As many receiving this message know, the six words which serve as its title are by far the most famous of the more than six million Ruskin published during his lifetime. If anything of his reaches into public awareness with any depth these days, it is this short sentence. I have seen it printed on political-style buttons, embossed on tiles, encased in beautiful ceramic, and quoted, innumerable times, there and, now, here. There’s good reason for this. Ruskin believed these words to be the most important he ever wrote, coming as they did near the very end of the small book, Unto this Last (1860), he believed to be the most important he ever wrote.
Despite this view (with which I concur,), I’ve avoided making them the subject of a post because, much more often than not, they become a cliche (check their presence out, if you’ve a mind to do so, on the web), excised, in the manner of most aphorisms, from their argumentative context, which abstraction diminishes, even destroys, the depth of their significance for those encountering them.
But, as the days and, now, the months have passed in the wake of the early November event which occurred in what now must be viewed as yesterday’s America, I have found that these words and their import have pressed their way back into my consciousness time and again. And so I offer them here today in the hope that they might serve as a ground for a possible first step in going forward from our present wounded place, as a means of providing a way to cope with the unexpected trump card which, so recently played, has delivered the hand to some very dark and atavistic forces.
And so, below, in hopes that I might dispel some of the aphoristic quality which currently limits our understanding of Ruskin’s remarkable sentence, I reproduce it in the context in which it first appeared, commenting on that context as seems useful.
The reader of Unto this Last comes on these six words near the conclusion of the book’s fourth and final essay. The gist of all that has preceeded them has been to show that the end of economic life, now, then, and into any future we might imagine, is singular: to enhance the life-force of all those who come to us for the special product or service we offer (food, clothing, shelter, education, car repair, governance), to provide, as we are able, those things which will make those who knock at our door stronger–stronger in life, stronger for life; stronger in themselves, so that, in their turn, in this heightened capacity, they will be capable of helping not merely themselves, but all those who come to them for the special product or service they are able to give.
Ruskin’s contention throughout his three earlier essays has been that any sort of weakness is dysfunctional for the person and all those with whom he or she comes in contact. Hence any sort of intentional exploitation or weakening of the people who arrive at your door for the strength you can provide is unconscionable, is, by definition, against life, against the eternal law of life, which is help. In short, all economic activity (buying, selling, producing) carries with it a perpetual obligation to help those others with whom you are dealing. In this way, those engaging in trade are in no way different from all those essential others whom we call into being to help us take care of other essential needs: those who defend us, those who minister to us, those who are charged to see that justice is done, those who keep our bodies in health and, hardly incidentally, those to whom we have given the privilege of governing us. Given this, it is clear that (emphasis Ruskin’s)
THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest 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.
Usually, when that semi-famous, capitalized sentence, floating by itself, finds its way into print or onto a medallion or postcard (I have a few such!), it registers as a truism, as an “important” saying, one of those maxims which, now that we think of it, is “obvious.” “Well said!” we think. “Lovely line. Cleverly put. True! Odd that I never thought about it this way before.”
But I am not sure it is so obvious. Because all such sudden and surface reactions miss the fact that, in these six words, Ruskin has said something no one other, so far as I am aware, has said: He has equated “Wealth” with “Life,” intentionally disengaging the first word from what most of us have been taught is its meaning since we were tiny–namely, our assumption that “wealth” refers either to the amount of money we have or control and/or to the number and quality of things we possess. And so, so conditioned, we smile appreciatively at his novel equation and soon forget it because the phrase cannot be reconciled with our deeply internalized notion. And thus we miss as well his marvelous, revolutionary, meaning: that it is only when we are loving, joyous, and full of admiration that we become wealthy. Contrary to our socialized belief, as Ruskin sees it, coins, cash or cars (beyond the base function which the latter possess for taking us from A to B), in whatever amount, have no value or, perhaps better said, have value only if they are used to create more love, joy, and admiration for ourselves and those others with whom we are constantly in touch. Revolutionary.
I am not sure our recently elected, many-times-over billionaire from New York City understands this. In fact, I am not sure that, given the immensity of his “Florida White House” (see: Winter White House, Palm Beach), that the thought has ever occurred to him that the purpose of wealth is anything other than to serve as a means for self-pleasuring, self-aggrandizing, and stimulating the envy of others, others who, themselves, believe him to be wealthy because of his ostentatious trappings
Again: “Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration.” Specifically, Ruskin has in mind the love of other human beings and the wondrous world in which we live which we are forever charged to preserve, for ourselves and those who come after us (If the 45th President of the United States has his way, we may soon be bidding “goodbye to environmental protection.”); the joy which comes from a sunny day or a day without pain or from helping a needy child become healthy and more intelligent (“Goodbye to the Affordable Care Act.”); the admiration which naturally flows from the heart when we recognize another whose breaths have served as a beacon for life, another whose life and doings symbolize the things and doings which make all life categorically better, someone who cares for us and our well-being: Lincoln, Mandela, Gandhi, Mother Theresa (“Goodbye to all initiatives designed to protect and lift the poor, the lame, and the blind.”).
