By Elisée Reclus (1830-1905)
such high standing in hygiene and biology having made a profound study
of questions relating to normal food, I shall take good care not to
display my incompetence by expressing an opinion as to animal and vegetable
nourishment. Let the cobbler stick to his last. As I am neither chemist
nor doctor, I shall not mention either azote or albumen, nor reproduce
the formulas of analysts, but shall content myself simply with giving
my own personal impressions, which, at all events, coincide with those
of many vegetarians. I shall move within the circle of my own experiences,
stopping here and there to set down some observation suggested by the
petty incidents of life.
First of all I should say that the search for truth had nothing to do
with the early impressions which made me a potential vegetarian while
still a small boy wearing baby-frocks. I have a distinct remembrance
of horror at the sight of blood. One of the family had sent me, plate
in hand, to the village butcher, with the injunction to bring back some
gory fragment or other. In all innocence I set out cheerfully to do
as I was bid, and entered the yard where the slaughtermen were. I still
remember this gloomy yard where terrifying men went to and fro with
great knives, which they wiped on blood-besprinkled smocks. Hanging
from a porch an enormous carcase seemed to me to occupy an extraordinary
amount of space; from its white flesh a reddish liquid was trickling
into the gutters. Trembling and silent I stood in this blood-stained
yard incapable of going forward and too much terrified to run away.
I do not know what happened to me ; it has passed from my memory. I
seem to have heard that I fainted, and that the kind-hearted butcher
carried roe into his own house ; I did not weigh more than one of those
lambs he slaughtered every morning.
Other pictures cast their shadows over my childish years, and, like
that glimpse of the slaughter-house, mark so many epochs in my life.
I can see the sow belonging to some peasants, amateur butchers, and
therefore all the more cruel. I remember one of them bleeding the animal
slowly, so that the blood fell drop by drop; for, in order to make really
good black puddings, it appears essential that the victim should have
suffered proportionately. She cried without ceasing, now and then uttering
groans and sounds of despair almost human; it seemed like listening
to a child.
And in fact the domesticated pig is for a year or so a child of the
house ; pampered that he may grow fat, and returning a sincere affection
for all the care lavished on him, which has but one aim - so many inches
of bacon. But when the affection is reciprocated by the good woman who
takes care of the pig, fondling him and speaking in terms of endearment
to him, is she not considered ridiculous - as if it were absurd, even
degrading, to love an animal that loves us?
One of the strongest impressions of my childhood is that of having witnessed
one of those rural dramas, the forcible killing of a pig by a party
of villagers in revolt against a dear old woman who would not consent
to the murder of her fat friend. The village crowd burst into the pigstye
and dragged the beast to the slaughter place where all the apparatus
for the deed stood waiting, whilst the unhappy dame sank down upon a
stool weeping quiet tears. I stood beside her and saw those tears without
knowing whether I should sympathise with her grief, or think with the
crowd that the killing of the pig was just, legitimate, decreed by common
sense as well as by destiny.
Each of us, especially those who have lived in a provincial spot, far
away from vulgar ordinary towns, where everything is methodically classed
and disguised - each of us has seen something of these barbarous acts
committed by flesh-eaters against the beasts they eat. There is no need
to go into some Porcopolis of North America, or into a saladero of La
Plata, to contemplate the horrors of the massacres which constitute
the primary condition of our daily food. But these impressions wear
off in time; they yield before the baneful influence of daily education,
which tends to drive the individual towards mediocrity, and takes out
of him anything that goes to the making of an original personality.
Parents, teachers, official or friendly, doctors, not to speak of the
powerful individual whom we call "everybody," all work together
to harden the character of the child with respect to this "four-footed
food," which, nevertheless, loves as we do, feels as we do, and,
under our influence, progresses or retrogresses as we do.
It is just one of the sorriest results of our flesh-eating habits that
the animals sacrificed to man's appetite have been systematically and
methodically made hideous, shapeless, and debased in intelligence and
moral worth. The name even of the animal into which the boar has been
transformed is used as the grossest of insults ; the mass of flesh we
see wallowing in noisome pools is so loathsome to look at that we agree
to avoid all similarity of name between the beast and the dishes we
make out of it. What a difference there is between the moufflon's appearance
and habits as he skips about upon the mountain rocks, and that of the
sheep which has lost all individual initiative and becomes mere debased
flesh-so timid that it dares not leave the flock, running headlong into
the jaws of the dog that pursues it. A similar degradation has befallen
the ox, whom now-a-days we see moving with difficulty in the pastures,
transformed by stock-breeders into an enormous ambulating mass of geometrical
forms, as if designed beforehand for the knife of the butcher. And it
is to the production of such monstrosities we apply the term "breeding"!
This is how man fulfils his mission as educator with respect to his
brethren, the animals.
For the matter of that, do we not act in like manner towards all Nature?
