Reading Against Mammon: Ruskin’s “Sesame”

John Ruskin was the greatest art critic of his age, and possibly its greatest social critic as well. He had a penetrating intellect and a genius for expression. He has found admirers in every subsequent generation, despite his psychological unsteadiness, personal flaws, and moralizing tendencies. Some commentators have made Ruskin out to be a banner-carrier for Victorian fussiness and repression; however, he was both a genuine radical and a genuine conservative, in the best senses of both words.

Ruskin also had much to say on the subject of education. He adhered to a holistic vision of society in which arts, crafts, sciences, and good books nurture moral character. Materialism was his great enemy, whether it took the form of indifference to the beauty of nature or the meaningless pursuit of money and social status. He also challenged the prevailing conception of education as accumulation of knowledge. In his ninth letter to workingmen included in Fors Clavigera, he insisted the best education is not one that pits students against one another for empty achievement and recognition. Students should be helped to cultivate what gifts they have and appreciate the gifts of others rather than continually be comparing themselves with their peers. Education should be universal, not for everyone the same, but leading to the same place: “the final result of the education I want you to give your children, will be, in a few words, this. They will know what it is to see the sky. They will know what it is to breathe it. And they will know, best of all, what it is to behave under it, as in the presence of a Father who is in heaven.”

There is no wealth but life, as Ruskin famously asserted in Unto This Last. True education is not about petty trophies or mercenary self-interest, but about improving the stock of life, for oneself and others. Full monographs have been written on his theory of education, but the ties between his educational philosophy and his social criticism of avarice have received less attention. In this essay, I will constrain myself to Ruskin’s 1864 lecture “Sesame” or “Of Kings’ Treasuries,” which addresses this directly.

Educating the Mind

“Accurate reading on a wide range of subjects makes the scholar; careful selection of the better makes the saint.” [Exquisita lectio singulorum, doctissimum; cauta electio meliorum, optimum facit.] — John of Salisbury, Policraticus (1159)

Good books, read with attention and care, make education available to anyone. Thus, Ruskin believed, “life being very short, and the quiet hours of it few, we ought to waste none of them in reading valueless books,” and furthermore, “valuable books should, in a civilized country, be within the reach of every one, printed in excellent form, for a just price.” One of the first and most important steps in the education of young people is simply to make “true books” freely available to them, and then to teach them to unearth by slow progress the riches hidden in these volumes.

But what qualifies as a “true book”? “Good books of the hour” are books that are useful or pleasant in the way of talking to a friend or teacher, relating facts or anecdotes. These books have multiplied in the age of print. However, by “true books,” Ruskin meant what he also called “good books of all time,” which are far rarer. In a “good book for all time,” a wise man (or woman) relates truths meant for the ages; it is the fullest achievable expression of his unique wisdom. “Whatever bit of a wise man’s work is honestly and benevolently done, that bit is his book or his piece of art. It is mixed always with evil fragments—ill-done, redundant, affected work. But if you read rightly, you will easily discover the true bits, and those are the book.”

Schoolteachers and librarians today generally feel it their duty to push or persuade people to read—it hardly matters what. Nevertheless, the ability to discriminate between good books and bad, or between ephemeral books and those of lasting value, remains often untaught. Pulp and kitsch, where acknowledged as such at all, are ostensibly bait; once the hook of reading has sunk in, the student can be pulled toward something more nourishing. Is this strategy effective? Or are we cultivating a taste for empty reading? I think this is, at the least, a serious question. A surfeit of books promising easy pleasure may actually discourage young readers from attempting more delicate (albeit ultimately more rewarding) fare. Would I have dared the difficult richness of Shakespeare, as a child, if I had been altogether swamped with the literature of idle distraction?

The aristocracy of dead authors, Ruskin continues, are the most worthy company we could hope for, but they place demands on us: their treasures are not simply for the grasping. Labor and merit alone grant us access. “You must, in a word, love these people, if you are to be among them.” Be willing to learn from them and entertain new ideas with an open mind; your purpose is to receive their meaning, not find your own affirmed by them, which is difficult work. But this careful, caring toil is the soul of education. “You might read all the books in the British Museum (if you could live long enough), and remain an utterly ‘illiterate,’ uneducated person; but that if you read ten pages of a good book, letter by letter,—that is to say, with real accuracy,—you are for evermore in some measure an educated person.”

