(8 February 1819 – 20 January 1900)
John Ruskin was the leading English art critic
of the Victorian era.
He was also
an art patron, draughtsman, watercolourist,
a prominent social thinker and
Ruskin wrote on subjects ranging from
geology to architecture,
myth to ornithology,
literature to education, and
botany to political economy.
His writing styles and literary forms were equally
varied. Ruskin penned
poetry and lectures,
travel guides and manuals,
letters and even a fairy tale.
An elaborate style characterized his earliest writing
on art. Later he preferred a plainer language
designed to communicate his ideas more
effectively. In all of his writing, he emphasized the
connections between nature, art and society. He
also made detailed sketches and paintings of rocks,
plants, birds, landscapes, and architectural
structures and ornamentation.
Ruskin first came to widespread attention with the first
volume of Modern Painters (1843), an extended essay in
defence of the work of J. M. W. Turner in which he argued
that the principal role of the artist is "truth to nature". His
work increasingly focused on social and political
issues. Unto This Last (1860, 1862) marked the shift in
emphasis. In 1869, Ruskin became the first Slade Professor
of Fine Art at the University of Oxford, where he established
the Ruskin School of Drawing.
In 1871, he began his monthly "letters to the
workmen and labourers of Great Britain",
published under the title Fors Clavigera (1871–
1884). In the course of this complex and deeply
personal work, he developed the principles
underlying his ideal society. As a result, he
founded the Guild of St George, an organization
that endures today.
Unto This Last
In a chapter in his Autobiography
(Part IV, Chapter XVIII) entitled 'The Magic Spell of a Book'
Gandhiji wrote how he read Ruskin's Unto This Last on the
twenty-four hours' journey from Johannesburg to Durban.
'The train reached there in the evening. I could not get any
sleep that night. I determined to change my life in accordance
with the ideals of the book.... I translated it later into Gujarati,
entitling it Sarvodaya.'
At the end Gandhiji gave us a summary of the teachings of
Unto This Last as he understood it:
1. The good of the individual is contained in the good of all.
2. A lawyer's work has the same value as the barber's, as all
have the same right of earning their livelihood from their
3. A life of labour, i.e. the life of the tiller of the soil and the
handicraftsman is the life worth living.
Swaraj really means self-control.
Only he is capable of self-control who observes the rules
of morality, does not cheat or give up truth, and does his
duty to his parents, wife and children, servants and
Such a man is in enjoyment of Swaraj, no matter where
A State enjoys Swaraj if it can boast of a large number of
such good citizens.
* British rule in India is an evil, but let us not run away with the
idea that all will be well when the British quit India.
*The existence of British rule in the country is due to our disunity,
immorality and ignorance. If these national defects were
overcome, not only would the British leave India without a shot
being fired but we would be enjoying real Swaraj.
Let us pray that India is saved from the fate that has
overtaken Europe, where the nations are poised for an
attack on one another, and are silent only because of the
stockpiling of armaments. Some day there will be an
explosion, and then Europe will be a veritable hell on earth.
Non-white races are looked upon as legitimate prey by
every European State. What else can we expect where
covetousness is the ruling passion in the breasts of men?
India must indeed have Swaraj
but she must have it by righteous methods. Our Swaraj must
be real Swaraj, which cannot be attained by either violence or
industrialization. India is a desert because we are corrupt. It
can become a land of gold again only if the base metal of our
present national character is transmuted into gold. What can
transform this is a little word of two syllables – Satya (Truth). If
every Indian sticks to truth, Swaraj will come to us of its own
Gandhiji wrote _ We thus see that
money is only an instrument which makes for misery as well
as happiness. In the hands of a good man it helps in the
cultivation of land and the harvesting of crops. Cultivators
work in innocent contentment and the nation is happy.
But in the hands of a bad man, money helps to produce say
gunpowder which works havoc among its manufacturers as
well as among its victims.
Therefore THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE.
That country is the richest which nourishes the
greatest number of noble and happy human
that man is richest who, having perfected the
functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the
widest helpful influence, both personal and by
means of his possessions, over the lives of others.
Ruskin made the connection from individual
creativity to the ‘big picture’ of social stability. He
showed that societies may establish apparently
rational systems, which are intended to ‘cure’
inefficiencies, but which as a side effect silence
individual voice and strangle independent creativity,
and so ultimately create a much greater sickness.
John Ruskin and William Morris,
as I want to reiterate their core points and connect
them with today’s issues. Then everything else is boiled
down into a set of five key principles, namely:
1. A new understanding of creativity as process, emotion,
2. The drive to make and share
3. Happiness through creativity and community
4. A middle layer of creativity as social glue
5. Making your mark, and making the world your own
THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE.
Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and
of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes
the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that
man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his
own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence,
both personal and by means of his possessions, over the
lives of others (Ruskin, pp.125-26).
The desire of the heart is also the light of the eyes. No scene
is continually untiringly loved, but one rich by joyful human
labour; smooth in field, fair in garden; trim, sweet, and
frequent in homestead; ringing with voices of vivid existence.
. . . As the art of life is learned, it be found at last that all
lovely things are also necessary—the wild flower by the
wayside, as well as the tended corn; and the wild birds and
creatures of the forest, as well as the tended cattle; because
man doth not live by bread only, but also by the desert
manna; by every word and work of God (Ruskin, p. 134).
Consider whether luxury would be desired by any of us, if
we saw clearly at our sides suffering which accompanies it.
Luxury is indeed possible in the future—innocent and
exquisite; luxury for all, and by the help of all; but luxury at
present can only be enjoyed by the ignorant; the cruelest
man living could not sit at his feast, unless he sat blindfold.
Raise the veil boldly; face the light; and if, as yet, the light of
the eye can only be through tears, and the light of the body
through sackcloth, go thou forth weeping, bearing precious
seed, until the time come, and the kingdom, when Christ’s
gift of bread and bequest of peace shall be Unto this last as
unto thee. . . (Ruskin, p. 138).
In insisting that there is no wealth but life, and that the
only economics worth its name is the one that extends
the blessings of wealth to all, even the least and the
last, Ruskin poses the same challenge to us today that
he posed to the Manchester School 150 years ago. And
by insisting that the good of the individual is contained
in the good of all—indeed, is bound up with the fate of
the poorest, the most despised, the most oppressed—
Gandhi brings us an even greater challenge.