In "The Roots of Honour," John Ruskin examines the complex relationships between masters and subordinates, arguing that these exchanges cannot be analyzed using a strict scientific method. Rather, he argues that economists should take a more humanist approach to labor standards. Although Ruskin maintains a distant and all-knowing tone for the course of his logically argued essay, he begins it with a grotesque and disarming analogy:

"Observe, I neither impugn nor doubt the conclusion of the science if its terms are accepted. I am simply uninterested in them, as I should be in those of a science of gymnastics which assumed that men had no skeletons. It might be shown, on that supposition, that it would be advantageous to roll the students up into pellets, flatten them into cakes, or stretch them into cables; and that when these results were effected, the re-insertion of the skeleton would be attended with various inconveniences to their to their constitution. The reasoning might be admirable, the conclusions true, and the science deficient only in applicability. Modern political economy stands on a precisely similar basis. Assuming, not that the human being has no skeleton, but that it is all skeleton, it founds an ossifiant theory of progress on this negation of a soul; and having shown the utmost that may be made of bones, and constructed a number of interesting geometrical figures with death's-head and humeri, successfully proves the inconvenience of the reappearance of a soul among these corpuscular structures. I do not deny the truth of this theory: I simply deny its applicability to the present phase of the world.

Ruskin's comparison begins rationally: a science of economy which assumes it's workers have no agency is like a science of gymnastics which assumes that men have no skeletons. However, he quickly becomes carried away with the metaphor, launching into sensational imagery of skulls and crossbones, thereby losing his credibility with the reader.


1. For what purpose does Ruskin use an inverted analogy, comparing a human with no bones to a theory of political economy that is "all skeleton"?

2. The word "ossifiant" refers to the calcification of a bone. Does Ruskin's extension of this metaphor strengthen or weaken his argument?

3. Does Ruskin's accusation that economic science practices the "negation of a soul" change his argument from rational to moral?

4. What tone does Ruskin's "geometrical figures with death's-head and humeri" evoke?

5. In the final sentence, Ruskin contrasts his negative description of economic science with a concession of its truth. Does this change the effect of the passage?


Ruskin, John. The Genius of John Ruskin. Ed. John Rosenberg. Charlottesville: U of Virginia Press, 1998.

Victorian Overview John Ruskin Leading Questions

Last modified 16 October 2006