Note how Ruskin draws upon natural science to attack supposedly scientific economic thought, and note also how he uses satiric analogy to attack its status as rational thought. How does Ruskin make his point that orthodox political economy leads those who follow it toward destruction? How does he combine satiric emblems with (a) the prophetic pattern, (b) definition, (c) creation of ethos, or the argument from credibility?
Among the delusions which at different have possessed themselves of the mindsof large masses of the human race, perhaps the most curious - certainly the least credible - is the modern soi-disant science of political economy, based on the idea that an advantageous code of social action may be determined irrespectively of the influence of social affection.
Of course, as in the instances of alchemy, astrology, witchcraft, and other such popular creeds, political economy has a plauible idea at the root of it. "The social affections," says the economist, "are accidental and disturbing elements in human nature; but avarice and the sedire of progress are constant elements. Let us eliminate the inconstants, and, considering the human being merely as a covetous machine, examine by what laws off labour, purchase, and sale, the greatest accumulative result in wealth is obtainable. Those laws once determined, it will be for each individual afterwards to introduce as much of the disturbing affectionate element as he chooses, and to determine for himself the result on the new conditions supposed." [nb: this paragraph is a caricature of the "economic man" hypothesis.]
This would be a perfectly logical and successful method of analysis, if the accidentals afterwards to be introduced were of the same nature as the powers first examined. Supposing a body in motion to be influenced by constant and inconstant forces, it is usually the simplest way of examining its course to trace it first under the persistent conditions, and afterwards introduce the causes of variation. But the disturbing elements in the cosial problem are not of the same nature as the constant ones: they alter the essence of the creature under examination the moment they are added; they operate, not mathematically, but chemically, introducing conditions which render all our previous knowledge unavable. We made learned experiments upon pure nitrogen, and have convinced ourselves that it is a very manageable gas: but, behold ! the thing which we have practically to deal with is its chloride ["Ruskin possibly refers to the experiment by Pierre Louis Dulong, who in 1811 first made nitrogen trichloride by passing chlorine gas through a solution of ammonium chloride in water. Dulong correctly assigned the formula NC3 to the resulting compound; but the experiment cost him an eye and three fingers"]; and this, the moment we touch it on our established principles, sends us and our apparatus through the ceiling.
- A Symbolical Grotesque from Ruskin's "The Roots of Honor"
- Satiric definition in Unto This Last: What is the meaning of "having"? — or the nature of Possession
Last modified 1994