From Fors Clavigera
by John Ruskin

From Letter IV, 1st April, 1871.

[... after a quote from John Stuart Mill ...]

... you might have been tempted to ask farther ”What things are useful, and what are not?” And as Mr. Mill does not know, nor any other Political Economist going,— and as they therefore particularly wish nobody to ask them,— it is convenient to say, instead of “useful things,” “utilities fixed and embodied in material objects,” because that sounds so very like complete and satisfactory information, that one is ashamed, after getting it, to ask for any more.

But it is not, therefore, less discouraging that for the present I have got no help towards discovering whether my handful of gravel with the white pebble in it was worth my thirty pounds or not. I am afraid it is not a useful thing to me. It lies at the back of a drawer, locked up all the year round. I never look at it now, for I know all about it: the only satisfaction I have for my money is knowing that nobody else can look at it; and if nobody else wanted to, I shouldn’t even have that.

“What did you buy it for then?” you will ask. Well, if you must have the truth, because I was a Fool, and wanted it. Other people have bought such things before me. The white stone is a diamond, and the apparent brass filings are gold dust; but, I admit, nobody ever yet wanted such things who was in their right senses. Only now, as 1 have candidly answered all your questions, will you answer one of mine? If I hadn’t bought it, what would you have had me do with my money? Keep that in the drawer instead? or at my banker’s, till it grew out of thirty pounds into sixty and a hundred, in fulfilment of the law respecting seed sown in good ground?

Doubtless, that would have been more meritorious for the time. But when I had got the sixty or the hundred pounds what should I have done with them? The question only becomes doubly and trebly serious; and all the more, to me, because, when I told you last January that I had bought a picture for a thousand pounds, permitting myself in that folly for your advantage, as I thought, hearing that many of you wanted art Patronage, and wished to live by painting,— one of your own popular organs, the Liverpool Daily Courier, of February 9th, said, “it showed want of taste,— of tact,” and was “something like a mockery,” to tell you so! I am not to buy pictures, therefore, it seems;— you like to be kept in mines and tunnels, and occasionally blown hither and thither, or crushed flat, rather than live by painting, in good light, and with the chance of remaining all day in a whole and unextended skin? But what shall I buy, then, with the next thirty pieces of gold I can scrape together? Precious things have been bought, indeed, and sold, before now for thirty pieces, even of stiver, but with doubtful issue. The over-charitable person who was bought to be killed at that price, indeed, advised the giving of alms; but you won’t have alms, I suppose you are so independent, nor go into alms-houses (and, truly, I did not much wonder, as I walked by the old church of Abingdon, a Sunday or two since, where the alms-houses are set round the churchyard, and under the level of it, and with a cheerful view of it, except that the tombstones slightly block the light of the lattice-windows; with beautiful texts from Scripture over the doors, to remind the paupers still more emphatically that, highly blessed as they were, they were yet mortal)— yon won’t go into alms-houses; and all the clergy in London have been shrieking against alms-giving to the lower poor this whole winter long, till I am obliged, whenever I want to give anybody a penny, to look up and down the street first, to see if a clergyman’s coming. Of course, I know I might buy as many iron railings as I please, and be praised; but I’ve no room for them. I can’t well burn more coals than I do, because of the blacks, which spoil my books; and the Americans won’t let me buy any blacks alive, or else I would have some black dwarfs with parrots, such as one sees in the pictures of Paul Veronese. I should of course like, myself, above all things, to buy a pretty white girl, with a title and I should get great praise for doing that only I haven’t money enough. White girls come dear, even when one buys them only like coals, for fuel. The Duke of Bedford, indeed, bought Joan of Arc, from the French, to burn, for only ten thousand pounds, and a pension of three hundred a year to the Bastard of Vendome and I could and would have given that for her, and not burnt her; but one hasn’t such a chance every day. Will you, any of you, have the goodness beggars, clergymen, workmen, seraphic doctors, Mr. Mill, Mr. Fawcett or the Political-Economic Professor of my own University I challenge you, I beseech you, all and singly, to tell me what I am to do with my money?

