International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
IVU logo

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

George Nicholson 1760-1825
(text from the 1st edition, 1883 )

Among the least known, but none the less the most estimable, of the advocates of the rights of the oppressed species and the heralds od the dawn of a better day, the humble Yorkshire printer, who undertook the unpopular and unremunerative work of publishing to the world the sorrows and sufferings of the non-human races, claims our highest respect and admiration. he has also another title (second only to humanitarian merit) to the gratitude of posterity as having been the originator of cheap literature of the best class, and of the most instructive sort, which, alike by the price and form, was adapted for wide circulation.

George Nicholson was born at Bradford. He early set up a printing press and began the publication of his Literary Miscellany, "which is not, as the name might lead one to suppose, a magazine, but a series of choice anthologies, varied by some gems of English literature. The size is a small 18mo., scarcely too large for the waistcoat pocket. The printing was a beautiful specimen of the typographic art, and for the illustrations he sought the aid of the best artists. He was one of the patrons of Thomas Bewick, some of the whose choicest work is to be found in the pamphlets issued by Nicholson. he also issued 125 cards, on which were printed favourite pieces, afterwards included in the Literary Miscellany. This 'assemblage of classical beauties for the parlour, the closet, the carriage, or the shade,' became very popular, and extended to twenty volumes. The plan of issuing them in separate numbers enabled individuals to make their own selection, and they are found bound up in every possible variety. Complete sets are now rare, and highly prized by collectors."

Of his many useful publications may be enumerated - Stenography : The Mental Friend and Rational Companion, consisting of Maxims and Reflections relating to the Conduct of Life. 12mo. The Advocate and Friend of Woman. 12mo. Directions for the Improvement of the Mind. 12mo. Juvenile Preceptor. Three vols., 12mo. The books which concern us now are - On the Conduct of Man to Inferior Animals (Manchester, 1797 : this was adorned by a woodcut from the hand of Bewick). And his magnum opus, which appeared in the year 1801, under the title of The Primeval Diet of Man : Arguments in Favour of Vegetable Food; with Remarks on Man's Conduct to [other] Animals (Poughnill [sic: Poughnhill], near Ludlow).

The value of The Primeval Diet was enhanced by the addition, in a later issue, of a tract On Food (1803), in which are given recipes for the preparation of "one hundred perfectly palatable and nutritious substances, which may easily be procured at an expense much below the price of the limbs of our fellow animals. . . . Some of the recipes, on account of their simple form, will not be adopted even by those in the middle rank of life. Yet they may be valuable to many of scanty incomes, who desire to avoid the evils of want, or to make a reserve for the purchasing of books and other mental pleasures." He also published a tract On Clothing, which contains much sensible and practical advice on an important subject.

Nicholson resided successively in Manchester, Poughnill (sic), and Stourport, and died at the last-named place in the year 1825. "He possessed," says a writer in The Gentleman's Magazine (xcv.), "in an eminent degree, strength of intellect, with universal benevolence and undeviating uprightness of conduct." The learned bibliographer, to whom we are indebted for this brief notice, thus sums up the character of his labours: "In all his writing the purity and benevolence of his intentions are strikingly manifest. Each subject he took in hand was thought out in an independent manner, and without reference to current views or prejudices." (1)

In the brief preface the author this expresses his sad conviction of the probable futility of his protests :-

"The difficulties of removing deep-rooted prejudices, and the inefficiency of reason and argument, when opposed to habitual opinions established on general approbation, are fully apprehended. Hence the cause of humanity, however zealously pleaded, will not be materially promoted. Unflattered by the hope of exciting an impression on the public mind, the following compilation is dedicated to the sympathising and generous Few, whose opinions have not been founded on implicit belief and common acceptation : whose habits are not fixed by the influence of false and pernicious maxims or corrupt examples : who are neither deaf to the cries of misery, pitiless to suffering innocence, nor unmoved at recitals of violence, tyranny, and murder."

