The Ethics of the Dust, by John Ruskin

Lecture VI.

Crystal Quarrels.

Full conclave, in Schoolroom. There has been a game at crystallisation in the morning, of which various account has to be rendered. In particular, everybody has to explain why they were always where they were not intended to be.

L. (having received and considered the report). You have got on pretty well, children: but you know these were easy figures you have been trying. Wait till I have drawn you out the plans of some crystals of snow!

Mary. I don’t think those will be the most difficult:— they are so beautiful that we shall remember our places better; and then they are all regular, and in stars: it is those twisty oblique ones we are afraid of.

L. Read Carlyle’s account of the battle of Leuthen, and learn Freidrich’s ‘oblique order.’ You will ‘get it done for once, I think, provided you can march as a pair of compasses would.’ But remember, when you can construct the most difficult single figures, you have only learned half the game — nothing so much as the half, indeed, as the crystals themselves play it.

Mary. Indeed; what else is there?

L. It is seldom that any mineral crystallises alone. Usually two or three, under quite different crystalline laws, form together. They do this absolutely without flaw or fault, when they are in fine temper: and observe what this signifies. It signifies that the two, or more, minerals of different natures agree, somehow, between themselves, how much space each will want; — agree which of them shall give away to the other at their junction; or in what measure each will accommodate itself to the other’s shape! And then each takes its permitted shape, and allotted share of space; yielding, or being yielded to, as it builds, till each crystal has fitted itself perfectly and gracefully to its differently-natured neighbour. So that, in order to practise this, in even the simplest terms, you must divide into two parties, wearing different colours; each must choose a different figure to construct; and you must form one of these figures through the other, both going on at the same time.

Mary. I think we may, perhaps, manage it; but I cannot at all understand how the crystals do. It seems to imply so much preconcerting of plan, and so much giving way to each other, as if they really were living.

L. Yes, it implies both concurrence and compromise, regulating all wilfulness of design: and, more curious still, the crystals do not always give way to each other. They show exactly the same varieties of temper that human creatures might. Sometimes they yield the required place with perfect grace and courtesy; forming fantastic, but exquisitely finished groups: and sometimes they will not yield at all; but fight furiously for their places, losing all shape and honour, and even their own likeness, in the contest.

Mary. But is not that wholly wonderful? How is it that one never sees it spoken of in books?

L. The scientific men are all busy in determining the constant laws under which the struggle takes place; these indefinite humours of the elements are of no interest to them. And unscientific people rarely give themselves the trouble of thinking at all when they look at stones. Not that it is of much use to think; the more one thinks, the more one is puzzled.

Mary. Surely it is more wonderful than anything in botany?

L. Everything has its own wonders; but, given the nature of the plant, it is easier to understand what a flower will do, and why it does it, than, given anything we as yet know of stone-nature, to understand what a crystal will do, and why it does it. You at once admit a kind of volition and choice, in the flower, but we are not accustomed to attribute anything of the kind to the crystal. Yet there is, in reality, more likeness to some conditions of human feeling among stones than among plants. There is a far greater difference between kindly-tempered and ill-tempered crystals of the same mineral, than between any two specimens of the same flower: and the friendships and wars of crystals depend more definitely and curiously on their varieties of disposition, than any associations of flowers. Here, for instance, is a good garnet, living with good mica; one rich red, and the other silver white: the mica leaves exactly room enough for the garnet to crystallise comfortably in; and the garnet lives happily in its little white house; fitted to it, like a pholas in its cell. But here are wicked garnets living with wicked mica. See what ruin they make of each other! You cannot tell which is which; the garnets look like dull red stains on the crumbling stone. By the way, I never could understand, if St. Gothard is a real saint, why he can’t keep his garnets in better order. These are all under his care; but I suppose there are too many of them for him to look after. The streets of Airolo are paved with them.

May. Paved with garnets?

