“Traffic” lectures the citizens of nineteenth-century Bradford on their flawed taste, both in art and architecture as well as in their devotion to the religion of Pleasure. John Ruskin argues that taste IS a moral quality which must be considered with great seriousness because “what we like determines what we are, and is the sign of what we are; and to teach taste is inevitably to form character.” Ruskin focuses on the discussion of character because he believes that a nation’s creations, specifically their architecture, can be no greater than the virtues of the men who created them. He advises his audience that their concerns are misplaced; rather than deliberating the style of the new Exchange building, they should consider instead the values that their society chooses to embrace. He predicts his audience’s indignation and impatience, remarking that they will ask him how this is relevant to the designing of their Exchange. To this, he responds:

My dear friends, it has just everything to do with it; on these inner and great questions depend all the outer and little ones; and if you have asked me down here to speak to you, because you had before been interested in anything I have written, you must know that all I have yet said about architecture was to show this. The book I called The Seven Lamps was to show that certain right states of temper and moral feeling were the magic powers by which all good architecture, without exception, had been produced. The Stones of Venice had, from beginning to end, no other aim than to show that the Gothic architecture of Venice had arisen out of, and indicated in all its features, a state of pure national faith, and of domestic virtue; and that its Renaissance architecture had arisen out of, and in all its features indicated, a state of concealed national infidelity, and of domestic corruption. And now, you ask me what style is best to build in, and how can I answer, knowing the meaning of the two styles, but by another question do you mean to build as Christians or as infidels? And still more do you mean to build as honest Christians or as honest Infidels? As thoroughly and confessedly either one or the other? You don’t like to be asked such rude questions. I cannot help it; they are of much more importance than this Exchange business; and if they can be at once answered, the Exchange business settles itself in a moment.

To Ruskin, good architecture reflects good character, making it impossible for men to create something worthy of admiration without being admirable themselves. He identifies a central flaw in English society as their worship of the “Goddess of Getting-on,” who represents the extreme good fortune and prosperity of few at the expense of the vast majority of others. Ruskin criticizes excessive pursuit of pleasure and luxury, advocating instead that his audience learn to adopt a simpler lifestyle and more egalitarian society, as he believes is necessary to produce anything worthy of high regard.

Questions

1. Ruskin begins his lecture by addressing his audience as “My good Yorkshire friends,” and similarly acknowledges his listeners at the start of the above passage as “my dear friends.” Are these endearments sincere or condescending? Do they establish Ruskin’s credibility and make us more inclined to consider his arguments?

2. Ruskin repeatedly refers to a sense of duty beyond his control. In the opening of his lecture, he says: “I cannot talk, or at least, can say very little, about this exchange. I must talk of quite other things, though not very willingly; — I could not deserve your pardon, if, when you invited me to speak on one subject, I willfully spoke on another. But I cannot speak, to purpose, of anything about which I do not care; and most simply and sorrowfully I have to tell you, in the outset, that I do not care about this Exchange of yours.” He takes a similar defense of the offensive questions he poses in the above passage, claiming “I cannot help it.” What effect do such claims have on Ruskin’s credibility? How do they establish his relationship with his audience?

3. What is Ruskin’s concept of the ideal society? Does he clearly define it?

4. How does Ruskin feel about religion? How do his sentiments compare with those of Carlyle in “Signs of the Times” and “Hudson’s Statue?”


Victorian Overview John Ruskin Political History

Last modified 28 February 2011