Turn loose a pack of engineers into a charming valley, in the midst
of fields and trees, or on the banks of some beautiful river, and you
will soon see w hat they would do. They would do everything in their
power to put their own work in evidence, and to mask Nature under their
heaps of broken stones and coal. All of them would be proud, at least,
to see their locomotives streaking the sky with a network of dirty yellow
or black smoke. Sometimes these engineers even take it upon themselves
to improve Nature. Thus, when the Belgian artists protested recently
to the Minister of Railroads against his desecration of the most beautiful
parts of the Meuse by blowing up the picturesque rocks along its banks,
the Minister hastened to assure them that henceforth they should have
nothing to complain about, as he would pledge himself to build all the
new workshops with Gothic turrets!
In a similar spirit the butchers display before the eyes of the public,
even in the most frequented streets, disjointed carcasses, gory lumps
of meat, and think to
conciliate our æstheticism by boldly decorating the flesh they
hang out with garlands of roses!
When reading the papers, one wonders if all the atrocities of the war
in China are not a bad dream instead of a lamentable reality. How can
it be that men having had the happiness of being caressed by their mother,
and taught in school the words "justice" and "kindness,"
how can it be that these wild beasts with human faces take pleasure
in tying Chinese together by their garments and their pigtails before
throwing them into a river? How is it that they kill off the wounded,
and make the prisoners dig their own graves before shooting them? And
who are these frightful assassins? They are men like ourselves, who
study and read as we do, w ha have brothers, friends, a wife or a sweetheart
; sooner or later we run the chance of meeting them, of taking them
by the hand without seeing any traces of blood there.
But is there not some direct relation of cause and effect between the
food of these executioners, who call themselves "agents of civilisation,"
and their ferocious deeds? They, too, are in the habit of praising the
bleeding flesh as a generator of health, strength, and intelligence.
They, too, enter without repugnance the slaughter house, where the pavement
is red and slippery, and where one breathes the sickly sweet odour of
blood. Is there then so much difference between the dead body of a bullock
and that of a man? The dissevered limbs, the entrails mingling one with
the other, are very much alike : the slaughter of the first makes easy
the murder of the second, especially when a leader's order rings out,
or from afar comes the word of the crowned master, "Be pitiless."
A French proverb says that "every bad case can be defended."
This saying had a certain amount of truth in it so long as the soldiers
of each nation committed their barbarities separately, for the atrocities
attributed to them could afterwards be put down to jealousy and national
hatred. But in China, now, the Russians, French, English, and Germans
have not the modesty to attempt to screen each other. Eyewitnesses,
and even the authors themselves, have sent us information in every language,
some cynically, and others with reserve. The truth is no longer denied,
but a new morality has been created to explain it. This morality says
there are two laws for mankind, one applies to the yellow races and
the other is the privilege of the white. To assassinate or torture the
first named is, it seems, henceforth permissible, whilst it is wrong
to do so to the second.
Is not our morality, as applied to animals, equally elastic? Harking
on dogs to tear a fox to pieces teaches a gentleman how to make his
men pursue the fugitive Chinese. The two kinds of hunt belong to one
and the same "sport" ; only, when the victim is a man, the
excitement and pleasure are probably all the keener. Need we ask the
opinion of him
who recently invoked the name of Attila, quoting this monster as a model
for his soldiers?
It is not a digression to mention the horrors of war in connection with
the massacre of cattle and carnivorous banquets. The diet of individuals
corresponds closely to their manners. Blood demands blood. On this point
any one who searches among his recollections of the people whom he has
known will find there can be no possible doubt as to the contrast which
exists between vegetarians and coarse eaters of flesh, greedy drinkers
of blood, in amenity of manner, gentleness of disposition and regularity
It is true these are qualities not highly esteemed by those "superior
persons," who, without being in any way better than other mortals,
are always more arrogant, and imagine they add to their own importance
by depreciating the humble and exalting the strong. According to them,
mildness signifies feebleness : the sick are only in the way, and it
would be a charity to get rid of them. If they are not killed, they
should at least be allowed to die. But it is just these delicate people
who resist disease better than the robust. Full-blooded and high-coloured
men are not always those who live longest : the really strong are not
necessarily those who carry their strength on the surface, in a ruddy
complexion, distended muscle, or a sleek and oily stoutness. Statistics
could give us positive information on this point, and would have done
so already, but for the numerous interested persons who devote so much
time to grouping, in battle array, figures, whether true or false, to
defend their respective theories.
But, however this may be, we say simply that, for the great majority
of vegetarians, the question is not whether their biceps and triceps
are more solid than those of the flesh-eaters, nor whether their organism
is better able to resist the risks of life and the chances of death,
which is even more important : for them the important point is the recognition
of the bond of affection and goodwill that links man to the so-called
lower animals, and the extension to these our brothers of the sentiment
which has already put a stop to cannibalism among men. The reasons which
might be pleaded by anthropophagists against the disuse of human flesh
in their customary diet would be as well-founded as those urged by ordinary
flesh-eaters today. The arguments that were opposed to that monstrous
habit are precisely those we vegetarians employ now. The horse and the
cow, the rabbit and the cat, the deer and the hare, the pheasant and
the lark, please us better as friends than as meat. We wish to preserve
them either as respected fellow-workers, or simply as companions in
the joy of life and friendship.
