Those who make conscientious trial of a vegetarian diet will find after two or three years’ experience that they have secured three main advantages. Their health will be better; their household expenses will be less; and they will have the satisfaction of feeling that they are in no way responsible for the cruelties of the slaughter-house. But, in addition to the direct benefits, there are various indirect and incidental results which are worthy of far more serious consideration than they usually receive.
I. First among these, and of most pressing interest at the present day, is the remarkable fact that abstinence from animal food almost invariably brings with it abstinence from all alcoholic drinks. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, the Vegetarian will be a total abstainer; not merely because the desire of stimulating drink dies a natural death in the absence of stimulating food, but also because those who have learnt the charm of simplicity in diet are not likely to care for drinks which are unnecessary and expensive. The adoption of a Vegetarian diet-system would strike at the root of intemperance among well-to-do people, by the reduction of over-stimulating foods and the promotion of general frugality of living.
Again, on the other hand, if Vegetarian principles were more widely understood and practised, there would be a much larger supply of cheap and wholesome food within the reach of our lower orders; and the chief cause of drunkenness among the poor—their destitution and hunger—would be gradually and surely eradicated. Thus the intemperate habits of the over-fed rich and of the under-fed poor would be checked by one and the same principle of Food-reform. Vegetarianism would teach the rich the great lesson that “Enough is as good as a feast,” and that therefore water is as good a drink as wine; while it would provide the poor with plenty of cheap and nourishing food, and leave them no excuse for having recourse to the pot-house and gin-shop. If the poor could be taught the value of wholesome bread, oatmeal, and lentils, a greater blow would be dealt at intemperance than by a thousand lectures and addresses.
On these grounds all those who are interested in the temperance movement,—and what sane man is not?—should at least consider attentively the arguments advanced in favour of Vegetarianism. More immediate and crying evil is undeniably caused by the use of alcohol than by the use of flesh; and the temperance question is therefore, in one sense, of more urgent importance than that of Food Reform. But in the long run Vegetarianism is vastly more important than Teetotalism, inasmuch as the larger question includes the smaller one in itself. If Food Reform be once established Drink Reform will inevitably follow; but as long as flesh-food is largely eaten no lectures on Temperance, or Good Templar meetings, or establishment of coffer-houses, or Acts of Parliament, will succeed in extirpating our national vice of drunkenness. The roast beef of old England has done its work, and the natural result has followed.
II. Another habit which is rendered almost impossible by a fleshless diet is the habit of smoking. A Vegetarian has as little liking for tobacco as for alcohol, and if our diet-system were reformed we should soon cease to prefer tobacco-fumes to pure air. There is no need to enlarge here on the injurious effects of tobacco-smoking; nay, we may even afford to admit for the time that the habit is as innocuous as its votaries assert. Yet when we hear smokers declare that tobacco is a “blessing” to men, because it soothes their mental troubles and enables them to work more contentedly, we cannot but retort that a person who lives a happy and active life, without the use of any narcotic, must be in a far sounder and healthier state than one who needs it. In other words, the use of tobacco is in no case a positive good to men; but at the utmost the lesser of two evils. If we cannot enjoy life and do our duty without inhaling smoke, then by all means let us go at once to the tobacconist’s; but at least let us not be silly enough to imagine that other people are less happy because they do not smoke. “A wholesome taste for cleanliness and fresh air,” say Ruskin, “is one of the final attainments of humanity. There are not many European gentlemen, even in the highest classes, who have a pure and right love of fresh air. They would put the filth of tobacco even into the first breeze of a May morning.” Vegetarianism may or may not be the foolish theory that some shrewd people would have it appear; but it certainly has the practical advantage of effectually abolishing any desire for tobacco-smoke.
III. But besides these definite results, the Vegetarian will find himself a greater gainer in what I may call general simplicity, or good taste in diet. I do not, of course, mean to assert that this is a virtue special to Vegetarians, to which no flesh-eater can attain; but merely that Vegetarian, cœteris paribus, is more likely to be wise and thoughtful about his diet than a flesh-eater. For there is “good taste” in eating and drinking, as in all other things, and that style of diet is obviously in best taste which keeps the body in most equable health; neither pampering it by over feeding, nor weakening it by excessive abstinence. This golden mean between gluttony on the one side, and asceticism on the other, would be more widely attained if the use of flesh-food were discontinued. For a Vegetarian, who understands the importance of the question of diet, is, as a rule, less likely to eat too much than those who never consider the nature of their food; and he will be wiser not only in the quantity but also the quality of what he eats. Among Vegetarians there will be no such vulgar perversions of “taste” as among those who affect to find a delicacy in venison and game when it is “high,” or in cheese when it is “ripe;” or, still worse, in the grosser inventions of the gourmand, where cruelty as well as vulgarity has done its work; in the white veal and the crimped cod, and other dishes that shall be here unmentioned. Let flesh-eaters relish these their delights: but as the food of the Vegetarian will be moderate in quantity, so in quality it will be fresh and simple and pure.
But moderation is also far removed from asceticism, which is merely the reaction against gross feeding, and would never have come into existence under a simple and natural system of living. Under a Vegetarian regime there will be no asceticism, which has been the weakness—I will not say the fault—of many a high and noble nature, and cannot be in itself good or desirable. Those who weaken the body by excessive privations, must weaken the mind also, and will consequently be less able to do good in the world than those who practise a wise and unvarying moderation.
And lastly, it may be well to point out why a Vegetarian diet which would thus establish temperance without austerity, and liberality without extravagance, is, from an intellectual point of view, to be regarded as of such extreme importance. And here I cannot resist the desire of quoting a remarkable passage from a pamphlet published by the Vegetarian Society—“Can you imagine a gross feeder on turtle-soup or venison, high game, and rotten cheese, a self-indulgent drinker, being a man of bright, pure, simple tastes and instincts? Would you go to such a man and expect him to catch the etherial beauties of some of Shelley’s choicer pieces? . . . you would not, you would feel, and justly, that such perceptions were too fine, too delicate for him: that the animal was too strong in him; the mind, the spirit, too little, too weak, too puny for such higher thoughts as these.” Grossness of diet is indeed a fertile cause of dullness and dejection of mind, and therefore we find that most great men have been abstemious in their way of living, and especially so when occupied on any great work. The complaint of Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night—“I am a great eater of beef, and I believe that does harm to my wit”—is only one instance of many recognitions of a remarkable psychological fact. Perhaps the most comprehensive reason ever urged against the use of flesh-food is to be found in the saying attributed, I know not on what authority, to the poet Chatterton, that “he had no right to make himself stupider than God made him.”
In some cases it would be a difficult task to effect this. But alas! is it not a task that is daily being attempted, with more or less success, in the houses of many of our flesh-eating friends who “keep a good table?”
1 Simplicity of Tastes, by the Rev. C. H. Collyns.
The Food Reform Magazine, Vol. 2 No. 2, October 1882