Vegetarianism’s Unknown History

Tristam Stuart’s The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times is an intriguing read. From doctors to missionaries, religious zealots to political revolutionaries, it is packed with details of Europe’s vegetarian legacy. Though at times the abundance of information is overwhelming, Stuart’s work offers fascinating insight into an unknown history.

Rather than approach history with chronological bullet points, Stuart chose to devote chapters to individuals or small groups of correlated people. For example, Stuart gives the most influential vegetarian doctors and religious leaders chapters of their own. This allows the author to divulge the idiosyncrasies and back stories of every relevant figure. It is these details, many comical or scandalous, that keep his summaries of their lives far from dry or boring.

One of my favorites was John Oswald. He was a British vegetarian so sensitive to animal suffering that he could not tolerate walking past a butcher’s shop. Yet he was also “intimately involved in the process that transformed the French Revolution from a mainly peaceful process into a bloodbath” through his notorious advocating of violent revolution (Stuart, 309). Oswald was a proponent of democracy and staunchly anti-monarchy. “Rousseau had elevated ‘sympathy’ into the philosophical basis for both human and animals rights,” explained Stuart, “Oswald took this to its radical extreme, transforming sympathy into a mandate for democratic revolution and vegetarianism” (Stuart, 298). In addition, “Oswald recognized that the meat industry was a principle cause of economic oppression” (Stuart, 301). Because “predation was symbolic of social inequality,” from Oswald’s stance “vegetarianism was also an act of solidarity” (Stuart, 301). He connected social and animal oppressions and used this knowledge to fuel revolutionary fervor. Oswald died in an overly ambitious attempt to overthrow the British monarchy and bring French revolution home.

Oswald is unique in his role in one of European history’s major events. Most of the historical figures revealed in Stuart’s book played much subtler roles in history. He is also unusual in that he was an atheist and deliberately estranged from the norms of his day. By far the majority of European vegetarians were deeply religious and able to reconcile vegetarianism with the culture of mainstream society.

By the 1600s, when Stuart begins his history, vegetarianism was something that most Europeans had heard of. The concept of choosing to abstain from eating meat had already been introduced to Europe by India. Stuart explains that after Europeans had ignorantly “accustomed themselves to thinking of Europe as the pinnacle of humanity, travelers were shocked to find in India a thriving religion which had been sustained in a pristine form since well before – and virtually oblivious to – the invention of Christianity” (Stuart, 34). Indeed, this ‘discovery’ of “a people following an unbroken tradition of vegetarianism and exercising an extreme moral responsibility towards animals radically challenged European ideas about the relationship between man and nature” (Stuart, 34). While most of Europe was too ethnocentric to fully endorse this foreign culture, they eagerly adopted attitudes and practices from India and Indian religions.

After observing another culture that valued animals, individuals in Europe began searching within biblical ideology and Europe’s own ancient roots of Pythagorean thought to justify kindness, pity, and compassion toward animals. It was soon a widespread belief that vegetarianism was the state of man before the Fall (i.e. in the garden of Eden). Rather than give the Indians any credit, Europeans insisted that Pythagoras, himself a vegetarian, must have taught vegetarianism to the Brahmins (Indian philosophers). In reality it was Pythagoras who, in his travels, developed his philosophy through interacting with other cultures. “Europeans projected onto the Indians the simplified Pythagorean idea that they abstained from killing animals for fear of hurting a reincarnated soul” which, as Stuart points out, “implied that the Hindus were not valuing the life of the animal itself” (Stuart, 53). People intent on finding Western roots of vegetarianism even pushed the search to far earlier than Pythagoras’ era. Isaac Newton in particular devoted much effort to discovering the one true religion and “clearly regarded Eastern and Pythagorean vegetarianism as a remnant of God’s original law” (Stuart, 111). As Stuart illuminates, “the belief that the prelapsarian diet was healthy and virtuous appears to have become almost an established norm by the end of the seventeenth century (Stuart, 81).

