Unto This Last was one of the most influential English books of its century, combining Victorian social concern with the declamatory and moral argumentation characteristic of serious literature of the period.
Even so, this series of essays was so controversial in 1860 that Cornhill Magazine refused to publish any more after the third essay, and thus the fourth chapter, “Ad Valorem,” was written knowing it would be the last. This forced Ruskin to compress, an otherwise difficult matter for him. The style of Unto This Last is more condensed and epigrammatic than that of his earlier Modern Painters. His arguments and declamations are to some degree held in check by the system of short numbered sections, and the dry technical language of the political economists provides a scaffolding against which to direct his sarcasms and definitions of a just society.
Tension about the topic of social inequality had festered for at least 10 years between him and his father. The latter was a very conservative, wealthy wine merchant who wished his son to confine himself to art criticism, and who had hitherto exercised a controlling effect on Ruskin’s life. Unto This Last was both the sign and cause of Ruskin’s breach with his father, his assumption of freedom to write on social as well as artistic issues, which he did for the rest of his life in works such as Fors Clavigera and Munera Pulveris.
Though little read when it appeared, of all Ruskin’s works, Unto This Last eventually became the most broadly popular. In 1906, 29 Independent Labourite M. P.’s were polled on the book which had most influenced them, and Unto This Last ranked first. By 1910, 100,000 copies had been sold. One of Ruskin’s translators was Ghandi, who entitled his translation “Sarvodaya,” or “The Welfare of All.”
Though less important, it is interesting to note the influence of Ruskin’s metaphors on G. M. Hopkins’ poetry, e. g. Ruskin’s description of God’s justice in a storm (63, section 44): “But, also, this action may be either gentle and just, or convulsive and destructive: it may be by rage of devouring flood, or by lapse of serviceable wave;--in blackness of thunderstroke, or continual force of vital fire, soft, and shapeable into love-syllables from far away” anticipates rather remarkably the themes and language of Hopkins’ “The Wreck of the Deutchland.” Ruskin’s analogy that “that ploughshare . . . becomes true capital only . . . when it is seen ‘splendescere sulco,’ to grow bright in the furrow,” (102, section 73) is the germ of Hopkins’s “plough down sillion shine,” his paen to work and suffering in “The Windhover.”
Questions for discussion:
What is the significance of the title? (from Matthew 20:14, parable of laborers and the master of the vineyard; the last to arrive are paid equally with the first) What is the significance of the second epigraph?
What does Ruskin claim was his intention in writing these essays? How do you respond to his desire for “a logical definition of wealth” (20, “an accurate and stable definition”)? What do you think he means by “logical”? (Based on human realities, taking into account context and use; serving the higher moral interests of life)
Do you believe Ruskin seeks a logical definition of wealth throughout?
What does he seem to resent in prior definitions of political economy?
--the assumption that human beings are basically dishonest, that society must be built on economic competition.
What does he wish instead?
--a moral, cohesive society
To whom is this work addressed? Whom does he hold responsible for the reform of society? (22, section 5)
--“our captains,” i. e., “captains of industry”
What does Ruskin mean by this term? (had been popularized by Thomas Carlyle in Past and Present) What social structure will best bring about social change?
What four suggestions for reforms does he make? What is the purpose of each, and which have since been instituted?
government primary schools, chiefly trade schools
government stores, to keep prices and quality up to a certain standard
provision by government of menial work for the willing unemployed [this has never been done, even to the present, except on a limited scale]
provision made for the old and destitute
The first and last of these have been put into effect to some degree, both in the United States and in England, and b. and c. still remain uninstituted.
How new were these ideas in 1860? Which would have been advocated by his fellow members of the middle and upper classes?
Which claim in his first essay does Ruskin state aroused condemnation?
--need for organization of labor, 20
How would you characterize Ruskin’s style in Unto This Last? Which of its features are most effective?
--flows rapidly, carried by emotion
--much of his argument consists of the contrast between his language and that of the political economists
What is added by the striking metaphors and Biblical references?
--adds sense of moral and dramatic possibilities in economic transactions
--unexpected connections and verbal associations force the mind into new directions
--Biblical references are both specific and allusive, enabling him to introduce broad moral ideals
“The Roots of Honour”
On what grounds does Ruskin criticize the emerging science of political economy? Does this differ from Carlyle’s critique in Past and Present? (26; section 1)
What is Ruskin’s attempted solution to the problem of class conflict?
