Thursday, May 19, 2011

Vegetarianism: A History

This is a well researched book by Colin Spencer.  For starters, I learned that primates came rather recently to meat eating.  Of the 62 known genera of living primates, almost all eat fruits, vegetables, and nuts; most eat insects; but only a modest number eat birds, dead animals, or hunt small animals.  Only humans hunt or breed large animals to eat.  Our physiology, and especially our jaws, have evolved to accommodate cooked meat but not raw meat.

In the ancient and classical world, cruelty to animals seems to have peaked in Rome although cruelty to people (slaves and gladiators) might not have been far behind.  It is interesting that among the very people who enjoyed watching man, as gladiator, combat wild beast, were some vegetarians.  Perhaps future generations will say the same about contemporary pet-owners, some of whom are vegans. (See the questions in my previous post)

I was especially interested in the relationship between the biblical laws of clean and unclean animals (Kashruth) and vegetarianism. The most interesting thing is that carnivorous animals (tigers, lions, etc) were  forbidden to eat.  It is possible to unlink this from vegetarianism with the idea that if one animal eats an unclean animal, then one should not eat the first animal because it is derivatively unclean.  In theory, there might have been a talmudic exception - though I am told there is no such thing - for a carnivorous animal observed over a long period of time only to have eaten clean animals.  This seems unrealistic.  Otherwise, I cannot see a connection between these religious dietary laws and vegetarianism, though I wish the author had devoted more space to this.

An interesting historical and geographical idea is that the available fuel seems to determine food consumption  In Northern Europe there was plenty of wood in the middle ages, and this may have encouraged the roasting of meat.  Near the Mediterranean there was more cooking of vegetables and fish (for obvious reasons) but also more cooking of doughs (think pizza) and there is a theory that this was encouraged by the ability to cook ousdoors, and year round.  In the long run the vegetarian movement is associated with the rise of urban life.  Animals must have been more costly to eat and, contrary to the sentiments of modern pet owners but in accord with how most farmers seem to feel, humans who live in close proximity to animals seem most comfortable in eating them.

Factory farming seems to have flourish in England as early as the 1680s.  Slow killing and lots of blood seems to have been common.

Some believe that the term vegetarian was derived from the latin Vegetus meaning vigorous and lively.  Spencer finds this implausible and writes that a "vegetarian seemed to signify someone passive and serene" from the earliest times.  This seems to fit with the conventional claim that early vegetarians were Christian fundamentalists -- though not in India of course.

Vegetarianism became associated with animal welfare by the 1870s and did so because of objections to doctors in general and vivisection (where pain might have been apparent) in particular.

Why did vegetarianism flourish in England in the 19th century.  Spencer thinks that it was a combination of fast growing cities, the yearning of urbanites for rural life, and the desire to protect what was left of it.  Vegetarians became more numerous at the same time that schools began taking nature trips and cycling became a weekend hobby.

1 comment:

  1. Another wonderful book is Richard Sorabji's ANIMAL MINDS AND HUMAN MORALS. Sorabji examines all the major philosophical schools of ancient Greece and Rome, and he argues that all of them were highly sensitive to ethical issues regarding the treatment of animals -- except Stoicism, which made a very sharp distinction between humans and "the beasts," because it identified humanity with reason alone. Stoics were altogether insensitive to the treatment of animals. By contrast, Platonists and Neoplatonists were vegetarians, because of their doctrines of reincarnation and the community of all life. (Porphyry's On Abstaining from Meat is one of the great works of vegetarianism in history.) Aristotelians did not believe in reincarnation, but they did think that humans were one type of animal and very close in many ways to other animals. Epicureans held that reason itself was an animal faculty, possessed by other animals as well. But Stoicism became overwhelmingly dominant at Rome, and that is how Sorabji explains the rise of cruelty to animals. I think he gives too little (dis)credit to Judaeo-Christian traditions, which took over in Rome only slightly later. But it's a fascinating book by a first-rate scholar.

    Even at Rome, there were exceptions. Cicero reports that when Pompey the Great introduced elephants into the gladiatorial games, spectators stood up and cried out in protest -- because, Cicero says, they noticed a "commonality" (communitas) between elephants and human beings.

    Another thing your book seems to pass over is non-Western cultures. Buddhists were vegetarians from the beginning, and Hindus gradually moved in that direction, partly under the influence of Buddhism. The emperor Ashoka (3rd-2nd centuries BCE) converted from Hinduism to Buddhism, and he reports that he is trying to give up eating meat, although he has not succeeded completely. Even today about half of India is vegetarian. And the High Court of Kerala held that circus animals are "persons" within the meaning of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, therefore entitled to a life in accordance with dignity.