Veganism’s Historical Home

» May 8th, 2013

How should we situate veganism in the historical flow of time? This question might seem a bit moony but, despite several stellar histories of vegetarianism and veganism, the fact remains that we still know very little about veganism’s place in our dominant intellectual-historical bookshelf. History doesn’t dictate the future, but it certainly suggests what’s possible. So a thumbnail sketch is in order. Ot at least a dusting.

Answering the question is harder than it looks (not the least because I’m no historian of ideas—but ignorance has never stopped me). The Enlightenment—that transformative embrace of liberty and rights and legal protection in the eighteenth century western world—strikes me as the most obvious place to start. It is undoubtedly the case that the decline of tribal and dogmatic religiosity, in accordance with the rise of secular liberalism and the scientific method, established fertile ground for an animal rights turn. From the 1790s through the 1820s in particular, the Atlantic world found itself awash in the literature of animal welfare, with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals founded in 1824. The flip side of the Enlightenment, however, was a perverse confluence of liberty and science, a merging that precipitated, among other developments detrimental to the fate of animals, a hubristic mentality of genetic control buttressed by amoral breeding programs and hybrid corn.

Evolutionary biology, certainly an important outcome of the Enlightenment, provides a similarly cross-eyed frame of reference. On the one hand, beginning with Darwin, it reiterated that our shared physical heritage with animals has emotional and cognitive counterparts, thereby undermining the generally unquestioned premise of human exceptionalism that dominated human thought for much of our brief existence. On the other, the legacy of evolutionary biology was never satisfactorily reconciled with human moral development, a failure than every vegan is reminded of when some knuckle-dragging Neanderthal points to his incisors and declares that “humans were meant to eat meat.”

It remains to be seen if the animal rights movement will find a secure purchase in the post-modern and post-human critique of the enlightenment. There would certainly seem to be potential for great gains to come from a mentality that questions and, ideally, tosses Molotov cocktails at pre-exiting signifiers of power (such as, notably, species) and clears space for a radical peripheralization of the human animal. But the critique as it’s thus far been delivered is scrambled and cold and alienating to most activists without academic tenure and a rare tolerance for stupefying jargon.

Finally, there’s the legacy of deep ecology and the Carson-like environmental tradition. As many vegans now argue, this is the essential tradition, the intellectual loft that fosters a critique of animal exploitation as part of a larger and more humane ethic grounded in warmth for mother earth and human health. The problem, though, is that deep ecology too often yields to shallow environmentalism, leading to such utter drivel as the idea that we can save the earth by grazing cattle and drinking raw milk.

I’m sure I got all this only half right at best. But here’s my last thought: failure to find a secure intellectual legacy isn’t a problem.  More so, it’s an opportunity to establish animal rights as a basis for a fundamentally new way of thinking, one that’s able to synthesize  the best that these traditions have to offer while laying the basis for something new under the sun.


12 Responses to Veganism’s Historical Home

  1. John t maher says:

    The last though is rather dodgy because it fails to point to a means for asserting animal rights in a world where the polis denies animals subjectivity and therfore standing to assert these rights. This is s failure on the part if both politics and theory to recognize animal subjectivity — without which we can not magically jump to the next step — animals having rights. So I say this post is rather a non recognition of the regression problem than something new under the sun. For example I note that in yesterday’s comments not one person referred to bill and Lou by name or referenced their experience while deservedly congratulating jmc. If the readers here do not recognize animal subjectivity then what hope do we have in convincing others that animals are subjects of rights?

    • James says:


      But in your eagerness to (deservedly) marginalize the human perspective—or at least achieve parity with the critters’ (as you and Haroway put it)–you run the risk of overlooking a basic human need: affirmation.

      I wish I could say I’d keep advocating for animals without external affirmation, but I’m afraid that would be a lie. I’m human, I’m as insecure as any other human, and I need moral support to keep going.

      Those who express that support and mean it spur me to keep fighting for animals which, in turn, helps animals (I hope).

      So you see: we must be careful not to lose too much sight of the human end of things.


