From Fors Clavigera
by John Ruskin

From Letter LIV.

BEFORE going on with my own story to-day, I must fasten down a main principle about doing good work, not yet enough made clear.

It has been a prevalent notion in the minds of well-disposed persons, that if they acted according to their own conscience, they must, therefore, be doing right.

But they assume, in feeling or asserting this, either that there is no Law of God, or that it cannot be known; but only felt, or conjectured.

“I must do what I think right.” How often is this sentence uttered and acted on bravely nobly innocently; but always because of its egotism erringly. You must not do what YOU think right, but, whether you or anybody think, or don’t think it, what is right.

“I must act according to the dictates of my conscience.”

By no means, my conscientious friend, unless you are quite sure that yours is not the conscience of an ass.

“I am doing my best what can man do more?”

You might be doing much less, and yet much better: perhaps you are doing your best in producing, or doing, an eternally bad thing.

All these three sayings, and the convictions they express, are wise only in the mouths and minds of wise men; they are deadly, and all the deadlier because bearing an image and superscription of virtue, in the mouths and minds of fools.

“But there is every gradation, surely, between wisdom and folly?”

No. The fool, whatever his wit, is the man who doesn’t know his master who has said in his heart there is no God no Law.

The wise man knows his master. Less or more wise, he perceives lower or higher masters; but always some creature larger than himself some law holier than his own. A law to be sought learned, loved obeyed; but in order to its discovery, the obedience must be begun first, to the best one knows. Obey something; and you will have a chance some day of finding out what is best to obey. But if you begin by obeying nothing, you will end by obeying Beelzebub and all his seven invited friends.

Which being premised, I venture to continue the history of my own early submissions to external Force.

The Bible readings, described in my last letter, took place always in the front parlour of the house, which, when I was about five years old, my father found himself able to buy the lease of, at Herne Hill. The piece of road between the Fox tavern and the Herne Hill station, remains, in all essential points of character, unchanged to this day: certain Gothic splendours, lately indulged in by our wealthier neighbours, being the only serious innovations; and these are so graciously concealed by the fine trees of their grounds, that the passing viator remains unappalled by them; and I can still walk up and down the piece of road aforesaid, imagining myself seven years old.

Our house was the fourth part of a group which stand accurately on the top or dome of the hill, where the ground is for a small space level, as the snows are (I understand) on the dome of Mont Blanc; presently falling, however, in what may be, in the London clay formation, considered a precipitous slope to our valley of Chamouni (or of Dulwich) on the east; and with a softer descent into Cold Arbour, (nautically aspirated into Harbour)-lane on the west: on the south no less beautifully declining to the dale of the Effra, (doubtless shortened from Effrena, signifying the “Unbridled” river; recently, I regret to say, bricked over for the convenience of Mr. Biffin, the chemist, and others), while on the north, prolonged indeed with slight depression some half mile or so, and receiving, in the parish of Lambeth, the chivalric title of ‘Champion Hill,’ it plunges down at last to efface itself in the plains of Peckham, and the rustic solitudes of Goose Green.

The group, of which our house was the quarter, consisted of two precisely similar partner-couples of houses,— gardens and all to match; still the two highest blocks of building seen from Norwood on the crest of the ridge; which, even within the time I remember, rose with no stinted beauty of wood and lawn above the Dulwich fields.

The house itself, three-storied, with garrets above, commanded, in those comparatively smokeless days, a very notable view from its upper windows, of the Norwood hills on one side, and the winter sunrise over them; and of the valley of the Thames, with Windsor in the distance, on the other, and the summer sunset over these. It had front and back garden in sufficient proportion to its size; the front, richly set with old evergreens, and well grown lilac and laburnum; the back, seventy yards long by twenty wide, renowned over all the hill for its pears and apples, which had been chosen with extreme care by our predecessor, (shame on me to forget the name of a man to whom I owe so much!)— and possessing also a strong old mulberry tree, a tall white-heart cherry tree, a black Kentish one, and an almost unbroken hedge, all round, of alternate gooseberry and currant bush; decked, in due season, (for the ground was wholly beneficent,) with magical splendour of abundant fruit: fresh green, soft amber, and rough-bristled crimson bending the spinous branches; clustered pearl and pendent ruby joyfully discoverable under the large loaves that looked like vine.

