Munera Pulveris, by John Ruskin


The following pages contain, I believe, the first accurate analysis of the laws of Political Economy which has been published in England. Many treatises, within their scope, correct, have appeared in contradiction of the views popularly received; but no exhaustive examination of the subject was possible to any person unacquainted with the value of the products of the highest industries, commonly called the “Fine Arts;” and no one acquainted with the nature of those industries has, so far as I know, attempted, or even approached, the task.

So that, to the date (1863) when these Essays were published, not only the chief conditions of the production of wealth had remained unstated, but the nature of wealth itself had never been defined. “Every one has a notion, sufficiently correct for common purposes, of what is meant by wealth,” wrote Mr. Mill, in the outset of his treatise; and contentedly proceeded, as if a chemist should proceed to investigate the laws of chemistry without endeavouring to ascertain the nature of fire or water, because every one had a notion of them, “sufficiently correct for common purposes.”

But even that apparently indisputable statement was untrue. There is not one person in ten thousand who has a notion sufficiently correct, even for the commonest purposes, of “what is meant” by wealth; still less of what wealth everlastingly is, whether we mean it or not; which it is the business of every student of economy to ascertain. We, indeed, know (either by experience or in imagination) what it is to be able to provide ourselves with luxurious food, and handsome clothes; and if Mr. Mill had thought that wealth consisted only in these, or in the means of obtaining these, it would have been easy for him to have so defined it with perfect scientific accuracy. But he knew better: he knew that some kinds of wealth consisted in the possession, or power of obtaining, other things than these; but, having, in the studies of his life, no clue to the principles of essential value, he was compelled to take public opinion as the ground of his science; and the public, of course, willingly accepted the notion of a science founded on their opinions.

I had, on the contrary, a singular advantage, not only in the greater extent of the field of investigation opened to me by my daily pursuits, but in the severity of some lessons I accidentally received in the course of them.

When, in the winter of 1851, I was collecting materials for my work on Venetian architecture, three of the pictures of Tintoret on the roof of the School of St. Roch were hanging down in ragged fragments, mixed with lath and plaster, round the apertures made by the fall of three Austrian heavy shot. The city of Venice was not, it appeared, rich enough to repair the damage that winter; and buckets were set on the floor of the upper room of the school to catch the rain, which not only fell directly through the shot holes, but found its way, owing to the generally pervious state of the roof, through many of the canvases of Tintoret’s in other parts of the ceiling.

It was a lesson to me, as I have just said, no less direct than severe; for I knew already at that time (though I have not ventured to assert, until recently at Oxford,) that the pictures of Tintoret in Venice were accurately the most precious articles of wealth in Europe, being the best existing productions of human industry. Now at the time that three of them were thus fluttering in moist rags from the roof they had adorned, the shops of the Rue Rivoli at Paris were, in obedience to a steadily-increasing public Demand, beginning to show a steadily-increasing Supply of elaborately-finished and coloured lithographs, representing the modern dances of delight, among which the cancan has since taken a distinguished place.

The labour employed on the stone of one of these lithographs is very much more than Tintoret was in the habit of giving to a picture of average size. Considering labour as the origin of value, therefore, the stone so highly wrought would be of greater value than the picture; and since also it is capable of producing a large number of immediately saleable or exchangeable impressions, for which the “demand” is constant, the city of Paris naturally supposed itself, and on all hitherto believed or stated principles of political economy, was, infinitely richer in the possession of a large number of these lithographic stones, (not to speak of countless oil pictures and marble carvings of similar character), than Venice in the possession of those rags of mildewed canvas, flaunting in the south wind and its salt rain. And, accordingly, Paris provided (without thought of the expense) lofty arcades of shops, and rich recesses of innumerable private apartments, for the protection of these better treasures of hers from the weather.

Yet, all the while, Paris was not the richer for these possessions. Intrinsically, the delightful lithographs were not wealth, but polar contraries of wealth. She was, by the exact quantity of labour she had given to produce these, sunk below, instead of above, absolute Poverty. They not only were false Riches — they were true Debt, which had to be paid at last — and the present aspect of the Rue Rivoli shows in what manner.

And the faded stains of the Venetian ceiling, all the while, were absolute and inestimable wealth. Useless to their possessors as forgotten treasure in a buried city, they had in them, nevertheless, the intrinsic and eternal nature of wealth; and Venice, still possessing the ruins of them, was a rich city; only, the Venetians had not a notion sufficiently correct even for the very common purpose of inducing them to put slates on a roof, of what was “meant by wealth.”

