As surely you have gathered by this point, Ruskin is not merely deep but wide, not unlike a great river becoming greater in spring flood. Mesmerized by the flow and dazzled by some particularly sweet waters passing, it’s pretty easy to allow yourself to drift along on an especially fetching current. Thoroughly enjoying the ride, you don’t notice, at least for a time, that other currents are flowing parallel to yours, some touching on rocks and reeds beneath the surface which makes them considerably more roisterous than the one you’re on.
Although it’s hardly springing these days (indeed, it is falling fast toward winter here in Upstate New York!), I awoke one morning not long ago thinking that, over the course of these posts, enchanted by such softer waters, I have been giving short shrift to Ruskin’s hardly sweet and pretty thoughts concerning the dire straits we find ourselves in in our social lives. With that in mind, what’s below is intended as a switch of current, a temporary leaving behind of some of the soothing streams we’ve been on for another, more turbulent.
In 1860, our subject published Unto this Last, four short essays attacking the widely accepted but, until then, essentially uncriticized principles of laissez-faire capitalism. (Marx’s criticisms would not begin to appear in English for decade and a half.) Pulling no punches, as his essays progressed, Ruskin accused the bulk of his marketing contemporaries of being hypocrites (of being, to take one instance, decidedly unChristian Christians), for being selfish and greedy, for going about their business without deigning to give a moment’s thought to the good of those who bought their products, to the ability of those who worked for them to live decently, or to the overall well-being of their society–attitudes simultaneously cruel and unfeeling, attitudes always justified by shibboleths like “It’s not personal, it’s just business,” or “The business of business is money.” In substitute, Ruskin offered an alternative series of gentler, socially-concerned framings for dealing with each other fairly in trade, frames for how we could trade where the good of both buyer and seller were uppermost in each other’s minds. He thought of it as “honest capitalism.”
It’s hardly surprising that such strident arguments did not win him many friends in high, glittering places. The castigations heaped on Unto this Last and its author as it emerged serially in one of the leading intellectual journals of the age were not only vicious but many, and, taken together, were generally responsible for changing much of the public view of Ruskin as “that prose genius who writes so beautifully about nature and art” to a view which regarded him as someone who had slipped off the rails by writing rubbish about things he knew nothing about. In fact, the outcry against the essays of Unto this Last was so vituperative that the magazine’s editor, the famous novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray (Vanity Fair), was forced to censor his author, to tell Ruskin that he would not be allowed the six essays on “political economy” he had been promised, but, instead, would be shut down after four. Nevertheless, Ruskin always believed Unto this Last to be his most important book, his only “true book”–by which he meant that, from first word to last, it said and taught truth.
Unto this Last didn’t arrive ex nihilo, however. Ruskin later said that he had been working on its basic arguments for over a decade, ever since the publication of The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (1851-3), two major works we’ve already had occasion to cite. True enough; as I’ve rediscovered recently while rereading two of his lectures of 1857 to which he gave the title, A Joy For Ever (originally, The Political Economy of Art). Indeed, close reading of that work brings to the surface many of the principles about our collective life which he would lay out more succinctly three years later in Unto this Last.
If there’s one central contention of Ruskin’s writing on society and economics, it is that we and ours shall only prosper when we decide to cooperate in our dealings with one another, as summarized by this wonderful phrase from Unto this Last: “Government and cooperation are, in all things, the Laws of Life, anarchy and competition the Laws of Death.” This same thought about the necessity of cooperation in life and the destructiveness which inevitably results when we indulge in its opposite lies at the heart of the following marvelous passage from A Joy For Ever, a passage in which Ruskin imagines what possibilities would present themselves if a group of castaways from a wrecked ship found themselves ashore on a deserted island with little or no hope of rescue, “Lost.” Obviously, they would have to invent a new society. Here’s how he describes what would happen if the castaways chose one, or the other, of these principal options. See what you think of it. (I’ve inserted references to two Bible passages on which he bases his conclusion.)
