Popular Science Monthly/Volume 64/March 1904/Some Historical Aspects of Vegetarianism

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VEGETARIANISM, as the term is popularly understood at the present time, is a system of living which teaches that the food of man should be derived directly from the plant world. Considered in the light of its history, however, vegetarianism involves something more than a mere dietetic program. It teaches that the use of animal food is morally wrong, as well as erroneous with respect to the processes of nutrition. The modern critics of the vegetarian propaganda have frequently overlooked the fact that this doctrine has repeatedly, if not always, been the expression of an ethical movement among its expounders; and that its development and transformation ought to be considered with reference to sociological, economic and ethical conditions as well as from the standpoint of physiology.

The use of fruits and vegetables as the appropriate food of mankind has found its advocates from earliest times. Pythagoras (500 B. C.) in particular has frequently been pointed out as the most eminent teacher of vegetarianism among the ancients. It is obvious that a philosophy of life which urged men to lead modest lives, to abstain from indulgences of various kinds, and to seek simplicity in every form, might readily and naturally proclaim the desirability of a simple diet. Abstemiousness in the use of food and asceticism in matters of conduct and religion were brought forth by the same attitude toward the problems of the world, and found expression in vegetarianism as a simple mode of nutrition. For the vegetable foods are as a rule easy to obtain and prepare for dietetic purposes. The praise which the earlier moralists bestowed upon the vegetarian diet and mode of living is merely an aspect of the reaction against the excesses of the period. In Rousseau's 'Return to Nature' likewise we find the advocacy of a simple vegetable diet incidental to the proposed change to primitive conditions of living and the striving for moderation in every feature of society. And even to-day vegetarianism is defended by arguments derived from purely ethical and religious, as well as from economic or hygienic considerations. This peculiar sentiment which defends and prescribes the exclusive use of vegetable foods in the struggle against immorality and the attempt to establish a more virtuous community is expressed by Tolstoi in words illustrating how extensively non-physiological considerations are still drawn upon in justifying vegetarianism. He writes: "The individual who endeavors to exercise abstemiousness will unavoidably be obliged to abide by a fixed rule, the first element in which is abstemiousness in eating—fasting. But if he fasts and strives earnestly and zealously to lead a good life, he must, above all things, abstain from animal foods. For aside from the incitement of the passions which is provoked by these foods, it is decidedly improper to partake of them for the reason that they call for a procedure which is revolting to our moral feelings, namely, the act of putting to death."[1]

It has frequently been pointed out that the apostles of the non-animal diet have been individuals imbued with unusual views of life and the ways of the world. As in earliest times religious motives were the underlying factors in the prescription of rules of living, so in subsequent periods it has usually been some idealistic conception of the problems of existence which determined the vegetarian doctrine of the time. The political dreamer and the philosophical visionary represent types of men in whom the striving for a new order of doing found expression. No period of history has lacked individuals who fail to find in existing systems the Utopia of their dreams. The traits of mind here referred to are exemplified in the poets Byron and Shelley, both of whom the vegetarians have been proud and eager to include within their ranks. It is needless to refer to the eccentricities or the remarkable genius of either. It is well known of the one that his morbid disposition was not infrequently roused and irritated; of the other it has been said that 'his imagination preponderated over judgment and reason.' Some light is perhaps thrown upon the real attitude of the poet in the subject under discussion by the following lines from Shelley's 'Queen Mab' (VIII.):

Here now the human being stands adorning
This loveliest earth, with taintless body and mind;
Blest from his birth with all bland impulses,
Which gently in his bosom wake
All kindly passions and all pure desires.

And man, once fleeting o'er the transient scene
Swift as an unremembered vision, stands
Immortal upon earth. No longer now
He slays the lamb that looks him in the face,
And horribly devours his mangled flesh,
Which still avenging nature's broken law,
Kindled all putrid humours in his frame.
All evil passions, and all vain belief.
Hatred, despair, and loathing in his mind,

The germs of misery, death, disease and crime.
No longer now the winged habitants.
That in the woods their sweet lives sing away,
Flee from the form of man, . . .

