Read transcript of Ep 9: Renaissance

Angled close up of title of old printed work in Latin

Alternatively, follow this link to hear the episode & read the show notes. Transcription by Amy Carpenter.

[A woman sings passionately in Italian, backed by a Renaissance orchestra. Continues in background]

Ian McDonald:

Prosperina, the Queen of Hades, is swayed by the singing of Orpheus and begs Hades to return his wife, in Monteverdi’s 1607 opera.

The Renaissance has been building for centuries. The rediscovery of Greek and Roman works has given European civilisation more than just stories of ancient icons of vegetarianism like Orpheus.

It brings rational voices that challenge old hierarchies and revive ancient arguments against meat-eating.

This episode, we’ll visit the intellectual circles of 17th Century Paris as they argue over what makes humans different from animals. We’ll meet a Catholic priest who posed our teeth as evidence that God made us vegetarian. And discover how the Mughal court in Delhi affects the history of European medicine.

And how, when most physicians are bleeding and purging, it becomes normal to go to the doctor and get a prescription of vegetarianism.

[Theme starts – music with sound of gongs]

Ian:

Vegetarianism: The Story So Far, with Ian McDonald. Episode nine: Renaissance.

[Theme ends]

Ian:

Through the middle ages, the tradition of Christian ascetics, some of whom follow very sparse vegetable diets, continues. Some English and German churches even have anchorholds attached for the local hermit, or “anchorite” to live in. But Christianity’s scholastic tradition follows the hierarchies of Aristotle from ancient Greece, with man above the beasts as surely as God is above man.

But from the 14th Century, the hunt begins for other Greek and Roman works that lie forgotten in Europe’s monasteries. In a tutorial room at University College Oxford, I asked Justin Begley, a scholar of early modern intellectual history, what this means for animals.

[Music plays in background – male singing]

Justin Begley:

I do think that with the discovery of a lot of these ancient texts, and the real interest[?] in things like Pythagoras and all his Metamorphoses and Lucretius’s attitudes towards animals, there was a stimulus to rethink the relationship between humans and animals.

Ian [as narrator]:

You might remember Pythagoras from the episode about ancient Greece, and how Ovid portrayed him in epic verse for the Romans. But I’ve never mentioned Lucretius before. He lived in the 1st Century BCE, and he did the same thing for Epicurus.

Begley:

Epicurus was called the “Garden philosopher”. His school was called the “School of the Garden Philosophers”.

Ian [as narrator]:

The Epicureans believed in a world made only of atoms. They rejected supernatural beliefs like divine intervention and life after death. And though it wasn’t a point of dogma, Epicurus encouraged vegetarianism.

Begley:

He had a number of reasons for this, mainly sort of ascetic reasons.

He thinks that eating meat is quite a decadent thing to do. And that it’s not necessary for human beings to survive on meat.

He said that human beings can survive perfectly well eating grains and fruits and vegetables, rather than meat, so why ought human beings to eat meat? It’s a superfluity, something that human beings don’t need in order to survive.

And he thought that we should dispense with superfluities so that we can live the sort of philosophical life that focuses on, sort of, ideas and thoughts and philosophy, rather than on, sort of, things of the body.

Ian [as narrator]:

And Lucretius put all this to epic verse in his poem “On the Nature of Things”. Its rediscovery in 1417 is sometimes credited with kickstarting Renaissance humanism – the interest in what we now call the humanities. Unlike Aristotle, Lucretius credited animals with human qualities like language.

Lucretius [from “On the Nature of Things” – actor reading]:

The tame herds, and the wilder sorts of brutes, utter dissimilar and various sounds, as fear, or pain, or pleasure, influences them.

Begley:

Finding “De rerum natura” like Lucretius’s text is certainly one of the significant texts that were found during this period.

But there was, I mean there as a mad hunt by everyone, trying to find absolutely, sort of any classical texts that they could, so that they could reconstruct the classical period.

And this started with people like Petrarch, Boccaccio, Dante, the people whom we consider as like the classic early humanists. Yeah.

Ian [as narrator]:

The first modern European ethical vegetarian is probably the paragon of Renaissance humanism himself, Leonardo da Vinci. He condemns cruelty to animals. He talks about how he wouldn’t let his body be, quote “a tomb for other animals, an inn of the dead,” unquote.

