Howard Williams’ ‘Ethics of Diet’

Howard Williams’ ‘Ethics of Diet’

MR. HOWARD WILLIAMS has long been better known to the Vegetarian world in name than in person. It is inevitable in all progressive movements that the men of action should be more conspicuous than the men of thought, that those who are to the fore in committee-room or lecture-hall, who are engaged in promoting and carrying out the actual propagandist work, should be recognized by a hundred of the adherents of the new system where the retired student is recognized by one; and thus it is that Howard Williams is known only by his writings to the rank and file of Vegetarianism, while to the general public, and even to that portion of it which takes some interest in food reform, he is scarcely known at all. Yet it is no idle compliment to say that during the last twenty years no individual worker has done more than Howard Williams for the advocacy of Humane Diet. By word and by pen, in private and in public, in season and out of season, he has been a quiet but indefatigable champion of humane principles, and not of food reform only, but of all causes in which justice and freedom are concerned. It is safe to say that thousands upon thousands of readers of London and provincial papers, who have never heard of Howard Williams, have read letters signed “H. W .,” or “M.A. Cantab.” and have been the wiser for reading them. It is impossible to estimate precisely the result of work like this; that it has a very considerable influence in the extension of humane ideas may be confidently asserted.

Mr. Williams has always consistently and firmly held the humane or “anti-cruel” aspect of food reform to be the foremost one, and the “national economic,” or “anti-waste,” view to come second; it being his belief that Destitution, with all its frightful sufferings, involving almost every sort of brutality and wretchedness, must be traced ultimately to the slaughter-house. Of the many wrongs inflicted by mankind on the non-human race, it seems to him that the most atrocious are (1) those perpetrated in private slaughter-houses, (2) the tortures of the secret pseudo-scientific Inquisition, commonly, but inadequately, termed “Vivisection”; (3) the cruelties for which sportsmen, or “amateur butchers” as he prefers to call them, are responsible, especially in the destruction of deer and hares. One of his strongest convictions is that the sacred cause of Right and Humaneness would be now far more advanced if there were a fuller persuasion among all humane persons of the importance of more efficient organization and concentration of energy against the worst forms of cruelty, and if the value of private propagandism and insistence upon the criminality of acquiescing in cruel usages were more generally recognized. I give these details of personal feeling, almost in his own words, because such feeling has left its mark very strongly on the “Ethics of Diet,” which is undoubtedly the greatest and most notable of all Howard Williams’ contributions to the literature of Humanitarianism.

For the writing of this “Biographical History of the Literature of Humane Dietetics” its author was excellently qualified by the fact that he unites a wide classical knowledge with the newer spirit and enthusiasm of humanity; he is a student of Literæ Humaniores in the truest and fullest sense. A scholar of St. John’s College, Cambridge, he took his M.A. degree in 1861, becoming a convert to the humane diet ten years later, and a member of the Vegetarian Society in 1873. His other published works (for it will be of interest to vegetarian readers to know of these) are as follows: “Superstitions of Witchcraft,” a sketch history of Diabolism, 1865 ; “Anthologia Anglica,” 1872, a work inspired by the ambition to make known to the ordinary reader the best and humanist of the poets, in especial Shelley; “Lives and Letters of Swift and Pope,” 1886; “Lucian’s Dialogues,” a select translation for English readers, 1888. The “Ethics of Diet,” with which we are here concerned, first appeared in the Dietetic Reformer, 1877-1882, and was published in book form in 1883. Many of the readers of this article will probably remember, as I do, the serial publication of the “Ethics”; to myself, then a novice vegetarian, it was a matter of great interest and encouragement.

For it is evident that in the early stages of the vegetarian movement, when the adherents of the reformed diet are for the most part mere scattered groups, or even isolated units, in a population of flesh-eaters, one of the great difficulties that beginners have to contend with is that sense of solitariness and lack of fellowship which only strong natures can overcome. It needs much courage to quit the beaten paths and enter on a new mode of living, as many have done or essayed to do, without assured knowledge of the similar experiences of other and earlier pioneers.  The out-of-the-way vegetarian tyro is apt to think that he is making a perilous experiment adventuring, like Columbus and his voyagers, into an unknown ocean from which he may never return—an apprehension which anxious friend  and relatives are only too quick to foster. Hence the great value of a book which shows, by a well-selected series of biographies and quotations, the early evolution and the historical continuity of the protest against butchery, and thus proves that, far from being mere desultory and isolated piece of “sentimentalism,” the vegetarian principle is essential to true ethical progress, though only during the present century has it been developed in to a definite system. For the service thus rendered, the “Ethics of Diet” has well deserved the application of “the text-book of vegetarianism” and the exceptional honour of being translated in to Russian by so great literary and ethical authority as Count Leo Tolstoy, who has spoken of Mr. Williams’ work in words of high praise. And now, by the enterprise of the Ideal Publishing Union, for which all humane dietists owe their thanks, this extremely valuable and important book appears in a new and enlarged edition, carefully revised by the author, and brought fully up to date. Its publication is an event of real significance in the annals of humane reform.

