If you think that vegetarianism is a fairly recent fad, all the more suspect for being associated with George Bernard Shaw, Adolf Hitler, and open-toed sandals, you would be profoundly mistaken. In this copiously researched history of the subject, Tristram Stuart demonstrates not only the extraordinary length and depth of the vegetarian tradition, but also the fascinating fact of its connection with radical politics and the most refined spiritual philosophy.
The principal motivations for vegetarianism have been constant throughout its history. One is that animals, as sentient beings, belong to the same moral universe as humans, and merit respect and good treatment therefore, which includes their not being killed and eaten. Another is that to eat meat is to make the human body a graveyard for dead animal flesh, which is polluting and unhealthy. A third is that meat production is wasteful and ecologically damaging, as shown by the swathes of rain forest felled every year for beef pasturage, and the fact that an acre of grazing can produce food for only two people whereas the same extent of arable land can feed 20.
All these considerations have weighed with vegetarians over the centuries. Stuart shows how deeply the first Western visitors to India were impressed by the Brahmins' (and Buddhists' and Jains') eschewal of flesh, evidencing a degree of moral development superior to their own Christianity - which of course they had until then regarded as the ne plus ultra of ethics. The cult of the East that flourished in the 18th century in part premised itself on the abstemiousness of its sages, so contrasted to the demolition of vast haunches of smoking beef on which the rising classes of England gorged themselves.
But the visitors were thereby disregarding the strong theme of vegetarianism in the Western and even Christian tradition itself, as Stuart shows, and which, even as its Indian version was being "discovered" in the 17th century, was flourishing among Dissenters, for whom radical religion and radical politics were the same thing.
In fact, as Stuart is careful to explain, the link between dietary attitudes in India and the Western tradition goes back a long way. Alexander the Great sent an envoy to India's "gymnosophists" - "naked philosophers" - to learn their views, and the envoy was amazed to find how congruous those views were with the philosophy of Pythagoras, the thinker who so influenced Plato and who taught vegetarianism on the grounds of metempsychosis (the transmigration of human souls into animals). From the Christian point of view, it was already implicit in the scriptures that Adam and the antediluvian generations were vegetarian, and some commentators argued that flesh-eating was first permitted after the flood as a mark of the deity's lowered expectations of humanity.
Stuart does not mention the idea (though it must be one of the few things his vast research overlooked) that these commentators could have annexed the fact of Eastern vegetarianism to the theory that Chinese was the original language of mankind, on the grounds that the descendants of Noah who went east were not implicated in the confusion of tongues at Babel. Logic (of the lunatic sort applied in these domains of thought) demands that if the easteners were still speaking the antediluvian tongue, they were still eating the antediluvian diet.
Given that vegetarianism has seemed less a matter of eccentricity and more a matter of health and reason only recently, it comes as a surprise to learn how fashionable it was in the 18th century. This was chiefly owing to two large characters, one of them literally so: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with his cult of nature, and the infamously obese Dr George Cheyne, who trimmed himself by a vegetarian diet, and proceeded to enjoin it on all those of his patients (such as Samuel Richardson) whom he had first systematically poisoned with mercury. This last he did in good faith, for mercury was considered a sovereign medicine. A society lady starved to death on Cheyne's diet, but that deterred neither him nor his other patients, and his success rate among gout sufferers was doubtless good.
There are many paths into history, and it is a delight to find that this one is so illuminating about matters as seemingly unconnected as ancient Greek philosophy, 17th-century English Dissent, India, Richardson's Clarissa, the French Revolution, Malthus (who thought it a bad thing that more people could be fed on grain than meat, since this exacerbated the population problem), Shelley, and much besides, with nudist vegetarians popping up recurringly in their midst, and with beautifully inane theological quarrels at every turn.
Stuart writes with flair and intelligence, and this debut shows that he is destined to be a luminous presence in his literary generation. It is scarcely a cavil to say that in so wide-reaching and massively-referenced work there should be a garnishing of mistakes; for one example, Pythagoras is not a "Hellenistic" philosopher, for that epithet characterises things of the post-Classical Greek world; and for another, the Rosicrucians were not a religious sect - for the merits of his absorbing and instructive book far outweigh them. He might even make some converts to vegetarianism itself, which, speaking as one, I would hail as a deserved bonus.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies