Reading Ruskin these days isn’t easy, experience teaches. Whenever I find someone who really wants to know more about what he wrote, I send them to the original texts, hopeful that these will help them see more clearly why he was so remarkable a writer and recognize how important his works continue to be as we make our way through these trying modern times.
But it hardly ever works. What does happen is that these curious, all of whom are smart people interested in new ideas, will, in time, report back to me something along the lines of “Well, it was interesting, and I tried, but I just couldn’t make my way through it.”
Part of the reason for the stoppage is, of course, Ruskin’s erudite style. There have been few in the history of literature who can put together the words of the English language so beautifully and intricately. But it isn’t only his complex, long sentences. The other part of the difficulty, I have become convinced, are his many, many references to other sources that appear, sometimes multiple times on a page. Regularly, he alludes to, paraphrases, or quotes directly, The Bible, Homer, Plato, Virgil, Shakespeare, all the major poets, the politicians of the day (significant or not), artists and their pictures, and much or many more. Soon, like a dense fog descending, they begin to bewilder.
Few of us know much about his arcane citations these days. The cultural times have changed. Lament it or not, modern readers, even the most dedicated, are not as facile with such allusions or evidencings. In contrast, the great majority of Ruskin’s 19th century readers had attended Oxford, Cambridge, or the best finishing schools of the day (Post 86: What’s Wrong–and How to Fix It). In their courses there, they had been steeped in such references, and while they wouldn’t have recognized them all as they encountered Ruskin’s use of them, they would have known many, and known as well how to find out more about the ones they didn’t recognize from the university and college books which, though probably shelved for years, still waited patiently on their bookshelves.
A main intent of this website is to alleviate this problem of “incomprehensible Ruskin” to some degree. But, no matter how successful might be any particular post, ot the posts in their entirety, the pleasure of reading our subject in the fullness of his creative exposition is never experienced. Most unfortunate!
This is especially regrettable in the case of critical works like Unto this Last, the volume of four short essays that Ruskin always regarded as his most important book. (We’ve visited important parts of it on numerous occasions: see, for instances, Post 81: “There is No Wealth but Life”; Post 100: The Master; Post 128: The Roots of Honor (A Talk); Post 143: Buying and Selling: Moral Matters; Post 144: The Deadly Nightshade and the Wealth of Nations.
Even the meaning of his title is not easily grasped these days. What could he possible mean by choosing these three words? The answer, as readers of his day would have immediately known, is that they are a reference to the parable of the vineyard workers and the vineyard owner that appears in the New Testament, a story which, by the time they had reached adulthood, they would have heard dozens of times.
And so, in the continuing spirit of trying to make Ruskin accessible to moderns, I have decided that, today, I would reprise, in what I hope will prove to be helpful paragraphs, this short Biblical story which the author of Unto this Last thought so illustrative of what he was trying to say about how we should do business with one another, that he used for his title these few words that are spoken by the vineyard owner near the parable’s end. If the tactic works, all our earlier–and later, for some there will surely be!–references to Unto this Last should take on deeper meaning. Let me know!
He was, by all surviving accounts, an itinerant, who, for some few years, traveled from place to place in that part of the world we now know as The Middle East. As he made his way, he made it a point to speak to anyone willing to listen to what he had to say, and—the same accounts tell us—would sometimes affect miraculous cures on people believed to have incurable illnesses. In time, his fame grew, particularly among the poorer and more powerless members of society–as did the size of the crowds that came to hear him–facts which increasingly distressed the elites of his society, who worried that the growing admiration accorded the rover might eventually threaten their position and power.
A compelling speaker, the central message he always relayed—frequently illustrated by an accompanying story—was simple: that life would be very much better for everyone if each person would decide to treat all they met as they themselves would like to be treated. If they did so, he said, before long a new social order would be ushered in, one in which goodness, tolerance, and general happiness would prevail, a society that would bear a profound resemblance to the place from whence he himself had come, a place he called “The Kingdom of Heaven.”
Most who heard this simile were perplexed: “We don’t know what you mean,” they said. “Where we live now, a place we understand all too well, is nothing like this mysterious, lovely place you mention. Here there exists rampant enmity, cheating, cruelty, lying, and, excepting a few places—like our own homes in the evenings—everyone is either deeply in or desperately trying to avoid misery. Can you tell us more about this heavenly place so that we might believe it really exists and have some hope that, someday, we might find it?”
The teacher replied: “Well, in truth, I really can’t describe it to you in any detail because none of you have been there. If I tried—and it is every bit as beautiful as I have said–you wouldn’t believe me. So perhaps it would be best if I told you something about what it is like. That might make it easier to understand.” After this, he related the following story:
“There was once a man who owned a vineyard. One morning, it being harvest time, he went early to the local market where, as always, men in need of work gathered. He approached some, explained that he needed help with his harvest, and said that, if they agreed to work for him, he would pay each a penny, a sum which, as they knew, was enough to easily sustain them and theirs for a day.
