Throughout his four essays in Unto This Last, John Ruskin infuses his academic and moral arguments concerning political economy with his own perspectives and personality, and in doing so, he draws the reader into a sort of dialogue with his text and the ideas within it. In the passage below, Ruskin constructs an imaginary discourse with the reader, anticipating his audience's responses to his statements and countering them with questions of his own, thus forcibly engaging readers with his arguments whether or not those readers will such an involvement.
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 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 enquire. 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. [Rosenberg, 271]
By addressing his readers directly — as when he asks them to imagine their own sons in the situation at hand — and relentlessly supplying them with ideas that are supposedly their own, Ruskin demands that they confront and evaluate these ideas for themselves. A passage such as the one above does not allow a passive reading, and so Ruskin pulls his readers inexorably into the intellectual debate at hand, ensuring that they will connect personally with his arguments and consider his points more carefully than they might otherwise.
1. The statement "He will. I know it" (line 5 above) is not technically necessary in this argument, and appears mainly to add emphasis. Why does Ruskin add this phrase? Is he, the author, really the "I" in question?
2. What is the effect of the potentially subversive statement that Ruskin follows with the parenthetic note: "which, however often implied, I have heard none yet openly say"? Is Ruskin himself openly saying that the poor are unredeemable, or is he condemning, through imitation, those who might imply such a thing?
3. Why does Ruskin personify "the Lord of Multitudes"? How might this device strengthen his argument?
4. Ruskin's tone changes abruptly at the end of this passage ("Ye sheep . . . but the Presence"), sounding almost biblical. Why does the author employ this sudden shift from conversing with his readers to preaching to them?
Ruskin, John. The Genius of John Ruskin. Ed. John Rosenberg. Various editions (orginally Riverside; also Routledge, Virginia).
Last modified 16 October 2007