L. With mica-slate and garnets; I broke this bit out of a paving stone. Now garnets and mica are natural friends, and generally fond of each other; but you see how they quarrel when they are ill brought up. So it is always. Good crystals are friendly with almost all other good crystals, however little they chance to see of each other, or however opposite their habits may be; while wicked crystals quarrel with one another, though they may be exactly alike in habits, and see each other continually. And of course the wicked crystals quarrel with the good ones.

Isabel. Then do the good ones get angry?

L. No, never: they attend to their own work and life; and live it as well as they can, though they are always the sufferers. Here, for instance, is a rock-crystal of the purest race and finest temper, who was born, unhappily for him, in a bad neighbourhood, near Beaufort in Savoy; and he has had to fight with vile calcareous mud all his life. See here, when he was but a child, it came down on him, and nearly buried him; a weaker crystal would have died in despair; but he only gathered himself together, like Hercules against the serpents, and threw a layer of crystal over the clay; conquered it, — imprisoned it, — and lived on. Then, when he was a little older, came more clay; and poured itself upon him here, at the side; and he has laid crystal over that, and lived on, in his purity. Then the clay came on at his angles, and tried to cover them, and round them away; but upon that he threw out buttress-crystals at his angles, all as true to his own central line as chapels round a cathedral apse; and clustered them round the clay; and conquered it again. At last the clay came on at his summit, and tried to blunt his summit; but he could not endure that for an instant; and left his flanks all rough, but pure; and fought the clay at his crest, and built crest over crest, and peak over peak, till the clay surrendered at last; and here is his summit, smooth and pure, terminating a pyramid of alternate clay and crystal, half a foot high!

Lily. Oh, how nice of him! What a dear, brave crystal! But I can’t bear to see his flanks all broken, and the clay within them.

L. Yes; it was an evil chance for him, the being born to such contention; there are some enemies so base that even to hold them captive is a kind of dishonour. But look, here has been quite a different kind of struggle: the adverse power has been more orderly, and has fought the pure crystal in ranks as firm as its own. This is not mere rage and impediment of crowded evil: here is a disciplined hostility; army against army.

Lily. Oh, but this is much more beautiful!

L. Yes, for both the elements have true virtue in them; it is a pity they are at war, but they war grandly.

Mary. But is this the same clay as in the other crystal?

L. I used the word clay for shortness. In both, the enemy is really limestone; but in the first, disordered, and mixed with true clay; while, here, it is nearly pure, and crystallises into its own primitive form, the oblique six-sided one, which you know: and out of these it makes regiments; and then squares of the regiments, and so charges the rock crystal literally in square against column.

Isabel. Please, please, let me see. And what does the rock crystal do?

L. The rock crystal seems able to do nothing. The calcite cuts it through at every charge. Look here, — and here! The loveliest crystal in the whole group is hewn fairly into two pieces.

Isabel. Oh, dear; but is the calcite harder than the crystal then?

L. No, softer. Very much softer.

Mary. But then, how can it possibly cut the crystal?

L. It did not really cut it, though it passes through it. The two were formed together, as I told you; but no one knows how. Still, it is strange that this hard quartz has in all cases a good-natured way with it, of yielding to everything else. All sorts of soft things make nests for themselves in it; and it never makes a nest for itself in anything. It has all the rough outside work; and every sort of cowardly and weak mineral can shelter itself within it. Look; these are hexagonal plates of mica; if they were outside of this crystal they would break, like burnt paper; but they are inside of it, — nothing can hurt them, — the crystal has taken them into its very heart, keeping all their delicate edges as sharp as if they were under water, instead of bathed in rock. Here is a piece of branched silver: you can bend it with a touch of your finger, but the stamp of its every fibre is on the rock in which it lay, as if the quartz had been as soft as wool.

Lily. Oh, the good, good quartz! But does it never get inside of anything?

L. As it is a little Irish girl who asks, I may perhaps answer, without being laughed at, that it gets inside of itself sometimes. But I don’t remember seeing quartz make a nest for itself in anything else.

