My Beef With Vegetarianism
There are many horrifying moments in Anatoly Kuznetsov's great Soviet novel Babi Yar, but one of the most horrifying concerns, of all things, the death of a newborn kitten. The kitten has been born deformed, so the hero, a small boy living in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, has to kill it. But instead of doing it the usual way by drowning it in a bucket, he decides it would be somehow kinder to pound the animal to death with a brick. "It was a moist, warm blob of life," Kuznetsov writes, "utterly devoid of sense and as insignificant as a worm. It seemed nothing could be easier than to dispose of it with one blow." But when he lets the brick fall,
A strange thing happened--the little body seemed to be resilient, the brick fell to one side, and the kitten continued its miaowing. With shaking hands I picked up the brick again and proceeded to crush the little ball of living matter until the very entrails came out, and at last it was silent, and I scraped up the remains of the kitten with a shovel and took them off to the rubbish heap, and as I did it my head swam and I felt sick.
Somehow, amid the myriad slaughters of World War II, it takes a frail and worthless kitten--"as insignificant as a worm"--to teach us something about the tenacity of life and the awfulness of taking it away.
I'm not sure where I was when I came across this passage some thirty-odd years ago, but I'm pretty sure it was in close proximity to settling down to a steak or chicken dinner. If I made any connection between the kitten and the dead animal I was about to consume, it has been erased from my memory. But if I had made such a connection, what exactly would it have been? Certainly, pulverizing a poor defenseless creature is bad. But does that mean that dispatching it quickly and efficiently in a modern abattoir with the good utilitarian purpose of feeding the hungry is good? If "defenseless" is the operative word here, does that mean it is morally permissible to take the life of a fellow creature as long as we give it a sporting chance to fight back or escape--in a bullring, perhaps, or out in the wild? Or maybe sentience is the relevant issue (as utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, author of the 1975 manifesto Animal Liberation, maintains), in which case it may be bad to kill a kitten, but it's OK to kill an animal further down the evolutionary scale, such as a frog, a fish or a bug.
On the other hand, if life is the highest value and taking it is never, ever permissible, then what are we to do in the case of a poisonous snake that is about to strike a sleeping infant? Kill one to save the other, or stand back and let nature take its course? If all lives are equally precious, how can we choose between the two?
These are the kinds of conundrums that Tristram Stuart chews on in The Bloodless Revolution, his intelligent, readable, if ultimately unsatisfying, account of Western vegetarianism from the Elizabethan Age to the present. Many people no doubt regard vegetarianism as inherently frivolous and hence an unsuitable topic for serious intellectual history. But if The Bloodless Revolution does anything, it is to prove such skeptics wrong. One way or another, it shows that vegetarians have been in the forefront of some of the most important controversies of the modern era. The reason is not hard to fathom. Like everything else in life, food is multidimensional, which is why the question of whether to order fruit salad or a BLT is never solely a matter of taste but touches on everything from morality and aesthetics to agricultural policy, humanity's place in the natural world and even constitutional affairs. In the eighteenth century, to cite just one example, beef was as central to the English self-image as cheap gasoline currently is to that of the United States. Just as the ability to cruise down a highway in an SUV or pickup is what distinguishes an American from a Frenchman paying $7 a gallon to tool around in some mini-subcompact, the ability to consume great slabs of cow flesh was what distinguished John Bull from "Frogs" dining on onions and snails. Scruffy vegetarians seeking to take all that red meat away were barely distinguishable from Jacobin sympathizers wishing to guillotine the House of Lords.
If we are what we eat, in other words, then modifying the national diet was seen as the quickest route to changing the political structure, while resisting such demands was part and parcel of defending the status quo. Their analysis may have been naïve, but vegetarians' ambitions were immense and their critique was nothing if not sweeping.
Stuart begins his tale with Sir Francis Bacon, appropriately enough since Bacon was both a key figure in the Scientific Revolution that gave us modernity and keenly interested in the question of diet, health and longevity. This was a big issue in the seventeenth century for primarily scriptural reasons. The opening pages of the Bible are filled with people who live eight or nine centuries. But then, following Noah and his ark comes Genesis 9:3, in which God specifically gives permission to eat meat ("Everything that lives and moves will be food for you"). With that, longevity plummets. Since few people questioned the truth of such tales, the issue, as Bacon saw it, was what one had to do with the other--whether not eating meat was the reason Methuselah lived 969 years or whether it was merely coincidental. Bacon never advanced beyond the speculative stage, but Thomas Bushell, one of his acolytes (and, it was widely reported, one of his lovers), put his master's theory to the test by retiring to the Calf of Man, a one-square-mile islet in the Irish Sea, following a period of riotous debauchery in the gaming houses, theaters and brothels of London. Bushell was hardly the first person to adopt a hermitic lifestyle, but he may have been the first to eschew meat and alcohol with the express purpose of improving his health. Although falling short of Methuselah's record, he lived to the ripe old age of 80 and died a wealthy man after developing the silver and lead mines of nearby Wales.