Herbivore vs. carnivore

Are vegetarians the moral, peace-loving, cruelty-free enemies of the meat eater? Or a bunch of kooks living in la-la land?

Published January 25, 2007 12:48PM (EST)

If history teaches us anything, it's that today's habit may be tomorrow's abomination. What people saw as a matter of course in the streets of 17th-century London -- rich men beating their servants, crowds gathered in a festival mood to watch bloody executions -- would horrify the pedestrian of 2007. Morality, too, has a history, but the people of any given period usually don't see it that way. They think that they already have a pretty solid understanding of right and wrong (even if they find it difficult to be virtuous) and rarely imagine that future generations might view them as unenlightened at best and depraved at worst.

Activists, on the other hand, know different. They count on the evolution of morality. Recently, Adam Hochschild's fascinating "Bury the Chains" chronicled the means by which a group of committed 18th-century idealists convinced their fellow citizens in Britain and America that slavery was an intolerable wrong. It wasn't easy, and it didn't happen overnight. Some people of that era thought that slavery was lamentable but intractable; others found it easy to justify an institution that brought them profits and comfort. Still others -- the majority, perhaps -- didn't give it much thought at all, as they sweetened their tea with sugar produced at brutal slave plantations on islands far, far away.

For this reason, even an omnivore should find an intellectual history of vegetarianism interesting. We, like the people of the early 1800s, could be living through a period of slow but profound ideological change. To the people of their own time, men like Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson -- early abolitionists and the founders of the first human rights movement -- seemed as impractical, as demanding, as self-righteous and as obsessed as many animal rights activists seem to us today. In the future, right-thinking people might look back at us meat eaters with the same disapproval we heap on those who considered slavery acceptable 200 years ago.

Tristram Stuart's "The Bloodless Revolution" promises to be the kind of book that could make such a case. There are many things that this self-professed "Cultural History of Vegetarianism From 1600 to Modern Times" might have done. It might have traced the history of arguments for and against meatless diets as they appeared at the dawn of the scientific revolution, and explored the ways those arguments developed in response to the new discoveries Europeans made about the natural world. It might have outlined the various schools of vegetarian thought -- there are several, often with conflicting premises. It might have compared vegetarian activism with other kinds of movements that aimed to get humanity on the right track, not just abolitionism, but universal suffrage campaigns, feminism, anti-industrial protests, socialism and so on. Lastly, it might have examined what average citizens ate, what various vegetarians considered an ideal diet and the cultural meanings the people of the day invested in those diets.

In truth, "The Bloodless Revolution" does a little bit of all of these things, but in a scattered, partial and confusing way that mostly just frustrates the reader looking for a thoughtful history of vegetarianism. Stuart seems to subscribe to the current notion that popular history is best told as the story of colorful characters embarked on grand quests to "save the world" via geography or lexicography or some other scholarly pursuit that used to be viewed as dry and dull. A far better title for this book would be something like (with apologies to Lytton Strachey) "Eminent Vegetarians."

In this instance, however, the Colorful Character school of historiography, meant to humanize and make accessible disciplines that most people find stuffy, goes badly awry. Vegetarianism as a philosophy and practice has much to recommend it. And while many meat-eaters think vegetarian diets are boring, as a topic, vegetarianism is anything but; no subject is more likely to rile people up, to provoke defensiveness, self-doubt, ranting and defiance. But vegetarianism has always suffered from one terrible public relations problem: vegetarians themselves. They have a reputation for being priggish, fanatical, kooky and a nuisance to hostesses, and unfortunately the parade of eccentrics that marches across the pages of "The Bloodless Revolution" only confirms that image.

Western vegetarianism has a venerable past, linked to the mythological bard Orpheus, the first-century Greek poet Plutarch and, above all, Pythagoras, the philosopher best known for his geometrical theorem but also the founder of an ascetic group that swore off meat and private property. (European vegetarians were often referred to as Pythagoreans.) It would have been nice to have the precedents for Western vegetarianism clearly laid out in the early pages of "The Bloodless Revolution," but no such luck. You can gather tidbits here and there along the way, but Stuart apparently presumes that his readers come pre-steeped in vegetarian lore, and therefore already know that Plutarch wrote a powerful indictment of meat eaters and so only mentions it in passing. Plutarch was a canonical writer known to every educated European during the centuries this book covers, but today he is little-read, and this omission leaves all but the specialist reader at a loss.

