d Valorem," Essay IV of Ruskin's Unto This Last, satirically explores the meanings of "value, wealth, price, and produce" as they relate to labor and the unfairness of the economic system of Victorian England. Ruskin bashes popularly-accepted economists, defining a valuable thing as "that which leads to life with its whole strength," claiming that "the value of a thing, therefore, is independent of opinion, and of quantity;" and that wealth is "the possession of useful articles, which we can use." According to Ruskin, then, wealth of utility usurps quantity of possessions in determining wealth, and that valuable items must be in the hands of those who can use them, "the valiant." Ruskin's writings radically reflect on the moral qualities of political economy, and highlight the nobility of labor and the poor. The text condemns the "bastard science" that has yet to be strained from the "true science" of political economy, emphasizing the intricate interplay between character and value:

The difficulty of the true science of Political Economy lies not merely in the need of developing manly character to deal with material value, but in the fact, that while the manly character and material value only form wealth by their conjunction, they have nevertheless a mutually destructive operation on each other.

The text goes on to scrutinize the conjunction of "manly character" and "material wealth" in the Victorian period:

It must be our work, in the issue, to examine what evidence there is of the effect of wealth on the minds of its possessors; also, what kind of person it is who usually sets himself to obtain wealth, and succeeds in doing so; and whether the world owes more gratitude to rich or to poor men, either for their moral influence upon it, or for chief goods, discoveries, and practical advancements. I may, however, anticipate future conclusions, so far as to state that in a community regulated only by laws of demand and supply, but protected from open violence, 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.

Questions

1. Unto this Last praises laboring in "obtaining and employing means of life." How does this and the above passages regarding the conjoined nature of character and wealth compare to the following stanza from Browning's "Rabbi Ben Ezra?"

What is he but a brute
Whose flesh has soul to suit,
Whose spirit works lest arms and legs want play?
To man, propose this test —
Thy body at its best,
How far can that project thy soul on its lone way? [entire poem]

2. The social and political ideas put forth in the essays of Unto this Last call for reform in a way that shocked many Victorian readers — the essays "were reprobated in a violent manner . . . by most of the readers they met with," Ruskin commented in the preface to a subsequent book edition. How might Ruskin's attack on capitalism and social inequality have been especially poignant considering the human rights implications of England as a colonial empire? Consider in particular the impact of Unto this Last on British India, as Ghandi was highly influenced by Ruskin's writings, decided to live according to the ideals put forth in the text, and wrote his own interpreted translation of Unto this Last, called Sarvodaya ("the uplift or welfare of all").

3. How do the characteristics attributed to the rich and poor in the above passages make effective arguments connecting character and wealth? Does the text indicate that Ruskin is entirely biased against the rich, or does he successfully criticize and assess a wide variety of people?

4. How do Ruskin's views on morality in political economy compare to his opinions on art, architecture, and taste? Consider this passage from "Traffic:"

Permit me, therefore, to fortify this old dogma of mine somewhat. Taste is not only a part and an index of morality — it is the ONLY morality. The first, and last, and closest trial question to any living creature is, 'What do you like?' Tell me what you like, and I'll tell you what you are. Go out into the street, and ask the first man or woman you meet, what their 'taste' is, and if they answer candidly, you know them, body and soul. 'You, my friend in the rags, with the unsteady gait, what do you like?' 'A pipe and a quartern of gin.' I know you. 'You, good woman, with the quick step and tidy bonnet, what do you like?' 'A swept hearth and a clean tea-table, and my husband opposite me, and a baby at my breast.' Good, I know you also. 'You, little girl with the golden hair and the soft eyes, what do you like?' 'My canary, and a run among the wood hyacinths.' 'You, little boy with the dirty hands and the low forehead, what do you like?' 'A shy at the sparrows, and a game at pitch-farthing.' Good; we know them all now. What more need we ask?

References

Ruskin, John. Unto this Last. New York: J. Wiley and Sons, 1872.

Sarvodaya. 6 April 2009. Wikimedia Foundation. Accessed 11 April 2009 .


Victorian Overview John Ruskin Leading Questions

Last modified 3 April 2009