36: The Highest First

Good Friends,

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!



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4 Responses to 36: The Highest First

  1. andrewfthill says:

    Hi, Jim – a timely post for me as I’m working up a lecture on Ruskin and economics for Charterhouse school next week. Still struck by how much seems relevant today as economists edge towards an understanding of “gross national happiness” and other ideas that JR was already thinking about in the late 19th.

    Best wishes,

    Andrew Hill

    Management Editor, Financial Times, London

  2. Jack Harris says:


    There is no guarantee that a person at the highest level of his or her craft has VIRTUE. We have too many examples of the unvirtuous virtuoso. Ruskin’s SOCIOLOGY also guided him to educate the working class and bring all to the higher learning, don’t you think? It is, after all, the social system, and the educational system, that supports and cultivates an unlevel playing field and educates us for the pursuits of our own gain, often at the expense of many others, There are plenty of truly virtuous persons who are not at the top of their craft.


  3. jimspates says:

    Thanks for these replies, Jack and Andrew. Much appreciated!! Regarding your specific points, Jack, these remarks. I certainly agree that history teaches us that many who have been at the peak of their professions have not been particularly virtuous, teaches us, sadly, that many such people use their vaunted accomplishments as a special “ticket” for indulgence (sex, drugs, you name it) or for harming their fellow human beings in various ways. The names of various politicians, pop stars, and military victors who have so behaved fly quickly into our minds, I suspect. About such actions–all of which Ruskin would regard as unconscionable–these comments: First, that when such excesses or hurtful behaviors are discovered, almost always they are condemned by the discoverers, are seen as oversteppings, as inappropriate ways of behaving in the high status positions to which these folks’ talents have elevated them, deserving of our disdain, even, depending on the severity of the break with propriety (a good, and I think appropriate word in this context), of our condemnation.

    Let me go back to Ruskin’s passage for a moment. His recommendation is that we should try to bring about “the multiplication of human life at the highest standard…” The last three words are the key to what I believe to be his core meaning. “The highest standard” of human life certainly does not include behaviors like those mentioned above. What he has in mind, I am sure, is a person not unlike the Caretakers discussed at length in Plato’s Republic. (The more common name for these leaders in most trranslations is “the Guardians,” but my colleague, Eugen Baer, who is a specialist not only in Plato but in the form of Greek spoken during that great thinker’s days, assures me that “Caretakers” is much closer to what Plato meant, conveying the “taking care” of the well-being of those for whom you have been given, and hence bear, the responsibility. Sounds right to me!) To bring the Caretakers into being is hard and lengthy work, Plato tells us; they have to be carefully trained to achieve not only the highest level of intelligence but the most empathetic qualities of heart. In other words, they have to love their fellow human beings and do all they can to bring these others to their own highest levels of head and heart, and never condone anything that knowingly or willfully harms others from getting to such better places. In short, true Caretakers would never act as those unvirtuous, but very talented, folks you note have acted. To do so would be anathema. There is even a place in The Republic where Socrates–Plato’s spokesperson in his dialogues–demonstrates, using his marvelous logic, that no true Caretaker would ever break what we in the modern west would still call The Ten Commandments. It is a most interesting passage as well because it shows that one of the greatest thinkers of a non-JudaeoChristian tradition came to the same conclusions about what constitues “the highest standard of human life” as those articulating the tradition which most Westernerns are most familiar. Mr. Ruskin too.


    • Eugen Baer says:

      Ruskin would definitely connect with a current Hobart College junior who began his major in economics, then switched to philosophy, and is now finishing an Honors Thesis about how capitalism should look like from a Kantian deontological perspective. His title: “The Moral Theory of Capitalism” ends with very concrete regulatory requirements going well beyond those recommended recently by Thomas Piketty in his best-selling, Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

      Eugen Baer
      Dean Hobart College, Geneva, New York

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