In the whole literature of humanitarianism, nothing can be more impressive for the sympathising reader than this putting on record by these nobler spirits their profound consciousness of the moral torpor of the world around them, and their sad conviction of the prematureness of their attempt to regenerate it. In both his principal works, he judiciously chooses, for the most part, the method of compilation, and of presenting in a concise and comprehensive form the opinions of his humane predecessors, of various minds and times, rather than the presentation of his own individual sentiments. He justly believed that the large majority of men are influenced more by the authority of great names than by arguments addressed simply to their conscience and reason. He intersperses, however, philosophic reflections of his own, whenever the occasion for them arises. Thus, under the head of "Remarks on Defences of Flesh-eating," he well disposes of the common excuses :-

"The reflecting reader will not expect a formal refutation of common-place objections, which mean nothing, as, 'There would be more unhappiness and slaughter among animals did we not keep them under proper regulations and government. Where would they find pasture did we not manure and enclose the land for them? &c. The following objection, however may deserve notice :- 'Animals must die, and is it not better for them to live a short time in plenty and ease, than be exposed to their enemies, and suffered in old age to drag on a miserable life?' The lives of animals in a state of nature are very rarely miserable, and it argues a barbarous and savage disposition to cut them prematurely off in the midst of an agreeable and happy existence; especially when we reflect on the motives which induce it. Instead of a friendly concern for promoting their happiness, your aim is the gratification of your own sensual appetites. How inconsistent is your conduct with the fundamental principle of pure morality and true-goodness (which some of you ridiculously profess) - whatsoever you would that others should do to you, do you even so to them. No man would willingly become the food of other animals; he ought not therefore to prey on them. Men who consider themselves to be members of universal nature, and links in the great chain of Being, ought not to usurp power and tyranny over others, beings naturally free and independent, however such beings may be inferior in intellect or strength. . . . It is argued that 'man has a permission, proved by the practice of mankind, to eat the flesh of other animals, and consequently to kill them; and as there are many animals which subsist wholly on the bodies of other animals, the practice is sanctioned among mankind.' By reason of the at present very low state of morality of the human race, there are many evils which it is the duty and business of enlightened ages to eradicate. The various refinements of civil society, the numerous improvements in the arts and sciences, and the different reformations in the laws, policy, and government of nations, are proofs of this assertion. That mankind, in the present stage of polished life, act in direct violation of the principles of justice, mercy, tenderness, sympathy, and humanity, in the practice of eating flesh, is obvious. To take away the life of any happy being, to commit acts of depredation and outrage, and to abandon every refined feeling and sensibility, is to degrade the human kind beneath his professed dignity of character ; but to devour or eat any animal is an additional violation of those principles, because it is the extreme of brutal ferocity. Such is the conduct of the most savage of wild beasts, and of the most uncultivated and barbarous of our own species. Where is the person who, with calmness, can hear himself compared in disposition to a lion, a hyena, a tiger or a wolf? And yet, how exactly similar is his disposition.

"Mankind affect to revolt at murders, at the shedding of blood, and yet eagerly, and without remorse, feed on the corpse after it has undergone the culinary process. What mental blindness pervades the human race, when they do not perceive that every feast of blood is a tacit encouragement and licence to the very crime their pretended delicacy abhors! I say pretended delicacy, for that it is pretended is most evident. The profession of sensibility, humanity, &c., in such persons, therefore, is egregious folly. And yet there are respectable persons among everyone's acquaintance, amiable in other dispositions, and advocates of what is commonly termed the cause of humanity, who are weak or prejudiced enough to be satisfied with such arguments, on which they ground apologies for their practice! Education, habit, prejudice, fashion, and interest, have blinded the eyes of men, and seared their hearts.

