Munera Pulveris, by John Ruskin

Chapter iv.


95. As the currency conveys right of choice out of many things in exchange for one, so Commerce is the agency by which the power of choice is obtained; so that countries producing only timber can obtain for their timber silk and gold; or, naturally producing only jewels and frankincense, can obtain for them cattle and corn. In this function, commerce is of more importance to a country in proportion to the limitations of its products, and the restlessness of its fancy; — generally of greater importance towards Northern latitudes.

96. Commerce is necessary, however, not only to exchange local products, but local skill. Labour requiring the agency of fire can only be given abundantly in cold countries; labour requiring suppleness of body and sensitiveness of touch, only in warm ones; labour involving accurate vivacity of thought only in temperate ones; while peculiar imaginative actions are produced by extremes of heat and cold, and of light and darkness. The production of great art is limited to climates warm enough to admit of repose in the open air, and cool enough to render such repose delightful. Minor variations in modes of skill distinguish every locality. The labour which at any place is easiest, is in that place cheapest; and it becomes often desirable that products raised in one country should be wrought in another. Hence have arisen discussions on “International values” which will be one day remembered as highly curious exercises of the human mind. For it will be discovered, in due course of tide and time, that international value is regulated just as inter-provincial or inter-parishional value is. Coals and hops are exchanged between Northumberland and Kent on absolutely the same principles as iron and wine between Lancashire and Spain. The greater breadth of an arm of the sea increases the cost, but does not modify the principle of exchange; and a bargain written in two languages will have no other economical results than a bargain written in one. The distances of nations are measured, not by seas, but by ignorances; and their divisions determined, not by dialects, but by enmities.44

97. Of course, a system of international values may always be constructed if we assume a relation of moral law to physical geography; as, for instance, that it is right to cheat or rob across a river, though not across a road; or across a sea, though not across a river, &c.; — again, a system of such values may be constructed by assuming similar relations of taxation to physical geography; as, for instance, that an article should be taxed in crossing a river, but not in crossing a road; or in being carried fifty miles, but not in being carried five, &c.; such positions are indeed not easily maintained when once put in logical form; but one law of international value is maintainable in any form: namely, that the farther your neighbour lives from you, and the less he understands you, the more you are bound to be true in your dealings with him; because your power over him is greater in proportion to his ignorance, and his remedy more difficult in proportion to his distance.45

98. I have just said the breadth of sea increases the cost of exchange. Now note that exchange, or commerce, in itself, is always costly; the sum of the value of the goods being diminished by the cost of their conveyance, and by the maintenance of the persons employed in it; so that it is only when there is advantage to both producers (in getting the one thing for the other) greater than the loss in conveyance, that the exchange is expedient. And it can only be justly conducted when the porters kept by the producers (commonly called merchants) expect mere pay, and not profit.46 For in just commerce there are but three parties — the two persons or societies exchanging, and the agent or agents of exchange; the value of the things to be exchanged is known by both the exchangers, and each receives equal value, neither gaining nor losing (for whatever one gains the other loses). The intermediate agent is paid a known per-centage by both, partly for labour in conveyance, partly for care, knowledge, and risk; every attempt at concealment of the amount of the pay indicates either effort on the part of the agent to obtain unjust profit, or effort on the part of the exchangers to refuse him just pay. But for the most part it is the first, namely, the effort on the part of the merchant to obtain larger profit (so-called) by buying cheap and selling dear. Some part, indeed, of this larger gain is deserved, and might be openly demanded, because it is the reward of the merchant’s knowledge, and foresight of probable necessity; but the greater part of such gain is unjust; and unjust in this most fatal way, that it depends, first, on keeping the exchangers ignorant of the exchange value of the articles; and, secondly, on taking advantage of the buyer’s need and the seller’s poverty. It is, therefore, one of the essential, and quite the most fatal, forms of usury; for usury means merely taking an exorbitant47 sum for the use of anything; and it is no matter whether the exorbitance is on loan or exchange, on rent or on price — the essence of the usury being that it is obtained by advantage of opportunity or necessity, and not as due reward for labour. All the great thinkers, therefore, have held it to be unnatural and impious, in so far as it feeds on the distress of others, or their folly.48 Nevertheless, attempts to repress it by law must for ever be ineffective; though Plato, Bacon, and the First Napoleon — all three of them men who knew somewhat more of humanity than the “British merchant” usually does — tried their hands at it, and have left some (probably) good moderative forms of law, which we will examine in their place. But the only final check upon it must be radical purifying of the national character, for being, as Bacon calls it, “concessum propter duritiem cordis,” it is to be done away with by touching the heart only; not, however, without medicinal law — as in the case of the other permission, “propter duritiem.” But in this more than in anything (though much in all, and though in this he would not himself allow of their application, for his own laws against usury are sharp enough), Plato’s words in the fourth book of the Polity are true, that neither drugs, nor charms, nor burnings, will touch a deep-lying political sore, any more than a deep bodily one; but only right and utter change of constitution: and that “they do but lose their labour who think that by any tricks of law they can get the better of these mischiefs of commerce, and see not that they hew at a Hydra.”

