The purpose of this website from its first post forward has been–and continues to be–to introduce those kind enough to spend their time reading it not just to the wonder and beauty of John Ruskin’s words and works, but to point out, as, collectively, we wend our way ever further into this difficult twenty-first century, the continuing relevance of his thought to ourselves and our lives. (If you’d like to read that first post, slide your cursor to the right and open “Previous Posts by Topic.” You’ll find it at the top.)
Nevertheless, despite the fact that, in addition to myself, there are a considerable number of seriously fine folks at work trying to resurrect appreciation of his resplendent qualities, the question I still get when people hear of my interest in–no! (I should be honest!), my passion for–him is: “Why Ruskin?” And so, on this day, in hope of providing another portion of the answer to this eminently legitimate question, I offer a list of proposals and principals for the reorganization of society which Ruskin believed we should institute if we hoped to make our collective lives happier.
As I’ve said, during the late 1850s and early 1860s, the years when Ruskin got down to serious study of society and saw for the first time clearly how the rich and powerful systematically structured almost everything to favor themselves, the very few, at the cost of the rest, the very many, he was appalled–and furious. It was this insight which made him decide to stop writing on art and architecture and start writing social criticism. These new works, he determined, would not be infused with his usual poetic prose–the quality which, more than any other, had made him famous. They would say what had to be said bluntly, not nicely: when it came to speaking about what harmed so many of his fellow citizens, he would call a trick a trick, a cruelty a cruelty, an injustice an injustice.
Flying directly in the face of most of the principal practices of the monied magnates and merchants of his age (and still–alas!–in the face of the principal practices of the monied magnates and merchants of our age), it is hardly surprising that these new works (Unto this Last and The Crown of Wild Olive prime among them), were not warmly received. As these works appeared throughout the 1860s a veritable fusillade of letters and editorials (some bordering on calumny) appeared in newspapers and magazines attacking him for proposing the impossible, for trying to undermine the human instinct for “getting ahead,” for being, in short, a fool: “You have no idea how our world works,” was the usual chant and cavil: “Business exists to make money. If you are clever enough, a lot of money. It is about gaining market share, about beating out your competitors, and trumping (!)—or driving out of the game entirely—the inept. Besides, there are sharks out there. If we acted as you suggest [see the list approaching], we would be pulled under in seconds, like sailors on one of our tea ships bound for Ceylon [today, Sri Lanka], who, stupidly, decided to swim in waters known to be infested by these ravenous creatures. We liked you better as an art critic. You should have stayed one!”
He had touched a nerve! One of the most interesting experiences which attends a reading of Ruskin’s sociological essays is to encounter some of these raging reactions. His father, always so proud of “My Son,” even when his issue was actively biting the affluent hand which had fed him more than tolerably well for over forty years, clipped all the critiques—as before he had clipped the manifold praises of Ruskin’s art criticism—and pasted them into “John’s scrapbook” (which can still be read at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford). Stunned at first by the fulminating quality of the carps, Ruskin continued rankling. Nevertheless, every time a new book or essay on social or economic life appeared, the trashings began anew, the circling sharks’ desire being not to merely maim their prey, but destroy it altogether.
As this rather nasty process went on, Ruskin’s earlier and widespread popularity plummeted, notoriety its replacement. Irregardless, for the rest of his career (which effectively lasted into the mid-1880s), even in writings on geology and botany, he refused to rein in his attacks on what he saw as the unconscionable beliefs which had been avidly and self-servingly adopted by his contemporaries, beliefs which for all intents and purposes lauded rapaciousness and relentless exploitation of one’s neighbor as “natural impulses.” Worse, he argued, all this exploitation of the weaker was done in full awareness that such harmings were in direct disobedience of the principals for living together which had been repeatedly uttered by the founder of their professed religion. Such people were, he said, at best, “putative Christians,” “devourers of widow’s houses who make pretense of long prayer”: sentiments hardly likely to win friends and influence people, especially those who regarded themselves as upstanding members of “good society.”
