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Henry David Thoreau: On Eating Animals

It may be vain to ask why the imagination will not be reconciled to flesh and fat. I am satisfied that it is not. Is it not a reproach that man is a carnivorous animal? True, he can and does live, in a great measure, by preying on other animals; but this is a miserable way – as anyone who will go to snaring rabbits, or slaughtering lambs, may learn – and he will be regarded as a benefactor of his race who shall teach man to confine himself to a more innocent and wholesome diet. Whatever my own practice may be, I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilised. 

The practical objection to animal food in my case was its uncleanness; and, besides, when I had caught, and cleaned, and cooked, and eaten my fish, they seemed not to have fed me essentially. It was insignificant and unnecessary, and cost more than it came to. A little bread or a few potatoes would have done as well, with less trouble and filth. Like many of my contemporaries, I had rarely for many years used animal food, or tea, or coffee, etc.: not so much because of any ill effects which I had traced to them, as because they were not agreeeable to my imagination. The repugnance to animal food is not the effect of experience, but is an instinct. It appears more beautiful to live low and fare hard in many respects; and though I never did so, I went far enough to please my imagination. I believe that every man who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food, and from much food of any kind. 

No humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature which holds its life by the same tenure that he does. 

I once had a sparrow alight on my shoulder for a moment while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn. 

I have found repeatedly, of late years, that I cannot fish without falling a little in self-respect. I have tried it again and again. I have skill at it,and, like many of my fellows, a certain instinct for it, which revives from time to time, but always when I have done I feel it would have been better if I had not fished. I think that I do not mistake. It is a faint intimation, yet so are the first streaks of morning.


Public Domain

These quotations are from Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854) by Henry David Thoreau.

Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862) was an American naturalist, essayist, poet, and philosopher. A leading transcendentalist, he is best known for his book Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay “Civil Disobedience” (originally published as “Resistance to Civil Government”), an argument for disobedience to an unjust state.

3 comments on “Henry David Thoreau: On Eating Animals

  1. Barbara Huntington
    January 9, 2022

    This vegetarian approves this post! 👍

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Maura
    January 8, 2022

    Very thought provoking for a new day and a new year or any time. It would be great if we had exact sources in Thoreau’s copious writings. —thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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