Vegetarian Literature


Since genesis, our increasing population has coexisted with animals. But as humans, we continuously choose to disregard animals as sentient beings by abandoning our moral obligation toward them. Factory farming is at the helm of this ignorance, an industry whose excessive amounts of carbon emission are contributing to global warming.

Geniuses of literary works such as Thoreau, Emerson, and Tolstoy laid the foundations for vegetarian and sustainable discourse through personalised expositions of their moral conduct. Now, centuries later, it is time to summon their wisdom and readdress the feasibility of vegetarianism and more importantly, human frugality. The likelihood of global vegetarianism is perhaps beyond the bounds of possibility. The likelihood of human frugality on the other hand is plausible, if we make a conscious effort.

Before I set about discussing the contentious nature of vegetarianism in both a positive and negative context, I’d like to firstly say that I appreciate a good steak. I spent four years without meat in my diet, and when the time came to put pork on the fork, I did so in the most sustainable way possible. Things like Paul, Mary and Stella McCartney’s ‘Meat Free Monday’ is the real deal. The lesson is mindfulness. Meat has several health benefits, but we need to be aware of the impact overconsumption has on our planet.

The opinions of Thoreau, Emerson and Tolstoy all depict humanity’s lack of moral progression toward animals since their works were published. More recently, Safran-Foer provides analysis of the world’s current factory farming and other food industries to determine what our longevity as a people depends on. Overall, it will be argued that we need to use these writers’ insights to implement humane methods of animal production in order to achieve and fulfill our former cohabitation with animals, as well as prolong the degradation of our planet.            


Although these literary artists penned opinionated pieces of literature, they did voice concern and moral consciousness for the welfare of animals, which we have since disregarded in an age of technological anarchy. Walden; or, Life in the Woods is still held in the highest regard within American literature. Author, Henry David Thoreau, is arguably the most venerable writer of the 19th century. Walden is Thoreau’s masterpiece and documentation of a two-year relationship with ‘Nature’ at fellow writer and naturalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s property. Throughout the entirety of his time at Walden Pond, Thoreau lived frugally as man once did, and had opportunity to contemplate outside the bounds of civilisation.

It was these solitary contemplations that led other brilliant minds down the same path of vegetarianism and frugality; and, it is these solitary contemplations that imparted philosophical enterprise for posterity. The critical analyses that take place throughout and in particular the chapter Higher Laws, question motives and logic for eating meat, and ultimately, morality. ‘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’ (Thoreau 1854, p.40). How long will gradual improvement take for its social and environmental effects to be seen or even reversed? As of ten years ago, ‘the vegetarian population of America stood at only 12%. Out of this 12%, the most common reasons for changing to a vegetarian lifestyle were health, and the humane idea of not killing animals for food’ (Daugherty 2004).

Thoreau’s life’s work held an underlying theme of self-contemplation, plainly evident in his dismissal of society to adopt an ascetic lifestyle in the natural world. ‘Thoreau points to the practice and knowledge as both necessary and compromised, requiring continuing self-scrutiny’ by claiming we need to ‘ask ourselves weekly – is our life innocent enough? Do we live inhumanely – toward man or beast – in thought or act?’ (Dassow-Walls 2010). The answer in a word is, yes. After all, ‘meat is an indulgence. The raw materials that go into these food products are living, breathing, sensing organisms. Hundreds of millions of chickens, pigs, sheep, fish, and other animals are killed each year in order to satisfy taste for meat’ (Lomasky 2013).

Today, we are faced with extreme temptation through advertising and sensationalism. We as a populous are consumerists weak with greed. Thoreau said that ‘men have come to such a pass that they frequently starve, not for want of necessaries, but for want of luxuries’ (1854, p. 40). In the 160 years since Walden’s initial publication, what have we realised? Accessing Thoreau’s wisdom is easy, and we need to harness it to reroute the direction of society’s progression. ‘By linking the human with the edible nonhuman, Thoreau suggests that the martial urge to destroy life is in many ways comparable to violent overconsumption on the dietary level’ (Cornell-Dolan 2010).

Thoreau’s actions preach asceticism. ‘His dietary reform projects are experiments in how to "eat well" by consuming in a moral, self-sufficient, and globally responsible manner’ (Cornell-Dolan 2010). This sentiment alone encapsulates my thesis, asserting that the humane production of animals will severely lessen the impact of global warming; and it addresses the idea of challenging needs versus wants.

