Monday, March 20, 2006

Week 08, Mill, Ruskin, and Arnold

Notes on John Stuart Mill’s “What is Poetry?”

1045. Mill starts with the standard view that “the object of poetry is confessedly to act upon the emotions,” as an initial statement to be refined into a more supple, accurate explanation. That, he says, is the way genuine philosophy deals with the categories of popular thought.

1046-47. Mill is careful to distinguish sharply between narrative or “story” and poetry. The former, he says, is essentially descriptive; it gives “a true picture of life” when it’s done well, and appeals most strongly to children and primitive people. Poetry, by contrast, aims “to paint the human soul truly.” This is true, he writes on 1047, even of descriptive poetry, which gives us landscapes and so forth “seen through the medium and arrayed in the colors of the imagination set in action by the feelings.” The language Mill employs is mimetic—poetry represents something, but it represents something inward: the movements of the human mind, or the play of deep emotions.

1048-49. But more refinement is needed in defining the nature of poetry, and Mill achieves it by distinguishing poetry from oratorical eloquence. It’s well and good for Ebenezer Elliott to says that poetry is “impassioned truth” or for the Blackwood’s writer to characterize it as “man’s thoughts tinged by his feelings” (1048), but that only goes so far. Why might not a great speech be described in exactly the same way? Mill’s point is that a speech is designed first and foremost to be heard, while poetry is overheard. Poets are talking to themselves: “What we have said to ourselves we may tell to others afterwards . . . . But no trace of consciousness that any eyes are upon us must be visible in the work itself” (1048). This way of talking about poetry resembles Wordsworth’s theory in his “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads, 1802, where he describes poetry as the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, recollected in tranquility.” That is, poetic composition is a species of meditation, with its primary subject being the emotions of the person doing the meditating. Mill is so taken with his distinction between oratory and poetry that he applies it to music: there is the outward-tending, “garrulous passion” of a Gioacchino Rossini, and there is the brooding, sometimes stormy, introspective “poetry” of the romantic composer Beethoven. (Mill mentions Mozart in the same sentence as Beethoven, but I would describe the effect of Mozart’s music rather differently than he does.) In contrast with his distinction between story and poetry, however, Mill’s differentiation between poetry and eloquence is hardly a slight to either mode. After all, some of Rossini’s work is supremely beautiful: “grief, taking the form of a prayer or of a complaint, becomes oratorical” (1049), and in this light he mentions some of that composer’s best work.

1050-51. Sculpture, too, says Mill, has its oratory (sculptures made “for the purpose of voluntary communication”) and its poetry, wherein the maker works as if “unconscious of being seen.” Finally, Mill employs this distinction to make a value judgment, at least with respect to historical painting, a popular variety of painting in England in Mill’s time: “Who would not prefer one ‘Virgin and Child’ of Raphael to all the pictures which Rubens, with his fat, frouzy Dutch Venuses, ever painted? (1051) Why so? Because, says Mill, Raphael the Renaissance artist’s single figures are intensely poetical and therefore worth looking at in their own right, while Rubens’ individuals are made to subserve the needs of the particular grouping in which they are found. When it comes to historical painting proper, the problem is more pronounced, says Mill, and in some cases the enterprise degenerates into “corrupted eloquence.”

Notes on John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty


In On Liberty, Mill asks the fundamental questions of social and political science: 1) what is human nature? 2) how can we best educate and develop it? 3) what is the ideal society? 4) who can lead us towards this ideal state of affairs? He proposes a model of development, so he must specify the agent that will change things as they now stand. What forces are repressing liberty and impeding progress today? That’s the question of the hour.

1051-52. Mill quotes Wilhelm von Humboldt on human nature: “the end of man, or that which is prescribed by the eternal or immutable dictates of reason, and not suggested by vague and transient desires, is the highest and most harmonious development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole....” This is a reformulation or modification of Greek and Renaissance ideals about self-development. It is not a formulation that Dickens’ rigid utilitarian Mr. Gradgrind in Hard Times would understand. Mill continues, “Nobody denies that people should be so taught and trained in youth, as to know and benefit by the ascertained results of human experience. But it is the privilege and proper condition of a human being, arrived at the maturity of his faculties, to use and interpret experience in his own way.” Mill of course favors education, but insists upon specificity with regard to the goal towards which the educator should strive. Ultimately, he wants balance in all things, and education is a central way to achieve that goal.

