"A Knave's Religion Is The Rottenest Thing About Him"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Ruskin's series of letters, twenty-five of them, were addressed to one Thomas Dixon, a cork-cutter of Sutherland, England. The purpose of the letters which make up Time and Tide was to urge the working-people to consider, beyond the right to vote, the reform of laws. The tone of the letters, in which Ruskin's prejudices and usual startling proposals are evident, is a passionate one, making the letters seem much like sermons. Letter VIII is about four possible theories respecting the authority of the Bible. Ruskin begins, however, by stating that the political economy he is trying to teach is founded on "presumably attainable honesty in men," while the popular political economy of the times is based on man's supposed regard for himself. Ruskin goes on to ask, rhetorically, what basis there can be for the honesty he believes man can attain. He proceeds to answer the question he has posed:

. . . my answer is–not in any hesitating or diffident way (and you know, my friend, that whatever people may say of me, I do often speak diffidently; though, when I am diffident of things, I like to avoid speaking of them, if it may be; but here I say with no shadow of doubt)–your honesty is not to be based either on religion or policy. Both your religion and policy must be based on it. Your honesty must be based, as the sun is, in vacant heaven; poised, as the lights in the firmament, which have rule over the day and over the night. If you ask why you are to be honest–you are, in the question itself, dishonoured. 'Because you are a man,' is the only answer; and therefore I said in a former letter that to make your children capable of honesty is the beginning of education. Make them men first, and religious men afterwards, and all will be sound; but a knave's religion is always the rottenest thing about him.