THE ETHICS OF THE DUST.* Ma. RUSKLN once gave the
world his ideas on various ecclesiastical matters in a book which he was pleased to entitle Notes on the Construction of Sheepfold:. Some farmers, it is said, bought it, supposing that it would furnish them with hints which might be useful in the management of their flocks. Let no schoolmistress buy these Lectures on Crystallization, in the hope that she will find it a handy text-book out of which she may instruct her pupils in the elements of that science, now, we suppose, included in the course of a girl's education. Something about crystals there doubtless is, occupying possibly about a fourth part of the volume ; there is something also about theology, mythology, politics, morals, history, art, about most branches, in short, of human knowledge, speculation, or practice. Mr. Ruskin, as our readers have pro- bably learnt already, has many pet theories and pat hatreds ; he knows how to set them forth in vigorous language, and he never fears to cut pitilessly across the grain of prejudices and accepted beliefs; he could hardly write a book from which much might not be learnt, but that any human being could learn anything from this book about crystals we cannot conceive.
Ethics of the Dust does not, as the reader might suppose, mean much the same as Sermons in Stones. It has a significa- tion much more transcendental. Mr. Ruskin goes far beyond the analogies which moralists have always delighted to draw between human action and the processes of inanimate nature. He does not know in fact whether there is any inanimate nature. The dust, at all events, is something more than an unconscious teacher of mankind. Its ethics are its own. It is capable of the moral virtues and their contrary vices'. This crystal may be courageous and consistent, that one cowardly and irresolute, this spiteful and that loving, this orderly and that licentious. Garnets and mica are sometimes, it seems, good and sometimes wicked. Diamonds are always, we are sorry to say, irrecoverably, and even diabolically, bad. Quartz seems to be a good-natured and courteous mineral, but over weak and yielding in temper. Clay is summarily pronounced to be vile. Now this is a fine idea enough, for it is in its essence the foundation of every fable. A
• The Ethics of the Dust. Ten Leetnees to little Housewives on the Elements of Crystallization. By John R t,dn, hLA Lend m : Smith, Elder, and Ca 1586.
good fairy tale might have been made out of the loves and hates, the wrongdoing and the nobleness of crystals, and no man could have written it more beautifully than Mr. Ruskin; or the idea might have been made to charm us at Christmas time in the shape of some splendid extravangaza or pantomime. As it is, it simply distracts and wearies us ; we can get out of it neither instruction nor amusement. But the fact is that Mr. Ruskin cares nothing about instructing or amusing. He feels bound to deliver his testi- mony to his countrymen upon various questions, social, political, and theological, and he finds in the crystals a convenient way of doing it. The reader may judge from the following specimen what opportunities of giving his opinion about things in general he finds in his subject :—
" Others you will see who have began life as wicked crystals, and then have been impressed by alarming circumstances, and have become converted crystals, and behaved amazingly for a little while, and fallen away again, and ended but discreditably, perhaps oven in decomposition, so that one doesn't know what will become of them . . . . And some- times you will see little child-crystals put to school like school-girls, and made to stand in rows, and taken the greatest care of and taught how to hold themselves up, and behave. And sometimes you will see un- happy little child-crystals left to lie about in the dirt, and pick up their learning, and learn manners, where they can. And sometimes you will see fat crystals eating up thin ones, like great capitalists and little labourers ; and politico-economic crystals teaching the stupid ones how to eat one another, and cheat one another ; and foolish crystals getting in the way of wise ones ; and impatient crystals spoiling the plans of patient ones, irreparably; just as things go on in the world. And sometimes you may see hypocritical crystals taking the shape of others, though they are nothing like in their minds ; and vampire crystals eat- ing out the hearts of others ; and heimit-crab crystals living in the shells of others ; and parasite crystals living on the means of others; and courtier crystals glittering in attendance upon others ; and all these, besides the two great companies of war and peace, who ally themselves, resolutely to attack, or resolutely to defend." (Pp. 192-8.)
Somewhat in this style, save that we have selected a passage bearing a reference closer than usual to the subject, Mr. Ruskin discourses to his audience. The lectures are conversations carried on between the lecturer and his pupils, twelve charming young ladies, varying in age from twenty years to nine. The dialogue is often very gracefully written ; sometimes, as it seems to the cold- hearted critic, who has not had the advantage of hearing it in such pleasant society, rather feeble and foolish.
