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Responsibility At Work Essay By Ruskin

John Ruskin was a renowned thinker, writer, artist and social reformer.  He founded the Guild of St George to help make the world a better place to live in. He wrote on subjects as varied as geology, architecture, myth, ornithology, literature, education, botany and political economy. His writing styles and literary forms were equally varied. Ruskin penned essays and treatises, poetry and lectures, travel guides and manuals, letters and even a fairy tale.

Ruskin’s political ideas, and his essay ‘Unto This Last‘ in particular, later proved highly influential, praised and paraphrased in Gujarati by Mohandas Gandhi, a wide range of autodidacts, the economist John A. Hobson and many of the founders of the British Labour party. Ruskin believed in a hierarchical social structure. He wrote “I was, and my father was before me, a violent Tory of the old school.” He believed in duties and responsibilities to, and under, God, and whilst he sought to improve the conditions of the poor, he opposed attempts to level social differences and sought to resolve social inequalities by abandoning capitalism in favour of a co-operative structure of society based on obedience and benevolent philanthropy, rooted in the agricultural economy.

140 years ago, Ruskin chose Walkley as the location for St George’s Museum to house a remarkable collection of paintings, drawings, architectural casts, books and minerals.  Its purpose was to educate and inspire the metal-workers of Sheffield, whose skill he declared the best in the world. Today this property still bears his name although is a block of flats.  A year later, he bought a farm in Totley for a group of Sheffield working men to live and work on.  

Ruskin in Sheffield reveals the highs and lows of Ruskin’s Victorian ventures in Sheffield, offers a modern taste of what he meant by ‘better lives’, and draws on his ideas about wealth to inform discussion of today’s big issues.

Title of the book

The title, “Unto this Last” refers to Christ's Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard from Matthew 20:1-16.

In this parable, a vineyard owner goes to the marketplace several times during the day and evening and hires groups of day laborers who are hoping to find work. When the day's work is done, he chooses to pay them all the same amount of money.

Those laborers who worked the whole day complain. The vineyard owner responds that they were paid the agreed-upon price, and they have no reason to complain if he chooses to give the same pay to those who worked fewer hours.

The conventional religious meaning is that Jesus offers salvation to all people, regardless of when they find their faith. However, in the context of Unto This Last, the vineyard owner is a generous employer who wishes to pay all his workers a living wage, even though some did not find employment with him until late in the day.

Epigraphs for the book

“FRIEND, I DO THEE NO WRONG. . . .” This epigraph is explained above in the note explaining the book title.

“IF YE THINK GOOD, GIVE ME MY PRICE; AND IF NOT, FORBEAR. SO THEY WEIGHED FOR MY PRICE THIRTY PIECES OF SILVER.” Zechariah 11:12. The significance of this Biblical quotation is not entirely clear. One of the themes of Chapter 4, “Ad Valorem,” is price, and Ruskin repeats part of this epigraph in Chapter 4. More broadly, this quotation may refer simply to commerce. Also, Christians often interpret this verse as a reference to Judas' betrayal of Christ.

Ch. 1 “The Roots of Honor”

Chapter Summary

The chapter begins with Ruskin's attack on political economists for regarding human beings as purely self-interested and ignoring the human capacity for kindness, generosity, and love (“social affection”). He uses examples to show that an unselfish master will receive the best work from his servants and that soldiers will fight hardest when they know that their commanding officer truly cares about them.

Recognizing that these close bonds are not likely to form between a factory owner and his many employees, Ruskin proposes that labor be regulated so that workers in each job category get the same pay (as is done is certain professions such as the ministry and law). The result will be that good workers won't need to fear being replaced by bad workers who will work cheaply. Also, Ruskin wants employers to stop hiring workers on a daily basis in hope of paying the lowest possible wages. Workers must know they will have enough employment to survive the week.

Finally, Ruskin argues that merchants need assume a parental responsibility for their employees. In vivid, passionate language he insists that merchants must be willing to make sacrifices—such as keeping employees on the payroll when business is slow—both for the good of their employees and the nation.

The title of this chapter: “The Roots of Honor”

For Ruskin, honor comes from a concern for social justice and, more specifically, the willingness of business owners to assume a personal responsibility for the well-being of their employees.

«“Political economy” is a delusion (Sec 1)

Sec 1 #2

“The social affections,” says the economist . . .

