From Fors Clavigera
by John Ruskin

From Letter XLIV.

ROME, 6th June, 1874.

THE poor Campagna herdsman, whose seeking for St. Paul’s statue the Professor of Fine Art in the University of Oxford so disgracefully failed to assist him in, had been kneeling nearer the line of procession of the Corpus Domini than I:— in fact, quite among the rose-leaves which had been strewed for a carpet round the aisles of the Basilica. I grieve to say that I was shy of the rose-bestrewn path, myself; for the crowd waiting at the side of it had mixed up the rose-leaves with spittle so richly as to make quite a pink pomatum of them. And, indeed, the living temples of the Holy Ghost which in any manner bestir themselves here among the temples,— whether of Roman gods or Christian saints,— have merely and simply the two great operations upon them of filling their innermost adyta with dung, and making their pavements slippery with spittle: the Pope’s new tobacco manufactory under the Palatine,— an infinitely more important object now, in all views of Rome from the west, than either the Palatine or the Capitol,— greatly aiding and encouraging this especial form of lustration: while the still more ancient documents of Egyptian religion the obelisks of the Piazza del Popolo, and of the portico of St. Peter’s are entirely eclipsed by the obelisks of our English religion, lately elevated, in full view from the Pincian and the Montorio, with smoke coming out of the top of them. And farther, the entire eastern district of Rome, between the two Basilicas of the Lateran and St. Lorenzo, is now one mass of volcanic ruin;— a desert, of dust and ashes, the lust of wealth exploding there, out of a crater deeper than Etna’s, and raging, as far as it can reach, in one frantic desolation of whatever is lovely, or holy, or memorable, in the central city of the world.

For there is one fixed idea in the mind of every European progressive politician, at this time; namely, that by a certain application of Financial Art, and by the erection of a certain quantity of new buildings on a colossal scale, it will be possible for society hereafter to pass its entire life in eating, smoking, harlotry, and talk; without doing anything whatever with its hands or feet of a laborious character. And as these new buildings, whose edification is a main article of this modern political faith and hope,— (being required for gambling and dining in on a large scale),— cannot be raised without severely increased taxation of the poorer classes, (here in Italy direct, and in all countries consisting in the rise of price in all articles of food wine alone in Italy costing just ten times what it did ten years ago,) and this increased taxation and distress are beginning to be felt too grievously to be denied; nor only so, but which is still less agreeable to modern politicians with slowly dawning perception of their true causes,— one finds also the popular journalists, for some time back addressing themselves to the defence of Taxation, and Theft in general, after this fashion.

“The wealth in the world may practically be regarded as infinitely great. It is not true that what one man appropriates becomes thereupon useless to others, and it is also untrue that force or fraud, direct or indirect, are the principal, or, indeed, that they are at all common or important, modes of acquiring wealth.”— Pall Mall Gazette, Jan. 14th, 1869.*

The philosophical journalist, after some farther contemptuous statement of the vulgar views on this subject, conveniently dispenses (as will be seen by reference to the end of the clause in the note) with the defence of his own. I will undertake the explanation of what was, perhaps, even to himself, not altogether clear in his impressions. If a burglar ever carries off the Editor’s plate-basket, the bereaved Editor will console himself by reflecting that “it is not true that what one man appropriates becomes thereupon useless to others:”— for truly, (he will thus proceed to finer investigation,) this plate of mine, melted down, after being transitionally serviceable to the burglar, will enter again into the same functions among the silver of the world which it had in my own possession: so that the intermediate benefit to the burglar may be regarded as entirely a form of trade-profit, and a kind of turning over of capital. And “it is also untrue that force or fraud, direct or indirect, are the principal, or indeed that they are at all common or important, modes of acquiring wealth,”— for this poor thief, with his crowbar and jemmy, does but disfurnish my table for a day; while I, with my fluent pen, can replenish it any number of times over, by the beautiful expression of my opinions for the public benefit. But what manner of fraud, or force, there may be in living by the sale of one’s opinions, instead of knowledges; and what quantity of true knowledge on any subject whatsoever moral, political, scientific, or artistic forms at present the total stock in trade of the Editors of the European Press, our Pall Mall Editor has very certainly not considered.

