78: Governance


We are on the cusp of a new government forming here in America–a week from tomorrow! Many of us are worried about the unavoidable arrival of that moment because we are not  convinced that those who are accepting their new podiums and duties have the best interests of the country and the well-being of its citizens, all its citizens, uppermost in their minds. They think they do, of course (otherwise, the level of cynicism would be almost incomprehensible).

It was with this thought in mind that it recently occurred to me that it might be of some use if I set out some of Mr. Ruskin’s thoughts on the matter of government and governing. (By now, you will not be surprised to learn that he had much to say about this critical element in our lives.) What got me ruminating about this tack was a passage I read one morning not long ago in his (much neglected) second book on political economy, Munera Pulveris (the first being Unto this Last). In a chapter he entitled “Government,” we come across the following sentences, written as his answer to the always asked question of which form of government is best. As in so many matters, his thoughts on this matter are not quite what we of democratic persuasion might hope to read (a good thing methinks). The italics are his:

Understand then, once for all, that no form of government, provided it be a government at all, is, as such, to be either condemned or praised, or contested for in anywise, but by fools. But all forms of government are good just so far as they attain this one vital necessity of policy: that the wise and kind, few or many, shall govern the unwise and unkind, and are evil so far as they miss of this, or reverse it. Nor does the form, in any case, signify one whit but in its firmness and adaptation to this need. For, if there be many foolish persons in a state and few wise, then it is good that the few govern. And if there be many wise, and few foolish, then it is good that the many govern. And if many be wise, yet one wiser, then it is good that one should govern…

This passage reminded me of a very little book, a collation of some of things Ruskin wrote about governing during the course of his long writing life. The tiny volume, Liberty and Government, is about two and a half inches wide, three and a half high, and includes, by the time we reach its end, but 58 pages. When it appeared in 1906, it was clearly intended to be one of the first “pocket books” ever published.

It was compiled by Ruskin’s dear friend, William Gershom Collingwood whom we met, briefly, in an earlier offering (Post 55). The diminutive book was but one in a series, Ruskin Treasuries, which Collingwood edited in the years immediately following his mentor’s death in 1900. (More on that lamentable, if inevitable, departure of Ruskin’s in our next post.) Some of the other titles in the series were Wealth; Religion; Art; Architecture; Economy; Education and Youth; and The Dignity of Man. (Quite hard to find now, these; however, if you are interested, again I recommend the “Used Books” tab at addall.com.) Except for differences in title, the covers and title pages of these volumes look like this:



What follows is a selection of what I believe to be Ruskin’s most useful thoughts about governance which are included in this little book, quotes which, at this present, tenuous, worrisome moment, are worth our reflection, quotes offered, for the most part, without comment. Would that it proved possible to get these few sentences into the hands of our quickly approaching new governors and have some assurance that, once they were in their hands, these same commanders would read and cogitate over them with some diligence. One more note before we read them: as always, we must forgive Ruskin his use of gendered language. On the other hand, it may very well becoming back into some sort of fashion in a week!

Here’s a pair of thoughts that are found in Time and Tide, 1869:

The first duty of a State is to see that every child born therein shall be well-housed, clothed, fed, and educated, until it attains the years of discretion.

It is popularly supposed that it benefits a nation to invent a want. But the fact is that the true benefit is in extinguishing a want–in living with as few wants as possible.

Here’s another bit from the already mentioned Munera Pulveris (1863):

It is to be understood that by the “maintenance” of a State we mean the support of its population in healthy and happy life, and the increase of their numbers so far as that increase is consistent with their happiness.

The next comes from The Political Economy of Art (1857). It is a direct attack on the doctrine of laissez-faire as a principle to be used in governing, as it was then (and is still now) in economic life:

The notion of Discipline and Interference lies at the very root of all human progress or power. The “Let Alone” principle is, in all things which man has to do with, the principle of death. It is ruin to him–certain and total–if he lets his land alone, if he lets his fellow men alone, if he lets his own soul alone. His whole life, on the contrary, must be, if it is to be healthy life, continually one of plowing or pruning, rebuking and helping, rewarding and punishing. And therefore it is only in conceding to the great principle of restraint and interference in national action that he can ever hope to find the secret of protection against national degradation.

From The Queen of the Air, 1869:

When men are good and true and stand shoulder to shoulder, the strength of any nation is in its quantity of life, not in its land or gold. The more good men a state has in proportion to its territory, the stronger the state. And, as it has been the madness of economists to seek for gold instead of life, so it has been the madness of kings to seek for land instead of life. They want the town on the other side of the river, and seek it with spear point. [The thought] never enters their stupid heads that to double the honest souls in the town on this side of the river would make them stronger kings; or that this doubling can be done by the plow instead of the blade–and through happiness instead of misery!

