A plea for vegetarianism, and other essays

1886 edition of collection of essays by salt

A plea for vegetarianism, and other essays (1886) was written by Henry Stephens Salt, a writer & campaigner for social reform in the fields of human & animal rights.

Some Food Reformers do not scruple to impute dishonest motives to the medical profession, and hint that doctors disparage Food Reform because they would find their occupation gone or greatly limited, if a more natural and simple diet-system were generally adopted.


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  • I must preface this essay by the confession that I am myself a Vegetarian, and that I mean to say all the good I can of the principles of Vegetarianism. This is rather a formidable admission to make, for a Vegetarian is still regarded, in ordinary society, as little better than a madman... Some of his friends, who take a graver view of such dietetic vagaries, feel it to be their duty to warn him boldly and explicitly that he will undoubtedly die in a short time unless he amends his ways... Others, again, are of opinion that though his bodily health may not suffer, yet his mental powers will be sapped by a fleshless diet, and he will soon sink into a state of hopeless idiocy and imbecility.
  • I think it will be worth our while to inquire if there be really such great absurdity in the idea of not eating flesh, or if it be possible that the Vegetarians have reason on their side, and that the present movement in favour of a reformed diet may contain the germ of an important change. However that may be, it can do no harm to my readers if they hear what can be said in favour of Vegetarianism; then, if they are not persuaded to adopt a fleshless diet, they will have a clear conscience, and be able to enjoy their beef and mutton all the more afterwards.
  • The first and most obvious advantage of a vegetarian diet is its economy. Flesh-meat is so much more expensive than cereals and vegetable products, that it must be accounted very extravagant and unbusinesslike to use it as a common article of food, unless, as is generally believed, its superior quality compensates in the long run for its dearness. But if Vegetarians find that they live in perfect health without meat, would they not be somewhat deficient in common-sense if they did not make the most of their pecuniary advantage?
The cost of their food is far less than that of the...flesh-eater.
  • The cost of their food is far less than that of the shrewd flesh-eater. I mention this point first as being the most plain and indisputable, not necessarily the most important; yet that it is also of great importance will scarcely be denied, in a country whose food supply is yearly becoming a matter of greater difficulty, and where thousands of people are in a state of abject poverty and want.
  • Even in well-to-do house- holds the price of meat is a source of constant complaint and vexation to the prudent housewife ; yet she would laugh to scorn the bare idea of living without flesh, and, if she has ever thought of Vegetarianism, has thought of it only as an impious absurdity and dangerous hallucination of modern times, to be classed with Mormonism, Spiritualism, Anglo-Israelism, Socialism, and possibly Atheism itself.
  • "What sort of a religion must that be?" was the remark of an old and faithful servant when she heard that her former master had become a Vegetarian — a remark typical of the attitude of society towards the Vegetarian movement.
  • Secondly: Is it not equally unquestionable that it is both more humane, and what, for want of a comprehensive word, I must call more "aesthetic," not to slaughter animals for food, unless it be really necessary to do so .'^ If it can be shown that men can live equally well without flesh-food, or, rather, unless it can be shown that the contrary is the case (for the burden of proof must always rest with those who take on themselves the responsibility of wholesale slaughter), it must surely seem unjustifiable, on the score of humanity, to breed and kill animals for merely culinary purposes.
  • If we assume for a moment that a fleshless diet is practicable, how cruel to animals, and how degrading to men, is the institution of the slaughter-house ! Having no wish to dwell on what is morbid and unpleasant, I shall not pain the feelings of my readers by harping on the sufferings which their victims undergo, but shall content myself with remarking that those good people are mistaken who imagine that the slaughter of animals is painless and merciful.
  • The greatest and most unerring argument in favour of Vegetarianism is, to my mind, the utter absence of "good taste" in flesh-eating, which is revolting to all the higher instincts of the human mind.
[Vegetarianism] ...insuring, as it does, a simpler, healthier, more enjoyable manner of life, and affording immunity, as vegetarians very plausibly assert, from many of our worst diseases and epidemics.
  • It appears, then, that both on economic and moral grounds there are certain very distinct advantages in a vegetarian diet, provided only that such a diet can be shown to be physically practicable.
  • The popular idea is, of course, that meat is the only food which gives strength, and that Vegetarianism is wellnigh impossible. Don't you feel very weak ? " is generally the first question asked of a Vegetarian, by a new friend or acquaintance ; and if we press for a clearer explanation of this vague belief in the strengthgiving qualities of meat, we find that it is composed of two distinct and sometimes contradictory notions — first, that meat is necessary to support bodily strength ; secondly, that mental work cannot be done without it.
  • "Vegetarianism," says one, "maybe all very well for the rich and indolent, but the hardworking man must have his meat." " The labouring classes," says another, '^ may doubtless perform their merely bodily work on a vegetarian diet, but those who have to work with their minds need a more stimulating diet."
