Finally, in December 1875 Ruskin's desire for peace of mind, a meaningful universe, and a life after death both for himself and his loved ones returned him to Christianity. Although he never publicly related the date and cause of his return to Christianity, his letters and the always invaluable introductions of the Library Edition demonstrate that on December 20, 1875, a spiritualist seance at Broadlands, the home of his friends Mr. and Mrs. Cowper Temple, convinced him that the ghost of Rose La Touche had appeared at his side.

Mrs. Cowper-Temple

Edward Clifford, Mrs. Cowper-Temple at Broadlands. Click upon the thumbnail
for a larger picture and for more information about it. [Not in original print version.]

[Since this book was published, Van Akin Burd, one of the consumate Ruskin scholars of the past generation, has published a pamphlet entitled Ruskin, Lady Mount-Temple and the Spiritualists. 1982 Guild of St. George Lecture. London: Brentham Press, 1982. PP. 31.]

The editors point out that although in earlier years he had attended seances with the Temples, he had not been firmly convinced by them, but in December 1875 "Ruskin was now in a mood to lend himself, not unwillingly, to experiments. Broadlands had been the scene of some of his happiest hours, for there he had been wont to meet the girl he loved. His friend [Mrs. Cowper Temple] was eagerly persuaded that the partition between the life of this world and the spirit world was impenetrable only to the hard in heart. Gradually the conviction was borne in upon him also " (24.xxii). His diary entry for 20 December only records that "the truth is shown me, which, though blind, I have truly sought, — so long " (24.xxii). A letter to Norton of January 13, 1876, expresses far less assurance about what had occurred:

At Broadlands, either the most horrible lies were told me, without conceivable motive — or the ghost of R. was seen often beside Mrs. — , or me. — Which is pleasantest of these things I know, but cannot intellectually say which is likeliest — and meantime, take to geology. (37.189)

Ruskin had not himself seen Rose's ghost, but his faith in others was apparently enough to lead him back to some sort of religious belief; and a letter written to Norton on March 1, 1876, some five weeks later, reveals a pragmatic, still tentative, attitude toward his resumption of belief: "I have no new faith, but am able to get some good out of my old one, not as being true, but as containing the quantity of truth that is wholesome for me" (37.194)

His published statements about religion and other letters after this time make clear that this final belief shares neither the tone nor the emphases of his earlier Evangelical Anglicanism, a fact which appears with particular distinctness in the way Praeterita defined Christianity in 1886:

The total meaning was, and is, that the God who made earth and its creatures, took at a certain time upon the earth, the flesh and form of man; in that flesh sustained the pain and died the death of the creature He had made; rose again after death into glorious human life, and when the date of the human race is ended, will return in visible human form, and render to every man according to his work. Christianity is the belief in, and love of, God thus manifested. Anything less than this, the mere acceptance of the sayings of Christ, or assertion of any less than divine power in His Being, may be, for aught I know, enough for virtue, peace, and safety; but they do not make people Christians. (35.351-52)

Although this Christianity accepts as fact the incarnation, resurrection, and judgment of Christ, it refuses to damn those who do not thus believe, and it will not even assert that such belief is necessary for "virtue, peace, and safety." In further contrast to the sharp blade of Evangelical doctrine, which cut off nominal Christians from the true body of the Church Militant, Ruskin's broadly defined faith does not even mention the Trinity, the fall, the Bible, grace, human depravity, or damnation. Although Ruskin states that Christ will return "and judge every man according to his work," he leaves, perhaps deliberately, the nature of that judgment unspecified, and this vagueness may indicate that he did not much concern himself at this time with the problem whether damnation, mere exclusion from heaven, or some other end awaited those who act badly in this life. Praeterita therefore suggests that Ruskin may have been able, finally, to believe in an afterlife without subjecting himself to the corollary belief in hell and damnation.

This peaceful vision of a gentle and tolerant Christianity, so in contrast to Evangelicalism, dissolves when we consider that while he was insane Ruskin believed himself tormented by Satan and figures of monstrous evil. As a young child he had learned that evil was an active force to be combatted actively, and his painful experiences with the insane young girl he had wanted to marry and his own strong feelings of guilt fed his sense of evil until one cold February night in 1878 this childhood lesson evolved to madness.

As Ruskin later described those fearful hours to a physician, "my madness took the form of my ever being in conflict, more or less personal, with the Evil One. . . . I became powerfully impressed with the idea that the Devil was about to seize me, and I felt convinced that the only way to meet him was to remain awake waiting for him all through the night, and combat him in a naked condition" (38.172). Throwing off his clothing, he stalked his room in great agitation all through the dark hours of night. When dawn came he walked to his window "wondering at the non-appearance of my expected visitor. As I put forth my hand towards the window a large black cat sprang forth from behind the mirror! Persuaded that the foul fiend was here at last in his own person . . . I darted at it, as the best thing to do under the critical circumstances, and grappled with it. . . . I had triumphed!" (38.172) After his victory, he staggered exhausted to bed where he was found "in a state of wild delirium" (38.172) in which he remained for several weeks. Ruskin reported that during these painful weeks, "Demons appeared to me constantly, coming out of the darkness and forming themselves gradually into corporeal shapes, almost too horrible to think of. But even worse and more torturing than these were the fantastic, malignant, and awful imps and devils and witches that formed themselves out of the various articles in the room" (38.172).

