225: This Vital Energy: Properly called LIFE

Good Friends,

Ruskin is, by some leagues,, less well-known than he should be. From its inception, the intent of this blog has been to do what it could to mitigate this situation. If people in the general public know anything about Ruskin, he be may be remembered as one of those now outmoded (read: “old-fashioned” and hence, “irrelevant”) 19th-century British eminents whose life was framed by various controversies (some unsettling). If they know of anything he wrote, they may recall the famous six words from “Ad Valorem, ” the last essay in his masterpiece of political economy, Unto This Last (1862), “There is no wealth nut life!”, the little book he always considered the most important he ever wrote. The brief paragraph in which this wonderful, arresting sentence appears remains as moving and revolutionary today–a century and some 60 years and more after it first made its way into print. As such, it remains most worthy of our recollection: Here is the whole:

I desire, in closing this series of papers, to leave this one great fact clearly stated: THERE IS NO WEALH BUT LIFE ([his capitalization]. Life, including all its powers of joy, of love, and of admiration. That country is greatest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is the richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others. A strange political economy. The only one, nevertheless, that ever was or can be. All political economy founded on self-interest being but the fulfillment of that which once brought schism into the Policy of Angels and ruin into the Economy of Heaven.

And that, at least for most readers of Unto this Last and Ruskin generally, remains that. In the wake of this stunning paragraph, the marvelous remainder of this last essay of Unto This Last is generally forgotten, as is most of our subject’s powerful political economic writing that followed in years subsequent. But for Ruskin it was hardly the end. His mind was still functioning at its highest level despite the fact that his political economic thought. to his great frustration, was widely and roundly rejected by the public-at-large as the irksome outpourings of an inveterate idealist. The passage below is intended to illustrate this lamentable oversight, and, by so doing, underscore a central tenet framing this blog: that Ruskin’s work, however unrecognized and as unread as it may be today, regardless of whether it appears early or late in his career, remains supremely helpful and relevant to our struggling modern world. Throughout these Posts my goal has been to stimulate some of those following them to read Ruskin in the hope that his superlatively vital ideas might again become matters of serious discussion. Which said, we proceed to the main substance of this Post.


However you look at it, The Queen of the Air is an outlier in the Ruskin oeuvre. Published in 1869, it is, by his standards, as brief (less than 200 pages) as it is brilliant and provocative. It is comprised of four essays designed to lay out a truth he had learned but had yet not unambiguously communicated in earlier works. Formerly educated as a boy by tutors hired by his parents, the young Ruskin was quickly exposed to the greatest literary works of Western civilization, among these, naturally, the Greek classics. Although–a fact he acknowledged throughout his life–of these he always loved Plato best, he came to believe that the greatest of these great early writers were all pointing to a truth about life and creation now widely missed–namely, that Creation itself, being so immense, beautiful and complex, had been graced by its Creator to be overseen and shepherded by a number of omnipresent, subtle, and benevolent Spirits,: a “committee” the Greeks designated as “The Olympian Gods.” Among them were Demeter, Spirit of the Earth, Poseidon, Spirit of the Sea, Apollo, God of the Sun, and Athena, Queen of the Air.

Given his subject in his little book on Athena, Ruskin, not long returned from one of his regular excursions on his “Old Road” through Europe, begins with an introduction excoriating the willful, indeed eager, despoliation of nature, culture, and all that sustains decent and salubrious life by his contemporaries, after which he begins his outline of the traits that characterize the goodly goddess. (If you would like to know what these are, you will find the book easily available for free download on the Internet.)

Which brings us, perhaps a little surprisingly, to Nashville, Tennessee, a city where, in the last decade of the 19th century, its principal movers and shapers decided that they wanted to beautify their city by creating an exact scale reproduction of the building that was (and still is) widely regarded the architectural masterpiece of the classical world: the Parthenon of Athens. This they did, and ever since, their version has served not only as a beautiful tourist attraction, but as one of the city’s art museums. Within it, guided by the best scholarly knowledge, they also decided to include a scale model of the great goddess who presided over the original. Below are images of, respectively, the ruins of the Parthenon as it exists in Athens today (finished in 432 BCE, over the centuries, weather, war, thievery, and accident have reduced it to a shell of its former glory); the Nashville replication, and its sculpted image of the Queen of the Air herself.

