The Really Precious Things


in The Faber Book of Utopias, John Carey (ed.), 1999, pp. 246-248.

John Ruskin (1819 – 1900) was not only England’s greatest art critic, he was also a radical social thinker, vastly learned and fearlessly outspoken, who played a major part in shaping Victorian culture, and, consequently, in inaugurating the modern world. He championed Christian social values and bitterly denounced greed, self-interest and reductive scientism. The following extract is from the third volume of Modern Painters (1856).

The great mechanical impulses of the age, of which most of us are so proud, are a mere passing fever, half-speculative, half-childish. People will discover at last that royal roads to anything can no more be laid in iron than they can in dust; that there are, in fact, no royal roads to anywhere worth going to; that if there were, it would that instant cease to be worth going to — I mean, so far as the things to be obtained are in any way estimable in terms of price. For there are two classes of precious things in the world: those that God gives us for nothing — sun, air, and life (both mortal life and immortal); and the secondarily precious things which He gives us for a price: these secondarily precious things, worldly wine and milk, can only be bought for definite money; they never can be cheapened. No cheating nor bargaining will ever get a single thing out of nature’s ‘establishment’ at half-price. Do we want to be strong? — we must work. To be hungry? — we must starve. To be happy? — we must be kind. To be wise? — we must look and think. No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour, nor making of stuffs a thousand yards a minute, will make us one whit stronger, happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than men could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. And they will at last, and soon too, find out that their grand inventions for conquering (as they think) space and time, do, in reality, conquer nothing; for space and time are, in their own essence, unconquerable, and besides did not want any sort of conquering; they wanted using. A fool always wants to shorten space and time: a wise man wants to lengthen both. A fool wants to kill space and kill time: a wise man, first to gain them, then to animate them. Your railroad, when you come to understand it, is only a device for making the world smaller: and as for being able to talk from place to place, that is, indeed, well and convenient; but suppose you have, originally, nothing to say. We shall be obliged at last to confess, what we should long ago have known, that the really precious things are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast; and a man, if he truly be a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.

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The Problem of Work (part 2)

(First read part 1, here)

By Camillo Berneri, in Why Work? Arguments for the Leisure Society. Vernon Richards, ed. London: Freedom Press, 1983, pp. 59-82.

This essay was first published in Italian with the title Il Lavoro Attraente (Geneva 1938). An English translation was serialised in FREEDOM in the late ’40s. This is a new translation by the editor based on the FREEDOM version and restores the Kropotkin quotation from The Conquest of Bread but not those from Marx and Engels.

III. “Lazy” People and the Problem of Free Work

Many “lazy” people would work could they find an occupation suited to their psychic and physical personality. Kropotkin writes on the subject in Conquest of Bread:

Somebody has said that dust is matter in the wrong place. The same definition applies to nine-tenths of those called lazy. They are people gone astray in a direction that does not answer to their temperament nor to their capacities. In reading the biography of great men, we are struck with the number of “idlers” among them. They were lazy so long as they had not found the right path; afterwards they became laborious to excess. Darwin, Stevenson, and many others belonged to this category of idlers.

Very often the idler is but a man to whom it is repugnant to spend all his life making the eighteenth part of a pin, or the hundredth part of a watch, while he feels he has exuberant energy which he would like to expend elsewhere. Often, too, he is a rebel who cannot submit to being fixed all his life to a work-bench in order to procure a thousand pleasures for his employer, while knowing himself to be far the less stupid of the two, and knowing his only fault to be that of having been born in a hovel instead of coming into the world in a castle.

Lastly, an immense number of ‘idlers’ are idlers because they do not know well enough the trade by which they are compelled to earn their living. Seeing the imperfect thing they make with their own hands, striving vainly to do better, and perceiving that they never will succeed on account of the bad habits of work already acquired, they begin to hate their trade, and, not knowing any other, hate work in general. Thousands of workmen and artists who are failures suffer from this cause.

[p. 73] On the other hand, he who since his youth has learned to play the piano well, the chisel, the brush, or the file, so that he feels that what he does is beautiful, will never give up the piano, the chisel, or the file. He will find pleasure in his work which does not tire him, so long as he is not overdriven.

Under the one name, idleness, a series of results due to different causes have been grouped, of which each one could be a source of good, instead of being a source of evil to society. Like all questions concerning criminality and related to human faculties, facts have been collected having nothing in common with one another. People speak of laziness or crime, without giving themselves the trouble to analyse the cause. They are in a hurry to punish these faults without inquiring if the punishment itself does not contain a premium on ‘laziness’ or ‘crime.’

This is why a free society, if it say the number of idlers increasing in its midst, would no doubt think of looking first for the cause of laziness, in order to suppress it, before having recourse to punishment. When it is a case, as we have already mentioned, of simple bloodlessness, then before stuffing the brain of a child with science, nourish his system so as to produce blood, strengthen him, and, that he shall not waste his time, take him to the country or to the seaside; there, teach him in the open air, not in books — geometry, by measuring the distance to a spire, or the height of a tree; natural sciences, while picking flowers and fishing in the sea; physical science while building the boat he will go to fish in. But for mercy’s sake do not fill his brain with classical sentences and dead languages. Do not make an idler of him! …

Or, here is a child which has neither order nor regular habits. Let the children first inculcate order among themselves, and later on, the laboratory, the workshop, the work that will have to be done in a limited space, with many tools about, under the guidance of an intelligent teacher, will teach them method. But do not make disorderly beings out of them by your school, whose only order is the symmetry of its benches, and which — true image of the chaos in its teachings — will never inspire anybody with the love of harmony, of consistency and method in work.

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The Problem of Work (part 1)

By Camillo Berneri, in Why Work? Arguments for the Leisure Society. Vernon Richards, ed. London: Freedom Press, 1983, pp. 59-82.

This essay was first published in Italian with the title Il Lavoro Attraente (Geneva 1938). An English translation was serialised in FREEDOM in the late ’40s. This is a new translation by the editor based on the FREEDOM version and restores the Kropotkin quotation from The Conquest of Bread but not those from Marx and Engels.


On this eve of social upheavals and in the midst of so much ranting about state socialism, authoritarian communism and simplistic economics it should be the anarchists’ specific task to put the problem of the discipline of work in clear and concrete terms; a problem like any other social problem needs to be up-dated in accordance with new technical trends, with new economic physiological and psychological knowledge, as well as with the various problems that are having to be faced as a result of the different tendencies emerging from the ranks of the industrial proletariat.

While keeping to its broad aims and final objective, Anarchism must define the means and methods of its future as a new order. What activity is more universal than work? What problem is vaster and more intermingled with all other problems than that of work? Economic, physiological and psychological laws, as well as practically all society and nearly the whole of man’s life are involved in this activity, which even to-day is drudgery, but which tomorrow will become the supreme human dignity.

The essay which follows is a kind of introduction to the theme of “Attractive Work,” to which I should like to see the attention drawn of all those who could contribute ideas, personal experience and particular technical knowledge. An expert would have done more and better; but as the experts are usually disinclined to part with their acquired knowledge, it is up to the less inhibited to raise these questions and bring them to the attention of our comrades.

We shall have made a stride forward if, at our meetings and in the press, we are able to analyse the question of free and attractive work, the more so as this problem involved many others and is, by its very nature, likely to recall interesting experiences and to suggest constructive schemes.

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