John Ruskin takes on the capitalist system in his series of essays collected in “Unto This Last.” The work, which was highly criticized by his contemporaries, addresses the problems of capitalist theory — namely that it does not take into account the subtleties of human behavior and erroneously treats the human workforce as a machine — and advocates for a social economy wherein people are cooperative and charitable. Within each section, Ruskin builds his argument with a series of hypothetical situations and examples, demonstrating a train of logical thought to his reader, much like a teacher would. We can see one such instance of this technique in the following passage:

The next clearest and simplest example of the relation between master and operative is that which exists between the commander of a regiment and his men.

Supposing the officer only desires to apply the rules of discipline so as, with least trouble to himself, to make the regiment most effective, he will not be able, by any rules or administration of rules, on this selfish principle, to develop the full strength off his subordinates. If a man of sense and firmness, he may as in the former instance, produce a better result than would be obtained by the irregular kindness of a weak officer; but let the sense and firmness be the same in both cases, and assuredly the officer who has the most direct personal relations with this men, the most care for their interests, and the most value for their lives, will develop their effective strength, through their affection for his own person, and trust in his character, to a degree wholly unattainable by other means. This law applies still more stringently as the numbers concerned are larger: a charge may often be successful, though the men dislike their officers; a battle has rarely been won, unless they loved their general. [p. 172]

Ruskin has set out a clear situation, easy to understand, that the reader can apply irrespective of time and place. He will go on to show how this hypothetical example relates to the relationship of workers and merchants, and thus the economy as a whole. But he sometimes leaves this mode of teacher and becomes more of a preacher. He concludes “The Roots of Honor” with a more moralistic tone:

All which sounds very strange: the only real strangeness in the matter being, nevertheless, that it should so sound. For all this is true, and that not partially nor theoretically, but everlastingly and practically: all other doctrine than this respecting matters political being false in premises, absurd in deduction, and impossible in practice, consistently with any progressive state of national life; all the life which we now possess as a nation showing itself in the resolute denial and scorn, by a few strong minds and faithful hearts, of the economic principles taught to our multitudes, which principles, so far as accepted, lead straight to national destruction. Respecting the modes and forms of destruction to which they lead, and, on the other hand, respecting the father practical working of the true polity, I hope to reason farther in a following paper. [p. 179]

Ruskin has dispensed with his more neutral tone, and has instead taken up use of loaded words like “absurd” and “destruction,” and taken to insulting his countrymen by referring to them as “multitudes.” He seems to have changed his mind about the role he wants to play in these essays.


1. Which role would you say Ruskin best fits — the teacher or the preacher?

2. What kind of relationship does Ruskin establish with his reader? He often speaks for them, to provide interjections questioning his argument — for example, “’What!’ the reader perhaps answers amazedly: ‘pay good and bad workmen alike?’” (p. 173) — and addresses them directly — “Yet you pay with equal fee, contentedly, the good and bad workmen upon your soul,” (p. 173). What is the effect of voicing their side and addressing their doubts in this way?

3. Ruskin builds his argument with hypothetical situations. This differs from the other authors we have read, including Johnson (who used generalizations), Montaigne (who used references), and Carlyle (who used specific, context-dependent examples). Whose technique have you found most effective? Why?

4. What can we say about Ruskin’s credibility in commenting on this subject? He was not trained as an economist, and most of his expertise lies in art. He tries to establish his neutrality (“Observe, I neither impugn nor doubt the conclusion of the science if its terms are accepted.” [p. 168]), but is that enough? Where is his authority?

Last modified 28 February 2011

6 May 2019