Jonathan Beckman is left more than satisfied by Tristram Stuart's scintillating study of vegetarianism, The Bloodless Revolution
Sunday August 20, 2006
The Bloodless Revolution: Radical Vegetarians and the Discovery of India
by Tristram Stuart
HarperCollins, £25, pp628
For inveterate carnivores such as myself, the prospect of vegetarianism is dry, cold and inhabited solely by lentils. Yet after completing Tristram Stuart's fascinating history, I prodded my roast chicken around my plate with a little unease. Stuart illuminates the vibrant plurality of pro-vegetarian arguments: some cranky, some bonkers and others forcefully compelling.
He wisely focuses his attention on a densely packed era, roughly bordered by the English Civil War and the French Revolution. Vegetarianism was central to radical political thought during both struggles as disgust at unremitting bloodshed was transformed into a desire for a better, more harmonious world. The slaughter of animals seemed to perpetuate the barbarism of war. For theorists such as 17th-century dissenter Thomas Tryon, eating meat was a cause of violence as 'those fierce, revengeful spirits that proceed from the Creature, when the painful agonies of death are upon it ... fail not to accompany the flesh, and especially the blood, and have their internal operation, and have their impression on those that eat it'.
Western vegetarianism has a long history stretching back to Pythagoras ('Pythagorean' was both a term of abuse and a badge of honour for vegetarians). Pythagoras's doctrine of metempsychosis, or transmigration of the soul, meant that it was unwise to kill animals because who knows who could be trapped inside. Though St Clement of Alexandria favoured abstinence from meat, vegetarianism was quelled by the early church fathers, and many Renaissance clerics on both sides of the Reformation divide viewed it as heresy.
Stuart makes clear that the Western encounter with India provided crucial weight to pro-vegetarian arguments. Here was a civil, peaceful, enlightened society successfully fuelled by vegetables, pulses and grains. Such a diet seemed an escape from the corruption, debauchery, pollution and strife in the West. Many conservative Christians mocked the Hindus' quaint belief in transmigration, but the doctrine of non-violence is a guiding ethical principle that manifests itself through abstention from meat.
The story of the reverence and awe in which India was held in certain streams of Western thought is a notable corrective to those who see the history of imperialism as solely the high-handed and brutal imposition of Occidental values on indigenous populations. John Zephaniah Holwell, a survivor of the Black Hole of Calcutta, governor of Bengal and a passionate vegetarian, effectively converted to Hinduism.
The brilliance of Stuart's book is to demonstrate that the study of attitudes towards food is the gateway to appreciating how people understood their place in society, their relationship to their environment and the significance of being human.
There were, broadly, three phases of vegetarianism in the period he scrutinises. In 17th-century England, eschewing meat was a means of religious dissent by those who saw the church as corrupt. It was an attempt to purify religion. Isaac Newton, who tried to prove the unity of all religions, viewed 'being merciful to all animals' as one of the cross-cultural ethical imperatives.
The second phase, which began in France, was scientific. Was man naturally carnivorous or herbivorous? The penitent Dr George Cheyne, whose weight rose to 34 stone due to indulgence, transformed his life by eating only vegetables and milk. He become an assiduous evangelist of such a diet among the metropolitan classes in London.
The final phase is revolutionary and climaxes with the French Revolution. Meat signified social inequality - only the rich could afford it - as more and more land was enclosed for pasture so the privileged could indulge themselves. Seditious circles in Paris and London were crammed with vegetarians. Underlying it all, philosophers and scientists, savants and rabble-rousers searched for the perfect religion, health and society.
Stuart navigates many fascinating bywaters and eddies in the history of ideas and provides so many acute analyses that it's impossible to do complete justice to the breadth and depth of his study in a single review. This is intellectual history at its most scintillating, as passionate and vibrant as any swashbuckling romp or perilous adventure. And though I'm still eager to tuck into my next steak, I've no beef at all with this immensely satisfying book.http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/his ... 51,00.html