by H. S. Salt
Nowhere would it be possible to find a more instructive example of the power of habit and conventional usage than in the question of diet. The very existence of persons who abstain from flesh-food is to most Englishmen a cause of amusement and surprise; a vegetarian is a social anomaly, worth looking at, and perhaps worth laughing at, whenever and wherever he may be encountered; the anthropophagi of old could hardly be regarded with more curiosity than the modern akreophagists. Yet, on the other hand, if we could divest ourselves for a moment of this influence of habit, we might possibly become aware that there is something no less startling, no less surprising, in certain prevalent dietetic customs which pass muster among most of us unquestioned and unchallenged; just as some well-known household word, long familiar to the ear, may seem strange and unusual when critically viewed and examined from a new standpoint. It is not at least as remarkable, prejudice aside, that civilized beings should require flesh-meat as that they should abjure it? Is it not a singular fact that men of culture and refinement should prefer animal food to a fleshless diet? I offer this prefatory remark as a suggestion only—as a tentative, not dogmatic reflection; though I confess that to one who has had personal experience of a Pythagorean fare the orthodox diet-system does undoubtedly seem a matter for surprise and wonder, and might be provocative of laughter also, were not the subject somewhat too serious for merriment.
To attempt to discover the precise origin of this habit of flesh-eating has always proved a hopeless and unprofitable task. We may imagine with the poets that it was some greedy and mischievous innovator who first scorned the simple and abundant food of the Golden Age, and set the fatal example by staining his hand with blood; or we may prefer Plutarch’s explanation, that it was through “utter resourcelessness and destitution” that the primeval races were compelled to adopt the guilty diet; or, on the other hand, we may content ourselves with the common and more comfortable theory, that man, being by nature omnivorous, has from the first followed a natural instinct in living on animal food. But whatever the origin may have been, there is no question about the habit itself; nor can there be any doubt that among Western nations it is becoming more and more general and widespread. Flesh-meat is regarded as the par excellence of the human race; and though few individuals would care to indulge in a retrospect similar to that of Sydney Smith, who calculated that he had himself consumed over forty wagon-loads of flesh in the course of his life, yet this is practically the sort of diet to which all classes aspire. A strong belief in the utility of flesh-food has characterised from time immemorial the larger portion of the civilised race.
Yet it should be remarked that in all ages there have been protests, however unavailing, against this carnivorous habit. Almost at the same time that Buddha was preaching in the East his “religion of mercy,” Pythagoras was enjoining on his disciples in the West the duty of abstention from flesh. Among Latin and Greek philosophers, three especially—Seneca, Plutarch, and Porphyry—may be regarded as forerunners of the modern humanitarian movement; Plutarch’s “Essay on Flesh-eating” being as vigorous a denunciation of the cruelties of the slaughter-house as has ever been published. During the Middle Ages it is to be regretted that it was an ascetic rather than humanitarian spirit that was dominant in the Christian Church; yet the abstinence from flesh which was so largely practised by primitive Christians, was at least a proof of the possibility of a more enlightened diet-system. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, splendid testimony was borne to the cause of humanity by no less distinguished writers than Montaigne and Gassendi, the former of whom dwells rather on the moral, the latter on the scientific arguments. Coming to still later times, we find that men such as Franklin, Howard, and Wesley, have given practical proof of the sufficiency of a fleshless diet; while a host of “sentimental” writers, from Pope to Rousseau, have enlarged, with more or less sincerity, on the barbarities of civilized life. I mention these examples, a few out of many illustrious names, to show that in no period of the world’s history has humanity been without its champions, unpopular and unsuccessful though their doctrines may have been.1 But it has been reserved for modern times to demonstrate the philosophic and scientific truth that underlies all attempts to promote the cause of food reform. Dr. Cheyne’s “Essay on Regimen,” in which he expressly urges the superiority of a vegetable diet, was published in 1740, and he found two worthy successors in Dr. Lambe and Sylvester Graham, who during the first half of the present century established the scientific vegetarianism on a firm basis, in England and America respectively. To Sylvester Graham, above all others, should perhaps be given the place of honour in the annals of vegetarian literature; for his “Lecture on the Science of Human Life” form the text-book from which the advocates of the reformed diet derive their most powerful arguments. It is astonishing to remark how little is known of Graham in this country. On the Continent his name has been immortalized, if only by the “Graham bread,” which is there so widely used and appreciated; he has also a growing reputation in America. But most Englishmen still remain in ignorance not only of the advantages of the bread, but of the far greater merits of the “Science of Human Life.”
