In "The Roots of Honor," the first essay in his work Unto This Last, John Ruskin sets out to convince readers that "no human actions ever were intended by the Maker of men to be guided by balances of expediency, but by balances of justice" (169). He advances his arguments using first debunking the theories of his contemporary political economists and substituting his own ideas in their place.

Throughout his essay, Ruskins points out that man cannot predict human action like he can with a machine. He disagreed with the political economists of his day, arguing that their premise of "eliminat[ing] the inconstants" (167) was fundamentally flawed because it ignores this important fact. He says, "The reasoning might be admirable, the conclusion true, and the science deficient only in applicability" (168). In the following passage, he debunks the pragmatic value of their thinking:

This however, is not so. It would be so if the servant were an engine of which the motive power was steam, magnetism, gravitation, or any other agent of calculable force. But he being, on the contrary, an engine whose motive power is a Soul, the force of this very peculiar agent, as an unknown quantity, enters into all the political economist's equations, without his knowledge, and falsifies every one of their results. [170]

Ruskin then attempts to disprove the prevalent theory that masters should work their servants as hard as possible, without regard to their individual needs, in order to reap the highest profits. In response to this theory, he puts forth his own belief in what he calls a universal law, that "the greatest material result obtainable by [master and servant] will be, not through antagonism to each other, but through affection to each other" (170). He predicts, "in any case, and with any person, this unselfish treatment will produce the most effective return" (171).

However, certain central questions arise when considering the validity of Ruskin's own claims in dealing with this problem.


1. How does Ruskin presume to be able to predict human behavior, when he has just spent the first part of his essay arguing that this is not possible? How does he justify his claims? Does the eloquence of Ruskin's writing hide this flaw?

2. Based on the premise that what Ruskin believes to be a universal law is, in fact, an unchangable law of nature, do his arguments ring true? By this time in the essay, are readers fully convinced that this universal law that Ruskin believes in exists, and is this necessary to establish his credibility as a sage?

Last modified 26 February 2002

6 May 2019