243: Human Nature, the Imperative of Honesty, and the Daffodils

The 1860s were not especially kind to Ruskin. As the decade opened, the four essays he would always consider the most important he ever wrote, the papers he would collect under the title, Unto this Last, were published for the first time in a London intellectual magazine, The Cornhill. Month by month, as they printed, they raised a firestorm of indignation and were roundly, soundly, and often cruelly, slandered in the press. How could this upstart critic of art architecture and nature have the temerity to tell his devoted readers that they were greedy beyond any semblance of redemption, that they had, almost to a one, rejected out of hand the most important directive that had been given them by the founder of their religion–that they should love their neighbor as themselves?

The near universal rejection of this work threw Ruskin into a state of despair. For a year and more he could not find a way forward. Then, unexpectedly, help arrived. A fairly casual friend, J. A. Froude picture below), then editor of another London intellectual magazine, Fraser’s, wrote to tell Ruskin that he believed there was much of value in the Unto this Last essays and enquired whether he (Ruskin) would consider writing a second set of new essays on political economy that would appear over the course of the coming year in his journal. At first dubious about whether he should enter the fray again, Ruskin soon decided in favor of writing, and the new papers appeared in 1862 and 1863, Unfortunately, his views on such topics as the absolute necessity of honesty and transparency in economic life generated the same level of ire among the readers of Fraser’s as had his earlier essays and after suffering some months of printed abuse, Froude was forced by the magazine’s owners to inform his author that after one more essay, the magazine would publish no more of the incendiary stuff.

Again, Ruskin fell into despair as, at the time, his soul goal in life was to write a “systematic treatise on the principles of political economy.” His path forward blocked once again, the despondency reappeared and he became convinced that his life thus far had been wasted.

Then–and again unexpectedly–help arrived from yet another direction. Before his Unto this Last essays were published Ruskin had been asked to deliver a series of public lectures on various topics. Almost without exception, these talks received extensive applause. He was praised a lecturer clear, convincing, and inspiring. Thus it happened that, despite the fact that his published works were no longer accepted with delight and read with the rapt attention of his earlier works, Ruskin set to lecturing again and the remainder of his 1860s are highlighted by some of the greatest publics talks ever given in the English language. Perhaps best about the public format was that hr was no longer constrained by the wishes of an editor or subject to worries about offending a hostile audience. He could say whatever he liked in them. In earlier posts we profiled three of these magnificent lectures: “Traffic, “Of Kings’ Treasuries,” and “The Mystery of life and its Arts.” (for these Posts, type their key word into the search engine on the right column). In these and other talks of the time, he reaffirmed many of his convictions about the importance of each person’s work being undertaken for the benefit of others and his rejection of the idea that human nature as fundamentally selfish and cruel. Today’s quotes are illustrative of these convictions. I hope you find them as inspiring as I do.

Take this faith in its utmost terms [my contention that the core of “human nature” lies in its nobleness, not in its corruption]. When the captain of the [foundering ship, “The] London” shook hands with his mate, saying: “Godspeed to you! I will go down with my passengers”–that I believe to be “human nature.” The [captain] does not [so choose to end his days] from any religious motive, from any hope of reward or any fear of punishment; he does it because he is a Man. But, when a mother, living among merry England’s fair fields, gives her two-year-old child to be suffocated under a mattress in her room while she waits and talks outside; that I believe to be not human nature!

Here you have two extremes. And you men and mothers who are here face-to-face with me tonight, I call upon you to say which of these is “human” and which “inhuman,” which is “natural” and which “unnatural.” Choose your creed…I beseech you; choose it with unshaken choice; choose it forever. Will you take–for foundation of act and hope, the faith that this [sailing] man was such as God made him or that this [desperate] woman was such as God made her? Which of them has failed from their nature–from their present, possible, actual nature–not their nature of long ago, but their nature of now? Which of them has betrayed, which falsified? Did the [maritime[ guardian who died in his trust die inhumanely and as a fool, and did the murderess of her child fulfill the law of her being? Choose, I say; an infinitude of [other]choices hang upon this,

You have had false prophets among you – for centuries you have had them (solemnly warned against them though you were)–false prophets, who have told you that all men are nothing but fiends or wolves–half beast, half devil. Believe that, and indeed you may sink to that. But refuse that and have faith that God made you upright, though you have sought out many inventions so you will strive to become more what your Maker meant and means you to be–and, daily, gives you also the power to be – and you will cling more and more to the nobleness and virtue that is in you, saying, “My righteousness I hold fast, and will not let it go.” [Job 26:27]

And consider now this related bit, from the seventh letter of a series of letters sent to a workingman of Sunderland, Thomas Dixon:

Your honesty is not to be based on either religion or policy. Both your religion and policy must be based on it. Your honesty must be based, as the sun is, in vacant heaven; poised as the lights in the firmament which have rule over the day and the night. If you ask why you are to be honest – you are, in the question itself, dishonored, “Because you are a Man!” is the only answer. And, therefore, to make your children capable of honesty is the beginning of all education. Make them men first, and religious men afterwards, and all will be sound… a knave’s religion is always the rottenest thing about him.

In which context of life’s truths eternal and this pleasant spring springing around us, I trust I shall be forgiven I trust, if, in closing this Post, I share a lovely image of the daffodils that are rejoicing outside my window right now, followed by a portrait of Mr. Wordsworth (picture below) and a reproduction of his always uplifting poem about them–a poem Ruskin loved–(it is said that his justly famed lines were occasioned by the poet’s sighting of a ‘host” of the exulting yellow things one day as he walked around the shore of Ullswater Lake in the beautiful English Lake District one spring day). For all I know (and hope) his vision is still alive around Ullswater as I send these remarks into cyberspace!

The Daffodils

I wandered lonely as a cloud

that floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host–of golden daffodils!

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze–

Continuous as the stars that shine

And twinkle on the milky way;

They stretched in never-ending line

Along the margin of a bay:

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they

Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:

A poet could not but be gay,

In such a jocund company:

I gazed—and gazed—but little thought

What Wealth the show to me had brought;

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils!!


Please, dear friends, do continue well out there as the spring warmth advances over us all!

Until next time!



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3 Responses to 243: Human Nature, the Imperative of Honesty, and the Daffodils

  1. Frank Gordon says:

    Dear Jim

    Have no fear – Wordsworth’s daffodils are alive and well on the fringes of Ullswater as I saw myself only last week. The poem was inspired by/derived from his sister Dorothy’s diary entry, although of course William elevates it onto another plane entirely.

    Best wishes


  2. Jonathan Chiswell Jones says:

    Beautiful lines of Ruskin. He grounds morality not on religion, but religion on morality. This too is the reasoning as I understand it, of humanists. They try to do right for no other reason than the fact of is rightness. What Ruskin would call being a man. Kipling ends his justly loved poem ‘If’ with the line:
    ‘And -which is more- you’ll be a Man my son’ . The capital M suggests the broader idea of mankind, though it is open to meaner interpretations of course.

  3. Always an absolute pleasure, Jim, to your writing. With best wishes.

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