Sylvester Graham laid great stress on the fact that the preservation of health must depend mainly, not on medicine, but on dietetic habits. Recent vegetarian writers, following in this line, have been able to show the immense importance of what is known as “the food question,” and to prove that the movement in favour of food reform is due, not merely to a sentiment humanitarianism, still less to any specific and economic truth. The “Science of Human Life” was published in 1839; eight years later, the English “Vegetarian Society” was founded, thus substituting for the isolated protests of individuals the definite and organized labours of a permanent body. The constitution of the Vegetarian Society, like that of ancient Sparta, is of a triple character; the society consisting of three grades—members, associates, subscribers. Of these, the members agree to adopt the vegetarian system of diet in all its Spartan severity; the associates merely bind themselves to promote the vegetarian cause when opportunity may offer; whilst the subscribers perform the humble but useful task of supplying the society with the sinews of war. Unassuming and insignificant enough in its origin, the Vegetarian Society has nevertheless done a large amount of useful work in the last forty years, and has met with much encouragement and success. It now numbers some thousands of members, has branches in most of our large towns, and annually circulates a very large amount of vegetarian literature; thus influencing many persons who half a century ago would never have heard that it was even possible to live without flesh-food. From the personal experience of its members it is able to bring forward diet; while, in the face of the fact that at the present time there are many English families living in the best of health without the use of flesh-meat, it seems impossible for medical men to maintain the theory—for it is nothing else—that the English climate is not suited to vegetarianism. Indeed, Sir Henry Thompson has expressly admitted that a vegetable diet is perfectly practicable in this country, and his objections to the vegetarian system are based rather on a dislike of the name of the society and the method of its propaganda, than on any hostility to the main principles of food reformers. In this article I use the name “vegetarian” in the sense in which it was originally adopted by the Vegetarian Society itself, and in which it has now become popular—viz., as implying abstention from fish, flesh, and fowl, but not necessarily from eggs and dairy produce. Whether those food reformers who use eggs and milk have any right to assume the title of “vegetarians” is a secondary point, which, I submit, is entirely irrelevant to the main issue, of which alone I now speak.
Before entering on a statement of the various arguments adduced by the advocates of food reform it may be well to say a few words about the diet itself. The vegetarian system aims at striking the golden mean between asceticism on the one hand and self-indulgence on the other. The common belief that in abstaining from flesh-food one is compelled to undergo a serious loss of “creature comforts” is perhaps natural enough, but nevertheless is wholly erroneous; sacrifice of dietetic habit there must certainly be, but there need be no sacrifice of dietetic taste. A man will not starve, even in the temperate zone and the traditional land of roast beef, if he can get a breakfast of oatmeal porridge or wheatmeal bread and fruit, to be followed by a dinner of properly cooked vegetables, very different, it must be understood, from those insipid messes which in ordinary households are generally the accompaniment of meat. The idea that unless one eats flesh-food there can be “no variety” of dishes, is equally baseless. It would take long to enumerate the many delicious yet inexpensive forms of food of which the vegetarian can avail himself: the lentil, incomparable in soups or fritters; the haricot-bean, containing considerably more nutriment, weight for weight, than beef; the various kinds of mushroom, rich in nitrogen, most of which are contemptuously set aside by the uninitiated as “poisonous”; and all the host of garden vegetables, from the rarely-grown salsify, the “vegetable oyster,” a dish fit for an epicure, to the commoner kinds, which can be combined in endless variety in pies and salads; to say nothing of the fruits and cereals, which alone might suffice to constitute an almost ideal diet. “Roots, fruits, and farinacea” should be the vegetarian’s motto; and if to this list he think fit to add the dishes that may be derived from the use of eggs and the products or the dairy, he will be very hard indeed to please if he finds any cause to be discontented with his table. There would be more danger, I think, of vegetarians becoming too much enamoured of the pleasures of the palate, but for the fact that the leaders of the movement have never failed to emphasize the immense importance of simplicity and moderation, again and again repeating the wise warning against the fatal yet too common habit of self-indulgence in matters of diet—a truth which has been taught by all the most eminent medical men from Abernethy to Sir Henry Thompson. Thus it comes to pass that vegetarians as a class realize more keenly than flesh-eaters the importance of a wisely arranged diet. The habit of “thinking about one’s food” is something deprecated, or even ridiculed, by hard-working men, who imagine there is a sort of merit in not caring what one eats. The truth is precisely the opposite of this, and the food reformer knows it.