“The wealth in the world practically infinite,”— is it? Then it seems to me, the poor may ask, with more reason than ever before, Why have we not our share of Infinity? We thought, poor ignorants, that we were only the last in the scramble; we submitted, believing that somebody must be last, and somebody first. But if the mass of good things be inexhaustible, and there are horses for everybody,— why is not every beggar on horseback? And for my own part, why should the question be put to me so often,— which I am sick of answering and answering again,— ”How, with our increasing population, are we to live without Machinery?” For if the wealth be already infinite, what need of machinery to make more? Alas! if it could make more, what a different world this might be. Arkwright and Stevenson would deserve statues, indeed,— as much as St. Paul. If all the steam engines in England, and all the coal in it, with all their horse and ass power put together, could produce so much as one grain of corn! The last time this perpetually recurring question about machinery was asked me, it was very earnestly and candidly pressed, by a master manufacturer, who honestly desired to do in his place what was serviceable to England, and honourable to himself. I answered at some length, in private letters, of which I asked and obtained his leave to print some parts in Fors. They may as well find their place in this number; and for preface to them, here is a piece, long kept by me, concerning railroads, which may advisably now be read.

Of modern machinery for locomotion, my readers, I suppose, thought me writing in ill-temper, when I said, in one of the letters on the childhood of Scott, “infernal means of locomotion”? Indeed, I am always compelled to write, as always compelled to live, in ill-temper. But I never set down a single word but with the serenest purpose. I meant “infernal” in the most perfect sense the word will bear.

For instance. The town of Ulverstone is twelve miles from me, by four miles of mountain road beside Coniston lake, three through a pastoral valley, five by the seaside. A healthier or lovelier walk would be difficult to find.

In old times, if a Coniston peasant had any business at Ulverstone, he walked to Ulverstone; spent nothing but shoe-leather on the road, drank at the streams, and if he spent a couple of batz when he got to Ulverstone, “it was the end of the world.” But now, he would never think of doing such a thing! He first walks three miles in a contrary direction, to a railroad station, and then travels by railroad twenty-four miles to Ulverstone, paying two shillings fare. During the twenty-four miles transit, he is idle, dusty, stupid; and either more hot or cold than is pleasant to him. In either case he drinks beer at two or three of the stations, passes his time, between them, with anybody he can find, in talking without having anything to talk of; and such talk always becomes vicious. He arrives at Ulverstone, jaded, half drunk, and otherwise demoralized, and three shillings, at least, poorer than in the morning. Of that sum, a shilling has gone for beer, threepence to a railway shareholder, threepence in coals, and eighteenpence has been spent in employing strong men in the vile mechanical work of making and driving a machine, instead of his own legs, to carry the drunken lout. The results, absolute loss and demoralization to the poor, on all sides, and iniquitous gain to the rich. Fancy, if you saw the railway officials actually employed in carrying the countryman bodily on their backs to Ulverstone, what you would think of the business! And because they waste ever so much iron and fuel besides to do it, you think it a profitable one!

And for comparison of the advantages of old times and new, for travellers of higher order, hear how Scott’s excursions used to be made.

“Accordingly, during seven successive years, Scott made a raid, as he called it, into Liddesdale, with Mr. Shortreed for his guide, exploring every rivulet to its source, and every ruined peel from foundation to battlement. At this time no wheeled carriage had ever been seen in the district; the first, indeed, that ever appeared there was a gig, driven by Scott himself for a part of his way, when on the last of these seven excursions. There was no inn nor public-house of any kind in the whole valley; the travellers passed from the shepherd’s hut to the minister’s manse, and again from the cheerful hospitality of the manse to the rough and jolly welcome of the homestead; gathering, wherever they went, songs and tunes, and occasionally more tangible relics of antiquity even such ‘a rowth of auld nicknackets’ as Burns ascribes to Captain Grose. To these rambles Scott owed much of the materials of his ‘Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border’; and not less of that intimate acquaintance with the living manners of these unsophisticated regions, which constitutes the chief charm of the most charming of his prose works. But how soon he had any definite object before him in his researches seems very doubtful. ‘He was makin’ himsel’ a’ the time,’ said Mr. Shortreed; ‘but he didna ken maybe what he was about, till years had passed. At first he thought o’ little, I dare say, but the queerness and the fun.’

