John Ruskin, from Lectures on Art

[Click on image to enlarge] John Ruskin (1819–1900) was both the leading Victorian critic of art and an important critic of society (see NAEL 2.1425). In 1870, he was appointed Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford. "There clung to his person, as to his reputation, the charisma of a prophet," says James Morris. "He spoke, we are told, 'in a mediaeval way,' his pronunciation archaic, his Rs peculiarly rolled, and his words remained in the memory like music. Ruskin talked much nonsense in his time, but when he struck one of his grand themes the effect was unforgettable."

Imperial Duty was the subject of Ruskin's inaugural lecture at Oxford, delivered to a packed audience on February 8, 1870, and its effects would be felt far beyond the shores of the British Isles. The lecture was published in his Lectures on Art (1894).

"Imperial Duty"

There is a destiny now possible to us — the highest ever set before a nation to be accepted or refused. We are still undegenerate in race; a race mingled of the best northern blood. We are not yet dissolute in temper, but still have the firmness to govern, and the grace to obey. We have been taught a religion of pure mercy, which we must either now betray, or learn to defend by fulfilling. And we are rich in an inheritance of honour, bequeathed to us through a thousand years of noble history, which it should be our daily thirst to increase with splendid avarice, so that Englishmen, if it be a sin to covet honour, should be the most offending souls alive. >> note 1 Within the last few years we have had the laws of natural science opened to us with a rapidity which has been blinding by its brightness; and means of transit and communication given to us, which have made but one kingdom of the habitable globe. One kingdom; but who is to be its king? Is there to be no king in it, think you, and every man to do that which is right in his own eyes? Or only kings of terror, and the obscene empires of Mammon and Belial? >> note 2 Or will you, youths of England, make your country again a royal throne of kings; a sceptred isle, >> note 3 for all the world a source of light, a centre for peace; mistress of Learning and of the Arts; — faithful guardian of great memories in the midst of irreverent and ephemeral visions; — faithful servant of time-tried principles, under temptation from fond experiments and licentious desires; and amidst the cruel and clamorous jealousies of the nations, worshipped in her strange valour of goodwill towards men?

"Vexilla regis prodeunt." >> note 4 Yes, but of which king? There are the two oriflammes; >> note 5 which shall we plant on the farthest islands, — the one that floats in heavenly fire, or that hangs heavy with foul tissue of terrestrial gold? There is indeed a course of beneficent glory open to us, such as never was yet offered to any poor group of mortal souls. But it must be — it is with us, now, "Reign or Die." And if it shall be said of this country, "fece per viltate, il gran rifiuto;" >> note 6 that refusal of the crown will be, of all yet recorded in history, the shamefullest and most untimely.

And this is what she must either do, or perish: she must found colonies as fast and as far as she is able, formed of her most energetic and worthiest men; — seizing every piece of fruitful waste ground she can set her foot on, and there teaching these her colonists that their chief virtue is to be fidelity to their country, and that their first aim is to be to advance the power of England by land and sea: and that, though they live on a distant plot of ground, they are no more to consider themselves therefore disenfranchised from their native land, than the sailors of her fleets do, because they float on distant waves. So that literally, these colonies must be fastened fleets; and every man of them must be under authority of captains and officers, whose better command is to be over fields and streets instead of ships of the line; and England, in these her motionless navies (or, in the true and mightiest sense, motionless churches, ruled by pilots on the Galilean lake >> note 7 of all the world), is to "expect every man to do his duty;" >> note 8 recognising that duty is indeed possible no less in peace than war; and that if we can get men, for little pay, to cast themselves against cannon-mouths for love of England, we may find men also who will plough and sow for her, who will behave kindly and righteously for her, who will bring up their children to love her, and who will gladden themselves in the brightness of her glory, more than in all the light of tropic skies.

But that they may be able to do this, she must make her won majesty stainless; she must give them thoughts of their home of which they can be proud. The England who is to be mistress of half the earth, cannot remain herself a heap of cinders, trampled by contending and miserable crowds; she must yet again become the England she was once, and in all beautiful ways, — more: so happy, so secluded, and so pure, that in her sky — polluted by no unholy clouds — she may be able to spell rightly of every star that heaven doth show; and in her fields, ordered and wide and fair, of every herb that sips the dew; and under the green avenues of her enchanted garden, a sacred Circe, >> note 9 true Daughter of the Sun, she must guide the human arts, and gather the divine knowledge, of distant nations, transformed from savageness to manhood, and redeemed from despairing into peace.

You think that an impossible ideal. Be it is; refuse to accept it if you will; but see that you form your own in its stead. All that I ask of you is to have a fixed purpose of some kind for your country and yourselves; no matter how restricted, so that it be fixed and unselfish.


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