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.

Mr. Kay Robinson’s Table-Talk

The Vegetarian, March 19, 1898, Vol XI No 12

It was considerate of Mr. E. Kay Robinson to gratify our curiosity as to the tortuous and abrupt course of his article, by explaining that when he wrote it he had just dined heavily on flesh of his fellow creatures, and had also indulged a fancy for alcohol and tobacco, which, as he truly remarks, are “injurious to the brain.” His controversial zigzags are somewhat fatiguing to following. After being told that when Mr. Shaw argued that Vegetarians are good fighters, his facts were wrong, and that when Mr. Naoroji argued to the contrary, his facts were right, we are jerked off to the unexpected conclusion that Vegetarians are good fighters after all, and then once more Mr. Robinson “rounds” on us by insisting that, though Vegetarians can fight, this quality is not owing to their Vegetarianism, but to something quite different. Mr. Robinson’s after-dinner mood is a contradictory and paradoxical one.

So it seems that Vegetarians own no thanks to their diet for any good qualities that they may possess! As dogs delight to bark and bite from a natural predisposition, so the Vegetarian practises morality in diet because he is naturally moral and does not gain in morality by his Vegetarianism. Let me at once assure Mr. Robinson that Vegetarianism disputants are too wide awake to be taken in by this ingenious, but rather ancient, device of “changing the venue”—of shifting the plane of controversy from practical to metaphysical. If Mr. Robinson chooses to state the Vegetarian superiority in those terms, let him do so; and the reasons for adopting the reformed diet will remain sufficiently cogent, i.e., you will come to Vegetarianism to prove your mettle, if not to improve it. Such quibbling no more detract from the practical merits of a diet-system than from the merits of anything else that is excellent and wholesome. If the doctrine of Predestination is applied to Vegetarianism, it must also be applied to Temperance and every other virtue under heaven.

Unfortunately there is evolved, in some men and women, quite apart from any educational or social superiority, an elective perception which prompts them to grasp the new ideals in dietetic as in all other reform, and it is equally true that the courageous spirit which they bring to their quest may largely strengthen their endeavours. But to pretend that the reformed habits do not, in their turn, react on those who adopt them, is to deny the plainest evidence and reason. If spirit affects food, food also affects spirit; and the man who leaves off eating his fellow-creatures because he has a sense of brotherly feeling, will find that sense enlarged and extended as he proceeds. It is strange that Mr. Robinson, while so well defining a Vegetarian as “a person who abjures meat, and deliberately adheres to a vegetable diet,” himself entirely ignores the moral and humane grounds on which Vegetarianism is founded. From his flippant tone of writing (flippant and humourless at the same time, for the subtle humour of Mr. Shaw’s utterances has evidently escaped him), one would never imagine that the food question was fraught with such tremendous moral consequences. The ethical import of Butchery might be about on a par with that of lawn-tennis, for all the attention Mr. Robinson devotes to it.

Take, for example, the passage where, after trying to lift us away to the metaphysical plane, he suddenly drops us down to the personal, a very considerable descent. He admits the “advantages,” such as they appear to him, of Vegetarianism, but he does not adopt the diet because he is satisfied with the present arrangements—he does not want to work more, he does not want to be healthier, he does not want to live longer. But this “don’t want” argument is not only, as Mr. Robinson seems to admit, of a rather low order, but also an exceedingly fallacious one, inasmuch as it leaves out of sight the most important feature of the discussion. Nobody cares a straw what Mr. Robinson wants, or does not want, as far as Mr. Robinson individually is concerned; but if he happens to want to eat other sentient beings, and if the fulfilment of that want, in his case and innumerable others, is the cause of the vast amount of horrible brutality perpetrated in cattle-ship and slaughter-house, involving much human degradation as well as animal suffering, then the arena of the controversy is somewhat widened, and we have to ask Mr. Robinson to think a little of other creatures’ wants and don’t-wants as well as of his own. Possibly the “fish and birds and beasts,” on whom he dines so pleasantly before he writes his essays, “don’t want” to be butchered for his benefit. Here, anyhow, is another aspect of the question which seems worthy of notice. And even the hygienic importance of Vegetarianism is quite unknown to him, if we may judge from his airy remark that death from alcoholism “and kindred excesses” does not enter into the argument. Unfortunately flesh-eating happens to be an excess that is closely akin to alcoholism, as he may readily learn from the writings of Dr. Haig, Dr. George Keith, and other medical authorities.

It is strange that one who shows this total indifference to the terrible cruelties caused by the practice of flesh-eating should display such extreme sensitiveness of Mr. Shaw’s perfectly just and accurate reference to “scorched corpses.” Granted, the expression is not a pleasant one. But the diet to which it was applied is not a pleasant one either. If you suck blood, you cannot reasonably object to either to being called a blood-sucker; and it is precisely in the case of such hedonists as Mr. Robinson that the use of strong terms appears to be thoroughly justified. There is no rudeness in shouting to the deaf; Mr. Robinson is the last person who has the right to complain. As to his counter-argument about the “dirt” of market gardening, one can only smile at it. There is nothing that is revolting about the manuring of a garden in the sense in which a slaughter-house is revolting. Can Mr. Robinson pretend to think that an inspection of a mushroom-bed would rouse the same feelings of horror and detestation as a visit to the shambles? To grow their own vegetables is the delight of many Vegetarians. Do flesh-eaters take pleasure in killing their own meat?

I cannot conclude without protesting against Mr. Robinson’s really nauseating quotation of the Bible text, “Not that which entereth into the mouth defileth the man.” To apply this verse to flesh-eating, as if the words, nineteen centuries after they were spoken, and in a wholly different connection, could afford any possible justification for a cruel and barbarous diet, is as ridiculous as it is unfair. The same text might equally justify any sort of gluttony or swinishness. Imagine the “hopeless case” of Mr. Kay Robinson, if he should ever have the misfortune to fall among cannibals, and should find all his entreaties frustrated by the pious exclamation: “Not that which entereth into the mouth defileth the man-eater.” The parallel is absolutely just. I beg him to give it his attention.

H. S. Salt