Quotations from Ruskin

Quotations from Ruskin

Quotes from John Ruskin.

Craftsman Style

I know not if a day is ever to come when the nature of right freedom will be understood, and when men will see that to obey another man, to labor for him, yield reverence to him or to his place, is not slavery.

¶ These words, characteristic of the despairing spirit of their author, are found in the second volume of Ruskin's "Stones of Venice". And they are not surprising, in view of the time in which they were written; for no mental vision, however clear and acute, could, in the middle nineteenth century, announce the changes in thought and belief which the next fifty years were to produce. The scientific movement was incipient and the principle of "survival of the fittest" as yet unrecognized. But now that deep probings mysteries of life have shown that one law everywhere prevails, and that force, when beneficent in itself, is the ruling power of the universe, we catch the first faint flush of the dawn which was denied to Ruskin.

¶ Under natural laws there can be no slavery. It is only by perversion and usurpation of law that tyranny comes into being. And tyranny, like all other evil, is self-destructive. "Right Freedom" therefore consists in obedience to such things as are permanent: that is, just and true in themselves, and in the of all that is subversive of order and disturbing to harmony. Obedience is a law as old as the universe, and one that will be in force until time shall cease. The strong must gather the weak about them and absorb into themselves the weaker, and the process must ever go on for the maintenance of all that makes for good, pleasure, and even for life itself. In the great producing time of nature, sterile blossoms appear on the same branch and side by side with those that are destined to bear fruit. But they fall away, after offering their small gift of beauty to the universe. Later, the fruits on the way toward maturity are attacked by their natural enemies in the insect world, or by the elements turned hostile: they are stung and so thwarted in their growth, or they are beaten by hail, or torn by the wind. They succumb, and their share of nourishment in the organism to which they belong, goes to perfect and round the existence of the more robust children of the tree. This process of development and decay is natural, and therefore one which must prevail, whether it be pleasing or painful to the individuals subject to its laws.

¶ It can indeed be said that the "survival of the fittest" in nature corresponds to the "individualism" in political and social science - and, further, it may be urged that individualism reached its highest development in that organic and strongly vitalized period: the Middle Ages. The early Teutons, in their respect for strength, raised aloft on a great shield the most stalwart and powerful man of their tribe, and, by this ceremony, created their war-lord. They owed him their personal allegiance, and obeyed his code. He administered justice within his "gau", or district, and when powerful enough to conquer the nobles about him, he became the king, or cunning-man: that is, the able man of a larger territory, named after him a kingdom. This obedience to power, so notable in the earlier centuries, developed and grew complicated with time, until it resulted in the complete feudal system, which was a series of individual compacts, wherein the stronger and the weaker were grouped in pairs; the stronger lending protection, and the weaker rendering service; both acts resulting in mutual benefit. Antagonistic to centralization of every form, the Teutonic principles prepared the great development of the thirteenth century, which saw rich, powerful, independent towns founded in northern and central Europe; the parliamentary system attain a rapid maturity; the trade-guilds perfected; and the great universities receive their charters. And all these results were, in specialized ways, the fruits of obedience, reverence for authority and regulated labor. The towns were, in many instances, the offspring of the great league for the furtherance of commerce, and they were governed by citizen-bodies, headed by a master-mind. The parliaments, the universities and the guilds were equally manifestations of the spirit of liberty directed by law. One temper of intellect, although a diversity of gifts, characterizes the men of that period, who rose to permanent fame, whether they were sovereigns or saints, poets or scientists.

¶ It was unity such as this that Ruskin had in mind when he wrote the sentence quoted, regarding labor and obedience. He desired with his heart, and yet despaired utterly. In his love for mediaevalism, in his distrust of his own times, he did not foresee the possibility of the advent of a new age which might renew the power of the old, purified from the defects wherein lay the seeds of its decay. But such a consummation may be even now preparing. Its prime factor and cause must be the education of the masses - not theoretical, abstract and diffuse, but technical and concrete; an education designed to awaken and foster love for the multiple multiform life of the universe; a balanced development of all the mental powers from the reason to the imagination, to the end that negative and destructive ideas may be recognized and rejected; a knowledge of history, to the end that the progressive relations of man to man may be studied, and the ascending evolution of these relations acknowledged; finally, a practical, if elementary, acquaintance with certain forms of art, to the end that the pleasures of life may be increased, and the routine of daily existence so modified by the influence of joy in form and color that there shall be neither time nor room for discontent. Under these conditions, individualism will flourish. The man, whatever his occupation, will respect himself and his work. His influence will run abroad like an electric current, so that life will become simpler because filled with more intense love and devotion. He will grasp eagerly after constructive social ideas, leaving anarchism to the ignorant and prejudiced, who are of low or arrested mental development. He will yield reverence to person and place, simply because in so doing he will recognize something akin to the power which he shall feel in himself, and from a high and enlightened sense of duty, obey in his every act.

