Prophet of the Human-Built World: An Introduction to John Ruskin
Prophet of the Human-Built World: An Introduction to John Ruskin

Prophet of the Human-Built World: An Introduction to John Ruskin

Linking our prayers and our purchases, our art and our labour.

Appears in Spring 2019


The Victorian sage John Ruskin (1819–1900) was a titanic figure in his own lifetime, and has not been wholly forgotten. But he is perhaps best remembered today for the bizarre incoherence of his romantic life, and especially for his unconsummated marriage to Effie Gray, which has been the subject of books, television and radio programs, and movies. Does he still matter? I argue that he does, because he is the deepest inquirer I know into the ways that human making shapes and is shaped by the material conditions of human lives, and how the relationship between that making and those conditions has enormous consequences for the spiritual lives of human beings.

Whatever the state of his belief or disbelief at any given time—and his faith commitments were inconsistent—Ruskin’s thought was always intensely religious, especially in some of the older senses of that term: I think especially of the Latin religio, which is a settled disposition that manifests itself in acts of homage and devotion. This truth has, I think, been established beyond reasonable doubt by Michael Wheeler in his superb book Ruskin’s God (2006), which shows how thoroughly biblical Ruskin’s imagination was even in what he himself called his “deconverted” years, and demonstrates especially his debts to the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible.

But I think what Wheeler and other commentators on Ruskin have not quite recognized is this: The essential task of Ruskin’s life was the prophetic discernment of the right and wrong, the healthy and unhealthy, forms of human making, which for him was the most essential kind of human labour. Ruskin always thinks theologically, and what he most consistently thinks theologically about is what Thomas Hughes calls the “human-built world,” which comprises both what we usually call technology and what we usually call art. Ruskin’s exploration of how humans respond to the given world through making, when properly understood, reveals him as a kind of predecessor to twentieth-century figures like the German philosopher Martin Heidegger—but with a warmth and a passion and an eloquence that set him quite apart from the notoriously inscrutable Heidegger.

The essential task of Ruskin’s life was the prophetic discernment of the right and wrong, the healthy and unhealthy, forms of human making, which for him was the most essential kind of human labour.

Though Ruskin hated most of the increasingly industrial age through which he lived, he always sought to understand rather than merely denounce it, and his interpretations of that period in history seem to me to have an equally great or even greater application to our post-industrial but ever-more-technocratic moment. And since for Ruskin interpretation always had to eventuate in action—the act of drawing, or writing, or teaching, or organizing, or prophesying—the best initial approach to Ruskin might be through a narrative of his life.

Reflection on Ruskin’s long and strange career suggests a division into three stages.

In the initial stage, Ruskin is born into a committed evangelical Christian family and raised in an environment saturated in Scripture. (Late in life he wrote, “My mother had, as she afterwards told me, solemnly ‘devoted me to God’ before I was born; in imitation of Hannah,” the mother of the prophet Samuel.) That he was a gifted child was obvious early on, though it was not clear how he might best direct his abilities. But he was always a sensitive and articulate observer of his surroundings, and possessed of—he would later be inclined to think, afflicted by—a powerful memory. Through his childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, he gradually came into a powerful intellectual inheritance, and if he was not inclined to meet his mother’s expectation that he become a clergyman, the enthusiasm with which his shared his parents’ interests in art and Continental travel, as well as their Christian commitments, was gratifying to them. 

Distinctive to Ruskin is the combination of an exceptionally acute aesthetic sense with an exceptionally acute moral sense. In a fascinating and characteristic passage from his early book The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Ruskin cannot help admiring the beauty of some trompe-l’oeil work by Correggio, but he is so deeply opposed to deception in art that he wishes he could reject it altogether:

It being lawful to paint then, is it lawful to paint everything? So long as the painting is confessed—yes; but if, even in the slightest degree, the sense of it be lost, and the thing painted be supposed real—no. . . . In the Camera di Correggio of San Lodovico at Parma, the trellises of vine shadow the walls, as if with an actual arbor; and the troops of children, peeping through the oval openings, luscious in color and faint in light, may well be expected every instant to break through, or hide behind the covert. The grace of their attitudes, and the evident greatness of the whole work, mark that it is painting, and barely redeem it from the charge of falsehood; but even so saved, it is utterly unworthy to take a place among noble or legitimate architectural decoration.

