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

Joseph Ritson (Engraving by James Sayers, published in 1803)

Ritson - extracts

Joseph RITSON 1761-1830
(text from the 1st edition, 1883)

Known to the world generally as an eminent antiquarian and, in particular, as one of the earliest and most acute investigators of the sources of English romantic poetry, for future times his best and enduring fame will rest upon his at present almost forgotten Moral Essay upon abstinence - one of the most able and philosophical of the ethical expositions of anti-kreophagy ever published.

His birthplace was Stockton in the county of Durham. By profession a conveyancer, he enjoyed leisure for literary pursuits by his income from an official appointment. During the twenty years from 1782 to 1802 his time and talents were incessantly employed in the publication of his various works, antiquarian and critical. His first notable critique was his Observations on Warton's History of English Poetry, in the shape of a letter to the author (1782), in which his critical zeal seems to have been in excess of his literary amenity. Of other literary productions may be enumerated his Remarks on the Commentators of Shakspere; A Select Collection of National Songs, with a Historical Essay on the Origin and Progress of National Songs (1783) ; Ancient Songs from the Time of King Henry III, to the Revolution (1790) ; reprinted in 1829 - perhaps the most valuable of his archeological labours; The English Anthology (1793) ; Ancient English Metrical Romances, and Bibliographia Poetica, a catalogue of English poets from the 12th to the 16th century, inclusive, with short notices of their works. These are only some of the productions of his industry and genius.

We give the origin of his adhesion to the Humanitarian Creed as recorded by himself in one of the chapters of his Essay, in which, also, he introduces the name of an ardent and well-known humanitarian reformer :-

"Mister Richard Phillips, (1) the publisher of this compilation, a vigorous, healthy, and well-looking man, has desisted from animal food for upwards of twenty years; and the compiler himself, induced to serious reflection, by the perusal of Mandeville's Fable of the Bees, in the year 1772, being the 19th year of his age, has ever since, to the revisal of this these sheets [1802], firmly adhered to a milk and vegetable diet, having, at least, never tasted, during the whole course of those thirty years, a flesh, fowl, or fish, or anything, to his knowledge, prepared in or with those substances or any extract from them, unless, on one occasion, when tempted, by wet, cold and hunger, in the south of Scotland, he ventured to eat a few potatoes, dressed under roasted flesh, nothing, less repugnant to his feelings being obtainable; or except by ignorance or imposition ; unless it may be, in eating eggs, which, however, deprives no animal of life, although it may prevent some from coming into the world to be murdered and devoured by others." (2)

Ritson begins his Essay with a brief review of the opinions of some of the old Greek and Italian philosophers upon the origin and constitution of the world, and with a sketch of the position of man in Nature relatively to other animals. Amongst others he cites Rousseau's Essay Upon Inequality Amongst Men. He then demonstrates the unnaturalness of flesh-eating by considerations derived from Physiology and Anatomy, and from the writings of various authorities; the fallacy of the prejudice that flesh-meats are necessary or condusive to strength of body, a fallacy manifest as well from the examples of whole nations living entirely, or almost entirely, upon non-flesh food, as from those of numerous individuals whose cases are detailed at length. He quotes Arbuthnot, Sir Hans Sloane, Cheyne, Adam Smith, Volney, Paley and others. Next he insists upon the ferocity or coarseness of mind directly or indirectly engendered by the diet of blood :-

