Ruskin aims in his lecture "Traffic" to chastise his audience for envisioning church and home architecture as necessarily distinct from each other. To him, these actions appear as if his listeners "live under one school of architecture, and worship under another," and he accuses them of separating their religious from their daily lives. Ruskin uses a story about a traveling boy to accentuate how people place too much emphasis on the church's appearance while disregarding other sacred locations. When the boy settles down to sleep in the wilderness, he has a dream about a ladder that reaches to heaven; the angels themselves traverse up and down the ladder between heaven's gates and the dank moor. When he awakens from his dream, the boy says that the moor itself is the location of the house of God:

This PLACE, observe; not this church; not this city; not this stone, even, which he puts up for a memorial — the piece of flint on which his head has lain. But this place; this windy slope of Wharnside; this moorland hollow, torrent-bitten, snow-blighted; this any place where God lets down the ladder. And how are you to know where that will be? or how are you to determine where it may be, but by being ready for it always?

As Ruskin continues, he assures his audience that he does not intend to disparage the church but rather to show how all of earth's locations can serve as religious sites. He implores his listeners not to devalue the church, but to place the same high value on all the earth, including the gloomy and deserted moor:

I would have you feel, what careless, what constant, what infectious sin there is in all modes of thought, whereby, in calling your churches only 'holy,' you call your hearths and homes profane; and have separated yourselves from the heathen by casting all your household gods to the ground, instead of recognising, in the place of their many and feeble Lares, the presence of your One and Mighty Lord and Lar.

Ruskin does not accept a hierarchy of sacred ground; rather, he believes in the potential of all environments and venues to take on holy meaning in the eyes of any believer. Because he also views nature as a pure source of inspiration, particularly in art, he argues that people do not even require buildings themselves for the practicing of religion, let alone ornately decorated ones that overshadow God's original gift of a habitat. In Ruskin's eyes, the temple found in nature easily unites with the crucial source of spirituality, the soul; nature alone suffices.

Questions

1. Why does Ruskin make the connection between the imposed hierarchy of religious sites and English class hierarchy? Why does he relate these two systems? In what ways, if any, does Ruskin differentiate between them?

2. Does Ruskin intend to criticize worldly materialism, or does he only scorn the narrow focus of luxuries and wealth on churches? What might Robert Browning's titular character of "Rabbi Ben Ezra" think about this emphasis on elite architecture for churches? Would he agree with Ruskin on the elevated importance of extravagant churches, or might he consider all terrestrial places of worship trivial?

3. When Ruskin first begins telling the story of the wandering boy, he describes a markedly different setting. He says the child travels across a "wild hill-desert" and then equates such a journey with a contemporary British boy's trek in the moors; from this point forward, he tells the story from the point of view of the contemporary British boy. Why does Ruskin begin the story with a different protagonist and setting, only to shift early on to another character and locale?

4. Ruskin states his position as someone opposed to the glorification of the church at the expense of the humble home and nature. Does this suggest any socialist leanings on Ruskin's part? Did he intend to make parallels between the bourgeoisie and proletariat classes? When did socialist theory start burgeoning and influencing scholars, and did Ruskin ever find himself among these types? Did Ruskin even perhaps influence socialist thought on his own?


Victorian Overview John Ruskin Leading Questions

Last modified 14 April 2009