Supposing half a dozen or a dozen men were cast ashore from a wreck onto an uninhabited island and left to their own resources. Each, of course, according to his capacity, would be set to one business, while others would be set to other [tasks according to their abilities]. The strongest would dig and cut wood and build huts for the rest, the most dexterous would make shoes out of bark and coats out of skins, the best educated would look for iron or lead in the rocks and plan the channels for the irrigation of the fields. But although their labors were thus naturally several, the small group…would understand well enough that the speediest progress was to be made by helping each other, not by opposing each other. And they would know further that this help could only be properly given so long as they were frank and open in their relations…[And they would understand, finally,] that any appearance of secrecy or separateness in the actions of any of them would instantly—and justly—be looked upon with suspicion by the rest as the sign of some selfish or foolish proceeding on the part of that individual.
If, for instance, a scientific man was found to have gone out at night unknown to the rest to alter the sluices [which distributed the flow of the stream on which all depended,] the others would think—and in all probability rightly think—that he wanted to get the best supply of water to his own field. Or, if the shoemaker refused to show them where the bark grew which [he used to make] the sandals, they would naturally think—and in all probability rightly think—that he didn’t want them to see how much there was of it, and that he meant to ask from them [at some juncture for] more corn and potatoes in exchange for his sandals than the trouble of making them deserved. [As Ruskin says in another place: Whenever there is secrecy, watch out!”]
And thus, although each man would have a portion of time to himself in which he was allowed to do what he chose…so long as he was working in that particular business which he had undertaken for the common benefit, any secrecy on his part would be immediately supposed to mean mischief and would require to be accounted for, or put an end to. And this all the more so because, whatever the work might be, certainly there would be difficulties about it which, once they were well explained, might be more or less done away with by the help of the rest. [In short,] every one of them would advance with his labor not only more happily but more profitably and quickly by having no secrets, and by frankly bestowing and frankly receiving such help as lay in his way to get or to give.
And, just as the best and richest result of wealth and happiness to the whole of them would follow on their perseverance in such a system of frank communication and helpful labor, so precisely the worst and poorest result would be obtained by a system of secrecy and enmity. Each man’s happiness and wealth would assuredly be diminished in proportion to the degree in which jealousy and concealment became their social and economical principles. It would not, in the long run, bring good, but only evil, to the man of science, if, instead of telling openly where he had found good iron, he carefully concealed every new bed of it so that he might ask, in exchange for his “rare” ploughshare, more corn from the farmer… And it would not ultimately bring good, but only evil, to the farmers, if [some] sought to burn others’ cornstacks so that they might raise the value of their grain…
Now, these laws of human action are precisely as authoritative in their application to the conduct of a million of men as to that of six or twelve. All enmity, jealousy, opposition, and secrecy are wholly, and in all circumstances, destructive in their nature, never productive. And all kindness, fellowship, and communicativeness are invariably productive in their operation, never destructive. And the…principles of opposition and exclusiveness are not rendered less fatal, but more fatal by their acceptance among large masses of men. More fatal, I say, exactly in proportion as their influence is more secret! For while [selfish] opposition always does its own simple, inevitable, direct quantity of harm and withdraws always its own simple, inevitable, measurable quantity of wealth from the sum possessed by the community in proportion to the size of the community, it does other and more refined mischief than this by concealing its own [perfidy] under [false rationales claiming economic] complications and expediency, [such rationales] giving rise to multitudes of false theories based on a mean belief in narrow and immediate appearances of good done…by things which have the universal and everlasting nature of evil. [In dealing with any of these eventualities,] the time and powers of the nation are wasted, not only in wretched struggling against each other, but in vain complaints and groundless discouragements and empty investigations and useless experiments in laws and elections and inventions, always with some hope of pulling wisdom through some new shaped slit in a ballot box or drag prosperity down out of the clouds…while all the while Wisdom stands calling at the corners of the streets [Proverbs 1: 20] and the blessing of Heaven waits ready to rain down upon us, deeper than the rivers and broader than the dew, if only we will obey the first plain principles of humanity and the first plain precepts of the skies: “Execute true judgment, and show mercy and compassion, every man to his brother, and let none of you imagine evil against his brother in your heart” [Zechariah 7: 9-10].
In light of which lessons from a deserted island, it is perhaps not inappropriate to close with two images of the beautiful consequences of the sort of intense cooperation which characterizes the social life of one of the maple trees on my campus, a cooperation which we might view as emblematic of Mr. Ruskin’s thoughts about how we could, should we desire to, organize our own collective life best.
Until next time, enjoy the stream which is sliding most of us ineluctably toward winter.