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The Ethics of Diet - A Catena
by Howard Williams M.A., 1883

Sylvester Graham - extracts

Sylvester GRAHAM, 1794-1851
(text from the 1st edition, 1883)

As an exponent of the physiological basis of the Vegetarian theory of diet, in the most elaborate minuteness, the author of Lectures on Science of Human Life has always had great repute amongst food reformers both in the United States and in this country. Collaterally connected with the ducal house of Montrose, his father, a graduate of Oxford, emigrated to Boston, U.S., in the year 1718. He must have attained an advanced age when his seventeenth child, Sylvester, was born at Suffield, in Connecticut. Yet he seems to have been of a naturally dyspeptic and somewhat feeble constitution, which was inherited by his son, whose life, in fact, was preserved only by the method recommended by Locke - free exposure in the open air. During several years he lived with an uncle, on whose farm he was made to work with the labourers. In his twelfth year he was sent to a school in New York, and at fourteen he was set for a short time to learn the trade of paper-making. "He is described as handsome, clever, and imaginative. 'I had heard,' he says, 'of noble deeds, and longed to follow in the field of fame.' Ill health soon obliged his return to the country, an at sixteen symptoms of consumption appeared. Various occupations were tried until the time, when about twenty years of age, he commenced as a teacher of youth, proving highly successful with his pupils. Again ill-health obliged the abandonment of this pursuit." (1)

At the age of thirty-two he married, and soon after became a preacher in the Presbyterian Church. Deeply interested in the question of "Temperance," he was invited to lecture for that cause by the Pennsylvania Society (1830). He now began the study of physiology and comparative anatomy, in which his interest was unremitting. These important sciences were used to good effect in his future dietetic crusade. At this time he came in contact with Metcalfe [William Metcalfe of the Bible Christian Church, Philadelphia], by whom he was confirmed in, if not in the first instance converted to, the principles of radical dietary reform. "He was soon led to believe that no permanent cure for intemperance could be found, except in such change of personal and social customs as would relieve the human being from all desire for stimulants. This idea he soon applied to medicine, so that the prevention and cure of disease, as well as remedy for intemperance, were seen to consist mainly in the adoption of correct habits of living, and the judicious adaptation of hygienic agencies. These ideas were elaborated in an Essay on Cholera (1832), and a course of lectures which were delivered in various parts of the country, and subsequently published under the title of Lectures on the Science of Human Life (2 vols., Boston, 1839). This has been the leading textbook of all the dietetic and nearly all the health reformers since." (2)

The Science of Human Life is one of the most comprehensive as well as minute text books on scientific dietetics ever put forth. If it errs at all, it errs on the side of redundancy - a feature which it owes to the fact that it was published to the world as it was orally given. It therefore well bears condensation, and this has been judiciously done by Mr. Baker, whose useful edition is probably in the hands of most of our readers. Graham was also the author of a treatise on Bread and Bread-Making, and "Graham bread" is now universally known as one of the most wholesome kinds of he "staff of life." Besides these more practical writings, for some time before his death he occupied his leisure in the production of a Philosophy of Sacred History, the characteristic idea of which seems to have been to harmonise the dogmas of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures with his published views on physiology and dietetics. He lived to complete one volume only (12mo.) which appeared after his death.

Tracing the history of Medicine from the earlier times, and its more or less of empiricism in all its stages, Graham discovers the cause of a vast proportion of all the egregious failure of its professors in the blind prejudice which induces them to apply to the temporary cure, rather than to the prevention, of disease As it was in its first barbarous beginning, so it has continued, with little really essential change, to the present moment :-

"Everything is done with a view to cure disease, without any regard to its cause, and the disease is considered as the infliction of some supernatural being. Therefore, in the progress of the healing art thus far, not a step is taken towards investigating the laws of health and the philosophy of disease.

"Nor, after Medicine had received a more systematic form, did it apply to those researches which were most essential to its success, but like religion, it became blended with superstitions and absurdities. hence, the history of Medicine, with very with very limited exceptions, is a tissue of ignorance and error, and only serves to demonstrate the absence of that knowledge upon which alone and enlightened system of Medicine can be founded, and to show to what extent a noble art can be perverted from its capabilities of good to almost unmixed evil by this ignorance, superstition, and cupidity of men. In modern times, anatomy and surgery have been carried nearly to perfection, and great advance has been made in physiology. The science of human life has been studied with interest and success, but this has been confined to the few, while even in our day, and in the medical profession itself, the general tendency is adverse to the diffusion od scientific knowledge.