Do you agree with his claim that the interests of master and man are never opposed? In what different ways may “interests” be defined?
--his example gives an extreme (29; section 6), creating a false excluded middle
--ignores issue of excess profit
--refuses to admit class differences
In Ruskin’s view, who advocate the search for economic gain alone? (laissez-faire economists) Why is this a limiting and unworthy aim? (27; sections 6-7)
In condemning the laissez-faire assumption that greed is/ought to be the basis of human behavior, does Ruskin also seem to blame those who observe a conflict of interest for creating the problem? (Not to define is to justify in another sense, for definition is necessary for analysis and alteration.)
What analogies does Ruskin provide for the employer/employee relationship? Is there any value to these alternate models?
What are assumptions behind the comparison of a master and domestic servant?
--assumes there is an “appointed and necessary work” for the servant (31; section 9)
--no consideration of the fact that hierarchy itself may be wrong, or that the servant might be retrained for other tasks and the master assume more self-sustenance
What do you think of the comparison of this relationship with that of a mother and child? (28; section 5) Are there limitations to this comparison?
--no personal inequality between mother and child
--a family has a clear self-interest in preserving the life of its members. Employers are not mothers, whatever they ought to be.
--in Victorian England, religious comparisons were laden with a paternalistic bias
What is Ruskin’s rationale for the comparison of employers to captains of a regiment? (33; section 11) Which other Victorian polemicist had spoken in similar terms? (Carlyle in Past and Present) How does Ruskin’s interpretation differ from Carlyle’s?
--Carlyle would have subsumed all interests in those of the “captain”; Ruskin can at least see that there are two self-interests involved. Yet he is never willing to grant the political economists that the possessors of wealth may have a bias—an admission necessary to arbitrating the conflict of interest.
What are its limitations?
--deemphasizes notion of fairness
--adduces a situation in which deliberation is not possible
--emphasizes discipline and obedience
--assumes fixed categories and tasks, whereas these are often the grounds for dispute
--his assumption that servants will do more work from love than from fear could be seen as almost an exploitation of the emotions, cmp. Althusser's notion of interpolation
Is Ruskin correct that a battle has seldom been won unless men loved their general? What model of war does this assume, and is this consistent with Victorian reality?
In general does Ruskin seem attracted to military metaphors (as, for example, Carlyle had been)?
--usually not; see his later comments on war
Why does Ruskin believe a fixed wage and equality of payment for all who do the same kind of work are important? (34; section 13)
--necessary for a good workperson to earn a secure living, despite trade fluctuations of supply and demand
How would this view apply to the modern workplace today? To what extent are salaries and job security set by market conditions?
--people will choose the good and not the bad; thus inferior worksmanship will remain unsold and standards remain high (yet sometimes hard to discern; deceptive advertising)
What does Ruskin believe about the reasons for the respective status of soldiering, practicing law and medicine, and leading a manufactory?
--soldiers capable of self-sacrifice, 38; section 16
--lawyers and doctors use skill in the service of justice and healing, 39
Are there aspects of this view of public opinion and of the actions of men under fire which may be idealized? Were there factors in Victorian professional codes and status which these assertions ignore?
--Victorian medicine was shockingly corrupt, rudimentary, and only available to the prosperous; the status of professions was determined by canons of gentility.
What do you think is the purpose of his emphasis on mercantile self-sacrifice? (44, section 24) Does this seem to you a consistent or practical ideal?
--attempts to give moral content to Carlyle’s “Captains of Industry”
--startles by its novelty
Can you see any contemporary practical application to Ruskin’s assertion that merchants ought to be willing to die for their duty?
Might there be other solutions to economic problems which Ruskin does not consider? (co-operative manufacture and sales, for example, or government participation in distribution)
What occupations are omitted from his categories?
--rearing and teaching of children
--all manual labor and artwork
How do you account for these omissions?
What are the duties of a merchant? (43; section 23)
--defense of pure products and a just price, 43; section 23
--paternal concern for the men he employs, 44; section 24
What do you think would have been Ruskin’s views on the entrance of women into the workplace?
