203: “Fors” “Clavigera”

As noted in our last post (#202), in the initial letter of what would become a 13-year-long series of monthly letters addressed to “the workmen and Laborers of Great Britain,” Ruskin mentions neither of these puzzling words. Very like him. His intent, always, was to write the letters as the spirit of the moment directed him. In the second letter (for February, 1871), however, he began to address the mystery. Subsequently, without warning, further clarifications of what he meant by both “Fors” and “Clavigera” would appear in other letters. This post reproduces his first pass at elucidation: notable not only for its erudite contextualization–a writing style which would be repeated in dozens of letters to come, but for being couched in a literary “voice” which directly addresses his intended audience–working class laborers–a focus style that immediately raised the question (many before have raised it before myself!)): how could those whom he was addressing, few of whom had ever had any kind of institutionalized education, have known much about most of the sophisticated things he was talking about? We’ll return to this vital issue in a later post. For the moment, however, it will be enough to be aware that this post is an initial attempt to give this blog’s readers some sense of what our exceptionally learned. deeply concerned, and always troubled, subject was trying to accomplish in this, his most extended new effort of what would prove to be his last working decade: the 1880s. Here is how he first explained his new concept in that second letter:


Fors” is the best part of three good English words, “Force,” “Fortitude,” and “Fortune.” I wish [the reader] to know the meaning of these words accurately. (The passages to follow make palpable how long and carefully Ruskin had thought about the principal metaphor he had chosen for his new literary foray.)

Force” (in humanity), means the power of doing good work. A fool, or a corpse, can do any quantity of mischief; but only a wise and strong man, or, with what true vital force there is in him, a weak one, can do good.

Fortitude” means the power of bearing necessary pain, or trial of patience, whether by time, or temptation. “Fortune” means the necessary fate of a man: the ordinance of his life which cannot be changed.


To “make your fortune” is to rule one’s appointed fate to the best ends of which it is capable.
Fors is a feminine word; and “Clavigera,” is, therefore, the feminine of “Claviger.” “Clava” means a club; “Clavis”, a key. and “Clavus,” a nail, or a rudder. “Gero” means “I carry.” It is the root of our word “gesture,” (the way you carry yourself); and, in a curious bye-way, of “jest.”

Clavigera” may mean, therefore, either “Club-bearer,” “Key-bearer, or “Nail-bearer.” Each of these three possible meanings of “Clavigera” corresponds to one of the three meanings of Fors.

Fors the Club-bearer, means the strength of Hercules, or of Deed. Fors, the Key-bearer, means the strength of Ulysses, or of Patience. Fors, the Nail-bearer, means the strength of Lycurgus, or of Law. I will tell you what you may usefully know of those three Greek persons in a little time he means in subsequent letters; (usually he made good on such promises). At present, note only of the three powers (I.) that the strength of Hercules is for deed not misdeed and that his club–the favorite weapon, also, of the Athenian hero, Theseus, whose form is the best inheritance left to us by the greatest of Greek sculptors (in the Elgin room of the British Museum), and I shall have much to our to tell you of him [in due course]—especially how he helped Hercules in his utmost need, and how he invented mixed vegetable soup—was for subduing monsters and cruel persons, and was of olive-wood.

gettyimages-Theseus (Hersles) Elgin Marbles

Theseus or Hercules, The Elgin marbles from the Temple of Minerva at Athens: on sixty-one plates, selected from Stuart’s and Revett’s antiquities of Athens 

Greeek God Lyurgus

Greek God, Lycurgus


Greek Goddess, Patience

(2.)The Second Fors is portress at a gate which she cannot open till you have waited long; and that her robe is of the colour of ashes, or dry earth. (3.) That the third “Fors,” the power of Lycurgus, is Royal as well as Legal; and that the notable-est crown yet existing in Europe of any that have been worn by Christian kings, was—people say—made of a Nail.

That is enough about my title for this time. Now to our work… After which our author advances into his central argument in this second letter: namely that all sustenance good for us–i.e., the things that are health-bestowing– can only come, ultimately, from the caring cultivation of land (and underscoring–hardly a new thought to his regular readers–that much of the world’s good land had been stolen by the rich and powerful who had used the stolen or pilfered produce of it to feather their own, rather than others’, beds.

