Life, art and the ‘Law of Help’

Ruskin died a long time before systems theory was formulated and even before Jan Smuts put forward the idea of Holism, so his language is somewhat stretched but he clearly recognised what we might call systemic interdependence and its vital importance for art, ecology and economics.

The clearest exposition of this ‘law’ is in his chapter in Modern Painters vol 5 on The “Law of Help” where he discusses the importance of composition in art.

Composition may be best defined as the help of everything in the picture by everything else.

It is the ‘system’ of the art work, all functioning together, that makes it work for us – perhaps as a form of psychic or social integration, perhaps as a way of pointing towards something which cannot otherwise be expressed…. but that is a different question.

Ruskin argues that in ‘inanimate objects’ atoms (components) do not help each other. This is actually often wrong, especially in compounds, but we can get Ruskin’s point, in simple systems the particles merely cohere or exist together. The edge of a rock may not help the rest of the rock, or the co-existence of components can apparently be random as in dust.

In rocks as opposed to living things:

The removal of one part does not injure the rest. But in a plant, the taking away of any one part does injure the rest. Hurt or remove any portion of the sap, bark, or pith, the rest in injured. If any part enters into a state in which it no more assists the rest, and has thus become “helpless,” [without helping or being helped] we call it also ‘dead’.

The power which causes the several portions of the plant to help each other, we call life. Much more is this so in an animal. We may take away the branch of a tree without much harm to it; but not the animal’s limb. Thus, intensity of life is also intensity of helpfulness — completeness of depending of each part on all the rest.

Intensity of life in a single organism depends upon the helpfulness of all its parts or as Ruskin states:

The highest or organic purities are composed of many elements in an entirely helpful state. The highest and first law of the universe —and the other name of life is, therefore, ‘help.’ The other name of death is ‘separation’.

It is hard to think of a better definition of a system in equilibrium; it works together, whatever the appearance, and if it does not work together then it is on the road to separation or death.

Ruskin goes on to argue that this is an important part of composition in art, when:

everything in the work is thus consistent with all things else, and helpful to all else.

Lack of good composition is when an ‘item’ in the work can be removed, and the other pieces of the artwork would not be affected.

In this sense, composition, where everything in the work is essential to it, is “not only the highest quality of art, but is simply the most wonderful act or power of humanity.”

Training in composition depends on noticing the world as well as observing and feeling into good art.

Look back to the greatest of all creations, that of the world. Suppose the trees had been ever so well or so ingeniously put together, stem and leaf, yet if they had not been able to grow, would they have been well created? Or suppose the fish had been cut and stitched finely out of skin and whalebone; yet, cast upon the waters, had not been able to swim? Or suppose Adam and Eve had been made in the softest clay, ever so neatly, and set at the foot of the tree of knowledge, fastened up to it, quite unable to fall, or do anything else, would they have been well created, or in any true sense created at all?

Like a great artwork, the world is systemic, remove one function and it fails. We may not be able learn pure creative composition, but we can learn to observe it, we can learn to apply it and we can improve. Composition is, however, as vital to our real life and wealth, as it is to art.

I’ve spent much time arguing here that not all systems are purely harmonious like this, and sometimes appearances of disharmony are real and disfunction and conflict cannot be ignored, if we are to treat of real systems in the world, especially of human systems.

However, the point remains, working systems can be disrupted, or even destroyed, by removing some of its parts, or by destroying the capacity for parts to ‘help’ each other. This is important, even if it may not always be immediately clear what is helpful, as when wolves were released back into Yellowstone park, and the ecology began to flourish again [1], [2]. Wolves served a function of help for the ecology as a whole.


God has lent us the earth for our life. It is a great entail. It belongs as much to those who are to come after us… as to us. And we have no right, by anything we might do or neglect, to involve them in unnecessary penalties or deprive them of benefits which it was in our power to bequeath… Every human action gains in honor, in grace, in all true magnificence, by its regard of things that are to come… Therefore, when we build, let us think that we build forever.

So the law of help, which is found in the composition of ecologies and in good art, should also be part of our daily and economic life – we are not only help each other and the earth, but help those who are yet to be born. We do not remove, or over-stretch, parts that are helpful to the whole.

The health, and flourishing, of the systems, that we depend upon, depends on what we do to help to that flourishing or refuse to do to harm that flourishing.

So let us return to Ruskin’s definition of wealth:

There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is [wealthy] which nourishes the greatest numbers of noble and happy human beings; that man is [wealthy], who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others. (Ruskin, 1860 W 17 “Unto this Last”: 105)

In Letter 5 of Fors Clavigera he explains that the material things all beings need for life are clear and ecological.

Pure Air, Water, and Earth

As these are basics, we need to think whether our economic modes of life contribute to these factors or not.

Our potential to help the air is by recognising that our capacity for:

dealing properly and swiftly with all substances in corruption; by absolutely forbidding noxious manufactures; and by planting in all soils the trees which cleanse and invigorate earth and atmosphere, [this] is literally infinite. You might make every breath of air you draw, food.


everywhere, and all day long, you are vitiating it with foul chemical exhalations; and the horrible nests, which you call towns, are little more than laboratories for the distillation into heaven of venomous smokes and smells, mixed with effluvia from decaying animal matter, and infectious miasmata from purulent disease.

This is true of water:

You might have the rivers of England as pure as the crystal of the rock; beautiful in falls, in lakes, in living pools; so full of fish that you might take them out with your hands instead of nets. Or you may do always as you have done now, turn every river of England into a common sewer, so that you cannot so much as baptize an English baby but with filth, unless you hold its face out in the rain; and even that falls dirty.

and of earth….

you have turned the Mother-Earth, Demeter, into the Avenger-Earth, Tisiphone — with the voice of your brother’s blood crying out of it, in one wild harmony round all its murderous sphere

It might now be clearer what Ruskin intends to suggest. A wealthy economy is one in which help to life is a major principle. This includes help to the whole system of life as best we can.