The differences of primal importance which I observed between the nature of this garden, and that of Eden, as I had imagined it, were, that, in this one, all the fruit was forbidden; and there were no companionable beasts: in other respects the little domain answered every purpose of Paradise to me; and the climate, in that cycle of our years, allowed me to pass most of my life in it. My mother never gave me more to learn than she knew I could easily get learnt, if I set myself honestly to work, by twelve o’clock. She never allowed anything to disturb me when my task was set; if it was not said rightly by twelve o’clock, I was kept in till I knew it, and in general, even when Latin Grammar came to supplement the Psalms, I was my own master for at least an hour before dinner at half-past one, and for the rest of the afternoon. My mother, herself finding her chief personal pleasure in her flowers, was often planting or pruning beside me,— at least if I chose to stay beside her. I never thought of doing anything behind her back which I would not have done before her face, and her presence was therefore no restraint to me; but, also, no particular pleasure; for, from having always been left so much alone, I had generally my own little affairs to see after; and on the whole, by the time I was seven years old, was already getting too independent, mentally, even of my father and mother; and having nobody else to be dependent upon, began to lead a very small, perky, contented, conceited, Cock-Robinson-Crusoe sort of life, in the central point which it appeared to me, (as it must naturally appear to geometrical animals) that I occupied in the universe.

This was partly the fault of my father’s modesty; and partly of his pride. He had so much more confidence in my mother’s judgment as to such matters than in his own, that he never ventured even to help, much less to cross her, in the conduct of my education; on the other hand, in the fixed purpose of making an ecclesiastical gentleman of me, with the super-finest of manners, and access to the highest circles of fleshly and spiritual society, the visits to Croydon, where I entirely loved my aunt, and young baker-cousins, became rarer and more rare: the society of our neighbours on the hill could not be had without breaking up our regular and sweetly selfish manner of living; and on the whole, I had nothing animate to care for, in a childish way, but myself, some nests of ants, which the gardener would never leave undisturbed for me, and a sociable bird or two; though I never had the sense or perseverance to make one really tame. But that was partly because, if ever I managed to bring one to be the least trustful of me, the cats got it.

Under these favourable circumstances, what powers of imagination I possessed, either fastened themselves on inanimate things the sky, the leaves, and pebbles, observable within the walls of Eden, or caught at any opportunity of flight into regions of romance, compatible with the objective realities of existence in the nineteenth century, within a mile and a quarter of Camberwell Green.

Herein my father, happily, though with no definite intention other than of pleasing me, when he found he could do so without infringing any of my mother’s rules, became my guide. I was particularly fond of watching him shave; and was always allowed to come into his room in the morning (under the one in which I am now writing), to be the motionless witness of that operation. Over his dressing-table hung one of his own water-colour drawings, made under the teaching of the elder Nasmyth. (I believe, at the High School of Edinburgh.) It was done in the early manner of tinting, which, just about the time when my father was at the High School, Dr. Munro was teaching Turner; namely, in grey under-tints of Prussian blue and British ink, washed with warm colour afterwards on the lights. It represented Conway Castle, with its Frith, and, in the foreground, a cottage, a fisherman, and a boat at the water’s edge.

When my father had finished shaving, he always told me a story about this picture. The custom began without any initial purpose of his, in consequence of my troublesome curiosity whether the fisherman lived in the cottage, and where he was going to in the boat. It being settled, for peace’ sake, that he did live in the cottage, and was going in the boat to fish near the castle, the plot of the drama afterwards gradually thickened; and became, I believe, involved with that of the tragedy of “Douglas,” and of the “Castle Spectre,” in both of which pieces my father had performed in private theatricals, before my mother, and a select Edinburgh audience, when he was a boy of sixteen, and she, at grave twenty, a model housekeeper, and very scornful and religiously suspicious of theatricals. But she was never weary of telling me, in later years, how beautiful my father looked in his Highland dress, with the high black feathers.

