211: On Living (Happily) in Ignorance

Ruskin always had some sort of plan for what he would write. But he was also wise enough to know that the creative process flowed as often as it logically progressed. His peripatetic mind, ever active on many subjects and levels, was constantly sorting, reorganizing, surprising itself. If a new insight or understanding suddenly appeared while he was composing, as often as not, if he thought it would not distract from the argument he was making, he would just include his new thoughts in his emerging manuscript, hopeful that it would prove helpful to his readers. This was one of the characteristics that made his writing so engaging; readers were constantly being surprised, often delighted, as they turned a new page. only to discover something they had never suspected. Such is the case, I believe, with the the passage that occasioned today’s Post.

It appears near the beginning of Modern Painters IV (Modern Painters III and IV, were each over 500 pages long [!!]; and were published simultaneously in 1856).

Always a deep student of Plato, Ruskin was well-aware of the famous passage in The Republic where the Greek master, using Socrates as his voice, laments about how little we actually know. It was a topic with which Ruskin’s genius struggled all his days. In letters and numerous comments to friends, he frequently laments about how little he knows about so many things of import–frustrations and ruminations that finally led him to the conclusion that enduring, extensive, and profound ignorance was the fate of human beings: the world was simply too large and its mysteries too many and immense for us to make much of a dent in them during our brief span. In which context, readers of the fifth chapter of the fourth volume of Modern Painters, already having made their  way through nearly 600 pages of text, might have been surprised to find the following paragraphs in a book whose raison d’être was nothing other than to determine – for all time as Ruskin saw it! – the qualities that made some art great and some pedestrian:

Our happiness as thinking beings must depend on our being content to accept only partial knowledge even in those matters that chiefly concern us. If we insist on perfect intelligibility and complete declaration on every subject, we shall instantly fall into the misery of unbelief. Our whole happiness and power of energetic action depend on our being able to breathe and live in the cloud—in being content to see it opening here and closing there; and rejoicing to catch, through the thinnest films of it, glimpses of stable and substantial things– yet perceiving Nobleness even in the concealment,  and rejoicing that the kindly veil is spread where the untempered light might have scorched or the infinite clearness wearied.

I think that every rightly-constituted mind ought to rejoice, not so much in knowing anything clearly, as in feeling that there is infinitely more which you cannot know. None but weak people will mourn over this–for we may always know more if we choose by working on; but the pleasure is, I think to humble people, in knowing that the mystery is endless and the treasure inexhaustible – in watching the clouds march before us to the end of time and the length of eternity; in realizing that the mysteries of infinity will still open further and further, their very present dimness being the sign and necessary adjunct of their inexhaustibleness.

I believe that resentment of this interference is one of the forms of proud error that are too easily mistaken for virtues. To be content in darkness and ignorance is indeed unmanly; and therefore we think that to love light and seek knowledge must always be right. Yet, wherever pride has any share in the work, even knowledge and light may be ill- pursued. Knowledge is good and light  is good, yet man perished in seeking knowledge, and moths parish in seeking light; and if we, who are crushed before the moth, will not accept the mysteries that remain for us, we shall perish in like manner...

Happy seeking in the day-gifts emerging before you! Do please stay well out there!!

Until next time!



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