Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers - Ruskin, John (1819–1900)
The Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century British Philosophers


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Ruskin, John (1819–1900)

Ruskin, John (1819–1900)
DOI: 10.5040/9781350052475-0473

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John Ruskin was born the son of John James Ruskin, a prosperous wine merchant, at 54 Hunter Street in Brunswick Square, London on 8 February 1819 and died in his sleep at Brantwood, his house near Coniston Water in Cumberland on 20 January 1900. He went up to Christ Church, Oxford in 1837 and graduated in 1842. In 1843 he began Modern Painters, a series of volumes which were to establish him as a champion of the work of J.M.W. Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites and as the foremost fine art critic in mid Victorian Britain. Between 1846 and 1856 his interest in medieval history, the history of the Christian Church and Turner’s work led him on to the study of architecture and to write a series of architectural studies – The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and the three-volume The Stones of Venice (1851–3) – which in their celebration of the Gothic style, were to play a crucial role in its mid century revival. In recognition of these achievements he was elected to the Slade Chair of Fine Art in the University of Oxford in 1869.

It was to be in the 1860s and 1870s that Ruskin began to focus directly on contemporary social and economic issues, and to formulate a distinctive political economy in opposition to that purveyed by J.S. Mill and the classical school. But, in truth, his work on art and architecture had earlier led him to a consideration of the social and moral basis of artistic expression and achievement; something particularly apparent in the second volume of The Stones of Venice, where Ruskin discusses the ethical and social foundation of Gothic architecture; an architecture that, as Ruskin saw it, reflected a society characterized by hierarchy, order and social harmony, and infused with the principles of a Christian ethics. It was also a society that, in furnishing the opportunity for even the humblest of workmen to give expression to their creativity and inventiveness, had produced the architectural and artistic triumphs of the medieval period.

In contrast, the contemporary Victorian social order, while putatively Christian, celebrated a socially atomizing acquisitiveness and self-interested pursuit of gain. It had, in consequence, reduced work to the mechanical, the repetitive and the joyless, destroying the possibility of that free, innovative, thoughtful and spiritually inspired labour that alone could produce or contribute to the making of great works of art and architecture. And it was the desire to understand and elucidate the contemporary roots of the debased and demoralized nature of much of what passed for art in Victorian Britain that led Ruskin to consider its economic and social order. In so doing he became one of the last and greatest critics of classical political economy – its materialism, its methodological individualism, its circumscribed notions of human motivation, its scientism, its amorality, its distorted notions of what constituted wealth and wealth creation – and laid the basis for a social economics or moral political economy that was to inspire a later generation of economic and social thinkers.

Though his Political Economy of Art, based on a series of lectures given at Manchester in 1857, was to give a foretaste of things to come, Ruskin’s first trumpeted foray onto the terrain of political economy occurred in essays written for the Cornhill Magazine (1860), which together with a later Preface were published as Unto this Last in 1862. The critical response provoked by these was, in large measure, indignant and abrasive. Ruskin was accused of ignorance of the principles of political economy. He had failed to understand either its language, its methodology or its purport. At best he was sentimentally naive, at worst ‘his wild words [would] touch the springs of action in some hearts, and ere we are aware a moral floodgate may fly open and drown us all’ (Introduction to Works, vol. 17, p. xxxi). Yet while temporarily discomfited, not least by the poor sales of the book, Ruskin refused to be deflected from his task. And having embarked on the destruction of the prevailing economic orthodoxy, he then sought in a series of essays for Fraser’s Magazine (1862–3) to develop ‘the first accurate analysis of the laws of Political Economy which has been published in England’ (Munera pulveris, Works, vol. 17, p. 131). These essays were subsequently published as Munera pulveris (1872) and dedicated to Thomas Carlyle, whose Past and Present, (1843) and Latter-day pamphlets (1850) were undoubtedly a major influence on Ruskin’s social and economic thinking. Further works iterating the principles and practice of a ‘true’ system of political economy were to follow – The Crown of Wild Olive (1866), Sesame and Lilies (1865), Time and tide by Weare and Tyne (1867) and, most notably, the multi-volume Fors clavigera, Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain (1871–84).