But here an opponent may urge that, even if we grant the practicability of a vegetarian diet, it does not follow that it is desirable. What reasons can vegetarians bring forward to show why we should not avail ourselves of what is known as a “mixed diet,” in which a moderate use of flesh-meat may be accompanied by a full recognition of the value of fruits, cereals, and vegetables? Let me hasten to meet this objection by describing the chief advantages which are realized by the total disuse of flesh-food.
1. In no other way is it possible to be truly and consistently humane. There are, of course, some persons who are wholly indifferent to this aspect of the question, and who candidly avow their entire contempt for all “sentiment” and “humanity.” But these are comparatively few in number; for the great majority of the people are certainly anxious, in name at any rate, to lend no sanction to anything that savours of inhumanity; and the present age has for this reason witnessed many noble attempts to lessen the sum of animal suffering, and to prevent the practice of deliberate cruelty. Among these attempts may be mentioned the excellent work of the Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and for the Suppression of Vivisection; and there are many others which will readily occur to the mind. A vegetarian could hardly be suspected of any lack of sympathy with those who are engaged in such truly praiseworthy work; yet he may be pardoned for suggesting that there is something ludicrously illogical and inconsistent in the position of those well-meaning “humanitarians” who spare no means to abolish one particular form of cruelty, while by their own system of diet they are sanctioning and deliberately perpetrating the unspeakable horrors of the slaughter-house. This feature of London society was one which did not escape the criticism of Goldsmith’s “Chinese Philosopher:”2
The better sort [he wrote] here pretend to the utmost compassion for animals of every kind; to hear them speak, a stranger would be apt to imagine they could hardly hurt the gnat that stung them; they seem so tender and so full of pity, that one would take them for the harmless friends of the whole creation—the protectors of the meanest insect or reptile that was privileged with existence. And yet (would you believe it?) I have seen the very men who thus boasted of their tenderness at the same time devouring the flesh of six different animals tossed up in a fricassee. Strange contrariety of conduct! They pity, and they eat the objects of their compassion!
I fear that this “contrariety of conduct” is unhappily only too prevalent among many professed “lovers of animals;” so much so, that the latter expression is rendered in some cases somewhat equivocal and humorous, reminding one of George Eliot’s happy description of Tom Tulliver, “a young gentlemen fond of animals—fond, that is, of throwing stones at them.” And let it not be imagined that the slaughter of animals to supply the demands of our markets is carried on, as some good people fondly endeavour to believe, with a minimum of suffering to the victims of human gluttony. Any such comfortably optimistic theory must be dispelled, at once and for ever, by a perusal of the report of the Society for the Reform of Slaughter-houses, instituted a few years ago by Dr. B. W. Richardson and other reformers. It is no part of my purpose to dwell on these horrors; their existence unfortunately admits of no possibility of doubt;3 and it has been well said that “the cruelties of butchers equal the cruelties of vivisection, with this difference, that those of the butchers are constant, almost daily, and those of the vivisector are in comparison seldom and few.” Nor is it in the smallest degree probable that the present method of slaughtering will ever be exchanged for one that is really painless and humane. The abolition of private slaughter-houses would certainly be a change for the better; but Dr. Richardson’s scheme for the painless slaughter of animals under anæsthetics must necessarily be too costly and complicated for general adoption; and, to tell the truth, by the time men have become humane enough to welcome any such ingenious substitutes for the more brutal but expeditious process of knife and pole-axe, it is more than likely that they will be prepared to go one step further, and dispense with any slaughter at all. “Humane slaughtering” is, in fact, a contradiction in terms; no slaughtering of animals for food can possibly be humane, because it is wholly unnecessary.
2. It is equally impossible to reconcile the present system of diet with the most unmistakable promptings of good taste. Even if we have no pity for the animals, we should at any rate have some regard for our own feelings. A butcher’s shop, with its disgusting array of dangling carcases, unpleasant alike in sight and smell, unless when habit has made us insensible to all considerations, is surely at least as degrading to our boasted civilization as the ugliness of modern architecture which artists so often and so justly deplore. The details of the butcher’s business are fortunately hidden from our eyes; but they are such as a refined mind naturally and inevitably shrinks from contemplating. It is only by deliberately shutting our eyes to the whole process, and by allowing the odious task to devolve upon other people, that we can tolerate the system at all.
