Concerning Rules and Principles

Concerning Rules and Principles

In a recently published book of essays and reminiscences, “Edward Carpenter: in Appreciation,” there are two or three references to the occasional abandonment of the practice of vegetarianism which seem to call for some notice in The Vegetarian News; the more so, because Carpenter is held, and justly held, in very high estimation–reverence perhaps I should say–as a teacher who influenced a great many persons in the direction of nobler living. One of his personal friends, Mr. Charles Sixsmith, writes thus:

“He didn’t like fixed rules and was no stickler for principle. He said if rigid vegetarians and teetotallers would occasionally have a good fling and devour beef and drink beer, it would do them a lot of good. Although he was a vegetarian, he ate meat at rare intervals.”

Another essayist, Mr. Henry W. Nevinson, remarks that even in such simple matters as vegetarianism, teetotalism, and similar questions, “he was opposed to all rules and principles.” This is fully confirmed by a passage in Carpenter’s own autobiography, “My Days and Dreams” (1916), where he devotes a page to explaining what he calls “my vegetarian practice generally.” He found, it seems, that though he lived for long periods on a fleshless diet, and regarded it as quite satisfactory, and indeed preferable, he disliked the idea of making any absolute rule, and occasionally ate a very little flesh, “just, as it were, to see how it tasted, or to avoid giving trouble in Philistine households.”

Let me say at once, if Carpenter felt this emotional necessity to eat flesh, so be it! It is not so much of himself personally that I wish to speak, as of the dislike of “rules” and of “principles” which he avowed–a dislike which is widely exhibited by other and less distinguished persons. And it by no means follows, because Carpenter was a very remarkable man in many ways, a great man and a good man, that he was a clear thinker. That was not his strong feature; and I am going to make bold to point out that as a reason for occasionally eating flesh, the excuse given by him is very far indeed from being a sound one.

Now had Edward Carpenter said that he broke his usual practice in diet because he was afraid of becoming a bore to those who disagreed with him, I could understand and to a certain extent sympathise with such motive, though by no means agreeing with it, for in all advanced causes there are apt to be a few persons who by harping on their “principle” too continuously–in season and out of season–do it more harm than good. But that was not his case; and what we have to consider is the use to which his arguments, if arguments they can be called, may be put, by interested persons who wish to find objections to vegetarianism.

What is meant by this talk about “rules and principles”? A “rule” may be important, or it may be very trivial; but a “principle” is, as the dictionaries define it, “a right rule of conduct,” and certainly not a think to be lightly set aside. A further question of the utmost importance is whether a man’s practice in diet, or in any other matter, concerns himself only, or affects the welfare of others; and this is entirely overlooked in Carpenter’s dislike of dietetic “principles.” He would never have talked such obvious nonsense as to say that, where human being are concerned, the principle of treating them justly may occasionally be discontinued; yet the logic of his occasional return to carnivorism is no whit less erroneous ignoring, as it does, the question of the treatment of unnumbered sentient animals in the slaughterhouse. If vegetarianism is worth practising at all, it is worth practising consistently; it cannot be evaded by any plea of a personal dislike of “principle.” Indeed, I think Edward Carpenter himself was aware of the truth, for the passage in his autobiography concludes with the words: “Perhaps I should have done better, for myself and others, if I had been more resolute.”

That it would have been better for others there can be no doubt whatever; and I think the practice that is better for others is generally better for oneself.

Henry S. Salt

The Vegetarian News, August 1931