In "Traffic," John Ruskin addresses an assembly of businessmen under the pretense of advising them concerning the architecture of an Exchange. Instead, Ruskin proceeds to lecture his audience about their shortcomings in the realms of religion, architecture and ethics. He frames his lecture in such a way that he emerges unblemished, free of all the blame he heaps upon the heads of the capitalist members of his audience. The address also resembles that which a preacher might give, aside from its lack of humility and his obvious disdain for their hypocrisy. Ruskin argues his point convincingly, and he inflects a condescending tone into his speech to which no reader can be oblivious:
I know that none of this wrong is done with deliberate purpose. I know, on the contrary, that you wish your workmen well; that you do much for them, and that you desire to do more for them, if you saw your way to it safely. I know that many of you have done, and are every day doing, whatever you feel to be in your power; and that even all this wrong and misery are brought about by a warped sense of duty, each of you striving to do his best, without noticing that this best is essentially and centrally the best for himself, not for others. And all this has come of the spreading of that thrice accursed, thrice impious doctrine of the modern economist, that 'To do the best for yourself, is finally to do the best for others.
Ruskin adopts a prophetic stance, warning his undoubtedly indignant listeners of the dangers that await them should they continue on the path which they are currently treading:
Continue to make that forbidden deity your principal one, and soon no more art, no more science, no more pleasure will be possible. Catastrophe will come; or worse than catastrophe, slow mouldering and withering into Hades.
Here, Ruskin embodies the voice crying out for change, beseeching his audience to heed his words and cease wandering from the path of virtue. Though on the surface he seems to don the mantle of a preacher, Ruskin ensures that he exempts himself from his own accusations while inflecting a liberal dose of condescension and disdain into his voice.
1. At one point in his lecture, Ruskin identifies the three great religions of Europe. Among them is the "Mediæval religion":
The Medižval religion of Consolation perished in false comfort; in remission of sins given lyingly. It was the selling of absolution that ended the Medižval faith; and I can tell you more, it is the selling of absolution which, to the end of time, will mark false Christianity.
How do Ruskin and Swinburne's opinions of the Middle Ages relate to one another?
2. In "Traffic," Ruskin laments the fact that life in his time had become divided in such a way that quotidian life and religion had been relegated to their own compartments. Dickens makes a similar observation in Great Expectations about the dichotomy that exists between the public and domestic spheres. During the Victorian era, was it a common practice for people to compartmentalize their lives in these ways? What were the most common divisions made?
3. Do you think that Ruskin's condescending tone in this lecture contributes to or detracts from his purpose?
4. Which of Ruskin's criticisms do you think are still relevant today?
Last modified 16 April 2009