Having been my own butcher and scullion and cook [says Henry Thoreau4], I can speak from an unusually complete experience. The practical objection to animal food in my case was its uncleanness. A little bread or a few potatoes would have done as well, with less trouble and filth. . . . . I believe that every man who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food and from much food of any kind.
Nor is it only in the preparation of the food that the laws of good taste are thus rudely violated; for surely the same remarks will apply to the arrangement of the dinner-table itself. The grossness of flesh-meat may be partially concealed by the skill of cookery; but even thus, it is only by the force of habit and thoughtlessness that we can entirely preserve our æsthetic equanimity. To keep “a good table,” in the ordinary sense of the term, is one thing; but to keep a table in good taste is quite another. However sumptuous the surroundings and lavish the expenditure, a satisfactory result can only be obtained when the food itself is pure and simple, and suggests no reminiscences of a loathsome and degrading origin.
3. The hygienic argument is the next to which I would draw attention. It has been shown over and over again by chemical analysis that animal food contains no nutriment that cannot also be obtained from the vegetable kingdom. Wheat-meal, oatmeal, peas, beans, lentils, and haricots, are more nutritious, pound for pound, than beef or mutton; and they possess the additional advantage of being nutritious without being stimulating. The effect of flesh-food is similar to that of alcohol, supplying a temporary stimulant rather than a permanent and equable strength; and for this reason vegetarians justly claim an advantage for the reformed diet. The experience of those who have made trial of vegetarianism shows that the moderate use of fruits, cereals, and vegetables, with the addition, if desired, of such animal products as milk, cheese, and eggs, tends to produce a sound and healthy habit of body, together with increased clearness and calmness of mind. A striking instance of the beneficial effect of a vegetable diet is seen in the fact that vegetarians are almost invariably total abstainers from wine and all alcoholic drinks, the craving for which dies a natural death together with the disuse of flesh-meat and the adoption of a nourishing but non-stimulating diet; the simplest and most efficacious cure for the drink-crave is to be found in food reform. Much, too, might be said on the subject of diseased meat, a danger from which the food reformer is wholly free, though no amount of sanitary regulations can ever place the flesh-eater in security. Trichinosis, rinderpest, pleuropneumonia, measles, anthrax, scrofula, and diseases carbuncular and tubercular—these are a few of the maladies which “flesh is heir to,” and which the flesh-eater runs the risk of imbibing together with his beef, mutton, or pork. Dr. Alfred Carpenter, in his address before the Sanitary Congress at Croydon in 1879, corroborated the statement of an inspector of the Metropolitan Meat Market, that “eighty-six per cent. of the meat which was sent to the London market was the subject of tubercular disease, and that to exclude diseased meat would be to leave the Metropolis without an adequate meat supply.” Under these circumstances can it be wondered that there are some who prefer to dispense with flesh-meat, and to confine themselves to the wholesome simplicity of vegetable fare?
4. Lastly, I must say a few words about the undisputed economic advantage of a fleshless diet; an argument which, cœteris paribus, is amply sufficient to turn the scale in favour of the vegetarian cause. There may be some persons who are little moved by the plea of humanity and good taste, and who remain absolutely indifferent to hygienic considerations; they have a liking for animal food, and they are determined to gratify it. But he would be no true Englishman who should refuse to be influenced by an appeal to his economic interests; and a comparison of the cost of animal and vegetable food will be universally admitted to furnish an instructive commentary on this question. We have it on unimpeachable authority5 that “one pennyworth of split peas is equal in nourishment to nine pennyworth of beef; or, in other words, the nourishment obtained for ninepence from beef can readily be had for one-penny from peas.” At the lowest calculation it appears that the most nourishing vegetable diet can be obtained by any one who is so minded at about one-fourth or one-fifth the cost of flesh; the housekeeper who is weekly troubled by the upward tendency of the butcher’s bills, has therefore the remedy in her own hands, if she will be wise enough to avail herself of it. Nor is it only individuals who may profit by the recognition of this economic fact. It is difficult to arrive at an exact calculation of the advantage of village over pasturage in providing the national food supply, but all authorities agree in stating that a given acreage devoted to cereals and vegetables will support, at the very lowest estimate, four times as many men as the same acreage employed in rearing cattle.
With the light of these natural facts filling the national mind [says Dr. B. W. Richardson],6 the tendencies of all advanced scholars in thrift should unquestionably be to find out plans for feeding all the community, as far as is possible, direct from the lap of earth; to endeavour to discover how the fruits of the earth may be immediately utilized as food; and to impress science into our service, so that she in her laboratories may prepare the choicest viands, minus the necessity of making a lower animal the living laboratory for the sake of what is just a little higher than cannibal propensities.
