John Ruskin on the master/servant paradox.
John Ruskin on the master/servant paradox.

MONEY: WHY DO WE WANT IT? What does having it mean for us and for our neighbors? When the art critic John Ruskin took up this question in 1860, he started from the assertion that more money for us means less money for them, and he didn’t have to go much further to conclude that disparity, after all, might be the whole point of the enterprise. 

1860 | London

Blessed Are the Poor

Suppose any person to be put in possession of a large estate of fruitful land, with rich beds of gold in its gravel; countless herds of cattle in its pastures; houses, and gardens, and storehouses full of useful stores; but suppose, after all, that he could get no servants?

In order that he may be able to have servants, someone in his neighbourhood must be poor and in want of his gold—or his corn. Assume that no one is in want of either, and that no servants are to be had. He must, therefore, bake his own bread, make his own clothes, plough his own ground, and shepherd his own flocks. His gold will be as useful to him as any other yellow pebbles on his estate. His stores must rot, for he cannot consume them. He can eat no more than another man could eat, and wear no more than another man could wear. He must lead a life of severe and common labour to procure even ordinary comforts; he will be ultimately unable to keep either houses in repair, or fields in cultivation; and forced to content himself with a poor man’s portion of cottage and garden, in the midst of a desert of wasteland, trampled by wild cattle, and encumbered by ruins of palaces, which he will hardly mock at himself by calling “his own.”

The most covetous of mankind would, with small exultation, I presume, accept riches of this kind on these terms. What is really desired under the name of riches is, essentially, power over men; in its simplest sense, the power of obtaining for our own advantage the labour of servant, tradesman, and artist; in wider sense, authority of directing large masses of the nation to various ends (good, trivial, or hurtful, according to the mind of the rich person). 


Spring 2008

JOHN RUSKIN, from  “The Veins of Wealth.” Ruskin’s fame as an unorthodox art critic in Victorian England rested on his disdain for the Old Masters. The large fortune that had come to him by inheritance he gave away with the declaration that wealth and socialism are incompatible. His marriage to Euphemia Gray was annulled in 1854 on the grounds that it had not been consummated, although in a legal deposition Ruskin claimed, “I can prove my virility at once.” In 1878 James McNeill Whistler sued Ruskin for libel after his attack on the painter’s
Nocturne in Black and Gold. Whistler won a farthing and went bankrupt; Ruskin’s reputation was forever tarnished.

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