In Book IV of The Republic, and elsewhere in his epochal dialogues (a true world treasure even though almost no one reads them these days), Plato describeses what he calls “the four cardinal virtues” (from the Latin, “cardo,” or “hinge”), his contention being that those few whose character is infused with all four are among this earth’s most blessed, among those whom we mere mortals, should ever we find ourselves in their honorable presence, should regard with reverence because they can be trusted as guides for our lives. The cardinal virtues are Wisdom, Patience, Justice, and Courage.
Whatever else one might say about Ruskin, there can be no doubt that he possessed and exhibited a remarkable quantity of the last, courage.
Attacked again and again once he started publishing his no-holds-barred critiques of his greed-obsessed social order in the 1860s, he pressed on in the face of the lambasting. The attacks against him were, by turns (sometimes by turns in the same essay), bellicose, scurrilous, vitriolic, and self-serving. He was, his deriders said, illogical, mad, inept, foolish, stupid (even those who said that didn’t really believe it), not to mention dangerous in the extreme. No one in their right mind, the argument went, should pay him the least heed, for, if we ever did so, we’d be lost. He was not only leading us down the garden path, he was the garden path, the devil’s own servant, his tail camouflaged by his great coat.
It would be wrong to say that Ruskin paid no attention to the barbs. At least out of the corner of his eye, he always knew they were circling about, hurled down now from one direction, later from another direction, poison-dipped barbs descending onto black-and-white pages, all intent on silencing him, or, failing that, hoping to convince all those reading their berations that to accord any serious interest to anything he said was so wrong-headed and ludicrous that anyone who dared to even imply that he might have had a good idea now and then would become a laughing stock.
On of the maddest things he ever proposed, for example, was his recommendation, in one of his bizarre Fors Clavigera letters (letters he averred were written for the working people of Britain, people so uneducated that they couldn’t understand a word of what he wrote!), that anyone who wanted to live in his utopian St. George’s Company would have to wear trousers that had been outfitted with “glass pockets,” in order that everyone could see what was in them (Post 193: Glass Pockets)! (See what we mean by down the garden path?) Some said that he was just being cleverly sarcastic by so proposing, but anyone could see that if anyone decided to live their life by doing as he directed, we’d all be pulled into a whirlpool in short order, as such transparencies would only serve to loose on all the humanity’s worst sharks–sharks always trolling, only kept in check because of their fear of recrimination if they ever bared their true teeth in public.
Ruskin, of course, heard all the derisive comments damning his glass pockets suggestion. In the face of which he just kept on, publishing, as each new month arrived, in the “Notes and Correspondence” section which always followed the principal Fors letter, his uncensored reports describing the finances of both the St. George’s Company and of the Master of that Company, who also happened to be the Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, John Ruskin. Courage.
We know that he was keenly aware of his detractors because, at the end of the 63rd Fors letter (for March, 1876), the one that followed immediately after the one wherein he had first proposed the necessity of sporting glass pocketed pants, he reprinted, in a section he entitled, “Affairs of the Master,” a letter from The Monetary Gazette which addressed the issue. It read:
We [the editors of this publication] are struck with the frankness with which Mr. Ruskin discloses his own personal wealth and expenses, and also those of the St. George’s Company, the members of which he is determined shall have “glass pockets.” Society could never have expected so much as this from him. Nor are we sure that, in the present state of things, such frankness is absolutely wise, especially in relation to his private affairs. (“Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all.” Ed.)
But the act itself, and the manner of doing it, show a lofty courage that could only be inspired by purity of motive. Were the same spirit of frankness to pervade directors [of business organizations] generally, and those who are charged with the responsibility of submitting accounts to the public, the miserable shams that afflict and oppress the community, both commercial and social, would, within twelve months, dissolve, and there would be some chance for the inauguration of the reign of truth. It is probably this consummation that Mr. Ruskin seeks to influence by his personal example.
About this letter, Ruskin had this to say (surely with a twinkle in his eye):
My friends [please see above], a really kind letter in the Monetary Gazette),
[Like its writer, I] much doubt, and very naturally, the wisdom of [my financial] exposition. I indeed expected to appear to some better advantage. But that the confession is not wholly pleasant, and appears imprudent, only makes it the better example! Fors would have it so.
After saying which, our subject proceeded, already having given his account of the monies held and expended by the St. George’s Company, to file another glass pocketed report making clear what his own financial situation was and how, in the month that had just transpired, he had divested himself of a portion of it.
I am aware that, in Post 63, we have already read about one such exposition. But I thought that, in this instance, a second presentation might be forgiven: first, because of the remarkable honesty of Ruskin’s revelations, and, second, because, whatever his own doubts may have been about printing them, its demonstration of his conviction that it was his responsibility, as Master of the St. George’s Company, to practice what he preached whatever the consequences might be. However, what is of greatest interest to us today, I suggest, are his prose explanations regarding certain cash outlays (included just in case anyone ever had questions). Such are signaled by parentheticals, beginning with “a,” “b,” etc., that follow certain expenditures. (The listing is for the first three weeks of February, 1876, only.)
