John Ruskin was a highly influential British writer, art critic, and social thinker in the last half of the 19th century.
His most important literary work highlighted what has been called “the scandal of grace.”
When I read the Summer 2019 issue of Plough Quarterly, I was impressed with the article titled “Comrade Ruskin: How a Victorian Visionary Can Save Communism from Marx” by Eugene McCarraher, a professor at Villanova University.
McCarraher’s 800-page book, “The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity,” was published last November, and he repeatedly refers to Ruskin.
And then late last year I was reading Gandhi’s “An Autobiography: Or, The Story of My Experiments with Truth” (originally published in 1925-29).
I was surprised when I read of his reading Ruskin’s “Unto This Last,” calling it a book that “was impossible to lay aside, once I had begun it.”
After he read Ruskin’s book, Gandhi decided to change his own life according to Ruskin’s teaching.
Among other things, he established “a farm where everybody would get the same salary, without distinction of function, race, or nationality.”
Indeed, Ruskin’s influence reached across the world.
Leo Tolstoy described him as “one of the most remarkable men not only of England and of our generation, but of all countries and times” and quoted extensively from him.
Also, as the Plough article states, “Echoes of Ruskin’s thought reappeared in the 1960s and 1970s” in the work of economists such as E.F. Schumacher.
Ruskin considered “Unto This Last,” published 1862, his most important work. The title of that brief book, which can be read here, comes from Matthew 20:14, toward the end of Jesus’ parable about the laborers in the vineyard.
Jesus’ parable is called “the scandal of grace” by Warner D’Souza, a Catholic priest in India who in 2017 posted an article on Rembrandt’s 1637 painting titled “Labourers in the Vineyard.”
One contemporary scholar endeavoring to help people learn more about and from Ruskin is Jim Spates, an emeritus professor at a small liberal arts college in New York.
He maintains a blog titled Why Ruskin? “dedicated to making known Ruskin’s continuing importance to the troubled world in which we live.”
Spates’ 169th posting, “Unto this Last: The Power of a Parable,” was made this month on Jan. 7.
It is partly a retelling in contemporary language of Jesus’ parable recorded in Matthew 20.
While worth reading, I should note that, unfortunately, Spates used penny as the paraphrase for denarius, which in Jesus’ day was the wage for a day’s work by an ordinary laborer.
While recommended more perhaps by Gandhi (and Jesus!) than by Ruskin, some contemporary economists and politicians are proposing a “universal basic income.”
(Here is the link to an explanatory article about that from June 2019.)
Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrated earlier this week in the U.S., proposed this sort of economic structure.
In his 1967 book, “Where Do We Go from Here?” King wrote, “I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective – the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”
While the idea of a universal basic, or guaranteed, income may seem offensive to some, it is not only in keeping with the writing of Ruskin and the example of Gandhi but also consistent with Jesus’ parable about “the scandal of grace.”
In closing, let me share these words from Ruskin’s “Unto This Last”: “There is no Wealth but Life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings.”
A missionary to Japan from 1966-2004, he is both professor emeritus of Seinan Gakuin University and pastor emeritus of Fukuoka International Church.