When one realizes the economic superiority of vegetarian diet, and remembers how the question of our national food supply is becoming more and more urgent and difficult every year, it certainly seems nothing less than marvellous that the suggestions of food reformers should be so often ridiculed and slighted as the mere “fads” and crotchets of sentimentalists and humanitarians. “Fads” they would certainly be if it were impossible to live as healthily, without flesh-food as with it; but the contention that meat alone contains the requisite strength-giving properties is now everywhere being given up; so that the continued and increasing use of this most costly yet unnecessary article of diet amounts really to nothing less than an act of national wastefulness and extravagance.
I have now mentioned, unavoidably in briefest outline, what seem to me to be the four main arguments in favour of the principles of food reform. There will of course be a difference of opinion as regards their relative importance; for this is a many-sided question, which can be viewed from many diverse standpoints, and the same argument will not carry the same weight to all. But I feel sure that, whether the subject be regarded from the moral or utilitarian point of view, the final conclusion must be that which I have indicated; in this question, at any rate, morality and utility will not be found to be at variance. We inflict grievous cruelties on the lower animals by breeding and slaughtering them for food, and in the long run it seems that we have gained nothing thereby; on the contrary, we find ourselves out of taste, out of health, and out of pocket for our trouble. Surely, under these circumstances, vegetarians, without being guilty of any dogmatic or sectarian spirit, are justified in insisting on the necessity of individual inquiry, and the recognition of the fact that this food question is one of primary importance, and no mere passing craze or fanciful hallucination. It is a question which cries aloud for scientific investigation and the fullest possible publicity. If it is really necessary or advisable that any or all classes of Englishmen should eat flesh-meat, it is incumbent on medical men to put the matter beyond all doubt by an exposure of the vegetarian fallacy; a course which, by the way, would involve a direct contradiction of the express statements of certain eminent members of the medical profession, and an explanation of the remarkably healthy condition of those individuals and families who have for years renounced animal food. On the other hand, if, as Sir Henry Thompson has told us, “it is a vulgar error to regard meat in any form as necessary to life,” our men of science ought, in the interests of truth, to lose no time in making this important fact known as widely as possible to all members of the community.
It is desirable that the real point at issue should be stated thus clearly and unmistakably, because the discussion of this main question is apt to degenerate into interesting but inessential particulars; as, for instance, what would become of the Esquimaux if they were deprived of their blubber; and whether any name can be discovered to discriminate those food reformers who admit the use of eggs and milk from those who are in the literal sense “vegetarians.” Those who, from prejudice or ignorance, are hostile to the whole vegetarian movement, are fond of suggesting all sorts of initial difficulties and incidental dilemmas, which, like Dr. Johnson’s serviceable argument of “There’s an end on’t,” may have the effect of nipping their opponents’ eloquence in the bud, and rendering any close discussion superfluous. Some of these objections so invariably crop up whenever the subject of vegetarianism is opened, that it may be well to show why they are irrelevant or fallacious. I select five or six of the commonest of these anti-vegetarian arguments—old friends, well known to everybody who has ever attempted to advocate the cause of food reform.
First, the objection drawn from physiology. There is a widespread idea current among ordinary people, and even countenanced at times by those who are in a position to ascertain the truth, that the necessity of a flesh diet is demonstrated by the “canine” teeth and anatomical structure of men. It seems to be forgotten by those who advance this objection that “if such arguments are valid, they apply with even greater force to the anthropoid apes, whose canine teeth are much longer and more powerful than those of man; and the scientists must make haste therefore to announce a rectification of their present division of the animal kingdom, in order to class with the Carnivora, and their proximate species, all those animals which now make up the order of Primates.”7 In other words, if all possessors of undeveloped canine teeth are to be thus hastily condemned to a diet of animal flesh, the list of the Carnivora will be augmented not only by the intrusion of man, but by the whole class of frugivorous apes. In the anarchy that would ensue in this era of anatomical and physiological confusion, who knows but that the flesh-eater’s millennium may be realized, and that even the ox may see fit to eat flesh like the lion? But it seems improbable that physiologists are as yet prepared to take up this new “scientific frontier.” On the contrary, the most eminent authorities—Linnæus, Cuvier, Gassendi, Ray, Lawrence, Owen, Bell, and many others are unanimous in affirming that man is by nature and origin neither carnivorous nor herbivorous, but like the ape, frugivorous. As far, then, as an argument can be drawn from the teaching of physiology, it is distinctly in favour of the vegetarian cause.
