International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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1847-1981 :

A thesis presented to the London School of Economics, University of London,
for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, by Julia Twigg
©AUTUMN 1981 - Thesis Index

The author is now Professor of Social Policy and Sociology at Kent University, England, and has given permission for this previously unpublished thesis to be published on the IVU website. The ownership and copyright remain hers and no part of this thesis may be used elsewhere without her express permission.


[Numerical links are to the author's footnotes, use your back button to return to the same point in the text. Text links are to relevant items on the IVU website, all open in new windows]


There is tension in the history of vegetarianism between its dualist tendencies and, particularly in the modern period, its associations with holism. (1) The dualism comes out in the concern over pure and impure foods, with the spirit and the body and with the avoidance of carnally stimulating foods. There is also the older historical link with radical dualism. (2) This tradition of asceticism is present to some degree in modern vegetarianism. But at the same time, vegetarianism has been centrally concerned with physical health and well-being. Vegetarians celebrate bodily health and sometimes almost interpret salvation in terms of it. Modern vegetarianism has also been strongly connected with traditions that have stressed the One and the Whole.

This tension relates to a second issue. Vegetarianism does echo Mary Douglas' thesis that it is in ambiguity that impurity arises, for in the ambiguity of meat is contained the ambiguity of nature. (This point takes up the issue raised at the end of Chapter 3). Vegetarians do not eat meat because it makes you one both in substance and in action with animal nature, and with an abhorrent animality; but vegetarians also reject meat because we are one with nature, so that killing and eating fractures that harmony, is cannibalistic and repugnant. Vegetarian eating, as with cooking in the dominant scheme, cuts us off from the 'bestial' habits of animals and asserts that we are different; but vegetarian eating also cuts us off from the cruel distorting society, reuniting us with true nature. Vegetarianism has an ambiguous attitude to nature - as indeed does dominant culture - it both fears it and desires to be one with it. (3) This paradox is resolved by means of their concept of wholeness and by the picture of nature that they construct. This can be understood in three stages. (4)

We start with the conception of human nature as basically good. This is a fundamental aspect of the modern vegetarian religious tradition. (5) It has its roots in romanticism with its concept of a natural humanity made monstrous by civilisation. It is at the heart of the socialist tradition, with its vision of the potentiality of man and of his essential nature as good, true and co-operative. (6) It is a powerful theme in liberal social thought; and also in the counter culture, where the emphasis on the virtues of passionate impulse draws on the sense of the rightness of unmediated feeling from the heart of the self. The pessimism concerning human nature that is part of the tradition of conservative social thought, with its response of resignation and repression, is rejected. Similarly there are few hard-line Freudians among the vegetarians. (7) In these vegetarian traditions, the gross, cruel, and, above all, aggressive aspects of being are not really part of our fundamental natures, but are engendered by a distorting society and - here - a distorting way of eating - carnivorous. These features are not natural, but are the products of artificial stimulation. It is not so much that the undesirable features of our natures are controlled or channelled as actually reduced by the effects of the diet. They are not fully part of mankind; they are the dross in the true metal,

At the second stage this picture is projected out on to nature, and nature is in effect moralised. If we look at two of the central vegetarian arguments - that based on ethical considerations and that appealing to the idea of a natural way of life - it is clear that they in fact pull two ways. (8) The ethical argument rests upon the assertion of the importance of mankind's moral sense, and humanity is directly associated with this capacity to act according to ethical principles, so that implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, we are set apart from the beasts, and no moral issues are raised by their actions. (9) Yet at the same time we find in vegetarianism very prominently the use of the appeal to the natural, which both stresses man's oneness with the animal kingdom and. roots the necessity for vegetarianism in the natural order. (10) What vegetarians do, in effect, is to declare that goodness is natural.

There tends for example to be some selection among the animals, the ones that come to the fore tend to be those that are seen as symbols of gentleness and innocence. The carnivores do not make much of an appearance in vegetarian literature, (11) and where they do, there is a tendency to overlook their habits or even to assert that they too were once vegetarian. (12) Thus even they can be brought into a picture of nature that is essentially harmonious and beneficient. Not all vegetarians would subscribe to such a view of the carnivores; but what the expression represents is the embodiment in an actual theory, of feelings that are more pervasive. Indeed it is a dream that has older and wider roots than modern vegetarianism, for it is part of the image of redeemed creation found in the famous passage of Isaiah. It is not so much that many vegetarians would actually deny that certain animals are by their nature carnivorous, but that in the context of the image of nature this aspect is passed over, and what is left unsaid fades from view.

Nature is not presented here as a vast canvas of death and predation; there is no sense of the cry from every thicket. Nature in this context stands rather for largeness and wonder - the majestic harmony and order in the universe - drawing on the eternal beauty of the stars, the round of the seasons - all that is greater than man, Nature's indifference and destructiveness are passed over in favour of beneficence and guidance; nature points the way, corrects our errors and leads us back to spiritual health. 'We must hear the lesson of nature in the rhythms of oceans and seasons and of trees and animals. To go with the ebb and flow, rise and fall of all things . . . The lesson then from nature is to go with the flow, with one's natural rhythms and not to push the river'. (13) Nature is a source of redemptive power and contact with it is prized. Nature is seen as containing messages and truths of deep emotional impact. It is a framework of meaning and not an alien object for our regard or exploitation.

