“…the foundations of society were never yet shaken as they are at this day. It is not that men are ill fed, but that they have no pleasure in the work by which they make their bread, and therefore look to wealth as the only means of pleasure.”
John Ruskin, ‘The Nature of the Gothic,’ in The Stones of Venice, 1853
Here is an amazing connection. It demands a new look at much that has seemed to constitute the ‘progress’ of the last two centuries.
Ruskin was very attuned to the plight of the working man under the new order of the industrial revolution. A contemporary of Marx, his critique of this new order, while bearing some similarity to the German philosopher’s, went in a different direction.
They would both speak of how work has a humanizing power: that is, that in some important sense it both expresses and brings about our humanity. Yet while Marx’s vision of work and man, much as the dominant view today, did not rise above their material aspects, Ruskin saw work as an essential expression of the deeper, spiritual side of man.
This led him to make the remarkable connection between unfulfilling work and an over-valuing and over-attachment to money. Our daily work should, in his view, provide a basic and irreplaceable experience of human fulfillment. To the extent that our social and economic structures tend to force people into work that is anything but ‘humanizing,’ these structures are therein unjust, and they likewise foster our turning to the banal comforts, entertainments, and distractions that money can buy.
Ruskin sought society-wide redress for this problem at a time when these structures of society were relatively new. Today when in many ways those structures have become so entrenched as to escape notice, a person can still act to address this situation.
We can first of all seek the humanizing element in our daily work—whatever that work might be. And in our homes, we can establish good work as a central way of being together, while limiting the activities and the things that only money can buy.
John Ruskin (1819-1900) became the leading art critic of Victorian England. Moved by the ravages of the Industrial Revolution he shifted his focus later in life to social and economic issues. A controversial and insightful thinker, his way with words has an enduring power.
I am currently doing research in his works, and I plan to share more quotations from them.
Image: Carl Larsson (1853-1919), Sweden, “In the Carpenter Shop”
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Thank you, Dr. Cuddeback, for these beautiful words. There is a passage from St. Paul, 1 Cor. 10:31, which I have always kept at the forefront of my mind, especially while doing some of the more menial tasks: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” God is the fulfillment of all work; without Him, we could not possibly feel fulfilled.
Therefore I always try to keep consciously in mind that when I do this or that, I am doing it for the greater honor and glory of God. I find great joy in every task I undertake, not necessarily from the task itself (taking out the trash is not exactly a joyful task), but from the fact that I am doing it out of love, love for God, and love for my neighbor.
Let me once more say thank you for this wonderful reflection on work, because it really has gotten me thinking about how we really can find pleasure in everything we do, so long as God is the center of our lives. God bless!
You are very welcome. And I thank you for sharing this. Your reflection is very much to the point. God bless you.
Thank you for covering this topic and I hope you continue as you suggest you are. I’m in Canada and our society also sorely needs to look into working life, dare I say this is needed worldwide. People have to understand that their value comes from who they are and not what they do, asking themselves why they work at what they do and how they see themselves. Employers, they too have to evaluate themselves in their decisions that impact their employees and how they address the human element rather than just the bottom line of mega profits. Happy workers profits all of society, people who are valued are happier than those just working for high dollars.
Clara, Thank you for these words. It is hard not to be discouraged when the push for profit seems so overpowering. But of course we can always make real strides in (re-)establishing more truly human practices, even if only by small steps. I look forward to reflecting on this more with you.
Yes, we must strive to humanize what we have, but it can also be useful and liberating to imagine an entirely new and different system by which daily work might be organized and performed, one which seeks to fit the worker with the most appropriate and meaningful outlet for his or her creative activity, and which provides a far greater reward and sense of accomplishment than merely increasing one’s income and wealth above those of others. We swim–or should I say, drown–in dystopias these days and could benefit from a strong dose of the utopian opposite.
Newton, You raise a great point. If find it hard to strike a balance between two poles: one, thinking in terms of a total overhaul of disordered socio-economic structures, and two, thinking in terms of making the most of things as they are. Ultimately, we must discern what we can try to change versus what we must simply deal with, and then move forward with courage and humility. Thank you for sounding this note.