Ruskin is almost in an agony here, torn between love of Correggio’s artistic power and loathing of its courting of “falsehood.” His attempt to keep these complexly interacting forces in balance—to do justice to his aesthetic, moral, and religious commitments—was immensely stressful, and it was perhaps inevitable that at some point something would have to give way. And all of these aesthetic and religious experiences were for Ruskin fantastically intertwined with his tormented and disastrous erotic life, first his unconsummated marriage to Effie Gray and later his unconsummated passion for a young girl named Rose la Touche—about whom more in due course.

The political economy of Britain had to be altered so that the conditions of labour could be improved so that the arts could be renewed so that persons could thrive once more.

The second major stage of his career may be said to begin in 1858, when Ruskin was visiting Turin and, having been depressed by a boring and stupid sermon, saw Veronese’s painting of King Solomon and the queen of Sheba. He was utterly overwhelmed by the sensual immediacy of the work, which seemed to him far more obviously true than the spectral doctrines of the Christianity whose hold on him had been gradually (though insensibly) loosening. He experienced what he later called his “deconversion,” and this lasted for nearly twenty years. This was the period of Ruskin as political economist—though, thanks to his incapacity to separate the forces that most of us find it convenient to separate, his thoughts about political economy were always connected to his aesthetic convictions and even (though in a new and often subterranean way) to his deep and detailed knowledge of the biblical call to justice.

The major product of this period of Ruskin’s life was the collection of monthly pamphlets known as Fors Clavigera. Ruskin thought of these pamphlets as open letters: the full title of the project was Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain. After decades of work as a historian and critic of art and architecture, Ruskin had come to believe that (1) the arts of his own age were, generally speaking, far less excellent than they should be; (2) that those deficiencies were inevitable by-products of a corrupt system of political economy that promoted profit for the industrialist above all and so enforced impersonal efficiency and productivity over the flourishing of makers and craftsmen; and (3) that, therefore, a critique of political economy must be articulated before anything else. The political economy of Britain had to be altered so that the conditions of labour could be improved so that the arts could be renewed so that persons could thrive once more. Thus Ruskin’s first major exercise in this endeavour was a series of 1857 lectures published as The Political Economy of Art.

Several of Ruskin’s books started as lectures. Nineteenth-century England was devoted to public lectures and readings—audiences were often huge—and Ruskin found it helpful to work to an inflexible deadline and then, later, flesh out certain points at greater length for print. But Fors was a new and different thing for him. By the time he began it, in 1872, he had come to believe that the condition of England, with so much and ever-increasing wealth standing side by side with the most appalling poverty, could not be addressed by him through the occasional lectures or books, but by an ongoing project: a continuous prophetic engagement accompanied by practical efforts to ameliorate the condition of the poor. “For my own part,” he wrote at the outset of the project,

I will put up with this state of things, passively, not an hour longer. I am not an unselfish person, nor an Evangelical one; I have no particular pleasure in doing good; neither do I dislike doing it so much as to expect to be rewarded for it in another world. But I simply cannot paint, nor read, nor look at minerals, nor do anything else that I like, and the very light of the morning sky, when there is any—which is seldom, now-a-days, near London—has become hateful to me, because of the misery that I know of, and see signs of, where I know it not, which no imagination can interpret too bitterly.

What, then, to do?

I must clear myself from all sense of responsibility for the material distress around me, by explaining to you, once for all, in the shortest English I can, what I know of its causes; by pointing out to you some of the methods by which it might be relieved; and by setting aside regularly some small percentage of my income, to assist, as one of yourselves, in what one and all we shall have to do; each of us laying by something, according to our means, for the common service; and having amongst us, at last, be it ever so small, a National Store instead of a National Debt. Store which, once securely founded, will fast increase, provided only you take the pains to understand, and have perseverance to maintain, the elementary principles of Human Economy, which have, of late, not only been lost sight of, but wilfully and formally entombed under pyramids of falsehood.

