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.

Are We Civilised?

The Vegetarian News, Vol. XII No. 135, March 1932

It is generally assumed that we are living in a very late age, and in a state of advanced civilisation. For instance, the British Broadcasting Company has organised talks on “Science and Civilisation,” as if the two were almost necessarily contemporaneous; and our civilisation, or what goes under the name, has even been regarded by a certain school of thought as excessive, as when Edward Carpenter gave to a book of his the title, not wholly humorous, of “Civilisation, its Cause and Cure.”

Quite recently there appeared in the press a report that four young men had become so “tired of the cares of civilisation” that they were leaving England for a while, to go shark-hunting in the Caribbean Sea; and it must be agreed that in such a recreation as the butchery and dismemberment of sharks the cares of civilisation are not likely to be very burdensome.

But the question still presents itself—are we living in a very late and civilised age? The answer must, of course, depend on certain definitions, certain comparisons. The world, as scientists tell us, has already lasted for many ages; and if we choose to describe the present age as among the later and civilised ones, and to define civilisation as the mere living in houses and cities rather than in the wilds, we are quite free to do so. We are informed, for instance, in a popular Encyclopædia, that civilisation is “a general term to designate the condition of the more advanced nations, as contrasted with those that are looked upon as barbarians or savages”; and that is the definition which is likely to give full satisfaction to the more advanced nations.

But, to thinkers who look further ahead, and who include ethics in their survey, a doubt must present itself, whether the term “civilisation” is not too flattering to be applied to the present gross conditions under which men live, and whether ages have not still to pass before a real civilisation can be attained. If we are told by the scientists that this earth has existed for vast periods, do they not also tell us that it may continue for as many more? And is it not reasonable to suppose that there may yet be future changes as remarkable as the past ones, and that to later generations our ethics may appear quite as barbarous as those of our ancestors do to us?

This, to me, seems the more rational view, and it certainly is the more encouraging one; for if present conditions–those we have seen and shuddered at—were inseparable from civilisation, we might well incline to despair; but if we are found to be living (as I think) in a still primitive period of savagery and barbarism, hope in the far future need not wholly be abandoned.

Can an age which tolerates wars be held to be at all civilised? And with a civilisation yet to come, may we not confidently trust that war will then be ruled impossible? Nor wars only; for equally intolerable would be the unjust social conditions which permit one class to exploit and dominate another, and the morality which connives at the cruel ill-usage of the non-human tribes. Blood sports and vivisection are practices utterly incompatible with a civilised age; nor, when the subject is fully considered, is flesh-eating any less so, for it is in fact a form of cannibalism—nothing else. As Herman Melville wrote long ago in his “Moby Dick”:

“Go to the meat-market on a Saturday night, and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds. Does not that sight take a tooth out of the cannibals jaw? Cannibals? Who is not a cannibal? I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine—it will be more tolerable for that provident Fejee, I say, in the day of judgment, than for thee, civilised and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in thy pâté de fois gras.”

Can that land be deemed a civilised one, in which thousands of persons will watch the roasting of an ox, in the main street of a town, and compete for “the first slice”? Of course not; and indeed Christmas itself, a festival supposed to be sacred, is yearly disgraced by scenes that savour rather of savagery and heathenism.

For all which reasons, I cannot but smile at the idea of those four young men—themselves strapping young barbarians, no doubt!—who were tired of the cares of civilisation some centuries, at the least, before such cares could truly have been known. The problem that seems rather to present itself is whether they, and their like, will ever tire of the amusements of barbarism, and not of shark-hunting only, but of the numberless kindred practices on which so many respectable persons spend their energies and their time. I must not venture to make any visible diminution in a number of our doings which cannot be classed as civilised; but I do console myself in the belief that in a long succession of ages there will be change for the better, and that eventually something resembling a civilisation will arrive. At any rate there is comfort in the thought that this, our present condition, is very far from being a civilised one.

It was truth that Ernest Crosby spoke when he wrote:

“A strange lot this, to be dropped down in a world of barbarians,
“Men who see clearly enough the barbarity of all ages except their own,
...
“And who, strangest of all, are absolutely ignorant of the fact that future generations will consider them just as barbarous as their predecessors.
“It is a curious destiny indeed to be planted in the midst of such a people.”

Curious, beyond doubt. Yet it is in the midst of such a people, reader, that you and I are now planted.

We arrive, then, at exactly the same conclusion as that of Howard Moore in his “The Whole World Kin,” that, since Darwin established the unity of life, the attitude of a civilised people must be that of “universal gentleness and humanity.”

Henry S. Salt