And here’s yet another from Time and Tide (again, the italics are Ruskin’s):

The essence of all government among good men is this: that it is mainly occupied in the production and recognition of human worth and in the detection and extinction of human unworthiness. And every government which produces and recognizes worth will also inevitably use the worth it has found to govern with. 

And another, brief, from The Crown of Wild Olive (1866):

No government is ultimately strong but in proportion to its kindness and justice.

The next is one of my most revered of Ruskin’s paragraphs. I slip it in here (it is not, like the others just used, from Liberty and Government) because it seems to fit perfectly what we are about. I read it to my students frequently because not a few of them would regularly try to excuse themselves from doing the hard work which the amelioration of wrong demands. Hopeful of dodging, they would say things like “Oh, that’s impossible! It’s so ‘idealistic,’ so ‘utopian’; and, always: ‘This could happen if only everyone would…” this last being the excuse to excuse themselves from an onerous task until everyone had decided to undertake it, which, in reality, meant that it was their excuse to excuse themselves forever. To which very thinly veiled attempts to avoid responsibility, Ruskin said the following to the doyens listening to on an Edinburgh evening in 1854 (the Canongate mentioned is one of the principal streets in that, then, not very fair, rapidly industrializing, city):

Utopian! There’s another of the devil’s pet words! I believe the quiet admission which we are all of us so ready to make–that, because things have long been wrong, it is impossible they should ever be right–is one of the most fatal sources of misery and crime from which this world suffers. Whenever you hear a man dissuading you from attempting to do well, on the ground that perfection is Utopian, beware that man. Cast the word out of your dictionary altogether. There is no need for it. Things are either possible or impossible. You can easily determine which… If the thing is impossible, you need not trouble yourselves about it. If possible, try for it. It is very Utopian to hope for the entire doing away with drunkenness and misery out of the Canongate, but the Utopianism is not our business, the work is.

Here’s still one more from Time and Tide, a paragraph which extends the last sentence read:

Be assured that no great change for the better can ever be easily accomplished or quickly: nor by impulsive, ill-regulated effort, nor by bad men, nor even by good men, without much suffering. The suffering must, indeed, come one way or another, in all critical periods. The only question for us is whether we will reach our ends (if ever we shall reach them), through a chain of involuntary miseries, many of them useless and all ignoble, or whether we will know the worst at once, and deal with it by the wisely sharp methods of Godsped courage.

Or, to put all of the above succinctly, perhaps this final, hopefully not unfamiliar, bit will prove best. Ruskin set it down first in the fifth volume of Modern Painters (1860); then, later that year, with the strongest possible emphasis, he set it down again in the last essay of Unto this Last, the book he regarded to the end of his life his most important (compare Post 67) 

Government and Cooperation are, in all things and eternally, the Laws of Life. Anarchy and competition, eternally, and in all things, the Laws of Death. 

Finally, as we come to a close, it seems only right that we acknowledge our debt to William Gershom Collingwood (we will return to him in due course), whose love and admiration for Ruskin and what he had tried to do for good over the course of his life resulted in the little book from which we have lifted so many of the quotes above. And what better way could we pay such homage than to reproduce, in his honor, what is surely his greatest painting, his portrait of “Ruskin at his Study desk, Brantwood, 1882.”



May we all have the happiest new year imaginable!


Until next time!



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2 Responses to 78: Governance

  1. Marcel Bolintiam says:

    Thank you Jim for this brilliant compilation and analysis of Ruskin.Always timely.Notice of Alan Frishman’s retirement today reminded me of our brief, albeit life affirming, time in London, circa fall 1989.Days missed very much indeed! Hope you are well, Cheers,Marcel

    From: Why Ruskin To: marcelbolintiam@yahoo.com Sent: Wednesday, January 11, 2017 3:00 PM Subject: [New post] 78: Governance #yiv8777820731 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv8777820731 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv8777820731 a.yiv8777820731primaryactionlink:link, #yiv8777820731 a.yiv8777820731primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv8777820731 a.yiv8777820731primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv8777820731 a.yiv8777820731primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv8777820731 WordPress.com | jimspates posted: “Friends,We are on the cusp of a new government forming here in the United States (a week from tomorrow) . Many of us are worried about the arrival of that portentous moment because we are not sure that those who are accepting their new podiums and duties” | |

  2. Mark.Pitifer says:

    Well said Ruskin

    Peace and Hope


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