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.

Vegetarianism and Social Reform

by H. S. Salt

There are many signs that what has very properly been called the “Great Food Question” will soon be recognised as a subject of immediate and paramount importance. The surface of party politics may be agitated by the fortunes of this or that legislative proposal, but the question which will chiefly occupy the minds of thoughtful men is how a sufficient food supply is to be provided for the increasing millions of the nation, and how we are to meet the social crisis which seems to be impending at no distant date, owing to the terrible destitution of the lower classes. Many are the suggestions constantly being put forward for the solution of this great national problem, but most of them are sadly inadequate and insufficient. Emigration is the favourite remedy of a certain class of economists and politicians, but, apart from the objections to the injustice of this scheme, which would enforce an unwelcome exile on large masses of Englishmen, there seems to be no certainty that it would really improve the condition of those who remain in England. The Malthusians, again, would have us believe that things can never come right until a limit is put to the numbers of families; but though this doctrine finds favour with high economic writers, it is one which the good feeling of the nation naturally and intuitively rejects. So urgent is the need of some remedial scheme, that certain writers have even detected the future salvation of England in what is known as the “freezing process,” by which the carcases of sheep are preserved in the antipodes, and brought to our shores in floating mortuaries constructed for the purpose. In the absence of more practical plans of relief than those I have mentioned, it is not to be wondered that the supporters of thorough social reform boldly assert that nothing short of direct legislative action can materially benefit that condition of our English poor.

What have we Vegetarians to say on this subject, and what part can we claim to play in the solution of this great question? In my opinion, it is important that we should ponder our position thoughtfully, and be careful to claim what is really our due–neither too much nor too little. It is admitted on all hands that a fleshless diet effects an enormous economic saving, and it is not seriously denied that such a diet is perfectly practicable for those who choose to try it. What, then, will be the value of Vegetarianism at a time when the nation is racking its brains to find methods of feeding its millions, who at present, from some reason or other, are woefully short of food?

In the first place, I think we shall do wisely in not claiming too much. The unhappy condition of the lower classes is brought about by many complex causes, which can scarcely be remedied by any single reform. The evil lies in the inequality of the laws which regulate the distribution of wealth, rather than in any actual dearth of means of subsistence. It may therefore be fairly questioned whether, to gain a final and permanent relief, it would not be necessary to go beyond individual food-thrift, and to place the whole system of the production of wealth on a really equitable basis.

On the other hand, we must not fail to claim for our system the immense importance to which it is justly entitled. Though Vegetarianism may not be the only reform that is needed, it is none the less true that no other reform, without it, can be really and permanently successful. A nation that does not appreciate the value of food-thrift can never be really prosperous. The unjust influence of the wealthy classes may be curtailed by legislation, but the life of the poor will never be really happy unless they have learned to practise frugality and simplicity of diet. Great, too, is the indirect influence of Vegetarian principles in the carrying out of any plan of social reform. A pure and enlightened system of diet almost of necessity disposes the minds of those who practise it to general habits of simplicity and unselfishness. Those who have realised the value of moderation and economy in matters of food and drink are not likely to look with a favourable eye on vast accumulations of private wealth, contrasted with an appalling destitution among other classes of their fellow-countrymen. The Vegetarian, who recognises in the Earth the common Mother whose kindly fruits are scattered in abundance before us all, can scarcely desire to see the Land, the source of all life and all wealth, otherwise than the property of the nation that dwells upon it.

One not infrequently hears food-thrift decried by ardent social reformers for the reasons I have indicated above. More careful consideration would have enabled them to see that no true reforms can be really incompatible or antagonistic. The well-being of a nation, which is the aim and object of the schemes of all wise reformers, cannot be effected by the single operation of any one remedy, but will be the outcome of the harmonious working of all. Each reform contributes in its own sphere to the realisation of the whole, and, in its own way, is absolutely indispensable. There are many such movements at present going on among us; but none is more valuable and necessary than the reform of diet.

Published: The Dietetic Reformer and Vegetarian Messenger, April 1, 1885