The Ethics of the Dust, by John Ruskin

Lecture X.

The Crystal Rest.

Evening. The fireside. L’s arm-chair in the comfortablest corner.

L. (perceiving various arrangements being made of foot-stool, cushion, screen, and the like). Yes, yes, it’s all very fine! and I am to sit here to be asked questions till supper-time, am I?

Dora. I don’t think you can have any supper to-night:— we’ve got so much to ask.

Lily. Oh, Miss Dora! We can fetch it him here, you know, so nicely!

L. Yes, Lily, that will be pleasant, with competitive examination going on over one’s plate; the competition being among the examiners. Really, now that I know what teasing things girls are, I don’t so much wonder that people used to put up patiently with the dragons who took them for supper. But I can’t help myself, I suppose; — no thanks to St. George. Ask away, children, and I’ll answer as civilly as may be.

Dora. We don’t so much care about being answered civilly, as about not being asked things back again.

L. ‘Ayez seulement la patience que je le parle.’ There shall be no requitals.

Dora. Well, then, first of all — What shall we ask first, Mary?

Mary. It does not matter. I think all the questions come into one, at last, nearly.

Dora. You know, you always talk as if the crystals were alive; and we never understand how much you are in play, and how much in earnest. That’s the first thing.

L. Neither do I understand, myself, my dear, how much I am in earnest. The stones puzzle me as much as I puzzle you. They look as if they were alive, and make me speak as if they were; and I do not in the least know how much truth there is in the appearance. I’m not to ask things back again to-night, but all questions of this sort lead necessarily to the one main question, which we asked, before, in vain, ‘What is it to be alive?’

Dora. Yes; but we want to come back to that: for we’ve been reading scientific books about the ‘conservation of forces,’ and it seems all so grand, and wonderful; and the experiments are so pretty; and I suppose it must be all right: but then the books never speak as if there were any such thing as ‘life.’

L. They mostly omit that part of the subject, certainly, Dora; but they are beautifully right as far as they go; and life is not a convenient element to deal with. They seem to have been getting some of it into and out of bottles, in their ‘ozone’ and ‘antizone’ lately; but they still know little of it: and, certainly, I know less.

Dora. You promised not to be provoking, to-night.

L. Wait a minute. Though, quite truly, I know less of the secrets of life than the philosophers do; I yet know one corner of ground on which we artists can stand, literally as ‘Life Guards’ at bay, as steadily as the Guards at Inkermann; however hard the philosophers push. And you may stand with us, if once you learn to draw nicely.

Dora. I’m sure we are all trying! but tell us where we may stand.

L. You may always stand by Form, against Force. To a painter, the essential character of anything is the form of it; and the philosophers cannot touch that. They come and tell you, for instance, that there is as much heat, or motion, or calorific energy (or whatever else they like to call it), in a tea-kettle as in a Gier-eagle. Very good; that is so; and it is very interesting. It requires just as much heat as will boil the kettle, to take the Gier-eagle up to his nest; and as much more to bring him down again on a hare or a partridge. But we painters, acknowledging the equality and similarity of the kettle and the bird in all scientific respects, attach, for our part, our principal interest to the difference in their forms. For us, the primarily cognisable facts, in the two things, are, that the kettle has a spout, and the eagle a beak; the one a lid on its back, the other a pair of wings; — not to speak of the distinction also of volition, which the philosophers may properly call merely a form or mode of force; — but then, to an artist, the form, or mode, is the gist of the business. The kettle chooses to sit still on the hob; the eagle to recline on the air. It is the fact of the choice, not the equal degree of temperature in the fulfilment of it, which appears to us the more interesting circumstance; — though the other is very interesting too. Exceedingly so! Don’t laugh, children; the philosophers have been doing quite splendid work lately, in their own way: especially, the transformation of force into light is a great piece of systematised discovery; and this notion about the sun’s being supplied with his flame by ceaseless meteoric hail is grand, and looks very likely to be true. Of course, it is only the old gun-lock, — flint and steel, — on a large scale: but the order and majesty of it are sublime. Still, we sculptors and painters care little about it. ‘It is very fine,’ we say, ‘and very useful, this knocking the light out of the sun, or into it, by an eternal cataract of planets. But you may hail away, so, for ever, and you will not knock out what we can. Here is a bit of silver, not the size of half-a-crown, on which, with a single hammer stroke, one of us, two thousand and odd years ago, hit out the head of the Apollo of Clazomenæ. It is merely a matter of form; but if any of you philosophers, with your whole planetary system to hammer with, can hit out such another bit of silver as this, — we will take off our hats to you. For the present, we keep them on.’