I mean, indeed, to give you my own poor opinion on the subject in May; though I feel the more embarrassed in the thought of doing so, because, in this present April, I am so much a fool as not even to know clearly whether I have got any money or not. I know, indeed, that things go on at present as if I had; but it seems to me that there must be a mistake somewhere, and that some day it will be found out. For instance, I have seven thousand pounds in what we call the Funds or Founded things; but I am not comfortable about the Founding of them. All that I can see of them is a square bit of paper, with some ugly printing on it, and all that I know of them is that this bit of paper gives me a right to tax you every year, and make you pay me two hundred pounds out of your wages; which is very pleasant for me; but how long will you be pleased to do so? Suppose it should occur to you, any summer’s day, that you had better not? Where would my seven thousand pounds be? In fact, where are they now? We call ourselves a rich people; but you see this seven thousand pounds of mine has no real existence it only means that you, the workers, are poorer by two hundred pounds a year than you would be if I hadn’t got it. And this is surely a very odd kind of money for a country to boast of. Well, then, besides this, I have a bit of low land at Greenwich, which, as far as I see anything of it, is not money at all, but only mud; and would be of as little use to me as my handful of gravel in the drawer, if it were not that an ingenious person has found out that ho can make chimney-pots of it; and, every quarter, he brings me fifteen pounds off the price of his chimney-pots; so that I am always sympathetically glad when there’s a high wind, because then I know my ingenious friend’s business is thriving. But suppose it should come into his head, in any less windy month than this April, that he had better bring me none of the price of his chimneys? And even though he should go on, as I hope he will, patiently,— (and I always give him a glass of wine when he brings me the fifteen pounds),— is this really to be called money of mine? And is the country any richer because, when anybody’s chimney-pot is blown down in Greenwich, he must pay something extra, to me, before he can put it on again?

Then, also, I have some houses in Marylebone, which, though indeed very ugly and miserable, yet, so far as they are actual beams and brick-bats put into shape, I might have imagined to be real property; only, you know, Mr. Mill says that people who build houses don’t produce a commodity, but only do us a service. So I suppose my houses are not “utilities embodied in material objects” (and indeed they don’t look much like it); but I know I have the right to keep anybody from living in them unless they pay me; only suppose some day the Irish faith, that people ought to be lodged for nothing, should become an English one also where would my money be? Where is it now, except as a chronic abstraction from other people’s earnings?

So again, I have some land in Yorkshire some Bank “Stock” (I don’t in the least know what that is)— and the like; but whenever I examine into these possessions, I find they melt into one or another form of future taxation, and that I am always sitting (if I were working I shouldn’t mind, but I am only sitting) at the receipt of Custom, and a Publican as well as a Sinner. And then, to embarrass the business further yet, I am quite at variance with other people about the place where this money, whatever it is, comes from. The Spectator, for instance, in its article of 25th June of last year, on Mr. Goschen’s “lucid and forcible speech of Friday week,” says that “the country is once more getting rich, and the money is filtering downwards to the actual workers.” But whence, then, did it filter down to us, the actual idlers? This is really a question very appropriate for April. For such golden rain raineth not every day, but in a showery and capricious manner, out of heaven, upon us; mostly, as far as I can judge, rather pouring down than filtering upon idle persons, and running in thinner driblets, but I hope purer tor the filtering process, to the “actual workers.” But where does it come from? and in the times of drought between the showers, where does it go to? “The country is getting rich again,” says the Spectator; but then, if the April clouds fail, may it get poor again? And when it again becomes poor,— when, last 25th of June, it was poor,— what becomes, or had become, of the money? Was it verily lost, or only torpid in the winter of our discontent? or was it sown and buried in corruption, to be raised in a multifold power? When we are in a panic about our money, what do we think is going to happen to it? Can no economist teach us to keep it safe after we have once got it? nor any “beloved physician,”— as I read the late Sir James Simpson is called in Edinburgh guard even our solid gold against death, or at least, fits of an apoplectic character, alarming to the family?

All these questions trouble me greatly; but still to me the strangest point in the whole matter is, that though we idlers always speak as if we were enriched by Heaven, and became ministers of its bounty to you; if ever you think the ministry slack, and take to definite pillage of us, no good ever comes of it to you; but the sources of wealth seem to be stopped instantly, and you are reduced to the small gain of making gloves of our skins; while, on the contrary, as long as we continue pillaging you, there seems no end to the profitableness of the business; but always, however bare we strip you, presently, more, to be had. For instance just read this little bit out of Froissart about the English army in France before the battle of Creçy....