Ruskin continues his criticism of the political economy in “Ad Valorem,” the fourth essay in the collection “Unto This Last.” In this installment, Ruskin specifically counters the ideas presented by his contemporary, J.S. Mill. “The only conclusions of [Mill’s] which I have to dispute,” Ruskin wryly jokes, “are those which follow from his premises” (205-6). And Ruskin proceeds to list the “conclusions” which he “disputes” and argue each one. In the following passage, Ruskin confronts Mill’s writings on population, employing a variety of techniques to persuade readers of his opinion.

In all the ranges of human thought I know none so melancholy as the speculations of political economists on the population question. It is proposed to better the condition of the labourer by giving him higher wages. "Nay", says the economist, "if you raise his wages, he will either drag people down to the same point of misery at which you found him; or drink your wages away". He will. I know it. Who gave him this will? Suppose it were your own son of whom you spoke, declaring to me that you dared not take him into your firm, nor even give him his just labourer's wages, because if you did, he would die of drunkenness, and leave half a score of children to the parish. "Who gave your son these dispositions?" — I should inquire. Has he them by inheritance or by education? By one or other they must come; and as in him, so also in the poor. Either these poor are of a race essentially different from ours, and unredeemable (which, however often implied, I have heard none yet openly say), or else by such care as we have ourselves received, we may make them continent and sober as ourselves — wise and dispassionate as we are — models arduous of imitation. "But", it is answered, "they cannot receive education". Why not? That is precisely the point at issue. Charitable persons suppose the worst fault of the rich is to refuse the people meat; and the people cry for their meat, kept back by fraud, to the Lord of Multitudes. Alas! it is not meat of which the refusal is cruelest, or to which the claim is validest. The life is more than the meat. The rich not only refuse food to the poor; they refuse wisdom; they refuse virtue; they refuse salvation. Ye sheep without shepherd, it is not the pasture that has been shut from you, but the presence. Meat! perhaps your right to that may be pleadable; but other rights have to be pleaded first. Claim your crumbs from the table, if you will; but claim them as children, not as dogs; claim your right to be fed, but claim more loudly your right to be holy, perfect, and pure. [Ruskin, Unto This Last and Other Writings 222-3]

Over the course of the argument, Ruskin’s voice and tone transition from friendly debate to authoritative preaching. In the beginning, he engages the readers and patiently guides them through his logic, but by the end, Ruskin insults the readers, criticizing their arrogance and comparing them to “dogs.” Yet the transformation occurs so smoothly that the audience does not realize until the end that Ruskin’s argument is not only in response to Mill, but the readers themselves.


1. Note the progression of techniques that Ruskin uses to persuade his audience. He begins a dialogue with the reader, appeals to pathos through familial reference, then switches to biblical quotations and sermonizing. Which methods are successful? Which are not? Has Ruskin gained the reader’s respect by the time he preaches his conclusion?

2. Ruskin asks questions to prolong his argument in a structure similar to Carlyle in “The Hero as a Man of Letters.” Ruskin asks, “Why not? That is precisely the point at issue,” as Carlyle asks, “How to regulate that struggle? There is the whole question.” What is the authors’ purpose in delaying their point?

3. To counter his argument, Ruskin quotes, “‘But,’ it is answered, ‘they cannot receive education.’” Although it appears in the context of his imagined argument, Ruskin is actually paraphrasing Mill. Why, then, does Ruskin use the passive voice, “it is answered” instead of attributing it to Mill? Does the lack of attribution apply the opinion to the audience as well?

4. Ruskin is inconsistent in his use of quotation marks to signify dialogue. The quotation marks occasionally refer to Mill or Ruskin the character in a hypothetical situation. But is there a difference between the quoted Ruskin and the author Ruskin? Who is speaking in the unquoted lines, “He will. I know it.”?

Last modified 30 April 2024