Mary. Yes, I understand; and that is nice; but I don’t think we shall any of us like having only form to depend upon.

L. It was not neglected in the making of Eve, my dear.

Mary. It does not seem to separate us from the dust of the ground. It is that breathing of the life which we want to understand.

L. So you should: but hold fast to the form, and defend that first, as distinguished from the mere transition of forces. Discern the moulding hand of the potter commanding the clay, from his merely beating foot, as it turns the wheel. If you can find incense, in the vase, afterwards, — well: but it is curious how far mere form will carry you ahead of the philosophers. For instance, with regard to the most interesting of all their modes of force — light; — they never consider how far the existence of it depends on the putting of certain vitreous and nervous substances into the formal arrangement which we call an eye. The German philosophers began the attack, long ago, on the other side, by telling us, there was no such thing as light at all, unless we chose to see it: now, German and English, both, have reversed their engines, and insist that light would be exactly the same light that it is, though nobody could ever see it. The fact being that the force must be there, and the eyes there; and ‘light’ means the effect of the one on the other; — and perhaps, also — (Plato saw farther into that mystery than any one has since, that I know of), — on something a little way within the eyes; but we may stand quite safe, close behind the retina, and defy the philosophers.

Sibyl. But I don’t care so much about defying the philosophers, if only one could get a clear idea of life, or soul, for one’s self.

L. Well, Sibyl, you used to know more about it, in that cave of yours, than any of us. I was just going to ask you about inspiration, and the golden bough, and the like; only I remembered I was not to ask anything. But, will not you, at least, tell us whether the ideas of Life, as the power of putting things together, or ‘making’ them; and of Death, as the power of pushing things separate, or ‘unmaking’ them, may not be very simply held in balance against each other?

Sibyl. No, I am not in my cave to-night; and cannot tell you anything.

L. I think they may. Modern Philosophy is a great separator; it is little more than the expansion of Molière’s great sentence, ‘Il s’ensuit de là, que tout ce qu’il y a de beau est dans les dictionnaires; il n’y a que les mots qui sont transposés.’ But when you used to be in your cave, Sibyl, and to be inspired, there was (and there remains still in some small measure), beyond the merely formative and sustaining power, another, which we painters call ‘passion’ — I don’t know what the philosophers call it; we know it makes people red, or white; and therefore it must be something, itself; and perhaps it is the most truly ‘poetic’ or ‘making’ force of all, creating a world of its own out of a glance, or a sigh: and the want of passion is perhaps the truest death, or ‘unmaking’ of everything; — even of stones. By the way, you were all reading about that ascent of the Aiguille Verte, the other day?

Sibyl. Because you had told us it was so difficult, you thought it could not be ascended.

L. Yes; I believed the Aiguille Verte would have held its own. But do you recollect what one of the climbers exclaimed, when he first felt sure of reaching the summit?

Sibyl. Yes, it was, ‘Oh, Aiguille Verte, vous êtes morte, vous êtes morte!’

L. That was true instinct. Real philosophic joy. Now can you at all fancy the difference between that feeling of triumph in a mountain’s death; and the exultation of your beloved poet, in its life —

‘Quantus Athos, aut quantus Eryx, aut ipse coruscis

Quum fremit ilicibus quantus, gandetque nivali

Vertice, se attollens pater Apenninus ad auras.’

Dora. You must translate for us mere house-keepers, please, — whatever the cave-keepers may know about it.

Mary. Will Dryden do?

L. No. Dryden is a far way worse than nothing, and nobody will ‘do.’ You can’t translate it. But this is all you need know, that the lines are full of a passionate sense of the Apennines’ fatherhood, or protecting power over Italy; and of sympathy with their joy in their snowy strength in heaven; and with the same joy, shuddering through all the leaves of their forests.

Mary. Yes, that is a difference indeed! but then, you know, one can’t help feeling that it is fanciful. It is very delightful to imagine the mountains to be alive; but then, — are they alive?

L. It seems to me, on the whole, Mary, that the feelings of the purest and most mightily passioned human souls are likely to be the truest. Not, indeed, if they do not desire to know the truth, or blind themselves to it that they may please themselves with passion; for then they are no longer pure: but if, continually seeking and accepting the truth as far as it is discernible, they trust their Maker for the integrity of the instincts He has gifted them with, and rest in the sense of a higher truth which they cannot demonstrate, I think they will be most in the right, so.

Dora and Jessie (clapping their hands). Then we really may believe that the mountains are living?

L. You may at least earnestly believe, that the presence of the spirit which culminates in your own life, shows itself in dawning, wherever the dust of the earth begins to assume any orderly and lovely state. You will find it impossible to separate this idea of gradated manifestation from that of the vital power. Things are not either wholly alive, or wholly dead. They are less or more alive. Take the nearest, most easily examined instance — the life of a flower. Notice what a different degree and kind of life there is in the calyx and the corolla. The calyx is nothing but the swaddling clothes of the flower; the child-blossom is bound up in it, hand and foot; guarded in it, restrained by it, till the time of birth. The shell is hardly more subordinate to the germ in the egg, than the calyx to the blossom. It bursts at last; but it never lives as the corolla does. It may fall at the moment its task is fulfilled, as in the poppy; or wither gradually, as in the buttercup; or persist in a ligneous apathy, after the flower is dead, as in the rose; or harmonise itself so as to share in the aspect of the real flower, as in the lily; but it never shares in the corolla’s bright passion of life. And the gradations which thus exist between the different members of organic creatures, exist no less between the different ranges of organism. We know no higher or more energetic life than our own; but there seems to me this great good in the idea of gradation of life — it admits the idea of a life above us, in other creatures, as much nobler than ours, as ours is nobler than that of the dust.

Mary. I am glad you have said that; for I know Violet and Lucilla and May want to ask you something; indeed, we all do; only you frightened Violet so about the ant-hill, that she can’t say a word; and May is afraid of your teasing her, too: but I know they are wondering why you are always telling them about heathen gods and goddesses, as if you half believed in them; and you represent them as good; and then we see there is really a kind of truth in the stories about them; and we are all puzzled: and, in this, we cannot even make our difficulty quite clear to ourselves; — it would be such a long confused question, if we could ask you all we should like to know.

L. Nor is it any wonder, Mary; for this is indeed the longest, and the most wildly confused question that reason can deal with; but I will try to give you, quickly, a few clear ideas about the heathen gods, which you may follow out afterwards, as your knowledge increases.

Every heathen conception of deity in which you are likely to be interested, has three distinct characters:—

I. It has a physical character. It represents some of the great powers or objects of nature — sun or moon, or heaven, or the winds, or the sea. And the fables first related about each deity represent, figuratively, the action of the natural power which it represents; such as the rising and setting of the sun, the tides of the sea, and so on.

II. It has an ethical character, and represents, in its history, the moral dealings of God with man. Thus Apollo is first, physically, the sun contending with darkness; but morally, the power of divine life contending with corruption. Athena is, physically, the air; morally, the breathing of the divine spirit of wisdom. Neptune is, physically, the sea; morally, the supreme power of agitating passion; and so on.

III. It has, at last, a personal character; and is realised in the minds of its worshippers as a living spirit, with whom men may speak face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.

Now it is impossible to define exactly, how far, at any period of a national religion, these three ideas are mingled; or how far one prevails over the other. Each enquirer usually takes up one of these ideas, and pursues it, to the exclusion of the others: no impartial effort seems to have been made to discern the real state of the heathen imagination in its successive phases. For the question is not at all what a mythological figure meant in its origin; but what it became in each subsequent mental development of the nation inheriting the thought. Exactly in proportion to the mental and moral insight of any race, its mythological figures mean more to it, and become more real. An early and savage race means nothing more (because it has nothing more to mean) by its Apollo, than the sun; while a cultivated Greek means every operation of divine intellect and justice. The Neith, of Egypt, meant, physically, little more than the blue of the air; but the Greek, in a climate of alternate storm and calm, represented the wild fringes of the storm-cloud by the serpents of her ægis; and the lightning and cold of the highest thunder-clouds, by the Gorgon on her shield: while morally, the same types represented to him the mystery and changeful terror of knowledge, as her spear and helm its ruling and defensive power. And no study can be more interesting, or more useful to you, than that of the different meanings which have been created by great nations, and great poets, out of mythological figures given them, at first, in utter simplicity. But when we approach them in their third, or personal, character (and, for its power over the whole national mind, this is far the leading one), we are met at once by questions which may well put all of you at pause. Were they idly imagined to be real beings? and did they so usurp the place of the true God? Or were they actually real beings — evil spirits, — leading men away from the true God? Or is it conceivable that they might have been real beings, — good spirits, — entrusted with some message from the true God? These were the questions you wanted to ask; were they not, Lucilla?

