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John Ruskin as a young man

“ Friend, I do thee no wrong. . . Go thy way. I will give unto this last even as to thee.”

About Unto This Last


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1 From art critic to social reformer

2 Ruskin’s four essays

3 His polemical strategy in Unto This Last

4 His errors and deeper insights

5 What Ruskin wants

6 Unto This Last as Literature


↑  From art critic to social reformer   Sec 1

▲1 John Ruskin stumbled into a career as an art critic as a very young man, by publishing a book (the first volume of Modern Painters) defending the work of the non-realistic painter J.M.W. Turner, whose work was collected by Ruskin’s father and whom Ruskin knew personally. By 1860, Ruskin had completed numerous books, mostly wide-ranging interpretations of painting and architecture. He was highly acclaimed and in great demand as a public speaker. All this was to change with the publication, in 1860, of four essays articles on political economy (economics) and social reform in Cornhill Magazine (and in Harper’s Magazine in New York) in 1860. In 1862, these essays were published in book form as Unto This Last.
▲2 England in the age of Queen Victoria had been transformed in hellish ways by the Industrial Revolution and unregulated capitalism. Large numbers of people lived in poverty, and ill health and performed brutally repetitious factory work under the worst of conditions. The cities of England were blighted by decaying neighborhoods. Factories filled the air with smoke and fumes and poured industrial discharges into the water. Amid this widespread suffering, manufacturers and merchants had become wealthy and had joined the older land-owning classes as the Victorian elite.

▲3 In large part because of his religious upbringing, Ruskin was always deeply concerned with right and wrong behavior, righteous and immoral ways of living, and the social conditions of the world around him. Also, he saw the natural world as the work of God, and as an art critic and artist, he believed that peoples' lives are diminished when they are surrounded by ugliness. Appalled and outraged by Victorian England, Ruskin had increasingly included social commentary in his writing on art.


↑  Ruskin's four essays   Sec 2

▲1 Ruskin angered the readers of Cornhill Magazine by condemning, in fierce and vivid language, the business practices of the mercantile and manufacturing classes and the economic theory that helped them justify their business practices. He challenged the orthodox (“classical”) economic theory of Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, David Ricardo, and others.
▲2 He offered instead a compelling vision of a better society in which commerce was conducted justly, workers were treated fairly, people lived fulfilled, happy lives, war was recognized as evil, and clean air, water, and soil were recognized as essential to human life and protected from industrialism.
▲3 Ruskin had planned seven essays, but the series was terminated with the fourth because of the hostile reception they were receiving. Cornhill Magazine, however, allowed Ruskin to make the fourth essay twice as long as the others, and so Ruskin incorporated content from the canceled essays into the fourth.

▲4 Ruskin lived the rest of his life as an embattled, increasingly bitter social reformer. Unto This Last was gradually recognized as very important social theory and one of the most powerful books of its time. Some of Ruskin's key ideas were recognized in later economic thinking and some of his radical ideas for reform have been widely adopted. Both Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and many others were greatly influenced by Unto This Last. Although this brief book is difficult reading, it is considered one of the most important literary works of Victorian England, and Ruskin’s political and art theories remain important.)


↑  His polemical strategy in Unto This Last   Sec 3

▲1 With pugnacious argument and satire, Ruskin challenged the orthodox (“classical”) economic theory of Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, David Ricardo, and their followers. He declared that the economic thinking of his day was utterly mistaken, deeply immoral, and destructive in its influence. Ruskin readily acknowledges that he is only an amateur in the discipline of political economy but holds that political economy is so radically misconceived that no special expertise is necessary to refute it. Although Ruskin had experienced a crisis in his own Christian faith, he assumes in these essays a deeply religious stance and argues that the amoral nature of political economy should make it unacceptable to people who consider themselves Christians.
▲2 The foundation of Victorian economic theory was Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. Broadly speaking, Smith advocated for laissez faire capitalism (letting the economy run with minimal interference) and celebrated the productivity possible with factory manufacturing. Smith’s thinking had been further developed by other political economists, most importantly John Stuart Mill. Mill a contemporary of Ruskin, was a very important philosopher and social theorist, and, as the author of Principles of Political Economy (1848), the leading economic theorist of his day. David Ricardo further developed Mill's ideas and made important contributions to political economy. All these thinkers, in different ways and to different degrees, describe human beings as purely rational agents motivated by the desire for financial gain and exclude morality and empathetic human behavior from their descriptions of economic behavior. The economic philosophy of laissez faire capitalism, though it has changed over time, certainly has many strong advocates today.
▲3 Political economists as far back as Adam Smith (1776) provided data and statistics. Ruskin never bother, preferring to offer anecdotes and examples and to derive new meanings of word from their etymologies. Yet almost always argues from a stance of absolute certainty
▲4 Ruskin redefines key economic terms, such as “wealth,” “produce,” “capital,” ““labor,” and “value” from a humanistic and Christian perspective. In so doing, he calls for moral regeneration and social reform. He urges the elite of Victorian England to think in terms of the betterment of the nation as a whole rather than their self-interest. His climactic pronouncement is that “There is no wealth but life.” That country is the richest, says Ruskin, which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings.