* * * * * *

"The result is, that when men prodigally waste the resources as if the energies of life were inexhaustible; and when they have brought on disease which destroys their comforts, they fly to the physician, not to learn by what violation of the laws of life they have drawn the evil upon themselves, and by what means they can avoid the same; but, considering themselves visited with afflictions which they have in no manner been concerned in causing, they require the physician's remedies, by which their sufferings may be alleviated. In doing this, the more the practice of the physician conforms to the appetites of the patient, the greater is his popularity and the more generously he is rewarded.

"Everything, therefore, in society tends to confine the practicing physician to the department of therapeutics, and make him a mere curer of disease; and the consequence is, that the medical fraternity have little inducement to apply themselves to the study of the science of life, while almost everything, by which men can be corrupted, is presented to induce them to become the mere pandera of human ignorance and folly; and, if they do not sink into the merest empiricism. it is owing to their own moral sensibility rather than to the encouragement they receive to pursue an elevated scientific professional career.

"Thus the natural and acquired habits of man concur to divert his attention from the study of human life, and hence he is left to feel his way to, or gather from what he calls experience, all the conclusions which he embraces. It has been observed that men, in their (so-called) inductive reasonings deceive themselves continually, and think that they are reasoning from facts and experience, when they are only reasoning from a mixture of truth and falsehood. The only end answered by facts so incorrectly apprehended is that of making error more incorrigible. Nothing, indeed, is so hostile to the interests of Truth as facts incorrectly observed. On no subjects are men so liable to misapprehend facts, and mistake the relation between cause and effect, as on that of human life, health, and disease."

By the opponents of dietetic reform it has been pretended that climate, or individual constitution, must determine the food proper for nations, or individuals :-

"We have been told that some enjoy health in warm, and others in cold climates; some on one kind of diet, and under one set of circumstances, and some under another; that therefore, what is best for one, is not for another; what agrees well with one, disagrees with another; that what is one man's meat, is another man's poison; that different constitutions require different treatment ; and that, consequently, no rules can be laid down adapted to all circumstances which can be made a basis of regimen to all.

"Without taking pains to examine circumstances, people consider the bare fact that some intemperate individuals reach old age evidence that such habits are not unfavorable to life. With the same loose reasoning, people arrive at conclusions equally erroneous in regard to nations. If a tribe subsisting on vegetable food, is weak, sluggish, and destitute of courage and enterprise, it is concluded that vegetable food is the cause. Yet examination might have shown that causes fully adequate to these effects existed, which not only exonerated the vegetable diet, but made it appear that the vegetable diet had a redeeming effect, and was the means by which the nation was saved from a worse condition.

"The fact that individuals have attained a great age in certain habits of living is no evidence that those habits are favorable to longevity. The only use which we can make of cases of extraordinary old age, is to show how the human constitution is capable of sustaining the vital economy, and resisting the causes which induce death.

" If we ask how we must live to secure the best health and longest life, the answer must be drawn from physiological knowledge; but if we ask how long the best mode of living will preserve life, the reply is, Physiology cannot teach you that. Probably each aged individual has a mixture of good and bad habits, and has lived in a mixture of favorable and unfavorable circumstances. Notwithstanding apparent diversity, there is a pretty equal amount of what is salutary in the habits and circumstances of each. Some have been 'correct' in one thing, some in another. All that is proved by instances of great longevity in connexion with bad habits is, that such individuals are able to resist causes that have, in the same time, sent thousands of their fellow-beings to an untimely grave; and, under a proper regimen, would have sustained life, perhaps a hundred and fifty years.

"Some have more constitutional [or inherited] powers to resist the causes of disease than others, and, therefore, what will destroy the life of one may be borne another a long time without any manifestations of immediate injury. There are, also, constitutional peculiarities; but these are far more rare than is generally supposed. Indeed, such may, in almost every case be overcome entirely by a correct regimen. So far as the general laws of life and the application of general principles of regimen are considered, the human constitution is one; there are no constitutional differences which will not yield to a correct regimen, and thus improve the individual. Consequently, what is best for one is best for all. . . . Some are born without any tendency to disease while others have the predisposition to particular disease of some kind. But differences result from causes which man has the power to control; and it is certain that all can be removed by conformity to the laws of life for generations; and the human species can be brought to as great uniformity, as to health and life, as the lower animals.