But he is right to pause at this juncture. He certainly has given us enough in what’s above to mull over regarding his key concepts. Concerning which some general remarks may prove useful.

There are, in essence, three principle forces abroad in the world, a sort of pre-appointed “committee of record-keepers and distributers of just deserts.” The First Fors is the force which distributes the ramifications of good actions, those acts which, because they are in fundamental sync with the laws of Creation, make life stronger, heathier, happier–for example, feeding, clothing, housing, and educating people about the truths of life (cf. 116: Sure Good ). Always, at Ruskin’s core, is his unwavering belief in agency; his conviction that we all have the ability to choose how we shall act–can choose, indeed must choose, and that, each time we do so, we contribute to the shaping (or “making”) of our own “fortune” and to the making or shaping of the “fortune” of the collective life within which we live.

Actions never occur in a vacuum; whatever we actually do “interacts” with the actions of others which either pre-date our action or which are occurring sumultaneously with it. If our actions are life-supporting, they fuse, in some, remarkably complex, manner with these other acts, creating a kind of positive group-ambiance–(what Karl Marx called our “collective consciousness.”) If our actions are harmful to life, we create and contribute to a negative collective ambiance. In some pre-ordained way (Ruskin never explains how this process operates) the life-supporting or life-harming quality of all actions are “registered” by the three fors, their effects recorded to the exact iota of their sustaining or damaging force.

Once we have acted, we can’t take our actions back, and, in due course, the consequences we have introduced into the world, positive or negative, return to us (“You reap what you sew”quite literally.) This, many will see immediately, is very similar to the familiar Hindu concept of karma, and explains, in its vague way, why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad ones. As a result of their choices, people, groups, even nations and civilizations, have their own, unique ambiances which they carry forward with them as a sort of fors-clothing. Nevertheless, at any moment, realizing that we are out of sync with the positive flow of life, having agency, we can choose to act more in tune with that flow, and, by do doing, start to remake our own “profile” or “imprint” in and on the world, ensuring that, the ensuing reactive forces will return to us more kindly. To get his working class audience to recognize these things and induce them to act more positively as a result of such illumination, is the goal of the entire Fors series. As always with Ruskin, more healthful LIFE is what we need. Even death does not erase the ambiance we have contributed to the collective consciousness of our world. We are “born into” a particular collective milieu, live in and contribute to it, and leave it improved or degraded as a result of our choices. Those following us “inherit” that milieu and must determine their own way of dealing with it.

The second fors is the force we encounter, predominately, when our days or lives are under duress. In its principal form, it is the energy that provides the patience or courage to bear or make our way through life’s trials. Because of our past actions, at one time or another, at various levels of duration and intensity, dark clouds assemble, often bringing with them adversity. These are our “just deserts,” and we can choose to face them with dignity and perseverance or with anger and more negativity, with, of course, commensurrate consequences. Always, we are the makers of our own fate; always, we can act to reshape that fate, by choosing to act differently. (As one of my great teachers said in response to a question about whether our karmic path meant that everything was “all set” “yes,” he said, “it is all set, but it can be reset at any moment!)

The third fors is the force that “delivers the goods,”–or “bads as the case may be.” While we are the shapers of our own fate, that fate is real and cannot be wished away; the third fors, “the nail-bearer” at the appointed time, must drive the nail home, and we must bear it as best we can. With few exceptions, as most of us have seen over the course of our lives that “he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.” As we know from previous posts, Ruskin’s last decades were encumbered by severe self-doubts and depression. All of which, he says in various personal letters and some fors letters, were his just deserts, earned, painful thought by painful thought, by the wrongful choices he, we, had hace)made earlier–what he regarded as his willful and extensive “cruelty” to his parents (his choice to frequently break the Fifth Commandment, the injunction to honor thy father and mother–being one powerful source resulting in his suffering).

