John Ruskin's Unto This Last is one of the greatest attempts to rethink economic science within a larger set of principles concerning the whole human nature. The author's emphasis on the role of social affections and the need for moral justice in nineteenth-century economic dynamics is conveyed through an explanatory prose style which guides the reader step by step to the final undisputable evidence. Ruskin always prevents his audience from falling in the traps of superficial misunderstanding by regularly drawing attention on his own statements ("Observe, I neither impugn nor doubt," "Observe, I say, 'of good rendered'," "Observe, I am here considering," "I say 'in the outset'"). Despite the moral tone of his warnings against a conception of economics as pure science of expediency, Ruskin does not preach from a position of solemn authority. In other words, rather than shouting his truths at his readers, he frequently builds conceptual bridges to his wisdom for them to traverse at their convenience. As the following passage highlights, he often envisions in advance the reader's path into his writings and therefore provides clarifications, reassurances, promises to fix still unresolved points and elements for future independent evaluations.
The collateral and reversionary operations of justice in this matter I shall examine hereafter (it being needful first to define the nature of value); proceeding then to consider within what practical terms a juster system may be established; and ultimately the vexed question of the destinies of the unemployed workmen. Lest, however, the reader should be alarmed at some of the issues to which our investigations seem to be tending, as if in their bearing against the power of wealth they had something in common with those of socialism, I wish him to know in accurate terms, one or two of the main points which I have in view. Whether socialism has made more progress among the army and navy (where payment is made on my principles), or among the manufacturing operatives (who are paid on my opponents' principles), I leave it to those opponents to ascertain and declare. Whatever their conclusion may be, I think it necessary to answer for myself only this: that if there be any one point insisted on throughout my works more frequently than another, that one point is the impossibility of Equality. My continual aim has been to show the eternal superiority of some men to others, sometimes even of one man to all others; and to show also the advisability of appointing such persons or person to guide, to lead, or on occasion even to compel and subdue, their inferiors, according to their own better knowledge and wiser will. My principles of Political Economy were all involved in a single phrase spoken three years ago at Manchester. "Soldiers of the Ploughshare as well as soldiers of the Sword:" and they were all summed in a single sentence in the last volume of Modern Painters -- "Government and co-operation are in all things the Laws of Life; Anarchy and competition the Laws of Death."
And with respect to the mode in which these general principles affect the secure possession of property, so far am I from invalidating such security, that the whole gist of these papers will be found ultimately to aim at an extension in its range; and whereas it has long been known and declared that the poor have no right to the property of the rich, I wish it also to be known and declared that the rich have no right to the property of the poor.
The explicit reference to the possibility of summarizing his writings in a couple of previous spoken or written sentences implicitly make the four essays of Unto This Last a free attempt to make his sound arguments clearer just for the sake of the readers' understanding.
1. Ruskin fills his essays with abstract examples ("suppose two sailors cast away on an uninhabitated coast," "supposing the captain of a frigate," "if the musician is poor, he will sing for small pay"). What is the effect of habitually referring to hypothetical situations instead of quoting biographical or historical events?
2. Ruskin's tendency to shape his arguments as dialogues with imaginary interlocutors can be seen in the recurrence of expressions like "Of course," "Pardon me," "Certainly," or in the presence of sentences like "What! The reader perhaps answers amazedly." What is the effect of such a writing attitude?
3. Toward the end of essay I Ruskin writes "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." Would a rhetorical strategy containing such a categorical statement maintain the same persuasive power in a piece of contemporary nonfiction?
Ruskin, John. The Genius of John Ruskin. Ed. John Rosenberg. Charlottesville: U of Virginia Pres, 1998.
Last modified 16 October 2006