As many receiving this message know, the six words that serve as today’s title are by far the most famous of the more than six million he published during his lifetime. If anything of his reaches into public awareness with any depth these days, it is this short sentence. I have seen it printed on political-style buttons, embossed on tiles, encased in beautiful ceramic, and quoted innumerable times. And now, here. There’s good reason for this, as Ruskin believed these words to be the most important he ever wrote, coming as they did near the very end of the small book, Unto this Last (1860), he believed to be the most important he ever wrote.
Despite this view of their importance (with which I concur), I’ve avoided making them the subject of a post because, much more often than not, they quickly assume the guise of cliche (check their presence out, if you’ve a mind, on the web), excised, in the manner of most aphorisms, from their argumentative context, an abstraction which diminishes, even destroys, the depth of their significance for those coming across them.
But, as the days and, now, months, have passed in the wake of the November event which occurred in what now must be seen as yesterday’s America, I have found that these six words and their import have, time and again, pressed their way back into my awareness. And so I offer them now in the hope that they might serve as a ground for a first step forward from our present wounded place, as a means of suggesting a meaningful way to cope with the unexpected trump card which, so recently played, has delivered the hand to some very dark and atavistic forces. I am also hopeful that what follows might dispel some of the aphoristic quality which currently limits our understanding of this remarkable sentence. To facilitate that, below I reproduce the words in the context in which they first appeared, commenting on them as seems useful.
The reader of Unto this Last comes on them very near the conclusion of that little book’s fourth and final essay. The gist of all that has preceded them has been Ruskin’s intention to demonstrate that the end of economic life, now, then, and into any future we might imagine, is singular: to enhance the life-force of all those who come to us for the special product or service we offer (food, clothing, shelter, education, car repair, governance), to provide, as we are able, the things which will make those who knock at our door stronger–stronger in life, stronger for life; stronger in themselves, so that, in their turn, in this bettered capacity, they will be capable of helping not merely themselves but all those who are dependent on them (children, elderly parents), as well as those who come to them for the special product or service they can give.
Another contention expressed in the three earlier essays has been his suggestion that any sort of weakness is dysfunctional both for the person and all those with whom he or she comes in contact. Hence any sort of intentional exploitation or weakening of others is unconscionable, is, by definition, against life, is, worse, against the eternal law of life, which is help. In short, all economic activity (buying, selling, producing) brings with it a perpetual obligation to help those others with whom you are dealing. In which context, it is clear that those who engage in trade or business are in no way different from all those essential others whom we call into being to help us take care of other essential needs–those who defend us, who minister to us, those whom we charge to see that justice is done, those who keep our bodies in health, and, hardly incidentally, those to whom we have given the privilege of governing us. Given this, it is clear that (emphasis Ruskin’s)
THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.
Usually, when that semi-famous, capitalized sentence, floating by itself, finds its way into print or onto a medallion or postcard, it registers as a truism, as an “important” saying, one of those maxims which, now that we think of it, is “obvious.” “Well said!” we think. “Lovely line. Cleverly put. Odd that I never thought about it in this way before.”
I am not sure it is obvious, because all such sudden, surface reactions miss the fact that, in these six words, Ruskin has said something no one other, as far as I am aware, has said: he has equated “Wealth” with “Life,” intentionally disengaging the first word from what most of us have been taught is its meaning since we were tiny–namely, to think that “wealth” refers either to the amount of money we have or control, and/or the number and quality of things we possess. And so, so conditioned, we smile appreciatively at his novel equation and soon forget it because his juxtaposition cannot be reconciled with our internalized, notion. As a result we miss his revolutionary meaning–that it is only when we are loving, joyous, and full of admiration that we become wealthy. Contrary to our socialized belief, as Ruskin sees it, coins, cash, or cars (beyond the base function which the latter possess for taking us from point A to B), in whatever amount, have no value or, perhaps better said, have value only if they are used to create more love, joy, and admiration for ourselves and those others with whom we are constantly in touch. Revolutionary.
Again, his words:
“Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration.” Specifically, Ruskin has in mind the love of other human beings and the wondrous world in which we live and which we are charged to preserve, for ourselves and those who follow us; the joy which comes from a sunny day or a day without pain or from helping a needy child become healthier and more intelligent; the admiration which naturally flows from the heart when we acknowledge another whose days have served as a beacon for better life, another whose doings symbolize the actions things that make all life better, someone who cares for us and our well-being: Lincoln, Mandela, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Obama, Ruskin.