Secondly, vegetarian doctrines are often condemned without being seriously considered, because it is said they are contrary to that great “law of Nature” whereby one animal is impelled to prey upon another. “Nature is one with rapine,” a great modem poet has written; and the philosophical flesh-eater accordingly delights to point out that the vegetarian, by refusing the animals that were obviously “sent” him as food, is impiously thwarting and despising the benign provisions of Nature—much in the same way, I presume, as it is sometimes argued against the advocates of cremation that they are attempting to defeat the scriptural prophecies that men shall rise “with their bodies.” It seems to be wholly overlooked by the good people who employ this remarkable method of reasoning, that Nature is not altogether one with rapine; some animals are undoubtedly predatory in their instincts, but it is equally obvious that; others are not. To commence by assuming that man is to be classed among the predatory species is simply to beg the whole question which is at issue, and by this style of arguing it would be just as easy to justify the promiscuous intercourse of the sexes, or any other bestial habit which may be illustrated by arbitrary reference to this or that portion of the animal kingdom.
Under the same head may be classed the strange idea, often gravely advanced in the discussion of this diet question, that because we are sometimes compelled, by accident or in self-defence, or whatever the circumstances may be, to take the lives of animals, we are therefore justified in systematically breeding and slaughtering them wholesale for food. Yet there is a great difference between “taking life,” and “taking life unnecessarily:” it is the latter only which vegetarians condemn; and the criticism is therefore both childish and irrelevant. Indeed, the mere fact that to take the lives of animals is at times unavoidable, ought to make us the more anxious to avoid any additional and unnecessary slaughter, for, as Leigh Hunt well observes,
That there is pain and evil is no rule
That I should make it greater, like a fool.
But apart from this foolish fallacy there is often found an unfortunate inclination, even among persons of an enlightened and humane disposition, to regard flesh-eating as one of the “cruel fatalities” of life, a habit deserving of condemnation in theory, yet in practice unavoidable. This sentiment is well expressed by Michelet:
The further we advance in knowledge, the more we apprehend the true meaning of realities; the more do we understand simple but very serious matters which the hurry of life makes us forget. Life! Death! The daily murder which feeding upon other animals implies—those hard and bitter problems sternly placed themselves before my mind. Miserable contradiction! Let us hope that there may be another globe in which the base, the cruel fatalities of this may be spared to us!8
That there may be another globe free from these fatalities is what we all hope for; but in the meantime it should not be forgotten that we have undoubtedly the power of enormously lessening the amount of suffering in this our present existence.
Thirdly, vegetarians are often met by instances of persons who have tried the system of food reform, and returned after a while to the orthodox fold. Chief amongst these “backsliders” must be classed the Poet Laureate himself, who, in his latest volume, has given us a highly poetical account of an unsuccessful dietetic experiment. It should be observed however, that the mere fact that some people have tried vegetarianism and failed, cannot in itself be held to stand for much, unless it be known that their attempt was made in a judicious manner, and with a real desire to persevere. If all such cases of failure could be carefully examined, it would probably be found that nine-tenths of the experiments were made in under circumstances which precluded all possibility of success. Sometimes a man will commence the practice of vegetarianism for no better reason than that be likes “to try everything”; another will suddenly renounce a heavy flesh diet without preparing any more suitable substitute than insipid vegetables; a third thinks that he must make up for the loss of flesh-meat by eating enormous quantities of such highly concentrated food as lentils and haricot beans. Can it be wondered that attempts made in this haphazard manner should often end in disappointment? A hundred such instances are outweighed by one single case where the reformed diet has been deliberately and finally adopted; in collecting evidence of this sort one affirmative must be held to outbalance many negatives. How different would be the present state of the temperance question from what it now is if the experience of those who asserted that they had vainly tried to abstain from alcohol had been accepted as a satisfactory proof of the impossibility of total abstinence! But there is no means of escaping the significance of a single affirmative witness.
