Vegetarian Evolution: A Case of West Meets East
January 14, 2007
Tristram Stuart, a graduate of Cambridge University, has written for Indian newspapers, edited a book on Himalayan nomads, and been a project manager in Kosovo. "The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism From 1600 to Modern Times" (Norton, $29.95), his first book, is an astonishing examination of mankind's changing perception of its place in the natural world and of what it means to be human.
Stuart spoke from his home in London.
Q What was "the bloodless revolution"?
A It became a perennial battle as envisaged by vegetarians, particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries, for justice to both humans and animals. This was particularly imagined by late-18th-century revolutionary vegetarians in the French Revolution who saw their fight as reaching back to the 17th-century radicalism of the Cromwellian revolution.
Q And Eastern philosophy influenced those early radicals?
A That was a revelation . I knew about the enthusiasm for Indian culture at the end of the 18th century, but what surprised me was the influence 100 years earlier, when Europeans first traveled to India in significant numbers and wrote travel books that became bestsellers . These travelers were fascinated by vegetarians they encountered, particularly in western India. As a result of those texts, vegetarianism as witnessed in India became a major subject of debate for philosophers and scientists, who discussed the moral and nutritional implications.
Q In that sense, is the history of vegetarianism also the history of philosophy?
A Absolutely. Of course the term "vegetarianism" was only coined in 1842, but the ideas that composed it -- the objection to killing animals or the belief that meat was bad for the human body -- go back through history. From the nutritionists who said that meat "furs the vessels," to the philosophers who said it's wrong to kill animals, to the religious believers who said that God made Adam and Eve to live in harmony with all the creatures in paradise. You can't separate any of those strands; they're all linked.
Q What was the heyday of vegetarianism?
A There were three heydays. The mid 17th century during the Cromwellian revolution, when dissenters protested against the elite, which was represented by the conspicuous consumption of meat. The second was during the Enlightenment, when nutritionists and anatomists began really to examine the human body and to argue that we were herbivorous by nature. Then at the beginning of the 19th century, radical thought, scientific inquiry, and the interest in India fused into one movement.
Q When did the idea of "the natural" as the fixed essence of our being arise?
A It was an Enlightenment idea that harked back to ancient Greece and probably beyond. Certainly it became a fixation that took many different forms. In the 17th century, biblical philosophy regarded paradise and the original state of the earth as nature. By the 18th century, that idea became more secularized as people strove to revive a utopian "state of nature" cleansed of the corruptions of society and civilization.
Q Tell me about Tyson's chimpanzee.
A Well, that was an absolute watershed in Western science, when the first ape was dissected by Edward Tyson in 1699. His drawings were extremely accurate and were still being consulted in Darwin's time. The experiment triggered a debate about whether this animal was herbivorous and, if so, were humans, who were almost identical, also herbivorous.
Q Do you have a favorite vegetarian?
A Yes, Thomas Tryon . He grew up in the Cromwellian revolution and in 1680 began reading about India, where millions of people were following what he regarded as the original law of God: Do not kill your fellow creatures. He extended that in so many ways that we can recognize now: lamenting deforestation in America; becoming antislavery well before his time; worrying about the pollution of rivers affecting fish and poisoning humans, about soil erosion and cash-cropping in Barbados, where he lived for a while. He is an astonishing character, yet there's no biography of him and virtually no research. I discovered a number of books which had been lost or not identified as his just sitting in library archives.
Q If Tryon's your favorite, I suppose Hitler is everyone's least favorite?
A That's something that haunts the vegetarian movement. What I try to tackle when describing Hitler's vegetarian ideology is the idea that because Hitler was vegetarian, vegetarianism has something inherently fascist about it: that argument is obviously false. So you get vegetarians who deny that Hitler had any vegetarian views, when the fact that he was vegetarian is no more relevant than the fact that Stalin ate meat. Gandhi, for example, had many of the same dietary ideas as Hitler, but his political views could hardly have been more different.
It's fascinating, by the way, that Gandhi was brought up vegetarian but was not convinced of vegetarianism as a philosophy until he came to England. Before that he rebelled against it. He took back to India the arguments for [it] that had originally come from there to Europe.
Anna Mundow is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.