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Leo Tolstoy Vegetarian Essay

would later denounce war when in 1904, during the Russo-Japanese War, Tolstoy wrote to the Japanese Buddhist priest Soyen Shaku condemning the war in a failed attempt to make a joint pacifist statement. In fact it was Tolstoy's experiences of war that helped him develop his belief in pacifism.

Tolstoy set up a school for peasant children  and committed himself to improving  the lives of peasants on his Volga estate. He married Sofya Behrs in 1862, it was a happy marriage at first however in later years his relationship with his wife deteriorated as his beliefs became increasingly radical and he sought to reject his inherited and earned wealth, including the renunciation of the copyrights on his earlier works. The couple had ten surviving children.

His book My Confession, wherein Tolstoy at the age of 51 looked back on his life and considered that it had been a meaningless failure despite the success of his writing accomplishments, gives insight into Tolstoy's thinking.  Published in 1884 it describes how he developed his philosophies and how a mid life spiritual crisis resulted in his abandonment of materialism to lead a peasant-like life style and to reject war and the church. Among other things Tolstoy considered that the aristocracy were a burden on the poor and he opposed private property. Previously his behaviour in young adulthood had little virtue, along with lying, cheating, drunkenness and other unsavoury deeds he had killed men in wars, challenged others to duels and gambled at cards. 

Tolstoy formulated a unique Christian Philosophy centred upon the sermon on the mount, particularly Christ's injunction to turn the other cheek, which he saw as a justification for pacifism and non-violence. He advocated  non-resistance to evil as the correct response to aggression and emphasised fair treatment for the poor and working classes. Both Gandhi and and Martin Luther King, Jr. were inspired by the idea of non resistance in Tolstoy's writings in, The Kingdom of God is Within You. An intense correspondence between Mohandas Gandhi, who at the time was living in south Africa and becoming an activist, and Leo Tolstoy commenced in 1908 when Tolstoy wrote a letter to an Indian newspaper entitled “A Letter to a Hindu”. Tolstoy's “The Kingdom of God is Within You” convinced Gandhi to advocate non violent resistance, Gandhi acknowledged Tolstoy's influence in his autobiography, calling Tolstoy “the greatest apostle of non-violence that the present age has produced”. The correspondence between Tolstoy and Gandhi lasted only a year but it led Gandhi to give the name the "Tolstoy Colony" to his second ashram in South Africa.

But most importantly for our purposes Tolstoy was an ethical vegetarian and an advocate of the humane treatment of animals. In 1885 along with two of his daughters Tolstoy became a vegetarian. His reasons for doing so are expressed in The First Step, which Tolstoy wrote as a preface for the 1892 Russian Edition of The Ethics of Diet written by Howard Williams. According to this influential preface, important in it's own right, from which you will find selections below, Tolstoy's principal reason for becoming vegetarian was his conviction that eating flesh is "simply immoral as it involves the performance of an act which is contrary to moral feeling -killing; and is called forth only by greediness and the desire for tasty food".  Tolstoy thought that all men were brothers and therefore a natural bond existed between them. He believed that bond was love and that this bond should extend to all living creatures.

In this writing Tolstoy well describes his horror of the inhuman and callous ways in which animals are butchered when he describes in some detail his experiences while visiting a slaughter house. His experiences are difficult reading for the more sensitive amongst us. Tolstoy's observations convinced him that by participating in such inhumane practices : "man suppresses in himself, unnecessarily, the highest spiritual capacity—that of sympathy and pity toward living creatures like himself—and by violating his own feelings becomes cruel. And how deeply seated in the human heart is the injunction not to take life!"

Tolstoy lived simply on bread, porridge fruit and vegetables

He advocated vegetarianism as one of the "first steps toward a good life" and self-restraint, which should be the moral aspiration of humans.

"The progress of the movement should cause especial joy to those whose life lies in the effort to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth, not because vegetarianism is in itself an important step towards that kingdom, but because it is a sign that the aspiration of mankind towards moral perfection is serious and sincere.''

