An Intellectual History of Vegetarianism

Daniel Lazare in The Nation reviews Tristram Stuart’s The Bloodless Revolution, an intellectual history of vegetarianism:

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.

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