The vulgar economist would reply that his science had nothing to do with the qualities of pictures, but with their exchange-value only; and that his business was, exclusively, to consider whether the remains of Tintoret were worth as many ten-and-sixpences as the impressions which might be taken from the lithographic stones.

But he would not venture, without reserve, to make such an answer, if the example be taken in horses, instead of pictures. The most dull economist would perceive, and admit, that a gentleman who had a fine stud of horses was absolutely richer than one who had only ill-bred and broken-winded ones. He would instinctively feel, though his pseudo-science had never taught him, that the price paid for the animals, in either case, did not alter the fact of their worth: that the good horse, though it might have been bought by chance for a few guineas, was not therefore less valuable, nor the owner of the galled jade any the richer, because he had given a hundred for it.

So that the economist, in saying that his science takes no account of the qualities of pictures, merely signifies that he cannot conceive of any quality of essential badness or goodness existing in pictures; and that he is incapable of investigating the laws of wealth in such articles. Which is the fact. But, being incapable of defining intrinsic value in pictures, it follows that he must be equally helpless to define the nature of intrinsic value in painted glass, or in painted pottery, or in patterned stuffs, or in any other national produce requiring true human ingenuity. Nay, though capable of conceiving the idea of intrinsic value with respect to beasts of burden, no economist has endeavoured to state the general principles of National Economy, even with regard to the horse or the ass. And, in fine, the modern political economists have been, without exception, incapable of apprehending the nature of intrinsic value at all.

And the first specialty of the following treatise consists in its giving at the outset, and maintaining as the foundation of all subsequent reasoning, a definition of Intrinsic Value, and Intrinsic Contrary-of-Value; the negative power having been left by former writers entirely out of account, and the positive power left entirely undefined.

But, secondly: the modern economist, ignoring intrinsic value, and accepting the popular estimate of things as the only ground of his science, has imagined himself to have ascertained the constant laws regulating the relation of this popular demand to its supply; or, at least, to have proved that demand and supply were connected by heavenly balance, over which human foresight had no power. I chanced, by singular coincidence, lately to see this theory of the law of demand and supply brought to as sharp practical issue in another great siege, as I had seen the theories of intrinsic value brought, in the siege of Venice.

I had the honour of being on the committee under the presidentship of the Lord Mayor of London, for the victualling of Paris after her surrender. It became, at one period of our sittings, a question of vital importance at what moment the law of demand and supply would come into operation, and what the operation of it would exactly be: the demand, on this occasion, being very urgent indeed; that of several millions of people within a few hours of utter starvation, for any kind of food whatsoever. Nevertheless, it was admitted, in the course of debate, to be probable that the divine principle of demand and supply might find itself at the eleventh hour, and some minutes over, in want of carts and horses; and we ventured so far to interfere with the divine principle as to provide carts and horses, with haste which proved, happily, in time for the need; but not a moment in advance of it. It was farther recognized by the committee that the divine principle of demand and supply would commence its operations by charging the poor of Paris twelve-pence for a penny’s worth of whatever they wanted; and would end its operations by offering them twelve-pence worth for a penny, of whatever they didn’t want. Whereupon it was concluded by the committee that the tiny knot, on this special occasion, was scarcely ”dignus vindice,” by the divine principle of demand and supply: and that we would venture, for once, in a profane manner, to provide for the poor of Paris what they wanted, when they wanted it. Which, to the value of the sums entrusted to us, it will be remembered we succeeded in doing.

But the fact is that the so-called “law,” which was felt to be false in this case of extreme exigence, is alike false in cases of less exigence. It is false always, and everywhere. Nay to such an extent is its existence imaginary, that the vulgar economists are not even agreed in their account of it; for some of them mean by it, only that prices are regulated by the relation between demand and supply, which is partly true; and others mean that the relation itself is one with the process of which it is unwise to interfere; a statement which is not only, as in the above instance, untrue; but accurately the reverse of the truth: for all wise economy, political or domestic, consists in the resolved maintenance of a given relation between supply and demand, other than the instinctive, or (directly) natural, one.

Similarly, vulgar political economy asserts for a “law” that wages are determined by competition.

Now I pay my servants exactly what wages I think necessary to make them comfortable. The sum is not determined at all by competition; but sometimes by my notions of their comfort and deserving, and sometimes by theirs. If I were to become penniless to-morrow, several of them would certainly still serve me for nothing.

