Among the many strange things that have befallen Venice, she has had the good fortune to become the object of passion to a man of splendid genius, who has made her his own and in doing so has made her the world’s.
John Ruskin’s best-known work remains The Stones of Venice, his treatise on the architecture of Venice that charts the collision of styles and (in his view) the moral decay of that organic city of wood and stone, mud and water. However, it would be wrong to suppose that Ruskin was solely an architectural observer and critic. He was much more than that, so much more in fact that he baffles classification.
Ruskin talked much that is questionable and certainly some nonsense in his time (“All his views he expressed with a magical conviction, and this was fortunate for not infrequently he changed them,” writes Jan Morris), but he was invigorating, energetic, and penetrating, and the way he saw the world, being unconventional, still offers us a fresh lens today.
What does Ruskin have to do with work? His was, or could have been, a leisured life. Here he is writing a letter on February 25, 1873 in his house on Coniston Water in the English Lake District.
It is a bitter black frost, the ground deep in snow, and more falling. I am writing comfortable in a perfectly warm room; some of my servants were up in the cold at half-past-five to get it ready for me; others a few days ago, were digging my coals near Durham, at the risk of their lives; an old woman brought me my watercresses through the snow for breakfast yesterday; another old woman is going two miles through it today to fetch me my letters at ten o’clock. Half a dozen men are building a wall for me to keep the sheep out of my garden, and a railroad stoker is holding his own against the north wind, to fetch me some Brobdingnag raspberry plants to put in it. Somebody in the east end of London is making boots for me, for I can’t wear those I have much longer; a washerwoman is in suds, somewhere, to get me a clean shirt for tomorrow; a fisherman is in dangerous weather somewhere, catching me some fish for Lent; and my cook will soon be making me pancakes, for it is Shrove Tuesday. Having written this sentence, I go to the fire, warm my fingers, saunter a little, listlessly, about the room, and grumble because I can’t see to the other side of the lake.
It is clear that Ruskin was acutely aware of the work that went on to create the world he lived in and enjoyed. Furthermore, he was acutely interested in the reality, principles, and meaning of work and in the needs and development of the people who performed it. His journey into the philosophy of work started with his intense interest in painting. From there he progressed to analysis of architecture and from there to a linkage (real, or as many now think, completely in error) between creative art and the moral quality of a society.
Having drawn this link with the publication of The Stones in 1853, Ruskin went on to develop a deep concern for education and the place of the craftsman in economic life whose creativity was being driven out by the industrial society and the rise of the machine. Artisanship was being replaced with labour. Work was tedious, hard, and often dangerous.
At the time, Ruskin’s views about the necessary freedom of the worker were subversive of the principles that had brought wealth to the upper-middle classes. His agenda appeared to argue for a guild-socialist return to the middle ages, running completely counter to the surging energies of the British industrial empire that were almost entirely directed at money and trade.
It would be presumptuous to claim that we can set out “the Ruskinian philosophy” about these matters, for, as we have already noted, he is too broad, too diverse, and too disorderly to be captured in this way. So instead we shall pick a single thread of thought from The Stones of Venice and use it as a springboard for reflection on the human economy of work.
In broad terms, the economy of individuals and the combined purposes of their work are made up of what they create, what they consume, and what they conserve as wealth. Money is of course one of the great languages of these three constructs (insight, knowledge, and skill being others): a language that enables one to be translated into another. But to the individual, money is (or should be—which is another essay in itself) really no more than that—just a language of translation. Economic life, and economic identity, is made up of the actions and products of creation, the choices and effects of consumption, and the mechanisms and consequences of conservation.
In this essay, I will look briefly at these three areas of economic life to see whether Ruskin’s visions still speak to us.
The central chapter of The Stones is titled “The Nature of Gothic.” In her introduction to an edition of the book published in 1981, Jan Morris writes:
In the centre of it all Ruskin embedded an essay which was different in kind from all the others. “The Nature of Gothic” was to be the most generally admired part of the whole book. It was Ruskin’s cri-de-coeur about the meaning of the style, and with it the lost society, that he so much revered. It forms the crux of the work, for it leads the inquiry into socio-political ideas of radical originality.