Fourthly, we often hear of certain objections to the disuse of flesh-food, based on the supposed difficulties that would arise from the want of fur, leather, soap, candles, bone, and the various other animal products that are at present so useful to us. To ask a vegetarian how he proposes to dispense with these commodities furnishes the flesh-eater with a lively and amusing repartee, which is often very effective at the time before a sympathetic audience. But a few moments’ reflection must show that these difficulties are only temporary and incidental, and not such as could cause any permanent hindrance to the establishment of a vegetarian régime. The disuse of animal food must necessarily be a gradual process, and would not be suddenly and unexpectedly brought about; so that there would be no danger whatever of the civilized world waking up some morning to find itself without boots, or being compelled some night to go to bed in the dark for want of bedroom candles.
The law of demand and supply would still continue in operation, and we must surely take a very despondent view of the power of human invention if we despair of finding substitutes for the animal products which would slowly disappear from our markets. Even as it is, vegetable leather, vegetable soap, and various other substitutes are already in the market, although, owing to the small number of vegetarians in this country, the demand has hitherto been very slight: with an increased demand there would at once be an equally increased supply, and the transformation would be effected without the slightest inconvenience either to individuals or the community. Dr. Richardson has stated his opinion that a substitute even for milk could be readily supplied from the vegetable kingdom, if a demand should arise for it; and I think it would be difficult to mention any animal substance which would prove a serious loss. Vegetarians are sometimes twitted with inconsistency for being willing, in the meantime, to make shift with these animal products, instead of at once discarding them altogether. But the answer is obvious and convincing. Vegetarians use leather, bone, &c., at the present time—not because they have any preference or desire for these articles, but because under the present dietetic system substitutes are as yet either expensive or unattainable. While carcases abound on all sides, animal material is necessarily used, to the exclusion of vegetable substances, though the latter is otherwise equally serviceable. In a word, the “inconsistency” of vegetarians in this matter is due, not to any poverty of the vegetable kingdom, but to the unpleasant dietetic habits of other people.
This brings me to the last of these by-the-way arguments with which the opponents of food reform, forgetful of the proverb solvetur ambulando, attempt to prove that the path of progress is hopelessly and inextricably blocked. It is the last of these arguments, but it is, in my opinion, by far the most characteristic and amusing of them all. Pedagogues have, we know, their “diversions”; why should not food reformers also have theirs? Few people can imagine how refreshing, how piquant is the change, when the weary advocate of vegetarianism, overdone with the dry and serious discussion of comparative anatomy, natural economy, the chemistry of foods, cruelty of the slaughter-house, and other weighty matters, lights upon some welcome and heaven-sent opponent, who, in all seriousness and good faith, asserts, believes, and is prepared to make good by reasoning, that the habit of flesh-eating is advantageous for the interests of the animals themselves! That there are people who hold this opinion may seem incredible, but it is nevertheless a fact; nay, more, the argument has found its way into at least one popular and valuable encyclopædia. It runs as follows:—“The system of rearing cattle for the butcher—since the cattle would otherwise not be reared at all—really adds very largely to the sum of happy animal existence.”9 Truly a comfortable and consolatory thought! It is charming to discover that flesh-eating, like mercy, is “twice blessed,” ministering at once to the pleasures of the human palate, and to the happiness of the flocks and herds destined for speedy consumption. But it is an awkward fact that the same reasoning is equally capable of justifying the vivisector in breeding rabbits for the laboratory; for in the same way it could be demonstrated that by one short hour of suffering they purchase a happy lifetime of innocent enjoyment. There must, we fear, be something wrong about an argument which leads us to such strange conclusions as these. The fallacy lies in the queer assumption that the transition from non-existence to existence is necessarily an advantage, for which thanks are due to those who bring it about. This is sheer and downright nonsense. It would be just as sensible to say that in not arranging for the birth of still more and more cattle, we are doing an unkindness to the animals that might have been! For such seems to be the corollary of the assertion that a man brings more happiness into the world in proportion as he eats more flesh-meat and enlarges the supply of beef and mutton. Moreover, if we must go at all into this question of “the sum of human existence,” would it not be better to add to the sum of human existence instead of that of cattle, and by devoting more land to tillage and less to pasture increase the population threefold or fourfold?