Ruskin often oversimplifies the views of John Stuart Mill and other orthodox political economists. However, prominent economists, members of the business elite, and political did hold ideas similar to those Ruskin is attacking (see Fain).

Sec 1 #3

Ruskin, who originally planned to be a geologist, is knowledgeable about science and is very willing to show off this knowledge in this elaborate analogy drawn from chemistry. Ruskin's point is that you can't try to analyze human behavior without taking emotions and affection into account.

Sec 1 #4

“Observe, I neither impugn nor doubt”

The elaborate and striking analogy is highly fanciful but also grotesque.

“ossifiant” = boney


The long bone in the arm that extends from the shoulder to the elbow. The phrase “death's head and humeri” suggests the Jolly Roger flag flown by pirates, implying that political economists countenance economic piracy.

«Political economy doesn’t address fundamental human motivations (Sec 2)

Sec 2 #1, #2

Ruskin is pointing out that emotions, as much as financial calculations, are a key factor in a strike and that political economy, because it excludes emotions, can't offer guidance for how to resolve such conflicts.

Sec 2 #3

Ruskin now shows very vividly that human emotion and love trump narrow calculation of advantage. Indeed, a mother will starve for her children's sake.

Sec 2 #4

“rats or swine”

Ruskin repeatedly makes the point that political economists regard human beings as though they were animals with no thought other than survival.

Sec 2 #5


Ruskin now shifts the argument and opens up one of the key themes in the book. Justice is not what's written in law books. When we take advantage of another person—though it may be legal—it is not justice. Justice comes about naturally when we exercise our own humanity and recognize the humanity in others.

“one man owes to another”

Like almost everyone else in Victorian England, Ruskin consistently refers to men (and not women or people in general) and assumes (accurately) that almost all political leaders, merchants, and other prominent participants in public life are male. Ruskin, however, is passionate in honoring women as keepers of the home and nurturers of children. In a striking passage in The Two Paths (“The Works of Iron,” III, 1 “The Plough”), he speaks of the woman's needle as a kind of equivalent to the man's plough in ensuring a prosperous household and, by extension, a prosperous, happy nation.

«The example of servants and the master of the household (Sec 3)

Sec 3 #1–#3

Ruskin is challenging Utilitarian idea that human beings are motivated by self interest and that the greatest good comes about my regulating the self-interested behavior of human beings to produce the greatest good. The free market, say the Utilitarians, determines the wages that should be paid and this wage along with the master's harsh treatment of his servants ultimately benefits the entire community, including the servants themselves. This free-market, laissez faire economics remains a potent strain of thought today.

Ruskin argues that affection between the master and servants is what will produce the greatest amount of good work. Notice the echo if the chemistry analogy presented in Section 1. “Soul” is the unpredictable element that invalidates Utilitarian calculations.

Sec 3 #4

“Treat the servant kindly”

This seems like a questionable argument. At least at the level of a business—which is where Ruskin is leading us—it seems that an employer who treats his employees well—regardless of the motive—will likely benefit from the employees recognition of their good treatment (even if they believe or suspect that the employer is doing this out of self interest.

whosoever will save his life shall lose it, whoso loses it shall find it

“He that findeth his life, shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake, shall find it.” Matthew 10:39. This is one of many instances in which Ruskin infuses his writing with Scripture. He doesn't appear to be making a specific point with this reference.

Ruskin footnote 1—on Charles Dickens

Ruskin deeply appreciates Dickens as a social critic and asks his readers to take Dickens' ideas seriously, even though Dickens, as a writer of fiction, employs exaggeration and caricature. Ruskin recognizes that Hard Times especially attacks Utilitarianism, and states that he wished that Dickens would write more realistically when he addresses important social issues. It is interesting that Ruskin, although an essayist, uses a measure of exaggeration to make his points.

The difference between the two modes of treatment, and between their effective material results, may be seen very accurately by a comparison of the relations of Esther and Charlie in Bleak House, with those of Miss Brass and the Marchioness in Master Humphrey's Clock.

