Why is it that the merchant, whose responsibility to the “daily necessities of life” is to provide for mankind, is seen as the lowliest of occupations — lower than that of the clergyman, the lawyer, and even the soldier? Throughout Unto this Last, John Ruskin answers resoundingly that the merchant, wrapped up in the dishonest, bureaucratic “Political Economy” of Ruskin’s day, has lost the degree of honesty associated with other intellectual professions, and rests much lower on the totem pole of respectability as a result. Whereas Ruskin’s merchant swindles and mistreats his customers for personal gain, the soldier, whose job is to defend mankind, remains somewhat selfless in his position — or at least more so that the merchant — in the sense that he kills and faces being killed “at the service of the State” and not of his own lawless proclivities. In Ruskin’s own words, there lies an inescapable sense of self-interest in the merchant’s trade that does not extend to the soldier’s more self-sacrificing endeavors:

Philosophically, it does not, at first sight, appear reasonable (many writers have endeavored to prove it unreasonable) that a peaceable and rational person, whose trade is buying and selling, should be held in less honor than an unpeaceable and often irrational person, whose trade is slaying. Nevertheless, the consent of mankind has always, in spite of the philosophers, given precedence to the soldier . . . For the soldier’s trade, verily and essentially, is not slaying, but being slain. This, without well knowing its own meaning, the world honors it for. A bravo’s trade is slaying, but the world has never respected bravos more than merchants: the reason it honors the soldier is, because he holds his life at the service of the State. Reckless as he may be . . . 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 be put to him at any moment — and has beforehand taken his part — virtually takes such part continually — does he, in reality, die daily. [175]

We, Ruskin’s audience, respect the soldier for “keeping his face to the front” in order to defend his country at even a fatal cost, but we doubt that the “rational” merchant would work at his trade with the same sense of fervency and selflessness and therefore we do not hold him in the same admiring light. However, in “Traffic” Ruskin adds a more complicating element to this disproportion: the idea that, because soldiers must serve the dominion-minded “State,” they too are somewhat implicated in the “Political Economy’s” quest for territory and for capital, although on a larger, more indirect scale than the merchant. The author reasons that wars and the soldiers who fought or fight in them are “never consistent with [or interested in] the practice of supplying people with food, or clothes; but rather with that of quartering one’s self upon them for food, and stripping them of their clothes.” (243) In this sense, many soldiers concern themselves with the same values of self-preservation and economic or capital gain as the merchant does, although they may do so collectively and more indirectly; the soldier, like Ruskin’s merchant, should practice compassion for mankind — should “occupy with gifts rather than with armies” — so that they both could be more “honest” and more civilized in the long-term (244). After drawing this distinction, Ruskin loses some of his former respect for the soldier as a vessel of honor and self-sacrifice; he reduces the differences between the two professions to a single one, that of payment, and justifies that soldiers should remain more respected in the sense that they work for much less: a national, not an individual, gain.

The only absolutely and unapproachably heroic element in the soldier’s work seems to be — that he is paid little for it — and regularly: while you traffickers, and exchangers, and others occupied in presumably benevolent business, like to be paid much for it — and by chance. I never can make out how it is that a knight-errant does not expect to be paid for his trouble, but a pedlar-errant always does; — that people are willing to take hard knocks for nothing, but never to sell ribands cheap; that they are ready to go on fervent crusades, to recover the tomb of a buried God, but never on any travels to fulfil the orders of a living one; — that they will go anywhere barefoot to preach their faith, but must be well bribed to practice it, and are perfectly ready to give the Gospel gratis, but never the loaves and fishes. [244]

Here, Ruskin restores some (but not all) of the soldier’s honor that he had previously debunked by tying civil service to the imperialist interests of nationhood. However, when compared with his characterization of the brave soldier who “dies daily,” the devoted-yet-modestly paid soldier of this passage appears honorable “only” in that he serves his country for such a small price. When seen in this light, Ruskin essentially implies that a merchant could very well be seen as more respectable than the soldier — who has somewhat mindlessly subsumed himself within his country’s own selfish interests — if he only extricated himself from a similar self-interest and asked less for his service.


1. Does Ruskin imply that the soldier is at all ignorant based on the “selfless” manner in which he serves his country? How has Ruskin’s sense of the soldier and his respectability changed in the second passage from “Traffic” — aside from what I’ve already mentioned? Specifically with the “only absolutely and unapproachably heroic element” being, in Ruskin’s opinion, his modest payment?

2. How does Ruskin’s word choice with respect to describing each profession — “slaying” versus “buying and selling” — further his point about respectability and its complications? Are there other words/constructions that complicate this point?

3. In both passages, how does Ruskin navigate his own opinions with the commonly held opinions that he cites? Does he invoke the “consent of mankind” in a way that suggests his own belief in it? What does his use of different pronouns in each passage suggest?

4. How do “peace” and “rationality,” both of which Ruskin invokes in the first passage, actually play into this discussion? Do they seem like empty terms or are they being put to a better use?

Victorian Overview John Ruskin Political History

Last modified 1 March 2011