But our opponents are not content in claiming merit for bringing their victims into the world; they go still further and congratulate themselves on their own humanity in providing the helpless animals with a satisfactory and expeditious method of departure. “What would become of the animals?” they ask, “if they were not killed for food?” This naïve question, which, strange as it may seem, is often seriously propounded, recalls to the mind Swift’s “Modest Proposal for Utilizing the Children of Poor People in Ireland”: “I propose to provide for them,” he said, “in such a manner as, instead of being a charge upon their parents or the parish, or wanting food and raiment for the rest of their lives, they shall, on the contrary, contribute to the feeding, and partly to the clothing, of many thousands.” The “provision” for the children was that they should be fattened for the table at the age of one year, at which age they would form “a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled.” It is said that when Swift published this humorous “Proposal,” a foreign author actually took it as serious, and quoted it as an instance of the extremity under which Ireland then laboured! We smile at such inability to distinguish jest from earnest; yet the mental condition of those well-meaning people who can think of no other way of disposing of animals than by eating them, seems to me to be at least equally remarkable.
If I have spoken strongly in dealing with some of these fallacious arguments, these red herrings trailed across the track of food reformers, I nevertheless am fully awake to the real difficulties that, under the present system, must be encountered, more or less, by those who change their diet. It is not always easy to make such a change, especially for the old; it should certainly not be done hurriedly, or without due consideration and the provision of proper substitutes for animal food.10 The social difficulties, too, are not entirely to be overlooked; for the disuse of flesh food is undoubtedly an inconvenience at times to those whose business or inclination makes them frequent travellers or diners-out; while the adoption of vegetarianism by some members of a household where the rest are flesh-eaten, is often a fruitful cause of disagreement. But it may fairly be said that these and such like difficulties are merely caused by the fact that the food question is at present in a stage of transition; temporary inconvenience there certainly may be, but impossibility there is none. Where there is a will there is a way; and the sincerity of the food reformer’s inclinations will be the measure of his success.
It is often said by those who are interested, but not convinced, by vegetarian arguments, that though they cannot go the extreme length of food reform, they quite admit that most people eat too much meat, and that therefore the Vegetarian Society is doing a useful work. There is something a trifle provoking in the tacit assumption that a middle course is necessarily the wise one; yet, as Professor Newman has pointed out, there is no doubt that the one paramount object or vegetarians is to diminish as much as possible the use of flesh-food, and that this object may be furthered quite as much by inducing a great many people to eat less meat as by inducing a very few to eat none at all. In the discussion of this, as of all other social questions, there is need of tolerance and consideration. Against the use of flesh-food—necessitating as it does the infliction of endless cruelties on the lower animals, and the violation of man’s innate sense of justice and gentleness—all vegetarians must record their uncompromising protest. That done, there is room for much variety of opinion in regard to other matters of less vital interest. The moderate use of eggs, milk, butter, cheese, and, some think, even of fish, is not necessarily censurable, and often furnishes a modus vivendi to would-be vegetarians, who cannot see their way all at once to the adoption of a perfectly consistent diet. Of one thing I feel sure, that the indispensable condition of a right solution of this question of diet, is a determination on the part of each individual to inquire into the whole matter for himself, and in the choice of food not to trust blindly to the influence of any adviser, medical or other. If any of my readers are at all moved by the arguments I have adduced, I will beg them, in conclusion, so far to suspend judgment on this subject as to study the writings of some of the chief exponents of food reform11 before making up their minds that all vegetarians are “crotchet-mongers” and “sentimentalists.” “Strike—but hear me,” is the summary of the vegetarian’s petition.
1 Vide the catena of authorities cited in Mr. Howard Williams’ “Ethics of Diet.”
2 “Citizen of the World,” ch. xv.
3 For a remarkable body of evidence on this subject, see Dr. Kingsford’s “Perfect Way in Diet,” pp. 59-71.
4 “Walden,” p. 230.
5 House of Commons Report on Diet in Prisons, 1879.
6 Essay on “Food Thrift,” in Modern Thought, July 1880.
7 Dr. Kingsford’s “Perfect Way in Diet.”
8 Quoted in “Ethics of Diet,” p. 254.
9 Chambers’s “Encyclopædia,” art. “Vegetariansim.” [Vol. CXXVI. No. CCLII.]—NEW SERIES, Vol. LXX. No. II.
10 Vide “How to Begin,” a pamphlet by the Vegetarian Society.
11 Vide especially “The Perfect Way in Diet,” by Anna Kingsford, M.D. (Kegan Paul, Trench & Co.); “Essays on Diet,” by Professor F. W. Newman (Kegan Paul, Trench & Co.); “The Ethics of Diet,” by Howard Williams, M.A. (F. Pitman & Co); “Fruits and Farinacea,” by John Smith; Sylvester Graham’s “Science of Human Life” (The Vegetarian Society, Princess Street, Manchester).
Published: Westminster Review, October 1886