JOHN RUSKIN'S POLITICS AND NATURAL LAW: AN INTELLECTUAL BIOGRAPHY by Graham A. MacDonald, Reviewed by Richard Lansdown
 

JOHN RUSKIN'S POLITICS AND NATURAL LAW: AN INTELLECTUAL BIOGRAPHY
By Graham A. MacDonald
(Palgrave Macmillan 2018) xxii + 276 pp
Reviewed by Richard Lansdown on 2018-12-03.

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Right now, the study of Ruskin is thriving. In the world of academic publishing, essay-collections on him include Ruskin and Modernism (ed. Giovanni Cianci and Peter Nicholls, 2001), Ruskin and Gender (ed. Dinah Birch and Francis O'Gorman, 2002), Ruskin in Perspective: Contemporary Essays (ed. Carmen Casaliggi and Paul March-Russell, 2010), Persistent Ruskin: Studies in Influence, Assimilation, and Effect (ed. Keith Hanley and Brian Maidment, 2013), and the excellent Cambridge Companion to John Ruskin (ed. Francis O'Gorman, 2015). We have had important detailed studies, too, of Ruskin's Educational Ideas (Sara Attwood, 2007), reviewed elsewhere on this site, Ruskin and Social Reform (Gill Cockram, 2007), and the vagaries of St. George's Guild (Mark Frost, 2014). Last but not least have come two superb and long-overdue exhibitions of his art: John Ruskin: Artist and Observer, curated by Christopher Newall, at the National Galleries of Canada and Scotland in 2014, and John Ruskin: Le pietre di Venezia, curated by Anna Ottani Cavina, at the Ducal Palace in Venice, in association with the Museo dell'Opera there, in 2018. Even the more modest G. F. Watts Gallery in Surrey held John Ruskin: Photographer and Draughtsman, curated by Stephen Wildman, in 2014. Ruskin undeniably persists.

But in the public imagination Ruskin remains a somewhat distant planet. In recent films and television series (Desperate Romantics, on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, of 2009, for example, and Mr. Turner and Effie Gray, both 2014), he comes across not as Britain's greatest nineteenth-century intellectual but rather as a lisping dilettante or a walking refrigerator. But seeing him as an intellectual heavyweight means grasping his diverse output as a whole. The essay collections and specialist monographs listed above do not satisfy the need for overall studies, and while we have useful redactions of Modern Painters (David Barrie, 1989), The Stones of Venice (Jan Morris, 1981), and Fors Clavigera (Dinah Birch, 2000), the magnificent originals remain out of print; faute de mieux, the everyday reader must depend on World's Classics and Penguin selections-- welcome as they are, of course. My own new Ruskin anthology in OUP's Twenty-First Century Writers series, due in April 2019, may help to expose him further, but more studies of Ruskin's thinking as a whole would strongly encourage students and readers to put him together intellectually, rather than in terms of his dismal love life or his heroic advocacy of Turner and the PRB.

Alas and alack, I fear that Graham MacDonald's apparently promising book will not serve this end as well as it might. An intellectual rather than personal biography of Ruskin would be most welcome; a study of the politics of the man who described himself alternately as "a violent Tory of the old school" and "reddest also of the red" could also untangle a knotty skein; and the application of "Natural Law" principles to Ruskin's thought as a whole might give us a perspective on many of his interests, from the place of Turner in landscape art to Natural Theology, and from Ruskin's advocacy of the dignity of labour in "The Nature of Gothic" and Unto This Last to his boundless interest in natural history, from ornithology to geology to meteorology. But this new study mostly suffers defeat at the hands of its own ambition, and never quite integrates the three elements of life, politics, and law. The author -- manifestly something of an autodidact -- is not a serving academic but has variously worked "as a teacher, librarian, park planner, heritage consultant" (rear cover), and for ten years as National Park Historian for Parks Canada, Western Region. Heaven knows, there is nothing wrong with that. Since Ruskin had many interests and must be the greatest autodidact in English literature, he would surely have approved MacDonald's background in teaching, books, heritage, and wilderness management. Often enough the academic business needs a talented outsider to disinter issues and ideas it has contrived to bury. So the lack of discipline on show here is not necessarily un-academic; it is regrettable in any terms, and under any intellectual regime.