Better for intellect and character to read a few books well, Ruskin argued, than many poorly. The 17th-century theologian Jeremy Taylor agreed in his own theological key: “Read not much at a time; but meditate as much as your time, and capacity, and disposition will give you leave: ever remembering, that little reading, and much thinking; little speaking, and much hearing; frequent and short prayers, and great devotion, is the best way to be wise, to be holy, to be devout.” One who has pursued this path, according to Ruskin, will find their understanding increases while their own opinion counts for less and less in their own eyes. “Most probably all your life (unless, as I said, you are a singular person) you will have no legitimate right to an ‘opinion’ on any business, except that instantly under your hand…. The best you can do… is to be silent, and strive to be wiser every day, and to understand a little more of the thoughts of others.”

“You will not be able, I tell you again, for many and many a day, to come at the real purposes and teaching of these great men; but a very little honest study of them will enable you to perceive that what you took for your own ‘judgment’ was mere chance prejudice, and drifted, helpless, entangled weed of castaway thought; nay, you will see that most men’s minds are indeed little better than rough heath wilderness, neglected and stubborn, partly barren, partly overgrown with pestilent brakes, and venomous, wind-sown herbage of evil surmise; that the first thing you have to do for them, and yourself, is eagerly and scornfully to set fire to this; burn all the jungle into wholesome ash-heaps, and then plough and sow.  All the true literary work before you, for life, must begin with obedience to that order, ‘Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns.’”

Deeper and Deeper

“Therefore to the cry of prayer through Christ crucified, by Whose blood we are purged of the filth of vice, do I first invite the reader, lest perchance he should believe that it suffices to read without unction, speculate without devotion, investigate without wonder, examine without exultation, work without piety, know without love, understand without humility, be zealous without divine grace, see without wisdom divinely inspired.” — St Bonaventure, The Mind’s Road to God (1259)

But there is a further stage as one approaches the great teachers: entering into their hearts. What do they feel? What is their “Passion”? Can one learn to share it? Callous consciences breed cruelty, but “fineness and fulness of sensation” is “the guide and sanctifier of reason itself.” “We are only human in so far as we are sensitive, and our honour is precisely in proportion to our passion.” Here is the real difference between a just or noble man and a bestial one. The former’s passions are “disciplined and tested,” roused against injustice; the latter’s amount to impulses spilled out on frivolous distractions. Ruskin felt that England in his day was full of such creatures, a crowd whose good instincts are easily misdirected, such that they can be stirred to outrage over some private sin while they submit to the incessant brutality of the rich and powerful.

“We cannot read,” Ruskin frankly confessed. The books of the wise are locked to minds debilitated by “insanity of avarice.” Still, Ruskin was convinced the corruption did not reach to the core of the nation; it must learn to discipline its passions. ”Above all, a nation cannot last as a money-making mob: it cannot with impunity,—it cannot with existence,—go on despising literature, despising science, despising art, despising nature, despising compassion, and concentrating its soul on Pence.” By referring repeatedly to a “mob,” one might assume Ruskin was calling out the hoi polloi here, but in fact his principal target was the aristocracy and bourgeoisie and the self-serving ways they directed their commanding share of the nation’s wealth.

His examples, which are many, belong to his time, but one has little difficulty finding parallels in the Age of Trump. Avarice remains a ruling vice, justified as freedom, and its consequence is, as Dostoevsky poignantly noted, “for the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; for the poor, envy and murder.” Our veneration of Mammon blinds us to the virtue of all good things: literature, science, art, nature, compassion for the poor. These great expressions of our humanity are sacrificed daily for profit, and worse, as Ruskin observed, religion is enlisted to justify this sacrifice. Christianity, Ruskin declared, has become about the collective drama of liturgy or the personal drama of spiritual revival. “But to do a piece of common Christian righteousness in a plain English word or deed; to make Christian law any rule of life, and found one National act or hope thereon,—we know too well what our faith comes to for that!”

Ruskin’s vision of justice perverted and beauty marred is relentlessly bleak, principally because he feared English incorrigibility. But the beauty of his ideal transcended his anxiety. Advancement in life in any real sense, Ruskin stated, is not acquisition of wealth and status but getting more life; “He only is advancing in life, whose heart is getting softer, whose blood warmer, whose brain quicker, whose spirit is entering into Living peace. And the men who have this life in them are the true lords or kings of the earth—they, and they only.” While “visible kings” consume nations in their ambition and greed, the archetypal nobility and magnanimity of Kinghood, which pours out life and love in abundance, is the fruit of moral education, and it is available to the whole population. If only, Ruskin concluded, the nations would devote their resources to producing men such as this!

Against Mammonism in Education

Only what Adam in his first Estate,
Did I behold;
Hard Silver and Drie Gold
As yet lay under Ground.
— Thomas Traherne, “Eden” (17th c.)

