This month has seen the largest number of new MPs ever to enter Westminster at a general election. Over one hundred years ago, following the 1906 general election another new phenomenon appeared in the House of Commons – Labour MPs. The 27 first time Labour MPs were asked what single book had most powerfully influenced them to pursue social justice through politics. Seventeen of them cited John Ruskin’s Unto this Last.
I have encountered Ruskin whilst reading on four separate occasions in the last week – and I thought I’d follow him up.
The reason that his book was considered so inspirational was its challenge to the idea that happiness is derived from lots of money – “The ruling goddess [of Britain] may be best generally described as the “Goddess of Getting On”‘. People are ashamed of their lack of wealth and are jealous at the wealth of others.
He challenged this with the idea that true wealth was found in an abundance of kindness, curiosity, sensitivity, humility, godliness and intelligence – what Ruskin simply called “life”.
“There is no wealth but life….. life, including all its powers of love, of joy and 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 ….. Many of the persons commonly considered wealthy, are in reality, no more wealthy than the locks of their own strong boxes, they being inherently and eternally incapable of wealth.”
Amen to that!
To what degree Ruskin went on to point out that without God – living like this is impossible – I don’t know. He identified himself as a Christian, and is seen as one of the founders of Christian Socialism . The New Testament gives us a sober assesment of ourselves:
17You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. 18I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.
Let’s take care that we do not join in with the worship of the “Goddess of Getting On”.
[Thanks to Alain de Botton’s “Status Anxiety” for setting me onto Ruskin]