At the third stage, this picture of harmonised nature is projected back on to mankind and used to criticise the social. Society is identified with falseness; it is artificial, inauthentic and distorting. Humanity is regarded as having a pre-social, social self that is natural to it arid good. Nature is presented as superior to culture; for example, it is asserted (wrongly) that animals never kill their own species, nor do they kill more than they need to eat, and these natural habits are held up against mankind's notorious record of murder and destruction. War is not just wrong but unnatural; and Nature thus becomes the ultimate standard of legitimacy. The dilemma of what can properly be natural to man, in a social sense, is solved by the constructed yardstick of moralised nature. Man projects his aspirations out on to nature, and then uses it to judge and condemn society.

This brings us to the vegetarian concept of wholeness. What we have in vegetarianism is a monistic system, and like all monistic systems, it suffers from what might be called the lack of a satanic principle An ethic of naturalness must struggle inevitably with disjunctions, for where natural and good and equated, there are serious difficulties in understanding the painful and undesirable aspects of life. This is even more of a problem in a system like vegetarianism, that stresses the Whole and the One. It negotiates these by means of a prior extraction. A quotation from William James on the Religion of Healthimindedness is relevant here 'The Ideal so far from being  co-extensive with the whole actual is a mere extract from the actual, marked by its deliverance from all contact with this diseased, inferior and excrementitious stuff'. (14) The key lies in the prior extraction for the rejection of meat forms a boundary around the pure within which the ethic of wholeness is unassailed. The whole can be taken because all is safely pure, the disjunctions, defined as unreal, have been placed outside the system. It is not only against the impurity of meat that the purity of wholefoods is contrasted, for as important in the modern period has been the rejection of 'junk' foods-foods through which the concepts of impurity and unreality are again strongly linked. (15)

This structure of wholeness is found most clearly in the food, though the concept permeates the vegetarian system; it is the wholeness of potatoes mashed in their skins, of whole brown rice; it is in the surroundings of the vegetarian restaurants with their rough stoneware and coarse undyed fabrics. Vegetarians reverse the long tradition that has favoured refinement and polish in artifacts and food and substitute neutral rawness and wholeness. It linked with the assertion, especially in the counter culture, of the instinctual and the bodily as against what has been the slow historical growth of the imposition of restraint on behaviour and the internalisation of sensibility as recounted for example by Elias. (16) But their praise of natural rawness in life never leads in eating patterns to tearing at raw meat, or biting the heads off sparrows; it is never a culture of yahoos. This leads to a second and related point which concerns the way this structure of wholeness enables vegetarianism to resolve, or at least evade, the tensions of the liberal dilemma. Vegetarianism is linked with the growth of humane feeling and particularly with attempts to reduce the cruelty and violence of the world, and it is also linked with the rational, reformist spirit that since the Enlightenment has sought to apply objective, universal and humane criteria to the consideration of man, society and the world. But this general shift in consciousness, which is rooted in the structures of the modern world, has a second side to it, for it results also in the retreat from the concrete, the instinctual and the particular.

Salt makes a revealing comment in this context when he refers to the view of critics like Chesterton that the reformers of the modern world 'touch fewer and fewer things'. (17) Modern vegetarianism attacks the coldness and abstraction of modern consciousness, but in doing so it reconstructs instinctual nature in ways that evade the inherent nature of the tension.