The word education at its root refers to the training or rearing of children, and etymologically the sense of the Latin is “bringing forth.” Ancient Greek education was primitively interested in producing the ideal citizen, one in harmony with the traditions and interests of the community (polis). However, a contrary idea arose that promoted education as a path to private advantage. This was the position of the Sophists, who according to their critics infected young men with ambition and then gave them the tools to arrogate the community’s wealth and power for themselves. In Plato’s view, these teachers fostered not only distortion of the soul but tyranny and social disintegration. Sophists treated education as a useful commodity to be made available to the highest bidder.

At this point, some will observe that many even today do not have leisure to devote to “useless” knowledge; most schools try to prime their students to compete in cutthroat labor markets, and competitive skills are especially critical for those with little privilege to cash in. The point is fair, but only as far as it goes. Satisfaction of need is critical. But to fix materialistic maximization as the standard of success in development of persons is a path to vainglory, obsessiveness, or existential vacuity. Gladiator games of employment and remuneration are, moreover, perfectly dispensable in a society that already affords developed living standards and profane indulgences.

But let us assume the revolution will not happen tomorrow. We are left with the limitations of a society that often demands arbitrary qualifications and mercenary productivity to acquire artificially scarce goods. Certainly, we would do our students no favors by leaving them ill-equipped to secure things of practical necessity. But we also do nobody good by feeding a cultural addiction. That is what the cult of Mammon is, a devotion to acquisitiveness and the status it brings, a fetishism of social tokens without intrinsic value. We do well to teach our students means by which they can satisfy their needs. But we commit malpractice when we train them to desire to consume more than their peers. We are at fault if we give them the weapons of oppression, dull their senses to justice, and blind them to the effect of their actions on the human and natural communities that sustain them.

Such an education, as Plato recognized, threatens even the character and happiness of its most successful disciples. He and his teacher Socrates advocated a kind of education larger than the aims of either the Sophists or Greek tradition: for them, education was about helping receptive souls awaken the divine wisdom slumbering in them through dialectic and anamnesis. In a Christian context, this would blossom into Hugh of St Victor’s vision of universal learning as cosmic remediation.

Poverty in Spirit

“Knowledge by itself puffs up the heart into pride, but mingle it with charity and then it turns into edification. This knowledge by itself is but water, unsavory and cold; and therefore if they would meekly offer it up to our Lord and pray to Him for His grace, He would with His blessing turn the water into wine as He did for the prayer of His mother at the feast of Architriclyn. That is for to say, He would turn the unsavory knowledge into wisdom and the cold naked reason into spiritual light and burning by the gift of the Holy Ghost.” — Walter Hilton, The Scale of Perfection (c. 1380s/90s)

The institutions of education have changed, but we must at least be able to offer our students alternatives to the world’s idols. Ruskin gives us part of the answer. “Good books of all time” give hope, because they show Mammon’s insubstantiality next to the deeper truth of things. We have mistaken the false treasure of exchange-objects for the real treasure of life; there may be no better cure for such delusion than the experience of those who see it truly, mediated in literature or the other arts and sciences, until we have learned to encounter it directly for ourselves.

And we must go further than to show up Mammonism’s chief fetish, the dollar: we must return to the teaching of attention to the good. Avarice redirected into intellectual pursuits remains avarice: curiosity in the old sense of restless speculation, an insatiable and self-serving appetite for knowledge. This was once a peculiar failing of monks and scholars; the digital revolution has now generalized it, as Pope Francis pointed out in Laudato Si. “True wisdom,” he observed, “as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution.” We must slow down and learn to be content in our contingency, receiving all gifts with thankfulness, which requires the concentration to appreciate them fully. Attention and love are mutually reinforcing, and they alike demand a fit object.

Money ceases to be Mammon when it becomes the sacrifice rather than the idol. Likewise, the otherwise trivial, abstract knowledge that is the fruit of intellectual greed, engendered by responsive screens and listless habits, sheds its exuvia and is born again when plummeted into the steadfast attention of the soul. Hugh of St Victor warned us, “There are those who wish to read everything. Don’t vie with them. Leave well enough alone. It is nothing to you whether you read all the books there are or not. The number of books is infinite; don’t pursue infinity! Where no end is in sight, there can be no rest. Where there is no rest, there is no peace. Where there is no peace, God cannot dwell.”

Ruskin’s call in “Sesame” to sanity in education is part of a broader call to abandon the bad infinity of accumulation as the proper end of life. The teacher who can model devotion to truth with unhurried craft—recognizing truth itself as the end of academic inquiry and the storing up of knowledge as merely a means—has a chance of impressing his students with values that will inform them for a lifetime. Even the most intransigently utilitarian subjects, so long as they are not entirely devoid of virtue, can be situated on the landscape of the soul. Abandoning factitious moral vacuum opens new possibilities for shared appreciation of the good, for connection between persons, not only across the classroom, but across space and time, through what Ruskin delighted to call true books.

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