That Beauty is not, as fond men misdeem,
An outward show of things, that only seem;
But that fair lamp, from whose celestial ray
That light proceeds which kindleth lover's fire,
Shall never be extinguished nor decay;
But, when the vital spirits do expire,
Unto her native planet shall retire,
For it is heavenly born and cannot die,
Being a parcel of the purest sky.
— Edmund Spenser, quoted by Ruskin (4.207)
ohn Ruskin's aesthetic theories are a type of his entire thought and writings, and they deserve careful attention not only because they play an essential role in Modern Painters, but also because their relation to sources, their formulation, and their evolution are characteristic of much that is important in his works. The same concerns, attitudes, and procedures which mark his aesthetics also characterize aspects of his work as different as his pronouncements on poetry and politics. The presentation of these theories of beauty is, for example, characteristically polemical. In aesthetics, as in politics, Ruskin rarely advances a point without casting down a gauntlet — though it occasionally be to a straw knight on a straw horse. The theories of Typical and Vital Beauty are proposed with the same urgency, the same contentiousness, and the same sense of speaking the only truth with which Ruskin usually presents his own ideas. This polemical tone is appropriate, for, as we have noted earlier, Ruskin originally formulated these theories of beauty in order to defend Turner. The first volume of Modern Painters attempts to prove that Turner was the most truthful painter of landscapes, and the role of the second is in part to present an aesthetic theory in relation to which Turner's paintings could appear as not only the most truthful but the most beautiful creations of English art. But Ruskin's aesthetics are polemical for other reasons than the aggressive tone with which they are presented, for his theories of beauty are advanced and even formed in conscious opposition to ideas which Ruskin wanted to confute. He developed his conception of theoria, for example, almost entirely to oppose another view of beauty — in this case the notion that the study of beauty is the study of perception alone and is hence divorced from the study of morality and religion. A pure aestheticism, or a theory of beauty divorced from morality, would not do for Ruskin since he was trying to demonstrate that the perception of beauty (especially the beauties of Turner) has an important relationship to man's moral and religious nature. It is thus fitting that in setting forth his aesthetic doctrine, Ruskin frequently sounds as though he were preaching from the pulpit or seeking converts among the heathen. His earnest, urgent, sermonizing tone is appropriate to his theories of beauty which had grown from the body of his religious beliefs. Ruskin's early Evangelicalism affected his aesthetics as his later humanism influenced his political-economics; and as his political and economic theories were formed by his loss of religious belief, so his conceptions of beauty were informed by an early piety which is evident throughout the second volume of Modern Painters.
Furthermore, a study of Ruskin's aesthetics is necessary to an understanding of his non-aesthetic writings, because these propositions about the beautiful attempt, but finally fail, to solve problems that recur throughout his works. If, for example, one can perceive the reasons for his ultimate inability to demonstrate that beauty is the embodiment and representation of immutable order, one can explain more clearly such major changes in Modern Painters as the movement from the problems of art to the problems of society. An examination of Ruskin's aesthetic writings reveals that when he first proposed his theories of beauty he wished most of all to emphasize the importance of the beautiful; and he was able to make this emphasis because he believed that beauty was a reflection of God's nature in visible things. Since the beautiful was a speculum dei it could not, therefore, vary; nor could it depend upon subjective factors such as personal associations. Once Ruskin began to question his religious faith, his attention shifted from the relation of man to God to the relations of man to man. At about the same time that he became interested in the problems of society, Ruskin began to allow that there were human, not divine, sources of beauty. But when he thus granted that personal and historical associations could create beauty, his attempt at an aesthetic system failed. At a first glance it might seem that since his aesthetic theories were one of his early, and rare, endeavors to be systematic they therefore cannot be taken as characteristic of his work; but in fact his failure to create a coherent system, and his subsequent inconsistencies, were caused by developments in his theories of beauty which paralleled his later loss of religion and his then growing interest in social reform.
