Philosophy 8 min read

The Only Morality

John Ruskin on the relationship between taste, morality and art.
The column of San Marco, Venice

“You don’t get rich in this business, you only attain new levels of relative poverty,” a seasoned trader told Michael Lewis when he was working for Salomon Brothers in the 1980s. He was talking about the futility of Wall Street traders and bankers chasing wealth if wealth was the only thing they cared about. The problem with the pursuit of money is that it is always relative, you always measure yourself against someone richer than you, and the moment you get more, the moment you reach your target, your expenditure grows and your target shifts upwards. Just as you cannot quench your thirst by drinking seawater, the hunger for wealth cannot be sated.

In 1864, John Ruskin was invited to Bradford to give a lecture to local businessmen on architectural styles to help them choose one for their new Exchange building. Ruskin opened his speech with a shocking admission: he wasn’t going to talk about their exchange, because he didn’t care about it. Moreover, neither did the audience, and they all knew perfectly well that he couldn’t make them.

Ruskin goes on to explain what he means by this by laying out his idea on the relationship between taste, morality and art. Taste, it turns out, has everything to do with morality, for taste “is the only morality. The first, and last, and closest trial question to any living creature is, ‘What do you like?’ Tell me what you like, and I’ll tell you what you are.” Yes, provisionally we all have to correct our faults, which means that the right thing to do is not necessarily the thing we want to do. But in the long term, a person’s taste—their character—is also their morality, for their actions are guided by their inclinations. Moral education is not simply a process of pointing out faults, it’s a process of developing taste, of making the person come to love doing the right thing:

For if, resolutely, people do what is right, in time to come they like doing it. But they only are in a moral state when they have come to like doing it; and as long as they don’t like it, they are still in a vicious state. … And the entire object of true education is to make people not merely do the right things, but enjoy the right things:—not merely industrious, but to love industry—not merely learned, but to love knowledge—not merely pure, but to love purity—not merely just, but to hunger and thirst after justice. … What we like determines what we are, and is the sign of what we are; and to teach taste is inevitably to form character.

This interconnectedness between morality and taste means that morality is expressed not only in deeds, but in works. Our virtues and vices are reflected in our art, and on a higher level, they are reflected in the character of national art and architecture:

… a nation cannot be affected by any vice, or weakness, without expressing it, legibly, and for ever, either in bad art, or by want of art; and that there is no national virtue, small or great, which is not manifestly expressed in all the art which circumstances enable the people possessing that virtue to produce.

The style of architecture, the style of any art at a certain point in time and place does not occur by accident, it is not simply a random variation of creative expression, but is, rather, the reflection of the people’s taste, i.e. their morality. Ruskin gives some examples: the soldiership of early Greece; the sensuality of late Italy; the visionary religion of Tuscany; the splendid human energy of Venice. In speaking about the architecture of Britain, Ruskin points out an interesting phenomenon. The churches are almost all in the Gothic style, while the rest of the houses follow the Italian. Why is that? Do British architects want to move back to the Gothic style and are using their churches as means of experimentation, or maybe they consider the Gothic style to be more beautiful and thus reserve it for their places or worship? The answer is simple: religion has been separated from life, and the people of Britain now “live under one school of architecture, and worship under another.”

The nominal religion has been replaced by a real one. As the Greeks had a deity called “Athena Agoria”—Athena of the Market—the Britons now have a deity called “Britannia of the Market,” but while the Greek one was merely a subordinate goddess, Britannia of the Market is the chief one. She has no cathedrals and churches built to her—she has much more: great temples in the form of mills, factories, train stations and exchange buildings, the scale of which dwarf the buildings of old. This goddess of commerce is the true religion, and those who build to her must decide whether to build to her as honest followers, or to pretend to be something else, to clothe her buildings in a false style.