1052. Mill seems to agree with John Milton’s claim in “Areopagitica” that “reason is but choosing.” He says, “The human faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference are exercised only in making a choice. He who does anything because it is the custom makes no choice.” Custom is the enemy of genuine individualism. Again, “He who lets the world... choose his plan of life for him has no need of any other faculty than the apelike one of imitation.” To what extent, we might ask, would Mill countenance the consumer model of bourgeois liberalism? It seems clear that he challenges this model, whereby we link our sense of self to material objects, and mistake the accumulation of owned objects for true progress, and reduce originality to mere imitation and “fashion.” (On the paradox of all things and places fashionable, it’s hard to beat Yogi Berra’s comment about some gathering place, “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.”)

1053. Mill insists that “Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.” As he said just above, a perfect society built by automatons would not be a good thing. Humanity is constituted by potential that requires experience to realize and actualize itself. This basic romantic principle cuts against liberal economics, and certainly opposes the atomistic and mechanical conception of human nature we find in Jeremy Bentham.

1053-54. As for our emotional side, Mill writes as follows: “Yet desires and impulses are as much a part of a perfect human being, as beliefs and restraints: and strong impulses are only perilous when not properly balanced... It is not because men’s desires are strong that they act ill; it is because their consciences are weak.” Mill demands the same freedom and exercise for impulses and desires that William Blake does. He is all in favor of “energy,” but with the addition of a need for balance. Mill defines the word character as belonging to a “person whose desires and impulses are his own.” He refers—probably consciously—to Thomas Carlyle’s phrase “steam engine universe.” Then he goes on to criticize Carlyle rather directly, if politely: “In some early states of society, these forces might be, and were, too much ahead of the power which society then possessed of disciplining and controlling them. There has been a time when the element of spontaneity and individuality was in excess... To overcome this difficulty, law and discipline... asserted a power over the whole man... But society has now fairly got the better of individuality; and the danger which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency, of personal impulses and preferences.” Therefore, Carlyle’s feudalism is anachronistic and cannot supply the needed pattern for contemporary life—it proposes to deal with inauthenticity by imposing an anachronism on everyone.

1054. “In our times, from the highest class of society down to the lowest, everyone lives as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship. Not only in what concerns others, but in what concerns only themselves, the individual or the family do not ask themselves—what do I prefer?... They ask themselves, what is suitable to my position? What is usually done by persons of my station and pecuniary circumstances? Or (worse still) what is usually done by persons of the station and circumstances superior to mine? I do not mean that they choose what is customary, in preference to what suits their own inclination. It does not occur to them to have any inclination, except for what is customary.” Middle-class conformity is the enemy—the same bourgeois attitude against which Carlyle takes aim. But the idea is that this middle-class has come by a much more radical and effective means of control—not violent repression but the persistent and forced internalization of socially acceptable thoughts, until it is no longer necessary to think at all. So much for romantic interiority. Mill continues with his critique of Carlyle, saying that such conformism is only acceptable on the “Calvinistic theory.” In that theology, “the one great offense of man is self-will.” So Calvin stands in for Carlyle here—Mill’s criticism is largely against Carlyle’s social vision in Past and Present.

1055. According to Mill, “‘Pagan self-assertion’ is one of the elements of human worth, as well as ‘Christian self-denial.’ There is a Greek ideal of self-development.” This kind of statement seems to flow from Mill’s understanding of Goethe—a modern kinsman of the classical humanists. Pericles is the ideal—full development of all the person’s faculties, all human potential. Mill says that “In proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others.” His social theory argues that richer “units” will lead to a richer mass of people. This brand of individualism takes account of larger social needs, so while Mill is not a collectivist like Carlyle, he by no means ignores “the many.” Furthermore, writes Mill, “To be held to rigid rules of justice for the sake of others develops the feelings and capacities which have the good of others for their object. But to be restrained in things not affecting their good, by their mere displeasure, develops nothing valuable, except such force of character as may unfold itself in resisting the restraint.” Mill opposes the excess of restraint for social conformity, though he recognizes that such restraint is a powerful force to be reckoned with. The need to resist unnecessary constraints, Mill would agree with Sigmund Freud, accounts for a lot of misdirected individual and social energy. Of course, it’s true that since Mill promotes self-culture in England’s capitalist economic and social milieu, his theory is more or less bound to be taken as one idea among others in the marketplace of ideas. That is a very difficult problem to resolve, and one that Oscar Wilde summed up brilliantly in his quip, “A truth ceases to be true when more than one person believes in it.” The quest for genuine originality and authenticity is rather easily commodified and broken into an endless series of poses.

