John Ruskin's Unto this Last: Summary & Explanation

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  • 0:05 Overview and Organization
  • 2:02 Wages and Wealth
  • 3:22 Education and the Economy
  • 4:14 Value
  • 5:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Richard Pierre

Richard has a doctorate in Comparative Literature and has taught Comparative Literature, English, and German

Though highly controversial when first published 1860, John Ruskin's ''Unto this Last'' has become a classic and influential text on political economy. This lesson describes the main concepts and overall significance of this unique book.

Overview and Organization

John Ruskin rose to prominence in nineteenth-century England as a critic of art and architecture, the author of highly esteemed works like Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice. Over time, however, Ruskin became concerned about life in newly-industrialized England and worried that unrestrained capitalism had created a vast and poor working class, led to deplorable living conditions, and placed little value on human life beyond its ability to convert labor into profit.

Unto this Last offers Ruskin's passionate responses to these socio-economic problems. It first appeared as a series of four long essays in Cornhill Magazine in 1860. Ruskin's fascination with things like the intricacies of architecture and medieval guilds of craftsman, like stonemasons and carpenters, made him have a deep respect for the labor of all workers.

Unto this Last also shows the influence of Ruskin's Christian faith. For starters, the title of the book references one of Jesus' parables in the Bible. On a deeper level, the book's emphasis on respect for others, equality for all, concern for one's neighbors, and an insistence on justice for all are directly connected to Christian values. Despite this, Unto this Last was highly controversial when first published. Ruskin's ideas were condemned, and he was labeled a socialist. Originally, Ruskin had planned on having seven magazine essays, but because of the controversy, the publisher only allowed four essays to be published.

Ruskin's first essay, 'The Roots of Honor,' describes the relationship between employer and employee. In the second, 'The Veins of Wealth,' Ruskin analyzes the standard definition of wealth and offers an alternative. The third essay, 'Qui Judicatis Terram,' which is Latin for 'They Who Judge on Earth,' explains how justice is critical to Ruskin's view of political economy. The final essay, 'Ad Valorem,' which means 'According to Value,' provides a definition of value that doesn't rely strictly on money and the exchange of labor.

Wages and Wealth

Ruskin declares that wealth is not simply the accumulation of money, possessions, or property: 'What is really desired, under the name of riches, is, essentially, power over men,' he writes in 'The Veins of Wealth.' In an economy based on free market capitalism, which is capitalism without government intervention, according to Ruskin, employers strive to keep wages as low as possible and to make people compete to work for the least amount of money.

Think of it this way: if one person will mow your lawn for $30 while another wants to charge $50, who would you choose? The effect of this, Ruskin argues, is that the average worker's wage goes down while powerful employers' profits rise. This might sound familiar since this is a version of the argument still talked about today that, in an unrestrained capitalist economy, the rich will get ever richer while the poor will get ever poorer.

Unto this Last suggested what originally seemed a ridiculous alternative to this model: political powers, as in the government, employers, and individuals, should all ensure that workers doing the same work are paid the same for the same. For example, all people mowing lawns would be paid $40 for their labor, no matter what. This is a version of what we would now call fair wages. Enforcing this, Ruskin argues, would lead to more equal work opportunities, a fairer distribution of wealth, and greater opportunities for individuals and families to improve their lives.

Education and the Economy

Echoes of Ruskin's ideas can be heard in contemporary debates. For instance, some argue that raising the minimum wage to a fair living wage will lead to overall social improvement, while others fear that it will decrease business opportunities and incentives to work harder, better, and faster in order to move up the social ladder. Should workers who are just bad at their job, or lazy, or criminals be paid the same as someone who works hard and honestly?

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