99. And indeed this Hydra seems so unslayable, and sin sticks so fast between the joinings of the stones of buying and selling, that “to trade” in things, or literally “cross-give” them, has warped itself, by the instinct of nations, into their worst word for fraud; for, because in trade there cannot but be trust, and it seems also that there cannot but also be injury in answer to it, what is merely fraud between enemies becomes treachery among friends: and “trader,” “traditor,” and “traitor” are but the same word. For which simplicity of language there is more reason than at first appears: for as in true commerce there is no “profit,” so in true commerce there is no “sale.” The idea of sale is that of an interchange between enemies respectively endeavouring to get the better one of another; but commerce is an exchange between friends; and there is no desire but that it should be just, any more than there would be between members of the same family.49 The moment there is a bargain over the pottage, the family relation is dissolved:— typically, “the days of mourning for my father are at hand.” Whereupon follows the resolve, “then will I slay my brother.”

100. This inhumanity of mercenary commerce is the more notable because it is a fulfilment of the law that the corruption of the best is the worst. For as, taking the body natural for symbol of the body politic, the governing and forming powers may be likened to the brain, and the labouring to the limbs, the mercantile, presiding over circulation and communication of things in changed utilities, is symbolized by the heart; and, if that hardens, all is lost. And this is the ultimate lesson which the leader of English intellect meant for us, (a lesson, indeed, not all his own, but part of the old wisdom of humanity), in the tale of the Merchant of Venice; in which the true and incorrupt merchant — kind and free beyond every other Shakspearian conception of men — is opposed to the corrupted merchant, or usurer; the lesson being deepened by the expression of the strange hatred which the corrupted merchant bears to the pure one, mixed with intense scorn —

“This is the fool that lent out money gratis; look to him, jailer,” (as to lunatic no less than criminal) the enmity, observe, having its symbolism literally carried out by being aimed straight at the heart, and finally foiled by a literal appeal to the great moral law that flesh and blood cannot be weighed, enforced by “Portia”50 (“Portion”), the type of divine Fortune, found, not in gold, nor in silver, but in lead, that is to say, in endurance and patience, not in splendour; and finally taught by her lips also, declaring, instead of the law and quality of “merces,” the greater law and quality of mercy, which is not strained, but drops as the rain, blessing him that gives and him that takes. And observe that this “mercy” is not the mean “Misericordia,” but the mighty “Gratia,” answered by Gratitude, (observe Shylock’s leaning on the, to him detestable, word, gratis, and compare the relations of Grace to Equity given in the second chapter of the second book of the Memorabilia;) that is to say, it is the gracious or loving, instead of the strained, or competing manner, of doing things, answered, not only with “merces” or pay, but with “merci” or thanks. And this is indeed the meaning of the great benediction “Grace, mercy, and peace,” for there can be no peace without grace, (not even by help of rifled cannon), nor even without triplicity of graciousness, for the Greeks, who began but with one Grace, had to open their scheme into three before they had done.

101. With the usual tendency of long repeated thought, to take the surface for the deep, we have conceived these goddesses as if they only gave loveliness to gesture; whereas their true function is to give graciousness to deed, the other loveliness arising naturally out of that. In which function Charis becomes Charitas;51 and has a name and praise even greater than that of Faith or Truth, for these may be maintained sullenly and proudly; but Charis is in her countenance always gladdening (Aglaia), and in her service instant and humble; and the true wife of Vulcan, or Labour. And it is not until her sincerity of function is lost, and her mere beauty contemplated instead of her patience, that she is born again of the foam flake, and becomes Aphrodite; and it is then only that she becomes capable of joining herself to war and to the enmities of men, instead of to labour and their services. Therefore the fable of Mars and Venus is chosen by Homer, picturing himself as Demodocus, to sing at the games in the court of Alcinous. Phæacia is the Homeric island of Atlantis; an image of noble and wise government, concealed, (how slightly!) merely by the change of a short vowel for a long one in the name of its queen; yet misunderstood by all later writers, (even by Horace, in his “pinguis, Phæaxque”). That fable expresses the perpetual error of men in thinking that grace and dignity can only be reached by the soldier, and never by the artisan; so that commerce and the useful arts have had the honour and beauty taken away, and only the Fraud and Pain left to them, with the lucre. Which is, indeed, one great reason of the continual blundering about the offices of government with respect to commerce. The higher classes are ashamed to employ themselves in it; and though ready enough to fight for (or occasionally against) the people — to preach to them — or judge them, will not break bread for them; the refined upper servant who has willingly looked after the burnishing of the armoury and ordering of the library, not liking to set foot in the larder.