1056-58. Custom, insists Mill, turns us into machines: “Persons of genius…are always likely to be, a small minority; but in order to have them, it is necessary to preserve the soil in which they grow. Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom” (1056). Genius is something that Mill insists upon “emphatically”; it requires freedom and variety as its atmosphere, while the middle-class’ public sphere thrives on middling intellects, on comfortable mediocrity (1057). This is hardly an argument invoking the potential of “mass culture,” and it differentiates Mill strongly from Carlyle, who shows little interest in the concept of genius—his heroic ideal isn’t about genius but about the worship of force and personal charisma or energy. On 1058, Mill says that he will have none of Carlyle’s hero-worship; all the eminent thinker may claim is “freedom to point out the way.” Mill is more genuinely indebted to the romantic authors he has been reading. Well, fashion is one major challenge to this organic model of genius and development. Fashion links individual expression to an ever-recyclable system of objects—generating a sense of self that stems from endless repetition and consumption. We identify with an image of ourselves, and take all necessary (economic) steps to conform to that image, but the image keeps giving way to another one. This model of the self mechanizes and harnesses the old romantic “problem of desire,” stripping it of its link to organic theory, to three-dimensional humanistic conceptions of human nature. Mill is concerned about the broad social forces bearing down upon us all—public opinion is like fashion, only in ideas. There is much inventiveness in fashion, inventiveness in “retailoring” what is out to make it in again. Carlyle responds against flunkeyist “fashionism” on its own terms, and thinks that his Clothes Philosophy provides a “recycling” alternative to flunkeyism, but how accurate is that faith?

1059-60. “The spirit of improvement is not always a spirit of liberty, for it may aim at forcing improvements on an unwilling people; and the spirit of liberty, in so far as it resists such attempts, may ally itself locally and temporarily with the opponents of improvement…The progressive principle, however, in either shape…is antagonistic to the sway of Custom. . .” (1059). Mill doesn’t see liberty and improvement as necessarily opposed. The enlightened person should always be aiming to improve. The important thing is to oppose complacency. In his book, The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy, C. B. MacPherson points out that there is nothing inherently developmental about bourgeois liberal democracy. The accumulation of objects is not development, and so liberal democracy all too easily betrays its foundations in Whig gentility, whereby society is something like a gentlemen’s agreement to let progress take its slow course towards the spiritual and intellectual betterment of all. Materialist capitalism annuls this kind of “slow time” in favor of perpetual immediacy. Mill’s borrowings from the romantics may commit him to the infinite deferral of improvement, and to a tacit cultural elitism. I should end by mentioning once more the system of self-object identification inherent in fashion-based consumer culture, and suggest that perhaps we need not stress Mill’s concept of “genius” and “character” (admirable though they are) so much as insist that we must think our own thoughts even as we are subjected to others’. This is something like Greek strength as a model of resistance and progress, and I would have to admit that it largely cedes the possibility of rapid and massive changes in the social order. But that seems unlikely anytime soon. My point is that rejection of consumer culture may not be very convincing or effective. Probably the best you can achieve is inflection with a balanced sense of self as the goal. But it’s fair to say that Mill sees democracy as something people need to work at, not as an already perfect system. That is a point in his favor.

