In the last of the five volumes of Modern Painters, published in 1860, seventeen years after the project began, John Ruskin proclaims what he calls ‘the Law of Help’. He has been talking about composition in painting – about the way the individual parts of a picture contribute to the whole – and he then goes on to affirm such collaboration as the ruling principle of nature itself:

[I]n a plant, the taking away of any one part ... injure[s] the rest. Hurt or remove any portion of the sap, bark, or pith, the rest is injured. If any part enters into a state in which it no more assists the rest, and has thus become “helpless”, we call it “dead”.

The power which causes the several portions of the plant to help each other, we call life. Much more is this so in an animal (7.205).1

And of course (he goes on) still more so in humans. He goes so far as to retranslate the old Anglo-Saxon word ‘holy’ as ‘helpful’, so that God becomes ‘the Helpful One’ (7.208). This discussion completed, he then announces his ‘Law’:

A pure or holy state of anything, therefore, is that in which all its parts are helpful or consistent. They may or may not be homogeneous. The highest or organic purities are composed of many elements in an entirely helpful way. The highest and first law of the universe – and the other name of life is, therefore, “help”. The other name of death is “separation”. Government and co-operation are in all things and eternally the Laws of Life. Anarchy and competition, eternally and in all things, the Laws of Death. [7.207]

The first readers of Modern Painters V seem not to have realised or anticipated that this was, in effect, Ruskin’s signing off as primarily a writer on art. Six months later, he was to publish the first of the ‘Four Essays on Political Economy’ he called Unto This Last. This new and unexpected book is both the fiercest and the most cogently argued of all Victorian attacks on free-market capitalism. In the third of the essays, Ruskin deliberately links his new book with the project of Modern Painters by quoting the very passage I have given: ‘Government and co-operation are in all things the Laws of Life; Anarchy and competition the Laws of Death’ (17.75)2 – and he supports it in his conclusion with the dictum: ‘THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE’. [17.105]

The year 2010 saw the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Unto This Last, serialised in 1860.3 The social ethics of the book had been foreshadowed in Ruskin’s work, most notably in ‘The Nature of Gothic’, the central chapter of The Stones of Venice (1853). But this sudden shift from art and nature to economics and society – or perhaps I should say this tracing of the same law through all four categories – cannot have been unrelated to the most famous publication of the previous year: Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species; Or – if I may remind the reader of the subtitle – The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, which first appeared in 1859. It is the subtitle that locates Darwin’s book in the period of its publication, suggesting the necessity of capitalism to the formulation of its argument. It will be my purpose in this paper to separate the title from the subtitle, so to speak, and to suggest that Ruskin’s notorious aversion to Darwinism derives from an objection not so much to a theory of organic development as to the assumptions that made this particular theory possible and the assumptions it then inspired. That is partly to say that there was a social element in Ruskin’s aversion: that it was more an objection to that element in Darwin that derived from the political economist T.R. Malthus, whose book An Essay on the Principle of Population (revised edition, 1803) had so radical an effect on Victorian society and social attitudes, than to (say) his parallel debt to Sir Charles Lyell, the first volume of whose book The Principles of Geology (1830) had accompanied him on the voyage of the Beagle. (Ruskin’s apparent admiration for Lyell, a Uniformitarian rather than an Evolutionist, is something that emerges from his private correspondence. In his published writings he kept a politic silence.) At the same time, he could never have regarded the question of origins as purely a social matter. When he records the passion he felt as a boy of 15 on his first sight of the Alps, he notes that before the Romantic age, ‘no child could have been born to care for mountains, or for the men who lived among them, in that way’ (35:115). Any theory of the universe, for Ruskin, had to combine the love of humanity with the love of nature, both of them informed with the indivisible love of God.