What Stuart does do well is dig up obscure and sometimes fascinating historical figures and cultural phenomena from deep in the bowels of libraries and other archives, including, in one case, a crumbling French chateau. A particularly choice discovery is the eight-volume "Letters Writ by a Turkish Spy," supposedly the correspondence of "an Ottoman spy called Mahmut operating out of Paris from 1632 to 1682," but actually written by a series of British authors. Speaking through the fictional foreign spy "Mahmut," these writers were able to criticize conventional European mores and religious beliefs, including the West's rejection of the herbivorous "Banquet" offered by the benevolent earth in favor of the "Cruel Massacre" needed to supply our tables with the "Flesh and Blood of Slaughter'd Animals." (Unfortunately for Stuart, this boilerplate condemnation of the West from an imaginary and idealized Eastern perspective is much less intriguing than the revelation that the success of "Letters Writ by a Turkish Spy" set off a string of "copy-cat spy thrillers," all pretending to be caches of letters. It looks like the spy novel may be older than the novel itself!)

Vegetarianism has long been associated with a host of heterodox preoccupations, including nudism, teetotaling, communitarianism and other utopian schemes, free love, idiosyncratic religions, bizarre health regimens and the violent overthrow of the state. The first eminent vegetarian Stuart dusts off is an acolyte of the great 17th-century scholar Sir Francis Bacon, Thomas Bushell, who in his youth was unfortunate enough to become tarnished in a smear campaign by Bacon's political enemies; they accused Bacon of paying Bushell for sex. After Bacon's death, the distraught Bushell plunged into dissipation before throwing it all over for the austere lifestyle his mentor had advocated, subsisting on bread and water and retiring to his estate in Oxfordshire. In his old age, he entertained visitors on the grounds; "There," one reported, "he had two mummies; [and] a grott[o] where he lay in a hammock like an Indian." (One of the mummies, a rare Egyptian specimen, was a gift from Queen Henrietta and soon rotted away in the moist grotto.)

Bacon had also concocted a plan to start an "ideal colony" in 3-mile-deep caves, where the inhabitants would be fed only on "a fermented meat drink." Bushell adapted this scheme for a silver mine that he owned in Wales, providing a dining hall that served the miners only bread and water, which must have seemed painfully meager to men who didn't spend their days lying in a hammock. As it is, it's hard to believe Bushell could have survived on such a regimen. The question of what exactly historical vegetarians ate is one that never gets sufficiently addressed in "The Bloodless Revolution." Another 17th-century vegetarian reported feasting on "broth thickned with bran, and pudding made with bran, & Turnep leaves chop't together, and grass." Very rarely, Stuart clarifies such statements by explaining, for example, that the term "herbs" sometimes included cabbage, but no further insight is offered into this particular gentleman's startling claim to have eaten grass.

Conventional wisdom held that meat was essential to proper nutrition, but all early vegetarians insisted on the superior health-giving properties of their diets. To evaluate this controversy, it would be invaluable to know what exactly the average middle-class European ate every day and what specifically the vegetarians recommended instead. What sorts of fresh vegetables were available? How common were dishes of grains, beans, nuts and legumes? Anyone who has read the intimate letters of 18th- and 19th-century men and women will recall how often they complain of constipation (the James brothers, Henry and William, being prime examples), so it's possible that high-fiber vegetarian diets prescribed by evangelical doctors like the celebrated George Cheyne really did work wonders. (Although the widespread medicinal use of opium might have also been to blame for the problem.) I once heard the novelist Neal Stephenson observe that bladder stones, a common and life-threatening 17th-century ailment that's extremely rare today, might have resulted from the dehydration of city dwellers who dared not trust the local water supply. More vegetables might have helped with that, too.

No one seems to know why bladder stones have vanished as a health problem in developed countries, though, and it's quite possible that Stuart simply couldn't find out what constituted the typical nonvegetarian diet of these various historical periods. We may never know what, exactly, the vegetarian quoted above meant by "grass." Still, if Stuart tried and failed to establish any of this, he doesn't mention it. This lack of context makes the book's many, repetitive accounts of the health claims made by different vegetarian champions especially tiresome; it's impossible to consider them against any reliable standards of human nutrition. They are cloud-cuckoo theories voiced in a cloud-cuckoo land of fantastical dimensions, like the attributes of Dungeons and Dragons characters.