Notes on John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women


1063-64. In general, Mill’s position agrees with that of George Eliot and other notable feminist authors such as Mary Wollstonecraft before him and, say, Simone de Beauvoir or Betty Friedan long after him. Mill decries the hypocrisy involved in a progressive age’s ignoring the “woman question.” Why have there been so many reforms, and yet women are still treated as second-class citizens? We see the same emphasis on the bad faith and selfishness men show when they educate women, or rather fail to educate them. As Mill writes, because men have long wanted more than mere obedience from women, the latter have been “brought up from the very earliest years in the belief that their ideal of character is the very opposite to that of men; not self-will, and government by self-control, but submission, and yielding to the control of others” (1063). In a few words, they are expected to live not for themselves but for men. That’s the way men have schooled or conditioned women to regard themselves: the best way to get people to conform is not by physical brutality; it’s much easier for the masters if their servants internalize the most convenient definition of themselves and the rules they’re supposed to obey. But as Mill points out, modern times run against this kind of conformism: “human beings are no longer born to their place in life . . . but are free to employ their faculties, and such favourable chances as offer, to achieve the lot which may appear to them most desirable” (1064).

1065-67. With so much social and economic mobility in Victoria’s England, why are women still chained within an archaic notion of marriage? Marriage should imply mental equality, not servitude. Let competition decide what the future status of females will be. Mill rejects outright the notion that the alleged “nature of women” is anything but an artificial construction of men’s making: “I deny that any one knows, or can know, the nature of the two sexes, as long as they have only been seen in their present relation to one another” (1065). Furthermore, he writes, “Of all the difficulties which impede the progress of thought, and the formation of well-grounded opinions on life and social arrangements, the greatest is now the unspeakable ignorance and inattention of mankind in respect to the influences which form human character” (1066). The whole affair of defining the qualities of gender takes on the cast of a badly conducted scientific experiment, with the observers’ biases, desires, and expectations contaminating the results from the outset, and no hope at all for an objective assessment of any differences there may be between men and women. Mill deserves full credit for making such a bold assertion nearly 150 years ago, when it must have been an affront to the sensibilities of a great many men. He points out, by way of elaboration on 1067, that the only woman with whom most men have any real acquaintance is their own wives: hardly a large enough “statistical sample” from which to make generalizations about women in general.

1069. As a utilitarian philosopher, Mill is (in most of his writing, at least) partial to the ideology of the market, with its law of competition working to satisfy human needs and desires, and he puts this terminology to good use in favor of women’s freedom of opportunity: What they can do, but not so well as the men who are their competitors, competition suffices to exclude them from; since nobody asks for protective duties and bounties in favour of women; it is only asked that the present bounties and protective duties in favour of men should be recalled. If women have a greater natural inclination for some things than for others, there is no need of laws or social inculcation to make the majority of them do the former in preference to the latter. Whatever women’s services are most wanted for, the free play of competition will hold out the strongest inducements to them to undertake.” So are women most suited to be wives and mothers? Well, says Mill, you’d certainly think so, to hear men talk. But how should they know? Like Wollstonecraft, Eliot, and Fuller, Mill believes that marriage should be a reciprocal undertaking governed by genuine conversation; he argues that submission and false gender-definitions deprive both partners any chance to achieve this. All in all, Mill believes he has history on his side, and he is willing to challenge a powerful mid-Victorian consensus about the nature, limitations, and value of women. His wife Harriet Taylor surely had much to do with the strength of his stance: by all accounts, he treated his wife with tremendous regard, not as a servant or a sheltered “angel of the house,” to borrow a phrase from the famous poem by Coventry Patmore.

Notes on John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography


1071. “From the winter of 1821, when I first read Bentham, and especially from the commencement of the Westminster Review, I had what might truly be called an object in life; to be a reformer of the world. My conception of my own happiness was entirely identified with this object.” In the beginning, Mill pursued a vague, general object—reform, the happiness of others. In the midst of his depression, the following question occurs to him: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And of course the answer is no. The negation here is similar to the effect of Carlyle’s steam-engine universe rolling through Dr. Teufelsdröckh’s inner being. Mill says that he had nothing left to live for when he heard his own version of the “Everlasting No,” and he must have felt that he had lived as an automaton. His foundation for personal happiness was only an abstraction; it was what Francis Bacon would call a philosophical cobweb, and what anyone not in the thrall of Benthamism might well consider a utopian vision based on a mechanical view of human nature.