All things are void of terror; man has lost
His terrible prerogative, and stands
An equal amidst equals. Happiness
And science dawn though late upon the earth;
Peace cheers the mind, health renovates the frame.

Lord Byron evidently believed that flesh eating excites men to war and bloodshed; thus he testifies in 'Don Juan' (Canto II.):

That Pasiphae promoted breeding cattle.
To make the Cretans bloodier in battle.

For we all know that English people are
Fed upon beef—I won't say much of beer
Because 'tis liquor only, and being far
From this my subject, has no business here:
We know, too, they are very fond of war,
A pleasure—like all pleasures—rather dear;
So were the Cretans—from which I infer.
That beef and battles both were owing to her.

The beginning of the modern vegetarian movement is usually dated from the publication of an essay entitled: 'Return to nature, or defence of vegetable régime' by I. Newton (London, 1811). To the influence of this, the formation of the first vegetarian society by Joseph Simpson in Manchester, England, in 1847, is ascribed; and so far as I am aware the word vegetarian was coined at this time. A similar society is reported to have been formed in the United States in 1850. The use of a vegetable diet had, however, been advocated and practised over a century before, as the following extract from Benjamin Franklin's autobiography testifies. Referring to about the year 1722 he said:

When about sixteen years of age, I happened to meet with a book, written by one Tryon, recommending a vegetable diet. I determined to go into it. My brother, being yet unmarried, did not keep house, but boarded himself and his apprentices in another family. My refusing to eat flesh occasioned an inconvenience, and I was frequently chid for my singularity. I made myself acquainted with Tryon's manner of preparing some of his dishes, such as boiling potatoes or rice, making hasty-pudding and a few others, and then proposed to my brother, that if he would give me weekly half the money he paid for my board, I would board myself. He instantly agreed to it, and I presently found that I could save half what he paid me. This was an additional fund for buying of books; but I had another advantage in it. My brother and the rest going from the printing house to their meals, I remained there alone, and, dispatching presently my light repast (which was often no more than a biscuit, or a slice of bread, a handful of raisins, or a tart from the pastry cook's, and a glass of water), had the rest of the time till their return for study; in which I made the greater progress from that greater clearness of head and quicker apprehension, which generally attend temperance in eating and drinking. Now it was, that, being on some occasion made ashamed of my ignorance in figures, which I had twice failed learning when at school, I took Crocker's book on Arithmetic, and went through the whole by myself with the greatest ease. (Sparks's 'Life of Franklin,' p. 19).

The early literature of the vegetarian movement in this country indicates a greater tendency toward the substitution of arguments based on scientific observation in place of purely sentimental considerations than do the trans- Atlantic publications of similar date. It must not be inferred from this statement, however, that visionary and unscientific doctrines were wanting. Evidence to the contrary is readily available. In 1833 the Boylston Medical Committee of Harvard University offered a prize for the best dissertation on the following question: 'What diet can be selected which will ensure the greatest probable health and strength to the laborer in the climate of New England? quantity and quality, and the time and manner of taking it, to be considered.' The prize was awarded to Dr. Luther V. Bell, whose essay (1836) may still be read with interest. The status of the propaganda against flesh-eating as summarized by him is quoted here, since it indicates how similar have been the personal characteristics and motives of the vegetarian advocates in the most widely separated localities. Bell wrote:

Some extraordinary, and to the unprofessional class, doubtless novel, views in regard to diet were broached and have since been pressed upon attention, and that too by at least some men of scientific reputation, ingenious lecturers and individuals who from weight of personal character, or their position before the public, possess no limited influence. They have persuaded themselves, and labored hard to proselyte to their own faith, that the use of animal food in all its forms and varieties, is a custom, unnatural, injurious to bodily health, and even prejudicial to intellectual and moral sanity;—a custom at once unnecessary and inexpedient. How far, or how durably, they may have impressed the public with their views, time only can show; at present it need only be said, that such effect has at least been produced, as to raise a laudable curiosity and wish for the truth, in the minds of many, deserving to be gratified.