‘It was that same season, I think,’ says Mr. Shortreed, ‘that Sir Walter got from Dr. Elliot the large old border war horn, which ye may still see hanging in the armoury at Abbotsford. How great he was when he was made master o’ that! I believe it had been found in Hermitage Castle and one of the doctor’s servants had used it many a day as a grease-horn for his scythe before they had discovered its history. When cleaned out, it was never a hair the worse; the original chain, hoop, and mouthpiece of steel were all entire, just as you now see them. Sir Walter carried it home all the way from Liddesdale to Jedburgh slung about his neck like Johnny Gilpin’s bottle, while I was entrusted with an ancient bridle-bit, which, we had likewise picked up.

“The feint o’ pride nae pride had he, ...
A lang kail-gully hung down by his side,
And a great meikle nowt-horn to rout on had he.”

And meikle and sair we routed on’t, and “hotched and blew wi’ inicht and main.” O what pleasant days! and then a’ the nonsense we had cost us nothing. We never put hand in pocket for a week on end. Toll-bars there were none, and indeed I think our haill charges were a feed o’ corn to our horses in the gangin’ and comin’ at Riccartoun mill.’”

This absolute economy,** of course, could only exist when travelling was so rare that patriarchal hospitality could still be trusted for its lodging. But the hospitality of the inn need not be less considerate or true because the inn’s master lives in his occupation. Even in these days, I have had no more true or kind friend than the now dead Mrs. Eisenkraemer of the old Union Inn at Chamouni; and an innkeeper’s daughter in the Oberland taught me that it was still possible for a Swiss girl to be refined, imaginative, and pure-hearted, though she waited on her father’s guests, and though these guests were often vulgar and insolent English travellers. For she had been bred in the rural districts of happy olden days,— to which, as it chances, my thoughts first turned, in the following answer to my English manufacturing friend.

On any given farm in Switzerland or Bavaria, fifty years ago, the master and his servants lived, in abundance, on the produce of their ground, without machinery, and exchanged some of its surplus produce for Lyons velvet and Hartz silver, (produced by the unhappy mechanists and miners of those localities,) whereof the happy peasant made jackets and bodices, and richly adorned the same with precious chain-work. It is not more than ten years since I saw in a farm-shed near Thun, three handsome youths and three comely girls, all in well-fitting, pretty, and snow-white shirt and chemisette, threshing corn with a steady shower of timed blows, as skilful in their cadence, shall we. literally, say? as the most exquisitely performed music, and as rapid as its swiftest notes. There was no question for any of them, whether they should have their dinner when they had earned it, nor the slightest chance of any of them going in rags through the winter.

That is entirely healthy, happy, and wise human life. Not a theoretical or Utopian state at all; but one which over large districts of the world has long existed, and must, thank God, in spite of British commerce and its consequences, for ever somewhere, exist.

But the farm, we will say, gets over-populous, (it always does, of course, under ordinary circumstances;) that is to say, the ground no longer affords corn and milk enough for the people on it. Do you suppose you will make more of the corn, because you now thresh it with a machine? So far from needing to do so, you have more hands to employ than you had can have twelve flails going instead of six. You make your twelve human creatures stand aside, and thresh your corn with a steam engine. You gain time, do you? What’s the use of time to you? did it not hang heavy enough on your hands before? You thresh your entire farm produce, let us say, in twelve minutes. Will that make it one grain more, to feed the twelve mouths? Most assuredly, the soot and stench of your steam engine will make your crop less next year, but not one grain more can you have, to-day.*** But you don’t mean to use your engines to thresh with or plough with? Well, that is one point of common sense gained. What will you do with them, then? spin and weave cotton, sell the articles you manufacture, and buy food? Very good; then somewhere there must be people still living as you once did,— that is to say, producing more corn and milk than they want, and able to give it to you in exchange for your cotton, or velvet, or what not, which you weave with your steam. Well, those people, wherever they are, and whoever they may be, are your lords and masters thenceforth. They are living happy and wise human lives, and are served by you, their mechanics and slaves. Day after day your souls will become more mechanical, more servile: also you will go on multiplying, wanting more food, and more; you will have to sell cheaper and cheaper, work longer and longer, to buy your food. At last, do what you can, you can make no more, or the people who have the corn will not want any more; and your increasing population will necessarily come to a quite imperative stop by starvation, preceded necessarily by revolution and massacre.