1072. “My course of study had led me to believe that all mental and moral feelings and qualities, whether of a good or of a bad kind, were the results of association; that we love one thing, and hate another... through the clinging of pleasurable or painful ideas to those things, from the effect of education or of experience.” James Mill had taught his son that the goal of education was “to form the strongest possible associations of the salutary class; associations of pleasure with all things beneficial to the great whole, and of pain with all things hurtful to it.” James Mill followed a scientific model of the individual, and utilitarian education presupposes that character develops along the lines of mechanical association. If you identify your personal happiness with the general good, the idea goes, so long as you are working towards the general good you will be happy. But this plan leads to nothing better than middle-class conformity. It is not the way lasting human connections are made, and instead requires a shallow, flattened notion of human happiness and individuality.

1073. “Analytic habits may thus even strengthen the associations between causes and effects, means and ends, but tend altogether to weaken those which are, to speak familiarly, a mere matter of feeling.” It was not so much what Mill read but how he was taught to read it. The word “analysis” can mean “freeing up” the object of study, but that is not usually how we understand the term. The ordinary understanding is closer to the one Wordsworth condemns—”We murder to dissect.” The young John Stuart Mill seems to have been a victim of what T. S. Eliot (in an essay on the metaphysical poets) calls “dissociation of sensibility.” Helping others is not a bad object, but you must first determine the grounds of human connection—they are organic, not mechanical. You cannot superimpose upon the natural passions a scientific utopian scheme and expect anything but misery to result.

1074. “I was reading, accidentally, Marmontel’s Mémoires, and came to the passage which relates his father’s death, the distressed position of the family, and the sudden inspiration by which he, then a mere boy, felt and made them feel that he would be everything to them....” Spontaneous emotion proves to be the key to Mill’s recovery. He describes a Wordsworthian moment in the form of an accidental encounter with a literary text, an autobiographical text written by Marmontel. This accidental encounter escapes Bentham’s and James Mill’s scheme concerning the formation of salutary associations. So the example is a rebuke of straightforward Benthamite utilitarianism—the young Marmontel made a key emotional bond with others, forgetting himself for the moment. What we find described is not a mechanical “I ought” but a genuine outpouring of sympathy. Mill says that after reading this passage, he never again reached the depths of depression he formerly experienced.

1074-75. “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it...” happiness is still important here, but it is not to be directly pursued. The point is to stop analyzing happiness and start working on something you find meaningful for its own sake. It is best not to think of everything you say and do in light of ultimate purposes or end-states of consciousness. Mill has learned to ask Walter Pater’s question—”what is this activity or thing or person to me?” It is not good enough to pursue some abstract notion of the general good and to claim that you are achieving an equally abstract kind of happiness by doing so; the activity must be meaningful to you personally prior to the attachment of any such abstract notion. Mill has not rejected the idea that happiness flows from activity, but it makes all the difference in the world whether that activity is do-gooding or intrinsically and intimately valuable to the individual pursuing it. For example, if I have an inclination to tinker with computers, building them from scratch and solving whatever problems come up as I do so, I may by such means become happy, at least for a while. The same goes for things like reading a Jane Austen novel—you don’t sit down to read thinking, “my goal in reading this book is to be happy.” If you did, you would become morbidly prone to checking your emotional state every other sentence to register your level of happiness or unhappiness. This kind of obsession resembles both heavy Puritan examination of the state of one’s soul and the associational theory of happiness promoted by Mill’s father and his tutor Jeremy Bentham. It is best to allow your consciousness to be directed towards an object other than your own interior states.

This is profoundly good advice, but if we want to criticize it, we might say that it is an evasion of romantic troubles concerning the problem of desire. It is this problem that caused Carlyle to reject happiness altogether in favor of self-annihilation leading to meaningfulness, awe, and collective belonging. Don’t we invariably reflect back upon our states of consciousness, whether we mean to or not? And if we cannot avoid doing so, the kind of happiness Mill describes will not satisfy us for long—human beings even get tired of being happy after a while. In any case, on the same page Mill emphasizes the need for balancing the sway of our faculties. Feelings and intellection are both important: “I had now learnt by experience that the passive susceptibilities needed to be cultivated as well as the active capacities... The maintenance of a due balance among the faculties now seemed to me of primary importance.” A many-sided personality needs many-sided experiences to develop and be free. Feeling is not mechanical, not associational. The self is not an isolated atom but rather an organic construct. Happiness comes from pursuing intrinsically meaningful activities and from allowing “passive susceptibilities” to operate freely. By this term, I believe Mill means self-culture, the patient development of our individual potential until we achieve a balanced, harmonious sense of who we are and what we are about.

