Lokashakti Library of Nonviolence, Peace, and Social Justice

UNTO THIS LAST

FOUR ESSAYS ON THE FIRST PRINCIPLES OF POLITICAL ECONOMY

John Ruskin

John RuskinFour essays dating back to December 1860, appearing serially in England's Cornhill Magazine.  First published together as 'Unto This Last' in 1862, Ruskin's book has since become a classic of social economics, providing along with Thoreau's 'Walden' a solid foundation for the economic ideas of Mohandas Gandhi, and later E.F. Schumacher.

Table of Contents

Preface
Essay I. The Roots of Honour
Essay II. The Veins of Wealth
Essay III. Qui Judicatis Terram
Essay IV. Ad Valorem


Preface

"Friend, I do thee no wrong. Did'st 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."

"If ye think good, give me my price; and if not, forbear. So they weighed for my price thirty pieces of silver."


THE four following essays were published eighteen months ago in the Cornhill Magazine, and were reprobated in a violent manner, as far as I could hear, by most of the readers they met with.

Not a whit the less, I believe them to be the best, that is to say, the truest, rightest-worded, and most serviceable things I have ever written; and the last of them, having had especial pains spent on it, is probably the best I shall ever write.

"This," the reader may reply, "it be, yet not therefore well written." Which, in no mock humility, admitting, I yet rest satisfied with the work, though with nothing else that I have done; and purposing shortly to follow out the subjects opened in these papers, as I may find leisure, I wish the introductory statements to be within the reach of any one who may care to refer to them. So I republish the essays as they appeared. One word only is changed, correcting the estimate of a weight; and no word is added.

Although, however, I find nothing to modify in these papers, it is a matter of regret to me that the most startling of all the statements in them,—that respecting the necessity of the organization of labour, with fixed wages,—should have found its way into the first essay; it being quite one of the least important, though by no means the least certain, of the positions to be defended. The real gist of these papers, their central meaning and aim, is to give, as I believe for the first time in plain English,—it has often been incidentally given in good Greek by Plato and Xenophon, and good Latin by Cicero and Horace,—a logical definition of WEALTH: such definition being absolutely needed for a basis of economical science. The most reputed essay on that subject which has appeared in modern times, after opening with the statement that "writers on political economy profess to teach, or to investigate,[1] the nature of wealth," thus follows up the declaration of its thesis—"Every one has a notion, sufficiently correct for common purposes, of what is meant by wealth." . . . "It is no part of the design of this treatise to aim at metaphysical nicety of definition."[2]

Metaphysical nicety, we assuredly do not need; but physical nicety, and logical accuracy, with respect to a physical subject, we as assuredly do.

Suppose the subject of inquiry, instead of being House-law (Oikonomia), had been Star-law (Astronomia), and that, ignoring distinction between stars fixed and wandering, as here between wealth radiant and wealth reflective, the writer had begun thus: "Every one has a notion, sufficiently correct for common purposes, of what is meant by stars. Metaphysical nicety in the definition of a star is not the object of this treatise;"—the essay so opened might yet have been far more true in its final statements, and a thousand-fold more serviceable to the navigator, than any treatise on wealth, which founds its conclusions on the popular conception of wealth, can ever become to the economist.

It was, therefore, the first object of these following papers to give an accurate and stable definition of wealth. Their second object was to show that the acquisition of wealth was finally possible only under certain moral conditions of society, of which quite the first was a belief in the existence and then, for practical purposes, in the attainability of honesty.

Without venturing to pronounce—since on such a matter human judgment is by no means conclusive—what is, or is not, the noblest of God's works, we may yet admit so much of Pope's assertion as that an honest man is among His best works presently visible, and, as things stand, a somewhat rare one; but not an incredible or miraculous work; still less an abnormal one. Honesty is not a disturbing force, which deranges the orbits of economy; but a consistent and commanding force, by obedience to which—and by no other obedience—those orbits can continue clear of chaos.

It is true, I have sometimes heard Pope condemned for the lowness, instead of the height, of his standard:

"Honesty is indeed a respectable virtue; but how much higher may men attain! Shall nothing more be asked of us than that we be honest?"

For the present, good friends, nothing. It seems that in our aspirations to be more than that, we have to some extent lost sight of the propriety of being so much as that. What else we may have lost faith in, there shall be here no question; but assuredly we have lost faith in common honesty, and in the working power of it. And this faith, with the facts on which it may rest, it is quite our first business to recover and keep: not only believing, but even by experience assuring ourselves, that there are yet in the world men who can be restrained from fraud otherwise than by the fear of losing employment;[3] nay that it is even accurately in proportion to the number of such men in any State, that the said State does or can prolong its existence.

To these two points, then, the following essays are mainly directed. The subject of the organization of labour is only casually touched upon; because, if we once can get a sufficient quantity of honesty in our captains, the organization of labour is easy, and will develop itself without quarrel or difficulty; but if we cannot get honesty in our captains, the organization of labour is for evermore impossible.