The book is oddly structured from the start. The preface is followed by an Introduction that substantially repeats it; the Introduction is labelled Chapter One; each chapter has not only endnotes but also a superfluous bibliography in a different style of citation. There are probably too many notes anyway (especially of the "For x see y..." variety), and as the book constantly refers to the Cook and Wedderburn Works, a parenthetical in-text reference system would have abbreviated them still further.

There are also too many needless illustrations tucked arbitrarily between the chapters. In an academic monograph I do not think we need portraits of Charles Lyell, William Buckland, Euphemia Gray, Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, Max Müller, and Thomas More, or a reproduction of Turner's Slave Ship, or a title page of Keble's edition of Hooker's Works, or a late-Victorian illustration depicting the Three Fates. Many of the captions to these illustrations list as credits what are in fact only sources, so the publisher has had to issue an online erratum to cover those oversights. Finally, the index is patchy in the extreme, with individuals listed or not on no clear principle. The entry on Ruskin himself was bound to be complicated, but his listed works include an inexplicable set of sub-entries: "essay on literature," "letters on politics," "proserpina" [sic], and "works." Time and Tide is discussed at length, as one would expect, but does not figure in the index at all.

Besides these oddities, the typos, inaccuracies, and inconsistencies are legion. "Fredrich" Max Müller (xi) reappears as "Frederic" (7); neither is correct. Jacob Burckhardt loses the "c" in his surname (66) just as Auguste Comte gains a "p" in his (184, 243), and the history magazine Past and Present loses its conjunction (112) just as Hazlitt's book becomes The Spirt of the Age (114). We are introduced to "George Merideth" (77), "Nomran Gash" (79), "J. F. Watts" (83), and the Bishop of Natal, William "Collenso" (124). Daniel O'Connell becomes "McConnell" in the very next line (233) -- unless there is an Irish nationalist of that name: if there is, the index does not list him. Johns Hopkins University loses its "Press," and another source is listed as published in "New Brusnwick" (xiii) just as another is said to emanate from "St Albands" (211). We get "discretely" for discreetly(3), "Hobbsian" for Hobbesian (4), "much-altered" for much altered (16), "idealogical" for ideological, "ancienne regime" for ancien regime (51), "guarantying" for guaranteeing (126), and "thirteen century" for thirteenth century (135). Misplaced commas abound (especially before parentheses), apostrophes interfere with standard plurals, and pronouns sometimes disagree with their antecedents.

Enough. The book went to the printers without benefit of clergy, but arguably not much of the above actually interferes with the sense of the text. More troubling are the repetitions in this book, which really do distract the reader with uncanny feelings of déjà vu. A paragraph on pages x-xi is repeated substantially on page 7; we are told that Ruskin used Natural Law "like a moral sledge hammer" on pages xi and 7; "Pascal's Wager" (un-glossed) figures on pages 8 and 15; a reference to Steven Lukes' Liberals and Cannibals on page xiii ("a lucid exploration of these questions") is repeated on page 17 ("a stimulating discussion of these topics"); a number of paragraphs on pages 5-6 are repeated in substance on pages 155-6; a passage on Renaissance Italian city states is more or less repeated between pages 199 and 230, and a passage on Cistercian monks re-appears between pages 204 and 222. Repetitions like these undermine our trust in the material: trust built on the belief, of course, that the author has read his or her own work often enough to make surviving mistakes minor distractions at the worst.

What survives are seven chapters surveying Ruskin's socio-political attitudes in sequence, from Modern Painters to Fors Clavigera and the Guild of St George, with important stress on Notes on the Construction of Sheepfolds, The Political Economy of Art, Munera Pulveris, and Unto This Last along the way -- exactly as one would expect. The best thing on offer, picked up fairly consistently if not systematically, is the author's linking of this political material to the history of English church government, to Hooker's Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, and to the ongoing settlements of the Church of England from the Reformation to the Victorian age. "The underlying platform of [Ruskin's] political and religious outlook," the author suggests,

was built upon natural law assumptions. Rumours of the passing of natural law as a basis of public ethics and politics have often been heard but just as regularly denied, even by essentially secular theorists of law. Unlike the detailed enquiries of modern philosophers into the existence or non-existence of natural law as a viable doctrine, Ruskin acknowledged the term in a straightforward way. Natural law was something shaped by the larger and incomprehensible workings of the Divine Wisdom. The principle was self-evidently at work in both social and scientific spheres and it amounted to a given in the underpinnings of all worlds of experience. (224)