What are features of his final apocalyptic warning of national destruction? (45; section 25)
--a characteristic pattern in all his works, e. g. at the conclusion of Seven Lamps of Architecture
--issue is not one of individual morality but of national survival
How many of Ruskin’s specific suggestions for practical reform have been effected? Does he himself continue to advocate all of them throughout the book?
This essay was written 18 years after the appearance of Marx’s Communist Manifesto. Are there common themes? How does Ruskin differ in his approach to analysis and redress of social problems?
“The Veins of Wealth”
To what does the title refer?
What is his response to the claim that economists are promoters of the science of getting rich? (metaphor of the gambling house, 46; section 26). Do you think this metaphor is accurate?
Why does Ruskin attack the political economists’ (and others’) perception that wealth is inevitably based on the poverty of others? (47, section 27)
--sets up a definition he will later undercut
--reveals the reification of the identification of currency with wealth
Does he continue to advocate this conception of wealth? If not, what other forms of riches in addition to money should be considered in assessing wealth? What constitute some forms of non-economic wealth?
--value is not exclusive but must be on both sides, 51, section 32; also 96, section 68.
--wealth is power over others (power is here seen to include noble influence)
--the wealth of character and happiness does not diminish the well-being of others
Since these words were written, have there been attempts by economists to measure wealth in more Ruskinian terms?
For Ruskin, is inequality ever justified? Would there be classes in an ideal society, and on what more just grounds will economic distinctions be based? (50, section 31; speaks of “justly established” inequities of wealth based on the “strength of individuals, tested by full exertion and specially applied to various needs . . . receiving reward or authority according to its class and service”) [ignores issue of differences of opportunity, access to education, and so forth]. In this he seems to anticipate the Fabians, bureaucratic socialists who advocated government by a meritocracy of educated reformists.
Would Ruskin have agreed with Proudhon that “property is theft”?
What is the effect of his model of two men, one of whom becomes poor? (52-54, sections 33-35) What does Ruskin here see as causes and results of unequal distribution?
On what famous antecedent is this model based? (John Locke) Are any important factors omitted from this example?
--gender, effect of families
--ignores effect of military and other forms of force on distribution
What does he argue is the actual essence of wealth?
--59; section 40; “the persons themselves are the wealth”
--accumulation which causes destruction is "illth"; wealth is not accumulation but consumption
To whom do his remarks seem to be addressed? (ruling classes; appeals to noblesse oblige rather than for revolution)
What is new in Ruskin’s definition of political economy?
--not the power and possession of individuals but the welfare of all citizens is necessary for well-being of society; wealth is reciprocal, mutually reinforcing, and occurs through human interrelationships
“Qui Judicatis Terram”—“ye who judge the earth, seek diligently to do justice”
What is the significance of the title, and to whom is it addressed?
What does Ruskin seem to mean by the meeting together of rich and poor? (62-63, section 44; rich and poor must confront each other, but with just consideration)
On what grounds does Ruskin assert that supply and demand are not sufficient indices of value?
--poor are robbed because their need forces them to buy at too high a price (62; section 43); they don’t receive the just reward of their labor (compare Marx's surplus labor value)
According to Ruskin, should supply/scarcity, etc. be considered at all in determining price?
In Ruskin’s view is money the chief motivating factor in work? According to him, should it be? (cmp. Morris in News from Nowhere) Should labor include “feelings of an agreeable kind”? (72, section 50, fn; again, compare News from Nowhere)
Against what Victorian/Carlylean view is Ruskin here arguing?
--view that work must be unpleasant
What principles of exchange would he substitute in place of narrowly economic ones? What should be the definition of “justice”?
--just reward for labor, taking into account the worker’s necessities
Is value independent of public opinion? Is it fixed and unchanging? In your view, is he consistent in answering this question?
Is justice hierarchical? No, more distributive; wealth is multiplied when more possess it (74, section 51; should be more employers—he does not consider the possibility that people may be self-employed, which would provide for yet more distribution)
--opposes “hoarding” theory of wealth, “illth”; the notion that one gains through accumulation rather than wise use
Is this a belief Ruskin practiced in his own life?
--used his large fortune to sponsor and stimulate art and craft projects in his region, stimulating local economy
Alternately, should the amount of labor required in creating a product/service be the sole criterion of price?
