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

Frontispiece of The Cry of Nature, London, 1791. Caption reads: "The butcher's knife hath laid low the delight of a fond dam, & the darling of Nature is now stretched in gore upon the ground."

John Oswald. 1730-1793
(text from the 1st edition, 1883 )

Amongst the less known prophets of the new Reformation the author of the Cry of Nature - one of the most eloquent appeals to justice and right feeling ever addressed to the conscience of men - deserves an honourable place. Of the facts of his life we have scanty record. He was a native of Edinburgh. At an early age he entered the English army as a private soldier, but his friends soon obtained for him an officer's commission. He went to the East Indies, where he distinguished himself by his remarkable courage and ability. He did not long remain in the military life; and having sold out, he travelled through Hindustan to inform himself of the principles of the Brahmin and Buddhist religions of the peninsula, whose dress as well as milder manners he assumed upon his return to England.

During his stay in this country he uniformly abstained from all flesh meats, and so great, we are told, was his abhorrence of the Slaughter-House, that, to avoid it or the butcher's shop, he was accustomed to make a long détour. His children were brought up in the same way. In 1790, like some others of the more enthusiastic class of his countrymen, he espoused the cause of the Revolution, and went to Paris. By introducing some useful military reforms he gained distinction amongst the Republicans, and he received an important post. He seems to have fallen, with his sons, fighting in La Vendée for the National Cause.

The author, in his preface, tells us :-

"Fatigued with answering the enquiries, and replying to the objections of his friends with respect to the singularity of his mode of life, he conceived that he might consult his ease by making once for all, a public apology for his opinions. . . . The author is very far from entertaining a presumption that his slender labours (crude and imperfect as they are now hurried to the press) will ever operate an effect on the public mind ; and yet, when he considers the natural bias of the human heart to the side of mercy, (1) and observes on all hands, the barbarous governments of Europe giving way to a better system of things, he is inclined to hope that the day is beginning to approach when the growing sentiment of peace and good-will towards men will also embrace, in a wide circle of benevolence, the lower orders of life.

"At all events, the pleasing persuasion that his work may have contributed to mitigate the ferocities of prejudice, and to diminish in some degree the great mass of misery which oppresses the animal world, will in the hour of distress convey to the author’s soul a consolation which the toot of calumny will not be able to empoison. "

A noble and true inspiration nobly and eloquently used! The arguments, by which he attempts to reach the better feeling of his readers, are drawn from the deepest sources of morality. Having given a beautiful picture of the tempting and alluring character of Fruits, he exclaims in his poetic-prose :-

"But far other is the fate of animals. For, alas ! when they are plucked from the tree of Life, suddenly the withered blossoms of their beauty shrink to the chilly hand of Death. Quenched in his cold cold grasp expires the lamp of their loveliness, and struck by the livid blast of loathed putrefaction, their comely limbs are involved in ghastly horror. Shall we leave the living herbs to seek, in the den of death, an obscene aliment? Insensible to the blooming beauties of Pomona - unallured by the fragrant fume that exhale from her groves of golden fruits - unmoved by the nectar of Nature, by the ambrosia of innocence - shall the voracious vultures of our impure appetite speed across the lovely scenes and alight in the loathsome sink of putrefaction to devour the funeral of other creatures, to load with cadaverous rottenness, a wretched stomach?"

He repeats Porphyry's appeal to the consideration of human interests themselves -

"And is not the human race itself highly interested to prevent the habit of spilling blood? For, will the man, habituated to violence, be nice to distinguish the vital tide of a quadruped from that which flows from a creature with two legs? Are the dying struggles of a Lamb less affecting than the agonies of any animal whatever? Or will the ruffian who beholds unmoved the supplicatory looks of innocence itself, and, reckless of the Calf’s infantine cries, pitiless plunges in her quivering side the murdering knife, will he turn I say, with horror from human assassination?

'What more advance can mortals make in sin,
So near perfection, who with blood begin?
Deaf to the calf that lies beneath the knife,
Looks up, and from the Butcher begs her life.
Deaf to the harmless kid who, ere he dies,
All efforts to procure thy pity tries,
And imitates, in vain, thy children’s cries.
Where will he stop?'