The essay below had a profound effect on the more sensitive Russians of the day, many of whom became vegetarian as a result of what Tolstoy wrote.

The Immorality of Carnivorism, excerpted from The first Step

Fasting is an indispensable condition of a good life ; but in fasting, as in self-control in general, the question arises, with what shall we begin?'—How to fast, how often to eat, what to eat, what to avoid eating? And as we can do no work seriously without regarding the necessary order of sequence, so also we cannot fast without knowing where to begin—with what to commence self-control in food.

Fasting ! And even an analysis of how to fast, and where to begin ! The notion seems ridiculous and wild to the majority of men.

I remember how, with pride at his originality, an Evangelical preacher, who was attacking monastic asceticism, once said to me, 'Ours is not a Christianity of fasting and privations, but of beefsteaks.' Christianity, or virtue in general—and beefsteaks !

During a long period of darkness and lack of all guidance. Pagan or Christian, so many wild, immoral ideas have made their way into our life (especially into that lower region of the first steps toward a good life — our relation to food, to which no one paid any attention), that it is difficult for us even to understand the audacity and senselessness of upholding in our days, Christianity or virtue with beefsteaks.

We are not horrified by this association, solely because a strange thing has befallen us. We look and see not listen and hear not. There is no bad odour, no sound, no monstrosity, to which man cannot become so accustomed that he ceases to remark what would strike a man unaccustomed to it. Precisely so it is in the moral region. Christianity and morality with beefsteaks !

A few days ago I visited the slaughter-house in our town of Toúla. It is built on the new and improved system practised in large towns, with a view to causing the animals as little suffering as possible. It was on a Friday, two days before Trinity Sunday. There were many cattle there.

Long before this, when reading that excellent book. The Ethics of Diet, 1 had wished to visit a slaughter-house, in order to see with my own eyes the reality of the question raised when vegetarianism is discussed. But at first I felt ashamed to do so, as one is always ashamed of going to look at suffering which one knows is about to take place, but which one cannot avert ; and so I kept putting off my visit.

But a little while ago I met on the road a butcher returning to Toúla after a visit to his home. He is not yet an experienced butcher, and his duty is to stab with a knife. I asked him whether he did not feel sorry for the animals that he killed. He gave me the usual answer : 'Why should I feel sorry.? It is necessary.' But when I told him that eating flesh is not necessary, but is only a luxury, he agreed ; and then he admitted that he was sorry for the animals. 'But what can I do? I must earn my bread,' he said. 'At first I was afraid to kill. My father, he never even killed a chicken in all his life.' The majority of Russians cannot kill ; they feel pity, and express the feeling by the word 'fear.' This man had also been 'afraid,' but he was so no longer. He told me that most of the work was done on Fridays, when it continues until the evening.

Not long ago I also had a talk with a retired soldier, a butcher, and he, too, was surprised at my assertion that it was a pity to kill, and said the usual things about its being ordained ; but afterwards he agreed with me : 'Especially when they are quiet, tame cattle. They come, poor things ! trusting you. It is very pitiful.'

This is dreadful ! Not the suffering and death of the animals, but that man suppresses in himself, unnecessarily, the highest spiritual capacity—that of sympathy and pity toward living creatures like himself—and by violating his own feelings becomes cruel. And how deeply seated in the human heart is the injunction not to take life !

Once, when walking; from Moscow,  I was offered a lift by some carters who were going from Sérpouhof to a neighbouring, forest to fetch wood. It was the Thursday before Easter. 1 was seated in the first cart, with a strong, red, coarse carman, who evidently drank. On entering a village we saw a well-fed, naked, pink pig being dragged out of the first yard to be slaughtered. It squealed in a dreadful voice, resembling the shriek of a man. Just as we were passing they began to kill it. A man gashed its throat with a knife. The pig squealed still more loudly and piercingly, broke away from the men, and ran off covered with blood. Being near-sighted I did not see all the details. I saw only the human-looking pink body of the pig and heard its desperate squeal ; but the carter saw all the details and watched closely. They caught the pig, knocked it down, and finished cutting: its throat. When its squeals ceased the carter sighed heavily. 'Do men really not have to answer for such things?' he said.