Nature, by Emerson, was the first work to bring about this awareness. Thoreau may never have reached his full potential as a literary naturalist without the provocation of Emerson. They share similar points of view, but Emerson points his observations of mankind and animalistic treatment to science, claiming that theories on nature all stem from it (Dassow-Walls 2010). He refers to Nature not as the verdant world we witness, but as a shared Utopia for both man and animal alike. ‘His “theory”… offered nature and humanity as the twin avatars of God’ (Dassow-Walls 2010). Emerson believed in equality among all life, and that moral obligations didn’t cease at the threshold of nonhuman animals.     

Leo Tolstoy is another novelist, whose ‘model examples of sensitive, perceptive, and empathetic treatment of animals have arisen through several works’ (Donovan 2009). The First Step, a preface to Howard Williams’ The Diet of Ethics, is an unmistakably grim exposé of Tolstoy’s own experiences visiting a slaughterhouse in which Donovan (2009) describes him as, ‘delineating in novelesque detail the deaths of several individual animals—possibly the most vivid and horrifying descriptions of animal slaughter ever written’. In the works of Tolstoy, he, with terrible clarity, uses animals on metaphorical and satirical levels to acknowledge their presence beyond insentience. ‘Tolstoy depicts animals with an empathetic eye to their feelings and sufferings’ (Donovan 2009). This is done primarily in Strider: The Story of a Horse, where Tolstoy adopts the voice and emotions of the animal protagonist.

Tolstoy claims similar notions to that of Thoreau in terms of modernist progression in which engineering is causing the destruction of mankind (Donovan 2009). His passion for animals and regression is such that he deliberately juxtaposed them by stating that, ‘the business of real science should be to demonstrate the irrationality, unprofitableness, and immorality of war and executions, and the absurdity, harmfulness, and immorality of eating animals’ (Donovan 2009). Ultimately, Tolstoy believed that the sole intention of literature and art should evoke powerful connection among humanity, extending to all life forms in the ideals of honesty and sincerity, to bring about communal altruism (Donovan 2009).

Stepping forward a century or so, a recently work to bring consideration toward animal is Safran-Foer’s Eating Animals, where an analysis of factory farming attributes dire consequences to planetary health, and ultimately, our health. With technological advancements propelling us further into society’s debt, we are faced with the additional moral dilemma of self-preservation. The critical analyses conducted throughout Safran-Foer’s work of meat consumption and industrial agriculture provoke questions such as: ‘What will eating meat say about who we are as people?’ (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce 2011).

The logic Safran-Foer expresses is similar to that of the writers previously mentioned, only centuries later. He is the first to admit that the likelihood of global vegetarianism is farfetched. He also has empathy for carnivorous eaters. ‘For me to conclude firmly that I will not eat animals does not mean I oppose, or even have mixed feelings about, eating animals in general’ (Safran-Foer 2009, p. 198). However, he expresses and reiterates the theory of human frugality, which is only possible through awareness of the environmental consequences at hand, and conscious action.

‘If Americans were to reduce their meat consumption by one meal a week, it would be equivalent to taking five million cars off the road’ (Safran-Foer in Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce 2011). Transportation may seem the obvious culprit of climate change, but the excessive prevalence of animal agriculture has far surpassed it, emitting up to 40 percent more making it the ‘greatest contributor to global warming, and number one cause of climate change’ (Safran-Foer 2009, p. 43). Factory farming, as well as being responsible for almost all of America’s meat, is a ‘$140 billion-plus a year industry that occupies nearly a third of the land on the planet, shapes ocean ecosystems, and may well determine the future of earth’s climate’ (Safran-Foer 2009, p. 32). Unfortunately, factory farming and transportation go hand in hand, with products being shipped, flown, and driven across the globe on a supply and demand basis. This information isn’t new either. Many of Thoreau’s works were ‘alluding to the unsustainable nature of such a dietary system: the food that the mid-nineteenth-century U.S. consumed was coming from farther away than ever before’ (Cornell-Dolan 2010).

The earth’s resources are scarce and this has become more apparent with an increasing population. ‘Americans alone, on average, each consume the equivalent of 21,000 entire animals in a lifetime’, which begs the question: how are we to provide, and survive, without the mass production of animals through factory farming? (Safran-Foer 2009, p. 121). Is it possible? Do we care that these animals live in squalid conditions before they reach our plates? Gordon Ramsay apparently doesn’t, ‘saying he would electrocute his children if they became vegetarian’ (Safran-Foer 2009, p. 25). Infamous as Ramsay is within the food industry, his misaligned approach to the idea of vegetarianism exacerbates the unlikelihood of moral progression. Or is it just that Ramsay has never actually thought about vegetarianism? ‘Some people almost never give a thought to what they eat so long as it is the same as they have always had’ (Lomasky 2013). And Safran-Foer asks, ‘is caring to know about the treatment of farmed animals a confrontation with the facts about the animals and ourselves or an avoidance of them?’ (2009, p. 74). Or are we so anthropocentric that we refuse to acknowledge that nonhuman animals deserve rights, and if we do, where do we draw a line? George Orwell (2011, p. 4) highlights anthropocentrism in Animal Farm by claiming, ‘man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is lord of all the animals’. Whether or not a distinction between humans and nonhumans is made, a moral obligation to understand is necessary.