Further reflection: Mill is right to say that if you have to ask whether you’re happy, you won’t be happy for long or perhaps even at all. But saying this doesn’t mean we won’t do it: isn’t it almost impossible not to assess your experiences even as you undergo them? Ideally, I suppose, we would be able to shut off the flow of annoying self-consciousness-tending thoughts. That’s what most meditative techniques seem to be designed to help us do. Imagine walking along a beautiful, deserted beach—the ideal would be just to let nature draw you outside of yourself, all your self-consciousness evaporating with the salt spray and disappearing into the wet sand, the sound of the ocean replacing your thoughts. But something always brings us back to ourselves: that’s the romantic dilemma, and I don’t see that there’s anything but the briefest respite from it. Even so, Mill is surely right that obsessing about your own happiness right here and now is destructive and counter-productive. Happiness isn’t a permanent condition, and it evaporates when you try to treat it as a solid. “Meaningfulness” is perhaps less fleeting, but even that isn’t exactly guaranteed. Buddhists seem wise in their praise of self-surrender: shut down the self to the extent of time and the degree possible, and the world opens up to you: they’re after clarity, sharp awareness without the constant burden of self-referentiality and personal concern. As the Hindu god Krishna would say, redefine the little-s self to embrace the big-s Self, and quit trying to own the consequences of your actions. I think Mill the reformer has come round to that very insight: he still thinks it’s good to help other people, but not simply to make himself a happier man while he’s doing it. That kind of philanthropy is essentially selfish: as Jesus says, “whosoever will save his life shall lose it” (Luke 9:24, King James Bible).

1076. Mill reiterates the point he made earlier about basic utilitarianism’s unbalanced, mechanical view of human nature—simply rendering people “free and in a state of physical comfort” and removing all hardships from life really would not make a community happy. Then he goes on to discuss Wordsworth’s significance for him: “This state of my thoughts and feelings made the fact of my reading Wordsworth for the first time (in the autumn of 1828), an important event in my life.”

1077. “What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought colored by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connection with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind.” Wordsworth teaches John Stuart Mill the true sources of happiness, and shows him the value of contemplation, of “wise passiveness” as a corrective for the analytic habit, which in modern times has reached the level of an obsession. And since Mill supposes there are a great many people out there like him, Wordsworth need not be considered the greatest of all England’s poets to be the poet modern English readers stand most in need of reading. Mill says that without having yet read Carlyle, he adopted the anti-self-consciousness philosophy. And of course he literally “closes his Byron” and opens his Wordsworth. So Wordsworth is his Goethe, the man who makes it possible to see that intellect and emotion can co-exist in a balanced individual, one capable of both self-cultivation and genuine desire to reform the world. Wordsworth’s view of human nature is holistic, not at all one-sided as later authors sometimes claim: he has nothing against action, but understands that unless it’s carried out by full human beings, it won’t achieve what it should. At least, that’s how the practical Mill reads him.

Ruskin’s Stones of Venice, “The Nature of Gothic.”

The Renaissance in Venice should serve as a warning to the British Empire: just as that sea empire fell because of its debased pursuit of wealth and soulless perfection, so will England if it continues on its current path.

Ruskin is a prophetic Sage-writer who alternately threatens damnation and promises redemption.

Gothic architecture expresses the workers’ mental tendencies. “Fallen” but humble laborers built cathedrals. The products of their labor served as expressive offerings to god and dwelling places for him as well as gathering places for the faithful who are the invisible Church, spiritual community. So this is labor directed towards the achievement of spiritual community.

Renaissance authors and critics such as Vasari condemned the Gothic as naïve and crude, stern and contemptible. But wildness is to be honored if it expresses spiritual striving. The fool sees not the same Church as the wise man sees, we might say after the manner of Blake. The Renaissance critics couldn’t see spiritual ramifications of labor; they gave in to the lust and over-refinement of the eye, which is to become blind.

Renaissance pride in perfection, then, is selfish—their buildings are not offerings to god but monuments to the architects’ and patrons’ egos. The Renaissance amounts to a Second Fall that tries to overcome by science and technological perfection the effects of the First Fall. Venice the sea-empire fell because of its pridefulness and greedy commercialism. England, too is promoting sensualism, mechanism, false individualism cut off from relation to God. It puts its hopes not in the New Jerusalem but in a false Capitalist Utopia.

