I’ll tell you who you are, says the circus performer, for a dollar. I’ll tell you your age and weight — give or take a few — with no questions asked, no files checked, just by the way you conspicuously doff your hat to hint of the grey, the quick escape of silver behind your close-mouthed smile, the slight tricks that give your type away. Thus, for entertainment, we gladly throw our money and ask of our character, yet for true education, we ignore the sage who teaches, gratis, on the state of our morality. In his lecture, “Traffic,” John Ruskin, cognizant of his audience’s expectations, entertains:

What do you like?' Tell me what you like, and I'll tell you what you are. Go out into the street, and ask the first man or woman you meet, what their 'taste' is, and if they answer candidly, you know them, body and soul. 'You, my friend in the rags, with the unsteady gait, what do you like?' 'A pipe and a quartern of gin.' I know you. 'You, good woman, with the quick step and tidy bonnet, what do you like?' 'A swept hearth and a clean tea-table, and my husband opposite me, and a baby at my breast.' Good, I know you also. 'You, little girl with the golden hair and the soft eyes, what do you like?' 'My canary, and a run among the wood hyacinths.' 'You, little boy with the dirty hands and the low forehead, what do you like?' 'A shy at the sparrows, and a game at pitch-farthing.' Good; we know them all now. What more need we ask?

Ruskin then anticipates our objection - “If they do right, it is no matter that they like what is wrong; and if they do wrong, it is no matter that they like what is right.” Again, Ruskin uses a character we fragmentally perceive — the drunkard — and clarifies his argument, of taste forming character, within the context of our understanding.

The man is not in health of body who is always thirsting for the bottle in the cupboard, though he bravely bears his thirst; but the man who heartily enjoys water in the morning and wine in the evening, each in its proper quantity and time. And the entire object of true education is to make people not merely do the right things, but enjoy the right things “ not merely industrious, but to love industry “ not merely learned, but to love knowledge “ not merely pure, but to love purity “ not merely just, but to hunger and thirst after justice.

Ruskin lectures that our inner affections and longings, not our reigned-in actions, determine who we are. We already measure our neighbors through their taste, asking, “’What do you like?’” Now, we must ask ourselves.


1. Ruskin uses specific and scientific, as well as emotional, analyses in many arguments, such as “Taste is the only index of morality” or “There is no Wealth but Life.” Do you believe he favors either type of analyses? Are other writers — such as Carlyle, who influences Ruskin, or Didion, who makes extensive references to her psychological state — less effective because they rely more upon either the emotional or the empirical?

2. How does Ruskin�s argument of “Traffic,” “taste is the only index of morality,” add upon that of his “Unto this Last” essays, “There is no Wealth but Life” ?

3. Ruskin challenges, “Tell me what you like, and I’ll tell you what you are, whereas Thomas Carlyle, in his tract, “Hudson’s Statue,” says, “Show me the man you honour; I know by that symptom, better than by any other, what kind of man you yourself are.” Are Ruskin and Carlyle’s challenges based on the index of inner taste alone, or is Carlyle’s assertion also based upon physical action?

4. Do Ruskin and Carlyle serve, solely, to tell society of its depraved state, or do their lectures have a greater aim? Does either lecture provide hope for change?

Last modified 28 February 2011

6 May 2019