It has become a fashion to remark that Ruskin, the great art critic spoiled himself by meddling with social problems. But it is not a sane and reasonable view. In fact, he never deserted art for sociology.The course of evolution from his dominant interest in art and architecture to an examination of the conditions of labour was consistent. Ruskin himself described the development of his ‘message’ through his various works : “Modern Painters taught the claim of all lower human nature in the hearts of men of the rock, and wave, 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 or edfice for its beauty on the happy life of the workman. Unto This Last taught the laws of that life itself and its dependence on the Sun of Justice, the Inaugural Oxford Lectures, 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……and in keeping which service is perfect freedom and inheritance of all that a loving Creator can give to His creature and an immortal Father to his Children.” Thus his social criticism marks no sharp break in his career, it is only a development.
It is wrong to imagine that Ruskin became a social reformer with the publication of Unto This Last. The germs of a social critic were already in him. It is futile to separate Ruskin, the art-critic from Ruskin, the social reformer. His attitude towards social matters is clear from the following passage from The Seven Lamps of Architecture:
“We have just spent for instance, a hundred and fifty millions with which we have paid men for digging ground from one place and depositing it in another. We have formed a large class of men, the railway navies especially reckless, unmanageable and dangerous. We have maintained besides (let us state the benefits as fairly as possible) a number of iron founders in an unhealthy and painful employment : we have developed (this at least is good) a very large amount of mechanical ingenuity and we have, in fine, attained the power of going fast from one place to another. Meantime, we have had no mental interest or concern ourselves in the operations we have set on foot but have been left to the usual vanities and cares of our existence. Suppose, on the other hand, that we had employed the same sums in building beautiful houses and churches. We should have maintained the same number of men, not in driving wheel barrows, but in a distinctly technical, if not intellectual employment, and those who were more intelligent among them, would have been specially happy in that employment as having room in it for the development of their fancy……Meantime, we should ourselves have been made happier and wiser by the interest we should have taken in the work with which we were personally concerned and when all was done, instead of the very doubtful advantage of the power of going fast from place to place we should have had the certain advantage of increased pleasure in stopping at home.”
In regarding Ruskin as a social reformer, we have to bear in mind his thorough qualifications for the role of a reformer. He had the necessary training and knowledge for it. J. A. Hobson, in his study of Ruskin as a social reformer, points out that Ruskin possessed “special qualifications 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. His technical knowledge went far beyond a knowledge of the fine arts in architecture and he was throroughly acquainted with the practical bearing of weaving, wood and metal work, pottery and other handicrafts : moreover, he had made a life-long study of animal and vegetable life and of the structure and composition of the earth, thus gaining an intimate acquaintance with, the nature of the raw materials of that wealth which formed the chief subject-matter of commercial economy.”
Ruskin’s change-over from art to sociology was the outcome of an intimacy between Ruskin and Carlyle. Ruskin called Carlyle his master and read him so constantly as to find himself, “perpetually falling into his modes of expression,” as he himself acknowledges in the preface to Munera Pulveris. This influence increased greatly after 1850. In 1856, Ruskin wrote, “I find Carlyle’s strange thinking colouring mine continually.” Carlyle’s influence can be traced in Ruskin’s views of the condition of
in his contempt for the existing mercantile economy, in his Conservatism and his Radicalism. The book that affected Ruskin most, was Carlyle’s Past and Present. Carlyle’s pro-found sympathy for the struggling and staggering multitude found an echo in Ruskin. Carlyle’s war on the economists was also Ruskin’s war ; only Ruskin’s was conducted with far greater precision of attack. Carlyle scoffed at the utilitarian philosophy of the current times. Ruskin does the same thing, but while Carlyle is sarcastic in his wrathful attitude, Ruskin maintains artistic elaboration and elegance He is equally critical of materialistic tendencies of his age. He speaks of the flowing of the streams to the sea as the perfect image of the operation of wealth in society and that brings out the poet and the artist in him, who constantly modulates the bitter indignation into something which makes an artistic appeal. He held the view that no art can prosper under ugly and wretched conditions. How can the inward beauty and power of the soul be felt when the modern conditions of living are so deadening ? England
Ruskin realised that greed and desire for progress (materialistic progress) lead man to the negation of soul. He becomes self-centred and neglects the general interest. For such a man, the roots of honour lie in the acquisition of wealth. He studies and masters the science of getting rich. To Ruskin, all acquisition of wealth without spiritual or moral wealth is useless :
“Its real value depends on the moral sign attached to it just as sternly as that of a mathematical quality depends on the algebraical sign attached to it.” If these moral or spiritual virtues are sold out for monetary gains, the society is bound to rot. Work that debilitates a people drawing away its best energies can produce only a sorry kind of wealth. To Ruskin, the real wealth of a nation is its own citizens and this fact is powerfully expressed in the following words from Unto This Last :
“There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of life, of joy and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings.” This is also the secret of democracy—the greatest good of the greatest number. If the society exploits the labour and fattens the capital, it is bound to shatter into pieces one day.
