Friday, March 02, 2007

Secular Fundamentalists

[posted by Callimachus]

Some of the vegans I know are easy-going people, mellow, fun to be around.

And some are not.

Though the word “vegetarianism” was coined only in the 1840s, Stuart shows how Western civilization evolved through the values and views of eccentrics, missionaries, doctors, poets and philosophers, all of whom fervently went the way of no flesh. Pythagoras was often cited as a spiritual and dietary model as the debate over vegetarianism entered the West’s philosophical mainstream through such figures as Descartes and Bacon. But religion seems to have provided the main counterpoint. After discovering the laws of motion, Newton obsessively sought a primal ur-religion out of which current beliefs developed; had he succeeded in discovering such a law of religious motion, one crucial element would have been vegetarianism. Stuart writes: “Newton passionately wanted his scientific revolution to be accompanied by a bloodless revolution.”

By the middle of the 18th century, in fact, vegetarianism had become a secular religion. Stuart describes it as a “countercultural critique” advocated by “medical lecturers, moral philosophers, sentimental writers and political activists.” By the 19th century, it had also become linked with French revolutionaries, British nudists and Romantics from across Europe. By the middle of the 20th, fascists were added to the mix. Hitler would interrupt political meetings to lobby for vegetarianism. Heinrich Himmler was an advocate. Rudolf Hess was so strict that he wouldn’t eat the nonorganic vegetables cooked by Hitler’s chef — whereupon the Führer, according to one witness, “bluntly informed him that in that case he should take his meals at home.”

This is a conservative skeptic talking: Any religion is a sort of hydraulics system, a Tennessee Valley Authority that channels sprawling rivers -- on their own alternately raging and sullen, aimless in everything except getting to the coast as soon as possible -- and channels them into vessels that can temper and tame the erratic power, and direct it toward a purpose.

Doesn't matter to me if you consider those hydraulic designs to be man-made or divinely ordained. It's the work that interests me.

And when you tear it all down you find, not natural rationality, but a return to fetid meanders, river channels carved by natural rages, and the fixation with the cold sea.