Ruskin's conception of wealth is necessarily, and heavily, imbued with moral qualities. As he writes in "The Veins of Wealth" from Unto This Last:

It is impossible to conclude, of any given mass of acquired wealth, merely by the fact of its existence, whether it signifies good or evil to the nation in the midst of which it exists. Its real value depends on the moral sign attached to it, just as sternly as that of a mathematical quantity depends on the algebraical sign attached to it...

And these are not, observe, merely moral or pathetic attributes of riches, which the seeker of riches may, if he chooses, despise; they are, literally and sternly, material attributes of riches, depreciating or exalting, incalculably, the monetary signification of the sum in question. One mass of money is the outcome of action which has created, — another, of action which has annihilated, — ten times as much in the gathering of it; such and such strong hands have been paralyzed, as if they had been numbed by nightshade: so many strong men's courage broken, so many productive operations hindered; this and the other false direction given to labour, and lying image of prosperity set up, on Dura plains dug into seven-times-heated furnaces. That which seems to be wealth may in verity be only the gilded index of far-reaching ruin; a wrecker's handful of coin gleaned from the beach to which he has beguiled an argosy; a camp-follower's bundle of rags unwrapped from the breasts of goodly soldiers dead; the purchase-pieces of potter's fields, wherein shall be buried together the citizen and the stranger. [187]


1. It seems that this moral codification of wealth implies, as its necessary result, some form of communism or socialism. The capitalist pursuit of wealth, as described in Ruskin's parable of the island community, is "evil." To obtain wealth that is "good," one must pursue the common good, as noted in footnote 35. Is this reading supported elsewhere in Unto This Last?

2. Ruskin's binary of wealth offers no middle ground — either one is equated with Judas (via the "purchase-pieces" reference) or one is not. How realistic is this exclusive system of good and evil?

Last modified 4 April 2003

6 May 2019