Not once only, but many times have I had occasions to realise what it means to be involved in controversy with disputants whose ability far exceeds one’s own, with a man, for example, like the distinguished opponent of whom I now propose to speak, Mr G. K. Chesterton. What alone has upheld me in such encounters is the conviction that there are times when even great wits slumber, more especially if the subject be one which appeals to some personal habit or liking. I remember being struck by the title chosen for a book by Mr. Stephen Paget, who was by no means a friend of the humanitarian cause: “I Sometimes Think.” Sometimes! Mr. Paget was evidently unconscious that his title is capable of more than one meaning. I hope to make it evident that even the great “G.K.C.” “sometimes thinks”—not always. Not in the matter of vegetarianism!
Among the well-known writers of the present time there is no one whose attitude towards the humanitarian movement it is so difficult to define, as Mr. G. K. Chesterton; and this in spite of the fact that there are many allusions to the subject in his books, and that not a few of them are satirical. Now I do not at all object to being laughed at by Mr. Chesterton, for his wit is never mean or malevolent, and is often very brilliant; and if it were clear that like the majority of literary men (whose wit is not very often brilliant) he thought humanitarians a pack of fools, the case would be quite simple and would in no wise trouble me. But what complicates the situation is that Mr. Chesterton is to some extent a humanitarian himself. No one has denounced the “filthy torture” of flogging more trenchantly than he, or vindicated “sentiment” more nobly. “The people who call compassion ‘sentimentalism’,” he says, “deserve nothing but contempt.” Personally, too, I have no reason to feel otherwise than grateful to G.K.C. for his attempted reductio ad absurdum of vegetarianism, in which he fancifully images how an extreme sect, refusing to shed “the green blood” of plants, would live only on minerals—and then how there would arise a still more advanced prophet, with that most commendable questions, “Why should Salt suffer?”1 Ever since I had a talk with Mr. Chesterton, I am afraid to calculate how many years ago, at the Humanitarian League’s office, where he kept expressing his fear that, if he detained me even a few minutes longer, “some elephant might suffer,” I have enjoyed his wit as keenly as if I could embrace his philosophy; indeed, I am inclined to think that the poet Wordsworth, if he were living now, would have to rewrite that line in one of his Odes:
“I thought of Chatterton, the marvellous boy;”
For surely the marvellous boy who is now most often in our thoughts is not Chatterton but Chesterton. But where vegetarianism is the theme Mr. Chesterton has drawn a marked distinction between our moral duties to men and our mere compassion for animals, on the ground that mankind is a Society to which we owe an allegiance which we do not owe to the lower races, from which he infers that cruelty to animals, detestable though it be, is a quite different thing from cruelty to men.2
But Mr. Chesterton’s assumption that there is “a difference of kind” between human and non-human, is one to which neither science, nor history, nor logic gives one atom of support. On the physical side man is confessedly an animal, and societies of men are, physically, societies of animals; and though our psychological and moral relation to the animals are as yet less determined, here again the tendency of modern thought is beyond doubt in the direction to which humanitarians incline. Mr. Chesterton, in his character of Gastronomer Royal, tells us—as if it were an argument against humanitarianism—that his own reason for abstaining from cannibalism is not a humane but a social one. “I do not eat men,” he says, “because I am a man.” To which the humane dietist will obviously make answer: “And I do not eat animals because I am an animal.” The disuse of flesh-eating, like the disuse of cannibalism, is based not on mere pity, but on the recognition of kinship.
Mankind, says Mr. Chesterton, is “a society.” So are bees and beavers. There are innumerable societies, and it is impossible to prove that the human society is more organic or more conclusive than the rest. Our sense of kinship is continually widening, and there never has been, nor is, any finality in the social bond of which Mr. Chesterton speaks. It would have surprised the Greek or Roman of old to be informed that he was a member of the same society with the barbarian or the slave. It would hardly be admitted by the white American of to-day, that he and the African negro are own brethren. That, presumably, is because their sympathies are not yet developed enough; but what if Mr. Chesterton’s sympathies are not developed enough to enable him to see what many less subtle intellects have already seen—that beyond this “human” society there is the still larger society of the higher sentient existence?
Mr. Chesterton attempts to ridicule the humanities of diet by professing a solicitude for the sensibilities of plants. But though this regard for the cabbage, the cauliflower and the mineral, is very pretty and pleasant, it leaves certain important truths out of sight. In the first place, morality is not absolute and instant, but progressive and gradually developed. There is a sense of degree and proportion in ethics, as in all human affairs. It may readily be granted that if the conscience of to-day were suddenly and miraculously amplified into the conscience of a thousand years hence, the state of the world in regard to many matters, and not matters of diet only, might become very difficult; but as this does not and cannot happen, no reasoning in regard to ethical conduct can possibly be built upon it.
There is moreover nothing new in these attempts to discredit an ethical reform by means of reductio ad absurdum or “going one better.” Punch’s jokes about the rights of vegetables, and Mr. Chesterton’s about those of minerals, rather lose their brilliancy when we recall the following facts. When Mary Wollstonecraft published her “Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” there appeared from the pen of some anonymous satirist a pamphlet entitled “A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes,” written with the express purpose of parodying the burlesquing the idea that women have rights. That satire looks rather foolish now; and I surmise that Mr. Chesterton’s will not seem very amusing to a future age. Animals’ rights are going to be recognised—are already being recognised—whether vegetables have rights or not.
1 In his “The Napoleon of Notting Hill.” I take in that by his use of capital letter he indicated a personal reference.
2 In an article printed in the Daily News, April 10th, 1906.
Henry S. Salt
The Vegetarian News, Vol. 10 No. 109, January 1930, pp. 11-13