From these critiques emerged, in various writings, the recommendations which follow. Although Ruskin never published them as a “list,” it is useful to read them as though they were, because, taken collectively, they form a quite a powerful assembly. I first heard this “list” (in considerably shorter form) read to our students almost thirty years ago during a course on “London in the Nineteenth Century” I was co-teaching with my colleague in English and Comparative Literature, Professor Claudette Columbus (the person who introduced me to Ruskin!). Regarding the recommendations, it is important to keep in mind that, in every instance, Ruskin was either the first, or one of the first, to suggest the practice or change. (In the middle of the 19th century Britain, to take but three examples, no such thing as an old age pension existed, there was no national health care, and no system of nation-wide education.) Even though, today, we have lost any awareness that all of these recommendations source back to Ruskin, it should become apparent quickly that not a few of his proposals have “taken” and are now regarded as being among the “self-evident” axioms of any humane society. But, as will also be clear, many of his proposals still remain far from implementation in societies which like to think of themselves as being in the forefront of the modern. As you read the proposals, I think you’ll see that all rest on two of Ruskin’s unshakable convictions: (1) that unnecessary suffering of any kind is unacceptable and that every effort should be made to ameliorate it; (2) that anyone who causes unnecessary suffering to another human being (or who wantonly debases nature) in an attempt to gain more money, power, or prestige is reprehensible, should be publicly reprimanded for such behavior, and ways found to get stop such heinous behavior.
[Notes: (A) The list is not hierarchical; I’ve numbered each recommendation partly for ease in distinguishing one from another and partly so that, should anyone wish to comment on one or some of the entries, the proposal can be easily located. (B) In a few cases, some extra comment is necessary; when this occurs, rather than lengthen an entry, I refer readers to the “footnotes”at the end of this post; these is geared to the number assigned to the recommendation. (C) given that the list is fairly lengthy, it might be best to print it for easier reading.]
1.) Ruskin argued that we should feed, clothe, and house the poor. Not just the deserving poor, the limping poor, or the unlucky poor: all the poor. What good are poor people, he asked, to themselves or anyone else—their spouses, children, friends, or employers—if they are hungry, miserable, unable to function? [See Note 1 at the end of the post.]
2.) If market vagaries threw the able-bodied out of work, we should set up, at public expense, training facilities so that, as quickly as possible, these unlucky souls could resume productive lives. Anticipating by more than eighty years the WPA (Works Progress Administration) formed during America’s Great Depression, Ruskin argued that, if the original skills of these newly jobless were no longer useful in a society changing rapidly or in crisis, it was government’s responsibility to generate projects (the need for which would be legion) where their other abilities could be utilized–in rebuilding bridges, for instance–these suggestions grounded in his belief that, beyond the practical benefits which accrue from the responsible doing of work, lay the equally vital issue of workers’ mental well-being, that sense only rising from knowing that one was not only maintaining oneself and one’s dependents in the work one did but was doing something “that matters.”
3.) While such training or retraining progressed, those who were receiving it would be maintained at public expense. Such support would allow them to fully concentrate on developing the skills needed. Once that proficiency was attained, public support would cease.
4.) For young people from the lower end of the economic spectrum, special training facilities should be established (again at government expense). These would be dedicated to discovering their talents and powers (resources much too valuable to squander). After such determination, these agencies would do what was needed to prepare these young for lives of work where their abilities would benefit themselves and others. Those receiving this training would be taught other essential things as well: for instance, how to create and perpetuate good health and the importance of dealing justly and kindly with all those with whom they would interact. (See Note 4.)
5.) He called for the eradication of all slums, such places being unconscionable consequences created by a culture of callousness, inimical to all who were forced to live in them, inimical to the healthy functioning of bodies, minds, emotions, and spirits. (see Note 5.)