Comparing the new edition of the “Ethics” with that of 1883, we find that much new matter has been introduced, the book being further improved by a more appropriate arrangement of names, a fuller preface, and a far more elaborate index.

The work has been divided into two parts, of which the first dates from the early ages to A.D. 407, and the second (after an interval of a thousand years, the “dark ages” of medieval churchdom) from the Renascence to the present time. It would perhaps have been well if there had been a still further sub-division, for it seems to me that the nineteenth-century period, which brought with it a new spirit and an organized principle of humaneness, as distinguished from the less consistent “sensibility” of the preceding centuries, might advantageously have been marked off as the commencement of a new era—the modern era of “Vegetarianism.” As in the earlier edition, the plan has been followed of excluding the names of living writers, the book being designed to be a history of the past literature of the ethics of diet. Three biographies of extreme interest are added at the end—those of Richard Wagner, Henry David Thoreau and Anna Kingsford, the two last-named of whom have recently been reviewed in these columns.

By no means the least welcome part of the new edition is the amplified Preface, which contains an admirable statement of vegetarian principles, and an equally clear refutation of the well-worn fallacies by which those principles are opposed—fallacies which, as Mr. Williams remarks, may be distinguished as “the genuine and the non-genuine, the sophistical, puerile, and popular, and the quasi-philosophical.” As might have been expected, the most eloquent passages of the Preface are those in which the author lays stress on the horrible and inhuman practice of butchery, and its effects on human character.

“This awful fact of thus living by the indescribably agonizing suffering of infinite numbers of their innocent fellow-beings—fellow-beings in all the essential properties of life, as well as in all the accidents of mortality—however much the majority of kreophagist society may vainly attempt to disguise or to suppress it, none the less is there, obtruding itself in every street and in every unreformed kitchen; latent in the consciousness of all who have enough of intelligence or enough of sensibility for the least serious reflection, and who glance at all below the comparatively smooth and pleasant surface, under which the seething mass of agony is so industriously hidden away from the view of fashionable society—refined only in name.”

In conclusion, I wish to impress on all vegetarians, and indeed on all humane-minded persons, whether strictly vegetarian or not, who may chance to read this review, the advisability, I would almost say the duty, of doing all that lies in their power to circulate the “Ethics of Diet.” The fault of vegetarian literature as a rule is that, like other propagandist writings, it is apt to be scrappy and ephemeral, dealing in a cursory though often effective way with such controversial topics as may arise from time to time. Mr. Williams book, on the contrary, is a classic, a veritable mine of learning, giving us in the space of its six hundred pages, both in biography, criticism, and well-placed footnotes, a mass of varied and scholarly information ranging over every period of history, and covering not only the subject of humane dietetics, but the whole sphere of man’s relation towards the non-human races. It is invaluable not only to food-reformers, but to all humanitarians who attempt in any way to improve the condition of the lower races, for, as an anonymous rhymer has it—

“Ye lovers of animals, hasten,
Or cease your affection to boast:
What boots it to love them in meadow,
If ye love them far better in roast?”

No one, I repeat, has a right, in these modern days, to call himself “zoophilist” who is not aware of the momentous influences of flesh-eating in its bearing on “zoophily”; and it is on this point that Mr. Williams is an authority beyond question. So, too, as regard ethics. It is not merely a dietetic problem that the book discusses; it is, as the title rightly indicates, an ethical principle of the utmost importance that is at stake. For which reason it is to be hoped that this popular edition of the “Ethics of Diet” will find its way into the hands of all those who are in any degree professors or students of morals; and that we shall not much longer witness the scandal (for it is no less than a scandal) of the existence of a so-called Ethical Movement with Ethical Societies, Ethical Lectures, Ethical Libraries, and what not, in which almost every question of the day is discussed except the one which, as Howard Williams shows, is a matter of daily, personal, and terribly practical significance.

Henry S. Salt

Vegetarian Review, October 1896