Lucilla. Yes, indeed.

L. Well, Lucilla, the answer will much depend upon the clearness of your faith in the personality of the spirits which are described in the book of your own religion; — their personality, observe, as distinguished from merely symbolical visions. For instance, when Jeremiah has the vision of the seething pot with its mouth to the north, you know that this which he sees is not a real thing; but merely a significant dream. Also, when Zechariah sees the speckled horses among the myrtle trees in the bottom, you still may suppose the vision symbolical; — you do not think of them as real spirits, like Pegasus, seen in the form of horses. But when you are told of the four riders in the Apocalypse, a distinct sense of personality begins to force itself upon you. And though you might, in a dull temper, think that (for one instance of all) the fourth rider on the pale horse was merely a symbol of the power of death, — in your stronger and more earnest moods you will rather conceive of him as a real and living angel. And when you look back from the vision of the Apocalypse to the account of the destruction of the Egyptian first-born, and of the army of Sennacherib, and again to David’s vision at the threshing floor of Araunah, the idea of personality in this death-angel becomes entirely defined, just as in the appearance of the angels to Abraham, Manoah, or Mary.

Now, when you have once consented to this idea of a personal spirit, must not the question instantly follow: ‘Does this spirit exercise its functions towards one race of men only, or towards all men? Was it an angel of death to the Jew only, or to the Gentile also?’ You find a certain Divine agency made visible to a King of Israel, as an armed angel, executing vengeance, of which one special purpose was to lower his kingly pride. You find another (or perhaps the same) agency, made visible to a Christian prophet as an angel standing in the sun, calling to the birds that fly under heaven to come, that they may eat the flesh of kings. Is there anything impious in the thought that the same agency might have been expressed to a Greek king, or Greek seer, by similar visions? — that this figure, standing in the sun, and armed with the sword, or the bow (whose arrows were drunk with blood), and exercising especially its power in the humiliation of the proud, might, at first, have been called only ‘Destroyer,’ and afterwards, as the light, or sun, of justice, was recognised in the chastisement, called also ‘Physician’ or ‘Healer?’ If you feel hesitation in admitting the possibility of such a manifestation, I believe you will find it is caused, partly indeed by such trivial things as the difference to your ear between Greek and English terms; but, far more, by uncertainty in your own mind respecting the nature and truth of the visions spoken of in the Bible. Have any of you intently examined the nature of your belief in them? You, for instance, Lucilla, who think often, and seriously, of such things?

Lucilla. No; I never could tell what to believe about them. I know they must be true in some way or other; and I like reading about them.

L. Yes; and I like reading about them too, Lucilla; as I like reading other grand poetry. But, surely, we ought both to do more than like it? Will God be satisfied with us, think you, if we read His words merely for the sake of an entirely meaningless poetical sensation?

Lucilla. But do not the people who give themselves to seek out the meaning of these things, often get very strange, and extravagant?

L. More than that, Lucilla. They often go mad. That abandonment of the mind to religious theory, or contemplation, is the very thing I have been pleading with you against. I never said you should set yourself to discover the meanings; but you should take careful pains to understand them, so far as they are clear; and you should always accurately ascertain the state of your mind about them. I want you never to read merely for the pleasure of fancy; still less as a formal religious duty (else you might as well take to repeating Paters at once; for it is surely wiser to repeat one thing we understand, than read a thousand which we cannot). Either, therefore, acknowledge the passages to be, for the present, unintelligible to you; or else determine the sense in which you at present receive them; or, at all events, the different senses between which you clearly see that you must choose. Make either your belief, or your difficulty, definite; but do not go on, all through your life, believing nothing intelligently, and yet supposing that your having read the words of a divine book must give you the right to despise every religion but your own. I assure you, strange as it may seem, our scorn of Greek tradition depends, not on our belief, but our disbelief, of our own traditions. We have, as yet, no sufficient clue to the meaning of either; but you will always find that, in proportion to the earnestness of our own faith, its tendency to accept a spiritual personality increases: and that the most vital and beautiful Christian temper rests joyfully in its conviction of the multitudinous ministry of living angels, infinitely varied in rank and power. You all know one expression of the purest and happiest form of such faith, as it exists in modern times, in Richter’s lovely illustrations of the Lord’s Prayer. The real and living death-angel, girt as a pilgrim for journey, and softly crowned with flowers, beckons at the dying mother’s door; child-angels sit talking face to face with mortal children, among the flowers; — hold them by their little coats, lest they fall on the stairs; — whisper dreams of heaven to them, leaning over their pillows; carry the sound of the church bells for them far through the air; and even descending lower in service, fill little cups with honey, to hold out to the weary bee. By the way, Lily, did you tell the other children that story about your little sister, and Alice, and the sea?