The evidence isn’t completely untainted – he designs stoves for meat and reportedly poses dead animals for his still-life paintings. But, as we heard last episode, his reputation amongst his peers is absolutely that he’s vegetarian.

Unfortunately, he didn’t quite move society in that direction. That honour belongs to a 16th Century French statesman and lawyer, and enthusiastic follower of Lucretius, Michel de Montaigne.

Montaigne had what you might an experimental father. Firstly, he was fostered with a peasant family.

Begley:

His father thought that this could counterbalance the wealth of the family, by putting him with the servants rather than with the rest of the family. And that after he was taken among the servants, he was only allowed to speak Latin.

He obviously went from this sort of extreme, I guess like a quite, quite, impoverished through this period, considering of what class he is, to another extreme, sort of a very, immersed completely in this sort of classical education that was something of a gentleman.

Ian [as narrator]:

In his essays, he quotes the vegetarian advocates of antiquity, and treats animals as more than just traditional allegories for human qualities.

Begley:

I think Montaigne also wanted to emphasise that humans were faulty beings, that we weren’t sort of demigods or anything like this, but we were rather beings that were closer to other animals that were fallen.

And I think this was part of him scepticism as well, the idea that human beings don’t have perfect knowledge, we have imperfect knowledge.

He also believed that animals had emotions, that animals had the capacity for rationality. That they had a certain form of language that they could communicate with one another that we just couldn’t understand because of our lack of knowledge.

Ian [as narrator]:

He quotes what you heard Lucretius say about animals animals earlier, and adds…

Montaigne [actor reading]:

By one kind of barking the horse knows a dog is angry; of another sort of a bark he is not afraid. Even in the very beasts that have no voice at all, we easily conclude, from the social offices we observe amongst them, some other sort of communication.

Begley:

I mean, so far as we know, Montaigne wasn’t a vegetarian, but he certainly was sympathetic towards vegetarianism. And he says the sort of harming animals is something that is completely unfounded, and things like this. So I mean, I think there is a certain blind spot in his thinking, and I think that probably does have to do with the society in which he is living.

Ian [as narrator]:

That’s typical of the era. Despite the millions of vegetarians in the east, European thinkers are still mainly just chipping away at the justifications for meat-eating.

[In background, announcement in French over loudspeaker]

Ian:

Montaigne though influences generations of thinkers. Such as in Paris.

Train announcer:

We are arriving at Paris Cardinal. Please make sure you take your belongings with you when you leave the train.

Ian [in Paris]:

We’re standing outside the yellow stone quadrangle of the College de France on the Seine’s south bank, founded in 1530 as the Royal College, as a humanist alternative to the theological Sorbonne that I can see just round the corner.

We’re a this college, because one of its 17th Century maths professors, a Catholic priest who suggested that God made us vegetarian. I’m here with…

Jean-Charles Darmon:

I’m Jean-Charles Darmon.

Ian [as narrator]:

A Professor of the University of Versaille, a researcher here, and a specialist in the Republic of Letters and – our subject – Pierre Gassendi.

[to Darmon] What was the Republic of Letters?

Darmon:

Well, it was the whole network of philosophers, poets, scientists, naturalists as they called themselves. Writing to each other, competing to each other. With the notion that they were not totally dependent on nations. They had a certain freedom linked to knowledge.

And Gassendi was one of the main representatives of what they called “Libertas Philosophandi”  which means freedom to philosophise, freedom to think.

He was here as professor of mathematics. He wrote to Galileo. He had very important activity as an astronomer. And that what was he was teaching here mainly.

Ian [as narrator]:

So for example, he was the first human being to observe the shadow of another planet cross the sun. There’s a crater named after him on the moon. But he’s in our story as the man who links Epicureanism, anatomy, Christianity, and the question “Look at these canines. They’re tiny. How can we be carnivores?”

Darmon:

The main topic, the main Gassendi’s work was not only to reactivate Epicurus, it was also to create scientific links around new science.

In that respect his interest for such topic as nutrition, or the way meat is good or bad for you, was intimately linked also to his own understanding of ancient philosophers.

He was always trying to increase knowledge through a whole network of interactions.

