“…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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