Isabel. Please, there was something I heard you talking about, last term, with Miss Mary. I was at my lessons, but I heard something about nests; and I thought it was birds’ nests; and I couldn’t help listening; and then, I remember, it was about ‘nests of quartz in granite.’ I remember, because I was so disappointed!

L. Yes, mousie, you remember quite rightly; but I can’t tell you about those nests to-day, nor perhaps to-morrow: but there’s no contradiction between my saying then, and now; I will show you that there is not, some day. Will you trust me meanwhile?

Isabel. Won’t I!

L. Well, then, look, lastly, at this piece of courtesy in quartz; it is on a small scale, but wonderfully pretty. Here is nobly born quartz living with a green mineral, called epidote; and they are immense friends. Now, you see, a comparatively large and strong quartz-crystal, and a very weak and slender little one of epidote, have begun to grow, close by each other, and sloping unluckily towards each other, so that they at last meet. They cannot go on growing together; the quartz crystal is five times as thick, and more than twenty times as strong,1 as the epidote; but he stops at once, just in the very crowning moment of his life, when he is building his own summit! He lets the pale little film of epidote grow right past him; stopping his own summit for it; and he never himself grows any more.

Lily (after some silence of wonder). But is the quartz never wicked then?

L. Yes, but the wickedest quartz seems good-natured, compared to other things. Here are two very characteristic examples; one is good quartz, living with good pearlspar, and the other, wicked quartz, living with wicked pearlspar. In both, the quartz yields to the soft carbonate of iron: but, in the first place, the iron takes only what it needs of room; and is inserted into the planes of the rock crystal with such precision, that you must break it away before you can tell whether it really penetrates the quartz or not; while the crystals of iron are perfectly formed, and have a lovely bloom on their surface besides. But here, when the two minerals quarrel, the unhappy quartz has all its surfaces jagged and torn to pieces; and there is not a single iron crystal whose shape you can completely trace. But the quartz has the worst of it, in both instances.

Violet. Might we look at that piece of broken quartz again, with the weak little film across it? it seems such a strange lovely thing, like the self-sacrifice of a human being.

L. The self-sacrifice of a human being is not a lovely thing, Violet. It is often a necessary and noble thing; but no form nor degree of suicide can be ever lovely.

Violet. But self-sacrifice is not suicide!

L. What is it then?

Violet. Giving up one’s self for another.

L. Well; and what do you mean by ‘giving up one’s self?’

Violet. Giving up one’s tastes, one’s feelings, one’s time, one’s happiness, and so on, to make others happy.

L. I hope you will never marry anybody, Violet, who expects you to make him happy in that way.

Violet (hesitating). In what way?

L. By giving up your tastes, and sacrificing your feelings, and happiness.

Violet. No, no, I don’t mean that; but you know, for other people, one must.

L. For people who don’t love you, and whom you know nothing about? Be it so; but how does this ‘giving up’ differ from suicide then?

Violet. Why, giving up one’s pleasures is not killing one’s self?

L. Giving up wrong pleasure is not; neither is it self-sacrifice, but self-culture. But giving up right pleasure is. If you surrender the pleasure of walking, your foot will wither; you may as well cut it off: if you surrender the pleasure of seeing, your eyes will soon be unable to bear the light; you may as well pluck them out. And to maim yourself is partly to kill yourself. Do but go on maiming, and you will soon slay.

Violet. But why do you make me think of that verse then about the foot and the eye?

L. You are indeed commanded to cut off and to pluck out, if foot or eye offend you; but why should they offend you?

Violet. I don’t know; I never quite understood that.

L. Yet it is a sharp order; one needing to be well understood if it is to be well obeyed! When Helen sprained her ancle the other day, you saw how strongly it had to be bandaged: that is to say, prevented from all work, to recover it. But the bandage was not ‘lovely.’

Violet. No, indeed.

L. And if her foot had been crushed, or diseased, or snake-bitten, instead of sprained, it might have been needful to cut it off. But the amputation would not have been ‘lovely.’

Violet. No.