Ruskin is not arguing for an abolition of competition, even if he argues that competition is death, as he fully intended organisms to eat [I doubt he would have objected strongly to the re-stocking of wolves, especially when the results came in] and he had no objection to artists being ambitious, but the argument is that making our fundamental principle to be competition of ‘all against all’, with casual ignoring of damage, and the celebration of destruction in victory, will contribute to social and system death. He is pointing to the principles of conservation and of co-operation which have been ignored as the basis of society, and which are as natural to humans, and everything else, as competition.

Ruskin is suggesting that the purpose of any economy is to enhance life. This is why economics cannot avoid morals and politics, even before it considers production and markets. If our economic aims are not directed towards life and help, then we are aiming at destruction, and our economics is merely a ‘science’ aimed at getting us to that destruction as quickly as possible, so that some people can become rich and powerful.

As individuals we should aim for our work to help others become stronger, more full of life, and indeed virtue, and for them to be able to help others. This can be done in many ways, through many different types of work and product. It would also appear such action will make the system of wealth stronger.

This is why he contrasts common wealth with those private riches which can arise from the immiseration of others and the destruction of ecologies. His argument is undermined by a lack of system in his vocabulary, but we can easily see what he means

[Riches], unjustly established, has assuredly injured the nation in which it exists during its establishment, and, unjustly directed, injure it yet more during its existence. But… wealth, justly established, benefits the nation in the course of its establishment, and, nobly used, aids it yet more in its existence.

One aim of economics should be to spread the laws of help and interdependence rather than the laws of riches and destruction.

He points out that people defending riches often argue they have improved the market by making products cheap.

Yes: but what made your market cheap? Charcoal may be cheap among your roof timbers after a fire, and bricks may be cheap in your streets after an earthquake, but fire and earthquake may not therefore be national benefits!

Again the suggestion is that economics ignores damage to make its claims of progress, but if riches come at the cost of destruction, is that helpful or useful in any system we wish to be long term? Ruskin has already pointed to the importance of us leaving the system functioning, or improved, for humanity’s descendants.

It is implicit in Ruskin’s discussion that while we have choice to do our bit to help, the economic system itself is destructive. Modern economies encourage freeloading on the ecology of the world, stripping away more than we can return, poisoning rivers and the air, because it is cheap and convenient, and because if businesses do not do this, they will lose to the competition that does do this destruction. Modern economic systems have been about building riches for some rather than wealth for all life, even when they pretend otherwise.

Its freeloading because it is cheaper to destroy when extracting, manufacturing, and selling, than it is to take responsibility for the destruction and pollution – even better perhaps if you can persuade governments and individuals to clear up after you, so you get even more hidden subsidies and make more profit, and that is what our economics encourages.

This competition for cheapness also affects people who labour, making them slaves to a machine or to business process rather than to their own rhythms, skills or craft.

Let me not be thought to speak wildly or extravagantly. It is verily this degradation of the operative into a machine, which, more than any other evil of the times, is leading the mass of the nations everywhere into vain, incoherent, destructive struggling for a freedom of which they cannot explain the nature to themselves.

It is not that men are ill fed, but that they have no pleasure in the work by which they make their bread, and therefore look to [riches] as the only means of pleasure. It is not that men are pained by the scorn of the upper classes, but they cannot endure their own; for they feel that the kind of labour to which they are condemned is verily a degrading one, and makes them less than men….

to feel their souls withering within them, unthanked, to find their whole being sunk into an unrecognized abyss, to be counted off into a heap of mechanism numbered with its wheels, and weighed with its hammer strokes—this, nature bade not,—this, God blesses not,—this, humanity for no long time is able to endure.

Stones of Venice W vol10 95-6

The resemblance to the young Marx’s unpublished theories of alienation are marked. Ruskin argues that Feudal relationships of command, acknowledgement and training were better than this cheapening of labour and souls. And then:

it matters fearfully what the thing is, which [the labourer] is compelled to make. If his labour is so ordered as to produce [good earth], food, fresh air, and fresh water, no matter that his wages are low;—the food and fresh air and water will be at last there; and he will at last get them. But if he is paid to destroy [earth], food and fresh air, or to produce iron bars instead of them,—the [earth] food,[water] and air will finally not be there, and he will not get them, to his great and final inconvenience.

Crown of Wild Olives W18: 391

This again is why economics is about morals (implicitly or explicitly), as economic theory and economic practice is always prescriptive and telling us what to do, such as to not value the gifts of nature (beauty, earth, food, water and air, etc) and go for monetary profit and power. This moral basis means that there will probably never be agreement on economics, just as there is not on morals, but Ruskin’s hope is that if we understand that wealth is common rather than individual, and relies on working ecologies. If we then come to understand the ways that systems act to help each other, and realise that understanding this involves aesthetics as well as morals, then we may be on the way to a functional economy. We may at least slow down our ecological destruction if we realise the economy is killing us, and stripping away life capacity from the planet, far quicker than it is creating long term prosperity for all.

The real science of political economy, which has yet to be distinguished from the bastard science, as medicine from witchcraft, and astronomy from astrology, is that which teaches nations to desire and labour for the things that lead to life; and which teaches them to scorn and destroy the things that lead to destruction

Unto this Last W. 17: 85

Ruskin’s Question

Ruskin’s important question is: “What is an economy for?”

And surely one possible answer is “not to destroy life, but to support the finding of true help and wealth for all including our ecologies”.

Another point is that if an economy is violating the laws of composition and help and creating ugliness through pollution, trash and ‘alienation’, then that economy is almost certainly destructive of life as a whole.