After our last, longer, Post, I thought something shorter might be in order. So, with that in mind, we turn to a nice bit of Ruskin’s “political economy”–or sociology–or life lesson (as you like). It comes from a very much neglected but very important small book, Munera Pulveris. Munera was, three years later (1863), his follow-up to Unto this Last, another small book I’ve mentioned. Unto this Last, you might recall, was his direct attack on the inhumanities of laissez-faire capitalism coupled with some suggestions for how such negative consequences might easily be circumvented–for instance, by deciding that, when trading (doing business) with each other, we will always be honest and treat everyone in the process as we ourselves would like to be treated. Simple–indeed, almost Biblical!–advice. Advice which, Ruskin found, everyone immediately agreed with and then immediately argued that it was impossible to effect–“human nature being what it is.” It is interesting, don’t you think, that we so often appeal to an “intrinsic, unalterable, selfish human nature” (which we cannot demonstrate, there being so many instances of people who don’t act this way) whenever we are asked to do something we find inconvenient or don’t really want to do? Ruskin, of course, got such responses by the hundreds after he published Unto this Last.
A bit shocked at the virulence of such responses, he nevertheless pressed on. Munera is replete with a series of specific recommendations about how we could bring about a happier state of affairs when we interact with each other. To take one instance, in his book’s first chapter, we find the paragraph below. Ruskin is suggesting (not unlike his great mentor, Plato) that, if you want to get to the most salubrious social order quickest, you’d be wasting your time if you tried to get everyone there at once.
We must…define the aim of political economy to be “The multiplication of human life at the highest standard.” It might, at first, seem questionable whether we should endeavor to maintain a small number of persons of the highest type of beauty and intelligence, or a larger number of an inferior class. But I [believe] that the way to maintain the largest number is first to aim at the highest standard. Determine the noblest type of [person], and aim simply at maintaining the largest possible number of persons of that class, and it will be found that the largest possible number of every healthy subordinate class must necessarily be produced also.
Of course, the critics were all over him in an instant. “Undemocratic!” the elites of his day responded, “Everyone should be treated equally!”–conveniently forgetting that most of them (not to mention their privileged children) were products of a very undemocratic democratic system–as is, I suspect–do tell me if I’m wrong!–virtually everyone reading this Post (including the Poster). Conveniently forgetting as well that to reach this highest standard is a long, arduous, costly process (think Yo-Yo Ma, Eleanor Roosevelt), a process so “expensive” that it is quite literally impossible for everyone to “get there at once.” Understanding this, Ruskin’s thought is as follows: if we can produce even a few people in this category, they will not only do all the good they can while in such applauded status, they will act as inspirational models for those who come along after them (young cellists will want to be as good as Yo-Yo Ma; aspiring politicians will want to emulate the high moral standards of Eleanor Roosevelt), thereby, by no extra effort, ensuring that future generations will have new “highests” and even, if the aspirants are many, increasing the size of the class. Good–and wise–sociology this.
And this last in closing: to the end of his life, Ruskin thought that Unto this Last and Munera Pulveris were the best and truest books he ever wrote. Given what we have seen of excerpts from his many other books to this point, that’s pretty high autobiographical praise.
Until next time. Be well out there in the coldest, snowiest winter this aging brain can remember!