The Ethics of the Dust/Lecture 5

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The Ethics of the Dust by John Ruskin
Lecture 5



A quiet talk, in the afternoon, by the sunniest window of the Drawing-room. Present: FLORRIE, ISABEL, MAY, LUCILLA, KATHLEEN, DORA, MARY, and some others, who have saved time for the bye- Lecture.

L. So you have really come, like good girls, to be made ashamed of yourselves?

DORA (very meekly). No, we needn't be made so; we always are.

L. Well, I believe that's truer than most pretty speeches: but you know, you saucy girl, some people have more reason to be so than others. Are you sure everybody is, as well as you?

THE GENERAL VOICE. Yes, yes; everybody.

L. What! Florrie ashamed of herself?

(FLORRIE hides behind the curtain.)

L. And Isabel?

(ISABEL hides under the table.)

L. And Mary?

(MARY runs into the corner behind the piano.)

L. And Lucilla?

(LUCILLA hides her face in her hands.)

L. Dear, dear; but this will never do. I shall have to tell you of the faults of the crystals, instead of virtues, to put you in heart again.

MAY (coming out of her corner). Oh! have the crystals faults, like us?

L. Certainly, May. Their best virtues are shown in fighting their faults; and some have a great many faults; and some are very naughty crystals indeed.

FLORRIE (from behind her curtain). As naughty as me?

ISABEL (peeping out from under the table-cloth). Or me?

L. Well, I don't know. They never forget their syntax, children, when once they've been taught it. But I think some of them are, on the whole, worse than any of you. Not that it's amiable of you to look so radiant, all in a minute, on that account.

DORA. Oh! but it's so much more comfortable.

(Everybody seems to recover their spirits. Eclipse of FLORRIE and ISABEL terminates.)

L. What kindly creatures girls are, after all, to their neighbors' failings! I think you may be ashamed of yourselves indeed, now, children! I can tell you, you shall hear of the highest crystalline merits that I can think of, to-day: and I wish there were more of them; but crystals have a limited, though a stern, code of morals; and their essential virtues are but two;--the first is to be pure, and the second to be well shaped.

MARY. Pure! Does that mean clear--transparent?

L. No; unless in the case of a transparent substance. You cannot have a transparent crystal of gold; but you may have a perfectly pure one.

ISABEL. But you said it was the shape that made things be crystals; therefore, oughtn't their shape to be their first virtue, not their second?

L. Right, you troublesome mousie. But I call their shape only their second virtue, because it depends on time and accident, and things which the crystal cannot help. If it is cooled too quickly, or shaken, it must take what shape it can; but it seems as if, even then, it had in itself the power of rejecting impurity, if it has crystalline life enough. Here is a crystal of quartz, well enough shaped in its way; but it seems to have been languid and sick at heart; and some white milky substance has got into it, and mixed itself up with it, all through. It makes the quartz quite yellow, if you hold it up to the light, and milky blue on the surface. Here is another, broken into a thousand separate facets and out of all traceable shape; but as pure as a mountain spring. I like this one best.

THE AUDIENCE. So do I--and I--and I.

MARY. Would a crystallographer?

L. I think so. He would find many more laws curiously exemplified in the irregularly grouped but pure crystal. But it is a futile question, this of first or second. Purity is in most cases a prior, if not a nobler, virtue; at all events it is most convenient to think about it first.

MARY. But what ought we to think about it? Is there much to be thought--I mean, much to puzzle one?

L. I don't know what you call "much." It is a long time since I met with anything in which there was little. There's not much in this, perhaps. The crystal must be either dirty or clean,--and there's an end. So it is with one's hands, and with one's heart-- only you can wash your hands without changing them, but not hearts, nor crystals. On the whole, while you are young, it will be as well to take care that your hearts don't want much washing; for they may perhaps need wringing also, when they do.

(Audience doubtful and uncomfortable. LUCILLA at last takes courage.)

LUCILLA. Oh! but surely, sir, we cannot make our hearts clean?

L. Not easily, Lucilla; so you had better keep them so, when they are.

LUCILLA. When they are! But, sir--

L. Well?

LUCILLA. Sir--surely--are we not told that they are all evil?