So strong is man's aversion to all killing. But by example, by encouraging greediness, by the assertion that God has allowed it, and, above all, by habit, people entirely lose this natural feeling.

On Friday I decided to go to Toúla, and, meeting a meek, kind acquaintance of mine, I invited him to accompany me.

'Yes, I have heard that the arrangements are good, and have been wishing to go and see it ; but if they are slaughtering I will not go in.'

'Why not? That's just what I want to see ! If we eat flesh it must be killed.'

'No, no, I cannot !'

It is worth remarking that this man is a sportsman and himself kills animals and birds.

So we went to the slaughter-house. Even at the entrance one noticed the heavy, disgusting, fetid smell, as of carpenter's glue, or paint on glue. The nearer we approached, the stronger became the smell. The building is of red brick, very large, with vaults and high chimneys. We entered the gates. To the right was a spacious enclosed yard, three-quarters of an acre in extent— twice a week cattle are driven in here for sale— and adjoining this enclosure was the porter's lodge. To the left were the chambers, as they are called— i.e., rooms with arched entrances, sloping asphalt floors, and contrivances for moving and hanging up the carcasses. On a bench against the wall of the porter's lodge were seated half a dozen butchers, in aprons covered with blood, their tucked-up sleeves disclosing their muscular arms also besmeared with blood. They had finished their work half an hour before, so that day we could only see the empty chambers. Though these chambers were open on both sides, there was an oppressive smell of warm blood ; the floor was brown and shining, with congealed black blood in the cavities.

One of the butchers described the process of slaughtering, and showed us the place where it was done. I did not quite understand him, and formed a wrong, but very horrible, idea of the way the animals are slaughtered ; and I fancied that, as is often the case, the reality would very likely produce upon me a weaker impression than the imagination, but in this I was mistaken.

The next time I visited the slaughter-house I went in good time. It was the Friday before Trinity— a warm day in June. The smell of glue and blood was even stronger and more penetrating than on my first visit. The work was at its height. The dusty yard was full of cattle, and animals had been driven into all the enclosures beside the chambers.

In the street, before the entrance, stood carts to which oxen, calves, and cows were tied. Other carts drawn by good horses and filled with live calves, whose heads hung down and swayed about, drew up and were unloaded ; and similar carts containing the carcasses of oxen, with trembling logs sticking out, with heads and bright red lungs and brown livers, drove away from the slaughter-house. By the fence stood the cattle dealers' horses. The dealers themselves, in their long coats, with their whips and knouts in their hands, were walking about the yard, either marking with tar cattle belonging to the same owner, or bargaining, or else guiding oxen and bulls from the great yard into the enclosures which lead into the chambers. These men were evidently all preoccupied with money matters and calculations, and any thought as to whether it was right or wrong to kill these animals was as far from their minds as were questions about the chemical composition of the blood that covered the floor of the chambers.

No butchers were to be seen in the yard ; they were all in the chambers at work. That day about a hundred head of cattle were slaughtered. I was on the point of entering one of the chambers, but stopped short at the door. I stopped both because the chamber was crowded with carcasses which were being moved about, and also because blood was flowing on the floor and dripping from above. All the butchers present were besmeared with blood, and had I entered I, too, should certainly have been covered with it. One suspended carcass was being taken down, another was being moved toward the door, a third, a slaughtered ox, was lying with its white legs raised, while a butcher with strong hand was ripping up its tight-stretched hide.

Through the door opposite the one at which I was standing, a big, red, well-fed ox was led in. Two men were dragging it, and hardly had it entered when I saw a butcher raise a knife above its neck and stab it. The ox, as if all four legs had suddenly given way, fell heavily upon its belly, immediately turned over on one side, and began to work its legs and all its hindquarters. Another butcher at once threw himself upon the ox from the side opposite to the twitching legs, caught its horns and twisted its head down to the ground, while another butcher cut its throat with a knife. From beneath the head there flowed a stream of blackish-red blood, which a besmeared boy caught in a tin basin. All the time this was going on the ox kept incessantly twitching its head as if trying to get up, and waved its four legs in the air. The basin was quickly filling, but the ox still lived, and, its stomach heaving heavily, both hind and fore legs worked so violently that the butchers held aloof. When one basin was full, the boy carried it away on his head to the albumen factory, while another boy placed a fresh basin, which also soon began to till up. But still the ox heaved its body and worked its hind legs.

