In the first chapter of John Ruskin's "Unto This Last," entitled "The Roots of Honour," Ruskin considers the honour granted to soldiers by mankind — a reverence that, "philosophically... does not, at first sight, appear reasonable" (p. 238). Ruskin, taking sides with the people over the philosophers, offers a philosophical justification:

For the soldier's trade, verily and essentially, is not slaying, but being slain. This, without well knowing its own meaning, the world honours it for. A bravo's trade is slaying; but the world has never respected bravos more than merchants: the reason it honours the soldier is, because he holds his life at the service of the State. Reckless he may be-fond of pleasure or of adventure-all kinds of bye-motives and mean impulses may have determined the choice of his profession, and may affect (to all appearance exclusively) his daily conduct in it; but our estimate of him is based on this ultimate fact-of which we are well assured-that put him in a fortress breach, with all the pleasures of the world behind him, and only death and his duty in front of him, he will keep his face to the front; and he knows that his choice may put to him at any moment-and has beforehand taken his part-virtually takes such part continually-does, in reality, die daily. [pp. 238-9]

Ruskin, it seems, has rendered the solider a Christian Soldier, or at least an embodiment of Christian virtues. He "holds his life at the service of the State" (p. 239); he chooses "death and his duty" (p. 239) over worldly pleasures; and, accordingly, he sacrifices his own life every day. The last characteristic, which Ruskin presents as the foundation of the public's respect for soldiers, readily echoes the sacrament of the Eucharist, in which Christ is believed to sacrifice himself daily, and "continually" (p. 239).

But while Ruskin's heavily coded language sets the framework for his reasoning, it does not pinpoint it. For in his description of the soldier as potentially "reckless" or having "mean impulses," he suggests that their ultimate sacrifice-the greatest sacrifice-is a contradiction of their life; or, more exactly, an act that wholly defies reason, or the varying motivations that led the soldier to that moment. Thus, the philosopher himself might be correct "without well knowing (his) own meaning" (p. 239) when he deems the honour of soldiers unreasonable, as the soldier stands in mankind's imagination, and Ruskin's own, as something able to overcome reason; indeed, to make a leap-of-faith.


1. In saying that mankind honors the "slaying" of soldiers, how does this image of commemorating the dead-or the already dead-comment on Ruskin's conception of the public's function?

2. How, if at all, does this relate to his attempt in "Traffic" "to prove to (the people of Yorkshire) the honor of (their) houses and (their) hills" (p. 281)?

3. If "the soldier's profession is to defend" (p. 241) its nation, how does Ruskin reconcile this with the soldier's continual death? Is his death a form of defense?

4. Something that caught my eye. Ralph Steadman, remembering his friend Hunter S. Thompson, who recently committed suicide, said that Thompson told him years ago: "I would feel real trapped in this life if I didn't know I could commit suicide at any time (source)." Does the Good Doctor's morbid rumination have an element of Ruskin? When Ruskin writes, "For, truly, the man who does not know when to die, does not know how to live" (p. 242), does it inform Thompson's anxiety?

Last modified 14 March 2005

6 May 2019