The Roots of Honour – Summary

In the essay, The Roots of Honour, John Ruskin deals with the idea whether an advantageous code of social action may be determined irrespective of the influence of social affection. He also considers questions regarding ideal relationship between the workers and their masters. He disagrees with political economists of the nineteenth century who believed that social affections are accidental and disturbing elements in human nature. The chief exponents of the political economy in the nineteenth century were John Stuart Mill, Thomas Robert Malthus and David Ricardo.

Though Mill was an advocate of liberty, he was of the opinion that public option and law should work against increase in population. As it would be difficult to maintain a decent standard of living, he therefore, agrees with Malthus who discussed the relation of population to means of subsistence. He further argues that the former must by nature outrun the latter. Ricardo also accepts the theory propounded by Malthus.

Ruskin has criticised those economic thinkers who, according to him, are self-styled political economists. These economists believe that social affections are accidental and disturbing elements in human nature. Greed and the desire of progress on the other hand are constant elements. According to these economists the inconstants should be eliminated and human being is to be treated as a covetous machine. After that, we should examine what laws of labour, purchase and sale etc. operate in a society in order to obtain wealth. They also feel that these laws once determined will allow each individual to introduce as much of the disturbing affections as he chooses and thus he would be able to determine for himself the result of the new conditions.

Ruskin thus creates the ground for his discussion. He finds faults with the aforesaid economists because of two main reasons. First, he believes that the behaviour of a man should be traced under constant conditions and the causes of variations should be determined later. He also suggests that elements of social affections do not operate mathematically but chemically. Secondly, he disagrees with contemporary political economists in that they considered human being as nothing but a mere skeleton, an automation without a soul. Like many other idealists Ruskin too protests against the concept of human beings as machines. In order to make his argument possible he borrows images from chemistry and human anatomy. In spite of influence of science on his writings, Ruskin does not hesitate in rejecting the popular view that human body is a machine. He exploits the example of the use of pure nitrogen as a very manageable gas. However, when we deal with its flourides, it can cause havoc to us and our apparatus. In the same way he bombards the theory of progress at the cost of the negation of a soul. By giving these examples Ruskin propounds the view that human problems cannot be solved by mathematical precision. He also points to the in applicability of such a theory in the context of strike of the workers.

Here he takes up for discussion a vital problem concerning the relation between the employer and the employee. He feels that all the leading economists of the 19th century preferred to remain silent on this issue. They are not able to reconcile the interests of the opposing parties. Ruskin, on the other hand, believes that the interests of the masters and the workers are the same and there is no antagonism between them. He suggests that all cordial relations between the masters and the servants depend on “balance of justice” – a term that includes emotional relations between one man and another. He ruthlessly rejects the politico-economic view that a worker is merely an engine whose motivating power is steam, magnetism and gravitation. For him the motivating power of a worker is a soul which is of an unknown quantity. He believes that this motivating force involving the will and the spirit of man is brought to its greater strength by its own proper feeling, namely the affection which these political economists have called accidental and disturbing elements in human nature. He concludes the argument by suggesting that the relationship between the master and the workers must be based on affection because there is no hostility between them nor do their interests clash. After this Ruskin discusses the problem related to wages. He believes in the equality of wages and asserts that constant number of worker should remain in employment. A bad worker should not be discriminated against with a good one in terms of wages. If a master has to choose a workman, he always chooses a good workman. A bad workman should not be allowed to offer his work even at half wages and he should not be permitted to take the place of a good worker. He completely rules out competition for the sake of insufficient sum. Similarly a good workman should get satisfaction from the fact that he is chosen for his work. He should not feel proud for the higher wages he earns.

Ruskin believes that in every civilized society there exist five intellectual professions,namely the soldier, the pastor, the physician, the lawyer and the merchant. Persons belong into these professions are expected to perform their duty honestly. The merchant, for instance,must supply perfect and pure things to the people. But the question that perturbs Ruskin’s mind is what social pressure can be exercised against a dishonest person.

In this first essay of Unto This Last Ruskin’s mind is preoccupied with the question on the individual conscience. He believes that the society can be transformed only when the individual is reformed.Thus personal honesty will lead to social honesty as against the mechanical theories of the other contemporary political economists. Ruskin’s theory of political economy is based on an ethical code of life. An amoral person is likely to act against the general interests of society. So in spite of the fact that Ruskin does not oppose individual’s right to run industries and employ workers, he wants an ethical basis to form the core of all social and financial endeavours. Thus in the first essay Roots of Honour Ruskin tries to put forth his views in an ethical framework. However, he leaves certain vital questions unanswered.

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