William Morris called it “one of the very few necessary and inevitable utterances of the century.”
What did it say that brought these responses? “No good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a misunderstanding of the ends of art. . . . Accept this then for a universal law, that neither architecture nor any other noble work of man can be good unless it be imperfect.”
Ruskin develops his idea by observing that the gothic school of architecture allowed the craftsman to contribute his full but necessarily imperfect abilities to the work whereas previous great movements (for example, the Greek style) had restricted most of the workers to subservient roles of copying simple forms so that “they could not get it wrong.”
He attributes the gothic shift to the Christian spirit that “recognizes the value of every soul.” This may be an arguable derivative since many forms and branches of expressed Christianity have demanded much conformism and have denied much creativity. The point remains.
Ruskin is saying that meaningful work requires creativity, and creativity requires imperfection. This might seem to be a formula for the crafts movement that flowered in the late Victorian era. But in his case, it is much more. It is clear from Ruskin’s life that he was deeply convinced that human beings needed to work to be whole, and it was necessary for their work to allow them to bring forth some self-expression or it would be both destructive of the value of the product and destructive of the individual.
Many current books encourage us to look for work that will enable us to connect to who we are and which will become a vehicle for learning and self-expression. In this regard, Ruskin is able to speak directly to our day. His vision that a working life without creative expression is a denial of the human spirit has found substantial currency with individuals at least. (Along with this sympathy, however, has come an implicit narrowing of the definition of work. For example, raising children, surely creative work of the highest order, is frequently not seen as work at all, much to the loss of our spirits and our societies.)
Many people could say the modern corporations they work for are obsessed with conformance to processes and rules and that freedom of thought and action is limited. The tyranny of physical labour has been replaced with a constriction of mind and an incessant busyness; we are not so much slaves to a master artisan but slaves to processes and procedures. Equally, these processes and procedures are specifically designed to drive out imperfection.
Ruskin also had views on labour relations. “The greatest material result obtainable by [master and servant] will be, not through antagonism to each other, but through affection to each other. . . . In any case, and with any person, this unselfish treatment will produce the most effective return.”
He commences his case for cooperative relationships at work by considering the soul: “But . . . [the servant is] an engine whose motive power is a Soul, the force of this very peculiar agent, as an unknown quantity, enters into all of the political economist’s equations, without his knowledge, and falsifies every one of their results.”
In his book The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, poet David Whyte explores the fault lines that open in us if we suppress the soul through the intensity of our rational existence:
For only a moment we turn our face away from our real desire in life because through our neglect it has assumed the image of a corpse. Before we can look back again, we find ourselves in strange cities serving others faithfully but neglecting the things most precious to our own way forward. Around fifty years old we twitch the curtains of the airport-hotel window and recognize no landscape we would willingly choose to inhabit.
What seems to alienate Ruskin from our contemporary minds is therefore not so much his conclusions but more his train of logic: the derivations of his ideas and the assumptions that underpin them.
When Ruskin was writing, the gap between rich and poor was very large indeed, a fact that he felt compelled to lecture his audiences about even when the subject they thought they had come to learn about was architecture or painting. However, beyond encouraging the wealthy mill owners to give up their spacious houses and live among their workers, Ruskin had little to say about the wider issues and impacts of economic consumption. In this area at least, then, he was not a seer. He saw the identification and growth of the person in the act of work but did not anticipate our modern preoccupation with consumption.
But consumption is the dominant visible factor of economic life in the developed world today. We would rather consume, it seems, than do anything that is difficult, long-term, or selfless. Collectively and as individuals, we are drawn to define ourselves by what we consume, and the images, products, and experiences of consumption slip inexorably into our identity, expanding and constricting its form. Taken to its limit, the ultimate consumerist ethic would be that we are what we consume.
How close to this cynical and exaggerated view have we come? And (as Ruskin most certainly would have asked) is this relationship healthy for the soul?
