Ruskin is imagining virtuous persons whose virtues extend to their property—to the kinds of houses they build and the things they put in them, their “goods and chattels”—but he knows that such persons are indeed more imagined than real. “I say that if men lived like men indeed, their houses would be temples—temples which we should hardly dare to injure, and in which it would make us holy to be permitted to live”; and if we knew that our children might honour us in this way, it would be absurd to see “each man . . . build to himself, and build for the little revolution of his own life only.” What would the world be like, Ruskin muses, what would our ordinary daily experiences be like, if people strove to integrate their moral and religious commitments with their buying decisions, and did so in the hope that the very objects they left to their descendants would help those descendants love those same moral and religious commitments. Whether we would have it so or not, the things we make are reliable tokens of what we believe, because what we make declares our character in the same way that “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1 KJV).
This great truth is hidden from us by the fragmenting character of modern life, its constant pressure for us to consider each of our experiences in isolation from all the others, so that what we think and do and pray can never be “forming new wholes.” Ruskin sought always to fight against this powerful centripetal force, but during the years of his “deconversion” fought with inadequate tools, because for a time, for too long, he forgot something that at the outset of his career he understood: “God has lent us the earth for our life; it is a great entail.”
In English law an “entailed” estate is one that is inherited with conditions, the most typical and important one being that the estate cannot be sold. The one who inherits it must care for it until his or her death, at which point it passes to the next heir. Ruskin shows us that we hold the lease to the earth itself on similar terms: we cannot sell it and pocket the cash, we cannot despoil it for our profit; we are legally and morally obliged to conserve it “for our life.” This means that our thoughts must always be bent toward the future: the earth “belongs as much to those who are to come after us, and whose names are already written in the book of creation, as to us; and we have no right, by anything that we do or neglect, to involve them in unnecessary penalties, or deprive them of benefits which it was in our power to bequeath.” We have no right, by anything we do or neglect, to disregard our heirs. And woe be unto us if we forget this.
It cannot be stressed too strongly that for Ruskin there is no aspect of our lives, no matter how apparently trivial, where this principle does not apply. And if social and economic circumstances have changed so that we cannot exercise that care in the same way that Ruskin envisaged—many in our society will inherit their parents’ houses; relatively few will live in them—then we should focus our attention on everything that we can pass along to the next generation: a well-made sofa; a thoughtfully chosen collection of books or music; a recipe for pasta carbonara; a habit of prayer. All of that should, equally, testify to who we are.
Read it all.