Ruskin was not alone among Victorian intellectuals in having religious convictions that baulked at the theory of Natural Selection. Not only was he brought up as a scriptural Protestant, but he was taught at Oxford by William Buckland of The Bridgewater Treatises and became personally attached to him. Buckland, as one of Ruskin’s biographers puts it, ‘combined benevolent Christianity with an unparalleled scientific curiosity’.4 For Ruskin as a writer on art, the whole point of painting lay in the tribute it paid to the loving work of God as the artist read it in nature: as he insisted, ‘ALL GREAT ART IS PRAISE’ (15.351). He believed as firmly as Buckland did that the beauties of nature were created by God for our pleasure and instruction, and much of Modern Painters is concerned with the relation of God’s art to human art. The question that has to be asked, however, is how Ruskin understood natural beauty. Did he understand natural forms to be stable and unchanging? Was the world we live in now identical to the world that came into being when, in the words of the Psalmist, God’s ‘hands prepared the dry land’?5 Are such words as the Psalmist’s, moreover, to be taken literally? And even if they are, can they be understood in any way as the word of God? Ruskin provides no answer to many of these questions, but we do know that by the year of The Origin of Species, he had lost that Evangelical trust in the objective truth of the Bible, and his fascinated study of Alpine glaciers suggests that he knew perfectly well how the face of the earth had altered in the course of uncountable ages. In the previous year, he had been ‘unconverted’, as he tells us in Fors Clavigera, and had adopted ‘the Religion of Humanity’ (29.89, 88n); and yet, remaining profoundly Christian in outlook, he was poised in a sort of spiritual limbo. His understanding of nature continued to include a concept of co-operation. As his eccentric dialogue on geology The Ethics of the Dust (1866) suggests, he understood the relation of one mineral to an adjacent one as a matter of neighbourliness, and in Modern Painters V, the volume which includes ‘the Law of Help’, he writes of the leaves on a tree, first of all, as a society – he initially draws a comparison with bees – and then more specifically as a family:

[E]very branch has others to meet or to cross, sharing with them, in various advantage, what shade, or sun, or rain is to be had. Hence every single leaf-cluster presents the general aspect of a little family, entirely at unity among themselves, but obliged to get their living by various shifts, concessions, and infringements of the family rules, in order not to invade the privileges of other people in their neighbourhood. [7.48]

I quote this almost at random from the section of the book entitled ‘Of Leaf Beauty’, which includes a closeness of botanical attention comparable to Darwin’s and yet throughout its length draws on such social comparisons. What emerges is a process of collaborative creation in nature, comparable to the account he gives in ‘The Nature of Gothic’ of medieval building, each individual self contributing to the greater whole.6

What is more, the conception of human creativity in ‘The Nature of Gothic’ is modelled on an evolutionary paradigm. God may have created a perfect world in the beginning, but human beings – as an effect of the Fall– are imperfect, and our imperfection, in Ruskin’s view, is our glory. Imperfection, he says,

is in some sort essential to all that we know of life. It is the sign of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of progress and change. Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent. ... All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be Effort, and the law of human judgment, Mercy (10.203-04).

This explains the paradox that ‘no architecture can be truly noble which is not imperfect’ (10.202); being ourselves imperfect, we are enabled to reach out for perfection, if never to attain it.7

This argument is never concerned exclusively with architecture. As he makes clear in the passage I have quoted and as his analogies with natural forms confirm, it is an argument about life itself. Moreover, certain of the plates in The Stones of Venice demonstrate how, in the practice of art and architecture, decorative forms evolve, the arrangement of the images on the page reminding one of diagrams in scientific textbooks.8 Ruskin the geologist is at work here, as the very phrase ‘the stones of Venice’ suggests, but it is botanical diagrams that are called to mind in Plate XX of Volume 2, ‘Leafage of the Venetian Capitals’, where the subject is foliate growth (10.431). Plate XIV, ‘The Orders of Venetian Arches’, is indisputably evolutionary. In thirty-seven diagrammatic images it shows how the simple, slightly elongated round arch of Byzantine origin develops into what Ruskin calls the Transitional style and how the Transitional, becoming increasingly sophisticated, evolves into the Gothic, and how the Gothic arch acquires the oriental profile so typical of Venice, gradually mutating into the refined and elaborate ogival arch of the fifteenth-century palaces (10.290). For anyone interested in Darwin, the plate and others like it may call to mind the array of barnacles in Plate 1, ‘Balanus Tintinnabulum’, of his Monograph on the Sub-class Cirripaedia (1854), published five years before The Origin.