The several conditions of its possibility I purpose to examine at length in the sequel. Yet, lest the reader should be alarmed by the hints thrown out during the following investigation of first principles, as if they were leading him into unexpectedly dangerous ground, I will, for his better assurance, state at once the worst of the political creed at which I wish him to arrive.

1. First,—that there should be training schools for youth established, at Government cost,[4] and under Government discipline, over the whole country; that every child born in the country should, at the parent's wish, be permitted (and, in certain cases, be under penalty required) to pass through them; and that, in these schools, the child should (with other minor pieces of knowledge hereafter to be considered) imperatively be taught, with the best skill of teaching that the country could produce, the following three things:—

(a) the laws of health, and the exercises enjoined by them;
(b) habits of gentleness and justice; and
(c) the calling by which he is to live.

2. Secondly,—that, in connection with these training schools, there should be established, also entirely under Government regulation, manufactories and workshops, for the production and sale of every necessary of life, and for the exercise of every useful art. And that, interfering no whit with private enterprise, nor setting any restraints or tax on private trade, but leaving both to do their best, and beat the Government if they could,—there should, at these Government manufactories and shops, be authoritatively good and exemplary work done, and pure and true substance sold; so that a man could be sure, if he chose to pay the Government price, that he got for his money bread that was bread, ale that was ale, and work that was work.

3. Thirdly,—that any man, or woman, or boy, or girl, out of employment, should be at once received at the nearest Government school, and set to such work as it appeared, on trial, they were fit for, at a fixed rate of wages determinable every year:—that, being found incapable of work through ignorance, they should be taught, or being found incapable of work through sickness, should be tended; but that found objecting to work, they should be set, under compulsion of the strictest nature, to the more painful and degrading forms of necessary toil, especially to that in mines and other places of danger (such danger being, however, diminished to the utmost by careful regulation and discipline) and the due wages of such work be retained—cost of compulsion first abstracted—to be at the workman's command, so soon as he has come to sounder mind respecting the laws of employment.

4. Lastly,—that for the old and destitute, comfort and home should be provided; which provision, when misfortune had been by the working of such a system sifted from guilt, would be honourable instead of disgraceful to the receiver. For (I repeat this passage out of my Political Economy of Art, to which the reader is referred for farther detail) "a labourer serves his country with his spade, just as a man in the middle ranks of life serves it with sword, pen, or lancet. If the service be less, and, therefore the wages during health less, then the reward, when health is broken, may be less, but not, therefore, less honourable; and it ought to be quite as natural and straightforward a matter for a labourer to take his pension from his parish, because he has deserved well of his parish, as for a man in higher rank to take his pension from his country, because he has deserved well of his country."

To which statement, I will only add, for conclusion, respecting the discipline and pay of life and death, that, for both high and low, Livy's last words touching Valerius Publicola, "de publico est elatus,"[5] ought not to be a dishonourable close of epitaph.

These things, then, I believe, and am about, as I find power, to explain and illustrate in their various bearings; following out also what belongs to them of collateral inquiry. Here I state them only in brief, to prevent the reader casting about in alarm for my ultimate meaning; yet requesting him, for the present to remember, that in a science dealing with so subtle elements as those of human nature, it is only possible to answer for the final truth of principles, not for the direct success of plans: and that in the best of these last, what can be immediately accomplished is always questionable, and what can be finally accomplished, inconceivable.

Denmark Hill, 10th May, 1862.


NOTES

1. Which? for where investigation is necessary, teaching is impossible.

2. Principles of Political Economy. By J. S. Mill. Preliminary remarks, p. 2.

3. "The effectual discipline which is exercised over a workman is not that of his corporation, but of his customers. It is the fear of losing their employment which restrains his frauds, and corrects his negligence." (Wealth of Nations, Book I. chap. 10.)

Note to Second Edition — The only addition I will make to the words of this book shall be a very earnest request to any Christian reader to think within himself what an entirely damned state of soul any human creature must have got into, who could read with acceptance such a sentence as this; much more, write it; and to oppose to it, the first commercial words of Venice, discovered by me in her first church: "Around this temple, let the Merchant’s law be just, his weights true, and his contracts guileless." If any of my present readers think that my language in this note is either intemperate, or unbecoming, I will beg them to read with attention the eighteenth paragraph of Sesame and Lilies; and to be assured that I never, myself, now use, in writing, any word which is not, in my deliberate judgement, the fittest for the occasion.

VENICE,
Sunday, 18th March, 1877.

4. It will probably be inquired by near-sighted persons, out of what funds such schools could be supported. The expedient modes of direct provision for them I will examine hereafter; indirectly, they would be far more than self-supporting. The economy in crime alone (quite one of the most costly articles of luxury in the modern European market), which such schools would induce, would suffice to support them ten times over. Their economy of labour would be pure gain, and that too large to be presently calculable.

5. "P. Valerius, omnium consensu princeps belli pacisque artibus, anno post moritur; gloriâ ingenti, copiis, familiaribus adeo exiguis, ut funeri sumtus deesset: de publico est elatus. Luxêre matronae ut Brutum." — Lib. II. c. xvi.


Continue reading 'Unto This Last' - Essay I. The Roots of Honour

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