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8th World Vegetarian Congress 1932

Berlin/Hamburg, Germany

From The Vegetarian News (London), September 1932:



This article, like the earlier one in our present issue, consists of a summary made from a translation of an address given at the recent International Vegetarian Congress. As stated last month, the speaker was at one time Leo Tolstoy's private secretary.

It is now four years since the centenary of the birth of Leo Tolstoy,. who certainly must be accounted one of the great ones of the earth, was celebrated. During the last twenty-three years of his life he was a vegetarian and by reason of his great fame and moral authority he must needs be said to have done great service to the vegetarian movement.

He understood thoroughly the hygienic grounds for vegetarianism, but it was not for such reasons that he became a vegetarian. Most assuredly, it was the ethical standpoint that influenced him. Nor was the idea that was in his mind either detached or isolated. On the contrary, that idea was essentially associated with his world outlook, that outlook, perhaps, being most correctly summarised in all that is expressed in the word "humane." Tolstoy always declared that he was a Christian, by which he meant he had no new teaching to promulgate, his business being simply to translate the teachings of the gospels into modern speech and practice. Man, he held, though confined within the limits of the flesh, yet remains the expression of an eternal Principle. In a word, he is a son of God, and by inference all men are brothers. The natural bond between them is the bond of love, and this should extend also to all living creatures. One and the same "soul" is common to all, and, realising this, it becomes impossible that men should either slay or hurt animals. Moreover, as he likewise held, not through self-indulgence, but through abstemiousness and self-denial, lies the true road to the perfectionment of the individual, and in this process the forgoing of flesh-food must be accounted to be "The First Step." The publication of Tolstoy's essay under the title just quoted had a quite staggering effect upon the Russian society of his day, many fine and sensitive people thus becoming vegetarians.

Tolstoy also touched on vegetarianism in several other of his works, and from these references as a whole, as well as from his spoken utterances, it is possible to obtain a clear idea of his views in relation to the various problems in which vegetarians are interested. In regard to the use of dairy produce, for example - and he himself took both milk and eggs - he held that every man must act in accordance with the strength of his own conviction and resolution. The ideal of nourishment is that this should be obtained only from fruits. Striving always after the highest perfectionment of which he is possible, each man should proceed step by step.

Arid similarly, what of man's relationship to the wild animals and to the insects? Here also progress must be on the same lines. Meantime, man's own attitude, with the "atmosphere" it creates must needs always count for something. But if, he still really be too weak to solve the problem on grounds satisfactory to his own conscience, let him not try to justify himself. As regards noisome insects our aim should be 'so to act as to free ourselves from them without having recourse to killing them, and to be rid of them by means of cleanliness.''

Withal, though Tolstoy welcomed the establishment of vegetarian ideas, he saw only too clearly the practical and psychological difficulties so often bound up with their realisation, and that frequently such ideas must fit in but ill with present conditions. So little, indeed, at present is man to be accounted spiritual, altruistic, or fully developed ! Having gained "the first step" (of abstinence from flesh foods) let the vegetarian, too, realise that there are many further steps also waiting to be achieved. As means to that end, the intuition, as Tolstoy held, is so much more capable of discernment than the understanding.

Tolstoy, felt very keenly the absolute inhumanity of the eating flesh, and on one occasion (as has so often been told), by way of clinching an argument with a sister-in-law who was a confirmed flesh-eater ordered a live fowl to be tied near her place at the luncheon-table and for a plate and large knife likewise to be provided ; whereupon he proceeded to address her somewhat as follows : We all know, dear, ---, how fond you are of flesh and we should like to provide you with what you wish; but the difficulty is that none of us can bring himself to slay the bird for you. Therefore, there seems to be no other way but to ask that you should do it for yourself." His guest, however, who was much perturbed, could not bring herself to do as was suggesland was obliged, for that occasion at least, to deny herself the right to eat flesh, which she had hitherto so vehemently claimed to be her due.

In estimating the character of Tolstoy it is but fair that we should remember the remarkable process of evolution of which that most extraordinary man was himself the living example. By nature proud impatient and passionate, his spiritual re-birth was the result of unremitting pains he spent upon his own character. Holding, instance, as he did in his later years, conscientious scruples against the use of tobacco and of alcoholic liquors, he was actually still continuing to smoke whilst writing against both smoking and drinking. The former habit, indeed, he found especially difficult to forgo - more difficult for him than giving up fiesh-foods - but, in obedience to conscientious scruple, at last he conquered it. When we compare his earlier with his later years it is obvious how great was the mighty spiritual struggle that he passed through. The process of moral evolution thus illustrated in his own experience is, I suggest, particularly instructive and actually, perhaps, the most valuable thing that has bequeathed to us. The man of weak and vacillating character who is prone to despair of the struggle perpetually going on within himself will do well, as means of self-encouragement, to reflect upon the case of Tolstoy. Henceforth it must be accepted that the possibility of a higher unfoldment of character is open to each one of us. For what he has revealed to us of how, in particular, one with the prejudices associated with flesh-eating we should all be grateful to him.

The friends and followers of Tolstoy played a great part in the work of the Moscow Vegetarian Society ; but the whole of its possesions were confiscated three years ago by the Soviet Government, and to-day in Russia there is no organised vegetarian movement. So weak, it seems, is the position of the dictator that even the vegetarian idea is accounted dangerous ! For all that, Russian vegetarians, amid all their difficulties, yet continue to show a spirit of " victorious earnestness."

Many economic communities were also established by followers of Tolstoy, but, finally, I must tell you something about the Doukhobors, a people - the name means "warriors of the spirit" - whose existence, as a following, goes back even to the middle of the eighteenth century. The Doukhohors are, in fact, a Christian peasant society, existing without the fold of the Church, whose message received an added
strength by reason of the influx of the teaching of Tolstoy, the whole society in 1890, under the direct influence of one, Peter Werigin by name, electing to become vegetarians. In 1898, under the Russian régime it that time, and with the direct assistance of Tolstoy, about 8,000 the Doukhobors decided to migrate to Canada, where their numbers have since grown to about 15,000 - all, with but few exceptions, still being vegetarians.

I bring forward this example only to show how potent indeed is the message when it arises from deep conviction. Tolstoy fires the spirit of Werigin, and Werigin, in turn, is likewise able to inflame the hearts of thousands ; the result being a new social order, with its accompanying influx into the public opinion and the public conscience. We of the present day lack faith in the inner worth and spiritual powers of mankind! Ought we not, as an International Vegetarian Union, to enlist ourselves as part of the great movement f'or the abolition of war? Is this not, in fact, a step which the inner logic commands? And in such association as this may it not actually be that a new birth for both movements is likely to be found?

I close what I have to say with the words of Leo Tolstoy himself: "Here, indeed, outwardly, are we met but inwardly we are bound to every living creature. Already are we conscious of many of the motions of the spiritual world, but others have not yet been borne in upon us. Nevertheless they come, even as the earth presently comes to see the light of the stars, which to our eyes at this moment is invisible."