The best introduction to what we may call the dilemma of Ruskin's aesthetic theories is that section in the second volume of Modern Painters where, before advancing his own views, he pauses in imitation of Edmund Burke to attack ideas concerning the nature of beauty which he thought mistaken. "Those erring or inconsistent positions" which he dismisses are: "the first, that the Beautiful is the True; the second, that the Beautiful is the Useful; the third, that it is dependent on Custom; and the fourth, that it is dependent on the Association of Ideas" (4.66). When Ruskin mentions the first "erring'' position, he may have had Keats or Lord Shaftesbury in mind. Although Ruskin provides no evidence that he was familiar with the writings of Anthony Cooper, Lord Shaftesbury, he may have been referring to Shaftesbury's statement: "The most natural beauty in the world is honesty and moral truth. For all beauty is truth. True features make the beauty of a face; and true proportions the beauty of architecture" (Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, ed. John M. Robertson, 2 vols. , I, 94). By "true" Shaftesbury evidently meant "correct" and were his statement the object of Ruskin's criticism, that criticism would be valid and to the point.
He quickly refutes the proposition that beauty is truth by pointing out that to make such an equation is to confuse a quality of statements with a quality of matter. Unlike the three other views he opposes, and despite his remarks to the contrary, this notion, that truth is beauty and beauty truth, was not an important position.
In contrast with this, the other positions which he wanted to refute were widely held throughout the last half of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth centuries; and Ruskin's attack on them reveals important points about his own notions of beauty. Most important, his opposition indicates how conservative were his aesthetics. Any study of Ruskin's theories of beauty as they relate to his theories of art must begin with the realization that although he proposed a romantic, emotionalist theory of painting and poetry, many of his most characteristic ideas and attitudes were reactions against what he recognized as the limitations of a subjectivist aesthetic. In fact Ruskin used his theories of beauty as one way of solving the problem of subjectivity in romantic art. A classical theory of beauty, such as that which he elects, considers beauty as a quality which, residing in the object, embodies a principle of order. The statement that beauty is order and takes the form of proportion, symmetry, and a mixture of unity and variety is frequently encountered in eighteenth-century writings on art, and it is from these notions of the beauty of order that Ruskin created his own theory of Typical Beauty. On the other hand, a romantic, or at least an internalized, aesthetic considers beauty as an emotion and discusses it not in terms of external qualities of the object but in terms of the psychological experiences of the beholder. The three eighteenth-century positions which Ruskin here opposes historically occupy a medial position in the development of British aesthetics. Thus although these theories are still concerned with qualities of the beautiful object, they do not consider beauty as the embodiment of some metaphysical order. The movement of speculative interest from metaphysics to psychology that is so characteristic of the eighteenth century affected aesthetics in much the same way that it changed views of language: in both cases the influence of Hobbes and Locke, particularly the influence of their new models for the mind, caused men to discuss the nature of both beauty and language in terms of psychological inquiry. In the case of writings about beauty the result was that, although writers still discussed the qualities of beauty, they were primarily concerned to investigate why these qualities were received as pleasing by the mind. Ruskin, who was well aware of the difficulties inherent in his theories, spoke of beauty as both quality and feeling; but in an attempt to demonstrate the objective, unvarying existence of the beautiful he suggested that everyone receives identical emotions from certain visual qualities much as everyone receives identical sensations of sweetness from sugar. Men react so, he said, because it is God's will and because all men have a divine element in their nature. In order to propose his theory of uniform emotional reactions, Ruskin must first deny the psychological explanations of earlier aestheticians, particularly since derivations of beauty from custom and association allow great variations in the beautiful. His attempt and failure to exclude all these subjectivist, variable elements of beauty indicate how conservative — and how tenuous — was his attempt to solve the problems of romanticism in art by appealing to a metaphysical order.
