This article was first printed in 1965, in England where the author, a Roman Catholic priest, lived.
Man, as he emerges from the prehistoric age, is a savage much more “red in tooth and claw” than the rest of nature. He is at war with the animal species, hunting them for his food and clothing; and as often as not he is also at war with his human neighbors.
But there is evidence in the oldest human traditions that this is a state of decline, the result of some great Catastrophe. The primitive legends of many races speak of a past Golden Age, when there was neither war nor bloodshed and man lived in friendly companionship with the other denizens of the earth. Then something terrible happened. Scientists call it the Ice Age, or a succession of ice ages. Christians call it a fall from divine grace. Whatever it was, it was a great disaster both for man and for his animal neighbors.
To take the most familiar of these earliest memories of our race: the first chapters of the Book of Genesis tell of man’s primeval happiness. The Creator made him last of all as the culminating point of the created world, and placed him in charge. (Genesis l:28).
Then God said “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” (Gen. 1:29, 30. RSV) The Creator’s original plan, then, was that both man and the animals should be vegetarians.....
Man wars against the animals, as well as against other human beings.
Then came the Fall from grace and the story of the Flood. This fall from grace seems to have brought about a drastic alteration in his relations with the lower creatures. He now ruled them by fear and preyed on them for his food. We are not given any explanation of the altered relations of the animals among themselves, who no longer subsisted exclusively on the “green plants” and preyed on one another...
The actual course of events is lost in prehistoric darkness and can only be conjectured. It is likely enough that migrations and climatic changes contributed to man’s change of diet, from the natural to the unnatural. Flesh-eating became an acquired taste, a perversion, and man has not yet returned to what is normal, sober and sane.
The Biblical account, then, is a significant allegory of what must have been the historical sequence: first, an age of peace and happiness under natural conditions; then the entry of crime and violence, with the disruption of natural conditions, and the change to a savage diet.
Similarly, the Greek poet Hesiod (circa 1000 B.C.) contemporary with Genesis) speaks of five ages of man, the first or Golden Age being the best, and the fifth or Iron Age, in which he was writing, the worst. The fruits of the earth he says, spontaneously supplied all the wants of the golden generation, and it was only in the third or Brazen Age that flesh-eating and war began.
The most radical means of curing man’s addiction to violence is the reform of his diet
After describing the wickedness of the present age, the poet foretells that Aidos and Nemesis (Compassion and Justice) will finally gather their white robes about them and depart from earth to heaven, leaving men to their well-merited fate....
The Bible goes further and adumbrates the return to natural and ideal conditions of life in some future age. We need only recall Isaiah’s prophecy that “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox...they shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain” And St. Paul’s prophecy in the epistle to the Romans says that all creation will eventually be liberated from its “bondage to decay” and its “groaning and travail.”
Once more, the allegory has a deep truth and significance. If we did not share this confident expectation of a return to better things in the future, we should have to despair of man’s destiny.
There is an essential and intimate connection between the carnivorous diet and the age of violence in which we live. This age of violence has continued for thousands of years, and nobody knows how much longer it will continue. And we know that as the technique of violence becomes more scientific and wholesale, the story of man’s degradation could end in the extermination of the human race and of all other life on earth.
But to accept this prospect would be to despair. We are bound to look for means of averting it. The most radical means of curing man’s addiction to violence would be the reform of his diet; and this is perhaps the only answer to the problem.
As things are in our society, man is conditioned to violence and bloodshed from his earliest years by the un-criticized belief that it is necessary for him to kill and eat animals in order to live. Being firm in this belief, he (or she) can look unmoved at the ghastly display of mangled limbs and bleeding carcasses in a butcher’s shop. And he (or she) can see nothing but fun in the cruel massacres that are perpetrated in the name of “sport.”
From this it is but a step—and an easy step—to accepting the dismemberment and massacre of one’s fellow-men in war as part of the order of things; something which only fanatics and eccentrics would dream of abolishing. Even the bitter experience of war and its atrocities does not as a rule shake this attitude of blind acceptance. And while such an attitude prevails, there can be no hope of banishing war.
Our best hope, then, is to address the deeper level of man’s psyche and recondition him in his attitude to the animals. If we can convince him of the essential outrageousness of killing or injuring an animal, he will be far less disposed to kill or injure a fellow-man.
Such a reconditioning of modern Western society may seem so wildly improbable as to be hopeless. But the thing has happened before, and it could happen again. The movements associated with Buddha and Pythagoras had a profound influence on the world in the direction of non-violence and respect for life.
For too long the Church has been divorced from the humanitarian movement.
True, they have been largely suppressed or diverted, but the influence still persists. The Christian gospel is a similar force, with its accent on love and compassion, though it has not yet succeeded in overcoming the violent tendencies of the unpromising society in which it has grown up, and Christians have signally failed to extend their charity to the whole animal world.....
The Church has been too long divorced from the humanitarian movement. The seeds of humanitarianism are in the gospel, but they have not been allowed to grow to maturity. Christ’s Sermon of the Mount is more honored in the breach than in the observance, and those who should be preaching it day in and day out find it strangely embarrassing and are apt to explain it away as a “counsel of perfection” for the few rather than accept its plain implication of non-violence as a requirement for all who would follow Christ . And what we call “Christian civilization” falls lamentably short of the humane standard of the gospel.
Humanitarians themselves are not always consistent. Some condemn blood-sports and turn a blind eye to vivisection, others vice versa. Some can denounce sundry cruelties while going about in fur coats obtained by extremely cruel means. Others are anti-this and anti-that, but still cling to their meat and fish diet as if there were no alternative.
Compassion cannot be rationed and confined in this way. The acceptance of one cruelty, under whatever pretext, predisposes men to accept and excuse any and every other cruelty, given suitable pretexts. The one case of cruelty to which most men refuse to extend their compassion is the case of slaughter for food. They will often salve their conscience by advocating this or that mitigation of the pitiful circumstances in which animals are slaughtered; but the crowning horror, the slaughter itself, they will not touch. That is necessary, they will plead, and turn blind eyes to the ever-accumulating proofs that it is not necessary. The tacit acceptance of that cruelty, I think, is what conditions men to accept and tolerate the other cruelties—vivisection, hunting, trapping and so forth.
FROM THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV
Love the world with an all-embracing love. Love the animals; God has given them the rudiments of thought and joy untroubled. Do not trouble them, do not harass them, do not deprive them of their happiness, do not work against God’s intent. Man, do not pride yourself on your superiority to them, for they are without sin, and you with your greatness defile the earth.....
The irresistible conclusion, then, is that there is little hope of abolishing the manifold cruelties to animals which will disgrace our society until men give up the habit of eating flesh. While they think it is necessary, a matter of life or death to themselves, to prey on animals, the very suggestion that animals have rights and feelings similar to their own sets up a defensive reaction which effectively pushes those rights out of sight and masks any cruelty that may be involved. It is not seen as cruelty where self-preservation is thought to be at stake.....
The majority of men have do not yet give any thought to the suffering of the [animal] victims they prey upon. When men’s eyes are opened to the fact that this violence is gratuitous, they will become open to many other facts, and cruelty of any kind will become intolerable and unthinkable. Then the Golden Age will indeed have returned.