6.) Everyone working deserves an adequate wage, where “adequate” is defined as the amount of remuneration one needs to support, at a decent (not opulent!) level of life the worker and those dependent on him or her for their well-being. Although different occupations would require different levels of pay so that their work could be done at the highest level of efficiency (brain surgeons have different expenses than farmhands, for instance), suitable salary levels would not be hard to calculate because, no matter the line of work, everyone requires so much for food, housing, clothing, medical expenses, transportation, children’s education, etc. Added to this would be a small amount for entertainment, home improvements, charity giving, and the like. If people wanted more income, they would need to earn it by working extra hours or by working a second job. Both of these other options, however, are intrinsically worrisome, as either could overtax the worker and compromise performance in the primary occupation. Once adequate salaries were determined, there would be no oversight of how people spent their money. Each person, as a human being, always retained the right to determine how he or she would behave. If each was well-educated–see #13–there would be little likelihood that abrogation of one’s responsibilities would be widespread. Despite the fact that those with greater professional demands would live easier lives, in no case would anyone be paid enough to become rich. Riches, Ruskin said, should arrive accidentally, not by plan. For instance, Jim Henson, creator of the wildly successful television “Muppets” got rich, but did so because people so loved his product by the millions they happily paid for it. Given these unsought riches, Henson could choose to create more delightful muppets for his audiences or give the surplus away. (See Note 6.)
7.) Everyone should have a work day and week which did not sap their strength, a work year which afforded enough “break time” to relax and rejuvenate (what we now call “vacations” or “holidays”) and, in due course, sabbatical leaves which would give all employees an opportunity to improve their skills in some important way.
8.) Workers who fell seriously ill should be allowed time to repair (without financial penalty); in the interim, they would have their responsibilities taken over by others. When those others fell ill, the now-repaired workers would fill in for them.
9.) Because mechanized labor debased and deadened workers by reducing their mental powers to rote and weakening their physical powers, employers needed to find ways of regularly stimulating their minds and bodies. Most important in the former category would be the stimulation of workers’ creativity. The best way to accomplish this would be to give all workers some level of responsibility for the quality of the work they did and for the finished product.
10.) Each employer bore a responsibility to treat all workers as though they were their own daughters and sons, to think of them, as, in reality, they were: as fellow human beings for whom he or she bore responsibility for their well-being (their “being well”); anything less being cruel, exploitative, or both.
11.) We (any nation) should support, with adequate pension to the end of their days, not only our halt, our lame, and our blind (what kind of a society would not do that?), but our old. After all, hadn’t they given us the best years of their lives?
12.) There should be adequate health care for all. Like the poor, what good are sick people to themselves, to those they love and are responsible for, or to society in general? Besides, on what logical grounds could any humane, healthy person who possessed enough money to purchase health care for himself and others he cared for, deny, with any semblance of good conscience, similar care to those whose lack of such surplus monies made it impossible to provide for themselves and their loved ones?
13.) The nation should be responsible for educating everyone, for creating a system which, on one level, would be dedicated to teaching all children the things they needed to know so that they might live fulfilling lives. Such instruction would cover not only the skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic, but would teach everyone how to choose and practice a socially-useful trade, how to appreciate, love, and protect nature, and how to make informed ethical and moral decisions.
14.) So that people could continue to educate themselves throughout life, there should be public libraries in every city and town, these to be staffed by librarians whose task it would be to help anyone find the information they needed to become healthy and capable. It would also fall to libraries to educate their patrons in the appreciation of great works of art and literature (Titian and Turner in the former category; Plato, Dante, Shakespeare in the latter), such works being uniquely capable of engendering deep reflection on life’s most critical matters. If such a national system of education was not created, he said, with considerable prescience, that, before the next century [the twentieth] was out, careful reading would be all but anathema and when it occurred at all, most people would read slight works comprised of slight words set down by slight minds, works which had been written only for sensation’s and sales’ sake, works which, as a matter of course, would depict immoral and harmful behaviors (lying, stealing, greed, revenge, adultery) as normal. [Turn on any television.]
15.) With the exception of one subject–higher levels of religious instruction–women should be educated the same as men. (For an explanation of why thought the restriction was necessary and another remark, see Note 15.)