In both the real and supposed cases the so-called “law” of vulgar political economy is absolutely set at defiance. But I cannot set the law of gravitation at defiance, nor determine that in my house I will not allow ice to melt, when the temperature is above thirty-two degrees. A true law outside of my house, will remain a true one inside of it. It is not, therefore, a law of Nature that wages are determined by competition. Still less is it a law of State, or we should not now be disputing about it publicly, to the loss of many millions of pounds to the country. The fact which vulgar economists have been weak enough to imagine a law, is only that, for the last twenty years a number of very senseless persons have attempted to determine wages in that manner; and have, in a measure, succeeded in occasionally doing so.

Both in definition of the elements of wealth, and in statement of the laws which govern its distribution, modern political economy has been thus absolutely incompetent, or absolutely false. And the following treatise is not, as it has been asserted with dull pertinacity, an endeavour to put sentiment in the place of science; but it contains the exposure of what insolently pretended to be a science; and the definition, hitherto unassailed — and I do not fear to assert, unassailable — of the material elements with which political economy has to deal, and the moral principles in which it consists; being not itself a science, but “a system of conduct founded on the sciences, and impossible, except under certain conditions of moral culture.” Which is only to say, that industry, frugality, and discretion, the three foundations of economy, are moral qualities, and cannot be attained without moral discipline: a flat truism, the reader may think, thus stated, yet a truism which is denied both vociferously, and in all endeavour, by the entire populace of Europe; who are at present hopeful of obtaining wealth by tricks of trade, without industry; who, possessing wealth, have lost in the use of it even the conception — how much more the habit? — of frugality; and who, in the choice of the elements of wealth, cannot so much as lose — since they have never hitherto at any time possessed — the faculty of discretion.

Now if the teachers of the pseudo-science of economy had ventured to state distinctly even the poor conclusions they had reached on the subjects respecting which it is most dangerous for a populace to be indiscreet, they would have soon found, by the use made of them, which were true, and which false.

But on main and vital questions, no political economist has hitherto ventured to state one guiding principle. I will instance three subjects of universal importance. National Dress. National Rent. National Debt.

Now if we are to look in any quarter for a systematic and exhaustive statement of the principles of a given science, it must certainly be from its Professor at Cambridge.

Take the last edition of Professor Fawcett’s Manual of Political Economy, and forming, first clearly in your mind these three following questions, see if you can find an answer to them.

I. Does expenditure of capital on the production of luxurious dress and furniture tend to make a nation rich or poor?

II. Does the payment, by the nation, of a tax on its land, or on the produce of it, to a certain number of private persons, to be expended by them as they please, tend to make the nation rich or poor?

III. Does the payment, by the nation, for an indefinite period, of interest on money borrowed from private persons, tend to make the nation rich or poor?

These three questions are, all of them, perfectly simple, and primarily vital. Determine these, and you have at once a basis for national conduct in all important particulars. Leave them undetermined, and there is no limit to the distress which may be brought upon the people by the cunning of its knaves, and the folly of its multitudes.

I will take the three in their order.

I. Dress. The general impression on the public mind at this day is, that the luxury of the rich in dress and furniture is a benefit to the poor. Probably not even the blindest of our political economists would venture to assert this in so many words. But where do they assert the contrary? During the entire period of the reign of the late Emperor it was assumed in France, as the first principle of fiscal government, that a large portion of the funds received as rent from the provincial labourer should be expended in the manufacture of ladies’ dresses in Paris. Where is the political economist in France, or England, who ventured to assert the conclusions of his science as adverse to this system? As early as the year 1857 I had done my best to show the nature of the error, and to give warning of its danger;7 but not one of the men who had the foolish ears of the people intent on their words, dared to follow me in speaking what would have been an offence to the powers of trade; and the powers of trade in Paris had their full way for fourteen years more — with this result, to-day — as told us in precise and curt terms by the Minister of Public Instruction — 8

“We have replaced glory by gold, work by speculation, faith and honour by scepticism. To absolve or glorify immorality; to make much of loose women; to gratify our eyes with luxury, our ears with the tales of orgies; to aid in the manœuvres of public robbers, or to applaud them; to laugh at morality, and only believe in success; to love nothing but pleasure, adore nothing but force; to replace work with a fecundity of fancies; to speak without thinking; to prefer noise to glory; to erect sneering into a system, and lying into an institution — is this the spectacle that we have seen? — is this the society that we have been?”

