March 7th, 2019
It has become a Ruskin week for me, though I suppose it’s really that I sort of live a Ruskin life. Micah Mattix recommended Alan Jacobs’s Comment essay on Ruskin in today’s Prufrock email (which you should probably sign up for if you’ve not already). I knew to be on the lookout for this—and Jacobs is always worth reading—but it was an unexpected delight to encounter it today, after having Ruskin and his political economy on the mind yesterday as well.
Jacobs organizes his introduction to the man along biographical lines, and helpfully breaks down Ruskin’s career into three phases. Besides the narrative of the valiant Victorian’s life, he highlights the amalgamating and synthesizing character of Ruskin’s thought, and the related absolute unity of moral and aesthetic judgment that defined the romantic prophet’s vision.
In a famous essay published two decades after Ruskin’s death, T. S. Eliot wrote that “the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary,” but “when a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience.” The ordinary person “falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.” The great quest of Ruskin’s life was to amalgamate disparate experience: not to allow the various aspect of life sit separate from one another, as though our prayers have nothing to do with our purchases, or our arts from our labour, but rather to bring all of them together into a healthy, vibrant symbiosis. This was Ruskin’s passion from the beginning of his career to its end, and not only because to live in that integrated way is good for us, but also because it is good for those who come after us.
I referenced Ruskin’s political economy on here just yesterday, and everything Jacobs says about him is good, true, and beautiful, together, as Ruskin would have all of human-built, human made, objects and environments be: Art and technology, ars and techne united by excellence in a moral imagination. But Ruskin’s poetic vision was not one of collapsed categories. He was an avowed and unabashed elitist, who loathed American democratic and egalitarian sensibilities.
He condemns us, in incidentally Tocquevillian terms, because “the Americans, as a nation, set their trust in liberty and in equality, of which I detest the one, and deny the possibility of the other; and because, also, as a nation, they are wholly undesirous of Rest, and incapable of it.”
Amalgamation for Ruskin was not the oneness and eventual essential sameness of Atman and Brahman, but rather the fit arrangement of different things, the well-built and well-ordered, the crafted and most of all meaningful association—with clear societal implications. Hierarchy, the distinction of powers, was to Ruskin the opportunity for right distribution of responsibility and the consequent creation and preservation of a good and beautiful political life.
If elites and inequalities are inescapable, as they seem to be, perhaps there something to be said about the kind of elites one has, and the hope of producing a true aristocracy. Ruskin gave, in Time and Tide, three roles to the upper classes, divided by their excellences:
Those who are strongest of arm have for their proper function the restraint and punishment of vice, and the general maintenance of law and order; releasing only from its original subjection to their power that which truly deserves to be emancipated.
Those who are superior by forethought and industry, have for their function to be the providences of the foolish, the weak, and the idle; and to establish such systems of trade and distribution of goods as shall preserve the lower orders from perishing by famine, or any other consequence of their carelessness or folly, and to bring them all, according to each man‘s capacity, at last into some harmonious industry.
The third class, of scholars and artists, of course, have for function the teaching and delighting of the inferior multitude.
The office of the upper classes, then, as a body, is to keep order among their inferiors, and raise them always to the nearest level with themselves of which those inferiors are capable.