16.) Adulteration of any product from its pure state (adding water to milk; surreptitiously substituting synthetic fibers into “all wool” sweaters) was shameful, being not only a degradation which would harm a customer (in healthy calories not consumed, in cold suffered unnecessarily), but a kind of theft, a way of tricking unsuspecting customers into spending money for quality promised but not delivered. [That our common practice of adding chemicals to food to make them more attractive or create longer shelf life (Ruskin would surely call it “shelf death”) would be abhorrent to him should be evident.]
17.) In order to restrain any impulse to chicanery, the account books of all businesses should be open, so that, should we be so inclined, by consulting such ledgers, we could easily see why we had been asked to pay the amount a seller was asking for any item or service. (If prices had been fairly determined, what was there to hide?)
18.) Because incomes and riches vary, we should have a graduated income tax for both individuals and businesses. The taxes would be used for all manner of public works (the need for which would be endless). Such taxes were eminently fair because the more fortunate bore a greater moral responsibility for the well-being of those less well-off, as well as for the well-being of society as a whole. If those who could easily afford such expenditures for advancing the public good were not responsible for such contributions to that good, who, pray tell, might be?
19.) Hence, any attempt to not pay one’s fair share of taxes was reprehensible: another form of theft, causing others to suffer while the tax thief danced and drank to his or her selfish heart’s content.
20.) He said (perhaps a tad facetiously) that the rich, particularly the “Captains of Industry” [our modern CEOs, CFOs, etc.] should be required to wear trousers outfitted with glass pockets so that we could easily see how much was in them.
21.) There should be a commonly recognized limit to income and profit. Every individual requires enough to live decently and every business requires enough to produce and keep producing its products at the highest level of quality. But, if these essential amounts were exceeded, it was only right that the excess be given voluntarily to organizations dedicated in some aspect of the common good.
22.) “Sales” and “discounts” should be banned because (again, wasn’t it obvious?) they were only created so that one seller might gain advantage over another. Anyone running any useful business needed a certain number of paying customers to cover expenses, pay workers, and support their families. Hence, markdowns were, by definition, always harmful, whether the harm was direct (helping to put other businesses out of business) or indirect (forcing companies harmed by such discounts to lay off perfectly good workers, or pay the workers less, or compromise on production or service).
23.) No business should be created which harms human beings (physically, emotionally, or spiritually) or which harms the natural world on which everyone depends for their well-being. [Cigarette manufacturing would be an example of a business belonging in the first category; companies which denude forests so extensively that floods and landslides develop would belong in the second.)
24.) Relative to the last point, no one should ever work or be tempted to work for a business which they know does harm to others.
25.) Hence, and obviously: One should create only businesses which help human beings become stronger and healthier or which protect and strengthen the natural world on which we depend for our sustenance.
26.) Hence, and obviously: One should choose to work only for such businesses. [See Note 26.]
27.) All essential items (milk, for instance, or, in winter, warm coats), wherever sold, should be offered at fixed price, because, other things being equal, it costs more or less the same to produce them (so much for raw materials, so much for the labor required to make them, so much for overhead, etc.). While small differentials–caused by transportation costs, say–are acceptable, to vary the price of essential items is merely another way of enticing customers into your shop instead of someone else’s. It is also a way of confusing customers, of forcing them to make the extra effort to find where the things they truly need can be purchased at “the best price.” A policy of fixed prices would ensure that there would no longer be a need for buyers to pay attention to one of capitalism’s central, time-wasting, anxiety-producing, tenets: caveat emptor: “Let the buyer beware!” (the aphorism itself proof positive of the corrupt nature of an economic system which warns of the need for it!). Instead, the watch phrase for all forms of trade should always be: sit emptor secures—“Let the buyer be secure”!
28.) To avoid emotional upset and eliminate any temptation to shirk or decrease the quality of work, within any given line of work everyone should be paid the same. The object of work is to produce goods and services of highest quality for one’s customers. If some people get more for doing the same job, those denied that advantage would, more than likely, be resentful, might slack off, or seek to undermine those paid more in some way. Motivation under a system where employees are paid the same for the same work would be what it should be: Namely, to do the work so well that one could not only take pride in one’s efforts but, subsequently, be chosen, on the basis of a fine reputation, to be hired by other employers. Those infrequently or never chosen would be naturally encouraged to find work in other occupations. (That this recommendation has influenced the call for “equal pay for equal work” for women, minorities, and those with different personal preferences should be obvious. [See Note 28.]