People throughout Europe realized, by the Indian example, that not only was it possible to survive on a vegetarian diet, but that it might even be healthier. The promotion of vegetarianism by the medical community logically followed. Countless doctors touted a vegetarian diet as physically, morally, and spiritually superior. While some of the doctors investigated by Stuart used this approach as a means to fame and fortune, for many it was simply an obvious way to improve health. The argument for the healthiness of vegetarianism only increased with time and the growing empirical evidence. By “the late eighteenth century, which Stuart deems “the heyday of medical vegetarianism,” “it flourished in the most prestigious medical faculties of Europe” (Stuart, 236).

Even the infamous disbeliever of animal sentience, Rene Descartes, jumped aboard the healthy vegetarian bandwagon. As Stuart wrote, much to my astonishment, Descartes himself was a practicing vegetarian! While “members of the public were appalled to hear that Cartesians kicked and stabbed animals to make the point that their cries had no more significance than the squeak of a door,” Descartes’ choice to decline meat for health reasons was far less controversial (Stuart, 134). “Descartes conducted dietary experiments upon himself” and came to the conclusion “that meat was unsuited to the mechanism of the human body” (Stuart, 135). Stuart half-sarcastically suggests that “it would be most surprising if Descartes’ medical decision to abstain from meat also made him feel better because it avoided the irrepressible sensation of sympathy for animal suffering” (Stuart, 137).

While most of these Europeans were vegetarians for strictly health and sympathy reasons, there were a few who, in their ethical embracement of vegetarianism, were predecessors of environmentalism and animal rights. Thomas Tryon, for instance, “in complete contrast to the norms of his society … came firmly down on the side of attributing to animals a right to their lives regardless of human interests” (Stuart, 71). He also “anticipated the shift from anthropocentrism to the biocentrism of modern ecological thought” (Stuart, 73). “While orthodox Christians tended to insist that all creatures had been made solely for man’s use,” Tryon developed “a system that resembles, and would later be developed into, environmentalism” (Stuart, 73). Similarly, John Evelyn, a prominent British vegetarian, was “a forbear of modern environmentalism” who “lobbied Parliament to introduce laws to curb air pollution” (Stuart, 86). And John Williamson “appears to have been one of the first (if not the first) to work out a thorough critique of meat-eating on the basis of its resource inefficiency” (Stuart, 250).

Though the relative prevalence of vegetarianism in Europe from the 1600s through the 1800s was a pleasant surprise, I am torn between feeling encouraged or let down. While I knew that certain great thinkers of history, such as Pythagoras and Leonardo da Vinci were vegetarians, I had not realized the extent of European vegetarianism. Yet one question continues to nag me: With such a head start, why hasn’t more progress been made on behalf of animals?

Then again, this was vegetarianism, not veganism, and it was adopted primarily for reasons of health or compassion. In more ways than one the animal rights movement is a different movement, fighting newer atrocities (e.g. factory farming) and promoting a different philosophy (ethical veganism). Trying to qualify the progress of contemporary animal liberationists versus fringe groups preaching biblical vegetarianism in the 1600s is pointless. Stuart doesn’t even go there.

So is this history relevant for current activists? I think so. And I think that Stuart does as well. He writes: “European vegetarians challenged humanity’s reckless exploitation of the animal kingdom. We owe to them – and especially the Indian philosophies that backed them up – some of the environmental sensibilities we enjoy today” (Stuart, 444).


2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    andyduck said,

    I’m always amazed at the extent to which history likes to sweep any memory of resistance under the carpet. I’ve heard that Pythagorean and Romantic Vegetarian diets were essentially vegan, but I don’t really have anything to confirm or deny that outside of my understanding of the extravagance of a lot of animal products.

    I picked up a copy of The Heretic’s Feast: A History of Vegetarianism by Colin Spencer last year, if you’re interested in it. Its a much broader history and includes Indian vegetarianism, which you said was missing from this book, and some overview of the early Gnostic christian sects. I couldn’t tell you if its any good yet, though.

  2. 2

    Claire said,

    Thanks – I am interested. I’ll look Spencer up.

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