      • John T. Maher says:

        I am happy for you that you recognize and embrace your need for human affirmation. I was conveying the foundation or framing of your last para “failure to find a secure intellectual legacy isn’t a problem. More so, it’s an opportunity to establish animal rights as a basis for a fundamentally new way of thinking, one that’s able to synthesize the best that these traditions have to offer while laying the basis for something new under the sun” was lacking and is a much richer topic. If you find a way to confront and eliminate speciesism that will be the ultimate prize and legacy of humanism and I will applaud.

        Without being defensive, I am not asking that humanism be marginalized, I just don’t like the monopoly it enjoys. True, Haraway and Wolfe also have issues with humanism, but they more or less see it as a form of exceptionalism and oppression. In Jon Sanbonmatsu’s anthology on Critical Theory and Animal Liberation, Ziporah Weisberg writes about a transformative hope for humanism as confronting its own treatment toward animals through an ordered ontology of being which I argue is false hope. Again, I hope you can change this paradigm, my presence on this blog comment section is proof I am both curious and hopeful that someone like you can show a humanist way out of animal oppression. Tough love

  2. John t maher says:

    “Last para”.iPhone keeps changing the text. Apologies to all for that

  3. Tom says:

    “The problem, though, is that deep ecology too often yields to shallow environmentalism, leading to such utter drivel as the idea that we can save the earth by grazing cattle and drinking raw milk.”

    This line is borderline inspirational but more likely just a very well done articulation of reality.

  4. Keith Akers says:

    The Enlightenment? I don’t think so.

    I’d suggest that any serious investigation of the history of veganism needs to start with Chinese and Indian Buddhism. It’s a tough subject because there’s not very much in English. Almost as bad, the Buddhists are no help at all — they’re trying to be “modern” and integrate with the West, so typically cover up their vegetarian / vegan past. Another problem is that in pre-modern times the use of farm animals even by those with a vegan diet is extremely hard to avoid. You’ll have to define veganism pretty carefully.

    There are some other problems. Like, what was the so-called “enlightenment” really about, the impact of fossil fuels and the industrial revolution, what is “veganism” really, etc. etc. — it would take some time to explain why each of these is a problem. But dealing with Chinese Buddhism is a good place to start.

    • Ellen K says:

      Just wanted to put a clear pitch in for the Jain Buddhists as well (included implicitly under Indian? Sorry if I’m in error, typing off the top of my head)

      Will Tuttle, in his bio in World Peace Diet, helped me appreciate the role of my adopted town of Concord/Lincoln, MA, about which he says there must be something in the water

      • Keith Akers says:

        Yes, we should really include the Jains as well, followers of Mahavira, and the Hindus. I don’t won’t to discourage anyone from writing the history of veganism, but it really is a vast and complex topic.

        My thought is that by the time Buddhism gets to China, it is clearly vegetarian / vegan. The first historical question to ask would be whether this is because the Buddhist tradition was originally vegetarian / vegan in India, or whether the Chinese Buddhists were starting something new. The Theravadan and Tibetan strains of Buddhism are typically not vegetarian. I’m not the expert here, so the answer could go either way, but this is where I’d start my research.

        In the west, vegetarianism / veganism really got started with Pythagoras, a vegetarian who refused to wear wool. The later “enlightenment” people who were compassionate towards animals may have actually been picking up this up from Pythagoras and the Platonists, who were mostly or entirely vegetarian. Another research topic: is this true?

    • Lori says:

      Let’s not forget Chinese Taoism in the equation too.

  5. Lindsay says:

    Interesting. Though I agree discourses on animal exploitation had been current for several hundred years I was a bit surprised you did not reference the creation of the Vegan Society in the UK in 1944 and how it came out of debates in the Vegetarian Society. Perhaps the creation of the word ‘vegan’ and the concept that it was a path that needed a name to distinguish it from vegetarianism did not seem as important.

    • Lindsay says:

      I meant to say I agree that the influence of those Buddhists and Hindus who were vegetarian is very relevant.

  6. sdunne1989 says:

    Peter Singer has a pretty good (and brief) essay on why he doesn’t consider himself part of the Deep Ecology movement. Deep Ecologists rely on anthropomorphism and the pathetic fallacy to generate moral value. Singer argues that while a tree can be viewed as having instrumental value for providing homes for animals, absorbing CO2, emitting oxygen, etc., they (at least strongly appear) to lack any kind of sentience or conscious preferences, and so they can never have intrinsic value.

    Not that we should go around chopping down trees without a reason.

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