Bell adds the following interesting remarks:

Their views are by no means new or original. They date their origin at least as far back as the ancients, and they have been received in every century from the time of Pythagoras to the days of the philosopher of Geneva (Rousseau). "It is not intended to deny the right of ingenious men to propose innovations, and it is a fortunate circumstance that the public is as much too slow in coming into a practical acknowledgment of new truths, as men of erratic and visionary genius are too sanguine in promulgating and inculcating new hypotheses. It is dangerous to unsettle long established truth, for it is difficult to limit the extent of error. The gratification of a morbid desire to be distinguished as the propagator of new principles in philosophy, or as the head of a new sect, is not the only result to be expected from such heresies. New opinions or doctrines, whether true or false, will have admirers and followers, and will lead to practical results, and the errors of one man may lead thousands into the same vortex." (Bell, 'A dissertation on the Boylston prize question for 1835,' pp. 6-7.)
The conclusions to which Bell's study led him are worthy of brief mention. He summarized as follows:
1. A diet of both animal and vegetable food is adapted to the condition of the New England laborer.

2. No grand errors exist in his present system of diet, and no radical change is demanded to ensure a greater amount of health and strength, though many minor, but still important errors exist.

3. The proportion of animal food usually customary is too great, and a considerable reduction would be expedient and advantageous, though it is impracticable to make a precise statement of the extent to which this is required, which must depend upon circumstances, as amount of labor performed, climate, season, bodily constitution, habits of life, etc. A general statement of this fact can alone be made.

4. The amount of food in general, customarily used, is more than is necessary for the maximum of health and strength, though a more specific statement of this abuse is also impossible. It must be left for each individual to attempt to reduce his quantity of food to that point at which he finds his mental and bodily powers most energetic. In searching for this point the New Englander may be almost certain that he must look for it in descending ratio.

5. The great principle in regulating diet is to regard quantity rather than kind.

Most students of dietetics will, I think, readily admit the validity of the majority of these statements, even in their application at the present day. In contrasting the conditions during colonial days with those prevailing in our own times it is entertaining, if nothing more, to recall some ideas regarding the diet of the people of the United States at the end of the eighteenth century which were published by the French traveler Volney.[2] A grain of truth may doubtless be gathered from his vivid observations, even though they can not be taken too seriously. Thus he writes:

I will venture to say that if a prize were proposed for the scheme of a regimen most calculated to injure the stomach, the teeth, and the health in general, no better could be invented than that of Americans. In the morning at breakfast, they deluge their stomach with a quart of hot water, impregnated with tea, or slightly so with coffee; that is, mere colored water, and they swallow, almost without chewing, hot bread, half baked toast soaked in butter, cheese of the fattest kind, slices of salt or hung beef, ham, etc., all of which are nearly insoluble. At dinner, they have boiled pastes under the name of puddings, and the fattest are esteemed the most delicious; all their sauces, even for roasted beef, are melted butter; their turnips and potatoes swim in lard, butter or fat; under the name of pie or pumpkin (pumpkin pie?) their pastry is nothing but a greasy paste, never sufficiently baked; to digest these substances they take tea almost instantly after dinner, making it so strong that it is absolutely bitter to the taste, in which state it affects the nerves so powerfully that even the English find it brings on more obstinate restlessness than coffee. Supper again introduces salt meats or oysters: as Chastelux says, the whole day passes in heaping indigestions on one another; and to give tone to the poor relaxed and wearied stomach, they drink Madeira rum, French brandy, gin or malt spirits, which complete the ruin of the nervous system. (Quoted by Bell, pp. 23-24.)