102. Farther still. As Charis becomes Charitas on the one side, she becomes — better still — Chara, Joy, on the other; or rather this is her very mother’s milk and the beauty of her childhood; for God brings no enduring Love, nor any other good, out of pain; nor out of contention; but out of joy and harmony. And in this sense, human and divine, music and gladness, and the measures of both, come into her name; and Cher becomes full-vowelled Cheer, and Cheerful; and Chara opens into Choir and Choral.52

103. And lastly. As Grace passes into Freedom of action, Charis becomes Eleutheria, or Liberality; a form of liberty quite curiously and intensely different from the thing usually understood by “Liberty” in modern language: indeed, much more like what some people would call slavery: for a Greek always understood, primarily, by liberty, deliverance from the law of his own passions (or from what the Christian writers call bondage of corruption), and this a complete liberty: not being merely safe from the Siren, but also unbound from the mast, and not having to resist the passion, but making it fawn upon, and follow him —(this may be again partly the meaning of the fawning beasts about the Circean cave; so, again, George Herbert —

Correct thy passion’s spite,

Then may the beasts draw thee to happy light)—

And it is only in such generosity that any man becomes capable of so governing others as to take true part in any system of national economy. Nor is there any other eternal distinction between the upper and lower classes than this form of liberty, Eleutheria, or benignity, in the one, and its opposite of slavery, Douleia, or malignity, in the other; the separation of these two orders of men, and the firm government of the lower by the higher, being the first conditions of possible wealth and economy in any state — the Gods giving it no greater gift than the power to discern its true freemen, and “malignum spernere vulgus.”

104. While I have traced the finer and higher laws of this matter for those whom they concern, I have also to note the material law — vulgarly expressed in the proverb, “Honesty is the best policy.” That proverb is indeed wholly inapplicable to matters of private interest. It is not true that honesty, as far as material gain is concerned, profits individuals. A clever and cruel knave will in a mixed society always be richer than an honest person can be. But Honesty is the best “policy,” if policy mean practice of State. For fraud gains nothing in a State. It only enables the knaves in it to live at the expense of honest people; while there is for every act of fraud, however small, a loss of wealth to the community. Whatever the fraudulent person gains, some other person loses, as fraud produces nothing; and there is, besides, the loss of the time and thought spent in accomplishing the fraud, and of the strength otherwise obtainable by mutual help (not to speak of the fevers of anxiety and jealousy in the blood, which are a heavy physical loss, as I will show in due time). Practically, when the nation is deeply corrupt cheat answers to cheat; every one is in turn imposed upon, and there is to the body politic the dead loss of the ingenuity, together with the incalculable mischief of the injury to each defrauded person, producing collateral effect unexpectedly. My neighbour sells me bad meat: I sell him in return flawed iron. We neither of us get one atom of pecuniary advantage on the whole transaction, but we both suffer unexpected inconvenience; my men get scurvy, and his cattle-truck runs off the rails.

105. The examination of this form of Charis must, therefore, lead us into the discussion of the principles of government in general, and especially of that of the poor by the rich, discovering how the Graciousness joined with the Greatness, or Love with Majestas, is the true Dei Gratia, or Divine Right, of every form and manner of King; i. e., specifically, of the thrones, dominations, princedoms, virtues, and powers of the earth:— of the thrones, stable, or “ruling,” literally right-doing powers (“rex eris, recte si facies”):— of the dominations — lordly, edifying, dominant and harmonious powers; chiefly domestic, over the “built thing,” domus, or house; and inherently twofold, Dominus and Domina; Lord and Lady:— of the Princedoms, pre-eminent, incipient, creative, and demonstrative powers; thus poetic and mercantile, in the “princeps carmen deduxisse” and the merchant-prince:— of the Virtues or Courages; militant, guiding, or Ducal powers:— and finally of the Strengths, or Forces pure; magistral powers, of the More over the less, and the forceful and free over the weak and servile elements of life.

Subject enough for the next paper, involving “economical” principles of some importance, of which, for theme, here is a sentence, which I do not care to translate, for it would sound harsh in English,53 though, truly, it is one of the tenderest ever uttered by man; which may be meditated over, or rather through, in the meanwhile, by any one who will take the pains:—

Αρ’ ουν, ὡσπερ Ἱππος τω ανεπιστημονι μεν εγχειρουντι δε χρησθαι ζημια εστιν, ουτω και αδελφος, ὁταν τις αυτω μη επισταμενος εγχειρ χρησθαι, ζημια εστι;

44 I have repeated the substance of this and the next paragraph so often since, that I am ashamed and weary. The thing is too true, and too simple, it seems, for anybody ever to believe. Meantime, the theories of “international values,” as explained by Modern Political Economy, have brought about last year’s pillage of France by Germany, and the affectionate relations now existing in consequence between the inhabitants of the right and left banks of the Rhine.