With Hufeland, Flourens, and other scientific authorities, he maintains that :-

Physiological science affords no evidence that the human constitution is not capable of gradually returning to the primitive longevity of the species. The highest interests of out nature require that youthfulness should be prolonged. And it is as capable of being reserved as life itself, both depending on the same conditions. If there ever was a state of the human constitution which enabled it to sustain life [much beyond the present period], that state involved a harmony of relative conditions. The vital processes were less rapid and more complete than at present,development was slower, organisation more perfect; childhood protracted, and the change from youth to manhood took place at a much greater remove from birth. Hence, if we now aim at long life, we can secure our object only by conformity to those laws by which youthfulness is prolonged."

As for the omniverousness of the human animal :-

The ourang-outang, on being domesticated, readily learns to eat animal food. But if this proves that animal to be naturally omnivorous, then the Horse, Cow, Sheep, and others are omnivorous, for every one of them is easily trained to eat animal food. Horses have frequently been trained to eat animal food (3), and sheep have been so accustomed to as to refuse grass. All carnivorous animals can be trained to a vegetable diet, and brought to subsist upon it, with less inconvenience and deterioration than herbivorous or frugivorous animals can be brought to live on animal food. comparative anatomy, therefore proves that man is naturally a frugivorous animal, formed to subsist upon fruits and vegetables. (4)

The stimulating, or alcoholic, property of flesh produces the delusion that it is, therefore, the most nourishing :-

"Yet by so much as the stimulation exceeds that which is necessary for the performance of the functions of the organs, the more does the expenditure of vital powers exceed the renovating economy; and the exhaustion which succeeds is commensurate with the excess. Hence, though food which contains the greatest proportion of stimulating power causes a feeling of the greatest strength, it also produces the greatest exhaustion, which is commensurately importunate for relief; and, as the same food affords such by supplying the requisite stimulation, their feelings lead the consumers to believe that it is most strengthening. . . . those substances, the stimulating power of which is barely sufficient to excite the digestive organs in the appropriation of nourishment, are most conducive to vital welfare, causing all the processes to be most perfectly performed, without any unnecessary expenditure thus contributing to health and longevity.

"Flesh-meats average about thirty-five per cent, of nutritious matter, while rice, wheat, and several kinds of pulse (such as lentils, peas, and beans) afford from eighty to ninety-five per cent; potatoes afford twenty-five per cent, of nutritious matter. So that one pound of rice contains more nutritious matter than two pounds and a half of flesh-meat; three pounds of whole meal bread contain more than six pounds of flesh; and three pounds of potatoes more than two pounds of flesh."

That the human species, taken in its entirety, is no more carnivorous de facto that it could be de jure, is apparent on the plain evidence of facts. In all countries of our Globe, with the exception of the most barbarous tribes, it is, in reality, only the ruling and rich classes who are kreophagist. The Poor have. almost everywhere, but the barest sufficiency even of vegetable foods :-

"The peasantry of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Poland, Germany, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, France, Portugal , England, Scotland, Ireland, a considerable portion of Russia, and other parts of Europe subsist mainly on non-flesh foods. The peasantry of modern Greece [like those in the days of Perikles] subsist on coarse brown bread and fruits. The peasantry in many parts of Russia live on very coarse bread, with garlic and other vegetables, and, like the same class in Greece, Italy, &c., they are obliged to be extremely frugal even in this kind of food. Yet they are [for the most part] healthy, vigorous, and active. Many of the inhabitants of Germany live mainly on rye and barley, in the form of coarse bread. The potato, is the principal food of the Irish peasantry; and few portions of the human family are more healthy, athletic, and active, when uncorrupted by intoxicating substances [and, it may be added, when under favourable political and social conditions]. But alcohol, opium, &c., [equally with bad laws] have extended their blighting influence over the greater portion of the world, and nowhere do these scourges so cruelly afflict the self-devoted race, as in the cottages of the poor, and when by these evils and neglect of sanitation &c., diseases are generated, sometimes epidemics, we are told that these things arise from their poor, meagre, low, vegetable diet. Wherever the various sorts of intoxicating substances are absent, and a decent degree of cleanliness is observed, the vegetable diet is not thus calumniated.

"That portion of the peasantry of England and Scotland who subsist on their barley and oatmeal bread, porridge, potatoes and other vegetables, with temperate and cleanly habits [and surroundings]are able to endure more fatigue and exposure than any other class of people in the same countries. Three-fourths of the whole human family, in all periods of time [excepting perhaps, in the primitive wholly predatory age], have subsisted on non-flesh foods, and when their supplies have been abundant, and their habits in other respects correct, they have been well nourished.