"From the practice of slaughtering an innocent animal of another species, to the murder of man himself the steps are neither many nor remote. This our forefathers perfectly understood, who ordained that, in a cause of blood, no butcher, should be permitted to sit in jury. . . .

"But from the nature of the very human heart arises the strongest argument in behalf of the persecuted beings. Within us there exists a rooted repugnance to the shedding of blood, a repugnance which yields only to Custom, and which even the most inveterate custom can seldom entirely overcome. Hence the ungracious task of shedding the tide of life (for the gluttony of our table) has, in every country, been committed to the lowest class of men, and their profession is, in every country, an object of abhorrence.

"They feed on the carcass without remorse, because the dying struggles of the butchered creature are secluded from their sight - because his cries pierce not their ears - because his agonizing shrieks sink not into their souls. But were they forced, with their own hands, to assassinate the beings whom they devour, who is there amongst us who would not throw down the knife with detestation, and, rather than embrue his hands in the murder of the lamb, consent for ever to forego the accustomed repast? What then shall we say? Vainly planted in our breast, is this abhorrence of cruelty - this sympathetic affection for innocence? Or do the feelings of the heart point to the command of Nature more unerringly than all the elaborate subtlety of a set of men, who, at the shrine of science, have sacrificed the dearest sentiments of humanity?"

This eloquent vindicator of the rights of the oppressed of the non-human races here addresses a scathing rebuke to the torturers of the vivisection-halls, as well as to those who abuse Science by attempting to enlist it in the defence of slaughter.

"You, the sons of modern science, who court not Wisdom in her walks of silent meditation in the grove - who behold her not in the living loveliness of her works, but expect to meet her in the midst of obscenity and corruption - you, who dig for knowledge in the depths of the dunghill, and who expect to discover Wisdom enthroned amid the fragments of mortality and the abhorrence of the senses - you, that with cruel violence interrogate trembling Nature, who plunge into her maternal bosom the butcher-knife, and, in quest of your nefarious science, delight to scrutinise the fibres of agonising beings, you dare also to violate the human form, and, holding up the entrails of men, you exclaim 'Behold the bowels of a carnivorous animal!' Barbarians! to these very bowels I appeal against your cruel dogmas - to these bowels which Nature hath sanctified to the sentiments of pity and of gratitude, to the yearnings of kindred, to the melting tenderness of love.

__________________'Mollissima corda
Humano generi dare se natura satetur,
Quæ lachrymas dedit : hæe nostri pars optima sensus." (2)

"Had nature intended man to be an animal of prey, would she have implanted in his breast an instinct so adverse to her purpose? . . . Would she not rather, in order to enable him to brave the piercing cries of anguish, have wrapped his ruthless heart in ribs of brass, and with iron entrails have armed him to grind, without shadow of remorse, the palpitating limbs of agonising life? But has Nature winged the feet of man with fleetness to overtake the flying prey? And where are his fangs to tear asunder the creatures destined for his food? Doe the lust of carnage glare in his eye-balls? Does he scent afar the footsteps of his victim? Does his soul pant for the feast of blood? Is the bosom of man the rugged abode of bloody desire to slay, to mangle and to devour?

"But come, men of scientific subtlety, approach and examine with attention this dead body. It was late a playful Fawn, who skipping and bounding on the bosom of parent Earth, awoke in the soul of the feeling observer a thousand tender emotions. But the butcher's knife has laid low the delight of a fond mother, and the darling of Nature is now stretched in gore upon the ground. Approach, I say, men of scientific subtlety, and tell me, does this ghastly spectacle whet your appetite? But why turn you with abhorrence? Do you then yield to the combined evidence of your senses, to the testimony of conscience and common sense; or with a show of rhetoric, pitiful as it is perverse, will you still persist in your endeavour to persuade us, that to murder and innocent being, is not cruel nor unjust, and that to feed upon a corpse, is neither filthy nor unfitting?"