One way to conceptualize the process is to imagine a vast, universal, hydraulic pump to the internal pressure of which we contribute in all we say and do. Life- enhancing acts reduce the internal pressure of the pump; life-harming acts increase it. Eventually, if the internal pressure becomes “too much” the pump is forced to “let off steam”(pandemics, global warming, World Wars?) to rebalance itself. (“Oh!! I am fortune’s fool,” Romeo exclaims in agony after he has killed Tybalt; as indeed he is, given the horrors that will soon unfold–with a “rebalancing” finally coming to be in the play’s last, tragic scene where the Prince, surrounded by numerous dead bodies, his eyes finally opened to the consequences of his actions, says, “Capulet! Montague! See what a scourge is laid upon your hate! that heaven finds means to kill your joys with love! And I, for winking at your discords. too, have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punished!!!” and, in sorrowful conclusion:”For never was there a story of more woe, than this of Juliet– and her Romeo!”

That Ruskin thought his fellows were racing down the path to collective catastrophe we know from many previous posts (see, for instances, cf. Posts135: The Gods; 136: Banishing the Gods. Although he never kept silent about this worry, one of his most insightful and prescient remarks warning of the pending Apocalypse appears in a letter to his cherished Coniston friend, Suzie Beever, written from the monastery in Assisi in 1875: “I really begin to think,” he tells her, “there is some terrible change of climate coming upon the world for its sin. like another deluge.”

To my knowledge, never in the vast scholarly literature on Ruskin, has anyone noticed how closely his vision of the three fors is to the Hindu concept of “the Three gunas–sattva, rajas, and tamas, the three forces which shape all creation, with sattva being the existential quality which creates life, rajas the quality which maintains or supports it, and tamas the quality which destroys it. “All things must pass” goes the phrase; everything in the relative world is transient; things appear, endure for a time, then disappear. New things then appear and, forever, the cycle repeats. Although there is a deep similitude between the gunas and the three fors, I have never been able to verify that Ruskin ever studied them. James S. Dearden’s recent and magisterial volume, The Library of John Ruskin, a listing of every book–as far as Dearden could verify them–in Ruskin’s immense library at the time of his death in 1900, exhibits little evidence that would lead us to think that he ever read much Eastern philosophy.


Nevertheless, there exists much evidence that he thought often about the three fors and their omnipresence in our lives, including comments over the course of the fors series, such as, “As the third fors would have it,” or “just today, the second fors provided me with the new book I needed to solve this problem,” or, more simply, “as fors would have it!” The Great Spirit of All created a universe grounded in Justice (the fundamental “proof” of Plato’s Republic, which Ruskin read often); whether you like or believe this to be so is no matter he would say: it is so. The three fors and the three gunas are the eternal mechanisms ensuring that it remains so.

Which is, I believe, sufficient for today’s wisdom from our nineteenth century genius,, a wisdom which, though written over a century ago, was intended, as was everything he wrote,, to guide us, and ease our way.

And so, until next time, please do continue well out there!



P.S. As previously, this is the place to acknowledge my grateful thanks to Jenn Morris and Jen Webb for their generous editorial and technical help, respectively, with this Post.

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2 Responses to 203: “Fors” “Clavigera”

  1. Jonathan Chiswell Jones says:

    Ruskin- always worth reading, and re-reading. The concept of karma, since it involves belief in re-incarnation(we do not get our just deserts in one life) is a tricky one to object to. Everything can be explained by it. It is not a scientific doctrine, but may well be valuable for all that. Like the belief in heaven and hell.

    • jimspates says:

      Dear Jonathan and others,

      I certainly am aware that the concept of “karma is a “tricky one.“ It explains everything and nothing. As far as I know, Ruskin never acknowledged it and, indeed, it was his “realization,“ that there was no evidence that was secure that proved that there was an afterlife, contributed much to his great religious crisis of the late 1850s and after. So “reincarnation,“ is not on his list either. But, I agree with you that, if we believe in karma, we are forced to consider seriously reincarnation as a possibility for a later redressing of karmic debts or rewards outstanding. I leave you to wrestle with this as you will. In the meantime, can we go! 🙂

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