Of course, other causes, besides the desire of luxury in furniture and dress, have been at work to produce such consequences; but the most active cause of all has been the passion for these; passion unrebuked by the clergy, and, for the most part, provoked by economists, as advantageous to commerce; nor need we think that such results have been arrived at in France only; we are ourselves following rapidly on the same road. France, in her old wars with us, never was so fatally our enemy as she has been in the fellowship of fashion, and the freedom of trade: nor, to my mind, is any fact recorded of Assyrian or Roman luxury more ominous, or ghastly, than one which came to my knowledge a few weeks ago, in England; a respectable and well-to-do father and mother, in a quiet north country town, being turned into the streets in their old age, at the suit of their only daughter’s milliner.

II. Rent. The following account of the real nature of rent is given, quite accurately, by Professor Fawcett, at page 112 of the last edition of his Political Economy:—

“Every country has probably been subjugated, and grants of vanquished territory were the ordinary rewards which the conquering chief bestowed upon his more distinguished followers. Lands obtained by force had to be defended by force; and before law had asserted her supremacy, and property was made secure, no baron was able to retain his possessions, unless those who lived on his estates were prepared to defend them. . . . 9 As property became secure, and landlords felt that the power of the State would protect them in all the rights of property, every vestige of these feudal tenures was abolished, and the relation between landlord and tenant has thus become purely commercial. A landlord offers his land to any one who is willing to take it; he is anxious to receive the highest rent he can obtain. What are the principles which regulate the rent which may thus be paid?”

These principles the Professor goes on contentedly to investigate, never appearing to contemplate for an instant the possibility of the first principle in the whole business — the maintenance, by force, of the possession of land obtained by force, being ever called in question by any human mind. It is, nevertheless, the nearest task of our day to discover how far original theft may be justly encountered by reactionary theft, or whether reactionary theft be indeed theft at all; and farther, what, excluding either original or corrective theft, are the just conditions of the possession of land.

III. Debt. Long since, when, a mere boy, I used to sit silently listening to the conversation of the London merchants who, all of them good and sound men of business, were wont occasionally to meet round my father’s dining-table; nothing used to surprise me more than the conviction openly expressed by some of the soundest and most cautious of them, that “if there were no National debt they would not know what to do with their money, or where to place it safely.” At the 399th page of his Manual, you will find Professor Fawcett giving exactly the same statement.

“In our own country, this certainty against risk of loss is provided by the public funds;”

and again, as on the question of rent, the Professor proceeds, without appearing for an instant to be troubled by any misgiving that there may be an essential difference between the effects on national prosperity of a Government paying interest on money which it spent in fire works fifty years ago, and of a Government paying interest on money to be employed to-day on productive labour.

That difference, which the reader will find stated and examined at length, in §§ 127-129 of this volume, it is the business of economists, before approaching any other question relating to government, fully to explain. And the paragraphs to which I refer, contain, I believe, the only definite statement of it hitherto made.

The practical result of the absence of any such statement is, that capitalists, when they do not know what to do with their money, persuade the peasants, in various countries, that the said peasants want guns to shoot each other with. The peasants accordingly borrow guns, out of the manufacture of which the capitalists get a per-centage, and men of science much amusement and credit. Then the peasants shoot a certain number of each other, until they get tired; and burn each other’s homes down in various places. Then they put the guns back into towers, arsenals, &c., in ornamental patterns; (and the victorious party put also some ragged flags in churches). And then the capitalists tax both, annually, ever afterwards, to pay interest on the loan of the guns and gunpowder. And that is what capitalists call “knowing what to do with their money;” and what commercial men in general call “practical” as opposed to “sentimental” Political Economy.

Eleven years ago, in the summer of 1860, perceiving then fully, (as Carlyle had done long before), what distress was about to come on the said populace of Europe through these errors of their teachers, I began to do the best I might, to combat them, in the series of papers for the Cornhill Magazine, since published under the title of Unto this Last. The editor of the Magazine was my friend, and ventured the insertion of the three first essays; but the outcry against them became then too strong for any editor to endure, and he wrote to me, with great discomfort to himself, and many apologies to me, that the Magazine must only admit one Economical Essay more.

