John Ruskin's essay "The Roots of Honour" employs logical strategies to add complexity to the issues of political economics but, paradoxically, also to simplify the issue into terms accessible to his audience. His argument about political economy employs progressive logic in which he initially lays out the foundation, complicates it with problems, and leads the reader from the diagnosis to the necessary prescription. In his opinion, the economy is not a machine but rather a human being. The manner in which a person views the economy and all its components plays a significant role in the treatment of the people involved.

Observe, I neither impugn nor doubt the conclusions 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 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.

This inapplicability has been curiously manifested during the embarrassment caused by the late strikes of our workmen. Here occurs one of the simplest cases, in a pertinent and positive form, of the first vital problem which political economy has to deal with (the relation between the employer and the employed); and, at a severe crisis, when lives in multitudes and wealth in masses are at stake, the political economists are helpless-practically mute: no demonstrable solution of the difficulty can be given by them, such as may convince or calm the opposing parties. Obstinately the masters take one view of the matter; obstinately the operatives another; and no political science can set them at one. [pp. 230-231]

Although he did not identify the solution in the above passage, Ruskin introduced the structure of his argument. By taking an objective stance in addition to showing his involvement, Ruskin simultaneously establishes authority and gains the trust of the readers, preparing them for the analysis to come.


1. Ruskin directly addresses the readers in the passage by calling their attention to his observations. Do you think it is wise for him to involve his personal opinions in the argument? Is he still speaking objectively?

2. In what ways could his personal opinions add to the effectiveness of his argument?

3. What elements does the speaker utilize to gain credibility?

4. If Samuel Johnson were to write on the inequality of the political economy, how may his writing differ?

5. Do you think Ruskin is arguing for justice with affection? How is it effective or ineffective?


Rosenberg, John D., ed. The Genius of John Ruskin: Selections from his Writings. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998.

Victorian Overview John Ruskin Leading Questions

Last modified 17 March 2005