'Who Wants Authority?' Ruskin as a Dissenter

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This article explores John Ruskin's relations with cultural authority in terms of his religious history. Early evangelicalism and Romanticism, and an intense training in biblical interpretation, established a questioning and inward approach to knowledge that he never lost, though it was always supported by a deference to what he considered to be divine truth. The article argues that hostility to dogmatic Protestantism in his later years, and a more sympathetic understanding of Catholicism, did not erase this dissenting habit of thought, and that the fundamental literary paradigm of Ruskin's mature social polemic continues to be that of the sermon.

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'Who wants authority?' Ruskin put this question in 'Science in her Cells', a pamphlet published in 1885 as part of his serial textbook on botany, Proserpina (1875-86). His challenge reflects the deepening hostility towards the scientific establishment that characterizes his years as Oxford's Slade Professor of Fine Art (1869-85), a period in which he combined his work as an art historian with a polemical defiance of social and scientific progressive thought. Recommending that his readers should buy a copy of a French botanical reference book, Louis Figuier's Histoires des plantes (1865), he remarks:

The botanists, indeed, tell me proudly, 'Figuier is no authority.' But who wants authority? Is there nothing known yet about plants, then, which can be taught to a boy or girl, without referring them to an 'authority'? I, for my own part, care only to gather what Figuier can teach concerning things visible, to any boy or girl, who live within reach of a bramble hedge, or a hawthorn thicket, and can find authority enough for what they are told, in the sticks of them. If only he would, or could, tell us clearly that much; but like other doctors, though with better meaning than most, he has learned mainly to look at things with a microscope,--rarely with his eyes. (1)

This is characteristic of Ruskin's writing on natural history in the 1870s and 1880s--belligerent, personal, sceptical of the prestige of professionalized science. But it is not just an old man's fit of temper. The pedagogic values of Proserpina are those that direct Ruskin's work throughout his long writing life. The emphasis on learning from 'things visible'--what can be seen of the material world, and what can be seen with human eyes, without artificial help--runs throughout his criticism. Equally consistent is his claim that the learning that matters most is not gained from the exceptional or dramatic or spectacular, but from everyday experience, available to all: 'a bramble hedge, or a hawthorn thicket'. Contempt for the botanists who 'proudly' condemn Figuier as being 'no authority' also reflects a long-standing principle in Ruskin's work. In the second volume of The Stones of Venice (1853), thirty-four years before he published those remarks on Figuier, he wrote about what he called 'The Pride of Science'. There he makes it clear that he approaches these questions in moral terms. Not only organized knowledge or modern science, but all knowledge, is defined as a danger. In the characteristically provocative terms of The Stones of Venice, Ruskin claims that knowledge might become the foundation of pride, the first of sins. He notes that 'Of knowledge in general, and without qualification, it is said by the Apostle that "it puffeth up"; and the father of all modern science, writing directly in its praise, yet asserts this danger even in more absolute terms, calling it a "venomousness" in the very nature of knowledge itself.' (2) Though this is a startling moment, given Ruskin's constant commitment to learning, it is also a characteristic one. He persistently argues that the authority of science, knowledge, and scholarship has no value if it is not felt and lived by its possessor. 'Be assured,' he tells us, 'there is no part of the furniture of a man's mind which he has a right to exult in, but that which he has hewn and fashioned for himself' (XI, 72). …