231: Sure Good

For Colin Pritchard

As mentioned in the last post (230: Reverence for Life), the 1860s were pivotal for Ruskin. Indeed, they were the fulcrum around which the rest of his life would pivot. Throughout the decade, his still-evolving theory of political economy – the gist of which was to entreat his fellows to treat each other with honesty and care in all their business dealings– widely reviled in the press as impractical, as being, even, the outpourings of a madman–continued to be his central focus. As a result, his previously unassailable reputation as an intellectual giant of the age weakened and he began to lose some (but hardly all) of the support of many who had previously hailed him as a genius. As the decade advanced, he continued to publish small books within which political economic themes played a prominent role–among them, Munera Pulveris–1863, Sesame and Lilies–1865, The Crown of Wild Olive–1866, The Ethics of the Dust, 1866, and Time and Tide–1867. During this period, his fame still pronounced, even if now somewhat tarnished, he would deliver some of his greatest public lectures, a number of which have been profiled in previous posts–see, for “traffic,”and “Of King’s Treasuries,” (186: How to Read (Or, Milton and Ruskin meet the Bishops, 187: The Despisings (Or, The Not Altogether Pleasant Consequences of Not Reading, 189: “One of the Loveliest Scenes in England–and, therefore, the World.”).

As the decade neared its end, thinking that he had failed in all that he had previously attempted to do, Ruskin was in despair about what might do next. His intent from the first had been to accomplish some Sure Good in the world, to write this books in such a manner that, properly understood, they would elevate their readers to more delightful life. His efforts to gain these laudable goals having failed, he saw, all about him, the pernicious and inhumane disruptions occasioned by the stampeding Industrial Revolution, which, as it marched inexorably on, continued wreaking unconscionable human and environmental havoc in every country and shire in which it had gained a foothold.

Gustav Dore, A London Pilgrimage, (cover illustration)
Gustave Dore. “The Housing of London’s Laborers
Gustave Dore, “The Docks”

Gustave Dore, “Home

Gustave Dore (1832-83)

[Gustave Dore was a well-known French artist of the 19th century. His emotion-filled drawings captivated thousands and , as a consequence, he was commissioned to illustrate many of the great works of the Western canon, including the Bible, Milton’s Paradise lost, and Dante’s Inferno. Ruskin did not think much of him as an artist, always considering him as one who accentuated the sensational and who was incapable, unlike Turner and the other great masters of Art’s past, of providing his viewers with any sense of the truly beautiful in life, although he did acknowledge Dore’s skills as a portraitist and depicter of daily life. One Dore’s commission was to create a series of drawings illustrating life in London in the middle of his tumultuous century. The above illustrations are all from that work. I have included a selection from thi series because, photography still in its infancy at the time, they remain–in my experience–among the very best representations the miserable, penurious lives lived by millions–not only in London but throughout much of the UK, Europe, and America. Although he does not speak of it, there can be little doubt, given Dore’s popularity, that Ruskin knew of this series of drawings. For another post featuring other of Dore’s powerful London images, see:186: How to Read (Or, Milton and Ruskin meet the Bishops)

Which brings us back to today’s question concerning what might constitute the doing of Sure Good– those actions which, beyond all question or creed, always benefit or strengthen life. Living in a London whose populace suffered from extreme deprivation in most quarters, the Ruskin of 1869 was constantly thinking about how to forge a new path, a path which would simultaneously be true to his ideals and continue to allow him to urge his fellows to spend their days and lives more humanely. It was at this point that his tables began to turn: that year he was appointed as the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University, his alma mater. The appointment, which he readily accepted, would afford him a new audience on a regular basis in the form of its–soon to be his!–undergraduate students. About the same time, he was asked by an organization in Dublin if he would be so kind as to come and lecture to them before the year was out. For complex reasons, not the least of which was that he would be able to speak in the capital city of Ireland, a metropolis not far from the home of the love of his life, Rose La Touche, he accepted. After considerable thought, he decided that his talk should reflect on–and even resolve if he were eloquent enough!– the struggles of his recent crisis. As a result, he decided to entitle his lecture, “The Mystery of Life and its Arts” Later, reflecting on its pages as they were being readied for publication, he would remark that he had put everything of importance he had learned int them, including his vision of what constituted Sure Good. His principal approach had been to explicate for his affluent audience, what he deemed life’s greatest mystery: how it had come to pass that, when faced with economic and environmental catastrophes of gargantuan proportions, he had proved unable to convince more than a handful of his compatriots to alter their selfish and accumulative trajectories, trajectories which both he and they knew were creating in their wake mass poverty, life-crushing pollution, and unparalleled suffering throughout the Kingdom and the world?We pick up his words near the end of his momentous talk.