A few notes before we get to the list: (1) regarding the first outlay for February 4, the tea that was purchased was to stock “Mr. Ruskin’s Tea Shop” in London, a business he had founded whose raison d’etre wast in offering pure, high quality tea which was prepared with properly boiled water and sold at the lowest possible price to the shop’s customers (primarily the city’s poor); the only advertising for the tea shop was a sign hung above the door, Ruskin believing that all advertising was fundamentally unfair, allowing either the richer (who could afford ads) to gain the upper hand by promoting their wares in print or, even worse, allowing those who were selling inferior products to seduce the unwitting away from superior products being sold by businesses who could not afford ads; (2) the entry for February 6: Ruskin believed deeply in the inhumanity of war and the necessity of avoiding it whenever possible; it is likely that the young man noted in the entry had enlisted at some earlier moment and now no longer wished to serve; Ruskin would have paid the money to someone in the army to secure his freedom. [Thanks to Stuart Eagles for this suggestion. (He, however, notes that he is not fully convinced that this is the correct explanation for the entry.)] For more on Ruskin’s hatred of the business of war, see Postscript.
AFFAIRS OF THE MASTER
[All totals in pounds, shillings, and pence, £ s. d.]
[Personal] Balance in Bank: 20th Jan., 1876: £ 527 17 9
Mr. George Allen, on Publishing Account 50 0 0
Mr. F. S. Ellis, on Publishing Account 7 0 0
Lecture, London Institution 10 10 0
Total: £ 595 7 9
Jan. 24. Royal Insurance Company (a) £ 37 10 0
Mr. F. Crawley (b) 25 0 0
Taxes on Armorial Bearings, etc. 7 19 0
Feb. 4. Warren and Jones—Tea for Shop 36 1 0
Feb 6: Buying a lad off who had enlisted and repented 20 20 0
Feb 7: Christmas Gifts in Oxford 14 10 0
Klein (c) 5 0 0
Pocket Money 10 10 0
F. Crawley 5 0 0
Feb 8: Miss Rudkin, Clifford Street (d) 14 14 4
Feb. 11: Dr. Parsons (e) 21 0 0
Bursar of Corpus Christy College, Oxford (f) 27 7 3
Feb 13: Professor Westwood (g) 50 0 0
Feb. 14: Mr. Sly, Coniston Waterhead Inn 33 0 0
Feb 19: Downs (i) 25 0 0
Feb 20: Subscriptions to Societies, learned and other (k) 37 11 11
Total: £ 370 2 31
Balance Feb. 20: £ 225 5 6
Notes on Expenditures
(a) Insurance on £15,000 worth of drawings and books in my rooms at
(b) Particulars of this account to be afterwards given, my Oxford
assistant having just lost his wife, and been subjected to unusual expenses.
(c) My present valet, a delightful old German, on temporary service.
(d) Present, on my birthday, of a silk frock to one of my pets [one of his young girl friends (not his girlfriends!)]; it became her very nicely, but I think there was a little too much silk in the flounces.
(e) My good doctor at Coniston. Had to drive over from Hawkshead every
other winter day because I wouldn’t stop drinking too much tea; also my
servants were ill.
(f) About four times this sum will keep me comfortably—all the year
round—here among my Oxford friends—when I have reduced myself to the
utmost allowable limit of a St. George’s Master’s income—366 pounds a year
(the odd pound for luck).
(g) For Copies of the Book of Kells, bought of a poor artist. Very
beautiful, and good for gifts to St. George.
(h) My honest host (happily falsifying his name), for a place to stay when I
haven’t houseroom, for visitors, etc. This bill chiefly for hire of carriages.
(i) Downs shall give account of himself in next Fors. [I haven’t been able to identify who this is and, at all events, the account was never given: JS]
(k) Specifically (pounds and shillings):
Athenæum 7 7
Alpine Club 1 1
Early English Text Society 10 10
Horticultural 4 4
Geological 2 2
Architectural 1 1
Historical 1 1
Anthropological 2 2
Consumption Hospital 3 3
Lifeboat 5 0
Ruskin at Brantwood in the 1870s.(Photograph: Frank Meadow Sutcliffe)
Until next time, please do continue well out there.
P.S.: Ruskin’s comments revealing his hatred of war, particularly what he regarded as the human and environmental consequences of what he thought of as the “business of professional war,” are on repeated display in his writings. Here’s just one, from the 65th Fors letter (May, 1876). He is discussing at length the lessons to be learned from a careful reading of the 15th chapter of Genesis (a text which he has advised all his readers to learn by heart, a task which he suspects, although he has given the assignment many letters ago, few have!) He has come to a passage in the chapter where the practice of sacrificing animals to please God is described. He imagines his modern readers must think this odd, even barbaric. To which he says:
Indeed it seems so. Yet perhaps it is better than cutting men in
two to please ourselves–and we spend thirty millions a year in
preparations for doing that. How many more swiftly divided
carcasses of horses and men, think you, my Christian friends,
have the fowls fed on, not driven away—finding them already
carved for their feast, or blown into small and convenient
morsels, by the military gentlemen of Europe, in sacrifice
to their own epaulettes (poor gilded and eyeless idols!),
during the past seventy and six years of this one out of the forty
centuries since Abraham?