John Ruskin reviles the mechanical age of reproduction in England in the first section of Unto this Last. He uses the extended metaphor of a science of gymnastics which presupposes that men have no skeletons to show how absurd he finds a political economy in which the soul is taken for granted.

Observe, I neither impugn nor doubt the conclusion of the science if its terms are accepted. I am simply uninterested in them, as I should be in those of a science of gymnastics which assumed that men had no skeletons. It might be shown, on that supposition, that it would be advantageous to roll the students up into pellets, flatten them into cakes, or stretch them into cables; and that when these results were effected, the re-insertion of the skeleton would be attended with various inconveniences to their constitution. The reasoning might be admirable, the conclusions true, and the science deficient only in applicability. Modern political economy stands on a precisely similar basis. Assuming, not that the human being has no skeleton, but that it is all skeleton, if founds an ossifant theory of progress on this negation of a soul; and having shown the utmost that may be made of bones, and constructed a number of interesting geometrical figures with death's head and humeri, successfully proves the inconvenience of the reappearance of a soul among these corpuscular structures. I do not deny the truth of this theory: I simply deny its applicability to the present phase of the world. [Ruskin 168]


1. When Ruskin speaks of a "science" of gymnastics, he does so in distinctly unscientific language, for instance, verbs like "roll", "flatten" and "stretch". When he begins to speak of the "science" of political economy, is there a change in tone? Does he become more scientific or didactic? Why does this change in tone occur?

2. Ruskin creates the image of modern political economy as sort of a grim reaper, "interesting geometrical figures with death's head and humeri." Why does he equate capitalism, with, in essence, something without humanity? How does death figure into his view of politics and capitalism later on in the essay?

3. Ruskin says that capitalism, while nice in theory, fails in its "applicability." What kind of system would he prefer? Does he, perhaps, also ignore certain facets of human nature in his system, i.e. the innate selfishness of men? Does he account for vices in humanity?

Last modified 30 September 2003

6 May 2019