And now examine the facts about England in this broad light.

She has a vast quantity of ground still food-producing in corn, grass, cattle or game. With that territory she educates her squire, or typical gentleman, and his tenantry, to whom, together, she owes all her power in the world. With another large portion of territory,— now continually on the increase, she educates a mercenary population, ready to produce any quantity of bad articles to anybody’s order; population which every hour that passes over them makes acceleratingly avaricious, immoral, and insane. In the increase of that kind of territory and its people, her ruin is just as certain as if she were deliberately exchanging her corn-growing land, and her heaven above it, for a soil of arsenic, and rain of nitric acid.

“Have the Arkwrights and Stevensons, then, done nothing but harm?” Nothing; but the root of all the mischief is not in Arkwrights or Stevensons; nor in rogues or mechanics. The real root of it is the crime of the squire himself. And the method of that crime is thus. A certain quantity of the food produced by the country is paid annually by it into the squire’s hand, in the form of rent, privately, and taxes, publicly. If he uses this food to support a food-producing population, he increases daily the strength of the country and his own; but if he uses it to support an idle population, or one producing merely trinkets in iron, or gold, or other rubbish, he steadily weakens the country, and debases himself.

Now the action of the squire for the last fifty years has been, broadly, to take the food from the ground of his estate, and carry it to London, where he feeds with it **** a vast number of builders, upholsterers, (one of them charged me five pounds for a footstool the other day,) carriage and harness makers, dress-makers, grooms, footmen, bad musicians, bad painters gamblers, and harlots, and in supply of the wants of these main classes, a vast number of shopkeepers of minor useless articles. The muscles and the time of this enormous population being wholly unproductive (for of course time spent in the mere process of sale is unproductive, and much more that of the footman and groom, while that of the vulgar upholsterer, jeweller, fiddler, and painter, etc., etc., is not only unproductive, but mischievous)— the entire mass of this London population do nothing whatever either to feed or clothe themselves; and their vile life preventing them from all rational entertainment, they are compelled to seek some pastime in a vile literature, the demand for which again occupies another enormous class, who do nothing to feed or dress themselves; finally, the vain disputes of this vicious population give employment to the vast industry of the lawyers and their clerks,***** who similarly do nothing to feed or dress themselves.

Now the peasants might still be able to supply this enormous town population with food, (in the form of the squire’s rent,) but it cannot, without machinery, supply the flimsy dresses, toys, metal work, and other rubbish belonging to their accursed life. Hence over the whole country the sky is blackened and the air made pestilent, to supply London and other such towns ****** with their iron railings, vulgar upholstery, jewels, toys, liveries, lace, and other means of dissipation and dishonour of life. Gradually the country people cannot even supply food to the voracity of the vicious centre; and it is necessary to import food from other countries, giving in exchange any kind of commodity we can attract their itching desires for, and produce by machinery. The tendency of the entire national energy is therefore to approximate more and more to the state of a squirrel in a cage, or a turnspit in a wheel, fed by foreign masters with nuts and dog’s-meat. And indeed when we rightly conceive the relation of London to the country, the sight of it becomes more fantastic and wonderful than any dream. Hyde Park, in the season, is the great rotatory form of the vast squirrel-cage; round and round it go the idle company, in their reversed streams, urging themselves to their necessary exercise. They cannot with safety even eat their nuts, without so much ‘revolution’ as shall, in Venetian language, ‘comply with the demands of hygiene.’ Then they retire into their boxes, with due quantity of straw; the Belgravian and Piccadillian streets outside the railings being, when one sees clearly, nothing but the squirrel’s box at the side of his wires. And then think of all the rest of the metropolis as the creation and ordinance of these squirrels, that they may squeak and whirl to their satisfaction, and yet be fed. Measure the space of its entirely miserable life. Begin with that diagonal which I struck from Regent Circus to Drury Lane; examine it, house by house; then go up from Drury Lane to St. Giles’ Church, look into Church Lane there, and explore your Seven Dials and Warwick Street; and remember this is the very centre of the mother city,— precisely between its Parks, its great Library and Museum, its principal Theatres, and its Bank. Then conceive the East-end; and the melancholy Islington and Pentonville districts; then the ghastly spaces of southern suburb Vauxhall, Lambeth, the Borough, Wapping, and Bermondsey. All this is the nidification of those Park Squirrels. This is the thing they have produced round themselves; this their work in the world. When they rest from their squirrellian revolutions, and die in the Lord, and their works do follow them, these are what will follow them. Lugubrious march of the Waterloo Road, and the Borough, and St. Giles’s; the shadows of all the Seven Dials having fetched their last compass. New Jerusalem, prepared as a bride, of course, opening her gates to them;— but, pertinaciously attendant, Old Jewry outside, “Their works do follow them.”