But to return to ‘The Nature of Gothic’, which predates his ‘unconversion’ by five years: Ruskin’s insistence on human imperfection is inseparable from his conviction that humanity is essentially social, each individual a part of the larger body. This is not an argument for servile conformity; on the contrary, it emphasises ‘the individual value of every soul’ (10.190), each artisan contributing from the uniqueness of his imagination to a great and glorious social artefact. That distinctiveness of the individual human is for Ruskin the grandest fact of life, but it is also characteristic of creation as a whole. The leaves on a single tree are recognisably leaves of the same kind but none of them is identical to the others and, far from being a cause of conflict, their distinctness is ground of their needful co-operation: their helpfulness. There is no doubt that Ruskin saw society as in effect an extended family; by implication, he also saw nature as a kind of society. This is perhaps to say that his theories of nature and society were as closely intertwined as Darwin’s but that the social assumptions he made were strikingly different. Nevertheless, in his emphasis on unique and various development, Ruskin is essentially in agreement with Darwin. It was something that Darwin liked in Ruskin the man, delighting in ‘the keenness of [his] observation and the variety of [his] scientific attainment’ (36.553n). For strange though it may seem – given the vehemence of Ruskin’s attacks on Darwin – the two men palpably enjoyed one another’s company.

In a different intellectual climate Ruskin and Darwin might have become friends. They first met in 1837 when Darwin, just back from the voyage of the Beagle, read a paper to the Geological Society in London.9 Darwin was 28, Ruskin, a student at Christ Church, Oxford (watercolor by Ruskin), only 17 – extraordinarily young to be hobnobbing, as he was, with the likes of Lyell and Adam Sedgwick, but then Ruskin’s first professional publications had been essays on Alpine geology contributed nearly three years earlier to the Magazine of Natural History. Unfortunately we do not know what he made of Darwin’s paper, but he was clearly pleased when, later that year, he met Darwin again at one of Buckland’s celebrated ‘breakfasts’. After the meal, we learn from one of Ruskin’s letters, they ‘got together and talked all evening’ (36:14).

Thirty years passed before they met again, this time under the auspices of Ruskin’s friend, Charles Eliot Norton, in 1868. By this time they were both famous, and Ruskin was on public record as an opponent of Natural Selection. They were nonethelesskeen to meet and were to do so again on subsequent occasions. ‘Ruskin’s gracious courtesy,’ Norton reported, ‘was matched by Darwin’s charming and genial simplicity’, and he noticed how ‘their animated talk afforded striking illustration of the many sympathies that underlay the divergence of their points of view, and of their methods of thought’ (36.553n).

The fierceness of Ruskin’s comments on Darwin and the warmth of their intercourse are surely related. His attacks are of a piece with those on the painter J.M. Whistler for courting abstraction, the atomisation of nature (29.160), and on Charles Dickens for his obsession with urban death in Bleak House (34.271-73).10 On meeting Ruskin in 1869, Henry James remarked that he seemed to have ‘been scared back by the grim face of reality’.11 I would prefer to call it the face of modernity. His problem with Darwinism was that, belonging to the same tradition as Darwin, he grasped its implications all too well. Darwin was pointing out a road that Ruskin had no wish to travel down. In the things he loved most – the flowers, the creatures, the clouds and the mountains – he could see nothing but the struggle for survival, the outcome of which could only be, as in Bleak House, senseless, degrading death.

Yet Ruskin understood perfectly well – and understood it before he lost his religious faith – that simple Creationism would not do. He was acquainted with the geological literature that had helped to shape Darwin’s theory. His famous statement of 1851 that he could hear the clinking hammers of the geologists ‘at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses’ (36.115) is sufficient evidence that he had grasped the implications of, for instance, Lyell’s Principles of Geology, even if like Lyell he saw no need to follow the argument as far as a theory of Evolution. He was also familiar with a range of materialist science – from Lamarck through Cuvier to Agassiz – which, though hardly to be understood as leading to Natural Selection, is nonetheless part of the intellectual atmosphere in which Darwin’s theory was born. Even Buckland, though a committed Catastrophist, had drawn attention to the difficulties of strict Creationism. Though he had sought to reconcile modern geology with the Biblical accounts of Creation and the Flood, he inadvertently and perhaps inevitably exposed the inherent problems and was forced to recognise that science and religion speak different languages. It was not just a matter of the seven days of Creation, easily understood as standing for seven eras, but, more troublingly, of such matters as the extinction of species. For these were evidence that creatures had died and even killed one another before the arrival of man and Original Sin, which (as Christian theology had always argued) ‘Brought death into the world and all our woe’. Ruskin’s fiercely Evangelical mother – by no means an anti-intellectual, it should be said – was of the view that Buckland might have been wiser to ‘let the Bible alone’.12Modern Painters IV, the volume in which he discusses the ‘materials’ of Creation which the artist must learn to depict. There he seems to dismiss the sort of problem that Buckland had notably raised: ‘What space of time was in reality occupied by the “day” of Genesis,’ he writes, ‘is not, at present, of any importance for us to consider’ (6.16), as if the question were one that had never troubled him. Later on in the same book, discussing ‘The Firmament’, he quotes from the Psalms: ‘He bowed the heavens also, and came down; he made darkness pavilions round about him, dark waters, and thick clouds of the skies’,13 and he comments as follows:

By accepting the words in their simple sense, we are thus led to apprehend the immediate presence of the Deity, and His purpose of manifesting Himself as near us whenever the storm-cloud stoops upon its course; while by our vague and inaccurate acceptance of the words we remove the idea of His presence far from us, into a region which we can neither see nor know; and gradually, from the close realisation of a living God who ‘maketh the clouds his chariot’ we refine and explain ourselves into a dim and distant suspicion of an inactive God, inhabiting inconceivable places, and fading into the multitudinous formalisms of the Laws of Nature. [6.110]

Elsewhere in the same volume he relishes such concretions of the Psalmist’s as the sentence quoted above: ‘His hands prepared the dry land’.14 Such statements would appear to belong to the same tradition of Creationist or Catastrophist argument as those pursued by Buckland. But are they in fact? It is clear that he repudiates the deistic implications of Paleyan natural theology – ‘the multitudinous formalisms of the laws of Nature’ – but is at the same time repelled by the tendency of liberal Christianity to symbolise the biblical narrative out of existence. It was the latter that finally put him out of sympathy with his ally in social policy, F.D. Maurice, and crucially separates him, even in his humanist phase, from the likes of Matthew Arnold – you cannot imagine him ever defining God as ‘a stream of tendency by which all things seek to fulfil the law of their being’ or ‘the enduring power, not ourselves, which makes for righteousness’.15 Yet he is also insisting that Biblical language is not to be understood in a literal way. His objection is to the translation of that language into different terms and, in this, Ruskin’s Christianity is far more radical than that of the liberals and might be thought to look towards a modern kind of religion.

One of Ruskin’s most distinguished admirers in the early twentieth century was W.R. Inge (1860-1954), Dean of St Paul’s, controversialist and author of a great many books on the mystical and Neo-Platonic traditions in Christianity. Inge is an extremely interesting writer, who seems – rather like Ruskin himself in the mid twentieth century – to have drifted from the cultural centrality he deserves. He argued for a Christianity based on his ‘growing conviction that spiritual things are spiritually discerned, and spiritually proved.’ A faith of this kind, he wrote in 1926, ‘need not be afraid of scientific progress’, for the field of science is distinct from that of the spirit.16 Though there can be no doubt that scientific progress terrified Ruskin, it is significant that Inge could include him in his modern version of Neo-Platonism and see him as one of the great religious thinkers of modern times. In the passage from Modern Painters IV I have just quoted Ruskin is suggesting that the accounts of Creation in Genesis or the Psalms or the Book of Proverbs are written in the language of myth, and that the language of myth is distinct from the language of science. As far back as 1843 when he wrote his Letters to a College Friend to Edward Clayton (1.399-502), Ruskin had recognised that the Bible could no longer be regarded as literally the word of God, and in 1867, in his post-Evangelical phase, he examined the matter systematically in one of the letters of Time and Tide (17.347-51). He would not have had to go much further to have been able to see a more or less Darwinian view of things as not intrinsically at odds with Christianity, for he had clearly come to recognise that Biblical language – for much of the time, the language of myth – makes no attempt to describe the actual processes of nature. There were some for whom this did not seem a problem. It was the view that Tennyson arrived at – admittedly with difficulty – in his elegy In Memoriam. It was Charles Kingsley’s view, arrived at with much less difficulty – indeed with a certain enthusiasm. And it was powerfully endorsed by the Revd. Stewart Headlam, founder of the Guild of St. Matthew, who said in a sermon of 1879:

Thank God that the scientific men have ... shattered the idol of an infallible book, broken the fetters of a supposed divine code of rules; for so they have helped reveal Jesus Christ in his majesty. ... He, we say, is the Word of God; he is inspiring you, encouraging you, strengthening you in your scientific studies; he is the wisdom in Lyell or in Darwin....

