The Roots of Honour


In this topic, you will learn about some issues relating to England’s political economy. Ruskin talks about some ethical values, human emotions, the motivating factors of soul as against the dry, mechanical relationships supposed to exist between the master and his subordinates. He also addresses the “justice balance” Therefore, in a political-economic sense based on the ideals of covetousness, Ruskin brings in both human and spiritual perspectives.

Summary of The Roots of Honour

In this introductory essay, Ruskin discusses the concept of an advantageous code of social action can be calculated irrespective of the social affection. He also looks at concerns about the perfect relationship between the workers and their masters. He disagrees with nineteenth-century political theorists who believed social affections were unintentional and upsetting features of human nature. The nineteenth-century leading exponents of political economics were John Stuart Mill, Thomas Robert Malthus, and David Ricardo.

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

Ruskin criticized those economic thinkers who, according to him, were self-styled political economists. These economists believe that social affections are accidental and unsettling elements of human nature. Greed and the desire for progress are, on the other hand, constant elements. According to these economists, the inconstant is to be eliminated and human beings are to be treated as covetous machines. After that, we should examine what labor, purchase and sale laws, 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 many of the disturbing affections as he chooses, so that he would be able to determine for himself the result of the new conditions.

Ruskin thus creates the basis for his discussion. He finds faults with the above-mentioned economists for two primary reasons. First, he believes that man ‘s behavior should be traced under constant conditions , and later on the causes of variations should be known.

He further suggests that elements of social affections do not operate in a mathematical but chemical way. Second, he disagrees with contemporary political economists in that they see human beings as nothing but a mere skeleton, an automation without a soul. Like many other idealists, Ruskin protested against the concept of human beings as machines. To make his argument possible, he borrows images from chemistry and human anatomy. Despite the influence of science on his writings, Ruskin did not hesitate to reject the popular view that the human body is a machine. He uses the example of using pure nitrogen as a highly manageable gas.

However, when we deal with its fluorides, it can cause damage to us and our apparatus. In the same way, he is attacking the theory of progress at the expense of the negation of the soul. By giving these examples, Ruskin argues that human problems can not be resolved through mathematical precision. It also points to the inapplicability of such a theory in the context of the strike of workers.

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Here, he discusses a vital issue concerning the relationship between the employer and the employee. He believes that all the leading economists of the 19th century have preferred to remain silent on this issue. They are incapable of reconciling the interests of the opposing parties. Ruskin, on the other hand , believes that the interests of the masters and workers are the same and that there is no antagonism between them.

He suggests that all cordial relations between the masters and the servants depend on the “balance of justice” – a term that encompasses the emotional relationship between one man and another. He steadfastly rejects the political-economic view that a worker is merely a motor whose motivating power is steam, magnetism and gravitation. For him, the motivating power of a worker is a soul of an unknown quantity. He believes that this motivating force, involving the will and spirit of man, is brought to its greater strength by its own proper feeling, that is, by the affection that these political economists have described as accidental and disturbing elements of human nature. He ends the statement by implying that the master ‘s relationship with the workers must be based on love because there is no animosity between them and there is no conflict of interests between them.

After this, Ruskin discusses the wage problem. He believes in the equality of wages and maintains that the constant number of workers should remain in employment. Bad worker should not be discriminated against with a good worker in terms of wages. If the master has to choose a worker, he always chooses a good worker. A bad worker should not be allowed to offer his work even at half wages, nor should he be allowed to take the place of a good worker. For the sake of insufficient money, he completely rules out competition. Likewise, a good worker should be satisfied with the fact that he is chosen for his work. He should not feel proud of the higher wages he earns.

Ruskin believes that there are five intellectual professions in every civilized society, namely a soldier, a pastor, a physician, a lawyer and a merchant. Persons belonging to these professions are expected to perform their duties honestly. The merchant, for example, must supply the people with perfect and pure things. But the question that disturbs Ruskin ‘s mind is what kind of social pressure can be exerted on an dishonest person.

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

Model Explanations

(a) And the varieties ………………….. balances of justice.”

These lines are an extract from the first chapter entitled The Roots of Honour from John Ruskin’s celebrated book Unto This Last. John Ruskin is a significant British Social thinker and in this chapter, he deals with the questions of wealth, inter-relationships between the masters and workers and the concepts of wealth and justice.

In the lines under consideration, Ruskin discusses the various circumstances which influence the mutual relationships between the master and the labourer. Whether it is the master or the workers, each act on the basis of urgent needs or demands that they are supposed to deal with. Each group has its own interests in mind. However, Ruskin believes that all these considerations are futile. He believes that all human actions should be guided by the balance of justice. God, the maker, intended that no human actions should be directed by the considerations of greed or self-interest. In fact, all human actions or relationships should have faith in norms of ethics, mortality and create a balance of justice.

