Older than most of us will experience, in body or collective memory, the first because of biological limitations, the second as a result of things said or done worthy of recollection or celebration across many years. Today, on the anniversary of his birth, in honor of Ruskin’s spirit–still among us!!–and in thanks for all he tried to do for us while his body allowed, I offer two passages which tell us of his abiding faith in us, in our human nature, this being a phrase we throw about much too cavalierly in daily discourse– usually with negative or condemnatory connotation–“oh, that’s just human nature!” Ruskin had seen it all, from the heights to the depths, and with his unshakable commitment to telling truth, never looked away from acknowledging even the worst depths and dregs: Human beings, and their ultimately unconquerable spirit for aligning with what was good in the universe were too important to deride or dismiss. I have cited these passages before somewhere in this series of posts, but offer them here again because I treasure both, and because of my conviction, arrived at after many years of teaching, that it never hurts to hear wondrous words again!
The first passage comes from one of the lectures in The Crown of Wild Olive, a collection of four public talks Ruskin delivered in the 1860s, a time when his reputation as one of the great treasures of his time was still at its highest. As with most of his words, it rewards to read them with some deliberation:
I speak with a fixed conviction that human nature is a noble and beautiful thing, not a foul or base thing. All the sin of men I regard as their disease, not their nature; as folly which may be prevented, not as a necessity which must be accepted. And my wonder, even when things are at their worst, is always at the height which this nature can attain. Thinking it high, I always find it a higher thing than I thought it; while those who think it low, find it, and will find it always, lower than they thought it; the fact being that it is “infinite,’ and capable of infinite height and infinite fall. But the nature of it–and here is the faith which I would have you hold with me–the nature of it is in the nobleness, not the catastrophe.
The second passage was written two decades later, the mid-1880s. It appears in The Bible of Amiens, (a book Ruskin intended as a prose guide to the greatest architectural wonders of one of the most beautiful Gothic cathedrals ever constructed, one which embodied in stone all the central and life-affirming principles of Christianity). His idea had been that visitors to Northern France could rent themselves rooms in the town for two weeks or so, and carry the book shout with them as they studied in detail both the exterior and interior of the magnificent edifice–a “journey” that remains possible I am happy to report, the cathedral having survived the “blanket” bombing of Northern France by the Allies during WWII (make your reservations now!). The passage, one of his best, goes as follows:
All human creatures, in all ages and places of the world, who have had warm affections, common sense, and self-command are Naturally Moral. Human Nature, in its fulness is necessarily Moral. Without Love, it is inhuman, without Sense, inhuman. without discipline, inhuman. In the exact proportion in which men are bred to be capable of these things–are educated to Love, to Think, and to Endure. they become Noble, live happily, die calmly, and are remembered with perpetual honor by their race, and for the perpetual good of it. All wise men know. and have known these things since the form of man was separated from the dust. The knowledge and enforcement of them have nothing to do with religion–a good and wise man differs from a bad and idiotic one as a good dog differs from a cur, and as any manner of dog from a wolf or a weasel…
There is more (The wonderful thing about Ruskin is that there is always more!), but I trust that this pair of passages proves sufficient to demonstrate his greatness. and, in that adjective’s light, underscores his rank as one of those few from our collective past worthy of being remembered with love, hope, and abiding admiration on the occasion of this, the 203rd anniversary of his birth, as an exemplar of human nature at its pinnacle, of one who should be “remembered with perpetual honor.”
Until next time, good friends, do please continue well out there! It is a wish the (our!) Brantwood Master would bestow on us all, were he here to bestow it–and, since he is still here in this still relatively new digital guise, who are we not to accept such a hope and blessing intended to inspire our ever more enlightened future?