'Who Wants Authority?' Ruskin as a Dissenter

By Birch, Dinah | Yearbook of English Studies, Annual 2006 | Go to article overview

'Who Wants Authority?' Ruskin as a Dissenter


Birch, Dinah, Yearbook of English Studies


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.

**********

'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). …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

'Who Wants Authority?' Ruskin as a Dissenter
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.