UNTO THIS LAST by John Ruskin

The name John Ruskin is no longer particularly familiar. I only knew of the Victorian art critic turned social reformer as a footnote in literature and a fascinating, if repellent, personality. As I studied British literature in college and graduate school, Ruskin’s prose was occasionally mentioned as an example of florid overwriting that we moderns should be happy to be rid of. One professor said she thought he was undervalued but she still didn’t have time to include him on the syllabus. I knew him best, however, through the human drama of his abortive marriage. Ruskin’s mental cruelty to his wife, who eventually eloped with his protégé (the great painter John Evertt Millais) is undeniable and a serious blemish on his character.
John Ruskin was a troublesome figure and possibly a pedophile. For years, after casually reading about him, I assumed Ruskin was indeed a child molester. I have since learned that his sexuality, while obviously abnormal, was not exactly obvious. Ruskin never had sexual contact with children. He seemed to have been obsessed with young girls, one in particular. However, he waited until she was legally of age and then proposed marriage. Pathetic and bizarre, to be sure, but hardly the actions of a predator. Perhaps his sexuality is the primary reason why we cannot handle Ruskin. If so, I would like to propose we at least try and get over it. Ruskin’s sins against children, assuming there were any, never left the confines of his mind. This is not anywhere near strong enough a reason to reject his message to the world.
A couple of years ago, I stumbled upon an old copy of this book and decided to read it out of curiosity, my decision encouraged by the book’s short length. It is not a perfect book. Some of it is out of date. Some of it is ridiculous. And, yes, some of it is florid and overwritten. Yet I hardly see how our civilization will survive without its central theme of the need of society to focus on the happiness and well-being of its members, which shines through, and reduces to minor quibbles, Ruskin’s mistakes and lapses into sentimentality:
“That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the function of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and…over the lives of others.”
This theory is not a mere emotional reaction to a dimly perceived injustice but rather a sober call for better people and a better world. Instead of the familiar modern focus on the transcendent self, Ruskin linked greatness not with strength, and certainly not with wealth, but with the promotion of kindness and happiness.
Ruskin had already achieved fame as a commentator on painting and architecture. During his youth, his parents had not exposed him to the poverty most people lived in. Partially through his lectures at a college for working men, he slowly became aware of the misery wrought by the Industrial Revolution and devoted himself to criticizing unfettered capitalism as dehumanizing.  Unto This Last was his greatest assault on the callousness and greed he saw engulfing his age. Much of it is devoted to economics but with a perspective rarely seen in economic discussions:
“Political economy (the economy of a State, or of citizens) consists simply in the production, preservation, and distribution, at fittest time and place, of useful or pleasurable things. The farmer who cuts his hay at the right time; the shipwright who drives his bolts well home in sound wood; the builder who lays good bricks in well-tempered mortar…are all political economists in the true and final sense: adding continually to the riches and well-being of the nation to which they belong.
But mercantile economy, the economy of “merces” or of “pay,” signifies the accumulation, in the hands of individuals, of legal or moral claim upon, or power over, the labor of others; every such claim implying precisely as much poverty or debt on one side, as it implies riches or right on the other.
It does not, therefore, necessarily involve an addition to the actual property, or well-being of the State in which it exists.”
What surprised me here was Ruskin’s total lack of illusion about what certain types of organizations are really all about. He is not condemning, just clear-eyed and honest. He does not really question the rights of these organizations to do what they do Instead, he questions why we as a society would adjust our values to their ways. Why would we make something that was never meant to help us the very thing we revere and treasure?  Unto This Last rises to true greatness when Ruskin questions the foundation of how we assign value in our society. As with economics, Ruskin concludes that value should be based on the good someone or something does for others. While this may sound simple enough, imagine what our lives would be like, who our heroes would be and what we would be paying the most attention to in our world if we actually applied Ruskin’s criterion:
“…the true question, to every capitalist and to every nation, is not, “how many ploughs have you?” but, “where are your furrows?” not-“how quickly will this capital reproduce itself?”-but, “what will it do during reproduction?” What substance will it furnish, good for life? What work construct, protective of life? If none, its own reproduction is useless…”
Many will say this is all painfully obvious, but I don’t think so. Not anymore, at least. We tell our children there are more important things than money. We pay lip service in religious ceremonies and political rallies to the betterment of humanity. Yet it seems that it is power and wealth we still admire above all, albeit sometimes secretly. How common is it, when career goals are discussed, to hear young people proclaim to general approval “Something where I can make a ton of money”? Let us fantasize, just for a moment, if our societal values were similar to Ruskin’s. It would be considered odd to devote your life to nothing but profit. Children would be taught by families and teachers that, whatever else they do with their lives, it is vital that they also help their fellow people, that being a good person is at least as important as being successful. Above all, in our hearts we would value kindness and virtue above glory and strength. I believe our world would be dramatically different and, maybe, better.
There is a chance that reviving ideas like Ruskin’s is impossible these days but I do not believe it. When Ruskin first published Unto This Last, society was outraged and scandalized. The idea that society and its people had the wrong values, that:
“…the power of mere wealth being, in itself, as the embrace of a shadow,-comfortless…”
was seen as a dangerous and radical lie. But the world changed. Men and women, among them Gandhi, listened to Ruskin and showed how noble human endeavor could be.
One of the most fascinating things about Ruskin’s turn to social reform is that it grew out of his passion for art. Ruskin came to see that the art he loved so much came from, and simultaneously served, the best aspects of the human race. This discovery showed him that there are more things in the world that are vital than we usually acknowledge:
“No air is sweet that is silent; it is only sweet when full of low currents of under sound-triplets of birds, and murmur and chirp of insects, and deep-toned words of men, and wayward trebles of childhood. As the art of life is learned, it will be found at last that all lovely things are also necessary;-the wild flower by the wayside, as well as the tended corn; and the wild birds and creatures of the forest, as well as the tended cattle…”
While I love this prose, I understand it will not appeal to everyone. Maybe John Ruskin is not the person to bring these honorable ideas back to life. If not, however, we must swiftly find someone else. If the prose is too old-fashioned, the ideas are as fresh and needed as the very air. We must all learn, as Ruskin learned, that “There is no wealth but life.”


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