International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
IVU logo

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now Professor of Social Policy and Sociology at Kent University, England, and has given permission for this previously unpublished thesis to be published on the IVU website.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]

For many of this generation, gathering in Ruskin Societies, Whitmanite circles and socialist reading groups, Edward Carpenter was a prophet-like figure. He is of added importance here because he stands at the point where so many strands in the vegetarian ideology meet, (1) and his writings, with their use of the bodily as an image of the social and the universal, demonstrates the ways in which these were woven together.

Edward Carpenter (2)

In Civilisation, its Cause and Cure, Carpenter starts from the question of illness, and asks how we can be in a state of civilisation and yet so ill. For Carpenter, the issue is much wider than just sickness, for behind it lies the larger question of the origin of our woes. The answer he gives is the distorting effects of civilisation, for Carpenter's scheme is essentially a return of the Romanticist conception of man and society. Throughout the book Carpenter develops the state of the body as a social metaphor, drawing on the microcosm/macrocosm image. Thus disease is a problem that applies both to our physical and social states;

For as in the body disease arises from the loss of the physical unity which constitutes Health, and so takes the form of warfare or discord between the various parts, or of the abnormal development of individual organs, or the consumption of the system by predatory germs and growths; so in our modern life we find the unity gone which constitutes true society, and in its place warfare of the classes and individuals, abnormal development of some to the detriment of others, and the consumption of the organism by masses of social parasites. (3)

He then remarks - and this becomes a familiar point in the holistic medical tradition - how the words health, whole and holy have the same derivation, and how the true ideal of health is a positive one. (4)

What is the cause of this loss of unity, Carpenter asks; and his answer is self-knowledge, or self-consciousness. Man in his origins had the unconscious instinctual nature that we observe in animals; and he lived then in simple harmony with himself and nature: 'his impulses both physical and social were clear and more unhesitating; and his unconsciousness of inner discord and sin a great contrast to our modern condition of everlasting strife and perplexity'. (5)

However, a more perfect state awaits man than the simple animal one, for man must fall and experience disunity to realise himself fully. All History and Civilisation represent this 'parenthesis in human progress'. (6) Such evolutionary schemes are common in this period; though in the context of vegetarianism the simple Edenic model, whereby men fell from his best, most natural state, and must aim at its recovery, is more common.

Civilisation is a process of separation and division - physical, social and spiritual. Property divides man from nature, setting us apart from 'the great elemental world of the winds and the waves’. (7) We hide away from nature in dark artificial boxes, muffled in furs and clothes. Man is divided from his fellows; the organic social relationship is lost, and his neighbour becomes his enemy. Government and coercion are needed to provide by artificial means what had been lost by the disintegration of organic community. Finally man is divided from himself; he pursues the gratification of his separate desires rather than the unity of his whole being. The movement towards reintegration must come through the return to nature and the community of human life. (8)

At the core of Carpenter's ideas is the image of 'the cosmical man, the instinctive elemental man accepting and crowning nature'; (9) and it is condensed within this image that the different strands of ideas, with their different areas of reference - the body, diet, architecture, social relation, nature and the cosmos - find their cohesion. Thus the actual experience of throwing off clothes takes on also cosmic implications:

the instinct of all who desire to deliver the divine image within them is, in something more than the literal sense, towards unclothing. And the process of exfoliation is itself nothing but a continual unclothing of nature, by which the perfect human Form which is at the root of it, comes nearer and nearer its manifestations. (10)

'Divine image within', 'unclothing of nature' and 'perfect human form' are central images here, and ones recurrent in vegetarianism, though Carpenter's homosexuality no doubt gave a particular charge to this vision of the body as a transfigured image of reality. (11)

The answer to the problems of sin and pain are also found in this image. Sin for Carpenter is morbidity, and only arises at the intermediary stage when there is conflict and division within. (12) Society has distorted man's nature and his body, suppressing the totality: 'During the civilisation period the body being systematically wrapped in clothes, the head alone represents man - the little finniken, intellectual, self-conscious man in contradiction to the cosmical man represented by the entirety of bodily organs'. (13) The recovery of bodily unity is part of the recovery of cosmic unity: Where the cosmic self is, there is no more self consciousness. The body and what is ordinarily called the self are felt to be only parts of the true self, and the ordinary distinctions of inner and outer, egoism and altruism etc lose a good deal of their value'. (14) Taking up the metaphor of cleanliness, he states:

The unity of our nature being restored, the instinct of bodily cleanliness, both within and without . . . will again characterise mankind . . . And thus the whole human being, mind and body, becomes clean and radiant from its inmost centre to its farthest circumference - "transfigured" – the distinction between the world spiritual and material disappears. (15)

These mystical yearnings of Carpenter remain at root this-worldly in preoccupation. He was at pains to emphasise that identification with the cosmos did not involve 'a denial or depreciation of human life and interests', (16) and this was important for his socialism, where Carpenter's aim was less the transcendance than the transfiguration of the world.

