Shelley Sunday: ‘On Vegetarianism’ (One of several essays written by Shelley on the subject)

On Vegetarianism

– Percy Bysshe Shelley

I hold that the depravity of the physical and moral nature of man originated in his unnatural habits of life. The origin of man, like the universe of which he is a part, is enveloped in impenetrable mystery. His generations either had a beginning, or they had not. The weight of evidence in favor of each of these suppositions seems tolerably equal; and it is perfectly unimportant to the present argument which is assumed.

The language spoken, however, by the mythology of nearly all religions seems to prove that at some distant period man forsook the path of nature, and sacrificed the purity and happiness of his being to unnatural appetites. The date of this event seems also to have been that of some great change in the climates of the earth, with which it has an obvious correspondence. The allegory of Adam and Eve eating of the tree of evil, and entailing upon their posterity the wrath of God and the loss of everlasting life, admits no other explanation than the disease and crime that have flowed from unnatural diet. Milton was so well aware of this that he makes Raphael thus exhibit to Adam the consequence of his disobedience:-

Immediately a place
Before his eyes appeared, sad, noisome,dark;
A lazar-house it seemed; wherein were laid
Numbers of all diseased – all maladies
Of ghastly spasm, or racking torture,qualms
Of heart-sick agony, all feverous kinds
Convulsions, epilepsies, fierce catarrahs,
Intestine stone and ulcer, colic pangs,
Demonic frenzy, moping melancholy,
And moon-struck madness, pining atrophy,
Marasmus, and wide-wasting pestilence,
Dropsies and asthmas, and joint-racking rheums

And how many thousands more might not be added to this frightful catalogue!

The story of Prometheus is one likewise which, although universally admitted to be allegorical, has never been satisfactorily explained. Prometheus stole fire from heaven, and was chained for his crime to Mount Caucasus, where a vulture continually devoured his liver, that grew to meet its hunger. Hesiod says that, before the time of Prometheus, mankind was exempt from suffering; that they enjoyed a vigorous youth, and that death, when it came approached like sleep, and gently closed their eyes. Again, so general was this opinion that Horace, a poet of the Augustan age, writes-

Audax omnia perpeti,
Gens humana ruit per vetitum nefas;
Audax Iapeti genus
Ignem fraude mala gentibus intulit:
Post ignem aetheria domo
Subductum, macies et nova febrium
Terris incubit cohors,
Semotique prius tarda necessitas
Letbi corripuit gradum

How plain a language is spoken by all this! Prometheus (who represents the human race) effected some great change in the condition of his nature, and applied fire to his culinary purposes; thus inventing an expedient for screening from his disgust the horrors of the shambles. From this moment his vitals were devoured by the vulture of disease. It consumed his being in every shape of its loathsome and infinite variety, inducing the soul-quelling sinkings of premature and violent death. All vice rose from the ruin of healthful innocence. Tyranny, superstition, commerce, and inequality were then first known, when reason vainly attempted to guide the wanderings of exacerbated passion. I conclude this part of the subject from Mr. Newton’s Defense of Vegetable Regimen, from whom I have borrowed this interpretation of the fable of Prometheus.

‘Making allowance for such transposition of the events of the allegory as time might produce after the important truths were forgotten, which this portion of the ancient mythology was intended to transmit, the drift of the fable seems to be this:- Man at his creation was endowed with the gift of perpetual youth; that is, he was not formed to be a sickly suffering creature as we now see him, but to enjoy health, and to sink by slow degrees into the bosom of his parent earth without disease or pain. Prometheus first taught the use of animal food (primus bovem occidit Prometheus) and of fire with which to render it more digestible and pleasing to the taste. Jupiter, and the rest of the gods, foreseeing the consequences of these inventions, were amused or irritated at the short-sighted devices of the newly formed creature, and left him to experience the sad effects of them. Thirst, the necessary concomitant of a flesh diet (perhaps of all diet vitiated by culinary preparation) ensued; water was resorted to, and man forfeited the inestimable gift of health which he had received from heaven: he became diseased, the partaker of a precarious existence, and no longer descended slowly into his grave.

