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

Edward Gibbon

Edward Gibbon 1737-1794
(text from the 1st edition, 1883)

The limits of this work do not permit us to quote all the many writers of the eighteenth century whom philosophy, science, or profounder feeling urged incidentally to question the necessity or to suspect the barbarianism of the Slaughter-House. But there are two names amongst the highest in the whole range of English philosphic literature, whose expression of opinion may seem to be peculiarly noteworthy - the author of the Wealth of Nations [Adam Smith] and the historian of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.


As for the reflections of the first historians, who seem always to guard himself from the expression of any osrt of emotion not in keeping with the character of an impartial judge and unprejudiced sepctator, but who, on the subject in question, cannot wholly repress the natural feeling of disgust, they are sufficiently significant. Gibbon is describing the manners of the Tartar tribes :-

"The thrones of Asia have been repeatedly overturned by the shepherds of the North, and their arms have spread terror and devastation over the most fertile and warlike countries of Europe. On this occasion, as well as on many others, the sober historian is forcibly awakened from a pleasing vision,and is compelled, with some reluctance, to confess that the pastoral manners, which have been adorned with the fairest attributes of peace and innocence, are much better adapted to the fierce and cruel habits of a military life.

"To illustrate this observation, I shall now proceed to consider a nation of shepherds and of warriors in the three important articles of (1) their diet, (2) their habituations, and (3) their exercises. 1. The corn, or even the rice, which constitutes the ordinary and wholesone food of a civilise dpeople, can be obtained only by the patient toil of the husbandman. Some of the happy savages who dwell between the tropics are plentifully nourished by the liberality of Nature ; but in the climate of the North a nation of shepherds is reduced to their flocks and herds. The skilful practitioners of the medical art will determine (if they are able to determine) how far the temper of the human mind may be affected by the use of animal or of vegetable food; and whetherthe common association of carnivorous and cruel deserves to be considered in any other light than that of an innocent, perhaps a salutory, prejudice of humanity. Yet if it be true that the sentiment of compassion is imperceptibly weakened by the sight and practice of domestic cruelty, we may observe that the horrid objects which are disguised by the arts of European refinement are exhibited in their naked and most disgusting simplicity in the tent of a Tartar shepherd. The Oxen or the Sheep are slaughtered by the same hand from which they were accustomed to receive their daily food, and the bleeding limbs are served, with very littel preparation, on the table of their unfeeling mrderers". (1)



    1. History of the Decline and Fall of the Roamn Empire, xxvi. Notwithstanding Gibbon's expression of horror, we shall ventire to remark that the "unfeeling murderers" of the Tartar steppes, in slaughtering each for himself, are more just than the civilised peoples of Europe, with whom a pariah-class is set apart to so the cruel and degrading work of the community.


Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index