10.4.3 John Ruskin
John Ruskin was born in 1819, son of a Scottish wine merchant settled in London.  He was educated privately.  Before entering Oxford University in 1836 he traveled widely in France, Switzerland and Italy, and showed an active interest in art.  His able draughtsmanship was revealed mainly in architectural drawings and floral studies.  In 1839 he won the Newdigate poetry prize of the University of Oxford.
Faced with the reality of life in the rapidly expanding industrial cities which were usually places of low wages, inferior diets, inadequate housing and illiteracy, Ruskin became actively interested in social reform. He was an early supporter of the Working Men's College founded by Maurice Kingsley and others in 1854.  In 1860, Unto This Last appeared in the Cornhill Magazine. It was the first of an important series of writings, supplemented by lectures, in which Ruskin attacked the materialist philosophy and the "dismal science" of the particular brand of political economy that seemed to overshadow his age.  His views gave  powerful support to the philosopher, Carlyle, to whom he dedicated Munera Pulveris in 1862.  Time and Tide (1867) upholds the importance of honesty of work and honesty of reward, and paints a new social Utopia, albeit based on the the maintenance of class and rank by government decree, with strict laws governing suitability of young people for marriage.
Sesame and Lilies (1871) consists of lectures delivered in 1864 and 1868, and deals with reading and education, in which he deplores the crushing influence of industrial civilization upon art and morality. It sums up much of Ruskin's most characteristic thought about the dark areas of industrialism.  The Crown of Wild Olive (1866) is full of fierce denunciation of contemporary society. 
In contrast The Queen of the Air (1869) is a study of Greek myth and art.
Its publication marked the election of Ruskin as Slade professor of art at Oxford.  He held the post until 1879 and again during 1883-4.  Many of his lectures there appeared in book form as The Eagles Nest (1872) Ariadne Florentine (1872) Val d'Arno (1873) and the Art of England (1883).
Fors Clavigera (1871-84) consists of nearly a hundred open letters addressed to the labourers and workmen of Great Britain, dealing with varied topics in ethics, art, politics, trade, books, and legends.  Intensely personal and illuminated often by his most vivid phraseology it is one of Ruskin's most remarkable achievements. He followed it in 1885- 9 with the autobiographical Praeterita.
In later years he lived in comparative retirement on his estate at Brantwood, Coniston, in the Lake district, among the mountain landscapes which had strongly influenced his appreciation of natural forms as a child.  There he frequently turned to projects involving manual work and rural crafts. His old home is now maintained as a Ruskin museum. It was during his later life that his mind suffered severe disturbances and he was periodically dominated by melancholia and depression, some of which spilled over into his writing.  He died in 1900. 
In a letter to a friend he appears as a something of a kindly millionaire, struggling with the problems of a sick society in terms of "the three things to which man is born- labour, sorrow and joy". "So, in every way, I like a quiet life; and I don't like seeing people cry, or die; and should rejoice, more than I can tell you, in giving up the full half of my fortune for the poor, provided I knew the public would make Lord Overstone also give up the half of his, and other people who were independent give the half of theirs; and then set men who were really fit for such office to administer the fund, and answer to us for nobody's perishing innocently; and so leave us all to do what we chose with the rest, and with our days in peace".
Ruskin's popularity is rising as more people perceive that his analysis of the ills of industrialisation are relevant to the present day.  From this point of view he is symbolic of the need to inject social negative feedback into runaway industrialism, which now has the dominance to destroy the very atmosphere that urged him to champion Turner's skills in capturing the fleeting character of light and air.  Also, through the environmental bias he placed upon his interpretation of political economy, he offers a bridge between the economic and environmentalists camps on the modern road to a reconciliation of prosperity with ecological stability.  He was the first to open serious discussion on "ecological economics", where things valued on spiritual scales should be given monetary weights by a society keen to preserve them in the face of economic development.
Increasingly, modern environmentalism is searching for a spiritual basis.  Ruskin justified many of his opinions and convictions in the context of Victorian Christianity, and in this he offers some intellectual routes to the formulation of a much needed 'ecological conscience" linked to a spiritual evaluation of nature.
Most of Ruskin's writings may be taken as a fundamental criticism of the competitive society, founded on free enterprise and machine production which had developed uniquely in Britain out of the older agricultural and mercantile society between the 1780s and the 1860s.  In this sense he was groping towards rules for defining the use of natural resources.  His writings stand parallel to those of Thomas Henry Huxley, who, starting from Darwinism was attempting to define Man's place in nature.
Ruskin's summarised his own capabilities in a letter to an artisan friend.
  "I am essentially a painter and a leaf dissector; and my powers of thought are all purely mathematical, seizing ultimate principles only, never accidents; a line is always to me, length without breadth; it is not a cable or a crowbar; and though I can almost infallibly reason out the final law of anything, if within reach of my industry, I neither care for, nor can trace, the minor exigencies of its daily appliance."
Evidence of the applications of these mental skills appears on almost every page he wrote.  His descriptions of a lichen covered tree stump convey an impression of its unsurpassable beauty which the reader will ever remember.  With regard to his ability to marshal a succinct line of enquiry, here is an example of the clarity and economy of effort with which he set out 'the population problem'. 
"An island of a certain size has standing room only for so many people; feeding ground for a great many fewer than could stand on it.  Reach the limits of the feeding ground, and you must cease to multiply, must emigrate or starve.  The essential land question then is to be treated quite separately from that of the methods of restriction of population.  The land question is- At what point will you resolve to stop?  It is a separate matter of discussion how you are to stop at it. 
And this essential land question- At what point will you stop?- is itself two-fold.  You have to consider first, by what methods of land distribution you can maintain the greatest number of healthy persons; secondly, whether, if, by any other mode of distribution and relative ethical laws, you can raise their character, whilst you diminish their numbers, such sacrifices should be made, and to what extent?"
The synthesis which Ruskin attempted still escapes a global society which endlessly debates the same four basic social questions- the size of the population, the state of the poor, the provision of education, and the health of the environment.  And a hundred years on, having tried socialism and communism, the world is still being carried along by unchecked capitalism  We consume ever-increasing quantities of natural resources, with an ever growing illiterate population, set alongside an inequitable distribution of wealth.  The contrasts between rich and poor and the attendant social problems are now far greater in terms of the numbers of people affected than Ruskin could ever imagine.