245: Utopianism (Or, “Moving the Needle,” Part Two)

For Alex Pool

In earlier posts, I have tried, at various times, to illustrate Ruskin’s conviction that, simply because we have been given the gift of being a human being, every person bears a responsibility to use some of their powers every day to do something which will improve the world — to “move the needle toward the good”– that is. do something which will lessen the stresses of the world or improve the lives of other human beings (see, for example, Post 235) He stated this conviction perhaps most beautifully in a pair of sentences in one of his lectures to his Oxford students in the early 1870s;

Let every dawn of morning be to you as the beginning of life. and every setting sun be to you as its close. Then, let every one of these short lives leave its sure record of some kindly thing done for others, some goodly strength or knowledge gained for yourselves.

So strongly did Ruskin believe in this charge, when he designed a “Ruskin family crest” in the early 1870s, he used the word “To-day” repeatedly to encircle the whole. This is the day we have been gifted; it is the only one we have; let us use it to make the world, however slightly, better.

The passage I have chosen for today’s post is another way of illustrating this belief. It has long been one of my favorites and I must note that I surprised myself when I discovered, upon encountering it again, that I have never shared it before. It is brief, but, as is the case with the “Every dawn of morning,” passage, it is none the less powerful for that. It is taken from his “Lectures on Architecture and Painting,” also delivered to his Oxford students in the 1870s. It speaks, as I read it, directly to our frequently indulged unwillingness to undertake or postpone, sometimes indefinitely, some important task or work because we (too glibly) regard it as “impossible” as, in short, “utopian”:

“Quixotism,” or “Utopianism,” These are some of the devil’s pet words. I believe the quiet admission– which we are all of us so ready to make–that because things have been long wrong, it is impossible they should ever be right, is one of the most fatal sources of misery and crime from which this world suffers. Whenever you hear a man dissuading you from attempting to do well on the ground that perfection is “Utopian,” beware that man.

Cast the word out of your dictionary altogether. There is no need for it. Things are either possible or impossible: You can easily determine which in any given state of human science. If the thing is impossible you need not trouble yourselves about it; but, if possible, try for it. It is very Utopian to hope for the entire doing away with drunkenness and misery out of the Canongate [a street in Edinburgh, part of the Royal Mile] but the Utopianism is not our business – the work is. It is very Utopian to hope to give every child in this kingdom the knowledge of God from its birth. But the Utopianism is not our business – the work is.

Until next time, good friends, please do continue well out there, and, in the interim between now and the next time we meet, let every dawn of morning be to you as the beginning of new life…




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1 Response to 245: Utopianism (Or, “Moving the Needle,” Part Two)

  1. I found this exceedingly inspiring, Jim. Thank you very much!

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