John Ruskin

A short blog post in honour of John Ruskin’s birthday. Ruskin’s writing have been a major influence on my own philosophy both directly and indirectly through Gandhi and Morris.


The work that has most influenced me is The Nature of Gothic, from the Stones of Venice here is a sample quote.

“We want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense. As it is, we make both ungentle, the one envying, the other despising, his brother; and the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers and miserable workers. Now it is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.”

Another great work is Unto this Last. Gandhi was tremendously influenced by this work in the early days whilst still in South Africa, in his autobiography  he said

‘ Of these books, the one that brought about an instantaneous and practical transformation in my life was Unto This Last. I translated it later into Gujarati, entitling it Sarvodaya (the welfare of all). I believe that I discovered some of my deepest convictions reflected in this great book of Ruskin, and that is why it so captured me and made me transform my life. ‘

Let’s delight in a few more Ruskinisms

Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together.

The Two Paths, Lecture II: The Unity of Art, section 54 (1859).

And besides; the problem of land, at its worst, is a bye one; distribute the earth as you will, the principal question remains inexorable, —Who is to dig it? Which of us, in brief word, is to do the hard and dirty work for the rest, and for what pay?

Sesame and Lilies

When men are rightly occupied, their amusement grows out of their work, as the colour-petals out of a fruitful flower;—when they are faithfully helpful and compassionate, all their emotions become steady, deep, perpetual, and vivifying to the soul as the natural pulse to the body. But now, having no true business, we pour our whole masculine energy into the false business of money-making; and having no true emotion, we must have false emotions dressed up for us to play with, not innocently, as children with dolls, but guiltily and darkly

Sesame and Lilies.

Ask a great money-maker what he wants to do with his money, — he never knows. He doesn’t make it to do anything with it. He gets it only that he may get it. “What will you make of what you have got?” you ask. “Well, I’ll get more,” he says. Just as at cricket, you get more runs. There’s no use in the runs, but to get more of them than other people is the game. So all that great foul city of London there, — rattling, growling, smoking, stinking, — a ghastly heap of fermenting brickwork, pouring out poison at every pore, — you fancy it is a city of work? Not a street of it! It is a great city of play; very nasty play and very hard play, but still play.

The Crown of Wild Olive, lecture I: Work, sections 23-24 (1866).

It can only be met by a right understanding, on the part of all classes, of what kinds of labour are good for men, raising them, and making them happy; by a determined sacrifice of such convenience or beauty, or cheapness as is to be got only by the degradation of the workman; and by equally determined demand for the products and results of healthy and ennobling labour.

Stones of Venice Volume II, chapter VI, section 16.

Primarily, which is very notable and curious, I observe that men of business rarely know the meaning of the word ‘rich’. At least, if they know, they do not in their reasoning allow for the fact, that it is a relative word, implying its opposite ‘poor’ as positively as the word ‘north’ implies its opposite ‘south’. Men nearly always speak and write as if riches were absolute, and it were possible, by following certain scientific precepts, for everybody to be rich. Whereas riches are a power like that electricity, acting only through inequalities or negations of itself. The force of the guinea you have in your pockets depends wholly on the default of a guinea in your neighbour’s pocket. If he did not want it, it would be of no use to you; the degree of power it possesses depends accurately upon the need or desire he has for it,— and the art of making yourself rich, in the ordinary mercantile economist’s sense, is therefore equally and necessarily the art of keeping your neighbour poor.

Unto this last Essay two: ‘The Veins of Wealth’.

In all base schools of art, the craftsman is dependent for his bread on originality; that is to say, on finding in himself some fragment of isolated faculty, by which his work may be distinct from that of other men. We are ready enough to take delight in our little doings, without any such stimulus; — what must be the effect of the popular applause which continually suggests that the little thing we can separately do is as excellent as it is singular; and what the effect of the bribe, held out to us through the whole of life, to produce — it being also in our peril not to produce — something different from the work of our neighbours?

The Eagle’s Nest

There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man’s lawful prey.


The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.


Let us reform our schools, and we shall find little reform needed in our prisons.


Skill is the unified force of experience, intellect and passion in their operation.


It is far more difficult to be simple than to be complicated.

I believe the right question to ask, respecting all ornament, is simply this; was it done with enjoyment, was the carver happy while he was about it?

and if you have got this far lets finish with this wonderful nugget of wisdom

No human being, however great, or powerful, was ever so free as a fish.

6 Responses to John Ruskin

  1. Mike Abbott February 9, 2014 at 11:22 am #

    REALLY inspiring stuff! Thanks.

  2. Stephen Ruskin February 9, 2014 at 7:07 pm #

    Excellent birthday tribute for my great great uncle. Thank you

    • Robin Wood February 9, 2014 at 10:39 pm #

      wow imagine having a great uncle who inspired Gandhi to live the life he did.

  3. Al Muckart February 11, 2014 at 5:30 am #

    You can get many, if not all, of John Ruskin’s books from Project Gutenberg

  4. Digby Field February 15, 2014 at 8:24 am #

    Thank you for this introduction. The clarity of his sentiments has made my own thinking a little less jumbled. I will seek out and read some of his work.

  5. Jonathan Walford March 13, 2014 at 2:27 am #

    One of the greatest thinkers of his and any time. A personal hero and mentor. Thanks for reminding me with those salient quotes.