The problem, however, with Britannia of the Market is that it is not clear what she is trying to achieve. The Greeks worshipped Wisdom, which gave a continuous increase in knowledge. The Christians worshipped Consolation, which gave a continuous increase in comfort. What does the deity of commerce give, and to whom? What is the point of endlessly accumulating wealth? You have to, after all, spend that wealth—but where? At a point in the speech Ruskin works up himself into a fervor, challenging his audience to answer this very question:

Getting on—but where to? Gathering together—but how much? Do you mean to gather always—never to spend? If so, I wish you joy of your goddess, for I am just as well off as you, without the trouble of worshipping her at all. But if you do not spend, somebody else will—somebody else must. And it is because of this (among many other such errors) that I have fearlessly declared your so-called science of Political Economy to be no science; because, namely, it has omitted the study of exactly the most important branch of the business—the study of spending. For spend you must, and as much as you make, ultimately. You gather corn:—will you bury England under a heap of grain; or will you, when you have gathered, finally eat? You gather gold:—will you make your house-roofs of it, or pave your streets with it? That is still one way of spending it. But if you keep it, that you may get more, I’ll give you more; I’ll give you all the gold you want—all you can imagine—if you can tell me what you’ll do with it. You shall have thousands of gold pieces;—thousands of thousands—millions—mountains, of gold: where will you keep them? Will you put an Olympus of silver upon a golden Pelion—make Ossa like a wart? Do you think the rain and dew would then come down to you, in streams from such mountains, more blessedly than they will down the mountains which God has made for you, of moss and whinstone? But it is not gold that you want to gather! What is it? greenbacks? No; not those neither. What is it then—is it ciphers after a capital I? Cannot you practice writing ciphers, and write as many as you want! Write ciphers for an hour every morning, in a big book, and say every evening, I am worth all those noughts more than I was yesterday. Won’t that do? Well, what in the name of Plutus is it you want? Not gold, not greenbacks, not ciphers after a capital I? You will have to answer, after all, “No; we want, somehow or other, money’s worth.” Well, what is that? Let your Goddess of Getting-on discover it, and let her learn to stay therein.

Ruskin wrote this over a hundred years ago. It was an epoch of industry and trade, a time of mills and railways, the dawn of mechanical mass production. The temple to the Goddess of Getting-on was the factory, the warehouse, and the train station. The spirit it embodies is that of fabrication and commerce.

If we apply the same idea to the 21st century, what do we see? Has the spirit changed its character? I think so. While its predominant element is still that of commerce, the nature of it has shifted in one specific way. It has been skewed towards consumption. Whereas in the 19th century, durability was still considered a benefit—i.e. the world of things was meant to last—in the second half of the 20th century it has not only lost its importance but became undesirable. To increase the rate of commerce, things must perish, and the quicker they perish, the more active the commerce. The modern goddess is one of Obsolescence and Consumption, of products being turned into processes, which must continually be upgraded and replaced. This is reflected in cheaper, plainer architecture, clear, undecorated surfaces, minimalist shapes. The design is ephemeral, meant to last only for a short time. And the pollution that such a rate of consumption has generated has given rise to another aspect of modern design: recycling (i.e. putting things back into the cycle of consumption)—a problem that only exists when one builds things that aren’t meant to last.

This leads us back to the start of the essay, for, just as the person who focuses only on growing his wealth can never be satisfied, his goalposts moving forever out of reach, so will a world of consumption only continue devouring itself at an ever rapid pace, unable to quench its thirst for more—everything we have will keep becoming obsolete or breaking at an ever faster pace, requiring ceaseless replacement.

Ruskin concluded his speech with a recommendation. If our actions are to have some goal, why not, instead of aiming at the accumulation of money, focus on some idea of what human life should be like. What should we strive for? What will make people not only richer, but kinder, braver, wiser and more just? If we develop a conception of an ideal life to strive for, style will take care of itself, being an expression of it:

But if you can fix some conception of a true human state of life to be striven for—life, good for all men, as for yourselves; if you can determine some honest and simple order of existence; following those trodden ways of wisdom, which are pleasantness, and seeking her quiet and withdrawn paths, which are peace;—then, and so sanctifying wealth into “commonwealth,” all your art, your literature, your daily labours, your domestic affection, and citizen’s duty, will join and increase into one magnificent harmony. You will know then how to build, well enough; you will build with stone well, but with flesh better; temples not made with hands, but riveted of hearts; and that kind of marble, crimson-veined, is indeed eternal.