L. Wait a little, Lucilla; that is difficult ground you are getting upon; and we must keep to our crystals, till at least we understand what THEIR good and evil consist in; they may help us afterwards to some useful hints about our own. I said that their goodness consisted chiefly in purity of substance, and perfectness of form: but those are rather the EFFECTS of their goodness, than the goodness itself. The inherent virtues of the crystals, resulting in these outer conditions, might really seem to be best described in the words we should use respecting living creatures-- "force of heart" and "steadiness of purpose." There seem to be in some crystals, from the beginning, an unconquerable purity of vital power, and strength of crystal spirit. Whatever dead substance, unacceptant of this energy, comes in their way, is either rejected, or forced to take some beautiful subordinate form; the purity of the crystal remains unsullied, and every atom of it bright with coherent energy. Then the second condition is, that from the beginning of its whole structure, a fine crystal seems to have determined that it will be of a certain size and of a certain shape; it persists in this plan, and completes it. Here is a perfect crystal of quartz for you. It is of an unusual form, and one which it might seem very difficult to build--a pyramid with convex sides, composed of other minor pyramids. But there is not a flaw in its contour throughout; not one of its myriads of component sides but is as bright as a jeweler's faceted work (and far finer, if you saw it close). The crystal points are as sharp as javelins; their edges will cut glass with a touch. Anything more resolute, consummate, determinate in form, cannot be conceived. Here, on the other hand, is a crystal of the same substance, in a perfectly simple type of form--a plain six-sided prism; but from its base to its point,--and it is nine inches long,--it has never for one instant made up its mind what thickness it will have. It seems to have begun by making itself as thick as it thought possible with the quantity of material at command. Still not being as thick as it would like to be, it has clumsily glued on more substance at one of its sides. Then it has thinned itself, in a panic of economy; then puffed itself out again; then starved one side to enlarge another; then warped itself quite out of its first line. Opaque, rough-surfaced, jagged on the edge, distorted in the spine, it exhibits a quite human image of decrepitude and dishonor; but the worst of all the signs of its decay and helplessness is that half-way up a parasite crystal, smaller, but just as sickly, has rooted itself in the side of the larger one, eating out a cavity round its root, and then growing backwards, or downwards contrary to the direction of the main crystal. Yet I cannot trace the least difference in purity of substance between the first most noble stone, and this ignoble and dissolute one. The impurity of the last is in its will, or want of will.

MARY. Oh, if we could but understand the meaning of it all!

L. We can understand all that is good for us. It is just as true for us as for the crystal, that the nobleness of life depends on its consistency,--clearness of purpose--quiet and ceaseless energy. All doubt and repenting, and botching and re-touching and wondering what will it be best to do next, are vice, as well as misery.

MARY (much wondering). But must not one repent when one does wrong, and hesitate when one can't see one's way?

L. You have no business at all to do wrong, nor to get into any way that you cannot see. Your intelligence should always be far in advance of your act. Whenever you do not know what you are about, you are sure to be doing wrong.

KATHLEEN. Oh, dear, but I never know what I am about!

L. Very true, Katie, but it is a great deal to know, if you know that. And you find that you have done wrong afterwards; and perhaps some day you may begin to know, or at least, think, what you are about.

ISABEL. But surely people can't do very wrong if they don't know, can they? I mean, they can't be very naughty. They can be wrong, like Kathleen or me, when we make mistakes; but not wrong in the dreadful way. I can't express what I mean; but there are two sorts of wrong, are there not?

L. Yes, Isabel; but you will find that the great difference is between kind and unkind wrongs, not between meant and unmeant wrong. Very few people really mean to do wrong,--in a deep sense, none. They only don't know what they are about. Cain did not mean to do wrong when he killed Abel.

(ISABEL draws a deep breath, and opens her eyes very wide.)

L. No, Isabel; and there are countless Cains among us now, who kill their brothers by the score a day, not only for less provocation than Cain had, but for NO provocation,--and merely for what they can make of their bones,--yet do not think they are doing wrong in the least. Then sometimes you have the business reversed, as over in America these last years, where you have seen Abel resolutely killing Cain, and not thinking he is doing wrong The great difficulty is always to open people's eyes: to touch their feelings and break their hearts, is easy, the difficult thing is to break their heads. What does it matter as long as they remain stupid, whether you change their feelings or not? You cannot be always at their elbow to tell them what is right and they may just do as wrong as before or worse, and their best intentions merely make the road smooth for them,--you know where, children. For it is not the place itself that is paved with them as people say so often. You can't pave the bottomless pit, but you may the road to it

MAY. Well, but if people do as well as they can see how, surely that is the right for them, isn't it?

L. No, May, not a bit of it right is right, and wrong is wrong. It is only the fool who does wrong, and says he "did it for the best." And if there's one sort of person in the world that the Bible speaks harder of than another, it is fools. Their particular and chief way of saying "There is no God" is this of declaring that whatever their "public opinion" may be is right and that God's opinion is of no consequence.

MAY. But surely nobody can always know what is right?

