Unto This Last and Other Writings

Ruskin, John.  Unto This Last and Other Writings

It’s a collection of his thoughts on architecture, social morality, and economics (which, ironically, the Soviets knew were all interconnected.  That is why Soviet life was so dismal).

Ruskin has some relevance in light of the Bat Soup Plague and the stimulus bill.   How do both value life and create an economy that will sustain it?

From the Introduction

Architecture and Ontology

  • the quality of architectural adornment is affected by the conditions of labour in which it is produced (Introduction, 17).
  • A certain type of architecture will arise from the conditions in that society.
    • From Renaissance came neo-classicism.  The ornament is subservient to the perfection of design.
    • Industrial Revolution: grotesque, mass-produced.


Specialization is arbitrary and unnatural.  It isolates the subject from its environment.    Three influences on Ruskin: Bible, Toryism, Romanticism.    Interestingly, state intervention was a right-ish phenomenon (cf the abolition of slavery under Wilberforce, a Tory).

Unto this Last

Rejects and questions Mill:  if society appears to benefit from materialism and selfishness, how is it that Mill is not recommending this?  Mill’s economic man is a complete abstraction. Mill didn’t think he actually existed, but served as a good model.  Ruskin said this is not how science should proceed. If he doesn’t exist, why bother using him as a model? 

What do value and justice actually mean?

value:  an object’s value is its power to support life.  It is intrinsic. 

Goal of essay: “to provide a logical definition of wealth” (Ruskin 161).  His second goal is to show that the acquisition of wealth is possible only under certain moral conditions of society, and he will explain those conditions.  

Essay 1: The Roots of Honour

Modern political economy (liberal capitalism) presumes a “negation of the soul” (169). God intended social dynamics to be regulated by justice, not expediency.

The problem of wages: Ruskin argues for regulating wages.  He says this is already the case for most of the labour on earth.  All labour ought to be paid “by an invariable standard” (173). He suggests that the good workmen will be paid and employed, whereas the bad workman will (necessarily?) be unemployed. He maintains one result will be a steady employment rate.  

Ruskin is aware of the problem of intermittent labour (think of the construction worker on the rainy day).  So he says such a worker should have higher wages, but also this would encourage the employer to seek stable levels of employment.

Says soldiers should be paid more because they risk dying (175). By contrast, a merchant is always presumed to act selfishly.  Ruskin wants to say that a true merchant will occasionally allow for voluntary loss–in the sense that if the choice were to arise between duty and profit, or showing grace to renters vs. profit, the true merchant–the honest one–will always accept the loss (177).

Ruskin brings home his point with unusual force.  He lists a series of professions whose job is to provide for the “common objects of love” (Augustine’s words, not his). 

  1. The Soldier’s profession is to defend it (i.e., common objects of love)
  2. The Pastor’s is to teach it.
  3. The physician’s is to keep it in health.
  4. The Lawyer’s is to enforce justice in it.
  5. The Merchant’s is to provide for it.

But in life we sometimes have to die for something:

  1. The soldier will die rather than leave his post in battle.
  2. The Physician, rather than leave his post in plague.
  3. The Pastor, rather than teach falsehood.
  4. The Lawyer, rather than countenance injustice.
  5. The Merchant–what is his “due occasion” of death?

But Ruskin does not disparage the merchant.  I know it is fashionable to blame all of the evils of the world on Protestantism, but the truth remains that the Protestant world was a merchant/burgher world–and it exploded in science, technology, and  medicine.  This wouldn’t be possible without the merchant class.

And Ruskin knows this.  And a merchant has a great opportunity for the commonweal.   A merchant can function as a father figure to youths coming under his responsibility (178ff).

Essay 1: Roots of Honor

Question:  what is justice?

  • The affection one man owes another (169).  Ruskin includes this in his definition of justice. Many cannot be quantified as a laborer.  He has a soul that is a stronger motive force.

The problem of wages.  He begins by correctly noting that the price of labor is regulated by the demand for it.  However, he asserts that the best labor “ought to be paid by an invariable standard” (173). Ruskin thinks this will prevent bad workmen from offering shoddy work at half price. I’m not so sure.  On the other hand, this shows exactly what happened with cheap foreign labor.

Practical Applications

  • a capitalist will not necessarily want wages so low (which would maximize proximal profit) if it meant a sickly and depressed work force (169). 

Essay II: Veins of Wealth

Political economy consists in the production, preservation, and distribution of useful or pleasurable things (181). Real wealth consists in substantial possessions and not in a claim upon labor, which Ruskin associates with the mercantile class.

Essay III: Qui Judicatis Terram

Definition of Justice, revisited: absolute exchange.  All of this is fine but how do we move from this definition to something like “just wages?”  Ruskin says that it consists in a sum of money “which will at any time procure for him at least as much labour as he has given” (196).  Labor, then, matches wages.

As it is, this doesn’t tell me anything.  From this I have no idea whether 10$ an hour is just or $20.  Ruskin continues: “The current coin or document is practically an order on the nation for so much work of any kind” (196).  That’s not unprecedented. It worked in Nazi Germany after 1933 (one of the few times in history socialism literally worked).  It almost worked in Tito’s Yugoslavia.

On the next page Ruskin comes very close to the “subjective-value theory.”  “There are few bargains in which the buyer can ascertain with anything like precision that the seller would have taken no less.”  This is correct. Economics demands knowledge of various moving parts. Ruskin, however, does not draw the Austrian conclusion. He says because of this lack of knowledge neither side will try to outwit the other.  

Conclusion of justice: diminish the wealth in one man’s hands through a chain of men.  This doesn’t necessarily mean communism. It simply points out if there are limits to the amount of wealth in one man’s hands, it automatically limits his power over their lives (199). Just payment must be diffused through “a descending series of offices or grades of labour.”

Essay IV: Ad Valorum

Ruskin now tries to tie together his economic theory where it concerns value, prices, etc.  Unlike economists of his time (Smith and Marx), Ruskin does not go for a full objective theory of value.  There is a value to the object, to be sure, but Ruskin avoids Marx’s crude mistake. The value is in the use of the object (206). Midway through the essay Ruskin breaks free from these lines of thought altogether: “A truly valuable thing is that which leads to life with its whole strength” (209). We must desire things that lead to life.

Ruskin has subtly but brilliantly changed the definition of wealth.  It is no longer what we “have” but what we can use (210). But this only works when it is in the hands of those capable of using.  This leads to his famous saying, “Wealth is the possession of the valuable by the valiant” (211).

The book ends with some final essays which contain useful advice:

“All good architecture is the expression of national life and character” (233).

“The entire object of true education is to make people not merely do the right things, but enjoy the right things” (234).  I never thought discipleship and architecture would be interwoven like this, but they are. As James K. A. Smith points out, the shopping mall is modeled after a cathedral and it has its own liturgies.  When you are in a shopping mall, it is discipling you.

“True kingship consists in a stronger moral state, and a truer thoughtful state than that of others” (253).

Fors Clavigera

Ruskin’s letters are interesting.  His mother made him memorize Deut. 32, Psalm 119, the Sermon on the Mount, most of Revelation, and 1 Cor. 15  (307). He learned his Toryism from Walter Scott.


2 thoughts on “Unto This Last and Other Writings

  1. I think Ruskin would find the US and USSR post-WW2 to be equally soulless. What’s more soul-crushing: brutalist concrete architecture or dad-bods, Tom Cruise, and the conversations at an investment firm?


  2. Pingback: Sergii Bulgakov: Towards a Russian Political Theology | Churchly Piety

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