Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

A Friendly Duel

The Vegetarian, Vol XL No 21, May 21, 1898

Being a Chat wtih the Editor of “Humanity.”

“Now, Mr. Salt,” I began, “is the humane argument for Vegetarianism really sound?”

“I see what you are driving at in that mildly insidious question. We may as well come to it at once. You have been reading Sir H. Thompson’s article in the Nineteenth Century, in which he argues that the true friend of the animals is not the reckless Vegetarian, whose selfish abstinence from roast beef allows no opening, so to speak, for the altruistic aspirations of the ox; but the thoughtful flesh-eater, who by breeding animals for his table secures them a pleasant and useful career, and gives them a taste of the joy of existence which otherwise they would never have known. Well, that is a fashionable high-class fallacy, and a great favourite just now with such ethical authorities as Mr. Leslie Stephen and Dr. Stanton Coit. The Ethical World is full of it. But does not so ingenious a theory prove a little too much?”

“Well,” I replied, “that is the worst of all argument. You must paint high before the footlights.”

“Yes,” replied my host, “but the argument can be made to serve in other ways also. It can be made to justify almost any treatment of living beings whom we claim to have ‘brought into the world.’ The fox-hunter, the pigeon-shooter, the vivisector, the slave-owner, have all appealed to it, and the only reason the cannibal has not done so is that he has not yet become sufficiently ethical and scientific to avail himself of the afterthought. There have been cases, I believe, of cannibals breeding their victims. There is said to have been a tribe in Peru who fattened and ate the children of their female captives, whom they kept as concubines for that purpose. How was that any less justifiable, according to Sir H. Thompson’s doctrine, than eating roast lamb? The humane argument against eating animals is just as sound in principle as that against eating men. It rests on the same natural instinct—the repugnance that so many people feel to the slaughter of beings who are akin to them. This widespread repugnance is not a sentimental fancy, but a hard fact, of which any ‘scientist,’ worthy of the name, must take note. Of course, those who don’t feel it, can’t feel it, and it is no use inviting them to do so; but they might at least remember that other people do feel it, and that the feeling is largely on the increase. Hence the humanitarian movement, of which Vegetarianism is a part.”

 “Well, don’t you at all events consider the æsthetic argument as absolutely feeble,” I went on, in my character (at the editor’s request) of hopeless Philistine and barbarian?

“Do you think so when you stand in front of a butcher’s and a fruiterer’s shop side-by-side?” replied Mr. Salt. “Does the æsthetic eye rest with the same comfort on quartered corpses as on vegetables and fruits? And if not, why not? To my mind, even if there were no moral questions involved, æsthetic considerations alone would be decisive in the matter. A revolting feature of flesh-eating is its irredeemable ugliness. It is only tolerable to sensitive minds because they carefully screen themselves from the disgusting details of the practice, by employing butchers to do the work which they cannot even witness and cooks to conceal, as far as may be, the fact that ‘beef’ and ‘mutton’ are the flesh of dead cows and sheep. I regard humaneness as essentially æsthetic, and cruelty as akin to all desecration of the beautiful, whether in the destruction of sentient life, or in the spoliation of natural scenery and works of art. You know the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, popularly known as ‘Anti-Scrape’? The æsthetic value of that Society is recognised by many artists. But have not humane societies an equal claim to such recognition? Take, for instance, the practice of ‘docking’ horses, so severely condemned by Mr. G. F. Watts on artistic grounds. What is that but a pure bit of vandalism? And far worse is the vandalism that is let loose in the breeding and butchering of animals for human food. Every trait of natural beauty, every instinct of decency, is sacrificed in the process, until you get the poor shapeless lumps of animated fat that are gloated over as ‘prize-cattle’ every Christmas. The Vegetarian Societies are ‘Anti-Scrape’ Societies in the truest sense of the word. If anyone is fighting for beauty it is the Vegetarian.”

“And then again Mr. So-and-So’s experiment of Vegetarianism is universally the experience of all. Now why, Mr. Salt,” said I, “should not the barbarian be guided by the daring So-and-So?”

“I have no objection to the ‘barbarian’ (or the æsthete either) being guided by Mr. So-and-So, provided we understand who Mr. So-and-So is. If you mean that Mr. So-and-So’s experiment is universally unfavourable to Vegetarianism, I cannot agree with you. In that case there would be no Vegetarian movement, and the present interview would not be taking place. There is Mr. So-and-So and Mr. So-and-So, the one who experiment has induced him to adopt the Vegetarian diet, and the other who finds it does not suit him, and returns, like a lost wolf, to the fold. Individuals must choose for themselves which Mr. So-and-So they prefer. It has always seemed to me that a single affirmative instance outbalances many negative ones. In view of the fact that so many people take up Vegetarianism, like any other novelty, out of curiosity or a passing interest, and that to adhere to the diet often requires, at first, no little patience and perseverance in face of the discouragement thrown in one’s way, it is not to be wondered at that a good many Mr. So-and-So’s relapse to their ancient habits. There are many reasons that may account for such backsliding apart from the one usually given; but there is no escape from the force of a single successful attempt. I should therefore recommend the ‘barbarian’ to have a good look at both the Mr. So-and-So’s before he pins his faith to either, or, better still to disregard both equally, and make his experiment for himself.”