Does Ruskin accept a degree of class stratification? (79, section 54, yes; “rich have no right to the property of the poor”) If so, can you tell on what basis will decisions about value be made, and who will make them?
Does Ruskin believe that the skill associated with labor should have an effect on the price?
--yes, consistent with supplying the needs of all, 71, section 49, fn.
How will the (absolute) “specific worth” of each object be determined? Is he clear on this point?
--apparently based on some combination of exchange value, need, skill and usefulness of services or objects produced
Should management and education be compensated? Skill and experience? Are these two statements consistent? [Isn’t skill related to education and complexity of task?] 69, section 48; 71, section 49
What remarks does Ruskin make on the taxation of the poor? (76, section 53) How unconventional are his views in this regard for one of his class?
In what ironic context does Ruskin mention “socialism”? (79, section 54) Does he seem to advocate it? What can we conclude from the fact that there is less social unrest under conditions when wages are fixed [apparently] independently of an immediate market?
Ruskin is offended by J. S. Mill’s and Ricardo’s distaste for the production of silverplate, jewels and velvet, correctly pointing out that moral values underlie their judgments of wasted production. Is this true for Ruskin also?
On what grounds does he defend valuables such as silverplate or jewels?
--need for artistry provides opportunity for creativity of the workperson
--beauty itself is a necessary value in life, see below (114, section 82; As the art of life is learned, it will be found at last that all lovely things are also necessary”)
His disagreement with the political economists reflects a division between the aesthetic and more puritanical Victorian moralists. As someone to whom beauty is of high value, he defends the creation of all forms of art as enabling the creativity and expression of the artisan (cmp. “The Nature of Gothic,” and Morris’s ideal of a community of artists and craftspersons).
He fails to address the issue of use, however; is the silverplate to be used by an elite group of persons or a community? And his reaction ignores his own powerful claims below of the need for distribution, that the richest person in the world could not sit at the feast of life were he not blindfolded. Perhaps his response is affected by the fact that this condemnation was issued by writers whom he despises; elsewhere the fact that—as it has been claimed—two thirds of the world goes to bed hungry or malnourished each night might have evoked remarks of the sort he makes elsewhere on the need for subsistence and artistic freedom for all.
What then is “wealth”?
--attacks mercantile and capitalist belief that profit is the index of wealth; that economic forces can and should operate independently of social good; that money breeds money; and that value can be artificially manufactured by demand (the ideological underpinning of advertising)
--wealth is not a power and possession of individuals but the interrelatedness and welfare of citizens of the state
--consumption is more important than production. Accumulation which produces “illth” is not true wealth.
Is Ruskin systematic in democratizing consumption?
--Does not believe that the wealthy are unjustly favored if they spend their wealth wisely, yet issues of control and choice are important too. His model is philanthropic, not egalitarian.
What guidelines does Ruskin provide for determining levels of exchange and price? In the absence of market forces, are there alternate models for payment?
--payment for education and intelligence—a meritocracy (related to wealth and power, and thus closely related to hereditary privilege)
--payment for heavy labor and danger, risk
--a system under which dreary and dull work should receive the highest compensation
--payment for the use value of the product, its value for life (labor may have a positive or negative value, 100, section 72: “the most directly negative labour being murder, and the most directly positive, the bearing and rearing of children”)
How would intellectual workers fare under these categorizations? Women who performed traditional caretaking roles? (cmp. the twentieth-century movement in favor of a “mother’s wage”)
Does Ruskin believe that higher salaries should motivate activity?
What does Ruskin believe about the fairness of the “piecework” system?
He claims that much labor serves no real function, and if it had to be paid at a high rate would soon be eliminated. Is there truth to this view?
If labor is to be judged by its ability to produce and sustain life, what then is Ruskin’s final definition of wealth?
--91, section 64, “the possession of the valuable by the valiant”
--101, section 72, consumption of life-sustaining goods: “the vital question, for individual and for nation, is, never ‘how much do they make?’ but ‘to what purpose do they spend?’”
--102, section 73, “The best and simplest general type of capital is a well-made ploughshare”
--79, section 54, “Government and co-operation are in all things the Laws of Life; Anarchy and competition the Laws of Death.”