“The true veins of wealth are purple—and not in rock but iii flesh, perhaps even that final outcome and consummation of all wealth is in the producing as many as possible, full-breathed , bright eyed and happy-hearted human creatures.” What else can be the end of any form of government ? If the people are well satisfied and self-contented, they are better than all costly jewels. Ruskin prophesies that the time may come when the desire for wealth goes back to the barbarian tribes which were its original devotees and when man is considered as the only jewel worth aspiring for :
“Nay, in some far-away and yet undreamt of hour, I can even imagine that England may cast all thoughts of possessive wealth back to the barbaric nations among whom they first rose and that while the sands of the Indus and adamant of Golconda may yet stiffen the housings of the charger and flash from the turban of the slave, she as a christian mother may at last attain to the virtues and treasurers of a heathen one and be able to lead forth her sons, saying : “These are my Jewels.” Without social and ethical values, man is a beast. If even after the economic prosperity, man remains degraded and de based, what is the use of the so-called improved status ? Persons must be inspired by high ideals of sacrifice, selflessness, brotherhood and kindness before any real progress can be made or even named.
Ruskin’s great role as a social reformer was, then, to humanise political economy, to express the jargon of the economist about ‘cost’ and ‘utility’ in terms of human life. He did this not as an emotional moralist but as a keen scientific inquirer. The ordinary economist interprets “utility” with reference to the finished product, overlooking the far more important process of production. In this way, wealth is estimated by the economist as a question of material welfare only whereas Ruskin asserts that material welfare must be balanced by the character of the labour that goes to produce it : its duration, monotony, wholesomeness or unwholesomeness. The true wealth, in fact, is life. That is Ruskin’s conclusion and his entire social theory concerns itself with the relation between labour and life. He ex-amines the doctrine of wages and contests the point that they are “universally or even generally determined by the exclusive action of competition” other considerations enter in, such as, custom and good feeling :
“Cheap labour is not merely bad from the standpoint of morality, it is bad even from the low stand-point of economy. For cheap labour means impoverished lives and impoverishedlives mean inefcient work. The consumer gains at the outset but loses ultimately for if you squeeze wages to starvation point, you get inferior work and shoddy goods.” Every word of the author is correct. We cannot expect quality and efficiency from cheap labour. When workers famish, they will produce goods of inferior quality. Ruskin mentions another facet of his social theory :
“Specialisation is good upto a point, but over-specialisation is bad for it deadens the worker. A man whose labour consists, say, in making a fractional part of a pin becomes a mere machine. Division of labour you call it, it is division of human beings—dividing men into segments.”
Labour should be made healthy and pleasurable. The great evils of his civilization lay because the labour was not recognised and honoured. The workers took no pleasure in the work entrusted to them, they simply looked to the acquisition of money as the means of pleasure. So long as the worship of supply and demand exists, there cannot he genuine pleasure :
“Nor must we blame the employer only for this state of things; the public—the consumer are also at fault. They demand cheap things, not good things. Were they longer-sighted, they would realise that in the long run good thing is the cheap thing.”
In the first lecture on Work in The Crown of Wild Olive, Ruskin pursues the social criticism. 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 as from the bag baron as ever they did from the crag-baron. Bags and crags have just the same result on rags.”
Another important cause of the sufferings and evils in
is that the English worship the Goddess of Getting on. Their religion is the worship of Mammon and as such they are Christian only in name. There is as much scope for heroism and self-sacrifice in commerce and industry as in the battle-field. England
The Social theory of Ruskin is thus wedded to general well-being which is the first and foremost principle of democracy. The social evils described by Ruskin have been remedied, to a great extent but still the poor and middle-classes stand in dire need of economic relief. So Ruskin’s fervent and penetratring social criticism remains practically as valid today as when be uttered it in the sixties of the last century.