"But," you will say, "if you abstain from the flesh of
animals, other flesh-eaters, men or beasts, will eat them instead of
you, or else hunger and the elements will combine to destroy them."
Without doubt the balance of the species will be maintained, as formerly,
in conformity with the chances of life and the inter-struggle of appetites
; but at least in the conflict of the races the profession of destroyer
shall not be ours. We will so deal with the part of the earth which
belongs to us as to make it as pleasant as possible, not only for ourselves,
but also for the beasts of our household. We shall take up seriously
the educational rôle which has been claimed by man since prehistoric
times. Our share of responsibility in the transformation of the existing
order of things does not extend beyond ourselves and our immediate neighbourhood.
If we do but little, this little will at least be our work.
One thing is certain, that if we held the chimerical idea of pushing
the practice of our theory to its ultimate and logical consequences,
without caring for considerations of another kind, we should fall into
simple absurdity. In this respect the principle of vegetarianism does
not differ from any other principle; it must be suited to the ordinary
conditions of life. It is clear that we have no intention of subordinating
all our practices and actions, of every hour and every minute, to a
respect for the life of the infinitely little; we shall not let ourselves
die of hunger and thirst, like some Buddhist, when the microscope has
shown us a drop of water swarming with animalculæ. We shall not
hesitate now and then to cut ourselves a stick in the forest, or to
pick a flower in a garden; we shall even go so far as to take a lettuce,
or cut cabbages and asparagus for our food, although we fully recognise
the life in the plant as well as in animals. But it is not for us to
found a new religion, and to hamper ourselves with a sectarian dogma
; it is a question of making our existence as beautiful as possible,
and in harmony, so far as in us lies, with the æsthetic conditions
of our surroundings.
Just as our ancestors, becoming disgusted with eating their fellow-creatures,
one fine day left off serving them up to their tables; just as now,
among flesh-eaters, there are many who refuse to eat the flesh of man's
noble companion, the horse, or of our fireside pets, the dog and cat-so
is it distasteful to us to drink the blood and chew the muscle of the
ox, whose labour helps to grow our corn. We no longer want to hear the
bleating of sheep, the bellowing of bullocks, the groans and piercing
shrieks of the pigs, as they are led to the slaughter. We aspire to
the time when we shall not have to walk swiftly to shorten that hideous
minute of passing the haunts of butchery with their rivulets of blood
and rows of sharp hooks, whereon carcasses are hung up by blood-stained
men, armed with horrible knives. We want some day to live in a city
where we shall no longer see butchers' shops full of dead bodies side
by side with drapers' or jewellers', and facing a druggist's, or hard
by a window filled with choice fruits, or with beautiful books, engravings
or statuettes, and works of art. We want an environment pleasant to
the eye and in harmony with beauty.
And since physiologists, or better still, since our own experience tells
us that these ugly joints of meat are not a form of nutrition necessary
for our existence, we put aside all these hideous foods which our ancestors
found agreeable, and the majority of our contemporaries still enjoy.
We hope before long that flesh-eaters will at least have the politeness
to hide their food. Slaughter houses are relegated to distant suburbs
; let the butchers' shops be placed there too, where, like stables,
they shall be concealed in obscure corners.
It is on account of the ugliness of it that we also abhor vivisection
and all dangerous experiments, except when they are practised by the
man of science on his own person. It is the ugliness of the deed which
fills us with disgust when we see a naturalist pinning live butterflies
into his box, or destroying an ant-hill in order to count the ants.
We turn with dislike from the engineer who robs Nature of her beauty
by imprisoning a cascade in conduit-pipes, and from the Californian
woodsman who cuts down a tree, four thousand years old and three hundred
feet high, to show its rings at fairs and exhibitions. Ugliness in persons,
in deeds, in life, in surrounding Nature-this is our worst foe. Let
us become beautiful ourselves, and let our life be beautiful!
What then are the foods which seem to correspond better with our ideal
of beauty both in their nature and in their needful methods of preparation?
They are precisely those which from all time have been appreciated by
men of simple life; the foods which can do best without the lying artifices
of the kitchen. They are eggs, grains, fruits; that is to say, the products
of animal and vegetable life which represent in their organisms both
the temporary arrest of vitality and the concentration of the elements
necessary to the formation of new lives. The egg of the animal, the
seed of the plant, the fruits of the tree, are the end of an organism
which is no more, and the beginning of an organism which does not yet
exist. Man gets them for his food without killing the being that provides
them, since they are formed at the point of contact between two generations.
Do not our men of science who study organic chemistry tell us, too,
that the egg of the animal or plant is the best storehouse of every
vital element? Omne vivum ex ovo.
printed in the HUMANE REVIEW, January, 1901)