For these streets are indeed what they have built; their inhabitants the people they have chosen to educate. They took the bread and milk and meat from the people of their fields; they gave it to feed, and retain here in their service, this fermenting mass of unhappy human beings,— news-mongers, novel-mongers, picture-mongers, poison-drink-mongers, lust and death-mongers; the whole smoking mass of it one vast dead-marine storeshop,— accumulation of wreck of the Dead Sea, with every activity in it, a form of putrefaction.

. . .

Some personal matters were touched upon in my friend’s reply to this letter, and I find nothing more printable of the correspondence but this following fragment or two.

“But what are you to do, having got into this mechanical line of life?”

You must persevere in it, and do the best you can for the present, but resolve to get out of it as soon as may be. The one essential point is to know thoroughly that it is wrong; how to get out of it, yon can decide afterwards, at your leisure.

“But somebody must weave by machinery, and dig in mines: else how could one have one’s velvet and silver chains?”

Whatever machinery is needful for human purposes can be driven by wind or water; the Thames alone could drive mills enough to weave velvet and silk for all England. But even mechanical occupation not involving pollution of the atmosphere must be as limited as possible; for it invariably degrades. You may use your slave in your silver mine, or at your loom, to avoid such labour yourself, if you honestly believe you have brains to be better employed;— or you may yourself, for the service of others, honourably become their slave; and, in benevolent degradation, dig silver or weave silk, making yourself semi-spade, or semi-worm. But you must eventually, for no purpose or motive whatsoever, live amidst smoke and filth, nor allow others to do so; you must see that your slaves are as comfortable and safe as their employment permits, and that they are paid wages high enough to allow them to leave it often for redemption and rest.

Eventually, I say;— how fast events may move, none of us know; in our compliance with them, let us at least be intelligently patient if at all; not blindly patient.

For instance, there is nothing really more monstrous in any recorded savagery or absurdity of mankind, than that governments should be able to get money for any folly they choose to commit, by selling to capitalists the right of taxing future generations to the end of time. All the cruellest wars inflicted, all the basest luxuries grasped by the idle classes, are thus paid for by the poor a hundred times over. And yet I am obliged to keep my money in the funds or the bank, because I know no other mode of keeping it safe; and if I refuse to take the interest, I should only throw it into the hands of the very people who would use it for these evil purposes, or, at all events, for less good than I can. Nevertheless it is daily becoming a more grave question with me what it may presently be right to do. It may be better to diminish private charities, and much more, my own luxury of life, than to comply in any sort with a national sin. But I am not agitated or anxious in the matter: content to know my principle, and to work steadily towards better fulfilment of it.

And this is all that I would ask of my correspondent, or of any other man,— that he should know what he is about, and be steady in his line of advance or retreat. I know myself to be an usurer as long as I take interest on any money whatsoever. I confess myself such, and abide whatever shame or penalty may attach to usury, until I can withdraw myself from the system. So my correspondent says he must abide by his post. I think so too. A naval captain, though I should succeed in persuading him of the wickedness of war, would in like manner, if he were wise, abide at his post; nay, would be entirely traitorous and criminal if he at once deserted it. Only let us all be sure what our positions are; and if, as it is said, the not living by interest and the resolutely making every thing as good as can be, are incompatible with the present state of society, let us, though compelled to remain usurers and makers of bad things, at least not deceive ourselves as to the nature of our acts and life.