We see one threat to Ruskin's theory in the second position he attacked, namely that the beautiful is the useful or is largely dependent upon utility. David Hume, who emphasized the importance of utility in morals, stated the usual case for the relationship between beauty and utility in his early Treatise on Human Nature (1739). According to him, most works of art are adjudged beautiful "in proportion to their fitness for the use of man," and many of the beauties of nature are considered to be so because of a similar utility (eds. T. H. Green and T. H. Grose, London 1832,, II, 36. Quoted by Walter J. Hipple, Jr., The Beautiful, the Sublime, and the Picturesque in Eighteenth-Century British Aesthetic Theory, Carbondale, Ill., 1957, 40). Hume believed that beauty was a relative not an absolute quality, and that it "pleases us by nothing but its tendency to produce an end that is agreeable" (40). Walter J. Hipple, Jr., a recent commentator on his aesthetic theories, points out that by utility Hume means, not usefulness toward any end, but usefulness in the creation of human happiness. Thus, according to Hipple, an efficient device such as an engine of torture, though in one sense useful, would not be beautiful" (41). Despite Hipple's clarification of this aspect of the idea of utility, other confusions remain because Hume used the notion of happiness in several different ways. This confusion appears most noticeably when he discusses the beauty of animals. In the Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1752), for example, he states that "one considerable source of beauty in all animals is the advantage which they reap from the particular structure of their limbs and members, suitably to the particular manner of life to which they are by nature destined" (ed. Charles W. Hendel, New York, 1957, 69). By this statement Hume apparently means that the beauty of animals is derived from a fitness, such as strength, which contributes to their own well-being. In the next sentence, however, he states that certain "just proportions" are accepted as beautiful for a horse since these are related to qualities of the animal useful to man. Thus there seem to be two notions of happiness and usefulness, one considered in relation to the animal and one in relation to the owner of the animal. In other words, the attempt to derive beauty from psychology here leads to a confusion of the psychology of man and horse. Perhaps the most important point to be drawn from his works about the notion of the beauty of utility is that despite apparently simple, clear statements that the beautiful is the useful, this theory is never presented without some modification such as that offered by Hume.
Adam Smith's Theory of the Moral Sentiments (1759), which Ruskin read before he began Modern Painters, presents another modification of the theory of fitness. Smith states the basic notion that beauty is derived from the useful but then adds that utility is often more valued as a quality "than the very end for which it was intended," and that therefore the appearance of utility is frequently more valued as an aesthetic quality than the "conveniency or pleasure" which it was supposed to provide (Edinburgh, 1813), I, 406-408). Both streamlined steam-irons and Bauhaus furniture prove the justice of Smith's proposition that usefulness or its appearance (for, as with the steam-iron, utility may not in fact be present) can become an aesthetic quality.
Henri Fuseli, an early favorite with Ruskin, provides an example of a third, somewhat confused, form of the idea that utility is beauty. Fuseli, a Swiss-born member of the Royal Academy who painted nightmares and other wildly dramatic scenes, delivered a series of lectures at the Academy (1801-1825), which in the light of his own art are surprisingly neoclassical both in taste and in tenet. He several times suggests that beauty is closely related to utility; but since utility is always joined with other qualities in his statements, the exact relations are rather confusing. At one point Fuseli states that: "Beauty, whether individual or idea, consists in the concurrence of parts to one end, or the union of the simple or the various" (The Life and Writings, ed. John Knowles, 3 vols. [London, 1811], III, 76). At another point he claims: "The beauty which we acknowledge is that harmonious whole of the human frame, that unison of parts to one end, which enchants us" (II, 22). It is unclear whether the "one end" to which Fuseli refers is a function, a use to self, or whether it is the "end" of being a beautiful whole, a unity. Fuseli's combination of utility theory with the notion that beauty is harmony makes his formulation even more confusing. If he meant that each thing that lends itself to a harmonious whole is beautiful, then Ruskin would have agreed. If, however, Fuseli meant that parts of a whole are beautiful because they perform a function, then Ruskin would have disagreed with him.
Ruskin dismisses the notion that the beautiful is the useful without discussion, and he is able to treat it so curtly because this idea had in his opinion already been convincingly refuted by Edmund Burke's Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757). From the frequency with which he refers to On the Sublime, and from the allusion to it in a footnote, it seems clear that Ruskin expects the reader to be acquainted with this most influential English treatise on aesthetics: "He was the first English writer on art." Ruskin wrote, "who used his common sense and reason on this subject [proportion]. The essay on the Sublime and the Beautiful is, like all his writing, extremely rational and forcible; and deserves most careful and reverent reading" (4.109n). In the section "fitness not the cause of beauty," Burke answers the proposition "that the idea of utility, or of a part's being well adapted to answer its end, is the cause of beauty" with an appeal to experience. He suggests that if utility were indeed the cause of beauty, then "on that principle, the wedge-like snout of a swine, with its tough cartilage at the end, the little sunk eyes, and the whole make of the head, so well adapted to its offices of digging, and rooting, would be extremely beautiful" (On the Sublime, 104-105). Burke has followed the procedure, usually more useful in satire than in philosophy, of accepting another's terms at their most literal and then applying them in this literal sense. Burke's wedge-snouted swine is, however, the perfect counter example for Hume's well-proportioned horse; for the swine's physical makeup is as well suited to its own happiness as it is to the ultimate happiness of men, who will profit from its successful rooting in the mud. Whatever way Hume and others intended the notion of utility to be taken, in these terms the swine would have been beautiful. And swine are not beautiful.