Lily. I told it to Alice, and to Miss Dora. I don’t think I did to anybody else. I thought it wasn’t worth.

L. We shall think it worth a great deal now, Lily, if you will tell it us. How old is Dotty, again? I forget.

Lily. She is not quite three; but she has such odd little old ways, sometimes.

L. And she was very fond of Alice?

Lily. Yes; Alice was so good to her always!

L. And so when Alice went away?

Lily. Oh, it was nothing, you know, to tell about; only it was strange at the time.

L. Well; but I want you to tell it.

Lily. The morning after Alice had gone, Dotty was very sad and restless when she got up; and went about, looking into all the corners, as if she could find Alice in them, and at last she came to me, and said, ‘Is Alie gone over the great sea?’ And I said, ‘Yes, she is gone over the great, deep sea, but she will come back again some day.’ Then Dotty looked round the room; and I had just poured some water out into the basin; and Dotty ran to it, and got up on a chair, and dashed her hands through the water, again and again; and cried, ‘Oh, deep, deep sea! send little Alie back to me.’

L. Isn’t that pretty, children? There’s a dear little heathen for you! The whole heart of Greek mythology is in that; the idea of a personal being in the elemental power; — of its being moved by prayer; — and of its presence everywhere, making the broken diffusion of the element sacred.

Now, remember, the measure in which we may permit ourselves to think of this trusted and adored personality, in Greek, or in any other, mythology, as conceivably a shadow of truth, will depend on the degree in which we hold the Greeks, or other great nations, equal, or inferior, in privilege and character, to the Jews, or to ourselves. If we believe that the great Father would use the imagination of the Jew as an instrument by which to exalt and lead him; but the imagination of the Greek only to degrade and mislead him: if we can suppose that real angels were sent to minister to the Jews and to punish them; but no angels, or only mocking spectra of angels, or even devils in the shapes of angels, to lead Lycurgus and Leonidas from desolate cradle to hopeless grave:— and if we can think that it was only the influence of spectres, or the teaching of demons, which issued in the making of mothers like Cornelia, and of sons like Cleobis and Bito, we may, of course, reject the heathen Mythology in our privileged scorn: but, at least, we are bound to examine strictly by what faults of our own it has come to pass, that the ministry of real angels among ourselves is occasionally so ineffectual, as to end in the production of Cornelias who entrust their child-jewels to Charlotte Winsors for the better keeping of them; and of sons like that one who, the other day, in France, beat his mother to death with a stick; and was brought in by the jury, ‘guilty, with extenuating circumstances.’

May. Was that really possible?

L. Yes, my dear. I am not sure that I can lay my hand on the reference to it (and I should not have said ‘the other day’ — it was a year or two ago), but you may depend on the fact; and I could give you many like it, if I chose. There was a murder done in Russia, very lately, on a traveller. The murderess’s little daughter was in the way, and found it out, somehow. Her mother killed her, too, and put her into the oven. There is a peculiar horror about the relations between parent and child, which are being now brought about by our variously degraded forms of European white slavery. Here is one reference, I see, in my notes on that story of Cleobis and Bito; though I suppose I marked this chiefly for its quaintness, and the beautifully Christian names of the sons; but it is a good instance of the power of the King of the Valley of Diamonds1 among us.