The vegetable diet found an enthusiastic champion in America in the person of Dr. W. A. Alcott, who published a small volume on the subject in 1838. In the preface he tells us: "When I commenced putting together the materials of this little treatise on diet it was my intention simply to show the safety of a vegetable and fruit diet, both for those who are afflicted with many forms of chronic disease, and for the healthy. But I soon became convinced that I ought to go farther, and prove its superiority over every other." This the author attempted to do by an appeal to contemporary medical men and by a compilation of the 'anatomical, the physiological, the medical, the political, the economical, the experimental and the moral arguments' then prevalent. But the individual who probably did more than any other in this country to reduce the subject of vegetable dietetics to a system was Sylvester Graham. This eccentric reformer, remembered to-day in connection with the bread which familiarly bears his name, was an enthusiastic temperance advocate, who insisted that the craving for drink can only be combated by the use of a judicious diet in connection with correct habits of living. His belief that 'an exclusively farinaceous and fruit diet is best adapted to the development and improvement of all powers of body, mind and soul' was set forth for many years both in public lectures and in writings, among which the 'Graham Lectures on the Science of Human Life' (2 vols., 1839) were perhaps most widely quoted in vegetarian literature. About 1837 there was formed an American Physiological Society of two hundred members, nearly all of whom, as well as their families, abstained from animal food. (Of. Alcott, 'Vegetable Diet,' p. 219.)

The characteristic features of the vegetarian movement in England are set forth in the 'Constitution of the Vegetarian Society of Manchester,' to which reference has already been made. The objects were:

To induce habits of Abstinence from the Flesh of Animals as Food, by the dissemination of information upon the subject, by means of tracts, essays and lectures, proving the many advantages of a physical, intellectual and moral character, resulting from Vegetarian habits of Diet; and thus, to secure, through the association, example and efforts of its members, the adoption of a principle which will tend essentially to true civilization, to universal brotherhood, and to the increase of human happiness generally.

As early as 1829 there existed in England a 'Society of Bible Christians,' of which a member wrote as follows:

The Society of Bible Christians abstain from animal food, not only in obedience to the Divine command, but because it is an observance which, if more generally adopted, would prevent much cruelty, luxury and disease, besides many other evils which cause misery in Society. It would be productive of much good, by promoting health, long life, and happiness, and thus be a most effectual means of reforming mankind. It would entirely abolish that greatest of curses, war; for those who are so conscientious as not to kill animals, will never murder human beings. On all these accounts the system can not be too much recommended. The practice of abstaining can not be wrong; it must therefore be some consolation to be on the side of duty. If we err, we err on the sure side: it is innocent; it is infinitely better authorized and more nearly associated with religion, virtue and humanity than the contrary practice. (Cf. Alcott, pp. 214-215.)

One more quotation must suffice to indicate the spirit of the early modern vegetarian literature. Its author was J. A. Glëizès, an eccentric writer of several volumes, who became a favorite of the Vegetarian Society. In the preface to 'Thalysie, ou la nouvelle existence' (3 vols., 1840-1842) he wrote:

Je me propose d'y démonstrer:

1°. Que l'homme n'est point animal de proie; qu'il est, au contraire, par sa nature, la plus douce de toutes les créatures, ainsi que devait l'être la dernière et la plus noble expression d'un Dieu grand, bon et juste.

2°. Que le meurtre des animaux est la principale source de ses erreurs et de ses crimes, comme I'usage de se nourrir de leur chair est la cause prochaine de sa laideur, de ses maladies, et de la court durée de son existence.

3°. Que cet état d'égarement est dans une opposition directe avec sa destinée ultérieure dans le sens communément attache à ce mot, autrement dit, la vie hors de la terre; tandis que la privation de cet acte, ou, pour parler positif, le régime des herbes, développe en lui la beauté l'intelligence, la vertu, et le fruit immortel qui en est le dernier résultat.

It is unnecessary to multiply examples in order to emphasize how diverse have been the actuating impulses of the vegetarians of history. Like England and America, Germany has had its vegetarian movement which developed particularly under the leadership of Ed. Baltzer. The first German vegetarian society was founded by him in 1869. Here, as elsewhere, the system proposed has never received broad recognition among the masses of the people, but has rather been confined to small bands of enthusiasts. Even among the latter there is no unanimity of plan. The most radical reformers have abstained not alone from all food of animal origin, but also from tubers and underground roots, eating only fruits and vegetables grown in the sunlight; others again reject the cereals and live on fruits, nuts and milk; while the most conservative exclude only fish, flesh and fowl from their diet. Among the latter groups may be arranged the so-called fruitarians who abstain from all food obtained by infliction of pain. The student of the psychology of the vegetarian faith can not fail to be impressed by the diversity of the elements which have convinced its expounders. Physiological and anatomical arguments based on the comparative structure and functions of the digestive organs have vied with considerations of economy, morality and religion. From the standpoint of hygiene, the dangers of disease lurking in animal flesh have been pointed out; to other persons the encouragement of horticulture and the racial improvement incidental to an active agricultural life have offered an attractive theme. The vegetable kingdom can satisfy all. "If any vegetarians be extravagant in milk and eggs, it is not from any craving of their stomachs, but from excess in zeal or ignorance in their cooks." (Newman, Frazer's Magazine, February, 1875.) Finally the Bible itself has been drawn upon to furnish lasting proof: "Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat." (Genesis, i., 29.)

