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

Lord CHESTERFIELD 1694-1773
(text from the 1st edition, 1883)

Notwithstanding his strange self-deception as to the "general order of nature" by which he attempted (sincerely we presume) to silence the better promptings of conscience, the remarkably strong feeling expressed by Lord Chesterfield gives him some right to notice here. His early instinctive aversion for the food which is the product torture and murder is much better founded, we shall be apt to believe, than the fallacious sophism by which he seems eventually to have succeeded in stifling the voices of Nature and Reason in seeking refuge under the shelter of a superficial philosophy. At all events his example is a forcible illustration of Seneca's observation that the better feelings of the young need only to be evoked by a proper education to conduct them to a true morality and religion. (1)

As it is we have to lament that he had not the greater light (of science) of the present time, if, indeed, the "deceitfulness of riches" would not have been for him, as for the mass of the rich or fashionable world, the shipwreck of just and rational feeling.

Philip Dormer, Earl of Chesterfield, succeeded to the family title in 1726. High in favour with the new king - George II. - he received the appointment of Ambassador-extraordinary to the Court of Holland in 1728, and amongst other honours that of the knighthood of the Garter. In 1745 he was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, in which post, during his brief rule, he seemed to have governed with more success than some of his predecessors or successors. He was soon afterwards a Secretary of State : ill-health obliged him to relinquish this office after a short tenure. He wrote papers for The World - the popular periodical of the time - besides some poetical pieces, but he is chiefly known as an author by his celebrated Letters to his Son, which long served as the text-book of polite society. It contains some remarks in regard to the relations of the sexes scarcely consonant with custom, or at least the outward code of sexual morals of the present day. His sentiments upon the subject in question are as follows :-

"I remember when I was a young man at the University, being so much affected with that very pathetic speech which Ovid puts into the mouth of Pythagoras against the eating of flesh of animals, that it was some time before I could bring myself to our college mutton again, with some inward doubt whether I was not making myself an accomplice to murder. My scruple remained unreconciled to the committing of so horrid a meal, till upon serious reflection I became convinced of its legality (2) from the general order of nature which has instituted the universal preying of [of the stronger] upon the weaker as one of her first principles: though to me it has ever appeared an incomprehensible mystery that she, who could not be restrained by any want of materials from furnishing supplies for the support of her numerous offspring, should lay them under the necessity of devouring one another. (3)

"I know not whether it is from the clergy having looked upon this subject as too trivial for their notice, that we find them more silent upon it than could be wished; for as slaughter is at present no branch of the priesthood, it is to be presumed that they have as much compassion as other men. The Spectator has exclaimed against the cruelty of roasting lobsters alive, and of whipping pigs to death, but the misfortune is the writings of an Addison are seldom read by cooks and butchers. As to the thinking part of mankind, it has always been convinced, I believe, that however conformable to the general rule of nature our devouring animals may be, we are nevertheless under indelible obligation to prevent their suffering any degree of pain more than is absolutely necessary.

"But this conviction lies in such heads that I fear not one poor creature in a million has ever fared the better for it, and, I believe, never will: since people of condition, the only source from whence [effectual] pity is to flow, are so far from inculcating it to those beneath them, that a very few years ago they suffered themselves to be entertained at a public theatre by the performances of an unhappy company of animals who could only have been made actors by the utmost energy of whipcord and starving." (4)

The writer might have instanced still more frightful results of this insensibility on the part of the influential classes of the community: nor indeed, the better few always excepted, were he living now could he present such a much more favourable picture of the morals (in this the most important department of them) of the ruling sections of society.

Ritson supplements the virtual adhesion of Lord Chesterfield to the principles of Humanity, with some remarks of Sir W. Jones, the eminent Orientalist, who (protesting against the selfish callousness of "Sportsmen" and even of "Naturalists" in the infliction of pain) writes : "I shall never forget the couplet of Ferdusi (5) for which Sadi, (6) who cites it with applause, pours blessings on his departed spirit :-

"Ah! spare you emmet, rich in hoarded grain:
He lives with pleasure and he dies with pain."

To which creditable expression of feeling we would append a word of astonishment at that very common inconsistency , and failure in elementary logic, which permits men - while easily and hyperbolically commiserating the fate of an emmet, a beetle, or a worm - to ignore the necessarily infinitely greater sufferings of the highly-organised victims of the Table.


    1. Quam vehementes haberent tirunculi impetus primos ad optima quæque si quis exhortaetur, si quis impelleret! The general failure Seneca traces partly to the fault of the schoolmasters, who prefer to instill into the minds of their pupils a knowledge of words rather than of things - of dialectics rather than of dietetics (nos docent disputare non vivere) and partly to the fault of parents who expect a head in place of a heart training. (See Letters to Lucilius, cviii.) Quis doctores docebit?
    2. An instance of the common confusion of thought and logic. The too obvious fact that a large proportion of animals are carnivorous neither proves nor justifies the carnivorousness of the human species. The real question is, is the human race originally frugivorous or carnivorous? Is it allied to the Tiger or the Ape?
    3. "Who is this female personification 'Nature'? What are 'her principles,' and where does she reside?" asks Ritson quoting this passage.
    4. The World No. 190, as quoted by Ritson
    5. Persian poets of the tenth and thirteenth centuries of our era.
    6. Asiatic Researches. iv. 12

Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index