Pre-20th-century medicine was so wacky and delusional that it's hard to care much about the debates that raged within it. Doctors blamed disease on factors like the accumulation of vapors in various parts of the body, bad air, thinking too hard and the imbalance of humors, and they prescribed bleeding and the ingestion of toxic substances in addition to weird diets, of which vegetarianism -- often dubbed "the milk diet" -- was only one. When you learn that Cheyne thought epilepsy was caused by "hydraulic blockages in the blood and nerves" and that ingested meat left behind salt crystals whose tiny sharp edges would poke through the walls of blood vessels, it's hard to be impressed by the one time he came close to the contemporary understanding of cholesterol. When he was right about something, it was almost certainly by accident.

And when he was wrong, as Stuart scandalously suggests, it might have been on purpose. One of Cheyne's more celebrated patients was the publisher Samuel Richardson, who would later go on to write "Pamela," the first novel in the English language. Richardson came to Cheyne complaining of a cold, and Cheyne prescribed him a course of pills that contained mercury. This wasn't unusual -- mercury was commonly administered as a medicine at the time -- but it was dangerous. Mercury, as Stuart explains, is "a virulent neurotoxin" and when introduced into the body in sufficient amounts causes "fits of trembling, twitching, temporary and local paralysis, giddiness, nausea, anxiety, depression, hypersensitivity (erethism) and a tendency to withdraw from social contact." Richardson was soon very sick indeed. Cheyne increased the dosage, and when Richardson got even worse, he prescribed his most radical therapy: a completely vegetarian "milk diet" -- and the cessation of all mercury treatments. Richardson quickly improved, and Cheyne's pet diet took the credit.

As appalling as this story is, Stuart has further discovered that Cheyne already knew that mercury was toxic. The physician admitted that the chemical caused "nervous disorders and paralysis" in his books. "It is hard to believe that Cheyne knowingly poisoned people with mercury until they succumbed to his vegetable diet," Stuart writes, but it is also hard to believe otherwise. At worst, Cheyne was irresponsible, or subscribed to a purgative strategy not unlike that of today's "high colonic" enema buffs, believing that his patients' "corrupt bodies" needed to be violently "cleansed" of the garbage they'd ingested before the "purity" of his vegetarian diet could work its magic.

Stuart suspects that most of the people who pushed vegetarianism as a health regimen also wanted mankind to give up meat eating for moral reasons. It was often hard to disentangle the two, since the foremost authority on how human beings ought to live (and therefore eat) was the Bible. Omnivores pointed to God's admonition to Noah that "every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you," while vegetarians argued that before the Fall, Adam and Eve were instructed to subsist on "every herb bearing seed" and "the fruit of a tree yielding seed" which "to you ... shall be for meat." Whether or not humanity should or could revert to the prelapsarian diet of Eden was a key point of debate. But because ethical vegetarianism was associated with either religious free-thinking or (in England) crypto-Catholicism, many of those who opted to give up meat for moral reasons tended to present their choice as a medical one in public.

In his roundabout, disjointed way, Stuart also divides ethical vegetarians into the "anthropocentric" and the "biocentric" strains. The first believes that abstaining from meat is in the enlightened self-interest of humanity. In his chapter on the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (the most intellectually coherent and rigorous part of "The Bloodless Revolution"), Stuart explains that Shelley thought that eating flesh "animalized" mankind, and corrupted not only human relationships but the entire planet. Carnivorousness had introduced savagery into a natural world that was essentially peaceful and gentle. Although an atheist, Shelley believed in a lost, Edenic age and was convinced that if human beings gave up eating meat, the rest of creation would follow suit and return to that paradisiacal condition in which "the lion now forgets to thirst for blood." Biocentric vegetarianism, on the other hand, "values non-human ecosystems for their own sake," and considers animals to have a right to their own lives, a right that we human beings aren't entitled to violate for the paltry reason that we like the way they taste.

Many other factors enter into this great debate: the cruelty with which domesticated animals are often treated vs. the fact that they owe their existence to human patronage; the need to control animal populations for the benefit of entire ecosystems; the fact that raising meat is a much less efficient use of farmland than growing vegetable foods, and more. All of these issues are important, but until the end of "The Bloodless Revolution" -- some 400 pages in -- Stuart addresses them in a haphazard fashion, as his narrative bounces from oddball savant to historical curio to crackpot. The problem with treating the history of vegetarianism as a history of vegetarians is that the crusading "Pythagoreans" of the past were overwhelmingly cranks, and their examples only taint a legitimate philosophy with an aura of kookiness.