He was considered also as the main rival of Rene Descartes, as the great alternative in the modern thinking to Cartesian thinking.

Ian [to Darmon]:

Let’s get away from the noise of the Rue des Ecoles and talk in your office.

[Sound of ratcheting, or winding up a mechanism. Followed by sound of mechanism working, continuing in background.]

Begley:

Descartes was very much influenced by automatons, these sort of little mechanical animals and men that were created in Europe at this time. And he thought that animals, that bodies in general, function like automatons. In a letter to More he writes that we can create an automaton that functions just like an animal.

Rene Descartes [Letter to Henry More – actor reading]:

Since art copies nature, and people can make various automatons that move without thought, it seems reasonable that nature should produce its own automatons, much more splendid than artificial ones, namely the animals.

Thus, we know of no reason we would always find “thought” whenever we see the kind of bodies that animals have.

That no animal contains a soul should not be as surprising as the fact that every human body does.

Ian:

Like Gassendi, Descartes is from provincial France. They’re both citizens of the Republic of Letters whose lives take them across France and the low countries. But whereas Gassendi follows on from Epicureans like Montaigne, Descartes likes to think he starts from a blank slate, with the famous…

Descartes [actor reading]:

I think therefore I am.

Begley:

Descartes does pull on the humanist tradition more than he would like to admit. But he also wants to say that his philosophy is completely new, that he’s breaking with the ancient philosophers, which is something that someone like Gassendi gets on his case about, saying, “no, your philosophy isn’t actually absolutely new.”

Ian [as narrator]:

The most provocative of his suggestions is that the world, including animals, is simply a machine unwinding like a watch.

Begley:

As mechanical philosophy that everything, including the human body and other animals, are mechanical, everything except for the human mind.

Ian [to Begley]:

Only the human mind?

Begley:

Only the human mind is not mechanical. I think Descartes’ work pushed someone like Gassendi to take a particular stance on certain attitudes towards animals and certain other things in his philosophy that he may not have fully thought out if it wasn’t for Descartes’ work.

Ian [as narrator]:

Meanwhile, Gassendi is an advocate of Epicureanism, including vegetarianism. So you may well ask, Pierre Gassendi is a Catholic priest. Why is he following a materialist, atheist, pagan philosophy? Well, firstly, it’s the dawn of the Age of Reason.

Darmon:

Copernic, Galileo, Tycho Brahe, et cetera …

Ian [as narrator]

Christianity has been using the cosmology of Aristotle for a few hundred years. But he’s clearly wrong about stuff. For example, he thought the sun went around the earth.

Darmon:

Because in many ways, atomistic philosophy was much more consistent with new sciences. You know… But at the same time, he was well known to be a priest and he was never suspected to be an atheist.

His life was far away from the image people had of Epicurean life.

Ian [to Darmon]:

So Epicureanism, even in the 17th Century, meant… was associated with hedonism.

Darmon:

Yes, of course.

Ian [as narrator]:

That misunderstanding has been around since antiquity. Epicureans seek pleasure, but only through a modesty of desires. Something that fits well with Gassendi’s own ascetic lifestyle.

Begley:

The thing is with Gassendi’s vegetarianism is that it’s largely epicurean. The reason that he does it is because he’s been so influenced by Epicurus.

Darmon:

So I think that one of the reasons why the way Gassendi criticises the use of animal flesh to have all kinds of banquets et cetera, is also connected to this rigorous, austere conception of healthy life. At the same time morally and physically.

When he talked about his vegetarian positions it was not a dogma, it was obviously linked to complex reflection on nature. What it is to follow nature, to live according to nature. This is a very old theme. In Mersenne’s Academy for instance, there were questions…

Ian [as narrator]:

“Mersenne’s Academy” is a nickname for the Paris circle. Father Mersenne is the unofficial secretary and networker in chief of the Republic of Letters.

Darmon:

Different scholars tried to give the best answer to those questions, you know. And, he had one of his debates with a famous chemist and doctor, Jean-Baptiste Van Helmont. They had a debate about this question, about “do we think that eating flesh is natural to man?” That was the main question. It starts from observation of human teeth as the main argument.

