Ruskin found his age too much engrossed in material pursuits. The world was too much with people and they wasted their energies in ‘getting and spending.’ The Victorian prosperity dazzled the eyes of man who utterly lost sight of spiritual heritage. Darkness surrounded him on all sides. It was Ruskin who alongwith Carlyle, heralded a note of warning to his generation and tried to raise it to that pedestal of morality from where man as man could be perceived. His ugliness, his low and mean habits could not be seen from this vantage point.
Ruskin taught his age that wealth is not the equivalent of happiness. Factories and mills deprive man of natural surroundings and contaminate his soul. In place of greenery, he sees the smoke of the chimney and instead of the chirpings of birds and musical flow of fountains and streams, he listens to the sirens of factories and mills. Monetary habits degrade human beings and they become so shameless and cruel as to exploit their own brothers and sisters without any tinge of repentance or any fear from God. In such a society, avarice becomes the guiding principle and social affections are considered as accidental and disturbing elements in human nature—“Among the delusions which at different periods have possessed themselves of the minds of large masses of the human race, perhaps the most curious—certainly the least credible—is the modern soidistant science of political economy , based on the idea that an advantageous code of social action may be determined irrespectively of the influence of social affection.” (Unto This Last). Ruskin opposes this statement of the political economist. To him, no social action is possible without social affection. We agree with him today when we have to tackle labour problem. Strikes and lock-outs have become very common because of employer-labour relations. Employers do not love their labourers as they shoalddo.Ruskin’s message in this respect is very practical. Men are more valuable than money—this is the message of Ruskin in all books. In Unto This Last he writes :
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.” The greatest good of the greatest number—that is the aim of democracy and that objective was laid down and propounded by Ruskin in the nineteenth century. In the Preface to The Crown of Wild Olive, Ruskin repeats his notion of wealth :
“That the wealth of nations, as of men, consists in substance, not in ciphers and that the real good of all work and of all commerce depends on the final worth of the thing you make or get by it.” This is a practical approach. The prime object of life and labour is ‘the producing of as many as possible, full breathed, bright-eyed and happy-hearted human beings.” Even his attitude to machinery is now seen to be largely justified and though few today advocate the abolition of machinery, it is increasingly recognised that machine-mindedness tends to dehumanise men and that means must be sought to make man the master and not the servant of machine.
Unto This Last expresses Ruskin’s message very clearly and powerfully. In
Para 275 of Ad Valorem this message is given a nice-poetical image. If we need the passage, we find it as the very basis of internationalism. If U.N.O. one day achieves this objective (which, to me appears very difficult, judging the present drift of things in the world), the earth will be converted into a heaven and we will become divine beings. But Ruskin’s message to his generation is not confied to Unto This last, it can be traced out throughout all his work. Modern Painters taught the claim of all lower nature in the hearts of men of the rock and herb as a part of their necessary spirit life. The Stones of Venice taught the laws of constructive art and the dependence of all human work of edifice, for its beauty on the happy life of the workman. The Inaugural Oxford Lectures taught the necessity that it should be led and the gracious laws of beauty and labour recognised by the upper no less than the lower classes of England ; and lastly, Fors Clavigera has declared the relation of these to each other and the only possible conditions of peace and honour for low and high, for rich and poor, together in the holding of that first Estate, under the only Despot, God.
Ruskin’s teaching is first of all, the lesson of self-development. It is not what a man has that is to be considered but what he is. Is he a self-made man not in exterior circumstances, but in wealth of character ? One must at the very outset, realise the mystery and wonder of life, discard the placid enshusiasm that is. the mark of the artificial man, cultivate the openness of perception, the retention of the childish sense of wonder that marks the true man, the man, who has eyes admiringly wide to the world aeout him, is worthy of the power that-placed him in it... to be willing to see the beauty that is—to show helpful sympathy for men about us, to be willing and glad to work for the joy of doing our work well and above all, to keep clear our sight of real mystery and nobility of life—that, in short, is the burden of Ruskin’s message.
To Ruskin, viewing man as a being of emotions, sentiments and sympathies, and view which did not call these into account seemed inadequate. Profit is not the only motive of human action...Happiness in life must, besides, be measured by other things than money. People, to be ideal men and women, not only must have food, clothes and a place to sleep but must have also beautiful and ennobling surroundings. Peace should be an estimable asset. In its ugly cities, its dishonestly made clothing, its prevailing shames and meanness, the present time offends against the ideals of life. William Morris, influenced by these teachings preached an ideal commonwealth ; without smoke or machinery, without competition or envy. Ruskin saw little good in the extreme socialistic ideal nor did he wish entirely to dispose of machinery ; he did feel that the ugliness should be done away with and that working people should not be relegated, as a penalty for leading industrial livas, to filth and degradation. He denounced the idea of the economist that progress depends on competition—the unceasing and merciless battle of each man against his neighbour.
It was sympathy with man, especially with the working man of
which led him to take up these questions. Was it necessary that things should be as they were ? Was ugliness, irremediable vulgarity a part of the eternal scheme of creation ? He prepared to look for a remedy. Apparently he failed. His writings were not well received. He was told that an art-critic should not meddle with such matters and what he said was regarded, coming from the writer of Modern Painters, as the dreaming of a man who knew nothing of his subject. Yet looking back today, we see that he did not fail. His lessons have had their effect and time has justified, at least in part, his social philosophy. England
In taking up the study of political economy, Ruskin was not changing his interests. There is common factor between his writings upon art and upon political economy. In both, his end was the improvement of man’s condition in the world and the development of the spiritual in men……The elements that Ruskin wished men to consider are being more and more taken into consideration. Man is regarded as having some other elements than combative acquisitiveness. Beauty in one’s surroundings is becoming recognized as of advantage. Parks, libraries, museums are allowed to have a certain aesthetic value. It is acknowledged that a railway-train need not be ugly and that an iron-bridge is not the worse for architecture. Societies are formed to prevent the disfiguring of landscape by advertisements. Laws are passed to obviate the clouds of smoke that darken our cities. The needless noise of city is being, bit by bit, suppressed. New schemes are devised almost daily for the housing of the workmen in model tenements and colonies. All these reforms may have nothing to do with the message of the ‘unpractical’ Ruskin; yet, coming as they do after his writings and lectures, accompanied as they are by the building of Ruskin-halls in
and England , they are suggestive. Perhaps, here as in the case of art, some are reluctant to trace an effect to its logical cause. America
The word ‘tender’ in spite of his hint of sentiment, best sums up the lesson of Ruskin’s whole life and work. Tender, reverent study of God’s world, tender, helpful love for fellowman, tender patience in the well-doing of what lies nearest, tender—yes, though the voice be stern with the sense of love’s defeat—tender reproof of man that forgets he is of the spirit and that misses God’s preferred inheritance. And in his written words, in the bland, pure, soothing music of his prose, there sounds the same note of tenderness, the soft pleading of flute and hautboy, the muted softness of the gentler brass, the, vibrant passion of the reed. It is a music of peace, of all that peace brings and of all that makes for peace—beauty and noble doing and tender charity. The ideals of beauty, truth, justice, cheerful and self-sacrificing labour for the good of the community must reign in men’s hearts ; the worship of Mammon must be abandoned. Then and then alone will the prophetic vision of new heaven and a new earth be fulfilled.
Compton-Rickett summarises Ruskin’s message as follows :“No writer in Victorian times did more than Ruskin to draw attention to the terrible wastage going on in the social organism —under present economic conditions—and to stir the individual to more serious effect in the cause of human brotherhood, not in the spirit of condescending charity, but in the saner and ampler spirit of common justice.”