There should be less pride felt in peculiarity of employment and more in excellence of achievement.
- "Stones of Venice", vol. I., page 169.

¶ Though written years since, and in England, no more timely words than these could be urged upon the American workers of to-day. It would seem that they were uttered with the prescience sometimes characteristic of Ruskin when he turned towards things hidden far within the future. At all events, they apprehend and describe perfectly the false feeling, the lack of manliness and dignity with which many of our artisans practice their crafts; envying the holders of professions and ignoring the useful and pleasurable possibilities of their own condition. These discontented ones have perhaps failed in the grammar, or the high school - a failure often due to a lack of sympathy between teacher and pupil; they lose courage and believe themselves inferior to their companions; they take up without enthusiasm some industry or trade, simply as a means of livelihood; despising it and themselves, giving out wretched work, and reducing themselves to the level of machines. To such an extent does "peculiarity of employment" influence the mind of the average American that he practically ignores "excellence of achievement". If he be a father, he desires for his son an academic degree, even though it should be won by a fraction of class standing; he designs him for a profession, although at the risk that the indifferent student become a "briefless barrister", or a physician without patients. Father and son unite in their hatred of the phrase: "Only a business man"; ignorantly misjudging the acumen, forethought and patience required, in these days of fierce competitive strife, to gain even a modest pace in the commercial or industrial world. Thus in the eyes of the every-day man a misty idea of the dual of the Greek noun or the ability to distinguish between Themistocles and Aristides assumes a far greater value than practical skill in the production of useful articles, or the power to command the subtle and ever-changing relations between supply and demand.

¶ To-day, then, the crafts are dishonored among us, and the mercantile man, if his name is not written over a great department store, is ignored. These facts do but prove that false ideas prevail. For the past is ever an earnest of the future, and economic truths are as stable as the world itself. It was industrial and commercial honor that raised the Florentine Republic to civic heights never elsewhere attained during the Middle Ages, and never since equaled. The cloth dressers of the Calimala and the petty tradesmen of the Mercato Vecchio, nameless though they are today, accomplished more for progress and civilization than the most famous popes and emperors of the same period who changed the geography of Europe at will, with armies as at a game of chess. The burghers of Florence sat in their shops, trading and acquiring riches; but with the classics at hand, from which to draw culture and delight in the intervals of business. They sharpened their wits upon one another on the exchange, or the market place, and then went forth as ambassadors and world arbiters. A little people of merchants and craftsmen ruled the Peninsula and inspired the respect of the greater European sovereigns. The memory of that people is a valuable one to all who desire the well-being and real pleasure of the modern working classes. Let manual skill be cultivated, let the dignity of labor be once again appreciated, let the hard day of toil be lightened by some hope or pastime, and a new economic career will be prepared for our country, untroubled by strikes, and worthy to serve as a new historic precedent.

Chosen From the Words of John Ruskin

It is only by labor that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labor can be made happy.

Every artist should be a workman.

If you will make a man of the working creature, you can not make him a tool.

The profit due to the master by, reason of his intelligence or moral labor is quite legitimate.

There is no wealth but life.

It is not by paying for them, but by understanding them, that we become the real possessors of works of art and of the enjoyment they give.

People can hardly draw anything without being of some use to themselves or others, and can hardly write anything without wasting their own time and that of others.

The function of art is to state a true thing, or to adorn a serviceable one.

There are three material things, not only useful but essential to life. No one knows how to live until he has got them. These are pure air, water and earth. There are three immaterial things not only useful but essential to life. No one knows how to live until he has got them too. These are admiration, hope and love.

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