"Opposers of compassion urge : 'If we should live on vegetable food, what shall we do with our cattle? What would become of them? They would grow up so numerous they would be prejudicial to us - they would eat us up if we did not kill and eat them.' But there is abundance of animals in the world whom men do not kill and eat; and yet we hear not of their injuring mankind, and sufficient room is found for their abode. Horses are not usually killed to be eaten, and yet we have not heard of any country overstocked with them. The raven and redbreast are seldom killed, and yet they do not become too numerous. If a decrease of cows, sheep and others were required, mankind would readily find means of reducing them. Cattle are at present an article of trade, and their numbers are industriously promoted. If cows are kept solely for the sake of milk, and if their young should become too numerous, let the evil be nipped in the bud. Scarcely suffer the innocent young to feel the pleasure of breathing. Let the least pain possible be inflicted; let its body be deposited entire in the ground, and let a sigh have vent for the calamitous necessity that induced the painful act. . . . Self-preservation justifies a man in putting noxious animals to death, yet cannot warrant the least act of cruelty to any being. By suddenly despatching one when in extreme misery, we do a kind office, an office which reason approves, and which accords with our best and kindest feelings, but which (such is the force of custom) we no longer enjoy happiness, they may perhaps be deprived of life. Do not suppose that in this reasoning an intention is included of perverting nature. No! some animals are savage and unfeeling; but let not their ferocity and brutality be the standard pattern of the conduct of man. Because some of them have no compassion, feeling, or reason, are we to to possess no compassion, feeling, or reason?"

In another section of the book Nicholson undertakes to expose the inconsistencies of flesh-eaters, and the strange illogicalities of the position of many protesters against various forms of cruelty, who condone the greatest cruelty of all - the (necessary) savagery of the butchers :-

"The inconsistencies of the conduct and opinions of mankind in general are evident and notorious; but when ingenious writers fall into the same glaring errors, our regret and surprise are justly and strongly excited. Annexed to the impressive remarks by Soame Jenyns, to be inserted hereafter, in examining the conduct of man to [other] animals, we meet with the following passage :-

" 'God has been pleased to create numberless animals intended for our sustenance, and that they are so intended, the agreeable flavour of their flesh to our palates, and the wholesome nutriment which it administers to our stomachs, are sufficient proofs; these, as they are formed for our use, propagated by our culture, and fed by our care, we have certainly a right to deprive of life, because it is given and preserved to them on that condition.'

"But it has already been argued that the bodies of animals are not intended for the sustenance of man; and the decided opinions of several eminent medical writers and others sufficiently disprove assertions in favour of the wholesomeness of the flesh of animals. The agreeable taste of food is not always a proof of its nourishing or wholesome properties. This truth is too frequently experienced in mistakes, ignorantly or accidentally made, particularly by children, in eating the fruit of the deadly nightshade, the taste of which resembles black currants, and is extremely inviting by the beauty of its colour and shape. (2)

"That we have a right to make attacks on the existence of any being because we have assisted and fed such being, is an assertion opposed to every established principle of justice and morality. A 'condition' cannot be made without the mutual consent of parties, and, therefore, what this writer terms 'a condition,' is nothing less than an unjust, arbitrary, and deceitful imposition. 'Such is the deadly and stupefying influence of habit or custom,' says Mr. Lawrence, 'of so poisonous and brutalising a quality is prejudice, that men, perhaps no way inclined by nature to acts of barbarity, may yet live insensible of the constant commission of the most flagrant deeds.' . . . A cook-maid will weep at a tale of woe, while she is skinning a living eel, and the devotee will mock the Deity by asking a blessing on food supplied by murderous outrages against nature and religion! Even women of education, who readily weep while reading an affecting moral tale, will clear away clotted blood, still warm with departed life, cut the flesh, disjoint the bones, and tear out the intestines of an animal, without sensibility, without sympathy, without fear, without remorse. What is more common than to hear this softer sex talk of, and assist in, the cookery of a deer, a hare, a lamb or a calf (those acknowledged emblems of innocence) with perfect composure? Thus the female character, by nature soft, delicate, and susceptible of tender impressions, is debated and sunk. It will be maintained that in other respects they still possess the characteristics of their sex, and are humane and sympathising. The inconsistency then is the more glaring. To be virtuous in some instances does not constitute the moral character, but to be uniformly so."

