John Ruskin: The Lamp of Truth

The Seven Lamps of ArchitectureIn a dark room one must lift an oil lamp as high as possible to get the greatest use from the light. Similarly, to reason clearly one must start with a law or principle held high to illuminate one’s path in life. For example, Christians start with “God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1); that declaration provides a high viewpoint from which they can look at all the specific things they encounter. The Christian Englishman, John Ruskin (1819 –1900) knew this was the way to think reasonably and he wrote, in 1848, a wonderful book, The Seven Lamps of Architecture1, to demonstrate this use of the method.

Ruskin explained his motivation for writing the book. He asked another artist how he might improve his drawing skills and was told simply, “know what you have to do and do it.” Reflecting on this comment he came to see that most people fail not for lack of effort, patience or even skills; they fail because they have “a confused understanding of the thing to be done.” The confused understanding is the result of having no guiding principles. Thus Ruskin endeavored “to determine, as the guides of every effort, some constant, general, and irrefragable laws of right.” The Seven Lamps of Architecture presents “practical laws, we shall find them passing the mere condition of connection or analogy, and becoming the actual expression of some ultimate nerve or fibre of the mighty laws which govern the moral world.” (12) It is by determining to relate our thoughts and actions to these laws that a noble society is created, their neglect leads to degeneracy in all aspects of personal and community life. “For there is no action so slight, nor so mean, but it may be done to a great purpose, and ennobled therefore… most especially that chief of all purposes, the pleasing of God. Therefore, in… any act or manner of acting, we have choice of two separate lines of argument: one based on representation of the expediency or inherent value of the work, which is often small, and always disputable; the other based on proofs of its relations to the higher orders of human virtue, and of its acceptableness, so far as it goes, to Him who is the origin of virtue.” (12)

When the seven lamps (sacrifice, truth, power, beauty, life, memory, and obedience) are held high, each one provides a unique context for what people do, including literally the edifices they build. Any finished work, if it was guided by the light provided from these lamps is acceptable, but to have worked without regard for any of these principles can only produce slovenly, slip shod, tomfoolery. This article will focus on the second Ruskin’s lamps, the Lamp of Truth.

Ruskin approaches the law or principle of truth with great care. He is aware that many sins are more noticeable than a lie, for examples he mentions hypocrisy and treachery. But these too are dependent upon untruth. Consequently he offers the sound advice, “Do not lie at all. Do not think one falsity as harmless, and another slight, and another as unintended… Speaking truth is like writing fair, and comes only by practice; it is less a matter of the will than of habit, and I doubt if any occasion can be trivial which permits the practice and formation of such a habit.” (36) Furthermore, he writes, “I would have the Spirit or Lamp of Truth clear in the hearts of our artists and handicraftsmen, not as the truthful practice of handicrafts could far advance the cause of truth, but because I would fain see the handicrafts themselves urged by the spurs of chivalry; and it is, indeed, marvelous to see what power and universality there is in this single principle, and how in the consulting or forgetting of it lies half the dignity or decline of every art and act of man.” (Pg.37) We work truthfully not to advance truth but for our work to be ennobled. “The first step towards greatness is to do away with petty deceits. There be much we cannot control or demand but there is this that we can do and have in our power, honesty.”

In addition to this caution to work within the restraints of natural law, Ruskin explains three specific ways the lamp of truth is darkened in architecture. “We may not be able to command good, or beautiful, or inventive architecture; but we can command an honest architecture: the meagerness of poverty may be pardoned, the sternness of utility respected; but what is there but scorn for the meanness of deception? Architectural deceits are broadly to be considered under three heads: 1st The suggestion of a mode of structure or support, other than the true one; as in pendants of late Gothic roofs. 2nd The painting of surfaces to represent some other material than that of which they actually consist (as in the marbling of wood)… 3rd The use of cast or machine made ornaments of any kind.” (39)

He explains each of the three failures carefully with many illustrations from architecture. To demonstrate the first, regarding structure, he says sensibly, “But God shows us in Himself, strange as it may seem, not only authoritative perfection, but even the perfection of Obedience, an obedience to His own laws.” (48) This is elaborated on with a couple of amazingly long sentences. “…the highest greatness and the highest wisdom are shown, the first by a noble submission to, and the second by a thoughtful providence for, certain voluntarily admitted restraints… The Divine Wisdom is, and can be, shown to us only in its meeting and contending with the difficulties which are voluntarily, and for the sake of that contest, admitted by the Divine Omnipotence: and these difficulties, observe, occur in the form of natural laws or ordinances, which might, at many times and in countless ways, be infringed with apparent advantage, but which are never infringed, whatever costly arrangements or adaptations their observance may necessitate for the accomplishment of given purposes.” (47)

This old fashioned style of English prose can be difficult to read today. We can paraphrase Ruskin’s observation: Divine Wisdom can be seen in natural laws which the architect can, with costly adaptations, set aside (infringe) but the architect would be both greater and wiser to voluntarily accept the limits of natural laws because once this contest (attempting to set aside natural law) is begun, Divine Omnipotence will prove uninfringeable in the long run. The lamp of truth reveals it is best to work within the natural limits of the materials and conditions of where one is building.