In Unto this Last the fundamental basis of Ruskin’s critique of classical political economy was the concept of value it purveyed. Classical economists might dispute between themselves as to what determined the value of commodities but on this they were agreed: for their purposes value was something that should be determined by market forces and, conceptually, should be part of a scientific discourse. For Ruskin, however, the notion of value had dimensions which could neither be encompassed nor expressed in purely economic terms and it was, in essence, a normative concept. ‘Value derived from the latin valor’, which in turn came ‘from valere, to be well or strong … strong in life (if a man), or valiant; strong, for life (if a thing), or valuable. To be “valuable”, therefore, is “to avail towards life”. A truly valuable or availing thing is that which leads to life with its whole strength’ (Unto this Last, Works, vol. 17, p. 84).

Whether it did so depended on a number of factors. To begin with it depended on the nature of the thing itself. Thus ‘a sheaf of wheat of given quality and weight has in it a measurable power of sustaining the substance of the body’ (Munera pulveris, Works, vol. 17, p. 153). However, whether this ‘intrinsic value’ was transmuted into ‘effectual value’ depended on ‘acceptant capacity’; namely the capacity of those into whose possession it came to use it properly (ibid.). So because such value depended ‘on a degree of vital power in the possessor’, wealth should be distributed in a discriminate fashion’. ‘Distribution is distribution not absolute but discriminate; not of every thing to every man but of the right thing to the right man’ (Unto this Last, Works, vol. 17, pp. 88–9). Finally, whether goods availed towards life also depended upon the conditions of production which their manufacture imposed upon the workforce.

In failing to encompass these aspects of the ‘valor’ of commodities their market valuation misrepresented their worth. It also made for the dehumanization, demoralization and intellectual atrophy of those who produced and consumed them. Market price took no account of the intrinsic value of what was produced. ‘What anything is worth or not worth it cannot tell you; all that it can tell is the exchange value. What Judas in the present state of supply and demand can get for what he has to sell’ (Fors clavigera, vol. 1, letter 12, p. 23). It took no account either of the real costs which production imposed on the workforce – what Ruskin referred to as ‘the manner of life which our demands necessitate’ (The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Works, vol. 8, p. 264). Thus the contemporary market economy prioritized cheapness, and this frequently made for the degradation of labour; specifically through the pursuit of the productivity gains consequent upon its subdivision into the mechanical and repetitive. It might be, Ruskin accepted, ‘a good and desirable thing truly, to make many pins in a day’ but if society would only recognize

with what crystal sand their points were polished – sand of human soul – we should think there might be some loss in it also … we blanch cotton, and strengthen steel, and refine sugar and shape pottery; but to brighten, to strengthen, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantages.

 --(The Stones of Venice, Works, vol. 10, p. 196)

For Ruskin this failure of the market price of commodities to reflect their ‘valor’ was indicative of the excision of ethics from economics that distinguished the commercial civilization of mid Victorian Britain – a civilization driven by a possessive individualism to violate the principles of distributive and commutative justice; a civilization that valued the cheap and the nasty because therein lay the possibility of profit; a civilization imbued with an essentially instrumental, profit-oriented attitude to humankind that invariably corrupted social relationships; a civilization that destroyed the possibility of human creativity and, in so doing, engendered a debased art and a degenerate architecture. In short, it was a civilization that had no sense of, and no concern for, that which availed towards life. What Ruskin looked to, therefore, was a remoralization, or more accurately a Christianization, of economic life, when the value of a good would no longer be separated from the moral sign attached to it. Something that was to be effected through the state, the enlightened paternalism of the moral employer, the activity of the chivalrous merchant and the producers’ guild.

As to the state ‘there should be [publicly owned] manufactories and shops for the production and sale of every necessary of life; and for the exercise of every useful art’. These enterprises would produce ‘authoritatively good and exemplary work’ and sell ‘pure and true substance’, ‘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’ (Unto this Last, Works, vol. 17, p. 22). The objective was not to supplant private enterprise but to ensure that it conformed to the standards of justice and quality which the state established.

The ‘good master’ too would play a vital part in the remoralization of economic life and thence in the creation of social harmony. In the context of competitive commercialism, where workmen were employed ‘at a rate of wages variable according to the demand for labour, and with a risk of being at any time thrown out of this situation by chances of trade … no action of the affections [could] take place but only an explosive action of disaffections’ (Unto this Last, Works, vol. 17, p. 33). Ruskin rejected the ‘bestial idiotism of the modern [economic] theory that wages are to be measured by competition’ (Munera pulveris, Works, vol. 17, p. 263n). Rather, he believed that the good master should ensure that just wages were fixed and paid ‘irrespective of the demand for labour’ (Unto this Last, Works, vol. 17, p. 33). This would transform the relationship between master and man from one mediated by the cash nexus to one characterized by ‘love and wisdom’, thereby transforming the nature of labour itself.