In order to have a secure place for his financial contribution, Ruskin started a charitable organization called St. George’s Company, later (and to this day) called the Guild of St. George; and for the teaching and explaining part of his program, he began publishing these letters.

In the end he published them monthly, mostly, for over a decade—there are ninety-six of them in all. And as he went along the style became more and more loose, casual, associative, even chaotic. He called this the third of his “ways of writing”—after the elaborate, poetic discourse of his early writing and the more businesslike expository approach that succeeded it—a style in which he simply wrote whatever came into his head and then later on gave it some measure of grammatical coherence. It is a style especially suited to his topic, because what he wanted to show, throughout the letters, was the complex set of ways in which the natural world, human perception, the human desire to make beautiful and useful things, and our social and political systems all interact with one another. Here is a passage that I have chosen at random from the first volume of the collected letters:

In old times, under the pure baronial power, things used, as I told you, to be differently managed by us. We were, all of us, in some sense barons; and paid ourselves for fighting. We had no pocket pistols, nor Woolwich Infants—nothing but bows and spears, good horses (I hear after two-thirds of our existing barons have ruined their youth in horse-racing, and a good many of them their fortunes also, we are now in irremediable want of horses for our cavalry), and bright armour. Its brightness, observe, was an essential matter with us. Last autumn I saw, even in modern England, something bright; low sunshine at six o’clock of an October morning, glancing down a long bank of fern covered with hoar frost, in Yewdale, at the head of Coniston Water. I noted it as more beautiful than anything I had ever seen, to my remembrance, in gladness and infinitude of light. Now, Scott uses this very image to describe the look of the chain-mail of a soldier in one of these free companies;—Le Balafre, Quentin Durward’s uncle:—“The archer’s gorget, arm-pieces, and gauntlets were of the finest steel, curiously inlaid with silver, and his hauberk, or shirt of mail, was as clear and bright as the frost-work of a winter morning upon fern or briar.” And Sir John Hawkwood’s men, of whose proceedings in Italy I have now to give you some account, were named throughout Italy, as I told you in my first letter, the White Company of English, “Societas alba Anglicorum,” or generally, the Great White Company, merely from the splendour of their arms. They crossed the Alps in 1361, and immediately caused a curious change in the Italian language.

(The Woolwich Infant was a mighty cannon of which the celebrants of British power were perhaps inordinately proud.) Notice how Ruskin swerves from history to the observation of nature to his memories of his literary reading and then back to history. This kind of free association of ideas is very characteristic of Fors.

The tracing of this essentially biblical vision through the long, winding road of these letters is essential to understanding Ruskin’s career.

Ruskin received many letters in response to each issue of Fors, and, because of his stature in English society, received a good deal of commentary in newspapers and other periodicals as well. Ruskin simply incorporated these responses, and his reflections on them, into later issues of Fors. So gradually the series became less of a monologue and more of a rich, complex, polyphonic conversation.

Fors was a marvel in its own time, as important a literary-cultural-political project as any produced in the second half of the nineteenth century, but it is little known today. To some degree that is because of its intrinsic topicality, its sensitive responsiveness to the issues of its own day; but I think a more important reason for its neglect is its combination of massiveness (hundreds and hundreds of thousands of words) and unexcerptability—you simply can’t get the feel of it without reading each letter in full.

It is also a work that, though driven by his “deconversion,” his passionate commitment to social change deriving from an inability any longer to believe in a Christ who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, nevertheless continually echoes the language of the Hebrew prophets and offers a kind of extended typological reading of the prophetic literature. The tracing of this essentially biblical vision through the long, winding road of these letters is essential to understanding Ruskin’s career.

