Littell's Living Age/Volume 133/Issue 1717/Mr. Ruskin's Will

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From The Spectator.


Of all the qualities appertaining to men, and sometimes found even in great men, the one which is becoming most rare in our days is childlikeness. We do not mean childishness, of course, — there is enough and to spare of that, particularly among politicians, — but childlikeness, the genuine simplicity of character which is not directness and not humility — being consistent occasionally with much consciousness and some innocent vanity — but is something per se, a combination of simplicity and effusiveness with the fearlessness which accompanies inexperience. Goldsmith possessed the quality always, and Wordsworth manifested it at times — whenever the bizarre streak in his character, his pecuniary over-frugality, was not operative — Hans Christian Andersen displayed it in annoying perfection — there was something in him, according to the best accounts, of the child's shamelessness as well as of the child's simplicity — and his friends attribute it, we do not know with what justice, to the American poet, Longfellow, but it is becoming rarer every day. The special culture of the hour, with its eternal demand for self-examination, is growing more and more fatal to it, and the next generation, whether they profess to be doves or not, will not forget that Christ told them also to be serpents. It is therefore with a sense of keen intellectual pleasure that we have read the last "Fors Clavigera" in which Mr. Ruskin reveals so fully this element in his character, and in the most exquisite of English explains the ruinous theories about interest and capital on which he has acted through life; gossips away about his fortune and what he has done with most of it, and what he intends to do with the remainder; recapitulates his larger charities, and pardons a non-paying cousin a heavy debt — that cousin's life for a few weeks will be rather a burden to him — and, as it were, reads his will aloud in the market-place, quite simply and like a child, yet with an obvious trace of the feeling which the child expressed, when after refusing a second help of strawberries, she remarked, "Grandmamma, I am tho thatithfied with mythelf." Not that Mr. Ruskin, any more than the child, is proud of the self-sacrifice incidentally involved in his acts. He has merely acted up to his idea, but having acted up to it, he has a little glow of pleasurable self-satisfaction, which he is impelled to mention to his friends, — say, three-fourths of English-speaking and cultivated mankind. "I begin to think," he mentions, "that there is something of the great man about me." He has no fear of being accounted silly, no dread any more than a favored child of want of sympathy, no notion of the half-impression of immodesty with which Englishmen, in their Philistine reticence, receive any communication about very private pecuniary affairs. He says nothing he ought not to have said — though perhaps the cousin forgiven that debt of £15,000 may feel his cheek burn a little — nothing to which the sharpest critic would object if he had said it in an autobiography to be published posthumously, and yet one reads it with a sense that the mind of the man who could say it is not as the mind of other men, that the lofty genius belongs to one who remains and will remain forever a child, a child in the Goldsmith sense, not the Harold Skimpole sense, — a child, let us add, in that highest sense in which the greatest Christian teachers have for ages made of the word a term of admiration.

