R7L17 is a guide to the Ruskin's Seven Lamps of Architecture for seventeen-year old readers. The following annotations refer to Ruskin's "Introductory." See earlier posts that explain the intentions.
The key argument in the Introduction is the need to have clear objectives. Making good judgments, argues Ruskin, is less a problem of execution but more a problem of defining clear goals. ,
[par. 01] This paragraph might be entitled "the right versus the possible." Ruskin introduces this work by referring back to a conversation he had some years ago, as if the conversation still plays out in his mind, and as if the conversation is now extended to us, who enter the scene. The conversation, interestingly enough, is not with a theologian or a philosopher, but with a painter, in fact, the best painter of his age. The interlocutor is distinguished simply for his ability to combine perfection in drawing (the formal qualities of line and composition) with "resplendence" in color. What is "resplendence." It's only the third line into 7L and we encounter an unfamiliar word. "Resplendence" means shining brilliantly. That this particular painter combines those two skills suggests that they are different and, in fact, difficult to combine. Indeed, formal composition, i.e. the making of form (lines, shapes, volumes) is quite different from the coloristic quality of the painted surface. If the former is rational and abstract, the latter is sensual and almost tactile. Good art for Ruskin needs both. It's not particularly important, but the artist that Ruskin is valorizing is William Mulready (1786-1863), a painter best known for his rural scenes. [LESSON: Show an image that illustrates the tensions between forma and color]
The moral of the conversation is encapsulated in Mulready's statement "Know what you have to do, and do it." This directive seems to simple to be useful. It is useful in as far as it points attention to the foreknowledge of what is right as a necessary prerequisite for a successful execution. Ruskin here develops an ethics of action hinged on clarifying objectives and executing on them. Failure comes less from the actuality that resists completion, but more from the inability to hold clear goals. This leads into Aphorism 1: "We may always know what is right; but not always what is possible." With the help of our conscience, our moral self, and our divine self, we can always ascertain what is right. In contrast, we might not always have the necessary data to assess what is possible. Since the possible is indeterminate, we should not use it as a guide. In other words, we should not base what we should do in what we perceive at that particular moment of time as doable. We are better off, basing our actions on what we know is right. Making decisions from the bottom up rather than the top down allows the muddled understanding of what is possible to interfere with the absolutely desirable. So, decide what is right first and execute regardless of the instrumental efficacy. [EXERCISE: Think of a good example in ethical judgement or political choice, where we make a decision made on efficacy; but then something changes and our initial calculation proves to be mistake; in contrast a choice base on principle does not waver or change]
[Par 02] Consideration of architecture need not be different from considerations of actions or politics because architecture is a "distinctively political art." This is an interesting assertion. Ruskin doesn't clarify what he means, but we can think of some possibilities. Since architecture is created by communal resources, then it should be considered a product of "the polity."
Ruskin acknowledges that history has given us a confusing set of traditions regarding architecture. Those might have arisen from constricted situations. Ruskin wants to consider the basis of architecture without tradition. He starts with simple observations of opposites: imagination is different from technicalities; the soul is different from the body. Architecture's job is to unite those extremes, it balances the lower bodily parts of human existence with the simplicity and purity of the higher spiritual elements. If too much attention is given to considerations of material and construction, "the interference of the constructive," then architecture loses the purity and simplicity of its essential character. Ruskin accuses the architects of his time for giving materiality too much attention, obsessing over new material, and suggesting that material alone determines form. In this paragraph, Ruskin associates material/construction with the circumstantial constraints of moral action, hoping to place some primary essence in par with the pure moral right. In other words, just as we need an ethical "right" before we execute any action; we need an architectural "right" before we put it in a material form. The laws of architecture that we come up with will, thus, be pure of material contingencies. They will be universal and always applicable (like the absolutes of morality). The ethical rule "thou shall not kill" should not be contingent on the circumstances of the killing.
[Par 03] Against situational ethics. If we are looking for a universal law, it should not vary according to the kind of art we practice. Whatever holds true for painting should hold true for architecture or music. It should hold "for the horizon of man's action." Interesting how Ruskin uses a landscape metaphor -- the horizon (like "resplendent" color) -- to drive his point. Ruskin makes an interesting sub-point in this paragraph. Even though the situational principal takes its power from the universal, this does not mean that there is any loss, degeneration, or diminution. Principals are not quantitative units that are subdivided into domains; neither are they forces that lose force as they trickle down the metaphysical ladder. This is an important point for the following paragraph, where Ruskin will argue that every action, even menial actions (like the condition of slavery) can theoretically participate in universal redemption.
[Par 04] Finally, Ruskin tells us why he called his principals "Lamps" and not "laws" or "axioms" or "rules." A lamp illuminates us through the dark. A lamp also has potential energy; it can burn. Light cannot be distorted, it will always be light. Even if a light is faint, it is still a light; it has the potential to enlighten and to guide. What are the actual seven lamps? Ruskin hasn't listed them yet beyond the table of contents: 1. Sacrifice, 2. Truth, 3. Power, 4. Beauty, 5. Life, 6. Memory, 7. Obedience. Wow!!! This seems like a list of arbitrary concepts. Why these lamps and not others, and why seven (and not five or nine? Ruskin tells us that his list is not systematic or exhaustive. He chose seven because it was most "convenient" and not out of some master system. Ruskin does not claim to be some systematic philosopher. His lamps are not like laws of nature that could be tested with experiments. He even suggests that there could be more than seven. Thus, the enterprise of talking about lamps, is a process of talking about energy, and discovering about that energy through the process of reading and looking. In Ruskin' own admission, the arrangement is "arbitrary," so we could easily switch the order and the nomenclature is "illogical." Twentieth-century scholars have found Ruskin to be highly inconsistent himself, even between one work and another.