Ruskin may have been able to dismiss the theory that the beautiful is the useful so summarily because Burke had already refuted it, but he does so with such vehemence because this notion repelled him and was so opposed to his own basic conceptions of beauty and its role in man's life. According to Ruskin, to hold that beauty is derived from usefulness "is to confound admiration with hunger, love with lust, and life with sensation; it is to assert that the human creature has no ideas and no feelings except those ultimately referable to its brutal appetites" (4.67). First of all he rejects this theory because he believes that it neglects the needs of the spirit and mistakenly derives beauty from an inadequate, selfish (and hence necessarily subjective) psychology. Moreover, at this point in his career Ruskin was not only concerned to emphasize the needs of the human spirit, of which beauty is a most important one, but he was also opposed to Utilitarianism, with which he apparently connects this aesthetic theory. He desires to impress upon his reader that beauty is contemplated for its own sake, and that the pleasure derived from the contemplation of beauty is disinterested. The conception of disinterestedness, which is lacking in most eighteenth-century British aesthetic theories, is at the center of Ruskin's idea of beauty; and although many aspects of his aesthetics, and the attitudes upon which they were based, changed, his emphasis on the disinterestedness of aesthetic perception did not. In the preface which he added to the second volume of Modern Painters in 1883, he wrote of this volume that "its first great assertion is, that beautiful things are useful to men because they are beautiful, and for the sake of their beauty only" (4.4). Ruskin thus continued to believe that his early assertion, that beauty was independent of utility, was one of the most important ideas in Modern Painters.
Ruskin devotes little more space to refuting the third view, that custom is the source of the beautiful or that "the sense of the Beautiful arises from Familiarity with the object" (4.67). That beauty depends upon custom was a theory popular in the eighteenth century, as might be expected in an age whose literature and moral philosophy were so directed toward society. Ruskin, who was widely read in standard works of the time, had encountered this theory in many places, including the works of Oliver Goldsmith and Sir Joshua Reynolds. Ruskin pointed out that "the theory that beauty was merely a result of custom was very common in Johnson's time. Goldsmith has, I think, expressed it with more force and wit than any other writer, in various passages of the Citizen of the World" (4.45; there is also an 1883 note on the subject: see 4.67n.) He several times refers to Goldsmith's Citizen of the World, a Chinese gentleman who had at first been shocked by the long feet and white teeth of English women but who, after becoming accustomed to these features, found them attractive and sadly concluded that "there is no universal standard for beauty"[The Works of Oliver Goldsmith, ed. J.W.M. Gibbs (London, 1885), III, 154]. In one of his essays in The Idler (1759) Reynolds similarly attaches great importance to the influence of custom upon the beautiful. According to him, since we are "more accustomed to beauty than deformity, we may conclude that to be the reason why we approve and admire it.... Though habit and custom cannot be said to be the cause of beauty, it [sic] is certainly the cause of our liking it." Although he tries to avoid some of the difficulties inherent in this position by proposing that custom does not create beauty but only makes us prefer beauty, his argument causes additional difficulties. For if custom creates our preference for what we believe to be beautiful, we can have no way of distinguishing between that which is truly beautiful and that which is merely thought to be beautiful because it is familiar. Reynolds also seems willing to admit that if men were more accustomed to ugliness than beauty, then ugliness would seem beautiful. This last conclusion probably did not trouble him, however, since in his opinion men are accustomed to beauty and not ugliness and therefore the theoretical confusion of the beautiful and the ugly is not in actuality possible. Adam Smith, who recognizes the implications of such a position, cannot grant that "custom is the sole principle of beauty"; yet he does believe that no form could or can please "if quite contrary to custom, and unlike what we have been used to in that species of things" (Theory of the Moral Sentiments, II, 15.). British moral philosophers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, like Smith, derived the sense of beauty from the moral sense. But although they maintained that the moral sense was basically unchanging, as was necessary to the objective reality of morals, they allowed that beauty was changeable and that custom plays an important role in determining ideas of beauty.