29.) Advertising was both unfair, advantaging those able to pay for it at the expense of those who cannot (particularly problematic when poorer sellers have better products), and creates the temptation to produce items we do not need. Most of us, for instance, need transportation and, sans prodding, will figure out how to get it. Whether anyone needs to transport oneself in a Ferrari is seriously debatable.
30.) In the same vein, most luxuries, whether Ferraris, expensive jewelry, rare wines, “extra houses” or “apartments in town,” only exist in order to satisfy what Ruskin called “an inelegant pride,” and generate envy in others who do not have such things. Both effects are personally and socially damaging, encouraging those with the luxuries to think that they and the luxuries are important, and stimulating those who do not have them to find ways to get them. Would it not be better if the huge sums spent on such extravagances were directed to other useful outcomes—to building a hospital or creating an educational fellowship fund for students from poor families, for instance?
31.) The trait which should be preeminent in all leaders—whether they be CEOs, politicians or priests—is magnanimity, a word which at its root means someone “mighty of heart, mighty of mind.” Both qualities are the essential characteristic of leaders who are committed, as all leaders should be, to bettering the lives of those over whom they have been given power, whether these beneficiaries be their customers, workers, constituents, or congregations.
32.) Regarding inheritances: everyone should die as close to penniless as possible (or, if this proves impossible, after modest inheritances have been allotted, the excess of any estate should be given to charity). Having used our money and possessions for good while here, nonexistent or small inheritances ensure that the next generation will have to make its own financial way (this a direct reflection of Ruskin’s belief that creating one’s own career and life is the only way to properly develop and feel confident in one’s powers, coupled with his observations that great cash legacies, as often as not, spoiled their inheritors). [See Note 6.]
33.) We should create a national agency dedicated to supporting the arts, the wellsprings of our national imagination. To do so would legitimize the arts and the life of imagination in the national mind; to refrain from doing so would deligitimize both in that same critical mind.
34.) Thinking of those who will come after us, we should have another agency which would be devoted to the preservation of our cultural and historic heritage. If the links with our past are lost, we forfeit not just our history but the lessons which can be learned by the study of it.
35.) In a similar way and for similar reason, we should establish an agency whose responsibility it would be to preserve our natural environment and protect it against predation. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the land on which we grow our food, are all sacred, and when properly maintained, bestow on us–in perpetuity–health, beauty and enjoyment. To destroy that environment or allow it to be degraded by inattention or pollution is folly of the highest order; it is, in fact, a sin.
Not an insignificant list, as I trust you’ll agree. And, in all these instances, Ruskin said that we should do these things not because we would benefit monetarily or otherwise by doing them (which, on occasion, we might), but simply because doing them was the right thing to do. As members of a humane society, we owed such transparent, life-generating, life-preserving practices to ourselves, our fellows, and those who come after us because these are the things that all human beings need if they are to become healthy, happy, and wise.
Compassion for each other is, in short, the principle around which human life should revolve. When we grasped this, and acted on that grasping, Ruskin believed we would not only survive but thrive. “Government and cooperation,” he wrote in the last volume of Modern Painters in 1860, “are, in all things, and eternally, the laws of life; anarchy and competition eternally, and in all things, the laws of death.” For all of us, he said, the underlying forethought indicating how we should act in life is plain and simple: When our time here comes to its end, we should be able to face that end secure in the knowledge that, while we were here, we chose to use our powers to do all the sure good we could.
Ruskin (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)
Until next time.
Be well out there!
Additional Comments (each keyed to its corresponding number in the list above):
Note 1: The beneficence bestowed with one restriction: For these necessities, the able undeserving poor would be expected to work like everyone else. Such exertion imparted only good lessons—making clear the link between effort and reward, engendering responsibility, independence, more. If someone capable of work refused it, the benefit would be withdrawn. A modern organization using this approach is New York City’s Doe Fund which houses, clothes, and feeds the formerly homeless in exchange for participation in various forms of work that benefit the city. When compared to other agencies which provide these essential needs without a work requirement, Doe has been considerably more successful at helping its clients become functioning members of society.
