It is a remarkable and lamentable fact that the movement in favour of Food Reform finds but few supporters among the classes known as ‘æsthetic’ and ‘artistic;’ among those, in short, who pride themselves on their so-called ‘good taste’ and who might therefore have been especially looked to for favour and sympathy. For, setting aside for the present all considerations of morality and gentleness, I maintain that there are just as glaring faults of bad taste visible in our system of diet, as in our dress, or furniture, or general household arrangements, all of which have been very severely and very properly criticised by the æsthetic school. How foolish and inconsistent it is to be vastly fastidious about the manner in which one’s food is served up, and at the same time to be totally indifferent as regards the quality, from an æsthetic view, of the food itself! The highest art may be apparent in the decoration and arrangement of the table, but, if the food be gross in taste and smell, the result can hardly be gratifying to the truly æsthetic mind.
But, it may be asked, is it a fact that flesh-food is gross in taste and smell? One of the commonest objections of flesh-eaters to the reformed diet is that flesh-meat is ‘nice,’ and the guests at an æsthetic dinner-table have presumably no sort of suspicion that they are eating anything which is not “high art.” Of course dietetic taste, like all other taste, is relative and subjective; there is no absolute criterion of ‘good taste,’ but each man must decide for himself what he considers ‘nice.’ It is therefore impossible to prove the superiority of the reformed diet, or to convince flesh-eaters that their taste is not immaculate; just as it would be impossible to prove to an admirer of the Doré Picture Gallery that he has yet to study higher branches of art, or to a reader of the Daily Telegraph that he has not yet seen the best style of English Prose. We therefore cannot prove the advantages of Vegetarianism; we can only trust to the results of experience, and the good taste which is gradually brought about by culture and education. All Vegetarians will emphatically deny that flesh-food is nice, and will assert that only a depraved and uncultivated taste can relish it; and if our æsthetic friends will give the matter a little serious consideration, they will very soon find themselves arriving at the same conclusion. There are possibly some persons who are naturally incapable of recognizing the essential nastiness of animal food: to these I would merely remark that they would do well to think twice before assuming the title of ‘æsthetic.’
So far I have used the word æstheticism as merely equivalent to the actual perception by the senses, a meaning to which its modern votaries seem to wish to restrict it. But in real truth it cannot be thus limited, at any rate in dietetic questions, for we cannot wholly exclude the consideration of the origin of our food. However gratifying our flesh-meat may be to our immediate taste (a very gross and uncultured taste, as I have attempted to show), we cannot altogether forget its extremely unpleasant antecedents. However artistic the arrangement of the dinner-table, however immaculate the table-cloth and faultless the dinner-service, the disagreeable thought must surely sometimes occur to the artistic mind that the beef was once an ox, the mutton was once a sheep, the veal was once a calf, and the pork was once a pig. We may scrupulously make clean the outside of the cup and platter, but the recollection of the state of their interior will nevertheless cause some disquietude to our æsthetic repose.
Finally, l have to speak of the higher ‘æstheticism,’ the only true worship of the beautiful, that which does not regard only the perceptions of the senses, but admits the consideration of the moral and the humane. Such a doctrine finds its fullest development in the works of Mr. Ruskin, a teacher whom we Food Reformers, in common with all who strive after a purer life, must revere above all living writers. The superiority of his teaching to that of the æsthetic school in general is due to the fact that he has not thought it necessary to divorce morality from art, but has shown that the consideration of morality is inseparable from true art, as also from true political economy, and indeed from any true science whatever. But alas! “non omnia possumus omnes;” and it must be confessed that, on the subject of humanity, Mr. Ruskin’s teaching is not quite self-consistent ; while his utterances on the subject of Vegetarianism shew that he has never really given it his serious attention, though in the last number of Fors Clavigera he seems inclined to reconsider the question. Of all great writers Mr. Ruskin is the one from whom the advocates of Food Reform might most reasonably expect at least a word of sympathy and assistance; he is the one who is least able, if he wishes to be self-consistent, to disregard the aspirations of Vegetarianism.
“Without perfect sympathy with the animals around them, no gentleman’s education, no Christian education, could be of any possible use.” So he said in 1877; and I am not aware that he has ever explained how perfect sympathy with the animals around us can be co-existent with the system of breeding and slaughtering them for food. Again, Rule 5 of Mr. Ruskin’s Society of St. George, runs as follows:—“I will not kill nor hurt any living creature needlessly, nor destroy any beautiful thing, but will strive to save and comfort all gentle life, and guard and perfect all natural beauty upon the earth.” These are noble words; and they express the very essence and spirit of the Vegetarian movement; indeed it is difficult to see how they can be uttered, consistently and conscientiously, by any but Vegetarians. The only loop-hole of escape for the flesh-eater seems to lie in the word “needlessly,” and of course the impossibility of Vegetarianism once proved would be a real justification of flesh-eating. It is evident, however, from the May number of Fors Clavigera, that Mr. Ruskin is fully aware of the practicability, if not the desirability, of the reformed diet, for he speaks approvingly of Mrs. Nisbet’s “very valuable” letter on Vegetarianism to the Dunfermline Journal. It is therefore incumbent on the members of St. George’s Society to obey the rules of their order by ceasing to uphold the needless, and therefore cruel, institution of the slaughter-house, and by adopting that diet which alone is in harmony with the instincts of morality and good taste.
The Food Reform Magazine, Vol. 3 No. 2, October-December 1883