[The following text forms one of Ruskin’s notes to “Essay III. The Veins of Wealth” in Unto This Last. Ruskin here states his belief in the role of what we may term non-rational motivation in economic decision-making. Ruskin’s emphasis upon the role of such non-rational, and even irrational, motivation in economic decisions provided the occasion of much savage mockery of him and his ideas by Victorian writers on economics. As it has turned out, of course, work by later professional economists on such non-rational, and even irrational, motivation in economic decisions has produced several twentieth- and twenty-first-century Noble Prizes in Economics. To be fair, these recent Noble Prize winners emphasized more negative emotions or reasoning, but the Ruskin’s main point — Classical economists’ bizarrely limited views of human decision making and consequently flawed theories of political economics — still stands.

The editors of the Library Edition add two notes to the following passage from “The Veins of Wealth,” the first of which notes that Ruskin’s claim that “the retardation of science by envy is one of the most tremendous losses in the economy of the present century” is “a constant theme with Ruskin; compare Two Paths, § 139 (16.374).” A second explains, “Mill’s “first definition of labour” is in the Principles of Political Economy, book i. ch. i. § 1. Ruskin in his copy of the book had written in the margin the criticism here made upon the passage. The later quotation is from book i. ch.ii. § 8.]” — George P. Landow

Under the term "skill" I mean to include the united force of experience, intellect, and passion in their operation on manual labour: and under the term "passion," to include the entire range and agency of the moral feelings; from the simple patience and gentleness of mind which will give continuity and fineness to the touch, or enable one person to work without fatigue, and with good effect, twice as long as another, up to the qualities of character which render science possible—(the retardation of science by envy is one of the most tremendous losses in the economy of the present century)—and to the incommunicable emotion and imagination which are the first and mightiest sources of all value in art.

It is highly singular that political economists should not yet have perceived, if not the moral, at least the passionate element, to be an inextricable quantity in every calculation. I cannot conceive, for instance, how it was possible that Mr. Mill should have followed the true clue so far as to write,—"No limit can be set to the importance—even in a purely productive and material point of view—of mere thought," without seeing that it was logically necessary to add also, "and of mere feeling." And this the more, because in his first definition of labour he includes in the idea of it "all feelings of a disagreeable kind connected with the employment of one's thoughts in a particular occupation." True; but why not also, "feelings of an agreeable kind?" It can hardly be supposed that the feelings which retard labour are more essentially a part of the labour than those which accelerate it. The first are paid for as pain, the second as power. The workman is merely indemnified for the first; but the second both produce a part of the exchangeable value of the work, and materially increase its actual quantity.

"Fritz is with us. He is worth fifty thousand men." Truly, a large addition to the material force;—consisting, however, be it observed, not more in operations carried on in Fritz's head, than in operations carried on in his armies' heart. "No limit can be set to the importance of mere thought." Perhaps not! Nay, suppose some day it should turn out that "mere" thought was in itself a recommendable object of production, and that all Material production was only a step towards this more precious Immaterial one?

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Last modified 23 February 2019