Ruskin, however, who propounds that beauty has an objective, unchanging existence, cannot grant that something as ever-changing as custom can have much effect on beauty. Although he admits that custom has some small effect on the perception of the beautiful, he does not in any way allow that it makes us prefer beauty to ugliness; for he believes that such preference must be instinctive. Ruskin proposes that custom both deadens the "frequency and force of repeated impressions" and endears "the familiar object to the affections" (4.68). One possible difficulty or inconsistency in Ruskin's rejection of this position is that, while he says that custom can endear the familiar object, he holds that it cannot make that object seem beautiful. In other places he speaks of joy, admiration, and love as the emotions produced by the perception of beauty, and it is difficult to see where in his own terms there is a difference between the love created by familiarity and the love created by true beauty. The problem arises because he tries to connect the perception of the beautiful with the moral emotions, and he hence finds it difficult to distinguish between the two forms or varieties of love.
The notion that the perception of beauty is dependent upon custom is closely related to the theory that beauty is dependent upon association, the last of the four theories that Ruskin attacks. The Associationist theory of beauty is the most important of the positions which he opposes both because it was popular and because it presented the greatest threat to Ruskin's idea that beauty has an objective, unchanging existence. More than any other position he rejects, Associationism removes beauty from the heavens and places it within the changeable and limited territories of the human mind. Among the various British writers on aesthetics who made association important in their theories of beauty, Archibald Alison, against whom Ruskin directed his argument, held the most extreme position, for he proposed that association creates all natural and artificial beauty.It was common for eighteenth-century writers to explain the beauties of music and color by association, and James Boswell comments, for example, in The Life of Samuel Johnson,
Much of the effect of musick, I am satisfied, is owing to the association of ideas. That air, which instantly and irresistibly excites in the Swiss, when in a foreign land, the maladie du pais [sic], has, I am told, no intrinsick power of sound. And I know from my own experience, that Scotch reels, though brisk, make me melancholy, because I used to hear them in my early years. . . . Whereas the airs in The Beggar's Opera, many of which are very soft, never fail to render me gay, because they are associated with the warm sensations and high spirits of London" (Everyman Library: New York, 1906), 144.
Alison, however, was the first to extend this notion to all areas of the beautiful. According to his Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste (1790), "the Sublimity or Beauty of Forms arises altogether from the Associations we connect with them, or the Qualities of which they are expressive" (2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1817), I, 317-318.). When Alison uses the term "expressive" he does not mean that forms express something, but that, by association, they come to represent beauty or grandeur (325). Alison subsumes all the traditionally contributory aspects of beauty — utility, form, and harmony — under the theory of association. He derives the beauty of form, for example, from an association of pleasantness with qualities which are in turn associated with form. According to him, then, "The greater part of those bodies in Nature, which possess Hardness, Strength, or Durability, are distinguished by angular Forms," while those which possess "Weakness, Fragility or Delicacy" have winding or curvilinear shapes. Angularity thus comes to represent strength and curves delicacy (330-31). These qualities, strength and delicacy, are in turn associated by their effects with the sublime and the beautiful. Alison even proposes that since proportion is generally traditional and related to custom, its effect is also achieved by association of ideas and not by any inherent beauty in proportions themselves.
The Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste were very popular in the early nineteenth century and editions appeared in 1812, 1815, 1817, 1825, and 1842 (Hipple, 158). Alison's ideas provided the basis for Jeffrey's article on beauty in the fifth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1795), which did much to disseminate the Association theory. The popularity of this aesthetic theory and the effect which the Britannica article had upon its diffusion are attested in part by Sir George Steuart Mackenzie's Essay on Taste (1817), written to refute Alison's Associationism. Mackenzie states that Alison is commonly accepted as the "author of the Theory of Association," and he quotes Jeffrey's version of the theory as evidence of the prevalence of this position. According to Jeffrey, the beauty of
outward objects, is nothing more than the reflection of our inward sensations, and is made up entirely of certain little portions of love, pity, and affection, which have been connected with these objects, and still adhere, as it were, to them, and move us anew whenever they are presented to our observation. [Edinburgh, 1817, 42-44]
Mackenzie wants to deny the validity of this aesthetic theory because, like Ruskin, he believes that it necessarily reduces beauty to a transient gleam and puts it on the level of "those grovelling pleasures, indulgence in which induces satiety, disgust, and nausea" (189).
