The death of Henry Salt at the age of eighty-seven on April 19th meant the loss of the greatest humanitarian of our time. Salt was one of the Old Guard of the Socialist movement towards the end of the last century, when he was working with his friends Edward Carpenter, Bernard Shaw, J. L. Joynes and other pioneers. He was a vegetarian, solely on humane grounds, for nearly sixty years; and for more than half-a-century his work was devoted with remarkable singleness of purpose, rare indeed in these days of divided aims, to the creed of kinship–between man and man, and between man and the other animals–a creed of very wide implication. “The Creed of Kinship” was the title of his last published book, and to this creed or religion he referred even in the highly characteristic farewell message read at his funeral address by an old friend.
It was Salt who, though throughout his life temperamentally averse from even the mildest self-advertisement, first gave the humanitarian movement a form and stability which it undoubtedly lacked before his time. In short, he did much the same for modern humanitarianism as Darwin did for modern biology. He gathered up scattered theories and ideas and put the whole teaching upon an unassailable philosophical basis. This is well seen in his admirable essay on “Humanitarianism” in Hastings’s “Encycliopædia of Religion and Ethics.” A couplet from one of his own epigrams (a form of verse to which he was much addicted) applies aptly enough to his own temperament and activities:
The wise are they who in the sphere assigned them
Take, but refuse to leave, things as they find them.
Henry Salt was born in 1851 and after an education at Eton and King’s College, Cambridge, where he took a first class in a classical tripos, spent nine years as an assistant master at Eton College. On retiring, after his conversion to vegetarianism, he devoted his time to work of a vastly different kind, namely, social and humane reform. The unexpected breakaway from Eton is interestingly described in his delightful book, rich in humane wisdom, “Seventy Years among Savages” (1921):
“Thus gradually the conviction has been forced on me that we Eton masters, however irreproachable our surroundings, were but cannibals in cap and gown–almost literally cannibals, as devouring the flesh and blood of the higher non-human animals so closely akin to us . . . I treasure the recollection of the interview in which I took my farewell of Dr. Warre [Headmaster of Eton]. . . . ‘It’s the vegetarianism,’ he gravely remarked; and I understood him to mean that it was the abandonment of the orthodox diet that had led, by inevitable weakening of the mens sane corpore sano, to my apostasy in regard to Education.”
Salt’s first wife, Catherine Joynes, like himself a keen humanitarian, died in 1919. His second marriage (to Miss Catherine Mandeville) was one of the happiest on record; and his declining years, later racked by painful illness, were soothed by the devoted care of a wife to whom he was deeply attached. During this time his mind was clouded at intervals by disease.
In 1891, together with Howard Williams, Salt founded the Humanitarian League, of which he was the secretary and moving spirit for nearly thirty years, doing an immense amount of writing on all subjects connected with the League’s work. Its ambitious and idealistic programme included pacifism, drastic penal reform, the abolition of flogging, vivisection, blood-sports, performing animals, etc. It was also an early advocate of slaughter-house reform and other palliatives. Relatively urbane in public utterance and controversy on humane subjects, Salt preferred always the rapier wit to the bludgeon of diatribe; and almost always he handled his rapier with admirable skill and finesse. In private discussion, however, he would frequently use far stronger terms about the “brutalitarians,” a useful expressive term which he coined for the upholders of the status quo.
His logical and keenly critical mind, his penetrating intellect and witty and whimsical manner in conversation made Henry Salt a delightful companion. With what pleasure do I recall my innumerable walks and talks with him–at his Surrey and Derbyshire homes, in those Welsh mountains about which he has written so charmingly in “On Cambrian and Cumbrian Hills,” and on the Sussex Downs. Then, in the intervals of botanising, he would often argue about knotty point of humanitarian practice and propaganda. Always he would stress the importance of vegetarianism and the fact that once we take the easy yet so wide step of becoming vegetarian, the rest must follow as the night the day–for then surely we should be unlikely to insist on hanging and flogging other men, or vivisecting or imprisoning or hunting to death for amusement our fellow creatures. It was, in short, this marked combination of logical feelings and sensibility which led Salt to the conclusion that the Creed of Kinship must be all-embracing. “The absolute distinction between human and non-human is a fiction which will not bear the test either of searching thought in the study or of rough experience in the wilds,” he wrote in “Seventy Years among Savages.”
On Salt, as Shelley–his admired Master all his life long–wrote of himself, it may be said that he was
“. . . a nerve o’er which do creep
The else unfelt oppressions of this earth.”
Always a keen rationalist, he hoped with Shelley for the time when “the pale name of priest might shrink and dwindle” and disappear. It is significant that the final chapter of his last book was devoted to Shelley (“One who understood”).
This is not the place in which to discuss Salt’s purely literary work, such as the invaluable essay on Shelley, the studies of Jefferies, Thoreau and de Quincey, the interesting translations from his favourite Latin poets, Virgil, Lucretius and Martial, or the books which are to some extent autobiographical, e.g., “Company I Have Kept” (1930) and “The Call of the Wild-Flower.” His literary achievement for the humanitarian cause, however, is certainly a very good one, and will remain as a lasting monument to his name. This includes, apart from numerous essays and pamphlets, the classic “Animals’ Rights,” of which translations have appeared in several languages; “A Plea for Vegetarianism,” a book which converted Gandhi to the practice; “The Logic of Vegetarianism,” a somewhat similar volume, which like influence on many others (including the writer of the present article); and lastly, “The Creed of Kinship.”
Writing towards his end, Salt summed up as follows what he called his “Philosophy of Failure,” a subject with which his mind was then much occupied: “It is this–that all these humane things have to be said a thousand, ten thousand times, without gaining attention, yet at last they do somehow come to the front when they are taken up in the right quarter. That satisfies me, makes me content.”
The Vegetarian News, Vol. XIX No. 221, May 1939