124: Freedom: Slavery: Use: Virtue


Especially in his later decades, Ruskin was a contrarian. His desire to tell the truth while he was still able to tell it far outweighed any reticence he might have felt regarding offending anyone, foe or friend. With little or no compunction, he would attack not only those he thought heinous in and for life,  but any cherished belief he thought ill-considered and harmful.

He had, for instance, little tolerance for our worshipful love of “Freedom!” and our passion for keeping it on the pinnacle of the platitudes by which we live, a thoughtless subscription, he believed, which provides license for all manner of exploitation of the very folks who would go to the wall defending their right to be free in all things (hmm…some present relevance there!).

The Fors Clavigera letters, which he began in 1871, and addresses to the working people of the UK (having decided that the elites of his time were so seduced by their riches, power, and privilege that they would never entertain any thought of serious reform which might move the needle of justice toward aiding the millions of less fortunate in their midst), frequently provide cases in point.

For instance, in the third Fors letter, issued in March 1871, he takes on this question of freedom, immediately states his disdain for the idea, and proceeds to show how, once it is enshrined in national consciousness, it sets to work enslaving the weak, becoming an uncriticizable, sub-rosa tenet that frees the worst, most exploitive, practices of laissez-faire capitalism. (Early in the passage below, he makes reference to some gold-tipped flower decorations which, “for impression’s sake,” rest atop the columns of Westminster Bridge in London. Having referenced them in an earlier letter, here he wants to have his readers ask themselves what possible good can come from such a foolish use of public funds, funds which, otherwise spent, might have created jobs for the unemployed, medicine for the sick, schools for the uneducated. It hardly needs mentioning that the northern terminus of Westminster Bridge is adjacent to the Houses of Parliament.)

Freemen indeed! You are slaves! Not to masters of any strength or honor, but to the idlest talkers at the floral end of Westminster Bridge. Nay, to countless masters meaner than they! For though, indeed, as early as the year 1102, it was decreed in a council at St. Peter’s, Westminster, “that no man for the future should presume to carry on in the wicked trade of selling men in the markets like brute beasts, which hitherto hath been in the common custom of England,” the no less wicked trade of underselling men in markets has lasted until this day, producing conditions of slavery differing from the ancient ones only in being starved instead of well-fed, and… [inventing] a state of slavery unheard of among the nations until now…

In all former slaveries, Egyptian, Algerine, Saxon, and American, the slave’s complaint has been of compulsory work. But the modern Politico-Economic slave is a new and far more injured species, condemned to compulsory idleness for fear he should spoil other people’s trade–the beautiful logic…of this National Theory of Economy in this matter being that, if you are a shoemaker, it is a Law of Heaven that you must sell your goods under their price in order to destroy the trade of other shoemakers, but if you are not a shoemaker and are going shoeless and lame, it is a Law of Heaven that you must not cut yourself a bit of cowhide to put between your foot and the stones because that would interfere with the trade of shoemaking. [Of] all the wonderful theories..!

[As it happens, at this moment] I am correcting this sheet [for publication] in the Crown and Thistle Inn at Abingdon, and, under my window, is a shrill-voiced person, slowly progressive, crying “Soles! Three pair for a shillin’!” In a market regulated by reason and order instead of demand and supply, such soles would neither have been kept long enough to render such advertisement of them necessary, nor permitted, after their inexpedient preservation, to be advertised!

The state of slavery in which this shoe-selling soul lives, an enslavement he, more than likely, would not recognized as such, is the sort of invisible slavery wrapped all about us, Ruskin argues, once we have become champions of the “free market,” a market which, operating under the assurance that everyone is free to participate in it, actually allows freedom to act to only the tiniest few.

Which brings us to the question of whether there is any value in this idea of freedom at all. Well, Ruskin says, thinking further about it, there might be some little value in it, if, instead of striving only to accumulate ever larger piles of pelf, we strove for something other, something which, if chosen, would eventuate in more salubrious rewards:

Of all attainable liberties, then, be sure, first, to strive to be useful. Independence you had better cease to talk of–for you are dependent not only on every act of people whom you have heard of, who are living around you, but on every past act of what has been dust for a thousand years. So also does the course of a thousand years to come depend on the little perishing strength that is in you

Little enough [that strength], and perishing, often, without reward… Understand that. Virtue does not consist in doing what will be presently paid, or even paid at all, to you, the virtuous person. It may so chance; or may not. It will be paid some day, but the vital condition of it, as virtue, is that is shall be content in its own deed, and desirous rather that the pay of it, if any, should be for others…

Such being always the central Ruskinian political-economic lesson. We are, whether we know it or not, whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not, created to help, not hurt, one another, that latter choice resulting, always, in some sort of suffering somewhere for someone (or worse, some many), suffering which will include, in due course, the universe being structured on the principle of justice (Plato’s central argument in The Republic), an exactly retributive quantity of suffering for ourselves, we who have had the temerity to occasion the suffering of others. In just the same way–the other half of Ruskin’s argument about justice–all the good we have done for and help we have offered to others along our life’s path will return to bring us joy in their course. (In which argument regarding the nature of universal justice, we have fine fodder for future chat.)

Be well out there!

Until next time.



P.S.: Taking on Fors Clavigera, if any reading this post are so inclined, is a formidable task. The 96 letters fill three volumes of The Library Edition of the Works of John Ruskin, each running to more than 500 pages. Nevertheless, it is (I say from experience) a read wonderfully rewarding. Nevertheless, it is a lot. Happily, there is a way to cheat (but only a little bit, Ruskin being, if you are really interested in what he has to say, fundamentally uncheatable. The cheat comes in the shape of a small volume, earlier referenced in that post where I listed all the Ruskin writing compendia I knew (#115 ). Edited by Caroline Wurtzberg and carrying the title, Readings in John Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera: 1871-1884 (London: George Allen, 1899), the passages included provide a good, basic sense of what this wonderful, later (hence, often contrarian), set of Ruskin’s public letters hoped to accomplish–nothing less, as mentioned above, than changing the world for the better. Let me know what you think if you find it and turn its pages.





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1 Response to 124: Freedom: Slavery: Use: Virtue

  1. Jack D Harris says:

    Jim, For us lay readers, would you explain please why Ruskin titled these “Fors Clavigera,” which seems pretty obscure considering his intended audience. Thanks!

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