About three hours later, after he had sent the first men to the vineyard and had his overseer set them to work, he was again in town and saw a number of men still standing in the market who had not been hired. Sorry for them and knowing that he could find work for them, he approached and said: ‘I will gladly hire you and pay you what is right.’ Then, as it happened, twice more, once around noon and once about three in the afternoon, he was in town and saw that there were still capable men standing about. Each time he hired some, agreeing to pay them adequately. Finally, around six, with just a few hours of daylight remaining, again near the market, he saw some men still there. ‘Why are you not working?” he asked one. ‘Because no one has hired us,’ came the depressed and somewhat shamefaced reply. ‘Well then! I will hire you,’ the owner said, ‘and I will pay you fairly for your work.’ And these he took to the vineyard.
“An hour or two later it became too dark to work,” the storyteller continued. “and so the owner asked his steward to bring everyone who had worked that day to come to his office so they could be paid, adding that he should bring those hired last to his table first. As each man came up, the owner gave him a penny. Those who had been hired last were, of course, delighted. But when those who had been hired in the midst of the day saw that, when they came to accept their wage, they received the same wage, grumbling began. Finally, when those who were hired in the morning approached, there was downright anger. ‘How can you do this?’ one asked, expressing the frustration of all who had worked longer. ‘We toiled in the hot sun longer than those who came in the middle of the day and much longer than those who came last and now you have made us equal to them by paying us the same wage as you paid them. We should receive more!”
“To which complaint the owner said: ‘Friend, I don’t do you any harm by paying everyone the same. Didn’t you agree to work for me for a penny? It was an amount you immediately knew to be fair and enough to meet your needs. Not just yourselves but everyone who worked today needs that amount to live decently—so, that is the amount I have given. Why are you angry at me because I have treated them well? Take your penny and go your way. It is my money and I can do as I wish with it. Are you upset because I am good and did what was right for everyone? I pay unto this last as to you, for isn’t it the case that, as life runs its course, it will all but surely happen that those who are first now shall later be last and those who are last now shall later be first? And isn’t it also true that each person, whether they are among the first or the last, deserves to be paid adequately? All the men whom I hired at different times were willing to work from the first moments of the day, but only some were chosen. It was through no fault of their own that they were not selected. And wouldn’t you agree that, when the inevitable reversal of fortune comes, when those who were earlier first are now last, won’t they wish—and deserve!—to be given enough to keep body and soul together so that they can continue to take care of not only themselves, but their families’ needs, and remain strong enough to do a full day’s work the next morning?’”
At this point, his tale finished, the itinerant, as he looked at all those who had been listening, said, “And that is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.”
Rembrandt, “Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard,” 1637 (The Hermitage, St. Petersburg)
[For those who would like to compare the above rendition with the original King James Version with which Ruskin and his audience would have been conversant, below is the passage in full. You can find it at Matthew 20: 1-20; Jesus is speaking:
“For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is a householder which went out early in the morning to hire laborers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the laborers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said unto them, “Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you.” And they went their way. Again, he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, “Why stand ye here all the day idle?” They saith unto him, “Because no man hath hired us.” He saith unto them, “Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive.” So, when evening was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, “Call the laborers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first.” And when they came, those that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the good man of the house, saying, “These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.” But he answered one of them and said, “Friend, I do thee no wrong. Didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many may be called, but few chosen…”]
The Merchant’s Function
All of Unto this Last revolves around the lessons taught in this parable. As its four essays proceed, each is intended to demonstrate ever more deeply that the principle of doing honest and compassionate business with all is the only way of trading which will produce a harmonious and humane result. One important example from the initial essay will make the point.
One of the goals of “The Roots of Honor” is to define clearly, and for the first time, what a merchant’s true responsibility is regarding those who come to buy and consume his products and to those who work for him in producing these goods. But, before he does so, Ruskin asks his readers to ponder a question: Why is it that, of all the five great professions which exist in all complex societies, merchants are excepted from the general expectation that these professions have come into being to serve us, to make life better than it would have been if we didn’t have their services? A soldier is called into being to protect us from danger, a physician to protect or cure us from ill-health, a lawyer to make sure that justice is done, a pastor to teach us the sacred principles and duties of life. When practitioners of these professions do as they are expected to, we honor them. The roots of honor, in other words, are service. Forever it has been the case, and rightly so, that if we get no service, or poor service, or manipulated service, we withhold honor from such practitioners and, as often as not, set about castigating the miscreants (All those lawyer jokes!)
But, strangely, we have let the mechant off the hook in such considerations. For whatever reason, the merchant is not expected to be doing business to help us, but, rather, we have come to expect that, in some, usually covert, manner, he will try to swindle us, will act selfishly, will seek to satisfy his own interests first, not ours. What logic is there in this, Ruskin asks? Our modern watchword is caveat emptor–“Let the buyer beware!” How bizarre! Shouldn’t the watchword be emptor secures–“Let the buyer be secure”?–secure, that is, from worry that when he is doing business in some market with someone he might be cheated, might not receive the empathetic consideration he deserves as both a customer and human being?