In ‘Galignani’ of July 21-22, 1862, is reported a trial of a farmer’s son in the department of the Yonne. The father, two years ago, at Malay le Grand, gave up his property to his two sons, on condition of being maintained by them. Simon fulfilled his agreement, but Pierre would not. The tribunal of Sens condemns Pierre to pay eighty-four francs a year to his father. Pierre replies, ‘he would rather die than pay it.’ Actually, returning home, he throws himself into the river, and the body is not found till next day.

Mary. But — but — I can’t tell what you would have us think. Do you seriously mean that the Greeks were better than we are; and that their gods were real angels?

L. No, my dear. I mean only that we know, in reality, less than nothing of the dealings of our Maker with our fellow-men; and can only reason or conjecture safely about them, when we have sincerely humble thoughts of ourselves and our creeds.

We owe to the Greeks every noble discipline in literature; every radical principle of art; and every form of convenient beauty in our household furniture and daily occupations of life. We are unable, ourselves, to make rational use of half that we have received from them: and, of our own, we have nothing but discoveries in science, and fine mechanical adaptations of the discovered physical powers. On the other hand, the vice existing among certain classes, both of the rich and poor, in London, Paris, and Vienna, could have been conceived by a Spartan or Roman of the heroic ages only as possible in a Tartarus, where fiends were employed to teach, but not to punish, crime. It little becomes us to speak contemptuously of the religion of races to whom we stand in such relations; nor do I think any man of modesty or thoughtfulness will ever speak so of any religion, in which God has allowed one good man to die, trusting.

The more readily we admit the possibility of our own cherished convictions being mixed with error, the more vital and helpful whatever is right in them will become: and no error is so conclusively fatal as the idea that God will not allow us to err, though He has allowed all other men to do so. There may be doubt of the meaning of other visions, but there is none respecting that of the dream of St. Peter; and you may trust the Rock of the Church’s Foundation for true interpreting, when he learned from it that, ‘in every nation, he that feareth God and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him.’ See that you understand what that righteousness means; and set hand to it stoutly: you will always measure your neighbors’ creed kindly, in proportion to the substantial fruits of your own. Do not think you will ever get harm by striving to enter into the faith of others, and to sympathise, in imagination, with the guiding principles of their lives. So only can you justly love them, or pity them, or praise. By the gracious effort you will double, treble — nay, indefinitely multiply, at once the pleasure, the reverence, and the intelligence with which you read: and, believe me, it is wiser and holier, by the fire of your own faith to kindle the ashes of expired religions, than to let your soul shiver and stumble among their graves, through the gathering darkness, and communicable cold.

Mary (after some pause). We shall all like reading Greek history so much better after this! but it has put everything else out of our heads that we wanted to ask.

L. I can tell you one of the things; and I might take credit for generosity in telling you; but I have a personal reason — Lucilla’s verse about the creation.

Dora. Oh, yes — yes; and its ‘pain together, until now.’

L. I call you back to that, because I must warn you against an old error of my own. Somewhere in the fourth volume of ‘Modern Painters,’ I said that the earth seemed to have passed through its highest state: and that, after ascending by a series of phases, culminating in its habitation by man, it seems to be now gradually becoming less fit for that habitation.

Mary. Yes, I remember.

L. I wrote those passages under a very bitter impression of the gradual perishing of beauty from the loveliest scenes which I knew in the physical world; — not in any doubtful way, such as I might have attributed to loss of sensation in myself — but by violent and definite physical action; such as the filling up of the Lac de Chêde by landslips from the Rochers des Fiz; — the narrowing of the Lake Lucerne by the gaining delta of the stream of the Muotta-Thal, which, in the course of years, will cut the lake into two, as that of Brientz has been divided from that of Thun; — the steady diminishing of the glaciers north of the Alps, and still more, of the sheets of snow on their southern slopes, which supply the refreshing streams of Lombardy:— the equally steady increase of deadly maremma round Pisa and Venice; and other such phenomena, quite measurably traceable within the limits even of short life, and unaccompanied, as it seemed, by redeeming or compensatory agencies. I am still under the same impression respecting the existing phenomena; but I feel more strongly, every day, that no evidence to be collected within historical periods can be accepted as any clue to the great tendencies of geological change; but that the great laws which never fail, and to which all change is subordinate, appear such as to accomplish a gradual advance to lovelier order, and more calmly, yet more deeply, animated Rest. Nor has this conviction ever fastened itself upon me more distinctly, than during my endeavour to trace the laws which govern the lowly framework of the dust. For, through all the phases of its transition and dissolution, there seems to be a continual effort to raise itself into a higher state; and a measured gain, through the fierce revulsion and slow renewal of the earth’s frame, in beauty, and order, and permanence. The soft white sediments of the sea draw themselves, in process of time, into smooth knots of sphered symmetry; burdened and strained under increase of pressure, they pass into a nascent marble; scorched by fervent heat, they brighten and blanch into the snowy rock of Paros and Carrara. The dark drift of the inland river, or stagnant slime of inland pool and lake, divides, or resolves itself as it dries, into layers of its several elements; slowly purifying each by the patient withdrawal of it from the anarchy of the mass in which it was mingled. Contracted by increasing drought, till it must shatter into fragments, it infuses continually a finer ichor into the opening veins, and finds in its weakness the first rudiments of a perfect strength. Bent at last, rock from rock, nay, atom from atom, and tormented in lambent fire, it knits, through the fusion, the fibres of a perennial endurance; and, during countless subsequent centuries, declining, or rather let me say, rising to repose, finishes the infallible lustre of its crystalline beauty, under harmonies of law which are wholly beneficent, because wholly inexorable.