When the blood ceased to flow the butcher raised the animal's head and began to skin it. The ox continued to writhe. The head, stripped of its skin, showed red with white veins, and kept the position given it by the butcher ; on both sides hung the skin. Still the animal did not cease to writhe. Then another butcher caught hold of one of the legs, broke it, and cut it off. In the remaining legs and the stomach the convulsions still continued. The other legs were cut off and thrown aside, together with those of other oxen belonging to the same owner. Then the carcass was dragged to the hoist and hung up, and the convulsions were over.

Thus I looked on from the door at the second, third, fourth ox. It was the same with each : the same cutting off of the head with bitten tongue, and the same convulsed members. The only difference was that the butcher did not always strike at once so as to cause the animal's fall. Sometimes he missed his aim, whereupon the ox leaped up, bellowed, and, covered with blood, tried to escape. But then his head was pulled under a bar, struck a second time, and he fell.

I afterwards entered by the door at which the oxen were led in. Here I saw the same thing, only nearer, and therefore more plainly. But chiefly I saw here, what I had not seen before, how the oxen were forced to enter this door. Each time an ox was seized in the enclosure and pulled forward by a rope tied to its horns, the animal, smelling blood, refused to advance, and sometimes bellowed and drew back. It would have been beyond the strength of two men to drag it in by force, so one of the butchers went round each time, grasped the animal's tail and twisted it so violently that the gristle crackled, and the ox advanced.

When they had finished with the cattle of one owner, they brought in those of another. The first animal of this next lot was not an ox, but a bull— a fine, well-bred creature, black, with white spots on its legs, young, muscular, full of energy. He was dragged forward, but he lowered his head and resisted sturdily. Then the butcher who followed behind seized the tail, like an engine-driver grasping the handle of a whistle, twisted it, the gristle crackled, and the bull rushed forward, upsetting; the men who held the rope. Then it stopped, looking sideways with its black eyes, the whites of which had filled with blood. But again the tail crackled, and the bull sprang forward and reached the required spot. The striker approached, took aim, and struck. But the blow missed the mark. The bull leaped up, shook his head, bellowed, and, covered with blood, broke free and rushed back. The men at the doorway all sprang aside ; but the experienced butchers, with the dash of men inured to danger, quickly caught the rope ; again the tail operation was repeated, and again the bull was in the chamber, where he was dragged under the bar, from which he did not again escape. The striker quickly took aim at the spot where the hair divides like a star, and, notwithstanding the blood, found it, struck, and the fine animal, full of life, collapsed, its head and legs writhing while it was bled and the head skinned.

'There, the cursed devil hasn't even fallen the right way !' grumbled the butcher as he cut the skin from the head.

Five minutes later the head was stuck up, red instead of black, without skin ; the eyes, that had shone with such splendid colour five minutes before, fixed and glassy.

Afterwards I went into the compartment where small animals are slaughtered—a very large chamber with asphalt floor, and tables with backs, on which sheep and calves are killed. Here the work was already finished ; in the long room, impregnated with the smell of blood, were only two butchers. One was blowing into the leg of a dead lamb and patting the swollen stomach with his hand ; the other, a young fellow in an apron besmeared with blood, was smoking a bent cigarette. There was no one else in the long, dark chamber, filled with a heavy smell. After me there entered a man, apparently an ex-soldier, bringing in a young yearling ram, black with a white mark on its neck, and its legs tied. This animal he placed upon one of the tables, as if upon a bed. The old soldier greeted the butchers, with whom he was evidently acquainted, and began to ask when their master allowed them leave. The fellow with the cigarette approached with a knife, sharpened it on the edge of the table, and answered that they were free on holidays. The live ram was lying as quietly as the dead inflated one, except that it was briskly wagging its short little tail and its sides were heaving more quickly than usual. The soldier pressed down its uplifted head gently, without effort; the butcher, still continuing the conversation, grasped with his left hand the head of the ram and cut its throat. The ram quivered, and the little tail stiffened and ceased to wave. The fellow, while waiting; for the blood to flow, began to relight his cigarette, which had gone out. The blood flowed and the ram began to writhe. The conversation continued without the slightest interruption. It was horribly revolting.
[…]