Well, the truth, Ruskin says, is that, for anyone who thinks the matter through, it makes no sense. Like all the other great professions, he argues, business exists to serve us, to meet our needs, and in so doing, make our lives better. To imagine–and practice!–the opposite is a colossal and catastrophic error. At which point our subject proceeds to explain what the merchant’s true function is, to make it clear what it has been since time began, and what it will continue to be forever into the future. “Observe,” he begins,
the merchant’s function (or manufacturer’s, for broad sense in which it is here used, the word must be understood to include both) is to provide for the nation. It is no more his function to get profit for himself out of that provision than it is a clergyman‘s function to get his stipend. This stipend is a due and necessary adjunct, but not the object of his life, if he be a true clergyman, any more than his fee (or honorarium) is the object of life to a true physician. Neither is his fee the object of life to a true merchant. All three, if true men, have a work to be one irrespective of fee—to be done even at any cost, or for quite the contrary of fee; the pastor‘s function being to teach, the physician‘s to heal, and the merchant‘s, as I have said, to provide.
That is to say, he has to understand to their very root the qualities of the thing he deals in, and the means of obtaining or producing it, and he has to apply all his sagacity and energy to the producing or obtaining it in perfect state, and distributing it at the cheapest possible price where it is most needed.
And because the production or obtaining of any commodity involves necessarily the agency of many lives and hands, the merchant becomes in the course of his business the master and governor of large masses of men in a more direct, though less confessed way, than a military officer or pastor. So that on him falls, in great part, the responsibility for the kind of life they lead. And it becomes his duty, not only to be always considering how to produce what he sells in the purest and
cheapest forms, but how to make the various employments involved in the production, or transference of it, most beneficial to the men employed…
All of which sounds very strange, the only strangeness in the matter being, nevertheless, that it should so sound! For all this is true, and that not partially nor theoretically, but everlastingly and practically; all other doctrine than this respecting matters political being false in premises, absurd in deduction, and impossible in practice consistently with any progressive state of national life…
It is only when the merchant decides to create his products to help us, when, in the process of production, he decides to treat those working for him as needful human beings like himself, that, Ruskin says, we will, rightly and automatically, honor him.
A personal instance: I have a car and, as a result, there come times when I need a mechanic to do some form of repair. When this happens, I take it to a fellow who runs a nearby auto repair business. Joe (his real name), looks the car over, tells me what I need to do and what I don’t need to do to make it run well again, and then makes it a point to charge me the lowest price he can. After which, if ever there is a problem with the work that has been done (there hardly ever is), he fixes the problem without complaint and without charge. In having found such a fellow, I count myself lucky (note the wider implication of the last word). Being the recipient of Joe’s skill and honesty, I quickly began to trust and respect (honor) him. So good was his service, over the course of the last two decades I have recommended him and his shop to many. Of those who have followed my suggestion, all have been as satisfied as myself. Indeed, because he is a true mechanic in the guise that Ruskin describes above (consummate skill, fair prices, concern for the customer even when he may lose money in some instances), he has gotten more customers–folks who have gladly accorded him their custom–than he would have otherwise. As well, and hardly incidentally, Joe and I have become friends. Fine–and spontaneous–outcomes in all directions at once.
Now, briefly, imagine it differently: You find, or suspect, that your mechanic is overcharging you, that he has done a poor job of repairing and, when confronted with this, refuses to fix the mistake without adding another cost, that, even worse, he seems to be recommending services which you are pretty sure you don’t need. What is your likely reaction? Anger, frustration, an unwillingness to return to his shop, coupled with, as often as not, a powerful impulse to tell others that they should be wary of doing business with him. In other words, destructive, and spontaneous, outcomes in all directions at once.
The point is obvious. Ruskin’s definition of the function and responsibilities of a true merchant are a modern iteration of the principles infused in the parable of the vineyard owner. All merchants (the vineyard owner is one) are in business to serve their customers. They could make more if they charged more for certain services (how would I know what these services should cost without doing extensive research?); they would make more if they recommended services I didn’t need. But, by choice, Joe does none of these things. He has never read Ruskin, of course, but he has learned, and in so learning is abiding proof of Ruskin’s contention that the principles he attaches to merchants in “The Roots of Honor,” generally are eternal. Moreover, they are the principles he applies without exception to everyone who comes through his shop door. Unto this last as to thee.
The remaining essays of Unto this Last deepen this theme of outline the fundamental responsibilities we assume when we trade with one another. In later posts, we will get to some of these In fact, Ruskin only uses the phrase, “unto this last” once in his small book–in the final paragraph of the final essay, holding it until then so that his readers, coming across there, will be powerfully affected by its truth. We read it some time ago in Post 62: “And if, on Due and Honest Thought Over These Things…” (The Cruelest Man Living).
Until next time.
Be well out there, in this new decade!
P.S.: Many thanks to Jack Harris and Tim Rawson for reading slightly different and earlier versions of “The Parable” above.