Monday, January 20, 2020

The Scandal of Grace: Learning from John Ruskin

John Ruskin, the highly influential British writer, art critic, and social thinker in the last half of the 19th century, died 120 years ago today (on January 20, 1900) at the age of 81. His most important literary work highlighted what has been called “the scandal of grace.”
Bumping into Ruskin
When I read the Summer 2019 issue of Plough Quarterly, I was impressed with the article titled “Comrade Ruskin: How a Victorian visionary can save communism from Marx” by Eugene McCarraher, a professor at Villanova University.
(McCarraher’s 800-page book The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity was published last November, and he makes numerous references to Ruskin.)
And then late last year I was reading Gandhi’s An Autobiography: Or, The Story of My Experiments with Truth (originally published in 1925~29). I was surprised when I read of his reading Ruskin’s Unto This Last, calling it a book that “was impossible to lay aside, once I had begun it.”
After he read Ruskin’s book, Gandhi decided to change his own life according to Ruskin’s teaching. Among other things, he established “a farm where everybody would get the same salary, without distinction of function, race, or nationality.”
Indeed, Ruskin's influence reached across the world. Tolstoy described him as “one of the most remarkable men not only of England and of our generation, but of all countries and times" and quoted extensively from him.
Also, as the Plough article states, “Echoes of Ruskin’s thought reappeared in the 1960s and 1970s” in the work of economists such as E.F. Schumacher.
Learning from Ruskin
Ruskin considered Unto This Last (1862) his most important work. The title of that brief book, which can be read here on Wikisource, comes from Matthew 20:14, toward the end of Jesus’ parable about the laborers in the vineyard.
Jesus’ parable is called “the scandal of grace” by Warner D’Souza, a Catholic priest in India who in 2017 posted (here) an article on Rembrandt’s 1637 painting titled “Labourers in the Vineyard.”  
One contemporary scholar endeavoring to help people learn more about and from Ruskin is Jim Spates, an emeritus professor at a small liberal arts college in New York. He maintains a blog titled Why Ruskin? which is “dedicated to making known Ruskin’s continuing importance to the troubled world in which we live.”
Spates’s 169th posting, “Unto this Last: The Power of a Parable” was made this month on January 7. It is partly a retelling in contemporary language of Jesus’ parable recorded in Matthew 20. (Unfortunately, Spates used penny as the paraphrase for denarius, which in Jesus’ day was the wage for a day’s work by an ordinary laborer.)
Implementing Ruskin’s Teachings?
While recommended more perhaps by Gandhi (and Jesus!) than by Ruskin, there are some contemporary economists and politicians who are proposing a “universal basic income.” (Here is the link to an explanatory article about that from June 2019).
This sort of economic structure was proposed by MLK, Jr., who is being celebrated by a federal holiday today. In his 1967 book Where Do We Go from Here? King wrote,
I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective—the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.
While the idea of a universal basic, or guaranteed, income may seem offensive to some, it is not only in keeping with the writing of John Ruskin and the example of Gandhi but also consistent with Jesus’ parable about “the scandal of grace.”
In closing, let me share these words from Ruskin’s Unto This Last:
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.


  1. Thanks as always Leroy.
    Not close to knowing as well as those you have shared--as a step in the right direction, why not a living wage requirement always automatically adjusted to inflation? Those who cry or worry that they could not stay in business may be helped to consider the following. How much business should continue at the cost of peoples' lives beyond their earnings? And while it may take an adjustment time, how much more robust would many businesses prosper because people on the whole have adequate funds for life needs?

    1. Thanks for your comments, Les.

      As I understand it, most proposals for a universal basic income (UBI) are linked to adjustments for inflation. And it seems to me that it is certainly feasible that the recipients of a UBI would, indeed, be likely to use most of it for purchasing what they need for living and this would benefit businesses and increase tax revenue.

  2. This morning I attended the two-hour MLK Day program of the Kansas City Northland held in Gano Chapel of William Jewell College. Dr. Tex Sample, professor emeritus at St. Paul School of Theology, gave a powerful talk on King's economic message. While he didn't mention King's proposal for a "guaranteed income," that would have fit in well with Tex's talk.

  3. The first comment received this morning was from local Thinking Friend Anton Jacobs, who was not able to post here with his iPhone. He wrote,

    "I like your blog today. . . . It was an interesting trifecta—connecting King, Ruskin, and Gandhi."

  4. And this about 20 minutes later Bill Ryan, another local Thinking Friend who is a personal friend of both Anton and me, send these brief comments:

    "The title of your blog reminds me of a line in Marilynne Robinson's 'Gilead': ' is a rejection of the reality of grace to hold our enemy at fault.'

    "I've thought of this often during mediations when conflicted parties want to blame each other for their faults. This may or may not be what D'Souza had in mind, but, it's what came to my mind."

  5. Thanks for this blog. I really did not know anything about Ruskin and this helped in an introduction as well as creating more clarity around this troubling (from my 21st century capitalist viewpoint) parable. Some form of universal support should be on our agenda. It is so unfortunate that we, especially western capitalism have created an economic equation out of every part of life.

  6. Anton, Bill, and Lonnie are all local Thinking Friends, and I appreciate each of them reading and responding to yesterday's blog posting.

  7. Another local Thinking Friend, Temp Sparkman, comments:

    "I remember when MLK turned his passion toward the economic status of the working class, but I knew nothing of the extra biblical wellsprings from which it flowed. It seems to me that the notion of a guaranteed wage is more widely just than reparations for descendants of slavery."

    1. Thanks, Temp, for your pertinent comments.

      The main thrust of Tex Sample's talk at the King Day celebration at William Jewell College yesterday was on King's emphasis on the economic needs of working-class people. I think you are right that the notion of a guaranteed wage is of more value in seeking social justice than reparations--although the guaranteed wage would help poor whites, and others, as well as African Americans. King's Poor People's Campaign, though, was not just for Blacks but for all who were suffering from low wages and conditions of poverty.

  8. Leroy--Many thanks for referring your readers to my Ruskin website. If any would like to follow it further, it's at Actually, and along the lines of Post 169, I am working on a "modern translation" of UNTO THIS LAST both because of the difficulty many have reading Ruskin these days and because I deeply believe in his continuing relevance for our times.
    You mention my use of "penny" instead of "denarius." Intentional, as Ruskin (who had read all the translations) always used as his reference the King James Version of the Bible because that's what all his readers knew. The concept of pay sufficient unto the day is clear enough in both that rendition and, I hope, in my modern version of it.
    Loved the concept of "Scandal of Grace." It reminded me of Ruskin's belief that he had contracted "Cassandra's Curse," the ability to speak the truth but no one believing what he said.

    1. Thank you, Dr. Spates, for reading and responding to my blog posting. I am honored to have you respond to it.

      The hyperlink in the text of my article opens your blogsite "Why Ruskin?"--and I just now saw that you have made two more postings since No. 169.

      I realize that the KJV uses "penny" as the translation of "denarius," but I doubt that most people now would understand that a penny was the usual pay for a day's work. That is the reason I think the translation in the New Revised Standard Version is much better: "After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage,[a] he sent them into his vineyard." And then the footnote explains that the Greek word is "denarius." I'm afraid that to most modern readers, especially those who have little knowledge of New Testament times, the idea of working all day for a penny would seem completely ridiculous.

      Thanks for sharing that about "Cassandra's Curse"; I found that quite interesting.