45 I wish some one would examine and publish accurately the late dealings of the Governors of the Cape with the Caffirs.

46 By “pay,” I mean wages for labour or skill; by “profit,” gain dependent on the state of the market.

47 Since I wrote this, I have worked out the question of interest of money, which always, until lately, had embarrassed and defeated me; and I find that the payment of interest of any amount whatever is real “usury,” and entirely unjustifiable. I was shown this chiefly by the pamphlets issued by Mr. W. C. Sillar, though I greatly regret the impatience which causes Mr. Sillar to regard usury as the radical crime in political economy. There are others worse, that act with it.

48 Hence Dante’s companionship of Cahors, Inf., canto xi., supported by the view taken of the matter throughout the middle ages, in common with the Greeks.

49 I do not wonder when I re-read this, that people talk about my “sentiment.” But there is no sentiment whatever in the matter. It is a hard and bare commercial fact, that if two people deal together who don’t try to cheat each other, they will in a given time, make more money out of each other than if they do. See § 104.

50 Shakspeare would certainly never have chosen this name had he been forced to retain the Roman spelling. Like Perdita, “lost lady,” or Cordelia, “heart-lady,” Portia is “fortune” lady. The two great relative groups of words, Fortuna, fero, and fors — Portio, porto, and pars (with the lateral branch, op-portune, im-portune, opportunity, &c.), are of deep and intricate significance; their various senses of bringing, abstracting, and sustaining being all centralized by the wheel (which bears and moves at once), or still better, the ball (spera) of Fortune — “Volve sua spera, e beata si gode:” the motive power of this wheel distinguishing its goddess from the fixed majesty of Necessitas with her iron nails; or ανανκη, with her pillar of fire and iridescent orbits, fixed at the centre. Portus and porta, and gate in its connexion with gain, form another interesting branch group; and Mors, the concentration of delaying, is always to be remembered with Fors, the concentration of bringing and bearing, passing on into Fortis and Fortitude.

[This note is literally a mere memorandum for the future work which I am now completing in Fors Clavigera; it was printed partly in vanity, but also with real desire to get people to share the interest I found in the careful study of the leading words in noble languages. Compare the next note.]

51 As Charis becomes Charitas, the word “Cher,” or “Dear,” passes from Shylock’s sense of it (to buy cheap and sell dear) into Antonio’s sense of it: emphasized with the final i in tender “Cheri,” and hushed to English calmness in our noble “Cherish.” The reader must not think that any care can be misspent in tracing the connexion and power of the words which we have to use in the sequel. (See Appendix VI.) Much education sums itself in making men economize their words, and understand them. Nor is it possible to estimate the harm which has been done, in matters of higher speculation and conduct, by loose verbiage, though we may guess at it by observing the dislike which people show to having anything about their religion said to them in simple words, because then they understand it. Thus congregations meet weekly to invoke the influence of a Spirit of Life and Truth; yet if any part of that character were intelligibly expressed to them by the formulas of the service, they would be offended. Suppose, for instance, in the closing benediction, the clergyman were to give vital significance to the vague word “Holy,” and were to say, “the fellowship of the Helpful and Honest Ghost be with you, and remain with you always,” what would be the horror of many, first at the irreverence of so intelligible an expression; and secondly, at the discomfortable occurrence of the suspicion that while throughout the commercial dealings of the week they had denied the propriety of Help, and possibility of Honesty, the Person whose company they had been now asking to be blessed with could have no fellowship with cruel people or knaves.

52 “τα μεν ουν αγγα ζωα ουκ εχειν αισθησιν των εν ταις κινησεσι ταξεων ουδε αταξιων οις δη ρυθμος υνομα και ἁομονια ημιν δε ους ειπομεν τους Θεους (Apollo, the Muses, and Bacchus — the grave Bacchus, that is — ruling the choir of age; or Bacchus restraining; ’s æva tene, cum Berecyntio cornu tympana,’ &c.) συνχορευτας δεδοσθαι, τουτους ειναι και τους δεδωκοτας την ενρυθμον τε και εναρμονιον αισθησιν μεθ’ ηδονης . . . χορους τε ωνομακεναι παρα της χαρας εμφυτον ονομα.” “Other animals have no perception of order nor of disorder in motion; but for us, Apollo and Bacchus and the Muses are appointed to mingle in our dances; and there are they who have given us the sense of delight in rhythm and harmony. And the name of choir, choral dance, (we may believe,) came from chara (delight)."— Laws, book ii.

53 [My way now, is to say things plainly, if I can, whether they sound harsh or not; — this is the translation —“Is it possible, then, that as a horse is only a mischief to any one who attempts to use him without knowing how, so also our brother, if we attempt to use him without knowing how, may be a mischief to us?"]

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