L. Yes, you always can, for to-day; and if you do what you see of it to-day, you will see more of it, and more clearly, to-morrow. Here for instance, you children are at school, and have to learn French, and arithmetic, and music, and several other such things. That is your "right" for the present; the "right" for us, your teachers, is to see that you learn as much as you can, without spoiling your dinner, your sleep, or your play; and that what you do learn, you learn well. You all know when you learn with a will, and when you dawdle. There's no doubt of conscience about that, I suppose?

VIOLET. No; but if one wants to read an amusing book, instead of learning one's lesson?

L. You don't call that a "question," seriously, Violet? You are then merely deciding whether you will resolutely do wrong or not.

MARY. But, in after life, how many fearful difficulties may arise, however one tries to know or to do what is right!

L. You are much too sensible a girl, Mary, to have felt that, whatever you may have seen. A great many of young ladies' difficulties arise from their falling in love with a wrong person; but they have no business to let themselves fall in love, till they know he is the right one.

DORA. How many thousands ought he to have a year?

L. (disdaining reply). There are, of course, certain crises of fortune when one has to take care of oneself, and mind shrewdly what one is about. There is never any real doubt about the path, but you may have to walk very slowly.

MARY. And if one is forced to do a wrong thing by some one who has authority over you?

L. My dear, no one can be forced to do a wrong thing, for the guilt is in the will: but you may any day be forced to do a fatal thing, as you might be forced to take poison; the remarkable law of nature in such cases being, that it is always unfortunate YOU who are poisoned, and not the person who gives you the dose. It is a very strange law, but it IS a law. Nature merely sees to the carrying out of the normal operation of arsenic. She never troubles herself to ask who gave it you. So also you may be starved to death, morally as well as physically, by other people's faults. You are, on the whole, very good children sitting here to- day; do you think that your goodness comes all by your own contriving? or that you are gentle and kind because your dispositions are naturally more angelic than those of the poor girls who are playing, with wild eyes, on the dust-heaps in the alleys of our great towns; and who will one day fill their prisons,--or, better, their graves? Heaven only knows where they, and we who have cast them there shall stand at last But the main judgment question will be, I suppose, for all of us, "Did you keep a good heart through it? What you were, others may answer for,-- what you tried to be, you must answer for yourself. Was the heart pure and true--tell us that?

And so we come back to your sorrowful question, Lucilla, which I put aside a little ago. You would be afraid to answer that your heart WAS pure and true, would not you?

LUCILLA. Yes, indeed, sir.

L. Because you have been taught that it is all evil--"only evil continually." Somehow, often as people say that, they never seem, to me, to believe it. Do you really believe it?

LUCILLA. Yes, sir, I hope so.

L. That you have an entirely bad heart?

LUCILLA (a little uncomfortable at the substitution of the monosyllable for the dissyllable, nevertheless persisting in her orthodoxy). Yes, sir.

L. Florrie, I am sure you are tired; I never like you to stay when you are tired; but, you know, you must not play with the kitten while we're talking.

FLORRIE. Oh! but I'm not tired, and I'm only nursing her. She'll be asleep in my lap, directly.

L. Stop! that puts me in mind of something I had to show you, about minerals that are like hair I want a hair out of Tittie's tail.

FLORRIE. (quite rude in her surprise, even to the point of repeating expressions). Out of Tittie's tail!

L. Yes, a brown one Lucilla, you can get at the tip of it nicely, under Florrie's arm, just pull one out for me.

LUCILLA. Oh! but, sir, it will hurt her so!

L. Never mind, she can't scratch you while Florrie is holding her. Now that I think of it you had better pull out two.

LUCILLA. But then she may scratch Florrie! and it will hurt her so sir! if you only want brown hairs, wouldn't two of mine do?

L. Would you really rather pull out your own than Tittie's?

LUCILLA. Oh, of course, if mine will do.

L. But that's very wicked, Lucilla!

LUCILLA. Wicked, sir?

L. Yes, if your heart was not so bad, you would much rather pull all the cat's hairs out, than one of your own.

LUCILLA. Oh! but, sir, I didn't mean bad like that.

L. I believe, if the truth were told, Lucilla, you would like to tie a kettle to Tittie's tail, and hunt her round the playground.

LUCILLA. Indeed, I should not, sir.

L. That's not true, Lucilla; you know it cannot be.


L. Certainly it is not;--how can you possibly speak any truth out of such a heart as you have? It is wholly deceitful.

LUCILLA. Oh! no, no; I don't mean that way; I don't mean that it makes me tell lies, quite out.

L. Only that it tells lies within you?


L. Then, outside of it, you know what is true, and say so; and I may trust the outside of your heart; but within, it is all foul and false. Is that the way?