Amid the dark scenes of barbarism and cold blooded indifferentism to suffering innocence, there are yet the glimmers of a better nature, which need but the life-giving impulse of a true religion and philosophy :-

"And yet those channels of sympathy for inferior animals long - a very long - custom has not been able altogether, to stifle. Even now, notwithstanding the narrow, joyless, and heard-hearted tendency of the prevailing superstitions ; even now, we discover, in every corner of the globe, some good-natured prejudice in behalf of [certain of] the persecuted animals ; we perceive, in every country, certain privileged animals, whom even the ruthless jaws of gluttony dare not to invade. For, to pass over unnoticed the vast empires of India and of China, where the lower orders of life are considered as relative parts of society, and are protected by the laws and religion of the natives, (3) the Tartars abstain from several kinds of animals ; the Turks are charitable to the very dog, whom they abominate ; and even the English peasant pays towards the red-breast an inviolate respect to the rights of hospitality.

"Long after the perverse practice of devouring the flesh of animals had grown into inveterate habit among peoples, there existed still in almost every country, and of every religion, and of every sect of philosophy, a wiser, a purer, and more holy class of men, who preserved, by their institutions, by their percepts, and by their example, the memory of primitive innocence [?] and simplicity. The Pythagoreans abhorred the slaughter of any animal life ; Epicurus and the worthiest part of his disciples bounded their delights with the produce of their garden ; and of the first Christians several sects abominated the feast of blood, and were satisfied with the food which Nature, unviolated, brings forth for our support. . . . .

"Man, in a state of nature, is not, apparently, much superior to other animals. His organisation is, no doubt, extremely happy ; but then the dexterity of his figure is counterpoised by great advantages in other beings. Inferior to the Bull in force ; and in fleetness to the Dog, the os sublime, or front erect, a feature which he bears in common with the Monkey, could scarcely have inspired him with those haughty and magnificent ideas, which the pride of human refinement thence endeavours to deduce. Exposed, like his fellow-creatures, to the injuries of the air, urged to action by the same physical necessities, susceptible of the same impressions, actuated by the same passions, and equally subject to the pains of disease and to the pangs of dissolution, the simple savage never dreams that his nature was so much more noble, or that he drew his origin from a purer source or more remote than the animals in whom he saw resemblance so complete.

"Nor were the simple sounds by which he expressed the singleness of his heart at all fitted to flatter him into that fond sense of superiority over the beings whom the unreasoning insolence of cultivated ages absurdly styles mute. I say absurdly styles mute ; for with what propriety can that name be applied, for example, to the little sirens of the grove, to whom Nature has granted the strains of ravishment - the soul of song? Those charming warblers who pour forth, with a moving melody which human ingenuity vies with in vain, their loves, their anxiety, their woes. In the ardour and delicacy of his amorous expressions, can the most impassioned, the most respectful, human lover surpass the 'glossy kind', as described by the most beautiful of all our poets?

And, indeed, has not nature given, to almost every being the same spontaneous signs of the various affections? Admire we not in other animals whatever is most eloquent in man - the tremor of desire, the tear of distress, the piercing cry of anguish, the pity-pleading look - expressions that speak the soul with a feeling which words are feeble to convey?"

The whole of the little book of which the above extracts are properly representative, breathes the spirit of a true religion. We shall only add that it exhibits almost as much learning and valuable research as it exhibits justness of thought and sensibility - enriched, as it is, by copious illustrative notes. (4)



    1. The term "Mercy" it is important to observe, is one of those words of ambiguous meaning, which are liable, in popular parlance to be misused. It seems to have a double origin - from misericordia, "Pity" (its better parentage), and merces. "Gain," and , by deduction, "Pardon" granted for some consideration. It is in this latter sense that the term seems generally to be used in respect of the non-human races. But it is obvious to object that "pardon," applicable to criminals, can have no meaning as applied to the innocent. Pity or compassion, still more Justice - these are the terms properly employed.
    2. The observation of a non-Christian moralist (Juvenal, xv.) It is the motto chosen by Oswald for his title page.
    3. In the Hindu sacred scriptures, and especially in the teaching of the greta founder of the most extensive religion on the globe, this regard for non-human life, however originating, is more obvious than in any other sacred books, But it is most charmingly displayed in that most interesting of all Eastern poetry and drama - Sakuntala: or the Fatal Ring, of the Hindu Kalidâsa, the most frequently translated of all the productions of Hindu literature. We may refer our readers also to The Light of Asia, an interesting versification of the principal teaching of Sakya-Muni or Guatama.
    4. The Cry of Nature: an Appeal to Mercy and to Justice on Behalf of Persecuted Animals. By John Oswald. London, 1791.

Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index