[Par 05] Aphorism 2. Here Ruskin makes the important assertion that all practical laws are exponents of moral laws. In other words, what he had in mind about universal laws, was really all about moral laws. We know right away, that Ruskin must have a much richer notion of morality than a set of rules or laws, an explicit legislation. In the breath of "morality" he is really thinking aspirational "virtues" or the kind of things that spiritual beings possess. And the trickiest part of Ruskin's idea of virtue is that it cuts across all levels of existence from "the works of the hand" (things we make), "the movements of the frame" (what we do with our bodies), and "the action of the intellect" (what we think). Ruskin is not a philosopher, so he will not try to give us exhaustive and complicated arguments about the veracity of his claims. Let's just accept his notion of "fellowship," that what we do in the banal world of our bodies and actions may have some "fellowship," or friendly interaction with spiritual things, like God.
[Par 06] Ruskin will further deepen his notion of fellowship with the divine by showing the most unlikely actions or works can have virtue. This is a crazy idea, right? "the drawing of a line or utterance of a syllable" are capable of dignity. Ruskin thinks that a single sound (a syllable does not even make up a word) can have dignity. Similarly, a simple line that you draw on a white sheet (before it even makes a shape) can also be full of dignity. We'll have to do a couple of exercises in class to really capture this. Basically, Ruskin asserts here that there is no hierarchy or moral ladder. Intellectual pursuits at the top of the moral ladder are no different that banal physical things at the bottom of the moral ladder. Even the worst possible situation, slavery or drudgery, participates in the divine.
For the time being, let's proceed to Ruskin's two quotations that show a further extreme of how something horrible can be in "fellowship" with virtue. Ruskin quotes George Herbert (1593-1633) and his poem "Elixir." Ruskin does not give us this information because he assumes we already know it. Elixir, in Ancient Greek, is a medical powder that literally dries out wounds. Metaphorically, it came to mean the cure for life, with alchemic connotation. The elixir is then a transformative ingredient. In this poem, Herbert argues that there is some ingredient that can transform the drudgery of labor (even of a slave) into a pleasurable thing. Hard work done for good ends becomes tolerable. Thus sweeping the room, the most brainless and demoralizing activity contains some fellowship with the divine.
The second reference in this paragraph is to John Knox (1514-1572). Knox was a leading figure of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, considered the founder of the Presbyterian Church. You can find an image of Knox in the stained glass windows of the Lancaster Theological Seminary across the street. When the French attacked Saint Andrews in 1547, Knox was captured and forced to row in the galleys of the French ships. In this case, slave labor was drudgery but had divine ends.
[Par 07] In the last paragraph and Aphorism 3, Ruskin lights up some fire under us, awakening us to some highly immoral historical era. Keep in mind that Ruskin is writing from the perspective of modernity, witnessing the Industrial Revolution, seeing in front of his eyes the destruction of the environment and the exploitation of human beings in the factory. He is not sheltered in some suburban liberal arts college. He is at the heart of the inner city, at the heart of industrial production. He witnessed evil first hand (as we do when we watch The Wire, or House of Cards).
What is the crux of Aphrism 3? Ruskin basically tells us of two common alternatives that we can witness current even today. One alternative is to tackle the problem from a most theoretical perspective. We can just philosophize endlessly and argue ourselves through all the possibilities, kind of like what you are supposed to be doing in a liberal arts college, turning every "foundational" problem over and over, seeing all its facets through the comfortable distance of a privileged education. The second alternative is to just amuse ourselves, simply make the best of a bad situation by trying to have as much fun as we can. We can party hard and luxuriated in the material pleasure that modernity has made so easy for us. Both alternatives, the common solutions, are a problem for Ruskin. Both are avoidance strategies. The future is full of mystery and must be tackled through direct engagement. Whatever is happening today is exponentially getting worse, "like letting out of water."
Ruskin said a lot of things in the last seven paragraphs. Even if we are not convinced by anything he has said so far, we have at least been introduced to his style of writing and of making his points. To fully immerse in Ruskin's ideas, we will do the following three physical exercises.
EXERCISE 1. I have brought a bucket of water and 12 sponges. I want you to take one sponge and for five minutes to clean one particular part of the classroom. You cannot do this in groups or talk to each other. At the end of this menial activity, I will ask you to make two lists enumerating how this activity was 1) totally worthless, and 2) of some moral value. We will compare our lists and discuss how our action may have been virtuous.
EXERCISE 2. You have been handed a white piece of paper and a Sharpie. Make a line. We will put all our lines up on the wall and compare them. How could our lines have virtue? We can only figure this out if we tackle some actual lines and compare them to each other.
EXERCISE 3. In Par. 06, Ruskin tells us that elements in nature, "the snow, the vapour, and the stormy wind" are somehow magical. We will go outside for five minutes. You must disperse as far away from each other and try to capture one element (sound, sight, object) that is entirely natural, entirely created by nature. Try to capture it. We will return to class, and you'll be asked to explain how your natural observation possesses some kind of mystery, some kind of sense that goes beyond the physical explanation of nature (according to molecules, natural forces, chemical reactions)