“Do vegetarians eat meat by night?”
“What on earth do you live on?”
“The animals were ‘sent’ to humans for food.”
“What would otherwise become of the animals?”
Every modern-day vegan or vegetarian has been asked these questions by meat-eating friends or family members incredulous that it is even possible “to survive without meat and so we must be cheating somewhere, at some time.” And then we, in whatever way that is comfortable to us, defend ourselves. But what makes these questions particularly remarkable is that they are the questions swirling around 1877 London challenging those vegetarians to come up with a defense against their choice not to consume animal flesh.
Howard Williams, a five-year vegetarian, professor of history and the well-known biographer of Pope and Swift railed against the ignorance and mockery of these flesh-eating tormentors and decided to remedy the absence of knowledge about the long tradition of flesh abstention. He would write the history of vegetarianism from the point of view of well-known nonflesh-eaters of the past.
The Ethics of Diet: A Catena of Authorities Deprecatory of the Practice of Flesh-Eating was published in 1883. Arranged in a historical timeline beginning with Hesiod and ending with Schopenhaur, Williams provides 50 sources made up of well-known philosophers, scientists, religious and literary figures who provide the reader with a historical record of their treatises, poems, discourses, biographies and literary works that speak of animal rights, human health, the morality against eating animals, the economics of taking up land for animals and not people and the meat-centered diet of the rich. Before each entry Williams gives a brief biographical sketch and summation of their thoughts. For many of these famous individuals their beliefs came from considering the perfect society or advanced civilizations where flesh eating made no sense. Some had personal experiences that triggered thoughtful examination of what their culture termed the normal treatment of animals for food that led them to see things differently.
I find this collection to be terribly important as a foundation against the so-called mockery and disdain of my own times. Vegetarianism has a long history practiced by the great and the humble for all kinds of economic, moral, philosophical and religious reasons. There is also a sense of camaraderie in knowing that famous vegetarians have been asked the same questions I have! Their arguments, thoughts and pleadings in defense of animals from so long ago is hopeful. Defending animals against the belief they are commodities or inferior life forms to be treated without regard has always had their champions and with this book there is the weight of Pythagoras and Voltaire, Seneca and Shelley.
No matter our diet, the question—must we eat meat or not—is as old as the hills with both sides bearing a long tradition of discourse.
Ovid (43 BC-18 AD), quoting Pythagoras (c570BC-c470BC)
Pythagoras was the first to forbid animals to be served up at the table and he was first to open his lips to say….”Forbear O mortals! to pollute your bodies with such abominable food…there are the fruits which bear down the branches with their weight, and there are the grapes swelling on the vines; the lavish earth heaps up her riches and her gentle foods, and offers you dainties without blood and without slaughter…It is not enough that such wickedness is committed by men. They have involved the gods themselves in this abomination, that they believe this deity in the heavens can rejoice in the slaughter of the laborious and useful ox. The spotless victim, excelling in the beauty of its form, decked out with garlands with gold is placed before their altars, and the fruits which it cultivated placed on its head between its horns and struck down, with its life-blood it dyes the sacrificial knife…”
Clement of Alexandria (c150BC-c215BC) Essay on Man
“Pythagoras seems to me to have derived his mildness towards irrational animals from the Law [Jewish Law]. For instance, he interdicted the employment of the young of sheep and goats and cows for some time after their birth; not even on the pretext of sacrifice allowing it, on account both of the young ones and of the mother; training men to gentleness by their conduct toward those beneath them. ‘Resign,’ he says, ‘the young one to the mother for the proper time’. For if nothing takes place without a cause, and milk is produced in large quantity in parturition for the sustenance of the progeny, he who tears way the young one from the supply of the milk and the breast of the mother, dishonors Nature.”
“The Law, too, expressly prohibits the slaying of such animals as are pregnant till they have brought forth, remotely restraining the proneness of men to do wrong to men; and thus also it has extended its clemency to the irrational animals, that by the exercise of humanity to beings of different races we may practise amongst those of the same species a larger abundance of it.
“One of the proofs that the taste of flesh is not natural to man is the indifference which children exhibit for that sort of meat, and the preference they all give to vegetable foods, such as milk-porridge, pastry, fruits, etc. It is of the last importance not to denaturalize them of this primitive taste and not to render them carnivorous, if not for health reasons, at least for the sake of their character. For, however the experience may be explained, it is certain that great eaters of flesh are, in general, more cruel and ferocious than other men.
Title: The Ethics of Diet: A Catena of Authorities Deprecatory of the Practice of Flesh-Eating
Author: Howard Williams
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 2003 (1883)