L. Well, if eye and foot are dead already, and betray you — if the light that is in you be darkness, and your feet run into mischief, or are taken in the snare, — it is indeed time to pluck out, and cut off, I think: but, so crippled, you can never be what you might have been otherwise. You enter into life, at best, halt or maimed; and the sacrifice is not beautiful, though necessary.

Violet (after a pause). But when one sacrifices one’s self for others?

L. Why not rather others for you?

Violet. Oh! but I couldn’t bear that.

L. Then why should they bear it?

Dora (bursting in, indignant). And Thermopylæ, and Protesilaus, and Marcus Curtius, and Arnold de Winkelried, and Iphigenia, and Jephthah’s daughter?

L. (sustaining the indignation unmoved). And the Samaritan woman’s son?

Dora. Which Samaritan woman’s?

L. Read 2 Kings vi. 29.

Dora (obeys). How horrid! As if we meant anything like that!

L. You don’t seem to me to know in the least what you do mean, children. What practical difference is there between ‘that,’ and what you are talking about? The Samaritan children had no voice of their own in the business, it is true; but neither had Iphigenia: the Greek girl was certainly neither boiled, nor eaten; but that only makes a difference in the dramatic effect; not in the principle.

Dora (biting her lip). Well, then, tell us what we ought to mean. As if you didn’t teach it all to us, and mean it yourself, at this moment, more than we do, if you wouldn’t be tiresome!

L. I mean, and have always meant, simply this, Dora; — that the will of God respecting us is that we shall live by each other’s happiness, and life; not by each other’s misery, or death. I made you read that verse which so shocked you just now, because the relations of parent and child are typical of all beautiful human help. A child may have to die for its parents; but the purpose of Heaven is that it shall rather live for them; — that, not by its sacrifice, but by its strength, its joy, its force of being, it shall be to them renewal of strength; and as the arrow in the hand of the giant. So it is in all other right relations. Men help each other by their joy, not by their sorrow. They are not intended to slay themselves for each other, but to strengthen themselves for each other. And among the many apparently beautiful things which turn, through mistaken use, to utter evil, I am not sure but that the thoughtlessly meek and self-sacrificing spirit of good men must be named as one of the fatallest. They have so often been taught that there is a virtue in mere suffering, as such; and foolishly to hope that good may be brought by Heaven out of all on which Heaven itself has set the stamp of evil, that we may avoid it, — that they accept pain and defeat as if these were their appointed portion; never understanding that their defeat is not the less to be mourned because it is more fatal to their enemies than to them. The one thing that a good man has to do, and to see done, is justice; he is neither to slay himself nor others causelessly: so far from denying himself, since he is pleased by good, he is to do his utmost to get his pleasure accomplished. And I only wish there were strength, fidelity, and sense enough, among the good Englishmen of this day, to render it possible for them to band together in a vowed brotherhood, to enforce, by strength of heart and hand, the doing of human justice among all who came within their sphere. And finally, for your own teaching, observe, although there may be need for much self-sacrifice and self-denial in the correction of faults of character, the moment the character is formed, the self-denial ceases. Nothing is really well done, which it costs you pain to do.

Violet. But surely, sir, you are always pleased with us when we try to please others, and not ourselves?

L. My dear child, in the daily course and discipline of right life, we must continually and reciprocally submit and surrender in all kind and courteous and affectionate ways: and these submissions and ministries to each other, of which you all know (none better) the practice and the preciousness, are as good for the yielder as the receiver: they strengthen and perfect as much as they soften and refine. But the real sacrifice of all our strength, or life, or happiness to others (though it may be needed, and though all brave creatures hold their lives in their hand, to be given, when such need comes, as frankly as a soldier gives his life in battle), is yet always a mournful and momentary necessity; not the fulfilment of the continuous law of being. Self-sacrifice which is sought after, and triumphed in, is usually foolish; and calamitous in its issue: and by the sentimental proclamation and pursuit of it, good people have not only made most of their own lives useless, but the whole framework of their religion so hollow, that at this moment, while the English nation, with its lips, pretends to teach every man to ‘love his neighbour as himself,’ with its hands and feet it clutches and tramples like a wild beast; and practically lives, every soul of it that can, on other people’s labour. Briefly, the constant duty of every man to his fellows is to ascertain his own powers and special gifts; and to strengthen them for the help of others. Do you think Titian would have helped the world better by denying himself, and not painting; or Casella by denying himself, and not singing? The real virtue is to be ready to sing the moment people ask us; as he was, even in purgatory. The very word ‘virtue’ means not ‘conduct’ but ‘strength,’ vital energy in the heart. Were not you reading about that group of words beginning with V, — vital, virtuous, vigorous, and so on, — in Max Muller, the other day, Sibyl? Can’t you tell the others about it?