Ian [as narrator]:

Gassendi writes…

Pierre Gassendi [Letter to Van Helmont – actor reading]:

From the conformation of our teeth, we do not appear to be adapted by Nature in the use of a flesh diet, as all animals which Nature has formed to feed on flesh have their teeth long, conical, sharp, uneven, and intervals between them.

Darmon:

The kind of teeth you find among tigers, or lions, or wolves.

Gassendi:

But those who are created to subsist only on herbs and fruits have their teeth short, blunt, close to one another, and distributed in even rows.

Ian:

You find some vegetarians and vegans making precisely the same argument today. This is where it begins.

Darmon:

So it was a first approach based on, I would say, at the same time, anatomical arguments, and also on a “finalist” conception of nature.

Ian [to Darmon]:

What does “finalist” mean?

Darmon:

Finalist mean, explaining a phenomenon through its final causes. You know, examining what kind of goal nature would have had.

Ian [as narrator]:

Because if you believe God’s designed us, then his design is a clue to his intentions – to what’s natural, healthy, and moral.

Darmon:

So Gassendi says that what anatomy tells us about human teeth, is totally in harmony also with what the Bible tells us about man in paradise eating fruit, where no mention at all is made of flesh before sin, before the first sin, okay? And that in ancient mythology, in the golden age of poets, of ancient poets, it’s quite symbolical that men eat fruit and not flesh.

Ian [as narrator]:

In the ancient near east, these myths of a herbivorous golden age didn’t prompt many people to eat vegetarian then. But now, Christian intellectuals to at least consider what food God had had in mind.

Begley:

Most learned people have at least thought about it, if they didn’t propound it.

Ian [to Begley]:

Thinking about it but not necessarily believing it.

Begley:

Thinking about it, probably even believing it, but in spite the fact that they did believe it, not necessarily saying that it’s a clenching reason why human beings ought to be vegetarians.

I mean, it was much simpler for them because most people didn’t believe in evolution at this time. So they believed like God designed humans in such a way that were only supposed to eat plants. Because before the fall Adam and Eve didn’t eat meat. There was no sort of death at the point of the fall.

So if they believe that human beings were designed only to eat plants, then there is a reason to think that human beings are still designed to only eat plants, despite the fact that we eat meat in our fallen state.

Darmon:

And he said, there is a joke there, it’s irony, saying that, if it was really natural to eat cooked meat, then nature should have created cooks from the start [laughs]. Or cooked dishes [laughs] from the start.

Ian [to Darmon]:

Pies would grow on trees.

Darmon:

Exactly. In the same letter, he says to Van Helmont, “Well, you should ask me why I’m not a vegetarian. Why… Well, I’m still determined by my old habits. But, I should be vegetarian.” And actually, as he grew older, he almost ate no meat, or you know, very rarely.

Ian [as narrator]:

Typical of the era.

Descartes finishes his main work setting out his mechanistic philosophy in 1641 and it gets a strong reaction. By this time, Gassendi’s Paris circle includes refugees from England.

Begley:

He was also, I mean, somewhat engaged with the Cavendishes and the exiles from England that were living in Paris during the 1640s as well. And he corresponded with…

Ian [to Begley]:

These would be Royalists from the civil war.

Begley:

Royalists that were exiled from England due to the civil war, and were gathered in Paris and were, many of whom were quite eminent intellectuals and thinkers. People like Thomas Hobbes.

Ian [as narrator]:

It’s Hobbes who coined the expression “nasty brutish and short”, for life without an all-powerful sovereign state maintaining order.

Begley:

The things that connect Gassendi and Thomas Hobbes the most is their hatred towards Descartes I would say. And they both… In Descartes meditations he sends it out to different people for objections. And two of the objections are from Gassendi and Hobbes in these meditations.

Ian [as narrator]:

In the spirit of of the Republic of Letters, Descartes appends his opponents’ criticisms with his responses. Gassendi.

Gassendi [actor reading]:

You may cite human deeds that far surpass what the animals do; but that shows only that man is the finest animal, not that he isn’t an animal.

You say that the brutes don’t have reason. Well, of course they don’t have human reason, but they do have their own kind of reason.

Ian:

Descartes claims that what makes humans more than automatons is their thinking reasoning mind, and that that’s completely unique to humans.

This rests on interpretations about animal behaviour that a lot of European thinkers, however omnivorous they may be, dismiss.