LUCILLA. I suppose so: I don't understand it quite.

L. There is no occasion for understanding it; but do you feel it? Are you sure that your heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked?

LUCILLA (much relieved by finding herself among phrases with which she is acquainted). Yes, sir. I'm sure of that.

L. (pensively). I'm sorry for it, Lucilla.

LUCILLA. So am I, indeed.

L. What are you sorry with, Lucilla?

LUCILLA. Sorry with, sir?

L. Yes; I mean, where do you feel sorry; in your feet?

LUCILLA (laughing a little). No, sir, of course.

L. In your shoulders, then?

LUCILLA. No, sir.

L. You are sure of that? Because, I fear, sorrow in the shoulders would not be worth much.

LUCILLA. I suppose I feel it in my heart, if I really am sorry.

L. If you really are! Do you mean to say that you are sure you are utterly wicked, and yet do not care?

LUCILLA. No, indeed; I have cried about it often.

L. Well, then, you are sorry in your heart?

LUCILLA. Yes, when the sorrow is worth anything.

L. Even if it be not, it cannot be anywhere else but there. It is not the crystalline lens of your eyes which is sorry, when you cry?

LUCILLA. No, sir, of course.

L. Then, have you two hearts; one of which is wicked, and the other grieved? or is one side of it sorry for the other side?

LUCILLA. (weary of cross-examination, and a little vexed). Indeed, sir, you know I can't understand it; but you know how it is written--"another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind."

L. Yes, Lucilla, I know how it is written; but I do not see that it will help us to know that, if we neither understand what is written, nor feel it. And you will not get nearer to the meaning of one verse, if, as soon as you are puzzled by it, you escape to another, introducing three new words--"law," "members," and "mind"; not one of which you at present know the meaning of; and respecting which, you probably never will be much wiser; since men like Montesquieu and Locke have spent great part of their lives in endeavoring to explain two of them.

LUCILLA. Oh! please, sir, ask somebody else.

L. If I thought any one else could answer better than you, Lucilla, I would: but suppose I try, instead, myself, to explain your feelings to you?

LUCILLA. Oh, yes; please do.

L. Mind, I say your "feelings," not your "belief." For I cannot undertake to explain anybody's beliefs. Still I must try a little, first, to explain the belief also, because I want to draw it to some issue. As far as I understand what you say, or any one else, taught as you have been taught, says, on this matter,--you think that there is an external goodness, a whited-sepulcher kind of goodness, which appears beautiful outwardly, but is within full of uncleanness: a deep secret guilt, of which we ourselves are not sensible; and which can only be seen by the Maker of us all. (Approving murmurs from audience.)

L. Is it not so with the body as well as the soul?

(Looked notes of interrogation.)

L. A skull, for instance, is not a beautiful thing? (Grave faces, signifying "Certainly not," and "What next?")

L. And if you all could see in each other, with clear eyes, whatever God sees beneath those fair faces of yours, you would not like it?

(Murmured No's.)

L. Nor would it be good for you?


L. The probability being that what God does not allow you to see, He does not wish you to see; nor even to think of?

(Silence prolonged.)

L. It would not at all be good for you, for instance, whenever you were washing your faces, and braiding your hair, to be thinking of the shapes of the jawbones, and of the cartilage of the nose, and of the jagged sutures of the scalp?

(Resolutely whispered No's.)

L. Still less, to see through a clear glass the daily processes of nourishment and decay?


L. Still less if instead of merely inferior and preparatory conditions of structure, as in the skeleton,--or inferior offices of structure, as in operations of life and death,--there were actual disease in the body, ghastly and dreadful. You would try to cure it; but having taken such measures as were necessary, you would not think the cure likely to be promoted by perpetually watching the wounds, or thinking of them. On the contrary, you would be thankful for every moment of forgetfulness: as, in daily health, you must be thankful that your Maker has veiled whatever is fearful in your frame under a sweet and manifest beauty; and has made it your duty, and your only safety, to rejoice in that, both in yourself and in others;--not indeed concealing, or refusing to believe in sickness, if it come; but never dwelling on it.