Leaving thus the personal question, how the great courses of life are to be checked or changed, to each man’s conscience and discretion,— this following answer I would make in all cases to the inquiry, ‘What can I do?

If the present state of this so-called rich England is so essentially miserable and poverty-stricken that honest men must always live from hand to mouth, while speculators make fortunes by cheating them out of their labour, and if, therefore, no sum can be set aside for charity,— the paralyzed honest men can certainly do little for the present. But, with what can be spared for charity, if anything, do this; buy ever so small a bit of ground, in the midst of the worst back deserts of our manufacturing towns; six feet square, if no more can be had,— nay, the size of a grave, if you will, but buy it freehold, and make a garden of it, by band-labour; a garden visible to all men, and cultivated for all men of that place. If absolutely nothing will grow in it, then have herbs carried there in pots. Force the bit of ground into order, cleanliness, green or coloured aspect. What difficulties you have in doing this are your best subjects of thought; the good you will do in doing this, the best in your present power.

What the best in your ultimate power may be, will depend on the action of the English landlord; for observe, we have only to separate the facts of the Swiss farm to ascertain what they are with respect to any state. We have only to ask what quantity of food it produces, how much it exports in exchange for other articles, and how much it imports in exchange for other articles. The food-producing countries have the power of educating gentlemen and gentlewomen if they please,— they are the lordly and masterful countries. Those which exchange mechanical or artistic productions for food are servile, and necessarily in process of time will be ruined. Next Fors, therefore, will be written for any Landlords who wish to be true Workmen in their vocation; and, according to the first law of the St. George’s Company, ‘to do good work, whether they die or live.’

* The passage continues thus, curiously enough,— for the parallel of the boat at sea is precisely that which I have given, in true explanation of social phenomena:

“The notion that when one man becomes rich he makes others poor, will be found upon examination to depend upon the assumption that there is in the world a fixed quantity of wealth; that when one man appropriates to himself a large amount of it, he excludes all others from any benefit arising from it, and that at the same time he forces some one else to be content with less than he would otherwise have had. Society, in short, must be compared to a boat at sea, in which, there is a certain quantity of fresh water, and a certain number of shipwrecked passengers. In that case, no doubt, the water drunk by one is of no use to the rest, and if one drinks more, others must drink less, as the water itself is a fixed quantity. Moreover, no one man would be able to get more than a rateable share, except by superior force, or by some form of deceit, because the others would prevent him. The mere statement of this view ought to be a sufficient exposure of the fundamental error of the commonplaces which we are considering.”

** The reader might at first fancy that the economy was not ‘absolute,’ but that the expenses of the traveller were simply borne by his host. Not so; the host only gave what he in his turn received, when he also travelled. Every man thus carried his home with him, and to travel, was merely to walk or ride from place to place, instead of round one’s own house. (See Saunders Fairford’s expostulation with Alan on the charges incurred at Noble House.)

*** But what is to be done, then? Emigrate, of course; but under different laws from those of modern emigration. Don’t emigrate to China, poison Chinamen, and teach them to make steam engines, and then import Chinamen, to dig iron here. But see next Fors.

**** The writings of our vulgar political economists, calling money only a ‘medium of exchange,’ blind the foolish public conveniently to all the practical actions of the machinery of the currency. Money is not a medium of exchange, but a token of right. I have, suppose, at this moment, ten, twenty, or thirty thousand pounds. That signifies that, as compared with a man who has only ten pounds, I can claim possession of, call for, and do what I like with a thousand, or two thousand, or three thousand times as much of the valuable things existing in the country. The peasant accordingly gives the squire a certain number of these tokens or counters, which give the possessor a right to claim so much corn or meat. The squire gives these tokens to the various persons in town, enumerated in the text, who then claim the corn and meat from the peasant, returning him the counters, which he calls ‘price,’ and gives to the squire again next year.

***** Of the industry of the Magistrate against crime, I say nothing; for it now scarcely exists, but to do evil. See first article in Correspondence, at end of letter.

****** Compare, especially, Letter XXIX., vol. iii. p. 78.