And now for the third stage of Ruskin’s career. He returned to some kind of faith only in 1876, when in the midst of writing Fors, but this was accompanied by a deterioration in his mental condition that eventually led to bouts of complete insanity, so his thinking of the time, while deeply embedded in biblical texts and images, is rarely fruitful. It was at this point that Ruskin began to think of his preternaturally retentive memory as a kind of curse. Even as a young man he had perceived his ability, and tendency, to see symbolic meanings in everything as a “dangerous plaything”; but when his return to faith, as he neared old age, was accompanied by a kind of compulsive myth-weaving out of every symbol, every text, every image that occurred to him, he began to see it as worse than dangerous. “I have sometimes wondered,” he wrote to his doctor, “whether the peculiar habit of some persons who are for ever striving to find a resemblance, or fancy they do, between what they see and something quite different . . . can be a variation in a mild form of this disease”—“this disease” being the mania he was then experiencing. “My books always open, perhaps ten times during the day, at passages which strike back into the line of thought, no matter how apparently foreign to it the book may have been,—Punch, or Dante is all the same, they are sure to open like Sortes”—that is, the sortes scriptura, the practice of opening the Bible at random and taking whatever verse one’s finger lands on as a definitive word straight from God.

In the intervals between his attacks of mania, Ruskin could see that he was misinterpreting, overinterpreting, unable to refrain from seeing everything as connected to everything else by an invisible thread of Meaning. But when the mania descended he could perceive only that the secret history of the world had been revealed to him by God, as a reward, perhaps, for his return to Christian faith. There is no doubt that the particular form of this mania was deeply connected with his grief over the death, at age twenty-seven, of Rose la Touche, whom he had hoped to marry. (He had met Rose when he was thirty-nine and she was nine, and fell in love with her at some point in her teenage years.) To a friend who suspected that he had succumbed to overwork, Ruskin wrote, “Mere overwork or worry might have soon ended me, but it would not have driven me crazy. I went crazy about St. Ursula and the other saints,—chiefly young-lady saints.” And even when he knew that he had indeed gone crazy, he never shook the suspicion that there really was some revelation from God waiting for him, if only he could read it accurately, with discrimination and discernment. In one of his last books he wrote of the story of St. Ursula that it had become, “as I grow older, one of those deepest mysteries of life, which I only can hope to have explained to me when my task of interpretation is ended.” Perhaps in the last decade of his life, which he spent largely in silence and apparent brokenness, certain things became clear to him. If so, he did not or could not share the knowledge.


A strange and troubled man, to put the point as mildly as possible. Ruskin himself felt that his erotic disasters were at the root of his suffering: in a letter he wrote in his seventieth year he cried, “It is terrible for any creature of my temper to have no wife—one cannot but go mad.” But somewhat earlier he had also commented, “If I had been a woman, I never should have loved the kind of person that I am.” Yet, without dismissing either Ruskin’s suffering or his ability to account for himself, I want to suggest that the causes of his distress are more complex, and social as much as psychological.

This was Ruskin’s passion from the beginning of his career to its end, and not only because to live in that integrated way is good for us, but also because it is good for those who come after us.

In a famous essay published two decades after Ruskin’s death, T. S. Eliot wrote that “the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary,” but “when a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience.” The ordinary person “falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.” The great quest of Ruskin’s life was to amalgamate disparate experience: not to allow the various aspects of life to sit separate with one another, as though our prayers have nothing to do with our purchases, or our arts from our labour, but rather to bring all of them together into a healthy, vibrant symbiosis. This was Ruskin’s passion from the beginning of his career to its end, and not only because to live in that integrated way is good for us, but also because it is good for those who come after us.

In a remarkable passage from his early book The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Ruskin makes the provocative assertion that the very furnishings of an honourable person’s home are of lasting value:

There is a sanctity in a good man’s house which cannot be renewed in every tenement that rises on its ruins: and I believe that good men would generally feel this; and that having spent their lives happily and honorably, they would be grieved at the close of them to think that the place of their earthly abode, which had seen, and seemed almost to sympathise in all their honor, their gladness, or their suffering,—that this, with all the record it bare of them, and all of material things that they had loved and ruled over, and set the stamp of themselves upon—was to be swept away, as soon as there was room made for them in the grave; that no respect was to be shown to it, no affection felt for it, no good to be drawn from it by their children; that though there was a monument in the church, there was no warm monument in the heart and house to them; that all that they ever treasured was despised, and the places that had sheltered and comforted them were dragged down to the dust.

