Indian tonic

Review of Tristram Stuart's Bloodless Revolution for the Economist
THE esteem in which mankind holds its furrier friends may be an indicator of the conception it has nurtured of itself. In the dualistic universe mapped out by Descartes in the late 17th century, for example, animals were regarded as cogs in the vast machinery of nature. Man, by virtue of the reflective soul that set him apart from the rest of Creation, was cast in the role of master of the natural world. By contrast, the acceptance a century later of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's portrait of mankind as just another, more adaptive kind of animal had proved so widespread that man was as likely to consider himself nature's student as its (perhaps incompetent) master.

This evolution and the light it sheds on a certain strand of cultural and intellectual history, lies at the heart of “The Bloodless Revolution”. Despite his serious approach, Mr Stuart has a relaxed, semi-anecdotal style which repays both careful engagement and lighter dipping. Beginning, for example, with a quotation from “Withnail and I”, a British film in which the heroes are prevented from killing a chicken by its “dreadful, beady eyes”, he moves on to the issue of man's sympathy—or otherwise—for animals, a thorn in many a non-vegetarian side.

Europe's use of India as an anthropological mirror has attracted much attention over the past 30 years. But the book's strength lies not in uncovering substantial new ground—although the motley assemblage of characters and creeds provides plenty of this too—but in its exposé of vegetarianism as a way of offering refreshing perspectives on these and other areas.

Some readers will be aware that Pythagoras' vegetarianism was predicated on the immortality and reincarnation of souls and the consequent worry in killing a beast “lest”, as Shakespeare wrote, “thou dispossess the soul of thy grandam”. Fewer perhaps will know that Pythagoras may have learned this doctrine—part of which establishes the foundations for a continuous strand of Western metaphysics—from the ancient Hindu Brahmins. Fewer still will know of the 17th-century Christian Kabbalists exploring the same ideas. One even spotted a flaw in the Pythagorean system by which if reincarnation is the soul's journey through a progression of corporeal states to eventual perfection, then the ending of an animal's life only expedites its upward journey and can hardly be condemned on these grounds.

Mr Stuart's fluent pen occasionally makes minor errors, and his animosity to Descartes obscures some of the issues at stake. But with the balance of an easy style and comprehensive, if discreet, research, he avoids most of the pitfalls of popular histories in which seeming ephemera take centre stage. Thankfully too, those other singularly vegetarian dangers—preachiness and a copious flow of hot air—could not be less in evidence.

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