John Ruskin’s Politics and Natural Law: An Intellectual Biography
In Isobel Colgate’s splendid fin de siècle novel, The Shooting Party, the pastimes of aristocrats in the Oxfordshire countryside of 1913 are portrayed amidst their crumbling conventions and illusions. During the day’s hunting episodes, Olivia Lilburn finds herself walking next to Lionel Stephens who is carrying a pocket edition of Ruskin. ‘I love Ruskin,’ exclaims Olivia, ‘Even when I think he is talking nonsense. I love the sound of it.’1
The episode well encapsulates Ruskin’s great difficulty as a writer in his own time and ours. It is a commonplace of Ruskin commentary that he was a brilliant word painter but that the interspersed ‘nonsense’ caused critics and readers alike to qualify their admiration. This was true concerning his main writings on art and architecture and also his later social tracts. Writing came easily to Ruskin, too easily perhaps. With parental encouragement, he started to write when very young and it became as habitual as his sketching. A child of privilege, he was soon published through connections with such as the Rev. George Croly and William H. Harrison, but without the benefit of much editorial guidance.2 The main exception arose from the close-watching eye of his father whose criticisms the son took seriously. As he matured, he usually bent to the occasional censorial wishes of the father out of respect or even agreement. The larger lack of editorial discipline, however, complicated the reception of his writings and often became the source of negative comment. Ruskin himself was often the source of such criticism when he brought out new editions of past work. It is only in a few cases, such as the youthful children’s tale, The King of the Golden River, or his most effective piece of social criticism, Unto This Last, that he managed to stick to the point with rigour. After 1870, the writing often took on a stream-of-consciousness aspect which, for many readers, robbed them of coherence, seriousness of purpose or else merely left them confused.3
The defects of the late writings were not entirely absent in the earlier ones on art and architecture, but in the early works, the language colour, his worship of nature, the impressive visuals, all served to attract readers such as Olivia Lilburn. His asides and preoccupations with the morality of art were more forgivable than in the later works where his didactic tone and social preaching often gave offence. A man of wealth attacking the conventional wisdom of the prevailing economic order was bound to generate a good deal of heat or accusations of hypocrisy. Even so measured a man as Anthony Trollope became impatient with Ruskin’s outbursts in print.4
Ruskin’s political and economic thought emerged hesitantly and in a fragmentary way, rising out of the more firmly established writings. In their final form, his social proposals were stark but perhaps not as unfinished as has sometimes been suggested. To those contemporaries who paid attention at all, his ideas were usually considered well intended but eccentric or tangential to the main currents of late Victorian political reform. In politics, religion and ethics, he was aware that he was fighting rear-guard actions against certain popular and learned accounts of the tale of progress associated with nineteenth-century thought and the more distant roots of its underlying rationalism which he thought he found first-nourished in the Italian Renaissance. His resistance was not waged against the resultant new sciences, as such, for he was not hostile to science; nor was it waged against the cause of ‘enlightenment’ as such. His objection concerned what he took to be inappropriate intrusions of one dominant account of science, that associated with late eighteenth-century ‘utilitarianism’, into other distinct modes of understanding.
There had been earlier manifestations of this recognition of inappropriate category intrusion, associated with his great love of geology, a study he took up early in life. Fully aware of the revolution in that field accomplished by Charles Lyell and his forerunners, and reinforced by conversation with the young Darwin, he did not reject their findings outright. He made use of their conclusions to refine his understanding of the Bible, concluding that, with respect to geological earth history, it was not a credible source. It remained, however, a valuable ethical source, if not the only source, of social wisdom. Before the age of 20, he understood that it was important not to confuse the proper study of geology with the proper study of ethics and religion.