The essential value and truth of Dickens's writings have been unwisely lost sight of by many thoughtful persons, merely because he presents his truth with some colour of caricature. Unwisely, because Dickens's caricature, though often gross, is never mistaken. Allowing for his manner of telling them, the things he tells us are always true. I wish that he could think it right to limit his brilliant exaggeration to works written only for public amusement; and when he takes up a subject of high national importance, such as that which he handled in Hard Times, that he would use severer and more accurate analysis. The usefulness of that work (to my mind, in several respects, the greatest he has written) is with many persons seriously diminished because Mr Bounderby is a dramatic monster, instead of a characteristic example of a worldly master; and Stephen Blackpool a dramatic perfection, instead of a characteristic example of an honest workman. But let us not lose the use of Dickens's wit and insight, because he chooses to speak in a circle of stage fire. He is entirely right in his main drift and purpose in every book he has written; and all of them, but especially Hard Times, should be studied with close and earnest care by persons interested in social questions. They will find much that is partial, and, because partial, apparently unjust; but if they examine all the evidence on the other side, which Dickens seems to overlook, it will appear, after all their trouble, that his view was the finally right one, grossly and sharply told.

«The example of soldiers and their officers (Sec 4)

«We need to fix wages so they don’t fluctuate with economic conditions (Sec 5)

Sec 5 #1

“Passing from these simple examples”

Ruskin recognizes that his arguments about the power of social affection do not scale to the very broad level of national economy, and so as a kind of substitute he asks employers to try to keep their workforce employed even during periods when business is slack, and he proposes a system of regulating wages so that a workers will know how much they will be paid each week.

Ruskin does not typically propose national policy in UTL, but here is an exception. In the Preface to the book version of UTL, Ruskin, looking back on the four Cornhill Magazine essays expresses some regret because this “startling” proposal overshadowed his primary aim, which was to re-define the concept of “wealth.”

We now have the minimum wage and transfer payments, which ensure that people will at least survive. Ruskin doesn't emphasize government intervention—see the Preface of UTL—but he did recognize the dire need for change.

Sec 5 #2

“. . . an esprit de corps, like that of the soldiers in a crack regiment.”

Ruskin expects a great deal from workers who have received from their employers secure employment.

Sec 5 #3

“Dutch auction”

A kind of auction in which the lowest bidder wins.


“Simony” means selling church positions. The phrase “general advantages” is ironic; Ruskin certainly does not approve of simony. His point is that the salary of bishops is fixed. Those seeking the position do not compete with one another by offering to take the lowest salary.

Sec 5 #5

Rushing at every gap in the walls of fortune

Note the astonishing vividness of this metaphor for a relatively abstract idea that employers try to maximize profits by hiring on a short term basis rather than offering more secure employment:

“The masters cannot bear to let any opportunity of gain escape them, and frantically rush at every gap and breach in the walls of Fortune, raging to be rich, and affronting, with impatient covetousness, every risk of ruin.”

Somewhat realized today by laws requiring a minimum wage--though such laws do not assure duration of employment.

A modern equivalent of Ruskin's plea that employers keep their workers employed during business downturns is the Keynesian principle that increased government spending can reduce the rate of unemployment during a recession. Ruskin's thinking is, from a contemporary point of view, often limited because he has little sense of the possibility of government economic policy and government intervention in the economy.

«Merchants must become unselflish and willingly sacrifice for their workers (Sec 6)


In an important shift within this essay, Ruskin now broadens his argument from a specific proposal that might require economic sacrifice from employers to a much broader argument that business should (and ultimately must) become a deeply moral enterprise: The business man's first aim is to provide for the nation and personal gain is only secondary. In other words, business becomes akin to the calling to serve God in the ministry. The wealthy merchants and industrialists reading this issue of Cornhill Magazine must indeed have been astonished by Ruskin's audacity.

Sec 6 #1

“the soldier's trade”

Ruskin has a gift for framing and phrasing his ideas dramatically, even when not engaged in satire. He enjoys taking a provocative stance toward his audience.

“For the soldier's trade, verily and essentially, is not slaying, but being slain.”


A bravo is a deperado or murderer.

“does, in reality, die daily”

A reference to 1 Corinthians 15:31: “I protest by your rejoicing which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily.” Ruskin's writing is infused with quotations from and allusions to the Bible. In this edition, references to the source of Ruskin's Biblical quotations and allusions are kept to a minimum. For complete references to scripture, see a scholarly edition of UTL.

Sec 6 #2

“respect we pay to the lawyer”

Ruskin’s idea that lawyers act without regard to their self-interest is definitely a stretch. Ruskin tries to make the argument work by discussing lawyers as though they were judges, who we commonly view as accepting the responsibility to carry out justice without regard to their own potential gain.

