In "Traffic," and other works, Ruskin often claims that the morals and values of a country are explicitly visible in its art and architecture, and he even argues that artistic taste and morality are fundamentally one and the same. In "Unto this Last," he expands this mode of cultural criticism to include the study of economics. He tries to demonstrate that the failure of utilitarianism as a science lies precisely in its refusal to take into account the essential morality of men. In the following passage, taken from the chapter "The Veins of Wealth," Ruskin employs some of his most virtuosic writing to assert that wealth must be assessed morally rather than numerically.
And these are not, observe, merely moral or pathetic attributes of riches, which the seeker of riches may, if he chooses, despise; they are, literally and sternly, material attributes of riches, depreciating or exalting, incalculably, the monetary signification of the sum in question. One mass of money is the outcome of action which has created, - another, of action which has annihilated, — ten times as much in the gathering of it; such and such strong hands have been paralyzed, as if they had been numbed by operations hindered; this and the other false direction given to labour, and lying image of prosperity set up, on Dura plains dug into seven-times-heated furnaces. That which seems to be wealth may in verity only be the gilded index of far-reaching ruin; a wrecker's handful of coin gleaned from the beach to which he has beguiled an argosy; a camp-follower's bundle of rags unwrapped from the breasts of goodly soldiers dead; the purchase-pieces of potter's fields, wherein shall be buried together the citizen and the stranger.
Why does Ruskin, in the final sentence of the paragraph, string together a series of equivalent metaphors to describe what might one might call fool's gold? Is is merely for rhetorical emphasis, or there an logical progression to the series?
In much of the essay, Ruskin assumes a fairly analytical tone, providing mathematical examples to prove his economic theories. Does this kind of analysis weaken the strength of his rhetoric in passages like the one above, or vice-versa?
The sermon-like tone that Ruskin falls into at the end of each chapter might suggest the difficulty of founding a credible science of economics that is based on a moral theory of wealth. To what extent is Ruskin really attempting to found such a science? Does he believe this to be an acheivable ideal?
Last modified 30 September 2003