But just disease to luxury succeeds,
And every death its own avenger breeds;
The fury passions from that blood began,
And turned on man a fiercer savage-man.

Man, and the animals whom he has infected with his society, or depraved by his dominion, are alone diseased. The wild hog, the mouflon, the bison, and the wolf, are perfectly exempt from malady, and invariably die either from external violence, or natural old age. But the domestic hog, the sheep, the cow and the dog, are subject to an incredible variety of distempers; and, like the corrupters of their nature, have physicians who thrive upon their miseries. The supereminence of man is like Satan’s, a supereminence of pain; and the majority of his species, doomed to penury, disease, and crime, have reason to curse the untoward event that, by enabling him to communicate his sensations, raised him above the level of his fellow-animals. But the steps that have been taken are irrevocable. The whole of human science is comprised in one question:- How can the advantages of intellect and civilization be reconciled with the liberty and pure pleasures of natural life? How can we take the benefits and reject the evils of the system, which is now interwoven with all the fibres of our being?- I believe that abstinence of animal food and spirituous liquors would in a great measure capacitate us for the solution of this important question.

It is true that mental and bodily derangment is attributable in part to other deviations from rectitude and nature than those which concern diet. The mistakes cherished by society respecting the connection of the sexes, whence the misery and diseases of insatisfied celibacy, unenjoying prostitution, and the premature arrival of puberty, necessarily spring; the putrid atmosphere of crowded cities; the exhalations of chemical processes; the muffling of our bodies in superfluous apparel, the absurd treatment of infants:- all these and innumerable other causes contribute their mite to the mass of human evil.

Comparative anatomy teaches us that man resembles frugivorous animals in everything, and carnivorous in nothing; he has neither claws wherewith to seize his prey, nor distinct and pointed teeth to tear the living fibre. A Mandarin of the first class, with nails two inches long, would probably find them alone inefficient to hold even a hare. After every subterfuge of gluttony, the bull must be degraded into the ox, the ram into the wether, by an unnatural and inhuman operation, that the flaccid fibre may offer a fainter resistance to rebellious nature. It is only by softening and disguising dead flesh by culinary preparation, that it is rendered susceptible of mastication or digestion; and that the sight of its bloody juices and raw horror does not excite intolerable loathing and disgust. Let the advocate of animal food force himself to a decisive experiment on its fitness, and as Plutarch recommends, tear a living lamb with his teeth, and plunging his head into its vitals, slake his thirst with the steaming blood; when fresh from the deed of horror, let him revert to the irresistible instincts of nature that would rise in justice against it, and say, ‘Nature formed me for such work as this.’ Then, and then only, would he be consistent.

Man resembles no carnivorous animal. There is no exception, unless man be one, to the rule of herbivorous animals having cellulated colons.

The orang-outang perfectly resembles man both in the order and number of its teeth. The orang-outang is the most anthropomorphous of the ape tribe, all of which are strictly frugivorous. There is no species of animals, which live on different food, in which this analogy exists. In many frugivorous animals, the canine teeth are more pointed and distinct than those of man. The resemblance of the human stomach to that of the orang-outang is greater than to that of any other animal.

The intestines are also identical to those of herbivorous animals, which present a larger surface for absorption and have ample and cellulated colons. The caecum also, though short, is larger than that of carnivorous animals; and even there the orang-outang retains its accustomed similarity.

The structure of the human frame, then, is that of one fitted to a pure vegetable diet, in every essential particular. It is true that the reluctance to abstain from animal food, in those who have been long accustomed to its stimulus, is so great in some persons of weak minds as to be scarcely overcome; but this is far from bringing any argument in its favour. A lamb, which was fed for some time on flesh by a ship’s crew, refused its natural diet at the end of the voyage. There are numerous instances of horses, sheep, oxen, and even wood pigeons, having been taught to live on flesh until they have loathed their natural aliment. Young children evidently prefer pastry, oranges, apples, and other fruit, to the flesh of animals; until by gradual deprivation of their digestive organs, the free use of vegetables has for a time produced serious inconveniences; for a time, I say, since there never was an instance wherein a change from spiritous liquors and animal food to vegetables and pure water has failed ultimately to invigorate the body, by rendering its juices bland and consentaneous, and to restore to the mind that cheerfulness and elasticity which not one in fifty possesses on the present system. A love of strong liquors is also with difficulty taught to infants. Almost everyone remembers the wry faces which the first glass of port produced. Unsophisticated instinct is invariably unerring; but to decide on the fitness of animal food from the perverted appetites which its constrained adoption produces, is to make the criminal a judge in his own cause: it is even worse, it is appealing to the infatuated drunkard in a question of the salubrity of brandy.

