Like Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin believed that a society's values were best represented by the idols it worshiped. “Tell me what you like, and I'll tell you what you are,” Ruskin says near the beginning of his lecture “Traffic”. In it, Ruskin explains to a crowd why he does not care about the construction of an Exchange for which they had asked his advice. The lecture continues the idea from the beginning of “The Lamp of Memory” that architecture, specifically domestic buildings, are the temples of our existence and the manifestation of our “great national religion.” The three previous religions of Europe — the Greek “God of Wisdom and Power,” the Medieval “God of Judgment and Consolation,” and the Renaissance “God of Pride and Beauty” — each failed “by falsehood in their own main purpose,” leaving in a their wake a complex conflict between the secular and the divine and the resultant elevation of monetary gains to divine status. But what is the religion of Ruskin's nation and why does he refuse to assist in the creation of a new temple in the Exchange?

Now, we have, indeed, a nominal religion, to which we pay tithes of property, and sevenths of time; but we have also a practical and earnest religion, to which we devote nine-tenths of our property and six-sevenths of our time. And we dispute a great deal about the nominal religion; but we are all unanimous about this practical one, of which I think you will admit that the ruling goddess may be best generally described as the 'Goddess of Getting-on,' or 'Britannia of the Market.' The Athenians had an 'Athena Agoraia,' or Minerva of the Market: but she was a subordinate type of their goddess, while our Britannia Agoraia is the principal type of ours. And all your great architectural works, are, of course, built to her. It is long since you built a great cathedral; and how you would laugh at me, if I proposed building a cathedral on the top of one of these hills of yours, taking it for an Acropolis! But your railroad mounds, prolonged masses of Acropolis; your railroad stations, vaster than the Parthenon, and innumerable; your chimneys, how much more mighty and costly than cathedral spires! your harbour-piers; your warehouses; your exchanges! all these are built to your great Goddess of 'Getting-on;' and she has formed, and will continue to form, your architecture, as long as you worship her; and it is quite vain to ask me to tell you how to build to her; you know far better than I.

Ruskin cannot give advice on the construction of a temple to a false god, nor does he see any reason why the high priests of this new religion would need to know how best to represent the god they worship with their entire existence. Architecture must represent the heroics of its age; however, to represent the Goddess of 'Getting-on' with acts of true heroism would be dishonest. Instead, Ruskin offers an approach with a greater emphasis on truth:

But I can only at present suggest decorating its frieze with pendant purses; and making its pillars broad at the base for the sticking of bills. And in the innermost chambers of it there might be a statue of Britannia of the Market, who may have, perhaps advisably, a partridge for her crest, typical at once of her courage in fighting for noble ideas; and of her interest in game; and round its neck the inscription in golden letters, 'Perdix fovit quae non peperit.' Then, for her spear, she might have a weaver's beam; and on her shield, instead of her Cross, the Milanese boar, semi-fleeced, with the town of Gennesaret proper, in the field and the legend 'In the best market,' and her corslet, of leather, folded over her heart in the shape of a purse, with thirty slits in it for a piece of money to go in at, on each day of the month. And I doubt not but that people would come to see your exchange, and its goddess, with applause.

Ruskin goes on to say that he does not question the intentions of those who worship “the Goddess of 'Getting-on,'” but ends his essay with a warning: “Continue to make that forbidden deity your principal one, and soon no more art, no more science, no more pleasure will be possible.”

Questions

1. Unlike Carlyle, who believed that a society was represented by the people it elevated as idols, Ruskin believed that a society's idolatry was best represented by the structures that defined its existence. What are the implications of the differences between the two?

2. What are the results of having a practical religion separate from a nominal religion?

3. How does Ruskin's invocation of the Exchange as a temple differ from the home as temple discussed in Aphorisms 27 and 28 of “The Lamp of Memory”?

4. “Perdix fovit quae non peperit” is the beginning of Jeremiah 17:11 which reads “Like a partridge that hatches eggs it did not lay is the man who gains riches by unjust means. When his life is half gone, they will desert him, and in the end he will prove to be a fool.” Does this mean that Ruskin believed the new divinity of commerce to be a passing trend?


Last modified 3 March 2011