he should “get the stones.” [An allusion to s meaningless task assigned to many prisoners in jail–to transfer a large pile of stones from one location to another. cf.: Matthew 7:9]

[At this point in the published version of his talk Ruskin interpolated the following footnote.]

It may perhaps be well to preserve, beside this paragraph, another cutting out of my desk drawer–from the Morning Post of about a parallel date: Friday, March 10th, 1865:

“The salons of Mme. C—, who did the honors with clever imitative grace and elegance, were crowded with princes, dukes, marquises, and counts; in fact, with the same male company as one meets at the parties of the Princess Metternich and Madame Drouyn de Lhuys. [Princess Metternich was the wife of the Austrian Ambassador at Paris, a friend of the Empress Eugénie, and a leader of Society during the Second Empire; Madame Drouyn de Lhuys, was the wife of Napoleon III‘s Minister for Foreign Affairs.] Some English peers and members of Parliament were present, and appeared to enjoy the animated and dazzlingly improper scene. On the second floor, the supper tables were loaded with every delicacy of the season. That your readers may form some idea of the dainty fare of the Parisian demi-monde, I copy the menu of the supper, which was served to all the guests (about 200) who were seated at four o‘clock: “Choice Yquem, Johannesburg, Laffite, Tokay, and champagne of the finest vintages were served most lavishly throughout the morning. After supper, dancing was resumed with increased animation, and the ball terminated with a chaîne diabolique (literally, “devil dance,” where the frenzied participants are linked) and a cancan d’enfer (“dance of the inferno”) at seven in the morning. Here is the menu: Consommé de volaille à la Bagration: 16 hors-d‘œuvres varieties; Bouchées à la Talleyrand; Saumons froids, sauce Ravigote; filets de bœuf en Bellevue, timbales milanaises, chaudfroid de gibier. Dindes truffées. Pâtés de foies gras, buissons d‘écrevisses, salades vénétiennes, gelées blanches aux fruits, gâteau (cakes) mancini, parisiens et parisiennes. Fromages glacés. Ananas. Dessert.”

[At this  point in the spoken lecture, Ruskin continued reading on with the newspaper account of the death of Michael Collins:]

[Things] got worse and worse until last Friday week, when they had not even a halfpenny to buy a candle. Deceased then lay down on the straw, and said he could not live till morning. A juror: “You are dying of starvation yourself, and you ought to go into the house until the summer.” Witness:  “If we went in, we should die. When we come out in the summer, we should be like people dropped from the sky. No one would know us, and we would not have even a room. I could work now if I had food, for my sight would get better.”

Dr. G. P. Walker said deceased died from syncope [a sudden loss of consciousness occasioned by a sudden drop of blood pressure; repeated incidences can cause brain damage], from exhaustion from want of food. The deceased had had no bedclothes. For four months he had had nothing but bread to eat. There was not a particle of fat in the body. There was no disease but, if there had been medical attendance, he might have survived the syncope or fainting. The Coroner having remarked upon the painful nature of the case, the jury returned the following verdict: “That deceased died from exhaustion from want of food and the common necessaries of life; also through want of medical aid.”

“Why would witness not go into the workhouse?” [Ruskin asked rhetorically as he finished reading]. “Well, the poor seem to have a prejudice against the workhouse which the rich have not [because] “workhouses” for the rich do not involve the idea of work, and should be called, [in reality,] ‘play-houses.’ But the poor like to die independently, it appears. Perhaps if we made the play-houses for them pretty and pleasant enough, or gave them their pensions at home, and allowed them a little introductory peculation with the public money, their minds might be reconciled to the conditions. Meantime, here are the facts: we make our relief either so insulting to them, or so painful, that they rather die than take it at our hands; or, for third alternative, we leave them so untaught and foolish that they starve like brute creatures, wild and dumb, not knowing what to do, or what to ask.

I said, YOU DESPISE COMPASSION. If you did not, such a newspaper paragraph would be as impossible in a Christian country as a deliberate assassination permitted in its public streets. “Christian,” did I say? Alas! if we were but wholesomely un-Christian, it would be impossible… [It is our] gas-inspired Christianity we are triumphant in, and draw back the hem of our robes from the touch of the heretics who dispute it. But to do a piece of common Christian righteousness in a plain English word or deed, to make Christian law any rule of life, and found one National act or hope thereon, we know too well what our faith comes to for that! You might sooner get lightning out of incense smoke than true action or passion out of your modern English religion. You had better get rid of the smoke, and the organ pipes both. Leave them, and the Gothic windows, and the painted glass, to the property man. Give up your carbureted hydrogen ghost [a popular illusion caused by a reflection from a mirror which is produced by an illuminating agent like carbureted hydrogen gas] in one healthy expiration, and look after Lazarus at the doorstep [John 11: 1-45]!! For there is a true Church wherever one hand meets another helpfully, and that is the only holy or Mother Church which ever was, or ever shall be [a reminder to the earlier read “Lycidas” passage].

