Ruskin revolted against the materialism of the eighteenth century. Poetry had become mere polished verse, life mere polished existence. High morals were not cared for. Prophets came in the nineteenth century. The poetic utterances of Wordsworth and Coleridge created a congenial atmosphere in the ethical sense. And upon these like supporting atillery, followed the writings of Carlyle and Ruskin to arouse a new awakening in the mind of the public.Ruskin linked art and life with morality. He emerged as a great moralist both in the realm of art and in the various spheres of the society.
Like Plato, Ruskin adopted the moralistic attitude towards fine arts. Plato would banish from his Republic all poets who art not edifying; his test of good music is its effect upon the moral character. Ruskin carried the idea still further, making the arts an exponent of the social and political virtues of a nation and of the writers them-selves. This reciprocity of art and morals in the State was not a new discovery. It had been discussed by other writers before 1850-Hume, Burke, Reynolds, Kant, Ballanche, Chateaubriand and Carlyle. But Ruskin made the idea so peculiarly his own that in
, at least, it is always associated with him. Ruskin expresses his views in the Stones of Venice and in Lectures on Art. It is true that the efflorescence of art seems always to accompany corruption in society, but this may be because the evil is a challenge which brings out the good. It does not alter the fact that art comes from goodness. England
Ruskin never swerved from the belief that no great art was ever created by a bad man. Within limits, the theory needs little argument, but when be applies it to individuals, Ruskin is inclined to carry his ideas too far. This is more obvious in the application of the theory to painting and architecture than in its relation to literature, for a great literary work is usually the product of one man whose life is well known: whereas it is difficult to generalise on the lives of all those who contribute to the building of a Gothic Cathedral. Literature, in general, supports the theory that there is a correspondence between moral elevation and imaginative work. Good art, Ruskin says, is balanced, reserved, constructive, inventive, complete. pure and lovely as opposed to the unsymmetrical, intemperate, unconstructive, unimaginative, incomplete, sensual and undelightful and it requires little demonstration to show that each of these attaches itself to a quality of the soul which produces them all. The best artist is one who exhibits most of these qualities. Ruskin draws from this theory various inferences as to the elements of character necessary for the production of true formative art. These are, first, brightness of physical life and the manly virtues belonging to it, then the broad scope of reflection and purpose; then the distinctive gift of imagination, together with the innocent perception of beauty and to crown all, the perfect peace of an honest and living faith. Finally, Ruskin works out the relationship between the artist and the ethical state of his age. The finest artists live entirely within their own age. In it, they find their characters and their themes. Thus all the qualities of the artist will be rendered useless if the condition of persons and things around them is degraded. It is only in a nation, unselfish and generous, seeking truth, loving goodness and hating falsehood that the artist will find the subject necessary to make him great.
Ruskin applied the same principles of art to his social and economic theories. If people were not moral, all materialistic progress was useless. What was the good of opulence when it produced corruption ? Social peace could be established when the relations between employers and workers were good. Equitable distribution of wealth is the key to all social and economic ills and so he remarks in Unto This Last : “Political economy (the economy of a state or of citizens) consists simply in the production, preservation and distribution at fittest time and place of useful or pleasurable things.” He emphasises the moral approach to all things in The Crown of Wild Olive :
“That the wealth of nations, as of men, consists in substance, not in ciphers !”
In his lecture on Traffic in The Crown of Wild Olive he exhorts people to give up Mammon-worship because it is detrimental to art, science and pleasure :
“Continue to make that forbidden duty your principal one and soon no more art, no more science, no more pleasure will be possible. Catastrophe will come or worse than catastrophe, slow mouldeing and withering into Hades. But if you can fix some conception of a true human state of life to be striven for—life for all men as for yourselves—if you can determine some honest and simple order of existence; following these trodden ways of wisdom which are pleasantness and seeking her quiet and withdrawn paths, which are peace ;—then, and so sanctifying wealth into “commonwealth,” all your art, your literature, daily labours, your domestic affection, and citizen’s duty, will join and increase into one magnificent harmony.”
After the publication of the last volume of Modern Painters in 1860, Ruskin appeared in a new role—as a writer on political economy and social reform. At first sight, there may seem very little connection between such subjects and Art, but to Ruskin the connection was natural and even vital. He lived at a time when the rise of modern industrialism with its, factories, its mines, railroads and its keen competition for wealth was ravaging the beauty of the English countryside, polluting the sky with smoke and the rivers with refuse. The old order was changing, giving place to new and Ruskin’s artist-soul was torn by the indifference of the wealthy classes and degradation of the toiling multitudes. He saw clearly enough that beautiful pictures, buildings, sculpture and even beautiful clothes, household utensils and furniture are neither produced nor enjoyed by a people, wholly devoted to the gospel of getting on, people whose minds are debased by the contemplation of sordid squalor on the one hand and tasteless luxury on the other. His energies from this time onwards were largely directed to the working out of his social theories. To this self-appointed task, he brought all the forces of what the great Mazzini declared to be “the most analytical mind in
His first step was to attack current ideas on wealth and wages and he showed successfully that money is not wealth and that it is bad policy (even from money point of view) to reduce half the population of a country to a state of virtual slavery. He exposed the folly of thinking that so long as man works, it does not matter what he works at and he maintained that since man is not made to live by bread alone, all lively things are also necessary. The happiness of men is determined not by the amount of money they possess, but by the kind of things they enjoy and their opportunities for enjoying them. No country can afford to ignore the divine command to deal justly and to love and have mercy, since the only true wealth is life—life at its fullest and happiest for the greatest number of people. Ruskin imagines that the time would come when
would discard wealth and would pay all attention to the finest bringing up of her children : England
“Nay, in some far-away and yet undreamt-of hour, I can even imagine that England may cast all thoughts of possessive wealth back to the barbaric nations among whom they first arose ; and that, while the sands of the Indus and adamant of Golconda may yet stiffen the housings of the charger, and flash from the turban of the slave, she, as a Christian mother, may at last attain to the virtues and the treasures of a Heathen one, and be able to lead her Sons, saying––
“These are my Jewels.”
––Unto This Last.
Ruskin’s moral vein pervades even such topics as war. He exhorts soldiers to achieve honour in life :
“First, then, by industry you must fulfil your vow to your country; but all industry and earnestness will be useless unless they are consecrated by your resolution to be in all things, men of honour; not honour in the commonsense only but in the highest.”
—The Crown of Wild Olive.
It is on account of this moral obsession that he is making frequent uses of Biblical expressions. In the lecture on Work, he uses nearly sixty texts of scripture. It is this constant prepossession for the Biblical phrases or allusions which is responsible for the moral earnestness and prophetic fervour of Ruskin.