Ruskin is imagining virtuous persons whose virtues extend to their property—to the kinds of houses they build and the things they put in them, their “goods and chattels”—but he knows that such persons are indeed more imagined than real. “I say that if men lived like men indeed, their houses would be temples—temples which we should hardly dare to injure, and in which it would make us holy to be permitted to live”; and if we knew that our children might honour us in this way, it would be absurd to see “each man . . . build to himself, and build for the little revolution of his own life only.” What would the world be like, Ruskin muses, what would our ordinary daily experiences be like, if people strove to integrate their moral and religious commitments with their buying decisions, and did so in the hope that the very objects they left to their descendants would help those descendants love those same moral and religious commitments. Whether we would have it so or not, the things we make are reliable tokens of what we believe, because what we make declares our character in the same way that “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1 KJV).

This great truth is hidden from us by the fragmenting character of modern life, its constant pressure for us to consider each of our experiences in isolation from all the others, so that what we think and do and pray can never be “forming new wholes.” Ruskin sought always to fight against this powerful centripetal force, but during the years of his “deconversion” fought with inadequate tools, because for a time, for too long, he forgot something that at the outset of his career he understood: “God has lent us the earth for our life; it is a great entail.”

In English law an “entailed” estate is one that is inherited with conditions, the most typical and important one being that the estate cannot be sold. The one who inherits it must care for it until his or her death, at which point it passes to the next heir. Ruskin shows us that we hold the lease to the earth itself on similar terms: we cannot sell it and pocket the cash, we cannot despoil it for our profit; we are legally and morally obliged to conserve it “for our life.” This means that our thoughts must always be bent toward the future: the earth “belongs as much to those who are to come after us, and whose names are already written in the book of creation, as to us; and we have no right, by anything that we do or neglect, to involve them in unnecessary penalties, or deprive them of benefits which it was in our power to bequeath.” We have no right, by anything we do or neglect, to disregard our heirs. And woe be unto us if we forget this.

For Ruskin every aesthetic and every possession—the whole of the human-built world—is but the flower of a rooted moral order.

It cannot be stressed too strongly that for Ruskin there is no aspect of our lives, no matter how apparently trivial, where this principle does not apply. And if social and economic circumstances have changed so that we cannot exercise that care in the same way that Ruskin envisaged—many in our society will inherit their parents’ houses; relatively few will live in them—then we should focus our attention on everything that we can pass along to the next generation: a well-made sofa; a thoughtfully chosen collection of books or music; a recipe for pasta carbonara; a habit of prayer. All of that should, equally, testify to who we are.

A sobering thought. How might we live up to that expectation? By remembering the entail upon our estate, and the One who has given it to us; and also by making it our regular discipline to look as far beyond our own moment, and therefore our own gratification, as we can:

It is one of the appointed conditions of the labor of men that, in proportion to the time between the seed-sowing and the harvest, is the fulness of the fruit; and that generally, therefore, the farther off we place our aim, and the less we desire to be ourselves the witnesses of what we have labored for, the more wide and rich will be the measure of our success. Men cannot benefit those that are with them as they can benefit those who come after them; and of all the pulpits from which human voice is ever sent forth, there is none from which it reaches so far as from the grave.

For Ruskin every aesthetic and every possession—the whole of the human-built world—is but the flower of a rooted moral order. Were he to see our society, he would find its two most notable features to be our hatred of beauty, which we dismiss as “prettiness,” and our worship of machines. And these can only be Baudelaire’s fleurs du mal—flowers of evil. Bad flowers from bad soil. It can readily be seen, from the whole of this essay, that it would be wrong to think of Ruskin merely as a philosopher of art. He was also a moralist, a theologian, a critic, an economist, a social reformer, a teacher—so many things. But, if we would learn from Ruskin, we would not go astray to begin with art and the artful. And I think the first question he would have us ask ourselves is this: As we observe the world that we have built and are building, what do we prefer to beauty, and why?

Topics: Books
Alan Jacobs
Alan Jacobs

Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University. His most recent book is Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind (Penguin, 2020). Before that be published The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis (Oxford University Press, 2018) and How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (Currency Books, 2017). He has published fifteen books in all, and in addition to his work for Comment has written for such publications as Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The American Scholar, and many more. After teaching at Wheaton College in Illinois for twenty-nine years, he came to Baylor in 2013.


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