In the aftermath of Tudor Reformation, MacDonald argues, Hooker sought in his Laws to further an Elizabethan "via media" (54) based on the "four levels of Natural Law as developed earlier by Thomas Aquinas" (32) and embodied in Catholicism. That vision of law, MacDonald writes, persisted in England, "endorsing [so far as Ruskin was concerned, at least] a distinctive version of human rights and obligations which contrasted strongly with post-Hobbesian, utilitarian and secular liberal counterparts in which an individual's 'subjective rights' are understood to precede the claims of general good" (4). And so it is that after Time and Tide we see Ruskin exchange an "essentially statist model of comprehensive reform in favour of the small-scale and the local, what today would be considered 'green' models of enterprise...with roots in ancient classical, patristic and medieval ethical premises with their attendant visions of the good life" (4). Thus, after 1870, "Ruskin's theological position continued its retreat from the sectarian [in the Sheepfolds pamphlet of 1851] and broadened into a latitudinarian ethical creed more distinctly informed by natural law" (189), accompanied by a growing interest in "social pluralism" (5).

One gets the feeling that something of importance is being excavated here--if only it could come into the light more clearly! Hooker's Laws and "the flowering of Caroline moral theology" (165), the cruelties of the New Poor Law of 1834 (also intermittently taken up), the (natural?) authoritarianism of Governor Eyre in Jamaica, Natural Theology, natural philosophy, the Great Chain of Being, Ruskin's "need to resolve...the conflicts which his possession of undeniable new scientific knowledge presented to the moral claims imposed by his domestic evangelical upbringing" (165), the nature of Calvinism, the nature of Utilitarianism, the claims of conduct versus doctrine (63), the principle of loyalty as laid out in Seven Lamps of Architecture, the Pelagian heresy, episcopacy, the "practical enforcement of Divine Law" insisted upon in The Political Economy of Art (93), the "imperative law" of the state and the "moral law" that underlies marriage discussed in Time and Tide (129, 132), the canons of pre-Reformation England (134), the law of the medieval guilds, "the corporatist historical traditions of England" (200) and its adherence to principles of "mixed government" (228): all these things emerge, re-emerge, and float away without getting anchored in a clear sense of what Natural Law actually is, what it does, and the extent to which it endured in post-Hobbesian, post-Enlightenment Britain.

It is an elusive concept, to be sure -- perhaps even an inherently paradoxical one -- but then Ruskin frequently took up paradoxes; his brand of moral authoritarianism, so closely bound up with Christian tradition but accompanied by a passionate interest in Greek thought (above all, Plato) and by a growing sympathy for Catholicism (via its art), does seem to me likely to have important roots in this kind of immemorial deism. Which is to say that the study is on to something, but struggles to explain it lucidly. MacDonald gathers wool like fury, issues non-sequiturs at will, and lapses into long stretches of textual and historical summary that are by no means self-evidently related to the issues at hand. He takes terms and historical understandings for granted in ways that will leave some readers seriously at sea. Rather than reckoning with contemporary Ruskin scholarship, he generally prefers to cite scholars who are venerable but no longer fully up to date on the issues concerned: scholars such as Hanna Arendt, Isaiah Berlin, G. D. H. Cole, Michael Oakeshott, J. H. Plumb, R. H. Tawney, A. J. P. Taylor, G. M. Trevelyan, and Hugh Trevor-Roper. Perhaps MacDonald is most at ease in his later chapters, on the St George's Guild and on what Ruskin did rather than what he thought and wrote. If what I have attempted to summarize strikes a chord, readers must consult the text for themselves and cope with its peculiarities as best they can.

In any case, reading the book is something like visiting a cave with a guide holding a low-powered torch: one feels the presence of something out there in the darkened space, and once in a while a telling point flashes tantalizingly into view. But the path is hard to follow.

Richard Lansdown is Professor of Modern English Literature and Culture at the University of Groningen, Netherlands.


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