Servile Ornament: worker is slave performing to low standards.

Constitutional Ornament: medieval worker free; imperfect striving in labor honors God.

Revolutionary Ornament: Pride reigns in Renaissance art: workers must all be experts in minor tasks. Modern version of this is industrial division of labor—bead-makers, etc. The English seek Greek perfection by means of machinery; this necessarily tends towards Renaissance revolutionary debasement. Important to say tends because there’s still time to repent.

Christianity values the individual soul; imperfect labor is an admission of one’s fallen condition, and valuing it shows right-minded criticism and a pure eye for expressions of spiritual striving. It shows that one’s priorities are straight: spirit before material perfection.

Perfect work is limited, and it indicates complacency. The flaws in a fine, imperfect thing link it to infinity. This is similar to romanticism and Christian theology: a fragment is greater than the limited, finite whole because fragment indicates striving and progress upward. Man is a fragment of the Divine. Ruskin as a Christian emphasizes not Byronic attempt at self-transcendence but humility. Acknowledge your imperfections and express yourself through the medium of that imperfection. This is humility towards God.

The body and the works of the body are finite; art/architecture are of value only insofar as they express the soul’s striving to break free, while still accepting that it cannot entirely do so. Mention Hegelian hierarchy of art, with music highest because most free of matter.

Clouds: reference to Turner. Clouds at once veil and bear the sun’s divine radiance. The worker’s failure, his limits (clouds), show his spiritual value. Clouds of any sort must be read, understood as semi-translucent markers of boundary between finite and infinite.

Class and hierarchy are not, for R, the cause of chaos and Mammonism. Neither even is distribution of wealth. The problem is lack of satisfaction in grossly material work in the service of a grossly materialistic society. Similar to Marx on alienation, dehumanization.

R says division of labor is division of human beings. R is not interested in accumulation or scientific progress; he largely rejects the whole Baconian empirical view of science as a handmaiden to humble amelioration of the human condition.

Social solution is to encourage invention, not finish or imitation. Our attitude towards consumption must change; supply will adapt itself to more spiritualized demands on the part of consumers. Example: glass bead manufacture is slavery / opposed to imperfect Venetian glass.

Work is the main human activity and source of value. Work must acknowledge imperfection; allow for expression of worker’s spirit, striving to please God. Work is an offering, a sacrifice, the law of fallen life.

It took a healthier society to make Venetian glass. The way glass is made shows how a society is functioning, what its priorities are. Venetian artisan infused his work with imagination; the modern worker is one tool among others. Thought and labor should not be separated, or else unhealthy class divisions become entrenched, antagonism rather than communal spirit animating noble hierarchy. Refer to Adam Smith on division of labor applying even to intellection.

Foxglove / Human Nature: Always passing from one state to another. Read typologically: law of fallen life is change, imperfection, striving. Christian teleology of the figure: decay > bud > bloom. Humans are always oriented towards the spiritual future. One’s works are “blooms,” indicators of healthy spiritual progress. The foxglove is an imperfect-seeming, rude plant that nevertheless is prized for its beauty.

No human work is perfect to god’s eyes. The effort, the attitude of the offering, elicits mercy. Recall the Cain/Abel story. Work must be imperfect to acknowledge that the human condition is imperfect.

Ruskin’s stress on imperfection / incompleteness is a critique of capitalist utopia and Marxist utopia alike. He favors REDUNDANCY (a law of his style, too) against philosophies of production and material abundance. Not accumulation of money but accumulation of detail (organized or not) is the goal. “There is no wealth but life.”

Architecture is a romantic expressive poem for an entire people. The Gothic is the product of “the average power of man.” Gothic’s changefulness expresses one truth about humankind: desire of change; it’s what supposedly sets us beyond animal nature. Imperfection is the other truth. Humans are spiritual, restless, incomplete.

Ruskin’s tradition is romantic expressivism—see Shelley’s “To a Skylark” and theory of poetic creation, which itself traces its notions back to biblical expressivism: work as expressive of spirit, an offering to god. R is almost utilitarian, oddly, in his emphasis on an economy of redundancy and richness: at least, the aim is pleasure.

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