Tue Dec 10, 2002

Unto This Last

John Ruskin”) is a fascinating character—- the epitome of the Victorian mind’s sensibility, scope and ambition. He’s also one of those historical characters whom everyone knows exactly one embarrassing thing about, like Catherine the Great. Here’s a snippet from Unto This Last (1860) which I ran across this morning.

“The social affections,” says the economist, “are accidental and disturbing elements in human nature; but avarice and the desire of progress are constant elements. Let us eliminate the inconstants, and, considering the human being merely as a covetous machine, examine by what laws of labour, purchase, and sale, the greatest accumulative result in wealth is obtainable. Those laws once determined, it will be for each individual afterwards to introduce as much of the disturbing affectionate element as he chooses, and to determine for himself the result on the new conditions supposed.” …

Observe, I neither impugn nor doubt the conclusion fo 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.