Begley:

One, because it deviated so much from the classical tradition and from what they were used to.

And two, they had people with experience of animals. I think experience of animals is another thing that, taken into consideration…

William Cavendish, for example, is completely incredulous. And he was sort of the… Europe’s master of horsemen at this time. So he had spent a lot of times with horses and what-not. So and he was just… Yeah, he was not buying the idea that a horse, for example, was an automaton.

Ian [as narrator]:

It’s an argument about human exceptionalism.

In one exchange, Descartes claims only humans have imagination, and he imagines taking a break and looking down on people in the square below.

Descartes:

When looking from a window and saying, “I see men who pass in the street,” I really do not see them, but infer that what I see is me. And yet what do I see from the window but hats and coats which could be covering automatons?

Ian:

Gassendi was having none of it.

Gassendi:

You deny that a dog has a mind like yours. But it certainly makes a similar kind of judgment when it sees not its master but just his hat or clothes.

Ian:

Descartes doubles down.

Descartes:

I don’t see what argument you are relying on when you so confidently say that a dog makes discriminating judgments in the same way that we do, unless it is this: A dog is made of flesh, so everything that is in you also exists in the dog.

But I observe no mind at all in the dog, so I don’t think there is anything to be found in a dog that resembles the things I recognize in a mind.

Ian:

In 1645, William Cavendish marries the young fashionable and extremely geeky Margaret. She opposes Descartes in poetry – here empathising with a hunted hare.

Margaret Cavendish [from Hunting of the Hare – actress reading]:

As if that God made Creatures for Mans meat,

To give them Life, and Sense, for Man to eat;

Making their Stomachs, Graves, which full they fill

With Murder’d Bodies, that in sport they kill.

Yet Man doth think himself so gentle, mild,

When he of Creatures is most cruell wild.

And is so Proud, thinks only he shall live,

That God a God-like Nature did him give.

And that all Creatures for his sake alone,

Was made for him, to Tyrannize upon.

Ian:

Margaret will go on to write arguably the first science fiction novel, be the only woman to visit the scientific Royal Society in its first 200 years, and you should look her up. Like almost everyone else this episode, she doesn’t follow through to vegetarianism.

But she does strongly oppose vivisection which is extremely common in this era, such as cutting open live animals like dogs to demonstrate basic anatomy.

Not just Descartes does that, but Gassendi’s student Bernier, to whom we’ll get in a moment.

But there’s a question over whether Descartes himself is actually a Cartesian. Whether he believes his own books.

Begley:

For then when he’s pressed on this point by someone like William Cavendish, who perhaps for reasons that he wants William to be his patron, he doesn’t want him to completely hate his ideas, he sort of, to some degrees retracts, and says, “No, animals can perhaps feel, but they just don’t have the capacity for self-reflection or thought. But they can still feel pain and what-not.”

He wants to have his cake and eat it too, basically.

He wants to simultaneously say that the world functions in this very regulatory mechanical way.

But then he’s not quite comfortable with his position on animals.

Ian [as narrator]:

Gassendi dies in 1655 leaving an impact throughout the Republic of Letters.

Darmon:

There was a very strong Gassendist movement in France, but also in Europe. Not within France, it was in England. Some say that even Newton, Isaac Newton, had also a strong influence of Gassendi’s.

But the problem is that Gassendi wrote his book in very difficult Latin, I must say. And…

Ian [to Darmon]:

Because you’ve translated it.

Darmon:

Yes. And it’s not even translated. Most of it is not translated into French, still now. And that Descartes won this battle not only because his philosophy which very powerful and… but also because his way of writing was much more accessible.

[Murmur of a crowd of people]

Ian [as narrator]:

The Chatta Chowk: the covered Bazaar of the Red Fort in Delhi. When I walked through it, stalls sold tourist trinkets. But in the 17th Century, its merchants sell silks and jewels to the Mughal court within.

Darmon:

François Bernier, his pupil, you know, Gassendi’s secretary when he went to India where he stayed with Le Grand Mughal, you know, the big Mughal there, Aurangzeb.

Ian [as narrator]:

After Gassendi’s death, his pupil Bernier travels.

He spends time in Egypt, the middle east, and finally India, where he joins the entourage of the Mughal crown prince as physician.

