Wednesday, March 28, 2007

John Ruskin’s “The Nature of Gothic”

I am always challenged by Ruskin’s moral analysis of art, architecture, and craftsmanship. It is no wonder that he exerted such a profound influence on all the arts.

Ruskin likens the redundant task of factory workers to a slavery of the soul in which they are forced to execute the same job over and over, and “in which the execution or power of the inferior workman is entirely subjected to the intellect of the higher.” The practical side effect of this is that men are reduced to cogs and unable to develop as true human beings. In contrast, Ruskin writes:

But in the medieval, or especially Christian, system of ornament, this slavery is done away with altogether; Christianity having recognized, in small things as well as great, the individual value of every soul. But it not only recognizes its value; it confesses its imperfection, in only bestowing dignity upon the acknowledgment of unworthiness. That admission of lost power and fallen nature, which the Greek or Ninevite felt to be intensely painful, and, as far as might be, altogether refused, the Christian makes daily and hourly, contemplating the fact of it without fear, as tending, in the end, to God’s greater glory. Therefore, to every spirit which Christianity summons to her service, her exhortation is: Do what you can, and confess frankly what you are unable to do; neither let your effort be shortened for fear of failure, nor your confession silenced for fear of shame…

And therefore, while in all things we see or do, we are to desire perfection, and strive for it, we are nevertheless not to set the meaner thing, in its narrow accomplishment, above the nobler thing, in its mighty progress; not to esteem smooth minuteness above shattered majesty; not to prefer mean victory to honourable defeat; not to lower the level of our aim, that we may the more surely enjoy the complacency of success. But above all, in our dealings with the souls of other men, we are to take care how we check, by severe requirement or narrow caution, efforts which might otherwise lead to noble issue; and, still more, how we withhold our admiration from great excellencies, because they are mingled with rough faults.

He later writes:

You are put to a stern choice in this matter. You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both. Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise in perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them. All the energies of their spirit must be given to make cogs and compasses of themselves. All their attention and strength must go to the accomplishment of the mean act. The eye of the soul must be bent upon the finger-point, and the soul’s force must fill all the invisible nerves that guide it, ten hours a day, that it may not err from its steely precision, and so soul and sight be worn away, and the whole human being be lost at last—a heap of sawdust, so far as its intellectual work in this world is concerned: save only by its Heart, which cannot go into the form of cogs and compasses, but expands, after the ten hours are over, into fireside humanity.

1 comment:

Heidi said...


Great thoughts – Ruskin’s one I always determine to read more thoroughly, whenever I run across a lovely bit like this. Thanks for sharing this: makes me think of that oft quoted line, attributed to Michelangelo: “Lord, grant that I may desire more than I can accomplish.”