Unto this last
Books are precious in the sense that they capture the authors’ thoughts and retain them even after their lives, and in changed times. Those books that remain popular even after decades are called classics; those that remain relevant even after the passage of centuries become scriptures.
Confined to home on health grounds, reading books has been my lifeboat lest I am drawn into despair. Recently, I concluded reading Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography, My Experiments with Truth, and discovered a new meaning of the word “Truth.” Gandhiji even called Truth God and said that if one wants to meet God, it can be done by living one’s truth – as simple as that.
But then why don’t people do that? Instead of observing their minds and deciphering their feelings, they seek solutions in the world – rush to religious places and follow dogmatic habits. Instead of living the truth of their lives – facing the reality of the moment – there is a tendency to escape in imagination. Instead of fighting, they choose a flight to survive. But the real problem arrives when this avoidance of reality leads one to a false reality.
Coming to the book of Gandhiji, it is a wonderful read. It is amazing how he has written about his errors and moral lapses, which we all have but hide. Gandhiji went to South Africa as a failed lawyer back home and faced terrible discrimination meted out to Asians and local Blacks there. Over the years, he developed a non-violent method of dealing with oppressive rulers and gained recognition and popularity in the process. When he relocated to India after spending 20 years in South Africa, inspired by Gopal Krishna Gokhale, he joined the Indian independence movement and took it to the masses. The rest is history.
Gandhiji mentioned in his autobiography, a short book, Unto the Last, by English author John Ruskin (1819-1900), which formed his political ideology. It was given to him by Leon Polak, an Englishman living in South Africa. Gandhiji paraphrased this book in Gujarati and called the idea Sarvodaya (Well-being of All). The economic development of a nation must include the upliftment of the person at the lowest level in the societal hierarchy – the masses living at the bottom of the pyramid. So, after I finished reading Gandhiji’s book, I located Ruskin’s book on the Internet.
Oh my God, what a treasure of wisdom it is!
Ruskin opens the book with a parable mentioned in the Bible (John 20). A vineyard owner went to a market yard and hired some workers on a day’s wage of 1 penny. When he found many sitting there still not hired by anyone, he added a few more at noon, and even some more towards the evening. He paid everyone an equal wage of a penny at the end of the day.
The workers hired in the morning protested as to why the latecomers received equal wages. The landlord asked them how it affected them. Ruskin added that it was no wonder Christ was betrayed for 30 silver coins by his disciple – “So they weighed for my price thirty pieces of silver.”
England in the days of Ruskin was going through the Industrial Revolution. Many factories had been created, filling the air with smoke and fumes and pouring industrial waste by exporting their products throughout the vast British Empire. Workers performed repetitious factory work under the worst of conditions, and their families lived in poverty and ill health in crowded slums.
Ruskin’s mother taught young John to read the Bible from beginning to end and Ruskin could differentiate early in life between right and wrong behaviour, and righteous and immoral ways of living. While growing up, he found the social conditions of the world around him deplorable. Ruskin envisioned a better society in which commerce was conducted justly, workers were treated fairly, people lived fulfilled, happy lives, and clean air, water, and soil were recognized as essential to human life and protected from industrialism. Ruskin felt that the business elite must improve the conditions of the lower classes out of moral responsibility.
The book includes four essays. The first essay, titled The Roots of Honour, deals with employer-employee relations. Ruskin insists that the employer must deal honourably with the employees. Ruskin writes, “And as the captain of a ship is bound to be the last man to leave his ship in case of a wreck, and to share his last crust with the sailors in case of famine, so the manufacturer, in any commercial crisis or distress, is bound to take the suffering of it with his men.”
The second essay is titled The Veins of Wealth. Ruskin defines wealth as power over man and disagrees with the science of getting rich by forcing people to work at low wages and generating profits by trading. “The true veins of wealth are purple — and not in Rock, but in Flesh — perhaps even that the outcome and consummation of all wealth are in the production of as many full-breathed, bright-eyed, and happy-hearted human creatures as possible.”
The third essay, Qui Judicatis Terram (Who Judge on Earth), deals with the idea of justice. When men are treated and paid justly, we go from a society where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer to a society where everyone has a chance to rise in economic status. “Government and co-operation are in all things the Laws of Life; Anarchy and competition the Laws of Death.”
The fourth and last article, Ad Valorem (According to Value), defines value, wealth, pricing, and production differently than political economists. According to Ruskin, value is that which leads to or sustains life. “A horse is useless, and therefore unsaleable, if no one can ride, — a sword, if no one can strike, and meat, if no one can eat. Thus, every material utility depends on its relative human capacity.”
Ruskin then summarises his economic thinking as an axiom, “THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE. Life includes all its powers of love, joy, and admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal and using his possessions, over the lives of others.”
Ruskin wants political economists to focus on the type of products produced by a society, how widely these things are distributed to the populace, and how well people use them. Most crucially, he sees a true science political economy and true merchant and manufacturer company as producing a nation of healthy, engaged employees who live meaningful, joyful lives. For Ruskin, “That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings.”
Mahatma Gandhi might not have been followed by Indians in their lifestyles. But he has certainly not been forgotten. The picture of Mahatma Gandhi adorns the Indian currency. He is revered as the Father of the Indian Nation and with all our defects, there is an awareness about the treatment given to the poor in modern India. When I say this, I factor in the vastness of my nation and there may be pockets of darkness. Awareness towards the rights of the poor is fundamental. Treat the poor around you with respect and deal with them kindly.
India had a glorious culture of charitable hospitals and educational institutions. There has been a drift and it must be corrected. There are more than 150 billionaires in India, said to be the third-highest number in the world. Few of them are quite active in their social service. But if each one came forward to establish an autonomous and self-sustained world-class institution in public service – education, healthcare, law, whatever, adopting the basic civic amenities of a town in the process, we would have achieved something where most other countries have failed.
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