The prince is a great-grandson of Emperor Akbar, and a tolerant man who sees the same God in the Qur’an and the Indian scriptures.

But within a year, Aurangzeb – his brother – defeats him, and has him put to death.

Aurangzeb abandons pluralism, re-institutes the tax on non-Muslims, destroys temples, and executes some other religious leaders, including a Sufi saint and the Sikh Guru.

Bernier though, privy to the new European medical discoveries, is highly valued.

Darmon:

And he gave philosophy lessons to his first minister.

Ian [to Darmon]:

Bernier gave philosophy lessons?

Darmon:

Yes.

He taught him Gassendi’s philosophy in Persian [laughs] which was just incredible. And Bernier, when he wrote his summary of Gassendi’s philosophy – I have the text here – he compares Gassendi’s argument about the healthy aspect of abstinence of those philosophers with the people he met in India.

François Bernier [actor reading]:

This may show that all these fine ideas which we have just discussed are not purely philosophical speculations, but that there are whole populations which lead such a frugal life and who are also satisfied with little, as are the Cynics, Stoics, and Epicureans.

Darmon:

Of course he sees India with a lot of references to ancient philosophies and modern philosophies.

Bernier:

There are in the Indies, a number of faqirs.

Their drink is pure water and their food, when it is supplied by means of alms, a pound of khichri, which is a mixture of rice and of two or three kinds of lentils. The whole cooked with water and salt and topped with a bit of boiled butter.

Darmon:

This notion that only meat can give you energy, he says that’s totally wrong. “My experience in India shows that those men had tremendous powers and energy, and they didn’t eat any meat.” [laughs]

Ian [as narrator]:

Bernier says this not just of the priests, but even many of the merchants.

Bernier:

However prosperous they may become, their food is neither more abundant, nor more delicious than that of the Brahmans, and yet they live at least as peacefully, happily, and as contentedly as us, and much healthier.

They are at least as strong and vigorous as we are.

Ian:

With his detailed eyewitness accounts of both the Mughal war machine and Indian medicine, Bernier becomes one of 17th Century Europe’s leading writers on India.

For example, he describes how vegetarianism gives the Indian army a massive strategic advantage.

Darmon:

There are not only moral religious reasons, but also political and…

Bernier:

Of the hundred thousand troopers not a tenth, no not a twentieth part, eat animal food. They are satisfied with their khichri.

Darmon:

The new medical… Indian medical thinking, which was pretty rare.

Bernier:

I shall observe by the way, that their practice differs in essence from ours

Ian:

Still in Delhi, in a house in the grounds of Jawaharlal Nehru University, I met Professor of the History of Science, Deepak Kumar. He told me Bernier wasn’t the only European interested in Indian medicine.

Deepak Kumar:

When they also looked into the indigenous Materia Medica, many people have talked about.

Ian [as narrator]:

If you’ve got a really good memory of our first episode, and its argument over a disputed convalescent meal of scavenged chicken, you might be wondering why Indian medicine has changed since then.

Kumar:

That is very interesting that originally, the Indian Materia Medica is not totally vegetarian.

There are animal meats prescribed, that is, broths which they prescribe.

However, gradually in the Medieval times, late Medieval times, Indian Ayurveda came to be synonymous, known as synonymous with vegetarianism.

Ian [to Kumar]:

What’s late medieval?

Kumar:

It is 17th, 18th century. And, you know, when certain kind of diseases were being treated, people were asked to remain vegetarian. For example, smallpox. Smallpox was attributed to a devi[?, would mean deity] called Shitala. “Shital” means cool.

So when anyone was afflicted with smallpox or chickenpox, they were prescribed a vegetarian, cool vegetarian diet. This vegetarian diet involved a little bit of milk, some rice flakes and so forth, for a couple of days. Illness, I think, was always treated with vegetarianism.

Bernier:

The chief remedy for sickness is abstinence. Nothing is worse for a sick body than meat broth, for it soon corrupts in the stomach of someone afflicted with fever. And a patient should be bled only in extraordinary circumstances.

Ian:

All this time, bleeding is standard practice across the Christian and Muslim worlds. It’s meant to remove excess or stale blood.

Darmon:

He thought just like the Indians, that a lot of diseases came from flesh.