"That the use of animal food disposes man to cruel and ferocious actions is a fact to which the experience of ages give ample testimony. The Scythians, from drinking the blood of their cattle, proceeded to drink that of their enemies. The fierce and cruel disposition of the wild Arabs is supposed, chiefly, if not entirely, to proceed from their feeding upon the flesh of camels; and, as the gentle disposition of the natives of Hindustan is probably owing, in a great degree, to temperance and abstinence from animal food, so the common use of this diet, in other nations, has, in the opinion of M. Pagès, intensified the natural tone of their passions; and he can account, he says, upon no other principle for the strong harsh features of the Mussulmen and Christians, compared with the mild trait and placid aspect of the Gentoos. 'Vulgar and uninformed men,' it is observed by Smellie, 'when pampered with a variety of animal food are much more choleric, fierce and cruel in their tempers than those who live chiefly on vegetables. This affection is equally perceptible in other animals -' An officer, in the Russian service, had a bear, which he fed with bread and oats, but never gave him flesh. A young hog, however, happening to stroll too near his cell, the bear got hold of him and pulled him in; and, after he had once drawn blood and tasted flesh, he grew became unmanageable, attacking every person who came near him, so that the owner was obliged to kill him.' - [Memoirs of P. H. Bruce.] It was not, says Porphyry, from those who lived on vegetables, that robbers or murderers, or tyrants, have proceeded, but from flesh eaters. (3) Prey being almost the sole object of quarrel amongst carnivorous animals, while the frugivorous live together in constant peace and harmony, it is evident that, if men were of this last kind, they would find it much more easy to subsist happily."

The barbarous and unfeeling sports (as they are called) of the English - their horse-racing, hunting, shooting, bull and bear-baiting, cock-fighting (4), prize-fighting, and the like, all proceed from their immoderate addiction to animal food. Their natural temper is thereby corrupted, and they are in the habitual and hourly commission of crimes against nature, justice, and humanity, from which a feeling and reflective mind, unaccustomed to such a diet, would revolt; but in which they profess to take delight. The kings of England have from a remote period been devoted to hunting; in which pursuit one of them, and the son of another, lost his life. James I., according to Scaliger, was merciful, except at the chase, where he was cruel, and was very much enraged when he could not catch the Slag. ' God,' he used to say, is enraged against me, so that I shall have him.' Whenever he had caught his victim, he would put his arm all entire into his belly and entrails. This anecdote may be paralleled with the following, of one of his successors : 'The hunt on Tuesday last. (March 4, 1784), commenced near Salthill, and afforded a chase of upward of fifty miles. His majesty was present at the death of the stag near Tring, in Herts. It is the first deer that has been run to death for many months; and when opened its heart-strings were found to be quite rent, as is supposed, with the force of running:' (5) Siste, vero, tandem carnifex! The slave-trade, that abominable violation of the rights of nature, is, most probably, owing to the same cause; as well as a variety of violent acts, both national and personal, which are usually attributed to other motives. In the sessions of parliament, 1802, a majority of the members voted for the continuance of bull-baiting, and some of them had the confidence to plead in favour of it." (6)

Ritson enforces his observations upon this head by citing Plutarch, Cowper, and Pope (in the Guardian, No. 61 - a most forcible and eloquent protest against the cruelties of "sport" and of gluttony). (7) In his fifth chapter he traces the origin of human sacrifices to the practice of flesh eating :-

"Superstition the mother of Ignorance and Barbarity. Priests began by persuading people of the existence of certain invisible beings, which they pretended to be the creators of the world, and the dispensers of good and evil ; and of whose wills, in fine, they were the sole interpreters. Hence arose the necessity of sacrifices [ostensibly] to appease the wrath or procure the favour of imaginary gods, but, in reality, to gratify the gluttonous and unnatural appetites of real demons. Domestic animals were the first victims. These were immediately under the eye of the priest, and he was pleased with their taste. This satisfied for a time; but he had eaten the same things so repeatedly, that his luxurious appetite called for variety. He had devoured the sheep, and was now desirous to masticate the shepherd. The anger of the gods - testified by an opportune thunderstorm, was not to be assuaged but by a sacrifice of uncommon magnitude. The people tremble, and offer him their enemies, their slaves, their parents, their children, to obtain a clear sky on a summers day, or a bright moon by night. When, or upon what particular occasion, the first human creature was made a sacrifice is not known, nor is it of any consequence to enquire. Goats and bullocks had been offered up already, and the transition was easy from the brute to the man. The practice, however, is of remote antiquity, and universal extent, there being scarcely a country in the world in which it has not, at some time or other, prevailed."