  • One need only refer to the undeniable fact that in all countries the mass of the peasantry live in robust health without fleshmeat, for the simple reason that they cannot afford to get it.
  • There is overwhelming proof that Vegetarianism is possible; there is an utter absence of proof that it is in any way detrimental to perfect health. It is, therefore, at least worthy of more serious consideration than it has yet received; before it is ridiculed and condemned it should at least be tried.
  • The fact that the structure of the human body is wholly unlike that of the carnivora, and that the apes, who are nearest akin to us in the animal world, are frugivorous, is a somewhat strong indication that flesh is not the natural food of mankind.
  • From whichever point one may regard this question, utilitarian or moral, it will -appear more and more marvellous that men should persist in squandering their money and repressing their finest moral impulses, in order to supply themselves with the costly food which they stupidly imagine to be necessary for their physical health.
  • The fruits and cereals of a vegetarian meal might well find mention in the purest and most delicate poem. Could the same be said of the repast of a flesh-eater ? What are the dainties which Porphyro, in Keats's Eve of St. Agnes," heaps with glowing hand for his love, in the retired quiet of the night?
  • What should we think, if some enthusiastic flesheater were to give vent to the poetry of his feelings in a "Song of the Slaughter-house," or "Ballads of the Butcher" ? And why is it that, while the one subject would be innocent and elevating, the other would be loathsome and degrading ?
  • If, then, it be a degrading occupation to kill animals, how can the habit of eating them be other than degrading ? If we condemn the ignorant and brutal butcher who supplies the flesh, how can we acquit the refined ladies and gentlemen who demand it? Thoughtlessness alone enables people to endure such a system. From infancy they are taught to ignore what " meat " really is ; until they hardly think of oxen and sheep in connection with beef and mutton.
  • It is an undoubted fact that the craving for alcohol is enormously lessened by a vegetarian diet.
  • Let us, therefore, one and all, undismayed by sonorous warnings and dogmatic assertions, quietly and fearlessly ask our own consciences if the present system of diet is morally right and defensible ; and if the answer be, as I have attempted to prove it must be, in the negative, let us not shrink from the consequent duty of attempting a reform. The experience of those who have honestly and seriously made trial of Vegetarianism gives overwhelming testimony in its favour.
  • Its economical advantage is indisputably great; not less conspicuous, to those who make practical proof for themselves, is its physical superiority, insuring, as it does, a simpler, healthier, more enjoyable manner of life, and affording immunity, as Vegetarians very plausibly assert, from many of our worst diseases and epidemics.
  • However artistic the arrangement of the dinner-table, however immaculate the tablecloth and faultless the dinner-service, the disagreeable thought must surely sometimes occur to the artistic mind that the beef was once an ox, the mutton was once a sheep, the veal was once a calf, and the pork was once a pig. We may scrupulously make clean the outside of the cup and platter, but the recollection of the state of their interior will nevertheless cause some disquietude to our aesthetic repose.
  • The man who keenly sympathises with the suffering of dumb animals has a more truly aesthetic mind than many of our modern connoisseurs of " high art" who are inexpressibly pained by the sight of an ugly house or an inartistic piece of furniture, while they view with entire equanimity a system of diet which necessitates the very ugly trade of the butcher.
  • To repeat the oft-quoted but seldom-appreciated lines of Coleridge
    "He prayeth best that loveth best All things, both great and small:
    For the dear God, who loveth us, He made and loveth all."
  • Rule 5 of Mr. Ruskin's Society of St. George runs as follows : " I will not kill nor hurt any living creature needlessly, nor destroy any beautiful thing, but will strive to save and comfort all gentle life, and guard and perfect all natural beauty upon the earth." These are noble words, and they express the very essence and spirit of the Vegetarian movement; indeed, it is difficult to see how they can be uttered, consistently and conscientiously, by any but Vegetarians... It is therefore incumbent on the members of St. George's Society to obey the rules of their order by ceasing to uphold the needless, and therefore cruel, institution of the slaughter-house, and by adopting that diet which alone is in harmony with the instincts of morality and good taste.
  • 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.
  • Another habit which is rendered almost impossible by a fleshless diet is that 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.
  • 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 ethereal 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.
  • 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 Lamartine, that "he had no right to make himself stupider than God made him."
  • Such imputation seems to me to be singularly unfortunate, being not only foolish in itself (for the introduction of Vegetarianism, being necessarily very gradual, would injure no class interests whatever), but also most damaging to the cause of Food Reform, which can ill afford to substitute insinuation for argument. We ought rather candidly to admit that the opinion of medical men is hostile to Food Reform, and to attempt to discover the reason of an antagonism which we must necessarily deplore.
  • Each reform contributes in its own sphere to the realisation of the whole, and, in its own way, is absolutely indispensable. There are many such movements at present going on among us; but none is more valuable and necessary than the reform of diet.

See also