Ruskin in the Year of COVID-19

By Fredrik Albritton Jonsson

Brantwood Professors Garden Iii
The Professor's Garden, at Brantwood House

Ruskin was no stranger to epidemics. He was twelve years old when cholera first swept through London in 1831. A second larger outbreak began in Scotland in 1848 and spread south to London the following spring, taking 52,000 lives. During his European tour in 1849, Ruskin took refuge in the Alps while waiting for a wave to burn through Venice. Cholera returned to Britain again in 1853 and one final time in 1866, when it struck the East End of London with awful ferocity.[1] Like many contemporaries, Ruskin seems to have associated cholera with slums and urban poverty. A letter to Ruskin’s mother from 1867 contrasted the calm and cleanliness of the Lake District to the “cholera and plague” in “the back streets of London.”[2] This view was very much in line with the official etiology of cholera by British medical officers who attributed it to “bad water, bad air, defective drainage, overcrowding, dirty and irregular habits.”[3]

While the epidemic struck the poor far more frequently than the rich, the fear of the disease stalked far beyond the slums. In the fall of 1866, Ruskin sent his secretary Howell to Boulogne in the midst of an outbreak to console the widow of a friend who had died from the disease. Reports of the epidemic deeply affected his mother and Rossetti who both became “terribly nervous.” For his own part, Ruskin affected a stance of equanimity and counseled Howell to adopt the same poise. Yet perhaps in deference to his mother, Ruskin found it all the same necessary to order Howell to return without delay from the continent. It is possible that his brave words were intended to calm Howell’s fears rather than persuade him that the risk was negligible.[4] 

Elsewhere in Ruskin’s thought, cholera appeared not as a test of middle class composure but divine vengeance against the wicked. We can glean something about the spiritual meaning of the epidemic from a short reference in the second Storm Cloud lecture (1884). Ruskin here denounced materialist philosophies that failed to distinguish between virtue and vice or health and illness. “In the conception of recent philosophy,” he fumed, “the world is one Kosmos in which diphtheria is held to be as natural as song, and cholera as digestion.” For Ruskin, the condition of human existence required a moral understanding of the “agencies of health and disease.” Health should be “aided” through “industry, prudence, and piety.” Meanwhile, the “destroying laws” of disease must be understood as correctives against “idleness, folly, and vice.” The natural order on Earth was also a moral order, “prepared for the abode of man.“[5] 

Such an Old Testament view of cholera is unlikely to comfort readers in the year of COVID-19. Yet if we turn from Ruskin’s moralizing understanding of disease to his positive concept of health, we may perhaps find a little more common ground. Recall that Ruskin identified Blasphemy as the root cause of the Storm Cloud. What he meant by this diagnosis was the tendency of the “vulgar scientific mind” to destroy or degrade the “good works and purposes of Nature.” Over the course of the nineteenth century, the logic of economic growth and market expansion had reduced human interaction to constant competition and exploitation: “every man doing as much injustice to his brother as it is in his power to do.” A lot of Ruskin’s thought and practical experiments can be understood as an attempt to nudge humans in the opposite direction. By rejecting the hyper consumerism of industrial society, he hoped to rediscover alternative forms of welfare and community in simple living.

The connection between Ruskin’s Arts and Crafts ethics and our current predicament becomes clearer when we remember that a primary driver of modern pandemics is land use change. Forest logging, road construction, and other points of contact provide a key pathway for the emergence of new infectious diseases. Land use change around the world happens for many reasons, but the common factors include commercial farming, deforestation, and various forms of resource extraction. Experts in virology predict that the frequency of epidemics will increase with accelerating land use change.[6] To stop the trend, we need to rethink fundamental economic priorities. In part this is a question of balancing local livelihoods with conservation aims; in part it is a problem of curbing or reorienting consumption in affluent countries. COVID-19 is a symptom of an underlying paradox of economic development. The rise of a global consumer society has produced worldwide ecological strains, including not just epidemics but also anthropogenic climate change and biodiversity loss. More growth will simply exacerbate the pressure on the earth system. Put differently – we are beginning to see the limits of our global growth model. American standards of affluence cannot be universalized without dangerous environmental effects.[7] 

Brantwood Bedroom
Ruskin's Bedroom, at Brantwood House

A long-term remedy to planetary crisis will require a profound cultural transformation to overcome the cornucopian beliefs that permeate our dominant economic ideology. This is where Ruskin’s ethics and practice might offer some assistance. For Ruskin, the freedom and happiness of the medieval artisan found expression in the gorgeous exuberance of the Gothic style. Yet in the modern world, this organic connection between work and art had been severed, banishing the play of the imagination from labor. At the same time, commercial society encouraged a continuous increase of human wants - constantly imagining new forms of satisfaction. In his ethics of sufficiency, Ruskin proposed that it was possible to reorient the imagination away from the marketplace, toward the world of art and nature. If the imagination could find other objects of desire, shaped by knowledge of the natural world and guided by artistic skill, this would radically undermine the treadmill of consumer society and the lure of infinite growth.


[1] Stephanie J. Snow, “Commentary: Sutherland, Snow and water: the transmission of cholera in the nineteenth century,” International Journal of Epidemiology 2002; 31:908–911.

[2] John Ruskin, Works, Vol. XIX, The Cestus of Aglaia, xxx.

[3] W. Luckin, “The Final Catastrophe: Cholera in London, 1866,” Medical History, 1977, 21: 3242, p. 35

[4] Works, Vol. XXXVI, Letters of Ruskin, Vol. 1. 516

[5] Ruskin, Works, Vol. XXXIV, The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, p. 42-3.

[6] Rory Gibb, David W. Redding, Kai Qing Chin, Christl A. Donnelly, Tim M. Blackburn, Tim Newbold, Kate E. Jones, “Zoonotic host diversity increases in human-dominated ecosystems,” Nature, 584 (August 2020): 398–402.

[7] On degrowth as the moral response to planetary strain, see Jason Hickel & Giorgos Kallis “Is Green Growth Possible?,” New Political Economy, 2019: 1-16.