John Ruskin on What it Means to Be Wealthy

This post is part of the Fragments of Wisdom series: a collection of thoughts and stories on life worth contemplating.


Ruskin was an art critic in the 19th century and an early proponent of environmentalism and sustainability. His ideas had a far reach, maybe most notable of which being their profound influence on Gandhi later on in the 20th century. In his collection of essays titled Unto This Last (free download), Ruskin argues that a deeper understanding of the basics of economics leads us to a sustainable, life-centered approach to building wealth.

The Science of Being Rich

Ruskin makes the following observation about being rich:

Men of business rarely know the meaning of the word “rich.” At least if they know, they do not in their reasonings 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 of electricity, acting only through inequalities or negations of itself. The force of the guinea you have in your pocket depends wholly on the default of a guinea in your neighbor’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 neighbor poor.

This leads him to a dark conclusion for why men want to be rich:

What is really desired, under the name of riches, is, essentially, power over men; in its simplest sense, the power of obtaining for our own advantage the labour of servant, tradesman, and artist; in wider sense, authority of directing large masses of the nation to various ends (good, trivial, or hurtful, according to the mind of the rich person). And this power of wealth of course is greater or less in direct proportion to the poverty of the men over whom it is exercised, and in inverse proportion to the number of persons who are as rich as ourselves, and who are ready to give the same price for an article of which the supply is limited.

And a pessimistic outlook on what he sees as the current path to riches:

The art of becoming “rich,” in the common sense, is not absolutely nor finally the art of accumulating much money for ourselves, but also of contriving that our neighbors shall have less. In accurate terms, it is “the art of establishing the maximum inequality in our own favor.

However Ruskin finds a beautiful and hopeful message in this, which he illustrates in equally beautiful prose:

Since the essence of wealth consists in power over men, will it not follow that the nobler and the more in number the persons are over whom it has power, the greater the wealth? Perhaps it may even appear after some consideration, that the persons themselves are the wealth—that these pieces of gold with which we are in the habit of guiding them, are, in fact, nothing more than a kind of Byzantine harness or trappings, very glittering and beautiful in barbaric sight, wherewith we bridle the creatures; but that if these same living creatures could be guided without the fretting and jingling of the byzants in their mouths and ears, they might themselves be more valuable than their bridles.In fact, it may be discovered that the true veins of wealth are purple—and not in Rock, but in Flesh—perhaps even that the final outcome and consummation of all wealth is in the producing as many as possible full-breathed, bright-eyed, and happy-hearted human creatures.

Later on Ruskin sums the problem up more concisely:

The real science of political economy, which has yet to be distinguished from the bastard science, as medicine from witchcraft, and astronomy from astrology, is that which teaches nations to desire and labour for the things that lead to life; and which teaches them to scorn and destroy the things that lead to destruction.

What’s Valuable?

Ruskin argues that the value of a thing is not determined by what it can be exchanged for. By tracing back the root of the word to Valor he arrives at a definition of value that isn’t relative at all, but absolute:

Valor, from valere, to be well, or strong;—strong, in life (if a man), or valiant; strong, for life (if a thing), or valuable. To be “valuable,” therefore, is to “avail towards life. A truly valuable or availing thing is that which leads to life with its whole strength. In proportion as it does not lead to life, or as its strength is broken, it is less valuable; in proportion as it leads away from life, it is unvaluable or malignant.

What’s Wealth?

Ruskin uses the story of a shipwreck to point out that wealth is relative:

Lately in a wreck of a California ship, one of the passengers fastened a belt around him with two hundred pounds of gold in it, with which he was found afterwards at the bottom. Now, as he was sinking—had he the gold? Or had the gold him?

Wealth, he argues is “the possession of useful articles, which we can use.” It is the accumulation of material and the accumulation of capacity to use those materials. What is useful is not only relative to the situation however, it’s also relative to the person:

For what is capable of use in the hands of some persons, is capable, in the hands of others, of the opposite use, called commonly, “from-use,” or “ab-use.” And it depends on the person, much more than on the article, whether its usefulness or ab-usefulness will be the quality developed in it.

For something to be useful, says Ruskin, “it must be not only of an availing nature, but in availing hands.” From this Ruskin derives a more exact, and final definition of wealth as “the possession of the valuable by the valiant.”

In other words, wealth is the possession of things strong for life by those strong in life.

Becoming Rich

So what does it mean to truly mean to be rich?

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; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.

The advancement towards such an ideal, Ruskin later points out, begins with what we do at home:

All true economy is “Law of the house.” Strive to make that law strict, simple, generous: waste nothing, and grudge nothing. Care in nowise to make more of money, but care to make much of it; remembering always the great, palpable, inevitable fact—the rule and root of all economy—that what one person has, another cannot have; and that every atom of substance, of whatever kind, used or consumed, is so much human life spent; which, if it issue in the saving present life, or gaining more, is well spent, but if not, is either so much life prevented, or so much slain.

But, the Englishman hopes, has the potential to spread our riches far and wide:

“In some faraway and yet undreamt-of-hour, I can even imagine that England may cast all thoughts of possessive wealth back to the barbaric nations among whom they first arose; and that, while the sands of the Indus and adamant of Golconda may yet stiffen the housings of the charger, and flash from turban of the slave, she, as a Christian mother, may at last attain to the virtues and the treasures of a Heathen one, and be able to lead forth her Sons, saying— “These are MY Jewels.”

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Hello. I’m Alasdair.

Hello. I’m Alasdair.

I believe that being aware of who I am and mindful of who I am becoming is the best investment I can make in my life —and that when we focus our efforts within, the rewards naturally flow outward to those we love and through the communities we belong to.