Ruskin disapproves of Alison's position not only because it discounts the objective, permanent nature of beauty, in which Ruskin himself believed, but also because Associationism is a purely aesthetic theory; which is to say that Associationism is a self-contained explanation of the beautiful which cannot readily be derived from moral or metaphysical order. Alison, then, derives beauty from principles of the human mind which are most affected not by eternal law but local situation, not by essence but accident, not by order but disorder. To complicate the issue for Ruskin is the fact that he believes that association does have some influence on our judgment of beauty. He attacks an inconsistent passage in Alison's Essay which suggests that beauty is, simultaneously, something less powerful than association and the same thing as association, and then dismisses Alison in a few sentences without having disproved his points. Ruskin himself next proceeds to observe the effects which he believes association does have on the sense of beauty. He proposes that there are two kinds of association, rational and accidental; and he is most concerned with the second form of association which is "the accidental connection of ideas and memories with material things, owing to which those material things are regarded as agreeable or otherwise" (4.71-72). At the same time he emphasizes that these associations do not create beauty, Ruskin insists that all powerful emotions and "all circumstances of exciting interest, leave their light and shadow on the senseless things and instruments among which, or through whose agency, they have been felt or learned" (4.72), and that we always project "a spirit and a life" (4.72) upon all material things in moments of extreme happiness or extreme depression. These effects are important because "in many who have no definite rules of judgment, preference is decided by little else, and thus, unfortunately, its operations are mistaken for, or rather substituted for, those of inherent beauty" (4.73). Thus although Ruskin admits the importance of association, he continues to maintain that beauty and association are basically independent.
Since Ruskin considers personal association to be so important, it is somewhat surprising to observe him dismiss Rational Association so quickly. Rational Association is "the interest which any object may bear historically, as having been in some way connected with the affairs or affections of men; an interest shared in the minds of all who are aware of such connection" (4.71). The attitude and tone with which he rejects this form of association are interesting because of the glimpse they provide into his belief about the importance and nature of human life. For Ruskin, to call the pleasures of association beauty
is mere and gross confusion of terms; it is no theory to be confuted, but a misuse of language to be set aside, a misuse involving the positions that in uninhabited countries the vegetation has no grace, the rock no dignity, the cloud no colour, and that the snowy summits of the Alps receive no loveliness from the sunset light, because they have not been polluted by the wrath, ravage, and misery of men. (4.71)
But the position which Ruskin here dismisses so contemptuously is approximately that which he chose a few years after writing this passage. When The Seven Lamps of Architecture appeared in 1848, two years after the second volume of Modern Painters, it contained a description of a beautiful scene in the Jura which reveals a changed attitude toward the importance of man and the importance of Rational Association in the beautiful. After Ruskin has described his "mountain symphonies" in spring, he continues:
It would be difficult to conceive a scene less dependent upon any other interest than that of its own secluded and serious beauty; but the writer well remembers the sudden blankness and chill which were cast upon it when he endeavoured, in order more strictly to arrive at the sources of its impressiveness, to imagine it, for a moment, a scene in some aboriginal forest of the New Continent. The flowers in an instant lost their light, the river its music; the hills became oppressively desolate; a heaviness in the boughs of the darkened forest showed how much of their former power had been dependent upon a life which was not theirs, how much of the glory of the imperishable, or continually renewed, creation is reflected from things more precious in their memories than it, in its renewing. Those ever springing flowers and ever flowing streams had been dyed by the deep colours of human endurance, valour, and virtue; and the crests of the sable hills that rose against the evening sky received a deeper worship, because their far shadows fell eastward over the iron walls of Joux and the four-square keep of Granson. (8.223-224)
The contempt for man which appears in the second volume of Modern Painters is replaced in The Seven Lamps of Architecture by praise which, if it does not put man at the center of all things, does at least make the beauty of all things dependent upon his presence. Moreover, Ruskin now appears to believe that historical associations can create beauty, something which he had earlier denied. The difference of subject and purpose in these two works explains their different attitudes toward man and toward historical association. In Modern Painters, Volume II, Ruskin wants to demonstrate that beauty is essential to the health of the human spirit. This purpose is related to the fact that if he can demonstrate this, he will have shown that the painting and poetry which create, portray, and interpret this beauty are also important. In order to prove that beauty is essential to man, he relates the beautiful to religion and morality, to principles which are permanent, unchanging, and greater than man. Hence he cannot allow historical associations, the associations of man, to determine the nature of beauty. On the other hand, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, which is concerned with an art that shelters human life, relates beauty not to principles above man but to man himself. This new emphasis allows Ruskin to accept Associationism; but although the new theme may permit him to derive beauty from historical associations, his reason for doing so is that it aids his criticism of contemporary architecture. Ruskin finds the homes and public buildings of his England constructed without style, without regard to permanence and without meaning for the men who inhabit them. Since he wishes to correct these deficiencies, he places great emphasis upon historical associations, whose presence, he says, will insure both that an edifice influence the life of the inhabitant and that it be solidly constructed — this latter because if a building is to endure long enough for historical associations to accrue, then it must be well made.