↑  His errors and deeper insights   Sec 4

▲1 In challenging orthodox political economy, Ruskin often represents the ideas of John Stuart Mill and others inaccurately (see Fain). Scholars have sought to determine where Ruskin truly misunderstood the ideas of the orthodox political economists and the extent to which he willfully simplified their ideas for his own polemical and satirical purposes. The practice of simplifying and distorting positions you are satirizing or arguing against has a long history.

▲2 The orthodox political economists varied considerably in their views and were could be ambiguous and inconsistent. For Mill, the self-interested “economic man” is a concept, a construct used for conceptual thinking—not a description of actual human behavior. Mill, in fact, is clear that ethical behavior and social justice are important. However, in the formulations of lesser economists and in the minds of many business owners and political leaders, the behavior of economic man was philosophically justified as part of Natural Law or accepted as inevitable human behavior. Ruskin is fair to Mill to the extent that he often acknowledges Mill’s ethical pronouncements but Ruskin insists these are inconsistent with his core ideas.

▲3 After a century and a half, the specific flaws in Ruskin’s arguments are not, I think, the prime consideration. Even when he is seriously in error, his ideas show insight and hold enduring relevance and value. For example, Ruskin regards economic activity as a “zero-sum game.” That is, for Ruskin a nation is always producing a limited amount of goods, and one person’s accumulation is another person’s want—unless men choose to become ethical and generous in their business dealings (and Ruskin, like other Victorians, assumes that the actors in public life are indeed male).

In fact, there are eras and nations in which the benefits of a strong economy are widely shared. But if Ruskin is wrong in his economic theory, there are nonetheless many eras—including our own—in which the benefits of a productive economy are not fairly distributed. In the United States the “wealth gap” in 2014 is the widest it has been in three decades (Pew Research Center). Many factors can contribute to this injustice, not least the ability wealthy individuals and corporations (whose shares are heavily owned by the wealthy) to influence government economic policy for their benefit. Often business interests and politicians deny that any such problem exists. Their view is that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Ruskin, then, though his economic theory is faulty, staked out a compelling position an a crucial economic issue that is still being disputed today.

▲4 Another flaw in Ruskin's arguments is that he often argues from examples of business interactions among small groups of people—a master and his servants or a hypothetical community consisting of very few individuals. Within these unrealistic microcosms, Ruskin can easily show inequality and abuse due to highly inefficient markets. For example, the sole trader in a very isolated community holds back needed goods to impoverish two farmers—a situation that can’t exist when there are numerous buyers and sellers. Even so, examples of this kind of abuse persist in our day, for example when a pharmaceutical company charges an exorbitant price for a drug because it is the only producer. Also, someone buying a home in a small town or neighborhood with little real estate activity offer a very low price if he or she knows that the homeowner must sell and has no other buyers. Many people regard such an offer as ethical, savvy behavior. When buying or selling, “business is business.” Ruskin says this is wrong.

▲5 The part of Ruskin’s thinking that most people will find disturbing and least relevant to our age is not his errors in economic theory but his rejection of democracy and the right of workers fight to better their lives. Ruskin is the flipside of Karl Marx. His view of social organization and his politics stem from an idealized vision of the Feudal society in the Middle Ages—a time when, Ruskin thought, the high and low social classes were united in their concern for each other’s well being. Ruskin's ideas continue to engage us, but there is no escaping the fact that he is both a forward- and backward-looking thinker.


↑  What Ruskin wants   Sec 5

▲1 Because of his hierarchical, paternalistic political outlook, Ruskin demands that the business elite improve the conditions of the lower classes out of moral responsibility. He calls for merchants and industrialists treat their employees like a father would treat his children. Ruskin, however, is not enthusiastic about charity, which he sees as an evasion of the underlying problem. Instead of individual acts of charity, he wants social justice built into the economic organization of society.
▲2 Ruskin is no socialist, and he does not envision a major role for government in the reformation of society. But he does propose certain kinds of government intervention. He believes fervently in high-quality, government-run schools and vocational training programs for the unemployed. He also believes that the working poor should be cared for by the government in their old age.
▲3 Ruskin wants to see employers agree on rates of pay for each category of work—rather than wages that fluctuate greatly from day to day according to the need for labor and the number of available workers. He believes that workers should not be hired as day laborers, uncertain about their next survival to the end of the week. Rather, they should instead have predictable employment.
▲4 Ruskin shows himself to be a very early environmentalist and an opponent of unregulated industrialism. He fervently believes that to degrade the natural world is to destroy the work of God. He recognized how much human beings lose when they are denied sunlight, fresh air, and open meadows.
▲5 While it is not a sustained theme in Unto This Last, Ruskin repeatedly makes clear his great abhorrence of war and his view that most wars fought in Europe are unjust and unnecessary. Often Ruskin points to weapons as the worst kind of manufactured goods.
▲6 Ruskin wants political economists to focus less on the acquisition of money and much more on what kinds of goods a country produces, how widely these goods are distributed to the population, and how well people them to use. Most of all, he sees the goal of a true science political economy and the true business of merchants and industrialists to create a nation of healthy, engaged workers who live fulfilled, happy lives. Famously, he declares “There is no wealth but life” and “That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings.”