“That country is richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings.” A phrase remarkably at odds from our (again: well-socialized, almost never analyzed) utilitarian notion that the task of any country is to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number. But note how, in this utilitarian formulation, that its principal word, “happiness,” is undefined, as is similarly the case in that great document of international separation, the American “Declaration of Independence,” wherein it was written that it was an “inalienable right” to seek out our own personal version of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” a vague formulation which sanctions any pursuit, whether it be for money, domination, or anything else which serves as my unassailable notion of “happiness.”
Ruskin wants nothing to do with such vagaries, seeing them as little more than the national approval of self-centered behavior. True happiness, he argues, only arrives when we are actively engaged, in the manner in which we are most capable, in making other human beings happy with us. Hence, it falls to each of us to discover what it is that we can do that is most helpful and then set to the doing of it. Revolutionary.
“The greatest number of noble human beings.” A striking addition, that word. Here is the Merriam-Webster definition: “Noble: possessing, characterized by, or arising from a superiority of mind or character defined by the highest ideals, morals, and virtue,” the following adjectives being added in Google’s definition so that there will be no doubt about the base definition: “righteous, good, honorable, upright, decent, worthy, ethical, reputable.” (Google’s page, by the way, reports that “noble” has, since Ruskin’s time, declined in common speech to about 1/5th of its former use.) The point is dual: On the one hand, it is every country’s responsibility to do all in its power to create noble minds and hearts in the sense defined above; minds and hearts which, as a matter of life commitment, will keep the common good, the good of all, uppermost in all they think and do. On the other hand (and frequently missed) is his conviction that, if each of us chooses to define our life by a vision that accepts that the purpose of that life is a process dedicated to generating the greatest amounts of love, joy, and admiration of which we are capable, then, like the lotus whose blossom rises from the mud in which it has grown, we cultivate noble impulses, as a matter of course, in all, not merely in a few. Revolutionary.
Lastly: “That man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.” A magnificent summative sentence, and, in the context of what’s already been said, hardly unexpected. A charge for days approaching. The task of life being to perform what Plato calls (in Book I of The Republic, one of Ruskin’s handful of “sacred texts”) one’s “techne” as best she or he is able in the service of others–where a techne (we would use the words “job” or “work,” but both omit the helping sense intrinsic in the Greek word) is defined as the knowledge needed to do one’s task expertly, the skill to do it perfectly, and the wisdom to know when and how much and on whom to practice it so that the greatest good is accomplished both for the individual and the entire social order. Revolutionary.
This only remaining to be said: I’ve repeated the word “revolutionary” frequently. My intent having been to point out how truly different Ruskin’s view of Wealth and Life are from our common and uncriticized notions of these words. But I have also used it in Ruskin’s deeper sense: his belief that a true revolution is rarely, if ever, accomplished by use of arms or violent dismissal of those regarded by one side or another as miscreants. History teaches that, when a change of regimes occurs via force, the resentment, desire for revenge, and correlative willingness to return to arms among the defeated endures for decades, even centuries (compare the residues of the communist revolutions of the last century, the ongoing stalemate and hatred consuming Israel, its Palestinians, and the encircling Arab states committed to its destruction, the tenterhooks situation in the Balkans, the never-ending tensions stressing the Korean peninsula). In contrast, Ruskin’s revolution is a kind and gentle one, one that is gradually accomplished by each doing what she or he does best to help others become strong in their lives, a revolution which, in the end, may take longer to affect, but which, as it progresses, sheds no blood, generates no enmity, and enhances the life of everyone. Revolutionary.
While the 19th Century Irish statesman, Edmund Burke’s, famous phrase–“The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is that Good Men Do Nothing”–remains forever true, it is also the case that there are many, many, ways for good people to do something helpful. Other cards can be played to neutralize trumps. Sowing goodness, Ruskin says, will always reap its like; now, soon, and later. “There is no Wealth but Life.”
I end with my favorite portrait of our subject, Hubert von Herkomer’s (now in The National Portrait Gallery, London), painted in the late 1870s. From this site’s first post, it has been the centerpiece of the banner at the top of its pages. I include it because of all the portraits or pictures that exist of Ruskin, this one only, for me, captures the great heart that sustained the great mind, showing us a face which, although it cannot be missed that it shows a pronounced world-weariness, is also infused with the goodness that permeated its subject’s soul, a face which, all its helping life, was sustained by the belief that it was his duty to always do something good and helpful for others, a belief which, while he lived, he worked daily to do.
Until next time.
Be well out there!