Ruskin tells us, in his third footnote to Chapter 3, “Qui Judicatis Terram,” that lawyers themselves rejected (with amusement) his idealistic view of the legal profession:

I hear that several of our lawyers have been greatly amused by the statement in the first of these papers that a lawyer's function was to do justice. I did not intend it for a jest; nevertheless it will be seen that in the above passage neither the determination nor doing of justice are contemplated as functions wholly peculiar to the lawyer. Possibly, the more our standing armies, whether of soldiers, pastors, or legislators (the generic term “pastor” including all teachers, and the generic term “lawyer” including makers as well as interpreters of law), can be superseded by the force of national heroism, wisdom, and honesty, the better it may be for the nation.

Sec 6 #3–#4

Ruskin, departing radically from standard economic theory, often frames commerce as inherently a “zero-sum game.” That is, when one person to become more wealthy, another becomes poorer. This assumption underlies the extremely provocative argument presented here: that commerce as it is routinely carried out is immoral, a form of cozening (cheating). A true merchant, that is a merchant who is an moral, honorable person must moderate his or her desire for profit and consider ethical dimension of the transaction and whether the transaction is contributing to the overall betterment of the state. In Chapter 3, “The Veins of Wealth” Ruskin includes hypothetical examples in which highly inefficient markets predatory commerce.

Without going nearly as far as Ruskin, we can say that predatory commerce is not hard to find in modern capitalism. Notable examples in the United States include much of the mortgage lending that led up to the Great Recession of 2008 and, very plausibly, the entire business of payday lending.

Sec 6 #4

The idea that merchants will willingly endure financial loss for the sake of their employees and the nation as a whole seems quaint and naive in our modern era of corporate capitalism in which very large global corporations typically show little or no loyalty to their employees or the communities in which they grew, and are very willing hire temporary workers, outsource labor, and close factories in order to move their manufacturing to states with lower wages or offshore. They also use their considerable political influence to promote legislation and regulations that enhance corporate profits (ultimately paid in large part to wealthy investors) with little or no regard to the larger social good.

There are, however, notable instances in which individual business owners have behaved as Ruskin would wish: “The Malden Mills factory burned down on December 11, 1995. CEO Aaron Feuerstein decided to continue paying the salaries of all the now-unemployed workers while the factory was being rebuilt. By going against common CEO business practices, especially at a time when most companies were downsizing and moving overseas, he achieved recognition for doing the right thing.” Wikipedia, “Malden Mills.”

“The Hero of the Excursion . . . Autolycus”

Wordsworth's Excursion was written in 1814. Its hero, a pedlar in the mountain district of England, was the chief means of communication from the outer world to the remote glens and dales of the North. Autolycus (Shakespeare's Winter's Tale) is also a pedlar, but he ia a thief (though an amusing rogue). [Susan Cunnington]

“people never have had clearly explained to them the true functions of a merchant”

Ruskin’s father was a wine merchant, and Ruskin deeply respected his father for many reasons, including his utter integrity in business.

“The Soldier, rather than leave his post in battle”

Ruskin hates war, but he honors soldiers.

“the merchant becomes in the course of his business the master and governor of large masses of men”

There is a reflection here of Thomas Carlyle’s famous notion of “Captions of Industry.” Carlyle, whose views on social issues influenced Ruskin, believed . . . Ruskin returns soon to the analogy of a merchant to a of ship’s caption.

“perfectness and purity of the thing provided”

One responsibility of merchants and manufacturers producing and selling only the highest quality products. Ruskin returns repeatedly (and perhaps obsessively) to this idea, going so far as (in “Ad Valorem,” Sec 3 #1), complaining about low quality meat for sale in London markets.

Sec 6 #5

“paternal authority”

In many ways, the heart of Ruskin’s moral and political thinking is that the rich and powerful need to assume parental authority over the “mass of men.” Ruskin is not at all egalitarian. He totally accepts distinctions of social class and riches, and he does not want to see workers fight for political power. But he is adamant that the rich and powerful must care deeply for their workers and for the general well-being of their nation—much as a parent cares deeply about his children.

Sec 6 #6

“All which sounds very strange”

Here is one of many instances in which Ruskin exhorts his readers in a tone of high moral seriousness. without playfulness, invective or satire

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