Mr. Ruskin deserves, at all events, the credit of having lived up to an idea. He seems at a very early age to have imbibed a theory of which there are deep traces in all the Asiatic creeds, which is still curiously general in Asia as a counsel of perfection, and is perhaps one reason why Asiatic money-lenders are so very hard, and which is far from unknown in England — two apparently acute City men once, in our hearing, wasted an hour in most earnest and obviously sincere defence of the theory — that it is wrong to take interest in any shape in excess of principal, that when money has once been repaid, it is morally wrong to receive any more. He has held it from the beginning, and holds it now with such force, that unless we misconceive a slightly obscure passage, he can see no good in poor Dr. Fraser, because he consents to be bishop of the paradise of percentages, yet does not rebuke the sin. Unlike most upholders of the fancy — unlike, for instance, we believe, Mr. Sillar, Mr. Ruskin's master in its propagation — the great art-critic is partly logical — only partly — and applies his theory even to rent, surrendering a valuable property in Marylebone in the following terms: "I shall make over the Marylebone property entirely to the St. George's Company, under Miss Hill's superintendence always. I have had the value of it back in interest, and have no business now to keep it any more," thus deciding against himself as the French Communist decided against the noble, — "You have had the estate, as you prove, for eight hundred years. It is time your poor neighbor had his turn." Mr. Ruskin, of course, is not quite logical, for he altogether fails to perceive that in giving away his property he performs a supreme act of ownership, asserts in the most emphatic way that he has the right which he disclaims, and is inconsistent with himself, as he also is in another respect. He owns some bank-shares, which because the bank has distributed or will distribute more money than they cost, have tripled in value, and he does not reject that increment as he clearly ought to do, but rather pats himself on the back on account of that one successful investment. "I'm not always," he seems to say, "such a bad business man." It is, however, absurd to expect logical consistency from a man whose rule of consistency is to think himself consistent as long as he is consistently unselfish and faithful to his notions, and Mr. Ruskin has been both. He inherited £157,000 from his father and mother in cash, besides other possessions; and partly by bad investments, — he lost £20,000 on some mortgages he had been advised to take, and gives his bad counsellors a gently humorous slap for it; partly by gifts to poor relations, — he gave them straight out £17,000, and has had, he says, his interest in happiness, and "lost," it is his own word, £15,000 to the pardoned cousin afore-mentioned; partly by expenses on his country-house, which he puts down at £15,000; partly by gifts to Sheffield and Oxford — £ 14,000 — but principally by a "carefully restricted yearly spending of £5,500 for thirteen years," he has sacrificed £151,000 of his fortune, and but that his father's properties and pictures remain, and are greatly enhanced in value, would be in an unpleasant position even from his own point of view. Still, he really has acted up to his idea, and it is difficult to know whether most to wonder at the grotesque moral economic fancy which could so beguile a brain on many sides so keen, or to admire the persevering determination to do what he thought right at the risk of any consequences to himself. As it happens, his mode of life has not done him all the harm that might have been expected, for he has still £57,000 left, arising from the increased value of certain possessions, and though he at once proceeds in public to give most of this away, chucking a competence into one relative's lap as if it were a bouquet of field flowers, still he retains for himself his house, and £3,000 to be spent this year "in amusing himself at Venice or elsewhere," and £12,000 to be invested in consols, to supply the £360 a year on which a bachelor gentleman ought to live, or if he cannot, "deserves speedily to die." All this is explained in print, in letters addressed to working-men to whom he has been a benefactor, and who, though worshipping him, will probably no more understand why he thinks he must only take interest for thirty-three years, than why it seems to him perfectly reasonable to expend £3,000 in one last year of "amusing himself" at Venice or elsewhere. Could he not give that box of myrrh to the poor too? They will probably decide, with the majority, not as Mr. Ruskin decides, "I am beginning, for the first time in my life, to admit some notion into my head that I am a great man," but that he is "an utterly good one, though a little cracky," the very form of his goodness puzzling them inexpressibly. And certainly no form of goodness less like the regular English Protestant respectable Islington ideal, even when a very noble one, could be imagined. That a wealthy man should lead a life of strenuous self-denial for others' sake, enjoying poverty and welcoming hardness of life in order that others may cease to suffer, is, fortunately, no rare spectacle in England. Nor is voluntary poverty, as a form of asceticism, a training of the whole nature, at all beyond the conception of our countrymen, or even, in some rare cases, their habitual practice; while instances of self-denial for a definite object, to perform a definite duty, are happily common enough, if only in the vulgar way of sparing in order to pay off debts owed by another. But that a man should be at once art-critic and philanthropist, virtuoso and fanatic for an inconvenient idea; that he should be sensitively alive to the sensuous luxury of art in all aspects, moved throughout his being by a glorious glimpse of color or of form, yet benevolent to extremity, that he should unite the qualities of collector and of ascetic, — this is as nearly inconceivable to them as that a man should be at once martyr and aristocrat, saint and sacerdotalist, proud to insanity of birth, fanatically haughty as to his priesthood, yet willing to lay down life in succoring the plague-stricken people whom in health he still held by some law of nature to be less than, as a cardinal and a noble, he himself was. Catholics only, and Catholics of the mystical sort, will quite appreciate the manner of man that Mr. Ruskin — if indeed his powers remain intact — must be, not Protestants of Islington. They reverence Christ as he does; but Christ in the manger, the child-Christ of Matthew Arnold and the Catholics, is not the one that they adore.

It is not worth while, perhaps, to offer a serious argument against Mr. Ruskin's conclusions. The temptation of Englishmen is not towards his views of property, his generosity, or his fanaticism for an unprofitable idea. The English world is not injured, is rather benefited, by a solitary example of a man who, keenly aware of all that wealth can give him in collecting the treasures he values, is still so utterly and yet not scornfully contemptuous, not only of accumulating, but even of preserving what he has. But as we have mentioned his statement, we may just say that we doubt whether mere abandonment of money is a virtue, whether it is not open to the objection which has always made reasoners think the self-mutilation of Hindoo ascetics morally wrong. What right have you to abandon a power which the very capacity of abandoning it shows that you can profitably use?