(The children seem pleased, but more inclined to think over these matters than to talk.)

L. (after giving them a little time). Mary, I seldom ask you to read anything out of books of mine; but there is a passage about the Law of Help, which I want you to read to the children now, because it is of no use merely to put it in other words for them. You know the place I mean, do not you?

Mary. Yes (presently finding it); where shall I begin?

L. Here; but the elder ones had better look afterwards at the piece which comes just before this.

Mary (reads):

‘A pure or holy state of anything is that in which all its parts are helpful or consistent. 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.

‘Perhaps the best, though the most familiar, example we could take of the nature and power of consistence, will be that of the possible changes in the dust we tread on.

‘Exclusive of animal decay, we can hardly arrive at a more absolute type of impurity, than the mud or slime of a damp, over-trodden path, in the outskirts of a manufacturing town. I do not say mud of the road, because that is mixed with animal refuse; but take merely an ounce or two of the blackest slime of a beaten footpath, on a rainy day, near a manufacturing town. That slime we shall find in most cases composed of clay (or brickdust, which is burnt clay), mixed with soot, a little sand and water. All these elements are at helpless war with each other, and destroy reciprocally each other’s nature and power: competing and fighting for place at every tread of your foot; sand squeezing out clay, and clay squeezing out water, and soot meddling everywhere, and defiling the whole. Let us suppose that this ounce of mud is left in perfect rest, and that its elements gather together, like to like, so that their atoms may get into the closest relations possible.

‘Let the clay begin. Ridding itself of all foreign substance, it gradually becomes a white earth, already very beautiful, and fit, with help of congealing fire, to be made into finest porcelain, and painted on, and be kept in kings’ palaces. But such artificial consistence is not its best. Leave it still quiet, to follow its own instinct of unity, and it becomes, not only white but clear; not only clear, but hard; nor only clear and hard, but so set that it can deal with light in a wonderful way, and gather out of it the loveliest blue rays only, refusing the rest. We call it then a sapphire.

‘Such being the consummation of the clay, we give similar permission of quiet to the sand. It also becomes, first, a white earth; then proceeds to grow clear and hard, and at last arranges itself in mysterious, infinitely fine parallel lines, which have the power of reflecting, not merely the blue rays, but the blue, green, purple, and red rays, in the greatest beauty in which they can be seen through any hard material whatsoever. We call it then an opal.

‘In next order the soot sets to work. It cannot make itself white at first; but, instead of being discouraged, tries harder and harder; and comes out clear at last; and the hardest thing in the world: and for the blackness that it had, obtains in exchange the power of reflecting all the rays of the sun at once, in the vividest blaze that any solid thing can shoot. We call it then a diamond.

‘Last of all, the water purifies, or unites itself; contented enough if it only reach the form of a dewdrop: but, if we insist on its proceeding to a more perfect consistence, it crystallises into the shape of a star. And, for the ounce of slime which we had by political economy of competition, we have, by political economy of co-operation, a sapphire, an opal, and a diamond, set in the midst of a star of snow.’

