John Ruskin On Perfection and the Nature of the Gothic

In a one of his attempts to hold back the tides of the great industrial crappening, William Morris published a beautiful edition of an excerpt from John Ruskin’s sprawling tome, The Stones of Venice. You can read and download Morris’ Kelmscott Press edition, The Nature of the Gothic, via Archive.org.

I thought Root Simple readers would appreciate this excerpt:

But, accurately speaking, no good work whatever can perfect, and THE DEMAND FOR PERFECTION IS ALWAYS A SIGN OF A MISUNDERSTANDING OF THE ENDS OF ART.

This is for two reasons, both based on everlasting laws. The first, that no great man ever stops working till he has reached his point of failure: that is to say, his mind is always far in advance of his powers of execution, and the latter will now and then give way in trying to follow it; besides that he will always give to the inferior portions of his work only such inferior attention as they require; and according to his greatness he becomes so accustomed to the feeling of dissatisfaction with the best he can do, that in moments of lassitude or anger with himself he will not care though the beholder be dissatisfied also. I believe there has only been one man who would not acknowledge this necessity, and strove always to reach perfection, Leonardo; the end of his vain effort being merely that he would take ten years to a picture and leave it unfinished. And therefore, if we are to have great men working at all, or less men doing their best, the work will be imperfect, however beautiful. Of human work none but what is bad can be perfect, in its own bad way.

The second reason is, that imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we know of life. It is the sign of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of progress & change. Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent. The foxglove blossom, a third part bud, a third part past; a third part in full bloom, is a type of the life of this world. And in all things that live there are certain irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty. No human face is exactly the same in its lines on each side, no leaf perfect in its lobes, no branch in its symmetry. All admit irregularity as they imply change; and to banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality. All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be Effort, and the law of human judgment, Mercy. Accept this then for a universal law, that neither architecture nor any other noble work of man can be good unless it be imperfect; & let us be prepared for the otherwise strange fact, which we shall discern clearly as we approach the period of the Renaissance, that the first cause of the fall of the arts of Europe was a relentless requirement of perfection, incapable alike either of being silenced by veneration for greatness, or softened into forgiveness of simplicity.

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3 Comments

  1. “Crappening” should absolutely be a word, maybe even the Word of the Year.

    I am right now reading Kirkpatrick Sale’s “Rebels Against the Future”, a (sympathetic) history of the Luddites and the industrial/economic/societal forces they were fighting. The book is aptly sub-titled, “Lessons for the Computer Age”. Even I, a European history buff, needed to be reminded of what English society looked like before it and the rest of the West were engulfed by the Industrial Revolution. Sale touches on many of the same themes found on your blog; I heartily encourage Root Simple readers to pick up or borrow a copy.

    • It’s a great book and, yes, everyone should read it. The Luddites were fighting for meaningful work and against parasitical billionaires who robbed them of their lives, families and communities. History, I think, will look kindly on those who supported their cause: Lord Byron, John Ruskin and William Morris among others. The struggle the Luddites began is just beginning.

    • I’ve checked it out of the library and got a start on it last night. I’m already amazed by how much I didn’t know.

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