Consumption has certainly extended well beyond possessions and necessities into experiences (vacations, entertainment) and also (more than we would like to admit?) into the avoidance of experiences (insurances, security alarms). Consumption is where we exercise most of our choices in daily life, and although choice is often assumed to be a universal good, there are many problems with it, notably that it can blunt the spear point of our endeavours and erode our commitment to community.
Having created and consumed, economic man also keeps in view a certain measure and sense of accumulation or conservation—a sense of wealth. What we conserve, whether recognized as such or not, appears to be our un-made choices. When we conserve, we set aside something that we may decide to use at a later time.
In an essay published in 1968 by The American Institute of Planners, Buckminster Fuller addressed this question for humanity as a whole. “I now speculate that I think that what we all really mean by wealth is as follows: ‘Wealth is our organized capability to cope effectively with the environment in sustaining our healthy regeneration and decreasing both the physical and metaphysical restrictions on the forward days of our lives’.”
This is a most significant concept with many implications, but it seems to resonate with the implications of Ruskin’s thought: wealth is not money, but more than money. Wealth is not just physical assets, but metaphysical assets.
Under this definition, the power to purchase in the future is wealth but so also is the power to be content with what we have. The definition also establishes that ownership of possessions can actually destroy wealth because being tied to them can constrain our futures.
The greatest wealth in our societies is always held in the various forms of collective (public or private) ownership. For example, modern medical science means that the likelihood of our futures being seriously affected by certain diseases is greatly reduced from earlier times. Or, to take another case, while richer people can afford to travel comfortably and frequently, the basic methods of transportation—airplanes, airports, roads—were all developed by many people over long periods of time.
Indeed, much of our wealth as human societies cannot be owned at all—it lies in the spheres of knowledge and insights that are open to everyone to access and use. Each one of us is therefore made wealthy through the work of others and through the experiences of history. In fact, our wealth in these terms grows relentlessly through the accumulated work of humanity and through both failure and success.
In Ruskin’s day, the typical worker had little individual wealth. The future was unpredictable, and social security was negligible. While Ruskin stands in his study anticipating his raspberry canes and smelling his pancakes, the ability of the workers he sees in his mind to have any control over their futures is small. Ruskin felt much concern for this. He organized sketching classes for workers, believing passionately that knowledge and the development of skills were within the grasp of every person and were themselves of great worth.
Did his efforts add to the wealth of the people whose lives he touched? Undoubtedly, he would have defended this vigorously. For when we see the world with new eyes, when we are happy because now we can draw when before we could not, we are indeed, if only briefly, set free from tedium.
From his passion for the soul to his lectures on social conditions, it seems that Ruskin recognized that wealth is not money. He knew that contentment is a form of wealth; he knew that knowledge and skills are forms of wealth. He understood the inner cry for opportunity, fair treatment, respect, and dignity. He wanted these things for working people, and he wanted leaders to hold a healthy sense of apprehension about the social and moral threats that were consequent if such ideals were not established as social goals.
The movement for working people’s education owes much to Ruskin, and it is in recognition of this that a working-men’s college was founded at Oxford University in 1899. Indeed, Tony Blair’s Labour Party in Britain has its roots very firmly embedded in Ruskin’s beliefs about the nobility of labour and the intrinsic value of education for working people.
Although Ruskin’s Victorian moralizing can be irritating, the problems he saw still exist. We still want to contribute something of ourselves to our work; we still want to identify with what we can create rather than with what we can consume; we still have the inner conviction that there is more to the rich life than riches themselves; we still have yet to demonstrate that our power to choose is altogether good for our souls.
- Henry James, Henry James on Italy: Selections from Italian Hours (Grove Press, 1992).
- Jan Morris, Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress, Volume 1 of Pax Britannica (Harvest Books, 2002).
- Jan Morris, Introduction to Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice (Bellew & Higton Publishers, 1981).
- Buckminster Fuller, “An Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth,” in Environment and Change: The Next Fifty Years (Indiana University Press, 1968).
- David Whyte, The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America (Currency Doubleday, 1994).