It gives us far grander notions of God to think of him making the world by his Spirit through the ages, than to think of him making it in a few days.17

Headlam’s Guild of St Matthew is a movement in the Anglican Church which combines the Ritualist practices of Anglo-Catholicism with radical Socialism. In its reading of the social gospel and in the high value it sets on aesthetic and, by implication, natural beauty, it was deeply affected by Ruskin. But it was not a movement that Ruskin could have endorsed. Deep familial prejudices against Anglo-Catholicism, which in the days of Pusey and Keble had been politically conservative, made Ruskin as resistant to its liturgical attractions as he was to liberal theology. It would have been tarred for him with two brushes: that of Newman on the one hand and that of Maurice on the other. This is a way of saying that Ruskin in his later years, ‘scared back by the grim face of reality’ and unable to recapture the certainties of his childhood, was none the less resistant to any offer of a path into the future.

And yet he made such offers to himself from time to time. Though in Modern Painters IV he may sound like a literalist, he is very far from being one. What he appears to be saying is that the further we move from the mythical language of the Bible, the more likely we are to lose the sense of a divine Creator. But that is not to accept that the earth was in fact created in the way the Bible describes it. That process must have been in some sense of the word – not necessarily Darwin’s – evolutionary. What the Biblical language does is remind us of the mystery – the starkly physical mystery – that science may describe but cannot explain. To know what happened at the Big Bang is not to know why it happened. The laws of nature, whether rationally explained by a Deist like the Natural Theologian William Paley or abstracted away by a liberal like Matthew Arnold, can never account for the beauty of a flower. As Gerard Manley Hopkins noted of a bluebell: ‘I know the beauty of our Lord by it.’ That is something Ruskin could easily have assented to.18

So, for Ruskin, the language of science and the language of myth appeared to be at odds. In Letter 5 of Fors Clavigera, written in 1871, Ruskin writes of a friend who has been attending some lectures on botany (27.82-85). From these lectures she has learnt, to her amazement, that there are ‘only seven sorts of leaves’, and then that the petals of a flower are really leaves as well. And finally: ‘my friend told me that the lecturer said, “the object of his lectures would be entirely accomplished if he could convince his hearers that there was no such thing as a flower”.’ Ruskin responds with amused irony to each of these announcements, they being so contrary to his sense – as they would have been to Darwin’s, I suspect – of the richness and variety of Creation, but at the last statement he explodes:

[I]n that sentence you have the most perfect and admirable summary given you of the general temper and purposes of modern science. It gives lectures on Botany, of which the object is to show that there is no such thing as a flower; on Humanity, to show that there is no such thing as a Man; and on Theology, to show that there is no such thing as a God. No such thing as a Man, but only a Mechanism; no such thing as a God, but only a series of forces. The two faiths are essentially one...

One sees quite clearly here how one thing leads to another. It is not the recognition of the plant as something that changes as it grows that Ruskin objects to, but the reduction of all that variety and beauty to a series of fewer and fewer categories and so, by a chain of cause and effect, of man to a blind and aimless mechanism. He goes on, indeed, to affirm the essential truth of this metamorphic view of nature:

Some fifty years ago the poet Goethe discovered that all the parts of plants had a kind of common nature, and would change into one another. Now this was a true discovery, and a notable one...In a certain sense, therefore, you see the lecturer was right. There are no such things as Flowers – there are only – gladdened leaves.

This is a passage of such grandeur that it is impossible to do justice to it in so brief an essay as this. The reader will easily gather, though, the direction it is moving in. The lecturer was at one and the same time both right – as we have just seen – and

in the deepest sense of all ... to the extremity of wrongness, wrong. For leaf, and root, and fruit exist, all of them, only – that there may be flowers. He disregarded the life and passion of the creature, which were its essence...

Now in exactly the sense that modern Science declares that there is no such thing as a Flower, it has declared there is no such thing as a Man, but only a transitional form of Ascidians and apes. It may, or may not be true – it is not of the smallest consequence whether it be or not. The real fact is, that, rightly seen with human eyes, there is nothing else but man; that all animals and things beside him are only made that they may change into him; that the world truly exists only in the presence of Man, acts only in the passion of Man.

I cannot pursue every one of the passage’s implications. I merely note in passing that, in the course of it, Ruskin acknowledges not only that the different parts of plants have a common nature but that human beings may be descended from apes. The process does not matter, he says – wrongly, we may think, to the extremity of wrongness. What does matter, though, is that there should be a moral consciousness – a portion of divinity – to witness the beauty and variety of things.


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Last modified 6 January 2012