I made, with his permission, the last one longer than the rest, and gave it blunt conclusion as well as I could — and so the book now stands; but, as I had taken not a little pains with the Essays, and knew that they contained better work than most of my former writings, and more important truths than all of them put together, this violent reprobation of them by the Cornhill public set me still more gravely thinking; and, after turning the matter hither and thither in my mind for two years more, I resolved to make it the central work of my life to write an exhaustive treatise on Political Economy. It would not have been begun, at that time, however, had not the editor of Fraser’s Magazine written to me, saying that he believed there was something in my theories, and would risk the admission of what I chose to write on this dangerous subject; whereupon, cautiously, and at intervals, during the winter of 1862-63, I sent him, and he ventured to print, the preface of the intended work, divided into four chapters. Then, though the Editor had not wholly lost courage, the Publisher indignantly interfered; and the readers of Fraser, as those of the Cornhill, were protected, for that time, from farther disturbance on my part. Subsequently, loss of health, family distress, and various untoward chances, prevented my proceeding with the body of the book; — seven years have passed ineffectually; and I am now fain to reprint the Preface by itself, under the title which I intended for the whole.

Not discontentedly; being, at this time of life, resigned to the sense of failure; and also, because the preface is complete in itself as a body of definitions, which I now require for reference in the course of my Letters to Workmen; by which also, in time, I trust less formally to accomplish the chief purpose of Munera Pulveris, practically summed in the two paragraphs 27 and 28: namely, to examine the moral results and possible rectifications of the laws of distribution of wealth, which have prevailed hitherto without debate among men. Laws which ordinary economists assume to be inviolable, and which ordinary socialists imagine to be on the eve of total abrogation. But they are both alike deceived. The laws which at present regulate the possession of wealth are unjust, because the motives which provoke to its attainment are impure; but no socialism can effect their abrogation, unless it can abrogate also covetousness and pride, which it is by no means yet in the way of doing. Nor can the change be, in any case, to the extent that has been imagined. Extremes of luxury may be forbidden, and agony of penury relieved; but nature intends, and the utmost efforts of socialism will not hinder the fulfilment of her intention, that a provident person shall always be richer than a spendthrift; and an ingenious one more comfortable than a fool. But, indeed, the adjustment of the possession of the products of industry depends more on their nature than their quantity, and on wise determination therefore of the aims of industry.

A nation which desires true wealth, desires it moderately, and can therefore distribute it with kindness, and possess it with pleasure; but one which desires false wealth, desires it immoderately, and can neither dispense it with justice, nor enjoy it in peace.

Therefore, needing, constantly in my present work, to refer to the definitions of true and false wealth given in the following Essays, I republish them with careful revisal. They were written abroad; partly at Milan, partly during a winter residence on the south-eastern slope of the Mont Saléve, near Geneva; and sent to London in as legible MS. as I could write; but I never revised the press sheets, and have been obliged, accordingly, now to amend the text here and there, or correct it in unimportant particulars. Wherever any modification has involved change in the sense, it is enclosed in square brackets; and what few explanatory comments I have felt it necessary to add, have been indicated in the same manner. No explanatory comments, I regret to perceive, will suffice to remedy the mischief of my affected concentration of language, into the habit of which I fell by thinking too long over particular passages, in many and many a solitary walk towards the mountains of Bonneville or Annecy. But I never intended the book for anything else than a dictionary of reference, and that for earnest readers; who will, I have good hope, if they find what they want in it, forgive the affectedly curt expressions.

The Essays, as originally published, were, as I have just stated, four in number. I have now, more conveniently, divided the whole into six chapters; and (as I purpose throughout this edition of my works) numbered the paragraphs.

I inscribed the first volume of this series to the friend who aided me in chief sorrow. Let me inscribe the second to the friend and guide who has urged me to all chief labour, Thomas Carlyle.

I would that some better means were in my power of showing reverence to the man who alone, of all our masters of literature, has written, without thought of himself, what he knew it to be needful for the people of his time to hear, if the will to hear were in them: whom, therefore, as the time draws near when his task must be ended, Republican and Free-thoughted England assaults with impatient reproach; and out of the abyss of her cowardice in policy and dishonour in trade, sets the hacks of her literature to speak evil, grateful to her ears, of the Solitary Teacher who has asked her to be brave for the help of Man, and just, for the love of God.

Denmark Hill,
25th November, 1871.

7 Political Economy of Art. (Smith and Elder, 1857, pp. 65-76.)

8 See report of speech of M. Jules Simon, in Pall Mall Gazette of October 27, 1871.

9 The omitted sentences merely amplify the statement; they in no wise modify it.

Munera Pulveris.

“Te maris et terræ numeroque carentis arenæ

Mensorem cohibent, Archyta,

Pulveris exigui prope litus parva Matinum


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