Unto This Last "There Is No Wealth But Life"

John Ruskin

"There Is No Wealth But Life"

Context: Ruskin was an erratic but brilliant personality and a gifted writer whose genius had many facets. He was a notable painter, an art critic, and an essayist of great ability whose writing often has the rhythmic grace of blank verse. He and William Morris attempted to reform the artistic tastes of Victorian England and were associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement. This was a group of artists and poets formed in 1848 and led by Dante Gabriel Rossetti; its purpose was to cultivate the methods and spirit of early Italian painters and to promote, in literature and art, a craftsmanship equal to that in works produced prior to Raphael's time. One of the first "Little Magazines" was published by this group. Ruskin exerted himself on behalf of this drive for a return to craftsmanship, attempting to reëstablish the craftsmen's guilds of the Middle Ages. A lover of nature, he also led a movement to prevent railroads from wrecking the natural beauty of the countryside, advocating governmental control of railways. He lectured frequently. In addition to his other activities, he was deeply interested in economics and in social problems; he fought against the materialism of his day and expressed himself with eloquence both on the lecture platform and in his writings. Unto This Last is a series of articles dealing with wealth. Here he attempts to give wealth a logical definition and to show that its acquisition is possible only under certain moral conditions of society–the first of these being a belief in honesty. As in all his writings, the ethical tone is basic. What Ruskin desires most is a happy and noble society in which material possessions are used only for high ends. "The real science of political economy, which has yet to be distinguished from the bastard science, as medicine from witchcraft, and astronomy from astrology, is that which teaches nations to desire and labor for the things that lead to life; and which teaches them to scorn and destroy the things that lead to destruction." He does not believe, however, that a moral problem can be solved by legislation: "Note finally that all effectual advancement towards this true felicity of the human race must be by individual, not public effort." Ruskin's definition of wealth follows:

It is, therefore, the manner and issue of consumption which are the real tests of production. Production does not consist in things laboriously made, but in things serviceably consumable; and the question for the nation is not how much labor it employs, but how much life it produces. For as consumption is the end and aim of production, so life is the end and aim of consumption. . . . I desire, in closing the series of introductory papers, to leave this one great fact clearly stated. THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE. 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.
A strange political economy; the only one, nevertheless, that ever was or can be; all political economy founded on self-interest being but the fulfilment of that which once brought schism into the Policy of angels, and ruin into the Economy of Heaven.