Popular Science Monthly/Volume 64/March 1904/Some Historical Aspects of Vegetarianism
|SOME HISTORICAL ASPECTS OF VEGETARIANISM.|
PROFESSOR OF PHYSIOLOGICAL CHEMISTRY IN THE SHEFFIELD SCIENTIFIC SCHOOL OF YALE UNIVERSITY.
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."
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:
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:
Bell adds the following interesting remarks:
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. A grain of truth may doubtless be gathered from his vivid observations, even though they can not be taken too seriously. Thus he writes:
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:
As early as 1829 there existed in England a 'Society of Bible Christians,' of which a member wrote as follows:
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:
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:
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 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.
- Tolstoi: 'Die erste Stufe,' 1892, quoted from Albu: 'Die vegetarische Diät,' 1902.
- 'View of the climate and soil of the U. S. of America,' by C. F. Volney.