Surrounded by a grotesque universe of jeering evil, he found himself isolated from all other human beings while the most prosaic objects transformed themselves into taunting, tormenting spirits. Time, like space, changed as he perceived himself falling, again and again, into inexpressible sin. At the very beginning of this first attack, Ruskin reported, time was subdivided "infinitesimally," and at each instant, hearing the cry of a pet peacock, "I thought I was in a farmyard and that I was impelled by the tyrant Devil to do some fearful wrong, which I strove with all my might and main to resist. But my passionate efforts were to no avail; and every time I did the wrong I heard the voice of the Demon — that is, the peacock — give forth a loud croak of triumph" (38.172). Again and again he repeated the fall of Adam, the betrayal of Peter, the horrible sin. Ruskin's mad vision, which was merely the intensification of the usual Puritan conversion experience, allowed the unseen world of spirits to stand forth in visible form as the nightmarish and all-embracing embodiment of his guilt. Ruskin's first and succeeding attacks of madness reveal that although he consciously rejected hell and damnation' they rose up fearful specters to haunt him again and again.

Since we know he tried to remain calm during the periods of sanity when he composed his autobiography, we might surmise that he there presents only the least troubling form of his belief in an attempt to remain undisturbed. On the other hand, it is even more likely that his madness had the purgative effect John D. Rosenberg has described, so that after his attacks he could, for a time, attain the calm faith he had so long desired (Darkening Glass, 219). One must then decide how to define his religious convictions: is the belief of madness or the belief of sanity the more real? During these last years his sanity and madness became so entwined that one is forced to conclude that Ruskin simultaneously accepted both his long-desired belief in a gentle, forgiving Christianity and his obsessive conviction of the tempting Satan of Puritanism. In moments of balance his milder, comforting faith reasserted itself, but in those moments when he moved closer to madness he was tormented by a belief in a Satan who led men to fall and a God who punished them when they did.

The complex nature of Ruskin's belief appears with particular clarity when one examines the strange statements he made about hell and the devil almost two decades before he defined Christianity in Praeterita. In Time and Tide . . . Twenty-five Letters to a Working Man of Sunderland on the Laws of Work (1867) he includes a discussion of Satan in the midst of urging England's desperate need for a society based upon cooperation. After attacking the cash nexus, he comments caustically on the way his nation willingly devotes 150 times as much wealth to the military arts of death as to the arts of life and cooperation. Lamenting that the English do not follow the Bible they profess to believe — a Bible which "primarily forbids pride, lasciviousness, and covetousness" (17.351) — he demonstrates that modern man has lost the capacity for pure and noble enjoyment. He next turns to the causes which militate against a society founded upon honesty and cooperation and which have produced this painful state of national mind and soul. His tenth letter begins by arguing against both those who deny the existence of hell and Satan and those who think "that there must be such a place as hell, because no one would ever behave decently upon earth unless they were kept in wholesome fear of the fires beneath it" (17.360). At a time in his life when he did not believe in Christianity, the essential truth of scripture' or an afterlife, Ruskin insists: "I do not merely believe there is such a place as hell. I know there is such a place; and I know also that when men have got to the point of believing virtue impossible but through dread of it, they have got into it" (17.360-361). Not they "will get" into it, but they "have got" into it. In other words, despite the strangely ambiguous way he makes his point, Ruskin apparently intends "hell" to mean a present state of mind and soul. But our problem is not so much what Ruskin means but why he chose this oddly misleading manner of statement — if misleading it is.

His long discussion of Satan, which occupies the larger part of this tenth letter, clarifies the reason for this method, revealing darker intentions that lurk beneath the surface of Ruskin's words. Assuring his reader that he writes of the devil neither metaphorically nor rhetorically, Ruskin emphasizes that "in fearful truth, the Presence and Power of Him is here; in the world, with us, and within us" (17.361). But after thus apparently affirming the existence of an incarnate force of evil, he offers a broader definition, stating that "whatever influence it is, without or within us" which perverts the good impulses and faculties of our being is "'Satanic'" (17.363). He then explains his point by leading the reader through an infernal modern landscape in which pride, avarice, and selfish divisiveness have corrupted man's noble instincts and desires: religion, teaching, mutual help, justice, beauty, and industry have all assumed grotesque forms under the influence of this "deceiving spirit within us, or outside of us" (17.363). Ruskin concludes with a long exhortation, whose mode of statement embodies the peculiar dilemmas in his thought:

Now observe — I leave you to call this deceiving spirit what you like — or to theorise about it as you like. All that I desire you to recognise is the fact of its being here, and the need of its being fought with. If you take the Bible's account of it, or Dante's, or Milton's, you will receive the image of it as a mighty spiritual creature . . . : if you take Aeschylus's or Hesiod's account of it, you will hold it for a partly elementary and unconscious adversity of fate, and partly for a group of monstrous spiritual agencies connected with death, and begotten out of the dust; if you take a modern rationalist's, you will accept it for a mere treachery and want of vitality in our own moral nature exposing it to loathsomeness or moral disease, as the body is capable of mortification or leprosy. I do not care what you call it, — whose history you believe of it, — nor what you yourself can imagine about it; the origin, or nature, or name may be as you will, but the deadly reality of the thing is with us, and warring against us, and on our true war with it depends whatever life we can win. (17.365)

Ruskin warns against these forces of destruction in a manner as eclectic and undecided as the multifarious styles of Victorian architecture, for like those architects who offered alternate Greek, Gothic, and Renaissance plans, he will not choose a point of view, though he can present several with skill. Attempting to make his statements accessible and acceptable to the widest possible audience, he presents not a single, embracing definition but three different ones, none of which overtly betrays the impress of authorial belief. This deliberate vagueness about his own position, which appears elsewhere in Time and Tide, surely arises as much from the nature of his thought as from rhetorical strategy. His private letters indicate that he would have felt the position of the modern rationalist most intellectually congenial. On the other hand, his vocabulary, his echoes of Puritanism, and his tone suggest a fascination with Satan and the Satanic. Just as many years later Ruskin held in precarious balance a conscious belief in a gentle, undogmatic Christianity and an emotional conviction of Satanic presence, so in 1867 while he accepted no religious convictions he yet felt himself drawn to the idea of the devil. Perhaps one should not even limit the components of his belief to rationalism and Puritanism, for in 1867 he seems almost equally drawn to the Greek conception of evil as part spirit and part "elementary and unconscious adversity of fate." Nonetheless, the main tensions in his thought were between his consciously assumed position of unbelief and his fascination with the idea of a devil. According to John D. Rosenberg, whose Darkening Glass has done so much to explain the nature of Ruskin's thought,

Ruskin was convinced of the reality of Satan' "the Lord of Pain," because to no other power could he attribute the reality of his own torment: his terrifying dreams, his agony over Rose, his fear that the Serpent-Tempter would not only corrupt his soul but unhinge his mind. His fears proved prophetic. A decade after he wrote Time and Tide, a grotesque hallucination of "the Evil One appeared in his bed room."

Rosenberg is essentially correct, for undoubtedly this evil force, which Ruskin in 1867 stated might be a weakness within man, an agent of fate, or a conscious spiritual presence, became, finally, the Evil One for whom he waited on that long, cold February night. But in 1867 Ruskin seemed unable to state definitely, either to himself or others, that Satan, the Evil One, the Lord of Lies and Pain, exists as an active, conscious spirit. Several places in Time and Tide he appears to admit this, and then, as if drawing himself back from the brink of darkness, he qualifies and broadens his description, offering more palatable alternatives; for however insistently the forces of guilt and horror had begun to push their way up from the depths of the surface of his mind, he still remained unwilling to accept the figure of Satan consciously and intellectually. He felt drawn to the idea of Satan, nonetheless, since he desired something, someone, that would bear responsibility for the suffering which he had both experienced himself and seen around him. Ironically, Ruskin's Evangelical religion, which had been unable to bring him an experiential, felt knowledge of Christ, brought him, finally, such a conviction of Satan. But in 1867 the Puritan and the agnostic, the conscious and the unconscious, yet maintained an uneasy balance.

After his first attack of madness, these opposing positions became even more forcefully contrasted. He was once again a believer, and in calm, sane moments he held an unquestioning faith, which accepted the reality of spiritualism and miracles. As the dark clouds of madness gathered, his sense of evil became ascendant, and he wrote, an Old Testament prophet, as though he could perceive the hand of a jealous, avenging God in England's then bizarre weather conditions. But, as Rosenberg has shown, even in The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century (1884), in which Ruskin seems most completely unbalanced, he blended sanity and madness, for as fantastic as the work seems now it described accurately the frightening and deadly effects of the industrial age upon the sky (214-15).

After 1875 Ruskin held religious convictions that were essentially undoctrinal, unquestioning, and even anti-intellectual. As he wrote in 1876 to his friend Fanny Talbot, he did "not think the question of the Trinity or Unity is one for Man to discuss," and, indeed, after the experience at Broadlands he felt that many points of belief were not "for Man to discuss" (Dearest Mama Talbot: A Selection of Letters from John Ruskin to Mrs. Fanny Talbot, ed. Margaret Spence, London, 1966, 51). When both his need to remain calm and his need to believe became more desperate, he willingly relinquished his former analytical attitude toward religion, turning away from questions that might have disturbed his assurance that he would meet his mother and father and Rose after death. But although he was finally able to attain that belief he had long sought, it was not to bring him peace of mind; for madness irrupted into his life, bringing terror and darkness. In the end, Ruskin was unable to escape the bonds of Evangelicalism, for just as it shaped and gave impetus to his earlier thought and writing, it provided the form and substance of those waking nightmares into which he at last withdrew for the last eleven years of his life.


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Last modified 25 July 2005