And how about those hens and chickens which daily, in thousands of kitchens, with heads cut off and streaming with blood, comically, dreadfully, flop about, jerking their wings ?

And see, a kind, refined lady will devour the carcasses of these animals with full assurance that she is doing right, at the same time asserting two contradictory propositions :

First, that she is, as her doctor assures her, so delicate that she cannot be sustained by vegetable food alone, and that for her feeble organism flesh is indispensable ; and, secondly, that she is so sensitive that she is unable, not only herself to inflict suffering on animals, but even to bear the sight of suffering.

Whereas the poor lady is weak precisely because she has been taught to live upon food unnatural to man ; and she cannot avoid causing suffering to animals—for she eats them.

We cannot pretend that we do not know this. We are not ostriches, and cannot believe that if we refuse to look at what we do not wish to see, it will not exist. This is especially the case when what we do not wish to see is what we wish to eat. If it were really indispensable, or, if not indispensable, at least in some way useful ! But it is quite unnecessary, (4) and only serves to develop animal feelings, to excite desire, and to promote fornication and drunkenness. And this is continually being confirmed by the fact that young, kind, undepraved people—especially women and girls —without knowing how it logically follows, feel that virtue is incompatible with beefsteaks, and, as soon as they wish to be good, give up eating flesh.

What, then, do I wish to say ? That in order to be moral people must cease to eat meat? Not at all.

I only wish to say that for a good life a certain order of good actions is indispensable ; that if a man's aspirations toward right living be serious they will inevitably follow one definite sequence ; and that in this sequence the first virtue a man will strive after will be self-control, self-restraint. And in seeking for self-control a man will inevitably follow one definite sequence, and in this sequence the first thing will be self-control in food—fasting. And in fasting, if he be really and seriously seeking to live a good life, the first thing from which he will abstain will always be the use of animal food, because, to say nothing of the excitation of the passions caused by such food, its use is simply immoral, as it involves the performance of an act which is contrary to the moral
feeling— killing ; and is called forth only by greediness and the desire for tasty food.

 

To read the first step in its entirety:

History of Vegetarianism - Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) - Extract from 'The First St

The first step was originally written in 1892,as a preface to the Russian edition of Howard Williams' Ethics of Diet.

Other Tolstoy quotations

"Thou shalt not kill" does not apply to murder of one's own kind only, but to all living beings; and this Commandment was inscribed in the human breast long before it was proclaimed from Sinai.

A human can be healthy without killing animals for food. Therefore if he eats meat he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite. And to act so is immoral.

As long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields

Vegetarianism serves as the criterion by which we know that the pursuit of moral perfection on the part of humanity is genuine and sincere.

If a man's aspirations towards a righteous life are serious.. .if he earnestly and sincerely seeks a righteous life, his first act of abstinence is from animal food, because, not to mention the excitement of the passions produced by such food, it is plainly immoral, as it requires an act contrary to moral feeling, i. e., killing - and is called forth only by greed.

Vegetarianism serves as the criterion by which we know that the pursuit of moral perfection on the part of humanity is genuine and sincere."

"It is horrible! It is not the suffering and the death of the animals that is horrible, but the fact that the man without any need for so doing crushes his lofty feeling of sympathy and mercy for living creatures and does violence to himself that he may be cruel. The first element of moral life is abstinence."
 

A vegetarian diet is the acid test of humanitarianism.