The results were not so clear cut in terms of his general religious outlook. As with many of his contemporaries, such as James A. Froude, Mark Rutherford or Alfred Tennyson, Ruskin became a doubter and underwent many alterations in belief. Unlike the rebellious Froude, who was drummed out of Oxford over his anti-Christian views unveiled in his novel, The Nemesis of Faith, Ruskin always wore his scepticism more discretely and found a way to deal with the Christian tradition in more traditional or pragmatic ways. As a social critic, he adopted a comprehensive but less certain view of history than that offered by many of the leading eighteenth- and nineteenth-century lights. He is more easily associated with representatives of what Geoffrey Clive called ‘the Romantic Enlightenment’, people who made room for the shifting currents of history, for doubt, poetry, art and traditions as important factors in human experience.5 As an outlook, Clive characterized it as one marked by a tension between two grand sources of anxiety: the possibility of the ‘inexistence of God’ and that of the possibility of the ‘dehumanization’ of the autonomous individual.6 As an antidote to this tension, the romantic looked to the comfort of the arts, poetry, the heroic, the chivalric and the sentimental aspects of history. It was these which provided vectors of social stability. Even if those traditions were partly, or even mainly, illusional, the proof was found in the experience of the tried and true. Such durable illusions provided a flexible retreat for the workings of natural law over the cooler and harder scientific rationalism which informed the minds of many in the eighteenth century who, by degree, furthered their own illusional myths of progress. Similarly, the doubting romantic of the nineteenth century found ways to resist the mounting ‘positivism’ of his times.
Ruskin’s political thought is not easily separated from his views on economics and in this respect it is not exceptional to much literature of the period. Many theorists tended to write in terms of ‘political economy’. The incompleteness of his work in this direction is owing partly to the timing of his attempt to take up social criticism in the mid-1850s. Despite some coherent first efforts, after 1863 his emotional and mental difficulties started to complicate his life on a more regular basis and his ability to take large literary projects to completion declined sharply. Despite much creativity in the later years, the contemplated treatise on political economy never appeared, nor did many other promised projects. Since his death, many commentators have pondered the nature of his personal conflicts and their effects upon his work and private life.7
He made a mark with Unto This Last in 1862, based on four previously published essays in The Cornhill Magazine. This work set out the substance of his main critique of those he called the ‘orthodox political economists’, all of whose works were imbued with what he considered to be the false premises of ‘utilitarianism’. Subsequent essays of 1863, later published as Munera Pulveris, further refined his economic premises. These were followed by a series of letters of 1866, first exchanged with Thomas Dixon, and published as Time and Tide. This work advanced things along political lines, both romantic and conservative. In unveiling his plans for his social experiment, the Guild of St. George, in the public letters known as Fors Clavigera, he drew back considerably from Time and Tide’s essentially statist model of comprehensive reform in favour of the small-scale and the local, what today would be considered ‘green’ models of enterprise. His agricultural commune and associated institutions were theorized within the context of what was allowable under the British Constitution . In the Charter and Oath, there was nothing very radical or revolutionary. Its adherents were asked to subscribe to principles sanctioned by an older form of natural law, one with roots in ancient classical, patristic and medieval ethical premises with their attendant visions of the good life.8
In the present study, it is argued that an account of natural law informed Ruskin’s social and political thought, endorsing a distinctive version of human rights and obligations which contrasted strongly with post-Hobbsian, utilitarian and secular liberal counterparts in which an individual’s ‘subjective rights’ are understood to precede the claims of the general good.9 This posited modern separation, in Sandel’s words came about as follows: ‘Only in a universe empty of telos, such as seventeenth century philosophy affirmed, is it possible to conceive a subject apart from and prior to its purposes and ends.’ Such a world view ‘ungoverned by a purposive order’ left principles of justice ‘open to human construction’ and ‘conceptions of the human good to individual choice’.10 The emergence of such views was subsequently resisted by many but it gradually came to exercise a wide influence during the Enlightenment and after. For Ruskin, ‘the right and the good’ remained closely fused and he denied the validity of attempts to establish the precedence of one over the other by those who resorted to complex metaphysical debate, especially ‘German’ metaphysical debate.11 He seldom spoke of ‘liberty’ or ‘rights’ without also couching the discussion in terms of parallel obligations, stressing a view of humans as culturally situated personalities in the first instance. Thus in Val D’Arno he discussed ‘libertas’ in its older classical and Christian sense (as opposed to Mill’s sense), as ‘deliverance from the slavery of passion’. Once having learned ‘how to rule our passions’ and when ‘certain that our conduct is right’, it remains only to ‘persist in that conduct against all resistance’.12 Regardless of time and place, then, the first consideration for maintenance of any proper civil association is the fostering of acceptable public conduct in a secure setting, a contention which assumes acceptable norms.13 Just how well Ruskin managed to balance a conception of society grounded in natural law with his wish to make greater room for social pluralism will be a question of interest in the later stages of this work.14
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