He supports this probable thesis by reference to Porphyry, the most erudite of the later Greeks, who repeats the accounts of earlier writers upon this matter, and by a comparison of the religious rites of various nations, past and present. Equally natural and easy was the step from the use of non-human to that of human bodies :-

As human sacrifices were a natural effect of that superstitious cruelty which first produced the slaughter of animals, so is it equally natural that those accustomed to eat the brute, should not long abstain from the man : more especially as; when toasted or broiled on the altar, the appearance, savour, and taste of both would be nearly, if not entirely, the same. But, from whatever cause it may be deduced, nothing can be more certain than that the eating of human flesh has been a practice, in many parts of the world, from a very remote period, and is so, in some, at this day. That it is a consequence of the use of animal food there can be no doubt, as it would be impossible to find an instance of it among people who were accustomed solely to a vegetable diet. The progress of cruelty is rapid. Habit renders it familiar, and hence it is deemed natural.

The man who, accustomed to live on roots and vegetables, first devoured the flesh of the smallest animal committed a greater violence to his own nature than the most beautiful and delicate woman, accustomed to other animal flesh, would feel in shedding the blood of her own species for sustenance; possessed as they are of exquisite feelings, a considerable degree of intelligence, and even according to her own religious system, of a living soul. That this is a principle in the social disposition of mankind is evident from the deliberate coolness with which seamen, when their ordinary provisions are exhausted, sit down to devour such of their comrades as chance or contrivance renders the victim of the moment : a fact of which there are but too many, and those too well-authenticated, instances. Such a crime which no necessity can justify, would never enter the mind of a starving Gentoo nor indeed of any one that had not been previously accustomed to animal food. Even among the Bedouins or wandering Arabs of the desert - according to the observation of the enlightened Volney - though they so often experience the extremity of hunger, the practice of devouring human flesh was never heard of."

In the two following chapters Ritson traces a large proportion of human diseases and suffering, physical and mental, to indulgence in unnatural living. He cites Drs. Buchan, Goldsmith, Cheyne, Stubbes (Anatomy of Abuses, 1583), and Sparrman the well-known pupil of Linné (Voyages).

In his ninth chapter, he gives a copious catalogue of "nations and of individuals, past and contemporary, subsisting entirely upon vegetable foods" - not the least interesting part of his work. Some of the most eminent of the old Greek and Latin philosophers and historians are quoted, as well as various modern travellers, such as Volney and Sparrman. Especially valuable are the enquiries of Sir F. M. Eden (State of the Poor), who in a comparison of the dietary of the poor, in different parts of these islands, proves that flesh has, or at all events had, scarcely any share in it - a fact which is still true of the agricultural districts, manifest not only by the commonest observations, but also by scientific and official enquiries of late years.

Of individual cases, two of the most interesting are those of John Williamson of Moffat, the discoverer of the famous chalybeate spring, who lived almost to the age of one hundred years, having abstained from all flesh-food during the last fifty years of his life, (8) and of John Oswald, the author of The Cry of Nature. It is in this part of his work that Ritson narrates the history of his own conversion and dietetic experiences, and his well-known publisher, Mr. R. Phillips.