--107, section 77, “the question for the nation is not how much labour it employs, but how much life it produces. For as consumption is the end and aim of production, so life is the end and aim of consumption.”
[What would Marx have thought of all this? Does his notion of commodity fetishism form a critique of an unexamined faith in consumption? Can you see Ruskinian notions in the twentieth-century economic policies of John Keynes?]
--"THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE. . . . . 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.”
Do you see comparisons/contrasts between his views and those of fellow Victorianists such as Carlyle, Marx, Arnold or Morris?
What seem to be Ruskin’s views here concerning war? Are his statements on its necessity ironic and/or critical?
--108, section 78, “Man, considered as an animal, is indeed limited by the same laws: hunger, or plague, or war, are the necessary and only restraints upon his increase. . . . But considered as other than an animal, his increase . . . is limited only by the limits of his courage and his love.”
--desires humans to pass from strife to mutuality, “his courage and his love”
--wealth requires that one’s surroundings be lovely, 114, section 83, “As the art of life is learned, it will be found at last that all lovely things are also necessary . . . . ” (cmp. Morris in “The Beauty of Life”)
How typical of middle-class Victorians of his time was Ruskin in denying the existence of a population problem? (77, section 52; compare Morris in News from Nowhere)
Against what attitude is he reacting? (political economists’ assumption that population increase decreases national wealth; by contrast Ruskin sees a positive gain from mutuality and sharing. By contrast post-Malthusian reformers such as J. S. Mill favored contraception to increase the standard of living.)
Do similar debates occur today?
What kind of person does Ruskin think will be successful under Victorian economic and social conditions?
--93, section 65, “The persons who become rich are, generally speaking, industrious, resolute, proud, covetous, prompt, methodical, sensible, unimaginative, insensitive, and ignorant. The persons who remain poor are the entirely foolish, the entirely wise, the idle, the reckless, the humble, the thoughtful, the dull, the imaginative, the sensitive, the well-informed, the improvident, the irregularly and impulsively wicked, the clumsy knave, the open thief, and the entirely merciful, just, and godly person.”
Was this true? What is the purpose of this arguably exaggerated claim?
What does Ruskin believe retards the progress of the science of his day? Might he have had some evidence for his claim?
To whom does Ruskin address his remarks? How can you tell? (advocates compassion and sharing, not seeking of gains and rights for members of one’s social class; 110, section 79, speaks of “what can be done for them,” the working people.
What points does Ruskin make in his final peroration? On what grounds are they effective?
--a call to the great feast of life, cmp. feast at the conclusion of News from Nowhere
How would you compare the style of Unto This Last with Ruskin’s earlier style in Modern Painters?
--continues the use of great sweeping sentences, laden with colorful or dramatic descriptions and rising to heights of emotion
--varies long and short units skillfully, uses a range of allusive and precise diction
What do you think motivates the repeated use of Biblical metaphors? Would these have appealed to his audience?
--recombinations of the familiar would have appealed to his audience and challeneged them to apply the dormant religious ideals of their culture
--enables him to combine specificity of reference with broader claims; both precise and allusive
--cloaks some of his unorthodox ideas in the garb of their original provenance
--appropriate for conveying his ideas, a kind of right-wing, Tory socialism or belief
in a traditional paternalistic ordering of social relations, tempered by the expectation of charity and provision for the otherwise indigent. [Compare the society envisioned by the prophets of the Old Testament, with a just king who defended the poor and judged righteously—a Solomon, wealthy, wise and just.]
What are some examples of the use of scientific analogies? 27, section 3
Of etymological associations? (e. g. “Wealth . . . is the possession of the valuable by the valiant,” 91, section 64)
--these create a sense of unexpected but fitting associations
--enables him to approach same topic in a variety of ways
Of striking metaphors?
--46, section 26 “But they neither know who keeps the bank of the gambling house, or what other games may be played with the same cards, nor what other losses and gains, far away among the dark streets, are essentially, though invisibly, dependent on theirs in the lighted rooms.”
--58, section 38 “You sold your bread well today: was it to a dying man who gave his last coin for it, and will never need bread more; or to a rich man who to-morrow will buy your farm over your head; or to a soldier on his way to pillage the bank in which you have put your fortune?”