I remember nothing of the story he used to tell me, now; but I have the picture still, and hope to leave it finally in the Oxford schools, where, if I can complete rny series of illustrative work for general reference, it will be of some little use as an example of an old-fashioned method of water-colour drawing not without its advantages; and, at the same time, of the dangers incidental in it to young students, of making their castles too yellow, and their fishermen too blue.

In the afternoons, when my father returned, (always punctually) from his business, he dined, at half-past four, in the front parlour, my mother sitting beside him to hear the events of the day, and give counsel and encouragement with respect to the same;— chiefly the last, for my father was apt to be vexed if orders for sherry fell the least short of their due standard, even for a day or two. I was never present at this time, however, and only avouch what I relate by hearsay and probable conjecture; for between four and six it would have been a grave misdemeanour in me if I so much as approached the parlour door. After that, in summer time, we were all in the garden as long as the day lasted; tea under the white-heart cherry tree; or in winter and rough weather, at six o’clock in the drawing-room,— I having my cup of milk, and slice of bread-and-butter, in a little recess, with a table in front of it, wholly sacred to me; and in which I remained in the evenings as an Idol in a niche, while my mother knitted, and my father read to her,— and to me, so far as I chose to listen.

The series of the Waverley novels, then drawing towards its close, was still the chief source of delight in all households caring for literature; and I can no more recollect the time when I did not know them than when I did not know the Bible; but I have still a vivid remembrance of my father’s intense expression of sorrow mixed with scorn, as he threw down ‘Count Robert of Paris,’ after reading three or four pages; and knew that the life of Scott was ended: the scorn being a very complex and bitter feeling in him,— partly, indeed, of the book itself, but chiefly of the wretches who were tormenting and selling the wrecked intellect, and not a little, deep down, of the subtle dishonesty which had essentially caused the ruin. My father never could forgive Scott his concealment of the Ballantyne partnership.

I permit myself, without check, to enlarge on these trivial circumstances of my early days, partly because I know that there are one or two people in the world who will like to hear of them; but chiefly because I can better assure the general reader of some results of education on after life, by one example in which I know all my facts, than by many, in which every here and there a link might be wanting.

And it is perhaps already time to mark what advantage and mischief, by the chances of life up to seven years old, had been irrevocably determined for me.

I will first count my blessings (as a not unwise friend once recommended me to do, continually; whereas I have a bad trick of always numbering the thorns in my fingers, and not the bones in them).

And for best and truest beginning of all blessings, I had been taught the perfect meaning of Peace, in thought, act, and word.

I never had heard my father’s or mother’s voice once raised in any question with each other; nor seen an angry, or even slightly hurt or offended glance in the eyes of either. I had never heard a servant scolded, nor even suddenly, passionately, or in any severe manner, blamed. I had never seen a moment’s trouble or disorder in any household matter; nor anything whatever either done in a hurry, or undone in due time. I had no conception of such a feeling as anxiety; my father’s occasional vexation in the afternoons, when he had only got an order for twelve butts after expecting one for fifteen, as I have just stated, was never manifested to me; and itself related only to the question whether his name would be a step higher or lower in the year’s list of sherry exporters; for he never spent more than half his income, and therefore found himself little incommoded by occasional variations in the total of it. I had never done any wrong that I knew of beyond occasionally delaying the commitment to heart of some improving sentence, that I might watch a wasp on the window pane, or a bird in the cherry tree; and I had never seen any grief.

Next to this quite priceless gift of Peace, I had received the perfect understanding of the natures of Obedience and Faith. I obeyed word, or lifted finger, of father or mother, simply as a ship her helm; not only without idea of resistance, but receiving the direction as a part of my own life and force, a helpful law, as necessary to me in every moral action as the law of gravity in leaping. And my practice in Faith was soon complete: nothing was ever promised me that was not given; nothing ever threatened me that was not inflicted, and nothing ever told me that was not true.

Peace, obedience, faith; these three for chief good; next to these, the habit of fixed attention with both eyes and mind on which I will not farther enlarge at this moment, this being the main practical faculty of my life, causing Mazzini to say of me, in conversation authentically reported, a year or two before his death, that I had “the most analytic mind in Europe.” An opinion in which, so far as I am acquainted with Europe, I am myself entirely disposed to concur.