    1. Afterwards Sir Richard Phillips, whose admirable exposition of his reasons for abandoning flesh-eating, published in Medical Journal, July 1811, is quoted in its due place.
    2. Abstinence from Animal Food as a Moral Duty, IX. Ritson, in a note, quotes the expression of surprise of a French writer, that whereas abstinence "from blood and from things strangled" is especially and solemnly enjoined by the immediate successors of Christ, in a well-known prohibition, yet this sacred obligation is daily "made of none effect" by those calling themselves Christians.
    3. "I have known," says Dr. Arbuthnot, "more than one instance of irascible passions having been much subdued by a vegetable diet." - Note by Ritson.
    4. Written in 1802. Since that time the "pastime" of worrying bulls and bears, has in this country become illegal and extinct. Cock-fighting, though illegal, seems to be still popular with the "sporting" classes of the community.
    5. General Advertiser, March 4th 1784. Since Ritson quoted this from the newspaper of his day, 80 years ago, the same scenes of equal and possibly still greater barbarity have been recorded in our newspapers, season after season, of the royal and other hunts, with disgusting monotony of detail. Voltaire's remarks upon this head are worthy of quotation: "It has been asserted that Charles IX. was the author of a book upon hunting. It is very likely that if this prince had cultivated had cultivated less the art of torturing and killing other animals, and had not acquired in the forests the habit of seeing blood run, there would have been more difficulty in getting from him the order of St. bartholomew. The chase is one of the most sure means for blunting in men the sentiment of pity for their own species; an effect so much the more fatal, as those who are addicted to it, placed in a more elevated rank, have more need of this bridle." Oevres LXXII, 213. In Flaubert's remarkable story of La Légende de St. Julien the hero "develops by degrees a propensity to bloodshed. He kills the mice in the chapel, the pigeons in the garden, and soon his advancing years gave him opportunity of indulging this taste in hunting. He spends whole days in the cities, caring less for the 'sport' than for the slaughter." One day he shoots a fawn, and while the despairing mother, "looking up to heaven cried with a loud voice, agonising and human," St. Julien remorselessly kills her also. Then the male parent, a noble-looking Stag, is shot last of all; but, advancing, nevertheless, he comes up to the terrified murderer, and "stopped suddenly, and with flaming eyes and solemn tone, as of a judge, he spoke three times, while a bell tolled in the distance, 'Accursed one! ruthless of heart! thou shalt slay thy father and mother also, 'and tottering and closing his eyes he expired." The blood-stained man on one occasion is followed closely by all the victims of his wanton cruelty, who press around him with avenging looks and cries. He fulfils the prophecy of the Stag, and murders his parents. - See Fortnightly Review, April, 1878.
    6. It is scarcely necessary to remind our readers that a quarter of a century later (1827), when Martin had the courage to introduce the first bill for the prevention of cruelty to certain of the domesticated animals (a very partial measure after all), the humane attempt was greeted by an almost universal shout of ridicule and derision, both in and out of the Legislature.
    7. See Appendix. [refers to Alexander Pope in the Appendix of the first edition - to be added]
    8. Quoted from an article in the Gentleman's Magazine, (August, 1787), signed Etonensis, who, amongst other particulars, states of the hero of his sketch that he was "one of most original geniuses who have ever existed . . . . He was well skilled in natural philosophy, and might be said to have been a moral philosopher, not in theory only, but in strict and uniform practice. He was remarkably humane and charitable; and, though poor, was a bold and avowed enemy to every species of oppression . . . Certain it is, that he accounted the murder (as he called it) of the meanest animal, except in self defence, a very criminal breach of the laws of nature; insisting that the creator of all things had constituted man not the tyrant, but the lawful and limited sovereign, of the inferior animals, who, he contended, answered the ends of their being better than their little despotic lord . . . . He did not think it
      . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . 'enough
      . . . . . . In this late age, advent'rous to have touched
      . . . . . . Light on the precepts of the Samian Sage,'
      for he acted in strict conformity with them. . . . His vegetable and mil diet afforded him, in particular, very sufficient nourishment; for when I last saw him, he was still a tall robust, and rather corpulent man, though upwards of fourscore." He was reported it seems, to be a believer in metempsychosis. "It was probably so said," remarks Ritson, "by ignorant people who cannot distinguish between justice or humanity from an absurd and impossible system.. The compiler of the present book, like Pythagoras and John Williamson, abstains from flesh-food, but he does not believe in the Metempsychosis, and much doubts whether it was the real belief of either of those philosophers." Abstinence from Animal Food a Moral Duty, by Joseph Ritson, R. Phillips, London, 1802.


Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index