Sibyl. No, I can’t; will you tell us, please?

L. Not now, it is too late. Come to me some idle time to-morrow, and I’ll tell you about it, if all’s well. But the gist of it is, children, that you should at least know two Latin words; recollect that ‘mors’ means death and delaying; and ‘vita’ means life and growing: and try always, not to mortify yourselves, but to vivify yourselves.

Violet. But, then, are we not to mortify our earthly affections? and surely we are to sacrifice ourselves, at least in God’s service, if not in man’s?

L. Really, Violet, we are getting too serious. I’ve given you enough ethics for one talk, I think! Do let us have a little play. Lily, what were you so busy about, at the ant-hill in the wood, this morning?

Lily. Oh, it was the ants who were busy, not I; I was only trying to help them a little.

L. And they wouldn’t be helped, I suppose?

Lily. No, indeed. I can’t think why ants are always so tiresome, when one tries to help them! They were carrying bits of stick, as fast as they could, through a piece of grass; and pulling and pushing, so hard; and tumbling over and over, — it made one quite pity them; so I took some of the bits of stick, and carried them forward a little, where I thought they wanted to put them; but instead of being pleased, they left them directly, and ran about looking quite angry and frightened; and at last ever so many of them got up my sleeves, and bit me all over, and I had to come away.

L. I couldn’t think what you were about. I saw your French grammar lying on the grass behind you, and thought perhaps you had gone to ask the ants to hear you a French verb.

Isabel. Ah! but you didn’t, though!

L. Why not, Isabel? I knew, well enough, Lily couldn’t learn that verb by herself.

Isabel. No; but the ants couldn’t help her.

L. Are you sure the ants could not have helped you, Lily?

Lily (thinking). I ought to have learned something from them, perhaps.

L. But none of them left their sticks to help you through the irregular verb?

Lily. No, indeed. (Laughing, with some others.)

L. What are you laughing at, children? I cannot see why the ants should not have left their tasks to help Lily in her’s, — since here is Violet thinking she ought to leave her tasks, to help God in His. Perhaps, however, she takes Lily’s more modest view, and thinks only that ‘He ought to learn something from her.’

(Tears in Violet’s eyes.)

Dora (scarlet). It’s too bad — it’s a shame:— poor Violet!

L. My dear children, there’s no reason why one should be so red, and the other so pale, merely because you are made for a moment to feel the absurdity of a phrase which you have been taught to use, in common with half the religious world. There is but one way in which man can ever help God — that is, by letting God help him: and there is no way in which his name is more guiltily taken in vain, than by calling the abandonment of our own work, the performance of His.

God is a kind Father. He sets us all in the places where He wishes us to be employed; and that employment is truly ‘our Father’s business.’ He chooses work for every creature which will be delightful to them, if they do it simply and humbly. He gives us always strength enough, and sense enough, for what He wants us to do; if we either tire ourselves or puzzle ourselves, it is our own fault. And we may always be sure, whatever we are doing, that we cannot be pleasing Him, if we are not happy ourselves. Now, away with you, children; and be as happy as you can. And when you cannot, at least don’t plume yourselves upon pouting.

1 Quartz is not much harder than epidote; the strength is only supposed to be in some proportion to the squares of the diameters.

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