What I think about vivisection is that if people admit that they have the right to take or endanger the life of living beings for the benefit of many, there will be no limit for their cruelty

A man can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life for the sake of his appetite. And to act so is immoral.

A man can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite. And to act so is immoral.

Writings On Civil Disobedience and on violence by Leo Tolstoy

What I think about vivisection is that if people admit that they have the right to take or endanger the life of living beings for the benefit of many, there will be no limit for their cruelty. -

letter to Mrs C.P.Farrell, July 1909

Below is an extraction from Leo Tolstoy and  Vegetarianism with some reference to the Doukhobors By Valentin  Bulgakov who was at one time Tolstoy's private secretary.

The Vegetarian News (London), September 1932:

During the last twenty-three years of his life he was a vegetarian and by reason of his great fame and moral authority he must needs be said to have done great service to the vegetarian movement.

He understood thoroughly the hygienic grounds for vegetarianism, but it was not for such reasons that he became a vegetarian. Most assuredly, it was the ethical standpoint that influenced him. Nor was the idea that was in his mind either detached or isolated. On the contrary, that idea was essentially associated with his world outlook, that outlook, perhaps, being most correctly summarised in all that is expressed in the word "humane." Tolstoy always declared that he was a Christian, by which he meant he had no new teaching to promulgate, his business being simply to translate the teachings of the gospels into modern speech and practice. Man, he held, though confined within the limits of the flesh, yet remains the expression of an eternal Principle. In a word, he is a son of God, and by inference all men are brothers. The natural bond between them is the bond of love, and this should extend also to all living creatures. One and the same "soul" is common to all, and, realising this, it becomes impossible that men should either slay or hurt animals. Moreover, as he likewise held, not through self-indulgence, but through abstemiousness and self-denial, lies the true road to the perfectionment of the individual, and in this process the forgoing of flesh-food must be accounted to be "The First Step." The publication of Tolstoy's essay under the title just quoted had a quite staggering effect upon the Russian society of his day, many fine and sensitive people thus becoming
vegetarians.
 

Arid similarly, what of man's relationship to the wild animals and to the insects? Here also progress must be on the same lines. Meantime, man's own attitude, with the "atmosphere" it creates must needs always count for something. But if, he still really be too weak to solve the problem on grounds satisfactory to his own conscience, let him not try to justify himself. As regards noisome insects our aim should be 'so to act as to free ourselves from them without having recourse to killing them, and to be rid of them by means of cleanliness.''

You can read the entire article in the International Vegetarian Union's website
International Vegetarian Union - 8th World Vegetarian Congress 1932


It seems rather superfluous to add more quotations and other information when there is a considerable amount already available on the above website

Quotes and links to more information

ivu.org/history/tolstoy/index.ht

 

important please note:

I am not an animal expert of any kind just your average person who loves animals, all animals, and feels deeply about the plight of many of our fellow creatures. Neither am I a writer, or any other expert. Therefore please keep in mind that the information included in this website has been researched to the best of my ability and any misinformation is quite by accident but of course possible.

Copyright, accreditations and other matters, please read

 

Leo Tolstoy is remembered as both a towering pinnacle of Russian literature and a fascinating example of Christian anarchism, a mystical version of which the aristocratic author pioneered in the last quarter century of his life. After a dramatic conversion, Tolstoy rejected his social position, the favored vices of his youth, and the dietary habits of his culture, becoming a vocal proponent of vegetarianism in his ascetic quest for the good life. Thousands of his contemporaries found Tolstoy’s example deeply compelling, and several communes formed around his principles, to his dismay. “To speak of ‘Tolstoyism,’” he wrote, “to seek guidance, to inquire about my solution of questions, is a great and gross error.”

“Still,” writes Kelsey Osgood at The New Yorker, “people insisted on seeking guidance from him,” including a young Mahatma Gandhi, who struck up a lively correspondence with the writer and in 1910 founded a community called "Tolstoy Farm" near Johannesburg.