As far as I am aware, Nashville’s is the only accurate recreation in the world of these magnificent cultural artefacts.) As I mentioned above, Ruskin’s thinking about what constituted the essence of the thing we call Life hardly ceased after the publication of Unto this Last. As evidence, I offer the wonderful passage from The Queen of the Air following, recently rediscovered during one of my regular re-readings. It begins with paragraphs that could be directly added immediately after the great paragraph from Unto this Last quoted above, then continues with a trenchant critique of the great new theory” then dominating public discourse (Darwin’s regarding the Descent of Man and Origin of Species); it ends with some thoughts about the omnipresent stimuli that have served as the basis of all religions. In short, these are paragraphs that present Ruskin at his best. As far as I’m concerned, it is one of his greatest passages, one which will bestow further rewards with each re-reading, which, as always, I encourage you to do.

[This Vital Energy,] properly called Life, or Breathing, or Spirit, is continually creating its own shells out of the (material) wreck around it. And this is what I meant by saying, in the “Ethics of the Dust,” [1866] that “you can always stand by Form against force.” For the mere force of junction is not spirit. but the power that catches, out of chaos, charcoal, water, lime, or whatnot, and fastens them down into a given form IS properly called “Spirit,” and we shall not diminish but strengthen our conception of this creative energy by recognizing its presence in lower states of matter than our own–such recognition being enforced upon us by a delight we instinctively receive from all forms of matter which manifest it–and yet more–by the glorifying of those forms and the parts of them that are the most animated with the colors that are pleasantest to our senses. The most familiar instance of this is also the best, and also the most wonderful: the blossoming of plants.

The Spirit in the plant – that is to say, its Power of gathering matter out of the wreck around and shaping it into its own chosen shape – is, of course, strongest at the moment of its flowering, for then it not only gathers, but forms with the greatest energy. And where this Life Spirit is in it at full power, it becomes infested with aspects that are chiefly delightful to our own human passions –namely, first, with the loveliest; and, secondly, with the most brilliant phases of the primary colors–blue, yellow, red, or white (the union of all). And to make it all more strange, this time of peculiar and perfect glory is associated with relations of the plants or blossoms to each other, corresponding to the joy of love in human creatures, and having the same object in the continuance of the race.

Observe again and again, with respect to these divisions and powers of plants: it does not matter in the least by which concurrences of circumstance or necessity they may gradually have been developed. The concurrence of circumstance is itself the supreme and inexplicable fact. We always come at last to [the question of[ a formative cause which directs the circumstance, and modes of meeting it. If you ask an ordinary botanist the reason for the form of a leaf, he will tell you that it is a “developed tubercle,” and that its ultimate form “is owing to the directions of its vascular threads.” But what directs its vascular threads? He will say: “they are seeking for something they want.” Well, what made them want that? And what made them seek for it thus?…

Only with respect to plants, as in animals, we are wrong in speaking as if the object of this strong life were only in bequeathing itself. The flower is the end and proper object of the seed, not the seed of the flower. The reason for seeds is that flowers may be, not the reason for flowers that will seeds may be. The flower itself is the creature which the Spirit makes. Only, in connection with this perfectness is placed the giving birth to its successor… The main fact to know about a flower then, is that it is the part of the plant’s form developed at the moment of its intensest life, and that this inner rapture is usually marked externally for us by the flush of one or more of the primary colors. In all cases, the presence of the strongest life is asserted by characters in which the human frame takes pleasure, and which seem prepared with distinct reference to us, or rather, bear, by being delightful, evidence of having been produced by the power of the same Spirit as our own. And the force of these facts cannot be escaped from by the thought that there are species innumerable passing into each other by regular gradations, out of which we choose what we most love or dread, and say they were indeed prepared for us…

There is no answer. The sum of it all is that, over the entire surface of the Earth and its waters, as influenced by the power of the air under solar lights, there has been developed a series of changing forms–in clouds, plants, and animals, all of which have reference in their action, or nature, to the human intelligence that perceives them. And on which-in their aspects of horror and beauty, and their qualities of good and evil–have been engraved a series of myths, or words of the Forming Power which, according to the true passion and energy of the human race, they have been read into religion. And this Forming Power has been by all nations partly confused with the breath of air in which it acts, and partly understood as a creative wisdom proceeding from the supreme Deity entering into and inspiring all intelligences that work in harmony with Him.. And whatever the intellectual results may be in modern days obtained regarding this affluence as only a motion of vibration, every formative human act hitherto, and the best states of human happiness and order, have depended on the apprehension of its mystery (which is certain), and its personality (which is probable).

And so, as you can see, I highly recommend The Queen of the Air for your leisure hours–as well as a trip to Nashville!

Until next time.

Please do continue well out there!



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