Note 4: For decades, Ruskin did much in this regard, teaching the appreciation of art and drawing at “The Workingmen’s College” in London.
Note 5: To do his part in aiding this transformation, Ruskin bought buildings in London which he dedicated to housing the poor, insisting that only fair rents, geared to tenants’ abilities to pay, be charged.
Note 6: Ruskin became a multi-millionaire on his father’s death in 1864, inheriting in cash, stocks, and properties something close to £200,000. Converted to 2014 USD (the last year conversion figures were available at the time of this posting), that would have been (conservatively) worth nearly $22,000,000 or, in GBP (another conservative estimate), £15,400,000. (See: http://www.xe.com/currencyconverter/#.) Before that decade was out he had spent the bulk of it, his silent conviction being that much of the money he had been given was tainted, not by his father’s actions (he always said that John James was “an entirely honest merchant”), but because it had come from the coffers of merchants, many of whom had gained their riches by exploiting poorer and weaker others. Much was given away as donations, much was used to purchase great art (Turner paintings, Medieval illuminated manuscripts, etc.), art which, always thinking of himself as a temporary caretaker, he gave away in due course. In the late 1860s, to ease the strain occasioned by these disbursements, he reluctantly reissued some of his early books (something long resisted because he thought them “spoiled” by what he had come to regard as an immature religious ideology). For the rest of his life, he lived on his book income and the modest salary he received from Oxford during the years he was Slade Professor of Fine Art (1869-1885). Even in this reduced financial condition, he dispensed what he could to charitable organizations, struggling friends, or pensioners for whom he felt responsible. (A brief, but typical, story—courtesy of R. Dyke Benjamin—related by Nellie Wilkinson, daughter of one of Ruskin’s gardeners, illustrates: One day, when she was a little girl, as she was playing on Brantwood’s lawn, Nellie saw Ruskin coming down the path. Before him a stoneworker was mending a wall. Noticing that the mason was wearing a very thin pair of shoes, Ruskin immediately released him from his assignment and gave him enough money to go to town to buy a sound pair of boots.) By the time he died in 1900, all but a fraction of his art and manuscript collection had been donated to museums or universities for safekeeping and posterity, leaving only his home, Brantwood, a few of his most joy-producing Turner watercolors (soon sold by his inheritors), and whatever income might be generated by posthumous sale of his books (see # 32 ).
Note 15: The prohibition against religious instruction was occasioned because Rose La Touche, the young woman whom Ruskin much loved and hoped to marry, had been a devout, even fanatical, Evangelical Christian. Himself having been brought up in an Evangelical home, he later rejected these beliefs in favor of a less doctrinaire form of Christianity. The differences strained their relationship. When Rose, at 25, died insane in 1875, Ruskin became convinced that her imbalance had been exacerbated by the fervor generated by her religious convictions. As a result–and uncharacteristically–he illogically assumed the particular indicative of the general and concluded that girls and women were not equipped by nature for deep religious thought. Another comment should be made here: To help put this recommendation into practice, Ruskin invested financially and materially (largely in contributions of great works of art and fine editions of great books in women’s colleges in London and Cork, Ireland. (On the vital importance of having such books available for all, see Post #53.)
Note 28: Ruskin disagreed strongly with one of the primary recommendations of the communists: their contention that everyone should be paid the same irrespective of the type of work performed. Practically (as noted above), he said, it costs more to do the work required of a president of a university than it does to do the job of a sanitation worker. Moreover, paying everyone the same in all occupations could very well decrease the motivation to do high quality work in those whose work was more exacting and which carried greater responsibilities. Various historical experiments in communism–for instance, the former USSR, Vietnam, and China–provide convincing evidence that identical pay does not translate into high productivity. In former communist countries where that requirement has lapsed or been rescinded, productivity has skyrocketed–contemporary Vietnam and China are examples.