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A BOOK which professes to be primarily an exposition of Mr. Ruskin's social teaching may seem at first sight to be needless and unprofitable. No master of impassioned prose has endowed his writings with more perspicuity of meaning and more force of utterance, or used a fuller liberty of reiteration in placing his chief thoughts before the reading public. And yet these very qualities of brilliance and amplitude have helped to hide from many the supreme value of Mr. Ruskin's criticism of life, especially in reference to social reform, by giving too great emphasis and attractiveness to unrelated individual thoughts, set in single jewelled sentences, or in purple patches, and by thus concealing the consistency of thought and feeling which underlay and gave intellectual unity and order to his work. Though Mr. Ruskin, like Matthew Arnold, would probably disclaim the title of a system-maker, as implying too mechanical a conception of his intellectual life, and though his mode of composition seldom leans towards severity of arrangement, yet no great modern thinker exhibits in his writings a more definite and conscious adjustment of ideas, both in the order of their growth and in the maintenance of their relations towards one another.
Mr. Ruskin will rank as the greatest social teacher
of his age, not merely because he has told the largest number of important truths upon the largest variety of vital matters, in language of penetrative force, but because he has made the most powerful and the most felicitous attempt to grasp and to express, as a comprehensive whole, the needs of a human society and the processes of social reform. To assert that he has attained or even approached complete success, either in his delineation of the social ideal, or in his estimate of particular measures and movements of progress, would be to prefer a foolish claim. But it may be justly said that he has done more than any other Englishman to compel people to realise the nature of the social problem in its wider related issues affecting every department of work and life, and to enforce the supreme moral obligation of confronting it.
In seeking to mark this unity and consistency of conscious design in Mr. Ruskin's work, and, at the same time, to furnish a critical estimate of the whole and of the parts, I shall run the risk of offending some by tedium, and others by the presumption which attaches to the most cautious censorship of the great. In drawing together and imposing argumentative order upon thoughts which flit self-poised and with bright irresponsibility among the pages of Mr. Ruskin's brilliantly discursive books, I shall seem to some to be guilty of literary desecration. My defence must be that I am claiming for Mr. Ruskin, as the chief among his virtues, one which has not yet been admitted save by a small section of his numerous readers, the distinction of being a philosophic thinker upon the nature and modes of social progress, particularly on its economic side,