Though uneasy in the role of movement leader, the author of Anna Karenina invited such treatment by publishing dozens of philosophical and theological works, many of them in opposition to a contrary strain of religious and moral ideas developing in the late nineteenth century. Often called “muscular Christianity,” this trend responded to what many Victorians thought of as a crisis of masculinity by emphasizing sports and warrior ideals and railing against the "feminization" of the culture.

Tolstoy might be said to represent a “vegetable Christianity”—seeking harmony with nature and turning away from all forms of violence, including the eating of meat. In “The First Step,” an 1891 essay on diet and ethical commitment, he characterized the prevailing religious attitude toward food:

I remember how, with pride at his originality, an Evangelical preacher, who was attacking monastic asceticism, once said to me "Ours is not a Christianity of fasting and privations, but of beefsteaks." Christianity, or virtue in general—and beefsteaks!

While he confessed himself “not horrified by this association,” it is only because “there is no bad odor, no sound, no monstrosity, to which man cannot become so accustomed that he ceases to remark what would strike a man unaccustomed to it.” The killing and eating of animals, Tolstoy came to believe, is a horror to which—like war and serfdom—his culture had grown far too accustomed. Like many an animal rights activist today, Tolstoy conveyed his horror of meat-eating by describing a slaughterhouse in detail, concluding:

[I]f he be really and seriously seeking to live a good life, the first thing from which he will abstain will always be the use of animal food, because, to say nothing of the excitation of the passions caused by such food, its use is simply immoral, as it involves the performance of an act which is contrary to the moral feeling—killing.

[W]e cannot pretend that we do not know this. We are not ostriches, and cannot believe that if we refuse to look at what we do not wish to see, it will not exist.... [Y]oung, kind, undepraved people—especially women and girls—without knowing how it logically follows, feel that virtue is incompatible with beefsteaks, and, as soon as they wish to be good, give up eating flesh.

The idea of vegetarianism of course preceded Tolstoy by hundreds of years of Hindu and Buddhist practice. And its growing popularity in Europe and America preceded him as well. “Tolstoy became an outspoken vegetarian at the age of 50,” writes Sam Pavlenko, “after meeting the positivist and vegetarian William Frey, who, according to Tolstoy’s son Sergei Lvovich, visited the great writer in the autumn of 1885.” Tolstoy’s dietary stance fit in with what Charlotte Alston describes as an “increasingly organized” international vegetarian movement taking shape in the late nineteenth century.

Like Tolstoy in “The First Step,” proponents of vegetarianism argued not only against cruelty to animals, but also against “the brutalization of those who worked in the meat industry, as butchers, slaughtermen, and even shepherds and drovers.” But vegetarianism was only one part of Tolstoy’s religious philosophy, which also included chastity, temperance, the rejection of private property, and “a complete refusal to participate in violence or coercion of any kind.” This marked his dietary practice as distinct from many contemporaries. Tolstoy and his followers “made the link between vegetarianism and a wider humanitarianism explicit."

"How was it possible," Alston summarizes, "to regard the killing of animals for food as evil, but not to condemn the killing of men through war and capital punishment? Not all members of the vegetarian movement agreed.” Some saw “no connection between the questions of war and diet.” Tolstoy’s philosophical argument against all forms of violence was not original to him, but it resonated all over the world with those who saw him as a shining example, including his two daughters and eventually his wife Sophia, who all adopted the practice of vegetarianism. A book of their recipes was published in 1874, and adapted by Pavlenko for his Leo Tolstoy: A Vegetarian’s Tale. (See one example here---a family recipe for macaroni and cheese.)

In her study Tolstoy and His Disciples, Alston details the Russian great’s wide influence through not only his diet but the totality of his spiritual practices and unique political and religious views. Interestingly, unlike many animal rights activists of his day and ours, Tolstoy refused to endorse legislation to punish animal cruelty, believing that punishment would only result in the perpetuation of violence. “Non-violence, non-resistance and brotherhood were the principles that lay at the basis of Tolstoyan vegetarianism,” she observes, “and while these principles meant that Tolstoyans cooperated closely with vegetarians, they also kept them in many ways apart.”

via History Buff

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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