All these pleasures then, and all these virtues, I repeat, you nationally despise! You have, indeed, men among you who do not [despise], by whose work, by whose strength, by whose life, by whose death, you live, [but you] never thank them. Your wealth, your amusement, your pride, would all be alike impossible, but for those whom you scorn or forget. The policeman, who is walking up and down the black lane all night to watch the guilt you have created there, and may have his brains beaten out and be maimed for life at any moment, [will] never be thanked; the sailor wrestling with the sea‘s rage; the quiet student poring over his book or his vial; the common worker, without praise, and nearly without bread, fulfilling his task as your horses drag your carts, hopeless, and spurned of all. These are the men by whom England lives, but [we care for them not]…

Our National wish and purpose are only to be amused! Our National religion is the performance of church ceremonies, and preaching of soporific truths (or untruths) to keep the mob quietly at work while we amuse ourselves. And the necessity for this amusement is fastening on us as a feverous disease of parched throat and wandering eyes—senseless, dissolute, merciless! How literally that word “Dis-Ease,” the negation and impossibility of “Ease,” expresses the entire moral state of our English Industry and its Amusements!

All this foolishness, harm, and horror, then, are outgrowths of a widespread dereliction of duty. What are elites for, what is all this inherited or gained privilege for, the lecturer asked, if not to use the leisure time their riches make possible, to learn how to guide their society and those living in it with them to greener, better watered, better aired, kinder  pastures? Worse, all this vital (“vita”–for life) and helpful knowledge is readily to hand (he had been trying to convince them of this all evening). To gather it, they needed no edicts from crowned kings or advice from eminent philosophers. If they would only take some of the greatest of these great paged treasuries down from their ignored shelves, and begin a serious reading of them, it would be theirs and, soon thereafter, others!

It would probably not come as an entire surprise if I mentioned that not everyone in the audience on that cold December night was still sitting easily in their chairs, happy to have spent their evening listening to some choice bons mots from one of England’s most famous personages. “This fellow,” not a few of them were thinking by then, “is insufferable! His accusations are wild and unjust. His solutions impossible to achieve in the world as we know it. He must be mad. He cannot be taken seriously!  At the very least, by now, he must be at the end of this disappointing and interminable lecture!”

But, as it happened, he was not. “I have a just a little more to share with you,” Ruskin said. “Perhaps you will be kind enough to remain with me but a few more minutes?”  [More than a few faces cringing.] “Before I bring my remarks to their end, I would like to ask you to take a mental excursion with me–to one of the most lovely places in our lovely north: to the lovely village of Kirkby Lonsdale. Surely some of you have visited there! If so, you’ll know that, just a few paces from the beautiful parish church, there is one of the loveliest views in all England–and, by saying such, I mean also to say that it is one of the loveliest views in the entire world!  Our greatest painter, J. M. W. Turner, thought this view so lovely, he created one of his most marvelous pictures to remind us of it. I would like to share that picture with you…”

As not altogether pleasant murmurs began to make their way around the audience, Ruskin left the podium, descended the stage, and walked around to its back, where, from behind a curtain, a helper brought out a goodly-sized easel. After picking up  what could only have been a framed painting nearby, the lecturer and aide made their way back to the stage. Once the easel was in place, the painting was set on it, its image intentionally turned away from the audience. Ruskin began again…

[To be continued..]

Until this promised happy moment in Kirkby Lonsdale occurs, I do hope you will continue well out there…



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4 Responses to 187: The Despisings (Or, The Not Altogether Pleasant Consequences of Not Reading)

  1. cw291 says:

    My favourite Ruskin lecture! Thanks! I look forward to part 3.

    Clive Wilmer

  2. Arjun Jain says:

    Thank you very much, Jim, for keeping on writing these. I must admit to not always being able to find patience enough to read some of these longer pieces of yours immediately, but I do find it eventually, and am almost always left wiser, and calmer. As the Manchester of 1864, Delhi too today, I’m afraid, is very much a city of mobs. Let alone priests (one should’ve liked to have let them alone last), whilst the world appears still to be singing praises of health professionals etc, if not the police in this time, we, here, everyone, have had to realise how unbelievably corrupt they too have become, the both of them. Goodness knows what infinities have been despised over here. It sometimes feels as though the entire nation Lethe-wards had slipped. As for books, and dinners, of course I agree wholeheartedly with Ruskin; one cannot reason with a person complaining about the cost of what might probably alter his entire world-view, whilst simultaneously be more than willing to spend five times the amount on gratification lasting but an hour.

    • jimspates says:

      Dear Arjun, Thanks for this fine, if, in the case of the Delhi example–which you, of course, know at first hand–sad response. I had thought to “illustrate” the Despising with modern examples in this post. But you have made the point for me. It would be easy to find all five of the Despisings on prominent display these days. I remember an article I read about New York City a few years back where the author said that, from his hotel windows, if you made the rounds of them, you could see all ten of The Ten Commandments being broken at once! By the way, I touched on Delhi once before in our posts. If you’re interested, here’s the link: https://whyruskin.wordpress.com/2016/09/16/70-the-mathematical-certainty-of-happiness/. In the meantime, I am delighted that you discovered the patience to read the post all the way through. Indeed, it’s such a determination is really the heart of Ruskin’s point: when we make these choices to do complex or difficult things, almost always we are edified; when we don’t, that edification sleeps, curled up in a quiet cave of dark pages until that moment comes, if it ever does, when someone says, “Open Sesame” (the title of Ruskin’s book of lectures in which “Of Kings’ Treasuries” first appeared)! Thanks again…. 🙂

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