We can allow ourselves space only for one or two further quotations from this excellent writer. The remarks upon the common usage of language, by which it is vainly thought to conceal the true nature of the dishes served up upon the tables of the rich, are particularly noteworthy, because the inaccurate expression condemned is almost universal, and that even, from the force of habit, amongst reformed dietists themselves :-

"There is a natural horror at the shedding of blood, and some have an aversion to the practice of devouring the carcass of an innocent sufferer, which bad habits improper education, and silly prejudices have not overcome. This is proved by their affected and absurd refinement of calling the dead bodies of animals meat. If the meaning of words is to be regarded, this is a gross mistake; for the word meat is a universal term, applying equally to all nutritive and palatable substances. If it be intended to express that all other kinds of food are comparatively not meat, the intention is ridiculous. The truth is that the proper expression, flesh, conveys ideas of murder and death. Neither can it be easily forgotten that, in grinding the body of a fellow animal, substances which constitute human bodies are masticated. This reflection comes somewhat home, and is recurred to by eaters of flesh in spite of themselves, but recurred to unwillingly. They attempt, therefore, to pervert language in order to render it agreeable to the ear, as they disguise animal flesh by cookery in order to render it pleasing to the taste."

His reflections upon the essential injustices (to use no stronger term) of delegating the work of butchering to a particular class of men (to which frequent reference has already been made in these pages) are equally admirable :-

"Among butchers, and those who qualify the different parts of an animal into food, it would be easy to select persons much further removed from those virtues which should result from reason, consciousness, sympathy, and animal sensations, than any savages on the face of the earth! In order to avoid all the generous and spontaneous sympathies of compassion, the office of shedding blood is committed to the hands of a set of men who have been educated in inhumanity, and whose has been blunted and destroyed by early habits of barbarity. This men increase misery in order to avoid the sight of it, and because they cannot endure being obviously cruel themselves, or commit actions which strike painfully on their senses, they commission those to commit them who are formed to delight in cruelty, and to whom misery, torture, and shedding of blood is an amusement! they appear not once to reflect that whatever we do by another we do to ourselves."

"When a large and gentle Ox, after having resisted a ten times greater force of blows than would have killed his murderers, falls stunned at last, and his armed head is fastened to the ground with cords; as soon as the wide wound is made, and the jugular veins are cut asunder, what mortal can, without horror and compassion, hear the painful bellowings, intercepted by his flow of blood, the bitter sighs that speak the sharpness of his anguish, and the deep-sounding groans with loud anxiety, fetched from the bottom of his strong and palpitating heart. Look on the trembling and violent convulsions of his limbs; see, whilst his reeking gore streams from him, his eyes become dim and languid, and behold his strugglings, gasps, and last efforts for life.

"When a being has given such convincing and undeniable proofs of terror and of pain and agony, is there a disciple of Descartes so inured to blood, as not to refute, by his commiseration, the philosophy of that vain reasoner?" (3)

In his previous essay, On the Conduct of Men to Inferior Animals, Nicholson has collected from various writers, both humane and inhumane, a fearful catalogue of atrocities of different kinds perpetrated upon his helpless dependants by the being who delights to boast himself (at least in civilised countries) to be made "in the image and likeness of God." Among these the hellish tortures of the vivisectionists and "pathologists" hold, perhaps, the bad pre-eminence, but the cruel tortures of the Slaughter-House come very near to them in wanton atrocity.

 

Footnotes

    1. In a sketch of the life of George Nicholson, contributed to a Manchester journal, by Mr. W. E. A. Axon.
    2. Perhaps the fallacy of this line of apology, on the part of the ordinary dietists, cannot be better illustrated than by the example of the man-eating tribes of New Zealand, Central Africa, and other parts of the world, who confessedly are (or were) hominiverous, and who have been by travellers quoted as some of the finest races of men on the globe. The "wholesome nutriment" of their human food was as forcible an argument for their stomach as the "agreeable flavour" was attractive for their palates. Such glaring fallacy might be illustrated further by the example of the man-eating tiger who, we may justly imagine, would use similar apologies for his practice.
    3. On the Conduct, &c., and The Primeval Diet of Man &c., by George Nicholson, Manchester and London, 1797, 1801. The author assumes as his motto for the title-page the words of Rouseau - Hommes, soyez humains! C'est votre premier devoir. Quelle sagesse y a-t-il pout vous hors de l'humanité? "Humans, be humane! It is your first duty. What wisdom is there for you without humanity?"

Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index