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In yesterday’s post, I showed how the Victorian Thomas Carlyle, though a strong critic of the Industrial Revolution, defended work as a good and godly thing. In this post, I shall extend my analysis to two other Victorians who also balanced a critique of the excesses of industrialism with a celebration of our God-given call to bring order out of chaos.

Ruskin on the Gothic

John Ruskin was primarily an art critic, though he often wrote on the issues of his day. Among his many achievements was to convince his fellow Englishmen, who prided themselves overmuch on the consistency of production they had achieved through their mills, that the rich and strange excesses and inconsistencies of the Gothic cathedral were something they should emulate. Mass-producing furniture, clothing or glass beads necessitates reducing workers into cogs in a well-oiled machine. Rather than take joy and purpose in his work, the assembly-line worker has his individual human dignity crushed.

Ruskin was a lover of order, but not if that order led to the dehumanization of the worker. “You must either,” he argues in The Stones of Venice, “make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both. Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must dehumanize them. All the energy of their spirits must be given to make cogs and compasses of themselves” (Book II, chapter 16). We yearn to build, but as men, not as machines.

Ruskin’s solution to the problem was not to give each and every worker complete autonomy to create as he saw fit but to emulate the model of the Gothic cathedral. In the heyday of the Middle Ages, a master craftsman would determine the basic blueprint and assign workers to individual tasks. Although those workers would be expected to perform their tasks within certain specifications, they could nevertheless bring some of themselves and their own personality into the individual pieces that they made. By this system, the cathedral could achieve a thematic and architectural unity of design without robbing the workers of their freedom and self-determination.

This unity out of diversity blended the individual wills of a thousand builders with the vision of a single artistic genius and gave the Gothic cathedral its sense of tension and power. And something more: “It is that strange disquietude of the Gothic spirit that is its greatness; that restlessness of the dreaming mind, that wanders hither and thither among the niches, and flickers feverishly around the pinnacles, and frets and fades in labyrinthine knots and shadows along wall and roof, and yet is not satisfied, nor shall be satisfied” (Book II, chapter 16). Perfection marks the death of art, for perfection, if achieved, would snuff out the part within us that strives and reaches and yearns.

When Ruskin studied the Gothic cathedrals of northern Europe, he saw in them the very spirit that unites and orders: “Strength of will, independence of character, resoluteness of purpose, impatience of undue control, and that general tendency to set the individual reason against authority, and the individual deed against destiny… are all more or less traceable in the rigid lines, vigorous and various masses, and daringly projecting and independent structures of the Northern Gothic ornament.” Resolute, impatient, independent: it was these qualities that allowed the Victorians to fulfill their dream of building a new and vibrant world that would be both beautiful and permanent.

Tennyson on Building Utopia

As the great poet of the Victorian spirit of progress, Tennyson often captured in his poetry precisely that spirit. In his complex dramatic monologue, “Locksley Hall,” he takes his readers into the mind of a moody, bitter, overly-self-conscious speaker who has been jilted by his lifelong love, Amy. On and on, the anonymous speaker rages against the falseness and hypocrisy of society, even stooping to peevish thoughts of how miserable Amy will be with her rich and well-connected but foolish and narrow-minded husband.

Thankfully, his epic rant ends as suddenly as it began with the speaker casting his mind back to the days of his youth when he felt a part of England’s utopian dream:

Men, my brothers, men the workers, ever reaping something new;

That which they have done but earnest of the things that they shall do.

For I dipped into the future, far as human eye could see,

Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;

Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,

Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;

Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rained a ghastly dew

From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue;

Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,

With the standards of the people plunging ‘thro the thunder-storm;

Till the war drum throbbed no longer, and the battle flags were furled

In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.

There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,

And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapped in universal law. (lines 117-130)

In these stirring lines, Tennyson consciously echoes a passage from Book I of the Aeneid, when Jupiter prophesies the coming greatness of Rome, promising that she shall unite the globe and bring to it peace and prosperity without end.

Although Tennyson puts faith in technology to drive the building of this coming world federation, he makes clear that the builders will be his brother workers. It is they who will shape it, with each stage of its construction standing as a pledge of their ability to complete what they have begun. Their enterprise will be attended with danger, for their flying ships will lead at first to wars in the skies. In the end, however, peace will prevail as the battle drums give way to the cheers of a united humanity and universal law is imposed upon the chaos of nature.

My stronger belief in original sin/total depravity, together with my historical knowledge of how technology was misused throughout the twentieth century to promote greater destruction, leaves me far less utopian than Tennyson. Still, I hearken to his optimistic call for his fellow Victorians to build out of the jungles and deserts of nature and the chaos of human pride, greed, and lust something noble and rare that will outlast the ravages of time.

Like the Victorians before us, our age continues to struggle with the good and bad aspects of progress, technology, capitalism, bureaucracy, industrialism, and globalism. Although all of these things are a mixed blessing and call for careful discernment, we must not allow cynicism or apathy to dampen the divine mandate laid upon our species by our Creator: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28; KJV). Let us continue to work and build and to celebrate those who do!

Louis Markos

Houston Baptist University
Louis Markos, Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Christian University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; his 26 books include From Plato to Christ, The Myth Made Fact, Heaven and Hell, and Pressing Forward: Alfred, Lort Tennyson and the Victorian Age. His Passing the Torch: An Apology for Classical Christian Education and From Aristotle to Christ are due out in 2024 and 2025, respectively.