The advocates of the vegetarian diet at the present day are no less ready to draw upon the diverse types of argument already discussed than were their predecessors of fifty years ago. In a recent volume, entitled 'The Living Temple' (1903), Dr. J. H. Kellogg, urging the use of non-meat diet, has presented the ethics of flesh-eating in the following light:

The basis for the ethical argument against flesh-eating is to be found in the fact that the lower animals are in common with man, sentient creatures. We have somehow become accustomed to think of our inferior brethren, the members of the lower orders of the animal kingdom, as things; . . . We are wrong in this; they are not things, but beings.. . . A horse or a cow can learn, remember, love, hate, mourn, rejoice, and suffer, as human beings do. Its sphere of life is certainly not so great as man's, but life is not the less real and not the less precious to it; and the fact that the quadruped has little is not a good and sufficient reason why the biped, who has much, should deprive his brother of the little that he hath. For the most part it must be said that the lower animals have adhered far more closely to the divine order established for them than has man. The divine order, as clearly shown by nature as well as by revelation, and by the traditions of the ancient world, and illustrated by the present practice of a great part of the human race makes the vegetable world the means of gathering and storing energy and making it into forms usable by the sentient beings that compose the animal world, the one gathering and storing that the other may expend. When animal eats vegetable, there is no pain, no sorrow, no sadness, no robbery, no deprivation of happiness. No eyes forever shut to the sunlight they were made to see, no ears closed to the sweet melodies they were made to hear, no simple delights denied to the beings that God made to enjoy life—the same life that He gave to his human children. (Pp. 184-185.)

On the other hand, we may recall Robert Louis Stevenson's apparent defense of cannibalism among some of the peoples inhabiting the South Sea Islands, He writes:

How shall we account for the universality of the practice over so vast an area, among people of such varying civilization, and, with whatever intermixture, of such different blood? What circumstance is common to them all, but that they lived on islands destitute, or very nearly so, of animal food? I can never find it in my appetite that man was meant to live on vegetables only. When our stores ran low among the islands, I grew too weary for the recurrent day when economy allowed us to open another tin of miserable mutton. And in at least one ocean language, a particular word denotes that a man is 'hungry for fish' having reached that stage when vegetables can no longer satisfy, and his soul, like those of the Hebrews in the desert, begins to lust after the flesh-pots. ('In the South Seas,' Chapter XI,)

How differently the experiences of mankind appeal to different individuals! We oppress the living, yet shrink from barbarities toward the dead; we condemn in others the very practises which at times have applied to ourselves. Individual bias is so common among the great masses of people that it is rare to find impersonal judgments in things ethical or religious. But ideas which claim exemption from scientific control can never demand recognition by force of argument alone. 'There is no short cut to truth except through the gateway of scientific method.' The doctrines of the vegetarians have not escaped the attacks of scientific criticism; with what success they have met, this paper is not intended to proclaim. It has aimed merely to point out some little known historical aspects of a movement which is unique, if not progressive. A position so long and stubbornly held can not be entirely devoid of some resources, and may well offer an occasional helpful suggestion for the improvement of our plans of nutrition. By the physician and hygienist especially is real progress in dietetics to be welcomed. Qui bene nutruit, optime medebitur.

  1. Tolstoi: 'Die erste Stufe,' 1892, quoted from Albu: 'Die vegetarische Diät,' 1902.
  2. 'View of the climate and soil of the U. S. of America,' by C. F. Volney.