Although it is clear that Ruskin places new importance on historical associations in The Seven Lamps of Architecture, it is not certain that he believed that these associations create beauty. The chapter "The Lamp of Beauty" reaffirms his belief in the aesthetic theories of Modern Painters; but while he clearly maintains the major tenets of his earlier books, it is difficult to determine whether he has truly modified the details of his position, as he appears to have done. In most cases there is not much evidence as to Ruskin's exact aesthetic beliefs after Modern Painters, Volume II. Although the notes added to the 1883 edition of Modern Painters qualify his theories of beauty long after the fact, he never presented a new aesthetic system, and thus, in order to follow the development of Ruskin's aesthetics, it is necessary to consult evidence external to Modern Painters, much of which is inconclusive. But in this particular case we are fortunate that entries in Ruskin's diaries confirm the apparent acceptance of Associationism that appears in his work on architecture. The first sign of Ruskin's changed attitude appears in his entry for 19 April 1846: "I felt it more than usual, but it struck me suddenly how utterly different the impression of such a scene would be, if it were in a strange land and in one without history. How dear to the feeling is the pine of Switzerland compared to that of Canada! I have allowed too little weight to these deep sympathies" (I, 325). A year after the publication of The Seven Lamps of Architecture Ruskin returned once again to his beloved Switzerland and noted his reactions: "I repeated 'I am in Switzerland' over and over again, till the name brought back the true group of associations — and I felt I had a soul, like my boy's soul, once again. I have not insisted enough on this source of all great contemplative art" II, 381). Although Ruskin is here writing of personal, possibly accidental associations, his new emphasis would seem to demonstrate a general acceptance of association, and this later acceptance of Associationism in turn shows that Ruskin was not consistently able to oppose Alison's aesthetic theories. Despite his desire for a tidy, coherent, and convincing aesthetic system, Ruskin apparently modified his earlier statements about the relationship of association and beauty.
But his opposition to Alison's theory, however inconsistent, and his opposition to other aesthetic theories reveal aspects of his own conceptions of the beautiful. First of all, Ruskin believed that beauty is disinterested, and thus cannot be affected by considerations of utility; secondly, that it has an objective and unchanging reality, and thus cannot be importantly affected either by local custom or by association. Furthermore, Ruskin's opposition to the idea that beauty is dependent upon use, custom, and association reveals the extent to which he not only was acquainted with eighteenth-century writings but also considered them to have a major relevance to himself and his contemporaries.
The final and perhaps most important thing that Ruskin's attempt to confute these aesthetic positions can tell us is that despite his early assurance he could create a conception of the beautiful which was independent of subjective elements, this was to be impossible. After denying the validity of the four "erring" positions, he proceeded to propose his own bifurcated aesthetics, of which one part — Typical Beauty — is symbolic of the order that is the nature of God, and the second — Vital Beauty — is created by moral order, the ordinance of God. But when Ruskin lost his religious faith in 1858 he also lost the basis of these theories of beauty; and convinced that he had to turn his energies toward improving life on this earth (he no longer believed in a future life), he increasingly centered his writing on the needs of man. This focus on man, which begins to emerge in the section "On the Nature of Gothic" in The Stones of Venice (1853) and which evolves into the humanism of the last volume of Modern Painters (1860) and the political economy of Unto This Last (1860), first appears in Ruskin's difficulties with a theory of beauty that does not depend on the human element of association.
Last modified 25 July 2005