The eccentric behaviors displayed by the vegetarians Stuart profiles include: claiming to be Adam, "hosting crazed spiritual revelries," advocating the veiling of women over the age of 7, performing nude jumping jacks every morning in front of an open window (in Scotland, no less), swanning around in a white linen gown in supposed imitation of Pythagoras, renting out an "electro-magnetic" bed purported to increase sexual vigor, stripping naked in the street and giving one's clothes to beggars while high on ether, professing to be "the universal self, or man-god" while roaming the streets of London in "full Armenian costume" and running a "druid temple" out of Cavendish Square.

Other vegetarians, like the Marquis de Valady, an active participant in the French Revolution, were merely annoying in the usual countercultural fashion. The hero-worshipping, freeloading Valady would throw himself at the feet of various vegetarian leaders and finagle his way into their households where he would aggravate their wives by "always asking for vegetable foods that one did not have in the house" and expressing astonishment "if one did not have milk at all times of the day." These visits usually concluded with Valady being kicked out after suggesting that "a community of possessions in every thing" ought to be extended to the sexual favors of his host's wife.

Small wonder, then, that vegetarianism became associated with crankery. One of Stuart's particular causes in this book is to give due credit to the inspiration that India's vegetarian Hindus provided to their Western counterparts. But most of these European enthusiasts never met a real Hindu, let alone traveled to India, and those who did often returned with an inaccurate and starry-eyed view of life there. (India's millions of vegetarians did, at least, provide solid evidence against the common belief that most people couldn't survive on a meatless diet.) This hardly seems a sturdy enough hook to hang a 600-page book on, and the more incessantly Stuart returns to the theme, the more he risks coming across as a bit of a crank himself.

Finally, given that "The Bloodless Revolution" calls itself a "cultural history," it could do with a bit more cultural literacy. Stuart has a pretty feeble grasp of literary matters: Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility" was not a satire of the 18th-century obsession with hypersensitive "nerves," and describing a cough as "consumptive" is not a figurative allusion to the cougher's eating habits but a reference to tuberculosis. But perhaps the most baffling omission -- or near-omission, since Stuart does mention it in passing -- is a thorough examination of how conceptions of gender affected the vegetarian cause.

Even the most hardheaded, skeptical thinkers Stuart quotes accepted the idea that eating meat, especially red meat, makes people more aggressive. Meat eating has long been associated with virility -- both lustfulness and a propensity toward violence. Women were thought to prefer "mild" foods like dairy products, pastries and sweets, and so for them to abstain from eating flesh seemed only fitting, especially as the Victorian era ushered in a more fragile, gentle and timorous notion of femininity. But as long as European society wanted its men to be brave in battle and robust in bed, convincing them to give up meat was a nonstarter. Even vegetarianism's advocates subscribed to this notion, claiming that herbivorous men would be less bellicose and lascivious, the ideal citizens for a new peaceable kingdom in a world without war.

The powerful metaphorical connection between meat eating and manliness lives on: Real men don't eat quiche. It persists in the face of common sense and concrete evidence. History, after all, has given us bloodthirsty, genocidal vegetarians. They include not only Adolf Hitler, but another British oddball whom Stuart has unearthed, John Oswald, who claimed to be a "Hindoo," and "was intimately involved in the process that transformed the French Revolution from a mainly peaceful process into a bloodbath." Oswald introduced the revolutionaries to the up-close and gory method of pike fighting (saves on ammo!) and once suggested simply massacring every Frenchman whose loyalty to the cause wasn't absolutely secure.

We're so used to linking masculinity with carnivorousness that we seldom stop to recognize how illogical it is. Just because vegetarianism is correlated with pacifism -- people who draw the line at killing animals are probably loath to kill human beings, too -- it doesn't follow that eating flesh, and especially the flesh of mammals, causes the battery of aggressive behaviors we choose to call manly. Yet even today, insulting vegetarians is presented as a display of bold, defiant machismo, a way of saying, "I understand and embrace the bloody truths of life with lusty vigor, unlike you salad-noshing pansies!"

It's hard to believe that vegetarianism will make any serious inroads into Western society as long as this curious superstition remains in place. For, despite Stuart's efforts to portray vegetarianism as a thriving force in European culture for the past 400 years, the bloodless revolution has not yet taken place. It turns out that even this author, who labored to produce 600 pages on the topic, can't conclude his book with a wholehearted endorsement of the vegetable diet. He's not sure that universal human vegetarianism entirely jibes with his own notions of what's "ecologically sensible." And so, "The Bloodless Revolution" ends with the surprisingly mild statement that "there are compelling reasons, at the very least, to reduce our consumption of meat."

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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