The methods in the production and treatment of farmed animals for consumption can be classified under ‘cruelty’. ‘It’s not only the willful causing of unnecessary suffering, but the indifference to it. Cruelty depends on an understanding of cruelty, and the ability to choose against it. Or to choose to ignore it’ (Safran-Foer 2009, p. 53). In Animal Farm, Orwell writes, ‘all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’ (2011, p. 90). Safran-Foer translates this sentiment into the world of animalist debate by questioning why pork, beef, chicken, and fish frequent our plates whereas cats, dogs and other animals are kept as companions and pets; especially when ‘it’s perfectly legal in forty-four states’ of America to partake in canine culinary (2009, p. 24).

Vegetarian or not, the circumstances in which some animals are brought into existence then extinguished once having obsequiously provided for humans, is shameful. Theories and guidelines for moral obligation toward animals have been present for centuries in different forms of creative expression. This being the case, then how have we morally progressed as citizens and co-inhabitants? Is our society too vain to take dietary advice from the likes of Einstein or Da Vinci? Going back to the beginning of western civilisation, even Pythagoras shared his opinion on the matter at the commencement and conclusion of each physics lesson he taught (Corse 2010). “‘Mortals, don’t pollute your bodies with sacrilegious food,” he would say in regard to animal flesh’ (Corse 2010).

Meat is appealing. It smells good. It tastes good. Since the dawn of mankind, meat was consumed as a means of survival. But today, ‘it is our good fortune that we are able to enhance our lives by taking a path of least resistance with regard to what we put in our mouths’ (Lomasky 2013). ‘By the end of the 18th century vegetarianism was advocated by medical lecturers, moral philosophers, sentimental writers and political activists’ (Cornell-Dolan 2010). They believed this was ethically ideal.

The key to progressing as a morally equipped race is on our bookshelves, and has been for decades, even centuries, in celebrated writers such as Thoreau, Emerson, Tolstoy, and Safran-Foer who ‘all advocated vegetarianism as part of their study of human nature’; or, in the spiritual composition of the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita, with the most recently published bearing the testimonials of these writers on the back cover (Cornell-Dolan 2010).

Somewhere along the way we disregarded all moral consciousness toward animals. Instead, we’re choosing, actively or not, to add impetus to industrialised agriculture. The environmental repercussions are indelible. Only through humane production methods, and the redundancy of factory farming can we achieve cohabitation with animals and fulfil our moral obligation toward them and our planet.  


Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda, AC 1997, Bhagavad-Gītā, Bhaktivedanta Book Trust International Inc., Melbourne.

Cornell-Dolan, K 2010, ‘Thoreau's “Grossest Groceries”: Dietary Reform in Walden and Wild Fruits’, ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, vol. 56, no. 2.

Corse, T 2010, ‘Dryden's “Vegetarian” Philosopher: Pythagoras’, Eighteenth-Century Life, vol. 34, no. 1.

Dassow-Walls, L 2010, ‘Greening Darwin's Century: Humboldt, Thoreau, and the Politics of Hope’, Victorian Review, vol. 36, no. 2.

Daugherty, S 2004 ‘Vegetarianism’, Journal of Consumer Health on the Internet, vol. 8, no. 4.

Donovan, J 2009, ‘Tolstoy’s Animals’, Society and Animals, vol. 17, no. 38.

Emerson, RW 2008, Nature, Penguin Publishers, London.

Lomasky, L 2013, ‘Is it wrong to eat animals?’ Social Philosophy and Policy, vol. 30, no. 1-2.

Orwell, G 2011, Animal Farm, Penguin Books, New Delhi.

Royal Society for the Encouragment of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce 2011, ‘Eating Animals’, video, YouTube.

Safran-Foer, J 2011, Eating Animals, Back Bay Books, New York.

Thoreau, HD 1854, Walden; Or, Life in the Woods, Ticknor & Fields, Boston.

Thoreau, HD 1993, Civil Disobedience and Other Essays, Dover Publications, New York.