The second objection, surface deceits. “These may generally be defined as the inducing the supposition of some form or material that actually does not exist; as commonly painting wood to represent marble… But we must be careful to observe, that the evil of them consists always in definitely attempted deception… Thus, for example, the roof of Milan Cathedral is seemingly covered with elaborate fan tracery, forcibly enough painted to enable it… to deceive a careless observer. This is, of course, gross degradation; it destroys much of the dignity of the rest of the building, and is in the very strongest of terms to be reprehended.” (48) What would you rather have to live in, a house of false ornaments or integrity? “It is better to leave walls as bare planed boards or build with baked mud and straw, but do not rough cast them with falsehood. To cover brick work with plaster to paint murals is fine, to cover the plaster with painting made to simulate stones is contemptible.” In brief, the broad principle is that the lamp of truth requires “no form nor material is to be deceptively represented.” (49)

The third common failure in architecture, cast ornaments (cast refers to cast iron) which was a new thing when Ruskin wrote his book. He made a great attempt to apply the same principle of truthfulness to it as to the historic elements of architecture: stone, wood and clay. What was objectionable in machine made ornamentation? Two things, first it is often badly made. Secondly it is dishonest. Why dishonest? Because something pleasant to look at has two qualities, its shape or form and how much effort went into fashioning it. (56) It is not the material but the absence of human labor that makes them disagreeable. Ornamentation conveys a “sense of the human labor and care spent upon it.” Ruskin explains, “Yet exactly as a woman of feeling would not wear false jewels, so would a builder disdain false ornaments. The using of them is just as downright and inexcusable as a lie. You use that which pretends to a worth which it has not; which pretends to have cost, and to be, what it did not, and is not; it is an imposition, a vulgarity, an impertinence, and a sin.” That seems to be clear enough! He finishes the paragraph with great light from the Lamp of Truth. “Nobody wants ornaments in this world, but everybody wants integrity. All the fair devices that ever were fancied, are not worth a lie.” Again he says, “Leave your walls as bare as a planned board, or build them of baked mud and chopped straw, if need be; but do not rough-cast them with falsehood.”

In addition to these three failures, the lamp of truth exposes another more subtle example of falsehood; truth is disgraced by architects and all people who emphasize what is of secondary importance over that which should be primary. Ruskin illustrates this with “the cause of the fall of Gothic architecture throughout Europe. I mean the system of intersectional mouldings…” Tracery or moulding is the stonework which holds in place the glass panes which bring light into a room. Because of tampering with the tracery of the windows, the Gothic cathedrals disintegrated into the “foul torrent of the Renaissance” (68). “Tracery marks a pause between the laying aside of one great ruling principle, and the taking up of another… Before it, all had been ascent, after it, all was decline.” (61) “The great pause was at the moment when the space and the dividing stone-work were both equally considered.” (63). What John Ruskin is referring to is that in the early Gothic architecture the stonework was a means to hold the glass but later the architects and stonecutters started to pay more attention to the forms of tracery itself “as a novel source of beauty; and the intervening space (the light coming through the glass) was cast aside, as an element of decoration, forever.” (63) Today we would say this is the problem of putting more attention on the package than on the contents of the package.

The reader will observe that, up to the last expansion of the penetrations (spaces in the wall for glass), the stone-work was necessarily considered as it actually is, stiff and unyielding… At the close of the period of pause, it (the tracery) lost its essence as a structure of stone. Reduced to slenderness of threads, it began to be considered as possessing also their flexibility… the bars of the tracery were caused to appear to the eye as if they had been woven together like a net. This was a change which sacrificed a great principle of truth; it sacrificed the expression of the qualities of the material; and, however delightful its results in their first developments, it was ultimately ruinous.” (63) “So fell the great dynasty of medieval architecture. It was because it had lost its own strength, and disobeyed its own laws – because its order, and consistency, and organization had been broken through… From that surrender of its integrity, from that one endeavor to assume the semblance of what it was not, arose the multitudinous forms of disease and decrepitude, which rotted away the pillars of its supremacy.” (68)

Ruskin concludes his chapter on truth writing about the end of the Gothic era, “It was not the robber, not the fanatic, not the blasphemer, who sealed the destruction that they had wrought; the war, the wrath, the terror, might have worked their worst, and the strong walls would have risen, and the slight pillars would have started again, from under the hand of the destroyer. But they could not rise out of the ruins of their own violated truth.”(69)

Reading about each of Ruskin’s, Seven Lamps of Architecture, engenders a powerful awareness of what is at stake when we uphold or discard the natural laws he describes with such earnestness. Though the issues today may be different, conservatives need this reminder so that they will seriously consider how they will live honestly and consistently by the light of the lamp of truth or dismiss it to join the bulging ranks of hypocrites. Can we buy fake jewelry and wear it proudly on our person? Can we purchase plastic figures that look like hand carved wood and use this trickery to adorn our house? Do we want vinyl chairs that imitate natural leather or would not a more modest chair be more honest? Ruskin viewed the purchase of these deceptive things as dishonest presumption. Certainly we can agree that any carving one attempts to do oneself, even if it not be executed with great skill, will always be more truthful than a figure of molded plastic imitating wood that was purchased from a row of hundreds of other figures exactly alike.

The Seven Lamps of Architecture inspires and demonstrates how clear, consistent thinking is possible when we start from a high guiding principle; it is by principles we have the light by which we can “know what to do”. It is well worth the effort to read about the other six lamps, Ruskin is an original thinker that will challenge IC readers.

1 Ruskin, John. The Seven Lamps of Architecture; Hill and Wang, New York, Twelfth printing 1989 ISBN 0-8090-1547-1 Page numbers are in ( ).

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