↑  Unto This Last as Literature   Sec 6

▲1 Ruskin has always been regarded as a brilliant (though uneven and sometimes exasperating) prose stylist with a rare gift for striking and memorable phrasing. Ruskin worked in diverse genres—poetry as well as prose—especially as a young man. Just out of Oxford, Ruskin wrote a moralistic “fairy tale” for the twelve-year-old Effie Gray, a family friend whom Ruskin later married. The fairy tale, King of the Golden River, became a classic of the Victorian era. During his career as an art critic, Ruskin was greatly appreciated for his “word pictures,” his ability to vividly and expressively describe natural scenes and the facades of buildings. As a social critic, Ruskin offered insightful observations over a very wide range of topics. Lengthy books consisting of quotations from Ruskin's works have been extremely popular, and today there are many collections of Ruskin quotations on the Internet.
▲2 The prose style in Unto This Last is a complex and ever-shifting mixture of analytical argument, pugnacious verbal attacks, satire that can be either playful or bitter, provocative rhetorical questions, and earnest and deeply moving statements of his hopes for moral regeneration. The writing is extremely vivid, conversational, and theatrical. This must be due in part to Ruskin's endless letter-writing and his many public lectures. At times, the writhing energy of Ruskin's writing seems just barely under his control.
Ruskin is very willing to argue his positions using language that will startle and unsettle his readers. For example, in one of his lengthy footnotes, Ruskin offers a sharp, surprising response to an imaginary reader who complains that Ruskin’s proposed social programs provide no way to deal with problem of “rogues.” First Ruskin points out that Victorian England, “through its present system of political economy,” “manufactures” its rogues in large numbers. In other words, Victorian England has become a manufacturer of rogues by tolerating the social conditions that make crime inevitable. Ruskin then concludes with a pithy answer to the complaint: “Let us reform our schools, and we shall find little reform needed in our prisons.”
▲3 Ruskin very consciously wrote Unto This Last in a simpler style than his art criticism so that it could be more widely read. Even so, Ruskin’s sentences are long and syntactically complex, with many embedded clauses that he uses to elaborate on his core idea. One consequence of his complex syntax, his analytical argument, and some stylistic eccentricities (taken from the writing style of Thomas Carlyle) is that Ruskin’s prose demands very careful reading. Indeed, Unto This Last is very difficult for modern readers—which is one of my main reasons for preparing this QuikScan Views edition. Today few essay writers would dare make the cognitive demands on his or her readers that Ruskin does. It is sobering to realize that for many decades Unto This Last was assigned to the British equivalent of high school students. Now this book will challenge graduate students.
▲4 Ruskin is deeply steeped in the Bible, and—even though he lost his faith prior to 1860—he often argues from a Christian perspective and both quotes scripture and infuses his own sentences with phrases and echoes of Scripture. The scriptural references become much more frequent in the third and fourth essays, as Ruskin appears to us less often as a social critic pointing out problems and offering solutions and more often as an angry prophet.
Ruskin also quotes extensively from Greek and Roman authors (whom he read in their own language) and from Dante and Pope. He knows science and mathematics (he originally planned to be a geologist), and he willingly brings this knowledge to bear. In fact, he is a show-off in this regard.
▲5 The essays have a complex, eccentric structure. Because the fourth essay (“Ad Valorem”) incorporates the planned essays canceled by Cornhill Magazine, we know that the book as a whole does not have an overall structure determined at the outset. On the other hand, Ruskin chose to make only the most minor changes when he published the essays as a book, and he regarded Unto This Last as his most important and best-written work.
▲6 With its powerful message, and moments of deep insight and with its brilliant, though extreme, prose style and not a few passages written with the resonance of poetry, Unto This Last is without doubt a masterpiece. Because Ruskin is both a visionary and is locked into the Medieval past and because of the book's many eccentricities, Unto This Last is a deeply idiosyncratic masterpiece.