A book of this kind, it is evident, almost defies criticism. The science indeed we can deal with, when we can pick the sparsely scattered grains of it from the strange conglomerate in which they are to be found. It is altogether insignificant in quantity, and does not pretend to possess any sort of method, or to be complete even as far as the merest rudiments are concerned. The quality is good enough, though not perhaps of the very newest and best kind. Mr. Ruskin, for instance, is certainly wrong when he speaks (pp. 17, 18) of diamonds and blacklead (why use this barbarous and misleading name?) as differing in the fact that the one is crystallized and the other is not. Blackleai is crystallized, though in a different system from the diamond. Nor, again, is it accurate to speak of the ruby, which consists of pure alumina, as being " nothing but indurated clay " (p. 75). The best thing in
this part of the volume is the vivid way in which Mr. Ruskin makes his readers see the specimens which the lecturer is supposed to produce. His descriptions, like some of his famous criticisms on pictures, are, we can easily fancy, better than the things described.
But how is it possible to follow Mr. Ruskin into all the regions of thought into which he leads us? We will take the first instance
that presents itself. The diamond is mentioned. We should expect to hear something about its physical properties, its form, and its usual localities. We get nothing of the kind. A specimen is produced of the gem native in its dust with gold. And then we are told that we see " the two great enemies of mankind, the strongest of all malignant physical powers that have tormented our race." Here is a pretty element of disturbance to introduce into the calm domain of science ! So, again, on the next page, " Whenever legislators hive succeeded, for a time, in excluding jewels and the precious metals from among the national possessions, the national spirit has remained healthy." A new light for his- tory, which generally represents men just as furiously covetous about oxen and iron as they have been about jewels and gold. So Mr. Ruskin goes on, apropos of anything or nothing, disposing with a stroke of his pen of questions as old as the world about good and evil, self-sacrifice, self-knowledge, original sin, and a hundred other things, speaking always vehemently, often para- doxically, and often, we are glad to allow, very wisely and well.
The critic, who has been following Mr. Ruskin through heaven, earth, and hell, feels a grim satisfaction at finding him in his grasp when the matter admits of being definitively settled. At the end of note iii. (p. 240) Mr. Ruskin propounds the theory, quite irrelevantly, as he admits, that Athene was the goddess of the air. First he refers us to Virgil, who, we are told, " makes her able to wield the thunderbolt, which Juno cannot, but must pray for the intervention of /Eolus." Now all that we know on the matter is from Juno herself, who certainly did not take the same view of it as Mr. Ruskin. Let him refer to Professor Conington's note on " Potuitne exurere classem," &e. :—" The use of ne, which implies a negative answer, expresses incredibility that Pallas should have done what Juno cannot." Mr. Ruskin goes on, " She has pre- cisely the correspondent moral authority over calmness of mind and just anger. She soothes Achilles, as she incites Tydides, her physical power over the air being always hinted correlatively." Let the reader mark this last clause, and observe how Mr. Ruskin supports it by his quotations, to which we shall append Homer's own words, " She grasps Achilles by the hair as the wind would lift it softly." " It fanned his hair, it raised his hair,
Like a meadow gale in spring.' "
Homer's words (II. i., 197) are, azeic SE zi•Ans. 7Xe 11nXsiteva, " She grasped the son of Peleus by the yellow hair." Mr. Ruskin proceeds—" She does not merely turn the lance of Mars from Diomed, but seizes it in both her hands and casts it aside, with a sense of making it vain, like chaff in the wind." Homer says (v., 853-4) :— Kai ró 7s %up; Xagoka ORA 7XCCUXEZIrtg AAiivn
'Slav her ix dipole ircZmoy asygivar.
"And Athene, goddess of the flashing eye, seizing it with her hand, thrust it that it passed idly away from the chariot." Once more, we have.—" To the shout of Achilles she adds her own voice of storm in heaven." Homer says (xviii., 217-8), acrarEpes dE 'AOjy, pei2iaro. " And apart Pallas Athena shouted." What does the reader say to this exercise of the imagination?