Now, your wisdom and duty touching soul-sickness are just the same. Ascertain clearly what is wrong with you; and so far as you know any means of mending it, take those means, and have done; when you are examining yourself, never call yourself merely a "sinner," that is very cheap abuse; and utterly useless. You may even get to like it, and be proud of it. But call yourself a liar, a coward, a sluggard, a glutton, or an evil-eyed, jealous wretch, if you indeed find yourself to be in any wise any of these. Take steady means to check yourself in whatever fault you have ascertained, and justly accused yourself of. And as soon as you are in active way of mending, you will be no more inclined to moan over an undefined corruption. For the rest, you will find it less easy to uproot faults, than to choke them by gaining virtues. Do not think of your faults; still less of others' faults: in every person who comes near you, look for what is good and strong: honor that; rejoice in it; and, as you can, try to imitate it: and your faults will drop off like dead leaves, when their time comes. If, on looking back, your whole life should seem rugged as a palm-tree stem; still, never mind, so long as it has been growing; and has its grand green shade of leaves, and weight of honeyed fruit, at top. And even if you cannot find much good in yourself at last, think that it does not much matter to the universe either what you were, or are; think how many people are noble, if you cannot be; and rejoice in THEIR nobleness. An immense quantity of modern confession of sin, even when honest, is merely a sickly egotism; which will rather gloat over its own evil, than lose the centralization of its interest in itself.

MARY. But then, if we ought to forget ourselves so much, how did the old Greek proverb "Know thyself" come to be so highly esteemed?

L. My dear, it is the proverb of proverbs; Apollo's proverb, and the sun's--but do you think you can know yourself by looking INTO yourself? Never. You can know what you are, only by looking OUT of yourself. Measure your own powers with those of others; compare your own interests with those of others; try to understand what you appear to them, as well as what they appear to you; and judge of yourselves, in all things, relatively and subordinately; not positively: starting always with a wholesome conviction of the probability that there is nothing particular about you. For instance, some of you perhaps think you can write poetry. Dwell on your own feelings; and doings:--and you will soon think yourselves Tenth Muses; but forget your own feeling; and try, instead, to understand a line or two of Chaucer or Dante: and you will soon begin to feel yourselves very foolish girls--which is much like the fact.

So, something which befalls you may seem a great misfortune,--you meditate over its effects on you personally: and begin to think that it is a chastisement, or a warning, or a this or that or the other of profound significance; and that all the angels in heaven have left their business for a little while, that they may watch its effects on your mind. But give up this egotistic indulgence of your fancy; examine a little what misfortunes, greater a thousand- fold, are happening, every second, to twenty times worthier persons: and your self-consciousness will change into pity and humility; and you will know yourself so far as to understand that "there hath nothing taken thee but what is common to man."

Now, Lucilla, these are the practical conclusions which any person of sense would arrive at, supposing the texts which relate to the inner evil of the heart were as many, and as prominent, as they are often supposed to be by careless readers. But the way in which common people read their Bibles is just like the way that the old monks thought hedgehogs ate grapes. They rolled themselves (it was said), over and over, where the grapes lay on the ground. What fruit stuck to their spines, they carried off, and ate. So your hedgehoggy readers roll themselves over and over their Bibles, and declare that whatever sticks to their own spines is Scripture, and that nothing else is. But you can only get the skins of the texts that way. If you want their juice, you must press them in cluster. Now, the clustered texts about the human heart, insist, as a body, not on any inherent corruption in all hearts, but on the terrific distinction between the bad and the good ones. "A good man, out of the good treasure of his heart, bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man, out of the evil treasure, bringeth forth that which is evil." "They on the rock are they which, in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it." "Delight thyself in the Lord, and He shall give thee the desires of thine heart." "The wicked have bent their bow, that they may privily shoot at him that is upright in heart." And so on; they are countless, to the same effect. And, for all of us, the question is not at all to ascertain how much or how little corruption there is in human nature; but to ascertain whether, out of all the mass of that nature, we are of the sheep or the goat breed; whether we are people of upright heart, being shot at, or people of crooked heart, shooting. And, of all the texts bearing on the subject, this, which is a quite simple and practical order, is the one you have chiefly to hold in mind. "Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life."

LUCILLA. And yet, how inconsistent the texts seem!

L. Nonsense, Lucilla! do you think the universe is bound to look consistent to a girl of fifteen? Look up at your own room window; --you can just see it from where you sit. I'm glad that it is left open, as it ought to be, in so fine a day. But do you see what a black spot it looks, in the sunlighted wall?

LUCILLA. Yes, it looks as black as ink.

L. Yet you know it is a very bright room when you are inside of it; quite as bright as there is any occasion for it to be, that its little lady may see to keep it tidy. Well, it is very probable, also, that if you could look into your heart from the sun's point of view, it might appear a very black hole indeed: nay, the sun may sometimes think good to tell you that it looks so to Him; but He will come into it, and make it very cheerful for you, for all that, if you don't put the shutters up. And the one question for YOU, remember, is not "dark or light?" but "tidy or untidy?" Look well to your sweeping and garnishing; and be sure it is only the banished spirit, or some of the seven wickeder ones at his back, who will still whisper to you that it is all black.