Bernier:

Whether the modalities of treatment be judicious, I shall let our physicians decide.

I shall only say that they are successful in India. And that the Mughal and Muslim physicians adopt them, no less than those of the pagans, especially in regard to abstaining from meat broth.

Ian [to Darmon]:

The tradition I thought it was part of was the idea that the vegetable diet was useful for some people if they were ill. Almost as an alternative to bleeding, from some research.

Darmon:

True. Because he said that meat soup, “bouillon de viande”, proved to have very bad effects. For instance for people who had flu. Against fever, you had to avoid beef soup, for instance. So, as an extension, you better eat vegetable, and [laughs] and avoid beef.

Ian [as narrator]:

When Bernier returns after a decade in India, he vouches for how much better he feels on a mostly vegetarian diet. But that doesn’t mean he’s any more ethically committed to animals.

Kumar:

François Bernier wanted to show a Mughal noble called Danechmend Khan, blood circulation. He wanted to tell that, you know, the blood circulation takes place. So Bernier, what he does, he kills before Danechmend Khan a lamb, and tries to show, experimentally, you know, how this circulation takes place, and how he had described it.

Ian [as narrator]:

The Indian idea of abstinence as therapy chimes not just with Gassendi’s Epicureanism, but with Europe’s renewed interest in classical physicians like Hippocrates.

And of course, Bernier’s translation of Gassendi from the Latin into the vernacular introduces him to a much wider audience.

Darmon:

In 18th Century a lot of Gassendi’s ideas went back to France, but through the English philosophers [laughs]. You know, when Voltaire quotes Locke, or some of Locke philosophy as something so strong and precious. Very often they are themes you find in Gassendi, yeah. You know, against Descartes, against Aristotelians.

[Organ music begins, continues in background]

Ian [as narrator]:

In 1698, a generation later, in the London of Isaac Newton and Samuel Pepys, some sailors bring their sick young African chimpanzee to the physician of Bedlam madhouse for treatment. And despite this, the chimpanzee dies. And the physician, Edward Tyson, dissects him, and writes up the dissection in the way he would the dissection of a human.

For the first time, we can compare human anatomy to that of another ape.

Tyson remarks how very similar the brain and voicebox are.

He wonders whether the chimp has some of the human qualities that we heard Descartes and Gassendi arguing over.

He even questions whether he was an ape or a man. Before ultimately declaring…

Edward Tyson [from the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society – actor reading]:

Him to be wholly a brute, and in the sensitive or brutal soul, more resembling a man, than any other animal.

Ian:

John Wallis, founder member of the Royal Society, inventor of the infinity symbol, populariser of the idea that blood circulates, wonders what this says about whether humans should eat meat.

John Wallis [actor reading]:

I shall consider it – with Gassendi – as a question in Natural Philosophy, whether it be proper food for man.

Ian:

Particularly as they are only aware of apes eating fruit, the dissection seems to back up Gassendi. More because of the intestines, say Tyson, than because of the teeth.

Tyson:

Man therefore having these parts formed, not like carnivorous animals, as you well observe; but more resembling those that live on herbs roots and fruits et cetera, it may seem reasonable to conclude that nature never designed him to live on flesh; but that the wantonness of his appetite, and a depraved custom, had inured him to it.

Ian:

But our two scientists decide that humans are exceptions to the anatomical rule. Tyson.

Tyson:

Yet we observe even in animals, that live on the same sort of food, that their stomachs are very different.

Your observation therefore as to brutes, though it may hold for the most part true, yet it is not universal.

Ian:

These letters, in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, are cited for centuries, both by Gassendists and their opponents.

Tristram Stuart is the author of “The Bloodless Revolution”, a cultural history of vegetarianism from roughly here onwards. In a meeting room in his food waste campaign’s co-working space, he told me just how influential Gassendist ideas were.

Tristram Stuart:

In particular, in the world of medicine, it became more or less an orthodoxy that humans had originally been designed by God to be vegetarian, and that if our bodies had been designed in that way it followed that that was the best diet for humanity.

And yet even if we did have permission still to kill animals, and that permission had been given after the flood, it was nevertheless, as it were, a compromise, a kind of a sign, if you like, of fallen humanity.

