John Ruskin, writing in his essay “The Veins of Wealth” on the true definition and nature of wealth, skillfully employs a number of tactics at once to make his argument approachable, clear, and compelling to the reader. Ruskin argues that “the essence of wealth consists in power over men,” rather than simply possession of material goods, and that for one person to be rich requires that there are others who are poor. This might be a difficult argument to make: it deals in relatively abstract concepts, and makes a case contrary to the common belief of the time. But Ruskin takes a familiar tone with the reader, inserting little interjections like “Pardon me” that make his arguments seem more approachable. His tone in this essay reads more as real person engaging the reader in conversation than as an anonymous authority dictating his beliefs. This is not to say that Ruskin doesn’t argue very strongly for his own beliefs, only that he goes about it in such a way as to make the reader feel he does so as an equal. Ruskin is also adept at constructing similes and metaphors to make his ideas more concrete. He makes up stories to illustrate his arguments with examples a reader can more easily understand and relate to: stories of poker games, or the guinea missing from your neighbor’s pocket. These stories ground his arguments, and make them easier to read and grasp.
Pardon me. Men of business do indeed know how they themselves made their money, or how, on occasion, they lost it. Playing a long-practised game, they are familiar with the chances of its cards, and can rightly explain their losses and gains. But they neither know who keeps the bank of the gambling-house, nor what other games may be played with the same cards, nor what other losses and gains, far away among the dark streets, are essentially, though invisibly, dependent on theirs in the lighted rooms. They have learned a few, and only a few, of the laws of mercantile economy; but not one of those of political economy.
Primarily, which is very notable and curious, I observe that men of business rarely know the meaning of the word ‘rich.’ At least, if they know, they do not in their reasonings allow for the fact, that it is a relative word, implying its opposite ‘poor’ as positively as the word ‘north’ implies its opposite ‘south.’ Men nearly always speak and write as if riches were absolute, and it were possible, by following certain scientific precepts, for everybody to be rich. Whereas riches are a power like that of electricity, acting only through inequalities or negations of itself. The force of the guinea you have in your pocket depends wholly on the default of a guinea in your neighbor’s pocket. If he did not want it, it would be of no use to you; the degree of power it possesses depends accurately upon the need or desire he has for it, — — and the art of making yourself rich, in the ordinary mercantile economist’s sense, is therefore equally and necessarily the art of keeping your neighbor poor.
When put in such terms as these, terms of men and small, every day circumstances, Ruskin’s arguments seem simple and almost obvious. Paired with Ruskin’s familiar tone, the writing becomes approachable and easy to grasp.
1. What does Ruskin achieve by beginning the paragraph with “Pardon me,” which, one should note, is a response to his previous paragraph, which quotes an imagined objection to his argument?
2. In the above passage, Ruskin employs a number of metaphors and similes in quick succession. How does this tactic affect his argument? Does the juxtaposition of so many metaphors alter their effectiveness?
3. Compare Ruskin’s tone to that of Samuel Johnson. How does each author establish his authority? How different are their tactics, and is one more appealing or convincing?
4. In other essays, and even in other parts of this essay, Ruskin’s arguments can be more emotional or abstract. How do these instances compare to the above passage? Is one style more effective? Is it effective to use both?
Last modified 2 March 2011