That the sanguinary diet and savagery go hand in hand, and that in proportion to the degree of carnivorism is the barbarous or militant character of people, all History, past and present, too clearly testifies. Nor are the carnivorous tribes conspicuous by their cruel habits only :-

"Taking all flesh-eating nations together, though some, whose other habits are favorable, are, well-formed, as a general average they are a small, ill-formed races; and taking all vegetable-eating nations together, though many, from excessive use of narcotics and from other unfavorable circumstances, are comparatively small and ill-formed, as a general average, they are a much better formed races than the flesh-eaters. It is only among those tribes whose habits are temperate, and who subsist on the non-flesh diet, that the more perfect specimens of symmetry are found.

"Not one human being in many thousands dies a natural death. If a man be shot or poisoned, we say he dies a violent death; but if he is ill, attended by physicians, and dies, we say he dies a natural death. This is an abuse of language - death in the latter case being as truly violent as if he had been shot. Whether a man takes arsenic and kills himself, or by small doses or any means, however common, gradually destroys life, he equally dies a violent death. He only dies a natural death, who so obeys the laws of his nature as neither by neither irritation nor intensity to waste his energies, but slowly passes through the changes of his system to old age, and falls asleep in the exhaustion vitality. (5)

With Flourens he adduces a number of instances both of individuals and of communities who have attained to protracted ages by reason of a pure diet. He afterwards proceeds to prove from comparative physiology and anatomy, and, in particular, from the conformation of the human teeth and stomach (which, by an astounding perversion of fact, are sometimes alleged to be formed carnivorously, in spite of often-repeated scientific evidence, as well as of common observation), the natural frugivorous character of the human species, and he quotes Linné, Cuvier, Lawrence, Bell, and many others in support of this truth. (6)


    1. See Memoir in Sylvester Graham's Lectures on the Science of Life, Condensed by T. Baker, Esq., of the Inner Temple, Barrister-at-Law. Manchester: Heywood; London: Pitman.
    2. The New American Cyclopedia. Appleton, New York, 1861. It deserves remark in this place that, in no English cyclopedia or biographical dictionary, as far as our knowledge extends, is any sort of notice given of this great sanitary reformer. The same disappointment is experienced in regard to not a few other great names, whether in hygienic or humanitarian literature. The absence of the names of such true benefactors of the world in these books of references is all the more surprising in view of the presence of an infinite number of persons - of all kinds - who have contributed little to the stock of true knowledge or to the welfare of the world.
    3. The Greek story of the savage horses of the Thracian king who were fed upon human flesh, herefore may very well be true.
    4. Graham here quotes various authorities - Linné, Cuvier, Lawrence, Bell, and others.
    5. Professor Lawrence instances particularly "the laplanders, Samoides, Ostiace, Tungooses, Bursts, and Kamtschatdales, in Northern Europe and Asia, as well as the Esqimaux in the northern, and the natives of Tierra del Fuego in the southern, extremity of America, who,although they live almost entirely on flesh, and that often raw, are the smallest, weakest, and least brave people of the globe." - Lectures on Physiology. Of all races the North American native tribes, who subsist almost entirely by the chase, are notoriously one of the most ferocious and cruel. That the omnivorous classes in "civilised" Europe - in this country particularly - have attained their present position, political or intellectual, in spite of their kreophagistic habits is attributable to a complex set of conditions and circumstances (an extensive inquiry, upon which it is impossible to enter here) which have, in some measure, mitigated the evil results of a barbarous diet, will be sufficiently clear to every unprejudiced inquirer. If flesh-eating be the cause, or one of the principal causes, of the present dominance of the European, and especially English-speaking peoples, it may justly be asked - how is to be explained, e.g., the dominance of the Saracenic power (in S. Europe) during seven centuries - a dominance in arms as well as in arts and sciences - when the semi-barbarous Christian nations )at least as regards the ruling classes) were wholly kreophagistic.
    6. For one of the ablest and most exhaustive arguments on the same side ever published we refer our readers to The Perfect Way in Diet, by Mrs. Algernon Kingsford, M.D. (Kegan Paul, London, 1881) Originally written and delivered as a Thesis for le Doctorat en Médicine at the Paris University, under the title L'Alimentation Végétale Chez L'Homme (1880), it was almost immediately translated into German by Dr. A. Aderholdt under the same title of Die Pffanzennahrung bei dem Menschem. It is, we believe, about to be translated into Russian. The humane and moral argument of this eloquent work is equally admirable and equally persuasive with the scientific proofs.

Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index