Part of this new vision of man involved the restoration of intuitive knowledge. Most simply this meant the revolt by educated men like Carpenter and Salt against the 'ornamental cleverness' of their backgrounds, and a reassertion of the value of direct feeling and experience. (17) But it also often meant the assertion of the superiority of spiritual and intuitive perceptions over the intellectual and cerebral, and the theme is found widely in the writings of Maitland and others. It was part of a wider revolt among the intellectuals of the nineties against the control of conscious rationality in favour of Berasonian neo-romanticist conceptions of being; and it reverberates also in the symbolist and occultic concerns of the avant guard and in the discoveries of psycho-analysis. In this it prepares the way for what in the twentieth century becomes a major theme among intellectuals, that of the over-rational nature of modern society and the need to recover feeling and intuition as centres of personality.

In these ideas a vegetarian diet played a part. (18) Carpenter hated the cruelty and fracturing of brotherhood involved in killing, though he also believed that meat 'has a tendency to inflame the subsidiary centres and so diminish central control' (19) This inflaming - as traditionally - involved the inflaming of sexual desire, though - less commonly – he related this to his belief in the need for balance in the body rather than the feverish pursuit of partial gratification.

Carpenter's approach to food also contained the more unusual theory of active and passive eating. Active eating tends towards the selection of food, control and abstemiousness - towards the judicious building up of the body; whereas the passive approach just takes in food, lets it do as it will, and involves a tendency towards stimulants. Where the body is not built up through 'authentic action' of the ego, but by another external force or stimulant residing in the food, then the body ceases to be an expression of the self and becomes rather its concealment. This is the fate of the majority of people. Eating is here perceived as a conflict for domination between the eater and the food, and healthy eating involves a form of 'conquest'. In this, animal food

containing, as it does highly wrought organic forces, may liberate within our system powers which we may find difficult or even impossible to dominate - lethargic monsters, foul harpies, and sad-visaged lemurs - which may insist on having their way, building up an animal body, not truly human. (20)

Carpenter goes on to develop the idea of cooking as the way meat-eating culture has of reducing this danger of domination. (21) In his approach Carpenter both repeats certain established vegetarian ideas concerning the animal effects of meat, and gives a biological reality to the sense of control and commitment involved in making these moral decisions about life and one’s orientation to it – engagement with life or authentic action of the ego here building up a different sort of body.

  1. 120. Socialism, simple life, naturism, dress reform, attacks upon medicine, anti-vivisectionism, critique of scientific materialism, belief in intuition, feminism, sexual politics, New England Transcendentalism, Indian thought, progressive education.
  2. 121. EDWARD CARPENTER: 1844-1929. Born into prosperous middle-class family of broad church background. Fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Religious difficulties, allied with the discovery of his homosexuality, led him to abandon the Church and Cambridge and take up university extension lecturing in the north, which brought him into contact with working-class socialism. In 1883 he took a small holding at Millthorpe, where living close to nature and in an openly homosexual relationship, he gathered around him a mixture of middle-class intellectuals interested in the simple life and socialism, and working-class socialists from the city. See his autobiography, My Days and Dreams, 1916; S. Rowbottom and J. Weekes, Socialism and the New Life, 1977; and C. Tsuzuki, Edward Carpenter, 1844-1929, 1980.
  3. 122. CCC, p2.
  4. 123. 'a condition of the body in which it is an entirety, a unity - a central force maintaining that condition; and disease being the break up - or break down - of that entirety into multiplicity'. Our modern idea of disease is a 'purely negative one'. CCC, p11.
  5. 124. CCC, p23.
  6. 125. CCC, p25
  7. 126. CCC, p27
  8. 127. Man must find his home again in nature. 'Today it is unfortunately perfectly true that Man is the only animal who, instead of adorning and beautifying, makes Nature hideous by his presence. The fox and the squirrel may make their homes in the wood and add to its beauty by so doing; but when Alderman Smith plants his villa there, the gods pack up their trunks and depart; they can bear it no longer'. CCC, p38
  9. 128. CCC, p42.
  10. 129. CCC, p36.
  11. 130. Carpenter's language derives much here from Whitman and his homo-erotic poetry.
  12. 131. 'But when the central power is restored in man and all things are reduced to his service, it is impossible for him to see badness in anything. The bodily is no longer antagonistic to the spiritual love, but is absorbed into it . . . Vices under existing conditions are vices simply because of the inordinate and disturbing influence they exercise, but will cease again to be vices when the man regains his proper command’. CCC, p43
  13. 132. CCC, p44.
  14. 133. CCC. p44.
  15. 134. CCC, p38.
  16. 135. CCC, p38.
  17. 136. Winsten quotes them as describing University life as 'a fraud and a weariness, the everlasting discussion of theories that never come near actual life, the ornamental cleverness, the book learning, the queer cynicism and boredom underlying'. p56. Both criticised the public schools in particular for their devaluation of feeling.
  18. 137. Carpenter had begun to move towards a vegetarian diet in 1879 and by 1884 had abandoned all meat and alcohol, though he kept no iron rule on the issue and would eat meat to avoid fuss, My Days and Dreams, p101. For his theories about vegetarian food, see Seed Time, April 1892, p12.
  19. 138. Civilisation, p38,
  20. 139. Seed Time, April 1892, p12.
  21. 140. 'cooked food is certainly safer - a certain grade of vitality being destroyed by cooking'. Ibid.

Previous: The Simple Life | Thesis Index | Next: Dress Reform and Naturism