Ruskin’s Crown of Wild Olive consists of lectures which were meant for workers, traders and soldiers. Ruskin asks each one of them about the real nature of his calling. He takes up various contemporary social and economic problems and offers his own view-point about their solution. In fact, Ruskin was a social reformer possessing all qualifications of a social reformer. J. A. Hobson, in his study of Ruskin as a social reformer, points out that Ruskin possessed “special qualifications is for social and economic criticism; for he was a skilled specialist in the finer qualities of work which men put into the raw material supplied by Nature in order to furnish the necessaries of human consumption.”
In his first lecture on work in The Crown of Wild Olive, Ruskin takes up some glaring problems of the poor. He does not like that society in which the poor become poorer and the rich richer. The upper classes enjoy themselves by compelling the poor labourers to work for them and to provide for them. There is no difference between the modern capitalists and the barons in the Middle Ages so far as the poor are concerned :
“And I can tell you, the poor vagrants by the road-side suffer now quite as much from the bag baron as ever they did from the crag-baron. Bags and Crags have just the same result on rags.”
In the same lecture, Ruskin clarified the false notions about the rich and the poor. There are two bases of distinction between the two—the lawful and the unlawful. The lawful basis of wealth is that a man who works should be paid the fair value of his work and that if he does not like it spend it today, he should have freedom to keep it for tomorrow. Thus an industrious man working daily will save something in the end. On the other hand, there is the idle person who does not work and the wasteful person who lays nothing by will be doubly poor in possession and dissolute in moral habit. A law should be enacted in society that only he who earns justly should keep money. This is the proper basis of distinction between the rich and the poor. But there is also a false basis. There are people who inherit money and make more money by the power to use it. They set themselves to the accumulation of money as the sole object of their lives. Ruskin feels that such people are an uneducated class because an educated or brave man cannot make money-earning the chief object of his thoughts. With them work is first and money second. They are God’s servants. The former are slaves of money, they are satans.
In his lecture on Traffic in The Crown of Wild Olive, Ruskin exhorts people to give up Mammon-worship because it is detrimental to man’s moral, social and spiritual development. He says, “Continue to make that forbidden duty your principal one and soon no more art, no more science, no more pleasure will be possible. Catastrophe will come or worse than catastrophe, slow mouldering and withering into Hades. But if you can fix some conception of a true human state of life to be striven for—life for all men as for yourselves—if you can determine some honest and simple order of existence ; following these trodden ways of wisdom which are pleasantness and seeking her quiet and withdrawn paths, which are peace; then, and so sanctifying wealth into ‘common wealth’ all your art, your literature, your daily labours, your domestic affection and citizen’s duty, will join and increase into one magnificent harmony.”
Ruskin was aware of the ills of growing industrialization. The industrial urge of his times led to unhealthy competitions and intolerance. It made people greedy and selfish. The money-making tendency made the privileged class exploit the poor workers. Ruskin satirizes such people in his lecture on work : “However, in every nation, there are and must always be a certain number of these Friend’s servants who have it principally for the object of their lives to make money. They are always, as I said more or less stupid and cannot conceive of anything else so nice as money. Stupidity is always the basis of Judas bargain.”
Thus Ruskin told the people of his age that all was not well with the prosperous classes. They were being deadened in soul by the wealth they possessed. They were wholly blind to the fearful cost at which it was being won to the destruction of the beauty and the country which was gradually but surely removing some of the most purifying and uplifting influences that can work upon the hearts of men and to the self-destroying drudgery and monotony of the mechanical toil to which the boasted inventions of the century were condemning the vast majority of the population.
The Crown of Wild Olive is, therefore, a commentary on the contemporary social and economic life. In it Ruskin appears not merely as a satirist, but he changes himself into a preacher and a prophet. The satirist being changed into a preacher, exhorts work-men to be loyal and to love their work and their employers; asks the traders not to be money-minded and advises the soldier to be loyal to his calling.