In addition it would be the good master’s responsibility not just to employ labour but to employ it on the production of useful things. Considerations of commercial gain would give way to considerations of social utility. The master’s primary concern would be the satisfaction of society’s needs, not the pursuit of material advantage. Further, of the ‘several [useful] things he [the labourer] can equally well produce, you must set him to make that which will cause him to lead the healthiest life’ (Munera pulveris, Works, vol. 17, p. 275). So the good master should keep constantly in mind what human labour entailed, the material, social and psychological costs it involved, as well as the utilities it furnished.

In the business of remoralizing economic activity, a prominent role would also be played by the chivalrous merchant. Ruskin sought the metamorphosis of the merchant class from one whose energies were bestowed on an unremitting, individualistic and destructive pursuit of gain, that lived by the maxim of buying cheap and selling dear, to one whose conduct was directed by ethical imperatives. He looked to the emergence of ‘a kind of commerce that is not exclusively selfish’, a ‘true commerce’ were the merchant would consider it ‘no more his function to get profit for himself … than it is a clergyman’s function to get his stipend’ (Unto this Last, Works, vol. 17, p. 40). The ‘chivalrous merchant’ would see his duty as that of providing what the community required, even if it was necessary to accept pecuniary loss in consequence. ‘Rather than fail in any engagement or consent to any deterioration, adulteration, or unjust or exorbitant price of that which he provides’, he would meet fearlessly any form of distress, poverty and labour, which through maintenance of these points come upon him’ (ibid., p. 41). He would be driven, in effect, by considerations of service rather than personal advantage.

Finally, there was the role to be played by producers’ guilds. In Time and Tide Ruskin gave them responsibility for fixing ‘annually’, ‘the prices of the goods throughout the kingdom’ that they had warranted as being of a certain quality (Time and Tide, Works, vol. 17, p. 386). Guilds would ensure justice for producer and consumer, thereby eliminating the ‘occult and polite’ methods of ‘theft’ which characterized contemporary commercial society (ibid., p. 383). Similarly Ruskin proposed that they should establish a just level of wages for the area of productive activity that they governed. This they would do ‘so as to define the master’s profits within limits, admitting only such variations as the nature of the given article of sale rendered inevitable’ (ibid., p. 386). Just as they mediated the relationship between producer and consumer by reference to Christian principles of equity and fairness, so they would mediate that between master and man on the same basis.

Ruskin’s ideas of stewardship and an enlightened and morally demanding paternalism were inspired by and infused with his notions of a socially and ethically embedded economy. Here the influence of Carlyle was important. But it is clear too that Ruskin owed much to his classical education and, in particular, to texts such as Plato’s Laws and Xenophon’s Oeconomicus. Thus there exist strong conceptual and textual links between Ruskin’s views on the social embeddedness of economic activity and ideas to be found in Greek economic and social thinking.

His vision was of a benevolently paternalistic, hierarchic and Christian society. His antidote to a demoralized, dehumanized and alienated population was a society of stable and moral social relations where power was distributed and possessions were bestowed on those fittest to use them or, in Ruskin’s terminology, those possessed of an acceptant capacity. He was no democrat. He had no quarrel with the authoritative use of power as long as power resided with those whose personal attributes and moral qualities allowed them to use it for the social good. In that respect he was right to categorize himself both as ‘a violent Tory of the old school (Walter Scott’s that is to say, and Homer’s)’ and as a ‘communist of the old school – the reddest also of the red’ (Fors clavigera, vol. 1, letter 7, p. 2).

His ideal society was also to be essentially agrarian in character. He proposed, for example, the creation of a fund ‘to increase the buying and securing of land in England … cultivated by Englishmen with their own hands and such help of force as they can find in wind and wave’ (Fors clavigera, vol. 1, letter 5, p. 21), something that was to eventuate in the Guild of St George, which was established to show ‘how much food-producing land might be recovered by well-applied labour from the barren or neglected districts of nominally cultivated countries’ (A General Statement, Works, vol. 30, p. 45). His vision was of a revitalized, paternalistically benevolent and remoralized rural England, ‘beautiful, peaceful and fruitful. We shall have no steam-engines upon it, and no railroads; we will have no unintended or unthought-of creatures on it; none wretched but the sick; none idle but the dead’ (ibid.).