What is the cause of morbid action in the animal system? Not the air we breathe, for our fellow-denizens of nature breathe the same uninjured; not the water we drink (if remote from the pollutions of man and his inventions) for the animals drink it too; not the earth we tread upon; not the unobscured sight of glorious nature, the sky and ocean, nothing that we are or do in common with undiseased inhabitants of the forest. Something then, wherein we differ from them: our habit of altering our food by fire, so that our appetite is no longer a just criterion for the fitness of its gratification. Except in children, there remains no traces of that instinct which determines, in all other animals, what ailment is or otherwise; and so perfectly obliterated are they in the reasoning adults of our species, that it has become necessary to urge considerations drawn from comparative anatomy to prove that we are naturally frugivorous.

Crime is madness. Madness is disease. Whenever the cause of disease shall be discovered, the root, from which all vice and misery have so long over-shadowed the globe, will lie bare to the axe. All the exertions of man, from that moment, may be considered as tending to the clear profit of his species. No sane mind in a sane body resolves upon a real crime. It is a man of violent passions, bloodshot eyes, and swollen veins, that can alone grasp the knife of murder. The system of a simple diet promises no Utopian advantages. It is no mere reform of legislation, whilst the furious passions and evil propensities of the human heart, in which it had its origin, are still unassuaged. It strikes at the root of all evil, and is an experiment which may be tried with success, not alone by nations, but by small societies, families, and even individuals. In no cases has a return to vegetable diet produced the slightest injury; in most it has been attended with changes undeniably beneficial. Should ever a physician be born with a genius of Locke, i am persuaded that he might trace all bodily and mental derangements to our unnatural habits, as clearly as that philosopher has traced all knowledge to sensation. What prolific sources of disease are not those mineral and vegetable poisons that have been introduced for its extirpation! How many thousands have become murderers and robbers, bigots and domestic tryrants, dissolute and abandoned adventures, from the use of fermented liquors; who had they slaked their thirst only with pure water, would have lived but to diffuse their happiness of their own unperverted feelings. How many groundless opinions and absurd institutions have not received a general sanction from the sottishness and intemperance of individuals! Who will assert that, had the population of Paris satisfied their hunger at the ever-furnished table of vegetable nature, they would have lent the brutal suffrage to the proscription-list of Robespierre? Could a set of men, whose passions were not perverted by unnatural, look with coolness on an auto da fe? Is it to be believed that a being of gentle feelings, rising from his meal of roots would take delight in sports of blood? Was Nero a man of temperate life? Could you read calm health in his cheek, flushed with ungovernable propensities of hatred for the human race? Did Muley Ismael’s pulse beat evenly, was his skin transparent, did his eyes beam with healthfulness, and its invariable concomitants, cheerfulness and benignity? Though history has decided none of these questions, a child could not hesitate to answer in the negative. Surely the bile-suffused cheek of Bonaparte, his wrinkled brow, and yellow eye, the ceaseless inquietitude of his nervous system, speak no less plainly the character of his unresting ambition than his murders and his victories. It is impossible, had Bonaparte descended from a race of vegetable feeders, that he could had either the inclination or the power to ascend the throne of the Bourbons. The desire of tyranny could scarcely be excited in the individual, the power to tryannize would certainly not be delegated by a society not be delegated by a society neither frenzied by inebriation nor rendered irrational by disease. Pregnant indeed with inexhaustible calamity is the renunciation of instinct, as it concerns our physical nature; arithmetic cannot enumerate, nor reason perhaps suspect, the multitudinous source of disease in civilized life. Even common water, when corrupted by the filth of populous cities, is a deadly and insidious destroyer. Who can wonder that all the inducements held out by God Himself in the Bible to virtue should have been vainer thatn a nurse’s tale; that those whose dogmas, by which He has there excited and justified the most ferocious propensities, should have alone been deemed essential; whilst Christians are in the daily practice of all those habits which have infected with disease and crime, no only the reprobate sons, but these favoured children of the common Father’s love? Omnipotence itself could not save them from the consequences of this original and universal sin.

