Ruskin was a writer who changed lives. Unto this Last, said Gandhi, 'captured me and made me transform my life'. For the young William Morris, 'The books of John Ruskin were . . . a sort of revelation . . .' In his Introduction to The Bible of Amiens; Proust declared of Ruskin: 'He will teach me, for is not he, too, in some degree the Truth?' 'He was one of those rare men,' wrote Tolstoy, 'who think with their hearts, and so he thought and said not only what he himself had seen and felt, but what everyone will think and say in the future.' To these names may be added innumerable others, equally diverse. Nothing more effectively illustrates the range and depth of Ruskin's achievement than a roll-call of the people he influenced.
The present selection has been designed to demonstrate both his range and the unity underlying it. Nothing in his work seems more important than his refusal, in an age of growing specialization, to separate one discipline from another or to see questions of art and science as distinct from questions of morality. The refusal was, in many respects, an aspect of his conservatism. But the modern reader may feel it to be prophetic. In reacting against his time, he drew attention to values the industrial age was about to sweep away. Many of these — by no means all of them — our own age has begun to rediscover. He was, to use a term that was not then current, an ecological thinker. This is partly to say that he was the first important writer to recognize the dangers of industrial waste and pollution. For Ruskin, a profitable factory that pollutes the environment cannot be looked upon as a producer of wealth, for 'There is no Wealth but Life'. But I also intend 'ecological' in a broader sense. Ecology studies the forms of life in the context of their environment. Ruskin applied this principle to everything that concerned him. However detailed his scrutiny of particulars, he shows himself incapable, from first to last, of abstracting anything from its context.
In order to focus on Unto this Last, however, I have chosen pieces that easily connect with it. They cover a variety of topics, but each of them at some point touches on the themes of wealth, labour, justice and social order. I have also drawn mainly on the writings of Ruskin's middle period, the phase of his life to which Unto this Last belongs. I have therefore denied the reader some of the pleasures of reading him. The selection contains few of the ecstatic descriptions of nature or architecture that make the early books so memorable; and, apart from two letters from Fors Clavigera, I have included nothing from the more personal and fragmentary books of his last period. In particular, with great regret, I have excluded Praeterita, though one of the passages from Fors Clavigera recurs in the first chapter of that great book. This decision was made partly because it is difficult to make extracts from Praeterita, partly because the book is one of the few that are still in print, and partly because I could find no extended passage that would throw light on the themes of this selection. I wanted at all costs to avoid something which Ruskin himself detested and which has bedevilled his reputation from the start: the anthologizing of short purple passages, removed from their intended contexts. All the essays and lectures, with the exception of `The Nature of Gothic', are virtually complete, though I have cut a few footnotes and sentences that were too ephemerally topical to be anything but distracting to a modern reader. The missing footnotes I have left unacknowledged, but cuts in the main text are indicated thus: [. . .]. Asterisks and daggers left in the text are Ruskin's and refer to those of his footnotes that remain; numbers refer to my notes, which I have placed at the end of the book, so that readers may disregard them if they choose. I have ignored Ruskin's practice of numbering paragraphs.
The text I have used is The Library Edition of the Works of John Ruskin, edited by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, which I describe more fully in the Select Bibliography. All references in this introduction and in the notes are to that edition.
CLIVE WILMER, Cambridge, November 1984