Lastly, an extreme perfection in palate and all other bodily senses, given by the utter prohibition of cake, wine, comfits, or, except in carefullest restriction, fruit; and by fine preparation of what food was given me. Such I esteem the main blessings of my childhood;— next, let me count the equally dominant calamities.

First, that I had nothing to love.

My parents were in a sort visible powers of nature to me, no more loved than the sun and the moon: only I should have been annoyed and puzzled if either of them had gone out; (how much, now, when both are darkened!)— still less did I love God; not that I had any quarrel with Him, or fear of Him; but simply found what people told me was His service, disagreeable; and what people told me was His book, not entertaining. I had no companions to quarrel with, neither; nobody to assist, and nobody to thank. Not a servant was ever allowed to do anything for me, but what it was their duty to do; and why should I have been grateful to the cook for cooking, or the gardener for gardening,— when the one dared not give me a baked potatoe without asking leave, and the other would not let my ants’ nests alone, because they made the walks untidy? The evil consequence of all this was not, however, what might perhaps have been expected, that I grew up selfish or unaffectionate; but that, when affection did come, it came with violence utterly rampant and unmanageable, at least by me, who never before had anything to manage.

For (second of chief calamities) I had nothing to endure. Danger or pain of any kind I knew not: my strength was never exercised, my patience never tried, and my courage never fortified. Not that I was ever afraid of anything,— either ghosts, thunder, or beasts; and one of the nearest approaches to insubordination which I was ever tempted into as a child, was in passionate effort to get leave to play with the lion’s cubs in Wombwell’s menagerie.

Thirdly, I was taught no precision nor etiquette of manners; it was enough if, in the little society we saw, I remained unobtrusive, and replied to a question without shyness: but the shyness came later, and increased as I grew conscious of the rudeness arising from the want of social discipline, and found it impossible to acquire, in advanced life, dexterity in any bodily exercise, skill in any pleasing accomplishment, or ease and tact in ordinary behaviour.

Lastly, and chief of evils. My judgment of right and wrong, and powers of independent action,* were left entirely undeveloped; because the bridle and blinkers were never taken off me. Children should have their times of being off duty, like soldiers; and when once the obedience, if required, is certain, the little creature should be very early put for periods of practice in complete command of itself; set on the barebacked horse of its own will, and left to break it by its own strength. But the ceaseless authority exercised over my youth left me, when cast out at last into the world, unable for some time to do more than drift with its elements. My present courses of life are indeed not altogether of that compliant nature; but are, perhaps, more unaccommodating than they need be in the insolence of reaction; and the result upon me, of the elements and the courses together, is, in sum, that at my present age of fifty-six, while I have indeed the sincerest admiration for the characters of Phocion, Cincinnatus, and Caractacus, and am minded, so far as I may, to follow the example of those worthy personages, my own private little fancy, in which, for never having indulged me, I am always quarrelling with my Fortune, is still, as it always was, to find Prince Ahmed’s arrow, and marry the Fairy Paribanou.

My present verdict, therefore, on the general tenour of my education at that time, must be, that it was at once too formal and too luxurious; leaving my character, at the most important moment for its construction, cramped indeed, but not disciplined; and only by protection innocent, instead of by practice virtuous. My mother saw this herself, and but too clearly, in later years; and whenever I did anything wrong, stupid, or hard-hearted,— (and I have done many things that were all three),— always said, ‘It is because you were too much indulged.’

So strongly do I feel this, as I sip my coffee this morning, (May 24th), after being made profoundly miserable last night, because I did not think it likely I should be accepted if I made an offer to any one of three beautiful young ladies who were crushing and rending my heart into a mere shamrock leaf, the whole afternoon; nor had any power to do, what I should have liked better still, send Giafar (without Zobeide’s knowing anything about it) to superintend the immediate transport to my palace of all three;— that I am afraid, if it were left to me at present to institute, without help from kinder counsellors, the education of the younger children on St. George’s estate, the methods of the old woman who lived in a shoe would be the first that occurred to me as likely to conduce most directly to their future worth and felicity.

* Action, observe, I say here; in thought I was too independent, as I said above.