Ruskin’s contributions to political economy were offered at a time when a self-confident ideology of market capitalism had acquired a hegemonic status. He wrote when British capitalism was delivering substantial and rapid economic progress and a competitive dominance of global markets that was to remain unchallenged until the end of the century. But Ruskin refused to accept the measures of economic success purveyed by contemporary economic orthodoxy. For Ruskin, success lay not in maximizing the rate of economic growth or amassing material possessions or even raising real wages. It was about ‘the producing of as many as possible, full-breathed, bright-eyed and happy-hearted human creatures’ (Unto this Last, Works, vol. 17, p. 56). And by reference to that benchmark British capitalism was manifestly wanting. In articulating such notions, in highlighting the manner in which Victorian Britain had failed, Ruskin’s work therefore served to remind contemporaries of the great moral, social and aesthetic price that had been paid for what passed for economic progress.

Ruskin, in the 1860s and 1870s, was swimming decidedly against the ideological currents of mainstream economics. But in doing so he kept alive elements of a critique of commercial and industrial capitalism that were to be seized on and developed by later writers. J.A. Hobson was to take from Ruskin his critique of the narrow methodological foundations upon which contemporary economic theory rested, and, like Ruskin, he invested political economy with a normative substance, a substance integral to an influential political economy of liberal socialism which he, and others, articulated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Inspired by Ruskin, William Morris was also to trace the aesthetic degeneracy and philistinism of contemporary society to its moral and material impoverishment, fusing a Ruskinian and Marxian critique of late Victorian capitalism to provide the basis for the anarcho-communism articulated in News from Nowhere and other writings of the 1880s and 1890s. Further, through Ruskin and Morris, the idea of guilds as guarantors of justice, utility, quality and aesthetic ideals was to find expression in the work of turn of the century guild socialist writers such as A.R. Orage and A.J. Penty. Thus, for many guild socialists, as for Ruskin, the true source of labour’s material and spiritual impoverishment lay in society’s adherence to the principles of an acquisitive and individualistic commercialism. R.H. Tawney’s ethical socialism was also profoundly indebted to a Ruskinian-Morrisian political economy and, in terms of Ruskin’s more general influence, it is interesting to note that when, in 1906, the Review of Reviews surveyed the literature that had inspired the political ideals of twenty-nine newly elected MPs, the work most often cited along with the Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress and News from Nowhere was Ruskin’s Unto this Last.


The Works of John Ruskin , ed. E.T. Cook and A. Wedderburn 39 vols (1903–12).

Modern Painters , 5 vols (1843–57).

The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849).

The Stones of Venice , 3 vols (1851–3).

The Political Economy of Art (1857).

Unto this Last, Four Essays on the Principles of Political Economy (1862).

The Crown of Wild Olive (1866).

Sesame and Lilies (1865).

Time and Tide by Weare and Tyne (1867).

Fors clavigera, Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain , 8 vols (Orpington, 1871–84).

Munera pulveris (1872).

A General Statement explaining the Nature and Purposes of St. George’s Guild (1882).

Other Relevant Works

Carlyle, Thomas, Past and Present (1843).

Carlyle, Thomas, Latter-day Pamphlets (1850).

Morris, William, News from Nowhere, an Epoch at Rest (1890).

Cate George (ed.), The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin , (Stanford, 1982).

Further Reading

Anthony, Peter, John Ruskin’s Labour: A Study of Ruskin’s Social Theory (Cambridge, 1983).

Batchelor, John, John Ruskin: No Wealth but Life (2000).

Fain, John, Ruskin and the Economists (Nashville, 1956).

Henderson, William, Ruskin’s Political Economy (1999).

Hilton, Tim, John Ruskin: The Early Years, 1819–1859 (1985).

Hilton, Tim, John Ruskin: The Later Years (2000).

Hobson, John, John Ruskin, Social Reformer (1898).

Landow, George, The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin (Princeton, 1971).

Sherburne, James, John Ruskin or The ambiguities of Abundance: A Study in Social and Economic Criticism (Cambridge, Mass, 1972).