“Do you consider it prudent, Mr. Salt, at this period of the world’s history, and so far down the history of humanity, that, as Sir Henry Thompson puts it, we should limit our food supply to vegetables and their production?”

“No, I certainly don’t think it would be ‘prudent,’ as Sir H. Thompson puts it, for the commander of a vessel or an expedition to limit his supplies to vegetables, without previously intimating to his mariners that he proposed to revolutionise their diet. I fear such hasty methods might result in mutiny and cannibalism, with possibly the commander himself in the position of ‘long-pig’ on the sideboard. It is in remarks like this that Sir H. Thompson so clearly shows how little he understands the purposes and methods of Vegetarianism; for had he condescended to study the movement from the inside before he wrote his article, he could not have misrepresented it so absurdly. He appears to be a victim of what I would call the ‘day-after-to-morrow’ fallacy—the notion that Vegetarianism is to be immediately and universally enacted, to the grievous jeopardy of present habits and institutions. Yet it is easy to see that while it might not be ‘prudent’ to do a thing the day after to-morrow, it might be very desirable to prepare the way for it by gradual self-reformation.”

“It is sometimes urged, Mr. Salt, that Vegetarianism is only one of the fads which naturally appeal to a certain class of minds to whom all that is out of the common appeals with a certain fearful joy. Is that so?”

“I am glad to be asked that question, because it expresses one of those specious objections (let us call them) which are so seldom openly stated, and therefore so difficult to nail to the wall. So far from Vegetarians, who are usually rather sensitive persons, enjoying the distinction of their diet, I should say that it is by far the most disagreeable part of their experience, for it throws them open to inane personal remarks and comments from every side. Everything a Vegetarian does, or does not do, is accounted for by his food; and every officious acquaintance feels justified, whenever he meets him, in remarking that he ‘looks well’ or ‘looks ill’ as the fancy may be. To a person who would enjoy being exhibited among Barnum and Bailey’s curiosities this may be agreeable, but I doubt if many Vegetarians find it so. They would a good deal rather be in the common than out of it; and this is the cause of many of the relapses that I spoke of. But in a truer sense, it is flesh-eating; not Vegetarianism, that is ‘out of the common’a morbid variation from the simple, wholesome rule of nature, part of that craving for stimulants which we see in various forms in every department of life.”

“Well,” I continued, beaten once again, “is it not the fact that Vegetarianism induces a certain lowness of physical fibre, which is morally, if not mentally, worse than that of the carnivorous barbarian?”

“It seems to me, Mr. Blathwayt, that this is an indirect way of asking whether Vegetarians are not imbeciles. I don’t think it is a fact that they are; but, of course, my view may be biased by personal considerations. Anyhow, I thank you for sparing my feelings as much as possible in the discharge of your duty to the public. You could not have put the question more delicately.”

“And, again, surely Vegetarianism,” said I, “is largely a question of climate and geography?”

“As far as climate and geography are concerned, the flesh-eater’s only stronghold is in the Arctic regions; and that is why we are so often asked what would become of the Esquimaux under a Vegetarian regime. I have before suggested state-aided emigration as a solution of that difficulty, but I do think it materially affects our problem. We fortunately live in the Temperate Zone, and can dispense with blubber. ‘Study large maps,’ would be my advice to the flesh-eater who talks about climate. A Vegetarian diet is perfectly sufficient in every part of the habitable globe; but, of course, if people will eat flesh, they must have it, whether it be the roast beef of our English clime, or the roast man of the Equatorboth equally unnecessary.”

“Ought not, logically speaking, Vegetarians to be strictly total abstainers from all appearance of evil in the shape of carnal food, such as milk, eggs, &c.?”

“Why so? The name ‘Vegetarian’ is not, as the British Medical Journal lately stated, a ‘borrowed title,’ but one which was expressly invented, about three-quarters of a century ago, to designate a diet from which flesh is excluded, but not necessarily eggs and milk. It may be a good name or a bad one, but there it iswith a sufficiently clear meaning attached to it. Why, then is it ‘illogical’ to use the word in the sense for which it was originally coined? The total disuse of animal products is a venture that few flesh abstainers care at present to undertake, however strongly they may believe in it as the diet of the future. What they have done is to show that flesh, at any rate, is unnecessary, and even Sir H. Thompson’s does not attempt to deny this in ordinary cases, though he objects to the title ‘Vegetarian.’ Either way, the name is a point of quite minor importance; the main thing is to prove the possibility of abolishing the slaughter-house and all the horrors connected with it.

“I believe that this change will gradually be brought aboutin a few centuries, perhaps–as a more sympathetic relation arises between mankind and the lower animals. You may have noticed that the editor of the Ethical World himself admits as much, while defending Sir H. Thompson’s ‘bringing-into-life’ argument. Here is what he says in all gravity and seriousness:—‘We surmise that bereaved affection at the death of a dear creature would destroy the flavour.’ I surmise so, too. Even the ethical folk will leave off eating their fellow creatures, if they begin to think about it in that way.”

Raymond Blathwayt chats to Henry S. Salt