There is no disease, bodily or mental, which adoption of vegetable diet and pure water has not infallibly mitigated, wherever the experiment has been fairly tried. Debility is gradual converted into strength; disease into healthfulness; madness, in all its hideous variety, from the ravings of the fettered maniac to the inaccountable irrationalities of ill-temper, that make a hell of domestic life. into a calm and considerate evenness of temper, that alone might offer a certain pledge of the future moral reformation of society. On a natural system of diet, old age would be our last and our only malady; the term of our existence would be protracted; we would enjoy life, and no longer preclude others from the enjoyment of it; all sensational delights would be infinitely more exquisite and perfect; the very sense of being would then be a continued pleasure, such as we would now feel it in some few and favored moments of our youth. By all that is sacred in our hopes for the human race, I conjure those who love happiness and truth to give a fair trial to the vegetable system. Reasoning is surely superfluous on a subject whose merits an experience of six months would set for ever at rest. But it is only amoung the enlightened and benevolent that so great a sacrifice and prejudice can be expected, even though its ultimate excellence should not admit of dispute. It is found easier, by the short-sighted victims of disease, to palliate their torments by medicine than to prevent them by regimen. The vulgar of all ranks are invariably sensual and indocile; yet I cannot but feel myself persuaded that when the benefits of vegetable diet are mathematically proved, when it is clear that those who live naturally are exempt from premature death as that nine is not one, the most sottish of mankind will feel a preference towards a long and tranquil, contrasted with a short and painful, life. On the average, out of sixty persons four die in three years. Hopes are entertained that, in April 1814, a statement will be given that sixty, all having lived more than three years on vegetables and pure water, are then in perfect health. More than two years have now elapsed; not one of them has died; no such example will be found in any sixty persons taken at random. Seventeen persons of all ages (the family of Dr. Lamb and Mr. Newton) have lived for seven years on this diet without a death, and almost without the slightest illness. Surely, when we consider that some of these were infants, and one a martyr to asthma now clearly subdued, we may challenge any seventeen persons taken at random in this city to exhibit a parallel case. Those who may have been questioned the rectitude of established habits of diet by those loose remarks, should consult Dr. Newton’s luminous and eloquent essay.



2 thoughts on “Shelley Sunday: ‘On Vegetarianism’ (One of several essays written by Shelley on the subject)

  1. Fascinating tract, and he makes some cogent points, especially if one relies on religion or 17th-century and earlier literature rather than modern science. It would be interesting to have Shelley travel through time and reflect on Darwin’s Origin of Species or more modern research by Goodall ( and others showing the sometimes brutal and carnivorous nature of, say, chimpanzees, which share a lot of human DNA (which Shelley obviously could not have known). Love the Shelley Sundays, Brandy!

    • Thanks, Leigh!

      Yes, that’s a good point. I also wonder what Shelley would say regarding his own ill health in respects to his vegetarian diet. Shelley argues that adopting such a diet should eradicate most disease and entice good health, yet Shelley constantly complained of his own ill health, particularly chronic stomach problems. Of course, his stomach issues certainly weren’t helped any by his prescribed laudanum use!

      Oh, those wacky chimps! I remember studying them in some depth in my anthropology courses. Some bits are truly horrifying, eh? At one point, my professor explained the difference between bonobos and chimps this way: imagine the first Woodstock was thrown by the peace-loving, hippie bonobos – the 1995 Woodstock would be ruled by the hyped-up chimps.

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