“That country is richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings.” A phrase remarkably at odds from our (again, well-socialized and nearly never analyzed) utilitarian notion that the task of any country is to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number. But notice how, in this utilitarian formulation, that its principal word, “happiness,” is undefined, as is similarly the case in that great document of international separation, the American “Declaration of Independence,” wherein we audacious rebels told ourselves that it was our “inalienable right” as human beings to separately seek out our own version of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” a vague formulation which sanctions–indeed, all but legitimizes–any pursuit, whether it be for money, domination, or anything else, as my unassailable notion of “happiness.” (“Chacon a son gout!”)
Ruskin will have nothing to do with such vagaries, seeing them, as indeed they are, as little more than the national approval of self-centered behavior. True happiness, he argues, only arrives when we are actively engaged, in the manner in which we are most capable, in making other human beings happy with us. In which context, it falls to each of us to discover what it is that we can do that is most helpful and then set to doing it. Revolutionary.
“The greatest number of noble…human beings.” A striking addition, that italicized word. Here is Merriam-Webster’s definition: “Noble: possessing, characterized by, or arising from a superiority of mind or character defined by the highest ideals, morals, and virtue;” the following adjectives added in Google’s definition so that there can be no doubt of the base definition: “righteous, good, honorable, upright, decent, worthy, ethical, reputable.” (Google’s page, by the way, reports that “noble” has, since Ruskin’s time, declined in common speech to about 1/5th of its former use.) His point is dual: On the one hand, it is every country’s responsibility to do all in its power to create a number of truly noble minds and hearts in the sense defined above, minds and hearts which, as a matter of life commitment, will keep the common good, the good of all, uppermost in all they think and do. On the opposite hand (and frequently missed) is his conviction that, if each of us chooses to define our life by a vision that accepts that the purpose of that life is a process dedicated to generating the greatest amounts of love, joy, and admiration of which we are capable, then, like the lotus whose glorious blossom emerges from the mud in which it has been planted, we cultivate nobility as a matter of course, not merely in a few, important as such souls are, but in all. Revolutionary.
Lastly: “That man is richest 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.” A magnificent summative sentence, if ever one there was. Inspirational. And, in the context of what’s been said, hardly unexpected. A charge for days approaching. The task of each life being to perform what Plato calls (in Book I of The Republic, one of Ruskin’s handful of “sacred texts”) one’s “techne” as best she or he is able in the service of others–where a techne (we would use the words “job” or “work,” but both omit the helping sense intrinsic in the Greek) is defined as the knowledge needed to do one’s task expertly, the skill to do it perfectly, and the wisdom to know when and how much and on whom to practice it so that the greatest possible good is accomplished both for the individual and the social order as a whole. Revolutionary.
This only remaining to be said: I’ve used the word “revolutionary” frequently. My principal intent in so doing has been to point out how truly different Ruskin’s view of Wealth and Life are from our common and uncriticized notions of these words. But I have also always used it in Ruskin’s still deeper sense: his belief that a true revolution is rarely, if ever, accomplished by use of arms and a violent dismissal of those regarded by one side or another as miscreants. Indeed, history teaches that, even when a change of regimes occurs via force, the resentment, desire for revenge, and correlative willingness to return to arms in the defeated endures for decades, even centuries (compare the residues of the communist revolutions of the last century, the ongoing stalemate and hatred consuming Israel, its Palestinians, and the encircling Arab states committed to its destruction, the tenterhooks situation in the Balkans, the never-ending tensions stressing the Korean peninsula). In contrast, Ruskin’s revolution is a kind and gentle one, one that is gradually accomplished by each doing what she or he does best to help others become strong in their own lives. It is a revolution which, in the end, may take longer, but which, as it marches forward, sheds no blood, generates no enmity, and enhances the life of everyone. Revolutionary.
While the 19th Century Irish statesman, Edmund Burke‘s, famous phrase–“The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is that Good Men Do Nothing”–remains forever true, it is also the case that there are many, many ways for good people to do something. Other cards can be played which can neutralize trumps. Sowing goodness, Ruskin says, will always reap its like–now, soon, and later.
All the above being a context, for whatever help it may provide, for Ruskin’s famous phrase, coupled with some thoughts about why he may have chosen his six words: “There is no Wealth but Life.”
I end with my favorite portrait of our subject, Herbert von Herkimer’s (now in The National Gallery, London). It was painted in the later 1870s. From this site’s first post, it has been the centerpiece of the banner at the top of these pages. I include it because of all the portraits or pictures that exist of Ruskin, this one only, for me, captures the great heart which sustained the great mind, showing us a face which, although it clearly evinces a pronounced world-weariness, is everywhere infused with the goodness that permeated its subject’s soul, a face which, all its helping life, was sustained by a belief that it was his duty to always do something good and helpful or others and, while he lived, to strive to do just that.
Until next time.
Be well out there!