62: “And if, on Due and Honest Thought Over These Things…” (The Cruelest Man Living)

Good Folks,

In our last post, “The List,” I presented thirty-five “Ruskin Recommendations,” all pertaining to some aspect of how we might better live our lives together . Each, he believed, if we adopted it, would have beneficent effect, take us a fair distance further down that good path which leads to happier life for us all, personally and collectively. As I explained there, these recommendations emerged from his studies of our social and economic life, most of which were published in the 1860s. These works, he always said, were the central writings of his life, his astonishing and widely applauded books on art, architecture, and nature notwithstanding.

To the very end of his life, our author always considered a series of four essays, published in 1860 in a London intellectual magazine, his best, as the most important things he ever wrote. The essays, collected under the title, Unto this Last, appeared in book form in 1862.

About these still stunning pages much could (has been, will yet) be said. But what I’d like to do today is fairly modest. I would like to quote the last paragraph of Unto this Last and ask that, as you peruse it, you consider it in the light of “The List” of our last post (to reread that post, click here: 61: The ListThis makes sense, at least to me, because a careful reading of Unto this Last in its entirety would reveal that every one of Ruskin’s recommendations in that post are in Unto this Last, either in fully developed or nascent form. As a result, this last, brilliant, moving, humane, and humanizing paragraph can be just as easily seen as an appeal to readers of “The List” as it can be by readers arriving at the conclusion of Unto this Last 

What Ruskin is trying to do in this final paragraph is to get us to ask ourselves a question: once we have grasped our personal complicity in creating the horrors of the social and economic world in which we continue to draw our privileged breaths, what should we (you, I) do now(As the pampered son of a rich London sherry merchant who had lived his first four decades on the proceeds of wines that had been sold to buyers he would call, derisively (in a letter sent to his father in 1862), “the knaves at our table,” Ruskin was more than passingly aware of his own complicity, however ignorant such collusion may have been, in living off of monies which had either been withheld from (in the form of inadequate wages) or stolen from (by trickery or outright theft) the millions of weaker souls surrounding him.)

 One other remark: Ruskin chose Unto this Last as the title for his four essays because, for him, the story that we know as “The Parable of the Vineyard Owner and his Workers” from the New Testament sums the entirety of what he was trying to communicate. (The phrase, “unto this last” appears near the end of the parable.) Christ told the story because, one day, as he was teaching, a person in the audience had asked him to tell them what this “Kingdom of Heaven”–to which he frequently referred–was like. He said that it wasn’t easy to give a true and complete description of this wonderful place, but he could tell them a story about what that Kingdom was like. After which he continued as follows: Matthew 20: 1-20 (KJV)

Using the parable and the foregoing remarks as frame, and thinking of the items on Ruskin’s “List” in our previous post, here, for reflection is the last paragraph of Unto this Last:

And if, on due and honest thought over these things, it seems that the kind of existence to which men are now summoned by every plea of pity and claim of right may, for some time at least, not be a luxurious one, consider whether, even supposing it guiltless, luxury would be desired by any of us, if we saw clearly at our sides the suffering which accompanies it in the world. Luxury is indeed possible in the future—innocent and exquisite. Luxury for all, and by the help of all. But luxury at present can only be enjoyed by the ignorant. The cruelest man living could not sit at his feast, unless he sat blindfold. Raise the veil boldly; face the light. And if, as yet, the light of the eye can only be through tears, and the light of the body through sackcloth, go thou forth weeping, bearing precious seed, until the time come, and the Kingdom, when Christ’s gift of bread, and bequest of peace, shall be “Unto this last as unto thee,” and when, for earth’s severed multitudes of the wicked and the weary, there shall be holier reconciliation than that of the narrow home, and calm economy, where the wicked cease—not from trouble, but from troubling—and the weary are at rest.

I suppose another way to think about this is to say that there is a wide difference between understanding something, being moved by the plight that comprehension exposes to our sight, and resolving to do something to make the plight less.

Until next time.

Be well out there!



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