This essay attempts to better our understanding of George Eliot's conservatism by examining a body of ideas about consumption and moral obligation that she and John Ruskin share. I use a discussion of consumer ethics to explore the moral logic of their conservatism by examining the role of the aesthetic within it. Economic consumption and the aesthetic are subjects inextricably connected, not just because the discourses of political economy and aesthetics have a shared origin in eighteenth-century moral philosophy, but also because the discourse of aesthetics has long served to legitimize select modes and acts of consumption. By marking out a limit where one may reasonably cease to sympathize and instead devote energy (and money) to personal gratification, the treatment of consumption in George Eliot's Middlemarch (1871) offers an important articulation of moral thought. Eliot suggests that aesthetic pleasure can make consumption morally defensible, but she also anticipates Pierre Bourdieu's critique of the aesthetic: her novel represents both the display of cultural capital and the exercise of the aesthetic disposition as ways of maintaining social and economic hierarchies. She thus at once critiques and participates in the system within which the aesthetic functions to preserve social and political stasis. Using John Ruskin's economic writings to expose Middlemarch as a novel of consumer ethics, this essay examines Eliot's representation of personal economic consumption as an emergent mode of social and political agency that might operate productively within that stasis.
- George Eliot
- John Ruskin