James Clark Sherburne. John Ruskin, or the Ambiguities of Abundance: A Study in Social and Economic Criticism Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 1972. [This review first appeared in the December 1973 Victorian Studies, 228-30.]

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t a time when so much of Ruskin’s thought is overlooked or misread because scholars prefer to concern themselves with the compelling problems of his biography, Sherburne demonstrates how very brilliant, how very relevant is his economic and social criticism. Such a work is particularly welcome, because while students of nineteenth-century literature, painting, and aesthetics increasingly perceive Ruskin’s central importance, neither economic historians nor students of Ruskin have done much more than suggest vaguely why the second part of his career demands our attention. After three chapters in which he relates Ruskin’s aesthetic and critical writings to his later work, Sherburne advances his central thesis — that all of Ruskin’s economic and social writings arise in a very modern vision of abundance which requires major adjustments in the methodology, scope, and purpose of economic theory. Following chapters carefully explain Ruskin’s attacks on the methodology of the Classical School, his own applications of a “vital” economic theory, and his notions of exploitation, war, and imperialism. A final chapter relates Ruskin’s vision of a new man.

One of the chief virtues of Sherburne’s study for the reader not widely read in the history and philosophy of economics appears in his careful division of his topic into manageable sections, each of which clearly and incisively examines a particular problem. His basic method is first to set forth Ruskin’s views about a major economic issue, such as the wages-fund theory or the definition of cost, after which he points out to what extent Ruskin accurately criticized his opponents of the Classical School — chiefly Ricardo, Malthus, and Mill. He then proceeds to set Ruskin’s theories within the context of both earlier and later writings. Although the main purpose of thus ranging widely through the works of the ancient Greeks, Mercantilists, Physiocrats, Owenites, Romantics, and Socialists is to determine Ruskin’s precise contributions, Sherburne also indicates apparent or possible sources. Some readers may object that such a careful, necessarily repetitious procedure is mechanical, but it is precisely such a method which makes Sherburne’s study so valuable. Fain and Hobson anticipate many of his points — as does Joseph Danel, who opposes Ruskin’s optimism to the Classical School’s emphasis on scarcity — but Sherburne has produced a far clearer, far more authoritative picture of Ruskin the social theorist than we have had before. Furthermore, his contention that Ruskin possessed a vision of abundance unites Sherburne’s detailed observations into a convincingly unified interpretation of the economic and social criticism. Unlike Malthus, Mill, and others of the Classical School, who always assumed the existence of scarcity, Ruskin predicates abundance, perceiving that this condition makes irrelevant both the methods and theories of his adversaries. Thus, abandoning the Malthusian emphases of received economic theorising in his day, he brilliantly developed many of those points for which Keynes and other twentieth-century thinkers are credited. Sherburne demonstrates both that Ruskin’s apparently amateur remarks reach directly to the heart of the issues he discusses and that he anticipated — and in some cases influenced — the professionals who came after him. Perhaps most important, his interpretation reveals a center to Ruskin’s widely ranging considerations of society and the way it shapes the life of men within it.

Unfortunately, although he thus succeeds admirably with his major enterprise, he does not do quite so well when he touches upon Ruskin’s criticism. He has apparently not read any secondary materials on Ruskin published within the last six or eight years, and that may provide one reason he goes astray at important points. For example, he badly distorts Ruskin’s theories of the beautiful trying to make them fit a romantic mold. In the process he fails to perceive that Ruskin’s aesthetics are a mixture of neoclassical theories of beauty as a visual quality residing in the object and romantic theories of beauty as feeling. By simplifying Ruskin’s aesthetics, Sherburne also does not realize that in his early works Ruskin emphasizes the neoclassical beauty of order — something for which there is no room in Sherburne’s schema. There are other difficulties as well with the first three chapters: despite the fact that Ruskin denies most emphatically that the mind can be "creative,” Sherburne asserts that he believed it can; and, more important, since he doesn’t seem aware of the religious bases of Ruskin’s theories of imagination and allegory as prophecy, he distorts Ruskin’s notions of the imagination. The main problem, however, with such erroneous interpretations of the aesthetic writings is that they lead Sherburne to a not very useful characterization of what he terms Ruskin’s antigenetic, static “organicism of surface.” Apparently, he is here making a more rigid application of Hobson’s statements about Ruskin’s static yet organic views — something with which, in general terms, it is hard to disagree. But, in the first place, Sherburne much overstates Ruskin’s supposedly “antigenetic bias,” failing to notice that both in Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice he had concerned himself with the growth and development of living things, societies, and the arts. More serious, perhaps, is that Sherburne so loosely and unconvincingly refers to various “organicisms” that he does not materially advance his argument. A rather disturbing philosophical naiveté seems to be the cause of some of these problems. Thus, he frequently assumes that to concentrate upon the growth of an organism — as opposed to its reproduction, physiology, or metabolic structures — is in some way “deeper,” more philosophically profound.

In sum, Sherburne frequently sounds as if he accepts, and believes that all readers accept, romantic emphases upon growth as somehow more valid and more profound than any other position one might adopt. It is therefore perhaps worthwhile remarking that contemporary biology looks at its problems in terms of the second law of thermodynamics, dividing its study into two areas: 1. metabolism, or the maintenance of an unusually high level of organization, and 2. heredity, or the transmission of a pattern of organization through time. What is most striking to one considering “organicism” is that the contemporary study of hierarchies of life-processes seems to match Ruskin’s discussions of art, man, and society in far more detail than do emphases upon growth. In addition to producing unsupported judgments about the quality of Ruskin’s thought, such an apparently unexamined conception of organicism leads Sherburne to miss important recognitions. Thus, he frequently mentions the attention Ruskin devotes to capturing the surface of nature, but because he assumes that such an emphasis is necessarily the attenuated portion of something greater he does not perceive that Ruskin importantly anticipated the work of the phenomenologists and the phenomenological critics.

Nonetheless, while such difficulties do mar the chapters on Ruskin’s criticism, they fortunately do not much affect the main portion of the book. Reading the preface, I had thought that the emphasis upon organicism of surface would appear as a major theme throughout the discussion of the economic writings. Fortunately, it does not, and Sherburne’s ability to present complex issues clearly and concisely, his valuable theory of Ruskin as a proponent of the economics of abundance, and his demonstration of the unity of Ruskin’s economic and social criticism have produced a most valuable book.

Last modified 6 May 2019