[We are often told that there will come a Day of Judgment.] But is there only one day of Judgment? Why–for us–every day is a day of judgment, every day is a Dies Irae that writes its irrevocable verdict in the flame of the West. Think you that judgment waits till until the mouth of the grave opens? Nay! It waits at the doors of your houses; it waits at the corners of your streets; we are constantly in the midst of judgment! The insects that we crush are our judges; the moments we fritter away are our judges; the pleasures that we indulge judge as they deceive us. Life in this crisis, for those of us who mean to fulfill our duty and do the Work of Men demands that, first, we live on as little as we can; and, secondly, that we do all the wholesome work we can, and then that we spend all we can spare in doing all the Sure Good we can, if indeed our lives are not to be as the vapor and vanish away (James 4:14).

And, Sure Good is, first, in feeding people, then in dressing people, then in lodging people, and–lastly– in rightly pleasing people–with arts, or sciences, or any other ennobling subject.

I say, first, in feeding==and, once for all, do not let yourselves be deceived by any of the common talk of “indiscriminate charity”! The order to us was not to feed the deserving hungry, or the industrious hungry, nor the amiable and well-intentioned hungry; but simply to feed the hungry! And, secondly Sure Good is done in dressing people – that is to say, in urging everyone within reach of your influence to be always neat and clean, and in providing them with the means of being so, and, in so far as they absolutely refuse to do this, you must give up the effort with respect to them, only taking care that no children within your sphere of influence will develop such habits–ensuring, in short, that every person who is willing to dress with propriety shall have all encouragement to do so.

And then Sure Good is done by lodging people– which some of you you may think should put first. But I put it third, because we must feed and clothe people where we find them, and provide lodging for them after that. [Here, I am reminded of the Dore drawings above.] There can be no question that we must build more houses, houses that are stronger and more beautiful, houses which are well-grounded and surrounded by no festering suburbs, houses which will be kept in proportion to nearby streams, with streets always neat and clean, encircled by beautiful gardens and orchards, so that, from any part of the city, perfectly fresh grass and the sight of a far horizon might be seen with a few minutes’ stroll.

A lecture at which it would’ve been good to have been in the audience, don’t you think?

Until next time, please be well out there as you do all the Sure Good you can.



NB: it is often (and often correctly) said that “slippage,” is clearly indicated as having begun its March when we start repeating ourselves without knowing that we have done so. It is with this in mind that I wish to offer my apologies to longtime readers of this blog who reading now, may have recalled that, sometime back, I put up a post with exactly the same title as today’s, “Sure Good.” It was post number 116 and, if you wish to read what I wrote then (in March of 2018), scroll to the top of this page, open the option entitled “Previous Posts in Sequence,” scroll down to number 116 and click. You’ll be taken to the post. There, you will discover that I thought as much of Ruskin’s fine words then as I do now. Masters are Masters, and, as I have said a number of times in these offerings, it is not a bad thing to reread a writer’s greatest words ever written a number of times, as, each time we reencounter greatness, if we are attentive, a bit more of an author’s deeper meaning makes its way down into our inner consciousness. Nevertheless, it is not my intent in this series to repeat myself, or, in his case to repeat himself, but rather, to introduce you to the extensive wonder that is John Ruskin and his works. If I have inadvertently repeated myself in this instance I am sorry. I shall try not to do so again.

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