The above extract presents before the reader a sterling example of Ruskin’s prose: it is so simple, so clear and yet so forceful. These lines also indicate Ruskin’s moral angle in matters related to society and its economic aspects.

(b) “That, ,,however, is not ………………… their results.”

These lines form an extract from John Ruskin’s essay The Roots of Honour. This essay happens to be the introductory chapter of his significant book Unto This Last and herein John Ruskin introduces the moral and spiritual angle to the dry and mechanical theories on political economy propounded by his nineteenth-century contemporary thinkers.

In the lines under scrutiny, Ruskin asserts that the principle of greatest happiness to the greatest number of masses is wrong. Drawing an example, he suggests that a servant is not a mere machine. His motive power, like the machine, is not magnetism or gravitation. It is not a force which can be calculated on some principle of physics. A servant, asserts, Ruskin is a human being; his soul is his motive power. This motivation power, like any other power or energy, cannot be calculated. As such the very principle of the political economist who equates a worker with a soulless machine stands cancelled out.

Here in these lines, Ruskin talks of man as a child of God and his motivational energy in his soul or spirit. Thus he reaffirms his ethical stance with the help of the perfect analogy of a soulless engine.

Important Questions and Their Answers

Q. What is John Ruskin’s opinion about the nineteenth-century political economists?
Ans. John Ruskin has a very negative opinion of the theories advanced by the nineteenth-century political economists. These economists believe that an advantageous code of social action can be created without taking into consideration the influence of social affection. They are of the opinion that avarice and the desire of progress are constant elements in the processes of social action while social affections are accidental.

John Ruskin rejects this idea. He says that these forces do not operate mathematically, but chemically. He also stresses that importance of human soul or spirit which motivates men. Ruskin also criticizes these political economists because they believe that the interest of masters and workmen are antagonistic. It does not always follow that persons must be antagonistic because their interests are.

He also condemns these theorists for suggesting that human actions depend on the rule of expediency. He believes that the balance of justice is more important and it includes human affection, something which one man owes to another. All right relationships between masters and workmen depend on these. Ruskin rejects the contemporary view that worker is a mere engine the motive power of which is steam, magnetism and gravitation. He believes that motive power is a soul which enters into all the political economist’s equations without his knowledge.

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Thus Ruskin creates an emotional, even an ethical angle as opposed to the mechanical angle put forward by political economists like John Stuart Mill, Ricardo and Malthus.

Q. What are John Ruskin’s views about the master-workmen relationship?
Ans. John Ruskin looks at the questions related to the master-workmen relationship in great detail. First of all, he affirms that human beings are not automation or engines. They are not motivated with steam, magnetism and gravitation. They are motivated with a spirit. So they must be treated with consideration and sympathy and balance of justice.

Ruskin also knows that kindness and sympathy will be frequently abused. He asserts that workmen should be treated with kindness without any economic purpose and, in return, our economic purposes will be answered. Masters need not be blatantly selfish but cautiously considerate. Further, Ruskin proves his point with the examples from army, robbers and industrialists. He suggests that unlike a soldier or a servant, a workman operates at a rate of wages which varies according to the demand of labour. He can be thrown out at any time.

He raises two questions here: one, how the rates are to be regulated in a way that they do not vary with the demand of labour. Second, how bodies of workmen may be engaged or maintained without enlarging or diminishing their numbers. The answer to the first question is that it should be paid at a fixed rate on a regular basis. Secondly, the number of workers may not be enlarged or diminished at will. They should be given some permanent interests in the establishment in which they work.

To conclude, John Ruskin does not look at the master-worker relationship only from the mercantile angle. He wants it to have a character with a human, emotional, and ethical angle.

Q. Which according to Ruskin are five “great intellectual professions” in every civilised nation? What are their duties?
Ans. The five great intellectual professions are those of soldiers, pastors, physicians, lawyers, merchants. The soldier’s profession is to defend the nation and not run away on the due occasion of war. The physician should keep a nation in good health. He should not leave his post in times of medical emergency. The pastor should teach faith rather than falsehood. The lawyer should not defend injustice but enforce justice.

John Ruskin then takes up the case of the merchant by putting the question “What are the duties of a merchant?”

According to him, the duty of a merchant or a manufacturer is to provide for the nation. He says that it is perfectly legitimate for a merchant to earn a profit. But it is his duty to maintain the quality of the things he deals in. The purity of the products must be maintained at every cost.

It is also the duty of the merchant to distribute or sell his things at the cheapest rate where it is most needed. Since the production or obtaining of any commodity involves necessarily the involvement of many people, it is the responsibility of the merchant to produce and sell in purest and cheapest forms. It is also his duty to maintain the balance of justice in his dealings with his employees.

Thus John Ruskin, by pointing to social, ethical and emotional issues, emerges as a different kind of political economist.

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