New Ideas are Probably Old Ideas

The benefits of reading history continually surprise me. It’s not as thrilling as reading an intense novel or as intellectually stimulating as philosophy or astrophysics, perhaps, but it can equip and expand our understanding of humanity more than almost any other subject. Among the most astonishing lessons hidden in the story of humankind is that almost every idea we think of as unique to the modern age has existed far into the depths of the recorded past, and likely a lot further back. Every cultural phenomenon or movement that we think could only have existed in the current climate usually has an earlier example that makes our zeitgeist seem archaic and time circular.

No book has given me this awareness as much as The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times by Tristram Stuart. The book shows that almost every moral, ethical, environmental, or health-based reason that people give up eating animals, and sometimes excluding them altogether from their habits of consumption, have been thought and expressed for at least hundreds of years. The myth of vegetarianism or veganism being new concepts—or worse, fads—is only intensifying with the current obsession with trying to explain millennial habits. A lot of people say vegans and vegetarians will “grow out of it” and eventually return to eating meat. And some do. But underlying this dismissive sentiment is the notion that abstaining from meat is a young person thing. People often assume the phenomenon began in the hippie culture of the mid-twentieth century, along with the rise of modern environmentalism. Although these antecedents certainly have influenced the current state of vegetarianism, you have to look much further into the past to see its true origins. If you do, you will see that not one principle of the most ardent vegan is unique to our time.

It is useful to investigate differences when trying to compare two things, and old types of vegetarianism certainly look different from the new, at least on the surface. Perhaps the biggest difference is religion. Some of the most passionate proponents of avoiding the consumption of meat, according to Stuart’s Bloodless Revolution, did so because they felt it was a biblical imperative. Some were atheists or converted to a sort of Hinduism after traveling to India, where they witnessed widespread vegetarianism in action, but most assumed a Christian identity. In Britain and other parts of the West, some of the key figures of vegetarianism thought that God’s supreme creation was meant to eat plants and no animals. Our thirst for blood, they said, was a corruption of the utopian Eden God had created for us. This might come as a surprise to anyone brought up in modern Christianity, because the idea prevails across sects of that religion that God only put animals here on Earth for humans to slaughter and eat. Vegetarianism never became a dominant practice for Christians, but a percentage of those who studied the Bible in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries read an edict in the Scripture to be kind to animals.

It wasn’t only that they thought the Bible told us not to eat animals; they thought it was immoral, regardless of their religious views, and found evidence in the Bible to support this belief. Radicals such as John Robins and Roger Crab made abstinence from meat a central part of their Christian groups. Thomas Bushell, an associate of the vegetarian-curious philosopher Francis Bacon, also found motivation, at least in part, from religion. “The austerity of Bushell’s diet,” Stuart writes, “was clearly rooted in the Christian (and pre-Christian) tradition of abstinence from meat and monastic penitence.” Bacon himself might have only avoided being a vocal vegetarian because at the time it was dangerous to repute such beliefs publicly and he “was afraid he would be accused of sympathizing with the medieval vegetarian heretics, the Manicheans and Cathars, whom the Inquisition had genocidally suppressed with fire and sword.”

The three most prevalent modern reasons for veganism and vegetarianism are morality, personal health, and environmental well-being, and each also has a strong tradition in late-Renaissance and Colonial Europe. In the seventeenth century, the Duchess of Newcastle, Margaret Cavendish, summarized vegetarian/vegan morality in poetry, saying those who ate meat were “Making their Stomacks, Graves, which they fill/With murther’d Bodies.” Murder is different from just normal killing because it requires malice, and usually premeditation. Such old references to the act of animal slaughter make modern ones about murder and torture and cruelty seem downright ordinary, and yet they are still chastised as extreme opinions by the voice of the masses.

George Cheyne, a medical doctor who sometimes used deceptive and extremely unethical means to convert his patients to vegetarianism, elevated the diet to the mainstream because he promoted its health benefits. He also held ethical beliefs about animal suffering. But even after his death, “the late eighteenth century was the heyday of medical vegetarianism and it flourished in the most prestigious medical faculties in Europe,” according to Stuart. Although we now have a better understanding of what makes a vegetarian or vegan diet healthier than one with meat and other animal products, they are still just as contentious as in Cheyne’s time. We know that a low-fat diet with lower or no cholesterol and none of the myriad antibiotics given to factory farm animals will drastically lower the risks for heart disease and cancer, but still people believe there is some mysterious danger to cutting out meat from their diet. Now, just as back then, many people think malnutrition is a serious risk, despite the many examples of people who have lived extremely healthful lives well past the average life expectancy of their time without feasting on flesh.

One of the most significant vegetarians in all of history, Thomas Tryon, whose writings on the subject influenced Benjamin Franklin and Percy Shelley, exemplified the ethical and environmental aspects of treating animals as commodities. He “warned that the excessive demand for animal products was over-stretching natural resources,” according to Stuart. He saw the effects it was having on the ecosystem by noting that animal waste was carried into rivers, polluting fish that people also ate in a vicious cycle of animal exploitation. This was the same man who thought that excessive smoke from chimneys and tobacco use were making people sick, which wasn’t popularly accepted or medically established until hundreds of years later. Underlying his keen observations was the fact that Tryon thought animals had a right to live their lives just as much as humans. Like most plant-eaters of his time, he linked the vegetarian diet to mathematician and reputed founder of philosophy Pythagoras, along with the Indian Brahmins with whom the Greek thinker is associated, so he wasn’t even breaking new intellectual ground, but returning to what he thought was a correct way of living based upon the examples of those who lived long before him.

The details in Stuart’s book are exhaustive and much fuller than what could even be summarized here. But even in its thoroughness, Stuart has limited its scope by not looking even further back, only hinting at the vegetarians who came before 1600. Still, it represents an interesting look at the establishment of vegetarian thought in the modern world. Anyone who sees vegetarians or vegans only as young idealists with an expiration date attached to their views need only read a chapter of this book to see how wrong they are. Abstaining from eating meat and other animal products might never become close to a majority practice, but just as it has existed almost from the beginning of recorded history, it will continue, with slight variations here and there, as long as rational thought is with us.