In Unto This Last, John Ruskin constructs a highly systematic and analytical argument against the theories of political economics. "Ad Valorem" features a dissection of the language John Stuart Mill (one of these economists), and in particular the word value.
Much store has been set for centuries upon the use of our English classical education. It were to be wished that our well-educated merchants recalled to mind always this much of their Latin schooling, — that the nominative of valorem (a word already sufficiently familiar to them) is valor; a word which, therefore, ought to be familiar to them. Valor, from valere, to be well or strong (ugiainw); — strong, in life (if a man), or valiant; strong, for life (if a thing) or valuable. To be "valuable," therefore, is to "avail towards life." A truly valuable or availing thing is that which leads to life with its whole strength. In proportion as it does not lead to life, or as it leads away from life, it is unvaluable or malignant. [p. 258]
By recalling the Latin root of the word value, Ruskin points the reader to definitions not obvious in its economic use, but ones that he "ought to be familiar" with.
What new ways of thinking about the word value does Ruskin illuminate for the reader, and how do these definitions differ from the word's usual economic use?
Mill's argument fails, according to Ruskin, because he did not properly define the terms he used. Does Ruskin's relentless examination of the word value enhance his own argument? In what position does it place him with regards to his readers?
Ruskin argues for a moral evaluation of wealth, as opposed to a strictly mathematical one, yet his style here is highly scientific. What effect does this have on his argument? Can the style of this piece be compared at all to Swift's "A Modest Proposal," in which the narrator uses mathematical language to satirize utilitarianism?
Unto This Last. The Genius of John Ruskin. Ed. John D. Rosenberg. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998. 229-272.
Last modified 15 March 2005