L. I have asked you to hear that, children, because, from all that we have seen in the work and play of these past days, I would have you gain at least one grave and enduring thought. The seeming trouble, — the unquestionable degradation, — of the elements of the physical earth, must passively wait the appointed time of their repose, or their restoration. It can only be brought about for them by the agency of external law. But if, indeed, there be a nobler life in us than in these strangely moving atoms; — if, indeed, there is an eternal difference between the fire which inhabits them, and that which animates us, — it must be shown, by each of us in his appointed place, not merely in the patience, but in the activity of our hope; not merely by our desire, but our labour, for the time when the Dust of the generations of men shall be confirmed for foundations of the gates of the city of God. The human clay, now trampled and despised, will not be, — cannot be, — knit into strength and light by accident or ordinances of unassisted fate. By human cruelty and iniquity it has been afflicted; — by human mercy and justice it must be raised: and, in all fear or questioning of what is or is not, the real message of creation, or of revelation, you may assuredly find perfect peace, if you are resolved to do that which your Lord has plainly required, — and content that He should indeed require no more of you, — than to do Justice, to love Mercy, and to walk humbly with Him.

1 ‘King of the Valley of Diamonds.’

Isabel interrupted the Lecturer here, and was briefly bid to hold her tongue; which gave rise to some talk, apart, afterwards, between L. and Sibyl, of which a word or two may be perhaps advisably set down.

Sibyl. We shall spoil Isabel, certainly, if we don’t mind: I was glad you stopped her, and yet sorry; for she wanted so much to ask about the Valley of Diamonds again, and she has worked so hard at it, and made it nearly all out by herself. She recollected Elisha’s throwing in the meal, which nobody else did.

L. But what did she want to ask?

Sibyl. About the mulberry trees and the serpents; we are all stopped by that. Won’t you tell us what it means?

L. Now, Sibyl, I am sure you, who never explained yourself, should be the last to expect others to do so. I hate explaining myself.

Sibyl. And yet how often you complain of other people for not saying what they meant. How I have heard you growl over the three stone steps to purgatory; for instance!

L. Yes; because Dante’s meaning is worth getting at; but mine matters nothing: at least, if ever I think it is of any consequence, I speak it as clearly as may be. But you may make anything you like of the serpent forests. I could have helped you to find out what they were, by giving a little more detail, but it would have been tiresome.

Sibyl. It is much more tiresome not to find out. Tell us, please, as Isabel says, because we feel so stupid.

L. There is no stupidity; you could not possibly do more than guess at anything so vague. But I think, you, Sibyl, at least, might have recollected what first dyed the mulberry?

Sibyl. So I did; but that helped little; I thought of Dante’s forest of suicides, too, but you would not simply have borrowed that?

L. No. If I had had strength to use it, I should have stolen it, to beat into another shape; not borrowed it. But that idea of souls in trees is as old as the world; or at least, as the world of man. And I did mean that there were souls in those dark branches; the souls of all those who had perished in misery through the pursuit of riches; and that the river was of their blood, gathering gradually, and flowing out of the valley. That I meant the serpents for the souls of those who had lived carelessly and wantonly in their riches; and who have all their sins forgiven by the world, because they are rich: and therefore they have seven crimson crested heads, for the seven mortal sins; of which they are proud: and these, and the memory and report of them, are the chief causes of temptation to others, as showing the pleasantness and absolving power of riches; so that thus they are singing serpents. And the worms are the souls of the common money-getters and traffickers, who do nothing but eat and spin: and who gain habitually by the distress or foolishness of others (as you see the butchers have been gaining out of the panic at the cattle plague, among the poor), — so they are made to eat the dark leaves, and spin, and perish.

Sibyl. And the souls of the great, cruel, rich people who oppress the poor, and lend money to government to make unjust war, where are they?

L. They change into the ice, I believe, and are knit with the gold; and make the grave dust of the valley. I believe so, at least, for no one ever sees those souls anywhere.

(Sibyl ceases questioning.)

Isabel (who has crept up to her side without any one’s seeing). Oh, Sibyl, please ask him about the fire-flies!

L. What, you there, mousie! No; I won’t tell either Sibyl or you about the fire-flies; nor a word more about anything else. You ought to be little fire-flies yourselves, and find your way in twilight by your own wits.

Isabel. But you said they burned, you know?

L. Yes; and you may be fire-flies that way too, some of you, before long, though I did not mean that. Away with you, children. You have thought enough for to-day.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/ruskin/john/dust/chapter10.html

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 15:33