--90, section 62, “lately in a wreck of a Californian ship, one of the passengers fastened a belt about him with two hundred pounds of gold in it, with which he was found afterwards at the bottom. Now, as he was sinking—had he the gold? or had the gold him?”
--117, section 85 “the cruelest man living could not sit at his feast, unless he sat blindfold.”
Such startling leaps and parables enable him to make forceful, unexpected but convincing assertions.
How do Ruskin’s style and themes compare with those of Carlyle in Past and Present? With Morris in “The Beauty of Life” or “The Society of the Future”?
--Carlyle had also emphasized “obedience” and “honesty,” but for him these required discipline rather than distribution.
--like Carlyle he seems to believe in a strengthened government, what Carlyle and many others would call the “state,” although his calls for government intervention in the preface are not consistently echoed in the essays. Often he seems to believe in something closer to private moral self-regulation.
--like Carlyle in On Heroes and Hero-Worship and Past and Present, he advocates leadership; whereas Carlyle emphasized the strength and power of these ideal leaders, however, Ruskin celebrates their skill, moral qualities and dedication to the community.
--Notably Carlyle selects historical figures to praise, such as Cromwell, whereas Ruskin appeals to an ideal which presumably the reader’s imagination (or future history) must supply.
--Ruskin introduces themes of war and pollution which have had immense twentieth and twenty-first century relevance.
Does Ruskin’s treatise gather in intensity as it progresses? Do you think his sermonic manner is appropriate to its themes?
--combines precision of argument and allusion with broader moral themes
Are the metaphors and tone of this book entirely consistent with its overt statements?
--seems more radical in tone than in actual statement; like other reform-minded Victorian literary figures such as Elizabeth Gaskell, under pressure he felt the need to qualify or retreat from some of the implications of his broader claims and insights.
Is Ruskin always fair to the arguments of the political economists he cites?
--often he takes the words of James Mill or Ricardo out of context, or applies their words in a broader sense than originally intended. It is sometimes difficult to tell what their arguments were without consulting the original.
Do you think that Ruskin is always consistent in maintaining his positions—for example, on the topic of possible government interference, or on the need for equality of distribution “unto this last as unto thee”?
--waffles on government intervention, an essential controversy of his time
--believes in the need for fixed wages, but not trade union activity or worker-led initiatives
Is Ruskin a “socialist” in the modern sense? In what ways do his views differ from/resemble those of Marx? Could you describe him as supporting a kind of paternalistic dictatorship? A pluralistic democracy?
What are some merits and limitations of Ruskin’s critique of political economy? Which aspects of his analysis seem strongest?
--his sarcasm undercuts the assumption that the profit motive must determine economic and social relations, apart from social good
--attacks the enemy on its own (self-righteous) grounds
--attacks the notion that fixed (that is, laissez-faire/capitalist) laws or forces must determine wages and prices
--provides a notion of labor which includes its positive value to both producer and consumer; the pleasure of creation and beauty an intrinsic part of the value of labor
--attacks deeply entrenched Victorian notion that a “gentleman” was he who did not work; presents positive value of labor and service
--better at critique than at construction of new models; this may be just as well, for its forces the reader to confront the problem of inequity without the distraction of arguing over the viability or practicality of different means of achieving change
--essentially utopian tone mixed with anger
--retains individualist assumptions despite his appeals for government organization; this expresses the values of his culture, though it limits his ability to conceive more communal solutions
--avoids issues of equality and self-control
--assumes a fixed standard of value and justice, useful in attacking the political economists of his day but distracting from the search for a pluralistic but equal standard
--one of most eloquent Victorians to attack the economic underpinnings of the class system of his time, protected because as a man of inherited wealth he could not have done so from self-interest.
In your view, does Ruskin present effective and consistent solutions? To the extent that he fails to do so, does this negate the value of his treatise?
Do you see reflections of Ruskin’s views in recent political philosophy (e. g. the social justice theories of John Rawls?) In recent progressive legal theory? (e. g., critical legal theory)
In your opinion, which of the ideas of Unto This Last still retain contemporary relevance? Had Ruskin lived in our century, how do you think he might have addressed some of the problems of globalization?
Page numbers are from Collins Publishers edition, 1970.