John Ruskin utilizes a candid, logical style of writing in Unto This Last, his attempt to analyze the problems he observes with the English economic system in the mid-nineteenth century. Ruskin presents a variety of scenarios in which men in leadership positions made sacrifices for the good of the greater group, examining how a general, a lawyer and a physician all elicit loyalty from their subjects through unselfish actions. In contrast, Ruskin bemoans the unwillingness of the merchant to relinquish profits to his laborers and he cites general examples of this reality, such as how house servants are usually worked to excess by their masters but have limited opportunities to address this grievance. These workers are unable to abandon their jobs because they are being paid fair wages according to the market, a reality Ruskin despises. In taking such a broad look at professions in his country, and by relying on universal examples rather than specific incidents such as Carlyle may have done, Ruskin convinces the reader of his argument's merit despite the lack of substantive supporting examples.

Now, there can be no question but that the tact, foresight, decision, and other mental powers, required for the successful management of a large mercantile concern, if not such as could be compared with those of a great lawyer, general, or divine, would at least match the general conditions of mind required in the subordinate officers of a ship, or of a regiment, or in the curate of a country parish. If, therefore, all the efficient members of the so-called liberal professions are still, somehow, in public estimate of honor, preferred before the head of a commercial firm, the reason must lie deeper than in the measurement of their several powers of mind.

And the essential reason for such preference will be found to lie in the fact that the merchant is presumed to act always selfishly. His work may be very necessary to the community; but the motive of it is understood to be wholly personal. The merchant's first object in all his dealings must be (the public believe) to get as much for himself, and leave as little to his neighbor (or customer) as possible. Enforcing this upon him, by political statute, as the necessary principle of his action; recommending it to him on all occasions, and themselves reciprocally adopting it, proclaiming vociferously, for law of the universe, that a buyer's function is to cheapen, and a seller's to cheat, -- the public, nevertheless, involuntarily condemn the man of commerce for his compliance with their own statement, and stamp him for ever as belonging to an inferior grade of human personality.

In this argument, Ruskin bluntly criticizes merchants, asking why these men are unwanted by a society searching for honorable figures. The key to the attack is the technique Ruskin relies on to make his point. A combination of vagueness and appeal to emotion allows Ruskin to reinforce his argument and prevents a careless reader from questioning Ruskin's theory.


1. Why does Ruskin use the term "neighbor" and the parentheses when he discusses the merchant's typical behavior? Would the public agree with Ruskin's generalization, such as when he broadly claims "the motive of it is understood to be wholly personal?"

2. The last sentence of the passage contains 76 words. It is needlessly wordy, but does it convey the sense that Ruskin is hoping to instill upon his readers? Might it be muddled on purpose?

3. Throughout Unto This Last, Ruskin attacks business practices, merchants and businessmen. Are his arguments justified? And does Ruskin's language and style bolster his argument or does it detract from his goals?

4. Ruskin appeals to the senses and morality of his readers. Is the moral sense strong enough throughout the work to have Ruskin's desired effect?


Ruskin, John. The Genius of John Ruskin. Ed. John Rosenberg. Charlottesville: U of Virginia Pres, 1998.

Last modified 16 October 2006

6 May 2019