  1. Modern in this context is the period covered by this thesis.
  2. The Manichaean tradition views flesh as totally evil, all nature as corruption, and the cessation of physical being as the proper end. If one is to eat - and Manichaeanism strictly implies starvation, and has in certain periods been pursued to that end through the endura - vegetarian food is the nearest one can get to the rejection of all flesh in the rejection of flesh food. Despite its heretical status, there has always been an element of Manichaeanism in Christianity, indeed the tension of Christianity's relation to the world produces a structure of ideas in which Manichaeanism will be a logically recurring element.
  3. Roger Elliot the astrologist and a vegetarian wrote in the New Vegetarian, March 1978, p9, on this subject. 'I say "we"', knowing full well that vegetarians have an ambiguous attitude towards animals. In many ways, we support and revere animals more than most people do. One of the principal reasons why many of us became veggy in the first place was a hatred of cruelty towards animals.
     'We recognise, quicker than many people, the right of all animal species to co-exist on Earth with humanity. Yes, we are all animal lovers.
     'And yet, due to our faddy eating habits, we -also keep animals at arm's distance. However disgusting it may seem to us, the act of consuming their flesh does put the meat-eater in a close relationship with animals. We, on the other hand, deliberately forbid ourselves to eat meat. Ugh, that's pork or bacon, we say to ourselves; and although this need not affect our attitudes to living pigs, I believe in the long run that it does. Our constant denial of flesh does seem to alienate vegetarians somewhat from the animal kingdom.
     'It is only a guess, but I imagine that vegetarians tend to be a bit more frightened of animals than I 'ordinary' people are. We, after all, treat animals as equals, yet have few day-to-day dealings with them - apart from pets which are a special category. Farmers, hunters and other exploiters of animals, on the other hand, have a clear master-servant relationship with them; animals are their slaves, and the only fear in such a relationship stems from the animal, not the exploiter'.
  4. These three stages are not a causal sequence, but an arrangement of features.
  5. Starting from the Swedenborgianism of the Bible Christians with their stress not on essential depravity but on human capacity, and with the Pelagian emphasis that they share with the deists of the time, and continuing in the tradition of New England Transcendentalism. In the late-nineteenth-century religious link, the repudiation of the doctrine of sin is a central feature, and one that still reverberates today in its modern counterparts. The appeal of Indian religion has similarly drawn on its being perceived as free from the western emphasis on sin. Man's essential goodness is a fundamental aspect of quakerism; and in those gnostic versions of Christianity like the Order of the Cross there is a particular antipathy to Pauline Christianity.
  6. Especially the utopian, co-operative and ethicalist traditions, and also their more recent rediscoverers and supporters. It is strong in the Tolstoyan anarchists with their emphasis on voluntary choice of individuals and the capacity of this voluntarism to act as the basis of a co-operative and just society.
  7. Jon Wynne Tyson, for example, in a review in Alive, Sept 1978, p40, asserts that the writings of Anthony Storr: 'whose concentration on the "sombre fact that we are the cruelest and most ruthless species" has sadly misled many people by confusing "aggression" with "energy" and by cementing the notion that human beings are instinctively and unredeemably savage.
     'The conscience-salving belief that man is naturally a hunter and killer, eager for war and the violent answer, is without scientific evidence . . .' Tyson quotes from Storr ". . . we know in our hearts that each of us harbours within himself those same savage impulses that lead to murder, to torture and to war . . . we have to face the fact that man's proclivity for cruelty is rooted in his biological peculiarities"', but replies 'Bosh and double bosh!'
    Fox in his Between Animal and Man, 1976, also rejects Lorenz's belief in the inborn aggressiveness of man. 'The environment - the social/political milieu - is to blame in man; it is his human nurture not human nature, that is at fault. Once we accept the basic goodness of mankind and reinforce rather than belittle that intrinsic goodness, and also focus our attention on the real causes of aggression [which Fox argues are pain and fear and the ego-defences that arise from them] then we may be able to work constructively for peace'. p98.
  8. Francis Newman was unusual among the vegetarians in explicitly recognising this point; he focussed on the first, that of moral striving.
  9. Thus, for example, Brigid Brophy argues that man cannot escape his moral being, for he, unlike the tiger, is free to choose. The argument that man in killing only acts as other animals on the evolutionary chain depends, she argues, upon a wish to be freed from the demands of morality, but it is not found with any corresponding demand to be freed of all the other 'unnatural' benefits of civilisation. Brophy and others who argue from a clear position within moral philosophy tend to put aside questions of naturalness. Their concentration on formal moral propositions is, however, untypical.
  10. The usages of the word natural have been so many and so lacking in a clear central core of agreed meaning that discussion of it quickly becomes bogged down in paradoxes, or split into a hundred separate nuances. I have therefore not attempted to offer a survey of the issue - a large part of the intellectual history of the west could be written around this question. There are however, two central axes around which the major difficulties turn: these are 1) the conflict between a conception of the ways things are, and of how they ought to be - natural as description and prescription; and 2) the relationship of man and nature, for sometimes nature means all that exists or takes place independent of man, but sometimes it includes man, though in what aspects of his being, and in the status of those that are not so regarded, is much disputed territory.
  11. The Revelation of Ramala asserts that animals were once vegetarian and that man has been the cause of the downfall: 'The fact that the Animal Kingdom is "red in tooth and claw" . . . is purely a reflection of Man's own behaviour', p129. In some of the spiritual versions, spiritual evolution will eventually lead to the animals also becoming vegetarians.
  12. The issue of the diet of pets has been one that has provoked disagreement. Many find preparing meat for pets distasteful, and therefore bring up their dogs, successfully, as vegetarians. In the earlier periods the issue was less prominent, though when vegetarian dogs did appear in the literature they did so with a propagandist vigour not found today. Thus it was argued, in parallel with the emphasis within vegetarianism itself, that the change from a meat to an oatmeal diet could, actually benefit a dog: 'He [a dog previously so ferocious that no-one could go near him] became a civilised being, and he knew how to behave himself like a good and faithful dog. Now the dog is a carnivorous animal by nature, and yet his nature can be improved'. (DR, Oct 1870, p103) Today the debate is between those who regard meat as the natural food of a dog so that such conversions are but 'another example of Man's arrogance in imposing his will on the lower creatures', (New Vegetarian, Nov 1977, p7)and those who argue that the life of a pet is so unnatural already that it hardly matters. (New Vegetarian, Feb 1978, March 1978).
  13. Fox, Between Animal and Man, p43
  14. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, 1902, Fontana ed., p142.
  15. See p.327,
  16. N. Elias, The Civilisation Process: The History of Manners 1978
  17. Seventy Years, p128, from G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 1909, p176-9.

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