In his speech "Traffic" John Ruskin declares that a society's art and architecture directly reflects the morals and values of the people who dwell in and use its buildings. Ruskin looks at his society with a critical and reproving eye. His unapologetic firmness and harsh language serves to separate him from the people and society he criticizes. Ruskin boldly proclaims that he cannot tell these people how to build the Exchange because its structure must be a manifestation of the society's virtue. Since he lives in the society, but clearly demarcates himself from it, he at first denies his audience an answer.
Now, we have, indeed, a nominal religion to which we pay tithes of property and sevenths of time; but we have also a practical and earnest religion, to which we devote nine-tenths of our property, and six-sevenths of our time. And we dispute a great deal about the nominal religion: but we are all unanimous about this practical one; of which I think you will admit that the ruling goddess may be best generally described as the "Goddess of Getting-on" or "Britannia of the Market." ...And all your great architectural works are, of course, built to her. It is long since you built a cathedral; and how you would laugh at me if I proposed building a cathedral on the top of one of these hills of yours, to make it an Acropolis! But your railroad mounds, vaster than the walls of Babylon; your railroad stations, vaster than the temple of Ephesus, and innumerable; your chimneys, how much more mighty and costly than cathedral spires! Your harbour-piers; your warehouses; your exchanges! — all these are built to your great Goddess of "Getting-on"; and she has formed, and will continue to form, your architecture, as long as you worship her; and it is quite vain to ask me to tell you how to build her; you know far better than I. [p. 286]
Ruskin attacks his audience with a sage-like air of superiority. We get the impression that he is far wiser than his listeners, and dares to take the side of the opposition-questioning society's apparent religion, moral values, and aesthetic preferences.
1. In reading this passage it becomes clear that Ruskin despises the fallen state of society. How is Ruskin's tone made to feel reproachful? How does Ruskin's language convince his listener's of his critical point of view and incite change?
2. Like Carlyle, Ruskin takes it upon himself to make labels. Ruskin defines society's worship as that of the "Goddess of Getting-On." Why does he do this? How does Ruskin establish authority or credibility in this essay to allow him to make such labels?
3. Ruskin directly addresses his listeners and their actions using "you" and "your" repeatedly. How does this affect his argument? Is it meant to keep the audience attentive? Is it made to make his listeners feel personally culpable? Might it distance his listeners in any way especially since "you" and "your" often precede an insult?
4. Like Joan Didion's account of the Old and New Governor's Mansions, Ruskin seems to have located an instance of society's moral decline in its building and utilizing structures such as chimneys, railroads, stations, warehouses, and exchanges. How do specific examples such as these affect his argument?
Ruskin, John. The Genius of John Ruskin: Selections from His Writings. John D. Rosenberg, ed. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. 1998.
Last modified 15 March 2005