The Sanctity of Life.

From: The Creed of Kinship (1935)
Author: Henry S. Salt
Published: Constable & Co Ltd 1935 London


Cannibals? Who is not a cannibal?” (HERMAN MELVILLE.)

  It is rather surprising to learn, and on good authority, that the discoveries made by the great botanist, Sir J. C. Bose, showing that plants in their due degree have a heart, are capable of an undreamt-of sensitivity, and can give vocal, though to us inaudible, expression to their “feelings”—that these discoveries are producing doubt and hesitation in some vegetarian quarters, and even causing the question to be asked whether they do not upset the foundation on which the akreophagist creed is based. If we cannot escape the necessity of killing plants, plants thus highly organised, why, it is asked, should we restrict ourselves to a vegetable diet—why not kill and eat animals also?

  It seems to me that a little consideration will show this solicitude, if it really is felt, to be entirely needless, and to be due, in fact, to a complete misunderstanding of the relation in which vegetarians stand toward the whole problem of diet.

  First, it is worth observing that there is nothing new in the idea that plants are thus endowed with hearts and feelings; the novelty lies in the scientific confirmation of what has hitherto been only a surmise of poets and sages. These are the words of the Earth in Shelley’s great poem, Prometheus Unbound:

“I am the Earth,
Thy Mother; she within whose stony veins,
To the last fibre of the loftiest tree,
Whose thin leaves trembled in the frozen air,
Joy ran, as blood within a living frame.”

  And what the poet instinctively divined, the sage has dimly apprehended; as when Edward Carpenter wrote that the cabbage “may inaudibly scream” when pulled from the ground. The notion, indeed, has been not infrequently used by opponents of diet-reform in the hope of thereby making vegetarianism appear ridiculous. Over a quarter-century ago I had to devote a page or two of my Logic of Vegetarianism to the Science Jottings of Dr. Andrew Wilson, wherein he argued that as the tissues of plants contain living protoplasm, the consistent vegetarian “must no longer kill a cabbage,” since he holds “that you have no right to kill any living thing for food.”

  Now if vegetarians were really thus aiming at perfection, and if they believed it to be an immediate possibility to “take no life” whatsoever, even the lowliest forms, as in the tissues of plants, then certainly they would have cause to be disturbed by Sir J. C. Bose’s discoveries; but when did vegetarianism ever involve the holding of such a creed? The aim of a vegetarian has always been, not some distant and at present unattainable ideal, but the actual avoidance of the very gross cruelties associated with the orthodox diet. To be “consistent” does not mean that we must attain to perfection; it means that we must do all we can. In diet, as in other matters, the question of degree is all-important; it is not the absolutely best- the ideal, perhaps, of a far future- that is demanded of us, but loyalty to the humane ethic which is possible here and now.

  It is, in fact, a theme for humorous rather than serious treatment, and the most fitting answer to those who put forward the “spare the-cabbage” argument is to ask them what is their moral objection to cannibalism? If the question of greater or lesser sensibility is to be disregarded, the Man may as justly be cooked and eaten as the Ox. If the fact that plants have some sensation, justifies the killing of animals who have much more, kreophagy in its tum might excuse cannibalism.

  Obviously a recognition of degrees in morals is essential to any right conclusions. There is for us, at present, no possibility of avoiding, in some form or other, the taking of life; it is the avoidance of taking life unnecessarily that is our aim; and not of any and all life, but of the higher, the more sensitive, and the more developed. The grosser sorts of barbarism must be the first to be removed.

  The sum of the whole matter is expressed in a letter of Sir J. C. Bose himself, from which I am permitted to quote. It is a reply to a correspondent who had questioned him about our use of plants for human food. “The cause of humanitarianism,” he wrote, “can only be advanced by change of spirit, and not by making fun of people who feel compassion for the suffering of animals, greatly accentuated by terror when they are being done to death. Obviously, plants do not suffer from this terror, their nervous structure, where present, being far more rudimentary.” No statement could be more authoritative or more conclusive.

  But the fact of our present imperfection does not at all preclude us from looking forward to the future, and to the possibilities of still further humanising the diet of mankind. It is likely, even certain, that a fruit-diet will come more and more into favour; and who can doubt that invention will be busy in foods as in other things? I have quoted from Shelley’s prophetic poem. Is it not worthy of remark that the singer who, above all others, felt that not men and animals only, but plants and even rocks and stones have vitality, was the one who proclaimed in no uncertain tone the horror and cruelty of flesh-eating?

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