From The Two Paths (1859):
In our last Post (#228), I presented some of Ruskin’s thoughts concerning one of his most controversial beliefs – that freedom, one of the values we most fervently–fanatically?–champion in the modern world, is, when indulged, much more often than not, detrimental to our well-being. The passage there was taken from one of his later works, The Queen of The Air (1869). The question of the role freedom plays in human affairs was a subject long on his mind. In today’s Post, I offer two additional passages where he speaks about the complexities and problems associated with the exercise of freedom from earlier works–the first from a pair of public lectures he collected under the title, The Two Paths (1859), and the second from the marvelous final chapter of his masterpiece on architecture, The Seven Lamps of Architecture. published a decade prior (1849). As each will make clear, his essential convictions on the matter – his belief in the deleterious consequences in most cases, of the ill-considered exercise of freedom – never changed. Like the passage in the previous Post, these passages remain, as when they were first published, challenges to our weakly, if ever, criticized, belief that freedom is always good for us.
And now, to the first, from The Two Paths:
Wise laws and just restraints are, to a noble nation not chains, but chain-mail: strength and defense–though something also, of an encumbrance. It is this necessity of restraint that ennobles us individually–and collectively. You hear, every day, great numbers of foolish people speaking about Liberty as if it were such an honorable thing. So far from being that, it is, on the whole, and in the broadest sense, dishonorable, an attribute of the lower creatures. No human being, however great or powerful, was ever so free is a fish. There is always something that he must, or must not do–while the fish can do whatever he likes. All the kingdoms of the world put together are not half so large as the sea, and all the railroads and wheels that ever were or will be invented, are not so easy as fins.
You will find, on fairly thinking of it, that it is his restraint which is honorable to Man, not his Liberty; and, what is more, it is restraint that is honorable even among the lower animals. A butterfly is much freer than a bee, but you honor the bee more because it is subject to certain laws which are fitted for orderly functioning in bee society. And throughout the world, of the two abstract things, Restraint or Liberty, Restraint is always the more honorable. It is true, indeed, that in these and all other matters, you never can reason fully from the abstraction–for both Liberty and Reason are good when they are nobly chosen, and both are bad when they are basely chosen. But of the two, I repeat, it is Restraint which characterizes the higher creature and betters the lower creature. And, from the ministering of the archangel to the labor of the insect, from the positioning of the planets to the settling of a grain of dust. the power and glory of all creatures, and all matter, consists in their Obedience, not in their Freedom. The sun has no liberty–a dead leaf has much. The dust which are formed us has no liberty–it’s liberty will come with its corruption.
And now to the second passage from The Seven Lamps: It appears nearly at the end of the book, where the author is bringing his central arguments to their summative conclusion. The Seven “Lamps”–to each of which he has devoted a chapter brimming with illustrations from his own talented hand–and which, in some manner of combination in the built environment of the material world, create great architecture, are: Sacrifice, Truth, Power, Beauty, Life, Memory, and Obedience. The last Lamp, Obedience, is the one which we are interested here, His central argument regarding it is not very complex. Only by following the natural and obligatory laws which make enduring construction possible can we have great buildings. New styles we need not; all inventions designed to catch the eye or impress the multitudes are a waste of time. We shall do much better, he says, if we just decide to follow the laws of functional building and plumb their vicissitudes to the their depths until we have exhausted all the possibilities of delightful design. And, as ever the case with Ruskin ( is an author” (as one of his most captivating traits as an author) he ends his volume with a particularly hopeful image of what will all but surely occur if we follow his advice (which, of course, neither the architects of his day nor of our own. have done). Each of the paragraphs following are taken from chapter 7 of The Seven Lamps.
[Whatever else this study has revealed pertaining to the Laws which surround and make possible the creation of great architecture, they have given us] a strange proof of how false is the conception, how frantic is the pursuit, of that treacherous phantom which men call Liberty – the most treacherous, indeed, of all phantoms. For the feeblest use of reason shows us not only that its attainment, but its being, is impossible. There is no such thing in the universe. There never can be. The stars have it not. The earth has it not. The sun has it not. And we men have the mockery and symbol of it only for our heaviest punishment… How could it be otherwise? Since, if there is any one principal more widely than another confessed by its every utterance, or more sternly imprinted on every atom of the visible creation, that principle is not Liberty, but Law.
It is almost impossible for us to conceive, in our present state of doubt and ignorance, the rapidly increasing sense of power and facility, and–in its proper sense–of Freedom, which such wholesome restraint would instantly cause throughout the whole circle of the arts. Freed from the agitation and embarrassment of that liberty of choice which is the cause of half the discomforts of the world; freed from the accompanying necessity of studying all past, present or even possible future styles; and, enabled, by concentration of the individual, and the cooperation of multitudinous energies, to penetrate into the uttermost secrets of the of our adopted style, the architect would find his whole understanding sound, his practical knowledge certain and ready to hand, and his imagination playful and vigorous, as a child’s would be within a walled garden, a child who would shudder if he were left free in a fenceless plain.
How many and how bright would be the results be in every direction of interest–not to the arts merely, but to national happiness and virtue–it is difficult to preconceive, But the first–perhaps the least!–of these would be an increased sense of fellowship among ourselves; a cementing of every patriotic bond of union, a proud and happy recognition of our affection for and sympathy with each other, and our willingness in all things to submit ourselves to every Law that would advance the interests of the community; a barrier, also–the best conceivable–to the unhappy rivalry between the upper and middle classes–in houses, furniture, and establishment…These, I say, would be the first consequences only.
Until next time!
Do continue well out there!
Intriguing passages, indeed. Thanks for the provocative post, Jim.
I’m wondering first whether Ruskin is thinking of
his contemporary John Stuart Mill when discussing
liberty. Also, do you think that Ruskin engages in an either/or fallacy when pitting law and liberty? Best, Peter O’Neill