Happy 200th birthday, John Ruskin

John Ruskin self portrait
Public Domain John Ruskin self portrait/wikipedia

So much of what he wrote has relevance today.

It's John Ruskin's 200th birthday. He is not that well known today, having fallen out of favour; he believed in a rigid social structure, disliked machines and capitalism. But he had a profound influence on architects from Le Corbusier to Frank Lloyd Wright, and his ideas about utopian society influenced the founding of the Bauhaus. He was an original thinker about ecology and the environment.

Born wealthy, he was offended at how the rich waste their money, writing in Unto this Last:

There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the function of his own life to the utmost, has always the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.

He invented a word, 'illth', to describe wealth that served no social purpose. Andrew Hill writes in the Financial Times:

The term could still be applied today, to anything from surplus superyachts to misspent savings. In Ruskin’s time, the product of illth was visible in smoke-belching factories that he feared would obliterate green spaces and human creativity. Ruskin pointed out how much richer 19th-century Britain would be if, instead, it aimed to manufacture “souls of a good quality”.

Hill relates Ruskin to the issues of today, to the latest industrial revolution wrought by robots and what the meaning of work is in this new world.

“In order that people may be happy at work,” Ruskin wrote in 1851, “these three things are needed: They must be fit for it; they must not do too much of it: and they must have a sense of success in it.” If that sounds modern, it is no surprise: these are the keys to employees’ self-motivation that management writer Daniel Pink laid out in his 2009 book Drive, calling them mastery, autonomy and purpose.

Ruskin was, in fact, not much of a romantic. As an art critic he rejected cute paintings and thought art should be a force for social improvement. Pauline Fletcher writes:

Ruskin's refusal to see the squalid mountain villages as picturesque adjuncts to scenery introduced a moral dimension into the judgment of landscape [...] The poverty of the mountain people forces itself upon his attention in such a way that he is compelled, reluctantly, to judge the landscape in terms of its usefulness to human life.

In his PhD thesis, Mark Frost notes that Ruskin developed an "ecological model that acted not only as a scientific system, but as a metaphor for any organic construction of systems, whether natural or human.

Ruskin was incapable of dealing with knowledge in a compartmentalised manner. ... Ruskin's preoccupation with connection, relation, and process echoed the aim of ecology to perceive and describe the connections between the elements of nature.

unfinished sketch veniceJohn Ruskin/ unfinished sketch in Venice/Public Domain

Everything connects. Here are some terrific quotes from Ruskin, who loved the outdoors:

“Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather. ”

And nature:

“Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty if only we have the eyes to see them.”

And minimalism:

“Every increased possession loads us with new weariness.”

But also that some things are worth keeping, even if they don't do much:

“Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless.”

He probably had a nice library:

“If a book is worth reading, it is worth buying.”

But don't read trash off the supermarket shelf.

“Life being very short, and the quiet hours of it few, we ought to waste none of them in reading valueless books.”

Choose those books carefully. I do not know what he would think of all that direct marketing of medicine that goes on in the USA, but he would probably like the reviews in Amazon:

“You should read books like you take medicine, by advice, and not by advertisement.”

He has good advice for writers and speakers:

“Say all you have to say in the fewest possible words, or your reader will be sure to skip them; and in the plainest possible words or he will certainly misunderstand them.”

And most speakers would probably like to print out this sign and hold it up before the question period:

“To be able to ask a question clearly is two-thirds of the way to getting it answered.”

He would probably like the concept of "slow travel":

“Modern traveling is not traveling at all; it is merely being sent to a place, and very little different from becoming a parcel.”

Making good stuff is hard work.

“Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent effort. There must be the will to produce a superior thing.”

He even has advice about cooking, which doesn't sound very English at all, and notes that it is all about care and hard work:

“Cookery means…English thoroughness, French art, and Arabian hospitality; it means the knowledge of all fruits and herbs and balms and spices; it means carefulness, inventiveness, and watchfulness.”

There are many wealthy people who would argue this point:

“You can only possess beauty through understanding it.”

Don't be a dilettante. I should take this one to heart.

“To study one good master till you understand him will teach you more than a superficial acquaintance with a thousand: power of criticism does not consist in knowing the names or the manner of many painters, but in discerning the excellence of a few.”

It turns out that nobody can find a record of him ever writing what is one of his most quoted insights into economics, but I have used it so many times I might as well throw it in here again:

It's unwise to pay too much, but it's worse to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money - that's all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do.

This one is very modern, and sounds more like Andy Warhol than John Ruskin, but I like it:

“Taste is the only morality. Tell me what you like and I'll tell you what you are.”

part of st marksNorthwest Porch of St. Marks/Public Domain

And finally, having practiced as an architect and having seen almost everything I built demolished for condos, I end with one of my favourites:

“When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for; and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say, as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, 'See! This our father did for us.'”

Happy 200th birthday, John Ruskin
So much of what he wrote has relevance today.

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