On Ruskin's "Unto This Last" by Clive Wilmer

Unto this Last is dealt with in detail in the General Introduction to this selection. I therefore confine myself here to an analysis of Ruskin's epigraphs. The first of these introduces the theme of the just wage, the second that of the just price.

Christ's Parable of the Vineyard is the source of the book's title. As the significance of the story is taken for granted by Ruskin, I quote it here in full:

For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way.
Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle?
They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive.
So when evening was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny.
But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the good man of the house, saying, these last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and the heat of the day.
But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. (Matthew xx. 1-14)

The spiritual meaning of this Ruskin takes for granted. What counts in Unto this Last is the economic significance of Christ's teaching. Ruskin's understanding of this is never directly stated, but a careful reading of the book will suggest two emphases. First, that the economic relationship between employer and employee should not be seen as a question of profit or advantage, but of justice. Thus we may take it that the householder pays all his workers the same, not in order to under-pay those who have borne, the burden and the heat of the day', but because all men have equal needs. So justice is to be seen in the recognition of need and reciprocal responsibility. Secondly, the parable has bearing on what at the time seemed Ruskin's most eccentric proposal, that there should be a fixed rate of wages for any job of work, regardless of quality.

The significance of the second epigraph is less clear and less interesting. We know that one of the essays Ruskin had originally projected was to have been called 'Thirty Pieces' and that it was concerned with Price. Presumably much of the argument was crammed into 'Ad Valorem'. Certainly the discussion of pricing in that essay includes part of the epigraph (on p. 215) and goes some way towards explaining it. The quotation is from Zechariah xi. 12 and occurs in the chapter where the Lord commands that 'the poor of the flock' be fed:

'Thus saith the Lord my God; Feed the flock of the slaughter; whose possessors slay thee, and hold themselves not guilty. . .' (xi.4-5).

It seems unlikely that Ruskin was not also thinking of the thirty pieces of silver that were paid to Judas Iscariot and which, after his suicide, were used to buy 'the potter's field, to bury strangers in' (Matthew xxvii.3-7). This incident is alluded to. There the silver stands for unjustly earned income, from which the unjust merchant's gain is death — in contrast to the just merchant who recognizes that 'There is no Wealth but Life'.