And that therefore within the medical profession, when the people were suffering from diseases that were perceived to be lifestyle-related – eating too much, eating luxuriously, eating too much meat and too many rich foods and too much alcohol – it became a very widespread prescription amongst doctors that those people suffering from those diseases should take up vegetarianism, either permanently or temporarily, in order to quell the diseases that they had incurred through their lifestyle choices.

[Church bell rings, continues in background]

Ian [as narrator]:

But what of the old Christian fasting traditions? They’re still there, particularly in Catholic countries. But they are weakening, with more and more loopholes and exemptions.

[Religious chanting joins church bell. Continues in background]

Ian:

The order of the Trappists – Trappists as in the beer – try to get back to a more strict observance. A repentant libertine founds the order in La Trappe in 1664, and in the beginning, their diet is almost vegan.

And in 1709, a godly Parisian physician publishes a book condemning the spurious medical exemptions that the people can buy to avoid the Easter fast.

Philip Hecquet [actor reading]:

Treatise on dispensations from the Lenten Fast. In which we discover the falseness of the pretexts that are given to obtain them.

Stuart:

Philip Hecquet, his primary argument for vegetarianism is, if you look at what ascetic Catholics practise, if you look at what we are encouraged to do during the Catholic fasts of Easter and on other fast days, that is a clear indication that there is theological basis for vegetarianism.

And he added to that the empirical, scientific reason why eating vegetables was better for your health that eating meat.

Hequet:

Showing via the mechanics of the body, the natural relationship of fasting foods with the nature of man, and their suitability for health.

Stuart:

If you were a vegetarian in 17th or 18th Century Europe, you run the risk of being called an enthusiast or a freak.

What Philip Hequet did was pitch vegetarianism to a wide public with the philosophical and theological cover of its endorsement by the Catholic mainstream.

In particular, that fasts and the ascetic traditions of Catholicism was by Hequet presented as an endorsement of the goodness of a vegetarian diet.

Ian [as narrator]:

Hecquet divides the Paris faculty of medicine, as much for his promotion of a pescetarian – later vegetarian – diet, as for the side he takes in arguments over how digestion works. He thinks digestion is a grinding process – physics rather than chemistry.

Hecquet:

From this we can undoubtedly already see what kind of food is preferable for man. It will not be animal flesh, but other substances that will be more predisposed to grinding and kneading before passing into this milky liquor that makes blood.

Ian:

A common theory in the age of Newton, if a scientific dead end.

But the idea of the vegetable diet as therapy carries on. It has the imprimatur of classical medicine.

Hecquet was nicknamed the Hippocrates of France: that ancient physician’s first recourse had been to balance a patient’s four humours with a diet, sometimes a cooling fleshless one.

The modern medical school really begins in the 1710s with Hermann Boerhaave taking over and systemising the faculty at Leiden, near Amsterdam. He’s quite veg-curious.

Hermann Boerhaave [actor reading]:

I myself have lived a considerable time upon the poorest whey and biscuit, without the least prejudice to the strength and action of my digestive organs.

Ian:

Edinburgh University sets up its own medical faculty in 1726, with lecturers like Alexander Munro at Anatomy.

Alexander Munro [actor reading]:

Hence Man from this form of his intestines and that of the teeth, seems to be have been originally designed for feeding on vegetables. And still the most of his food, and all his drink, is of that class.

Ian:

And William Cullen at the Theory and Practice of Medicine, who said of Indian vegetarians:

William Cullen [actor reading]:

Amounting to above forty million of people, who live without animal food, and seem to enjoy as perfect health as the Europeans, and more health than the Mohammedans their neighbours, who indulge in animal food.

Ian:

This influences generations of medical students. In fact, Alexander Munro’s son and then grandson hold the chair of Anatomy until 1846.

The grandson earns a reputation for just re-reading grandad’s century-old lectures. With, noted Charles Darwin, an appallingly dull delivery.

It’s argued about. There’s opposition as well. But the idea of prescribing a vegetable diet remains a respectable part of medical orthodoxy until well into the 19th Century. The idea echoes in sayings like “starve a fever”.

So in the 17th Century, European intellectuals tear down the old certainties around meat-eating, in both medicines and morals.

But what about enthusiasts and the fanatics that Tristram mentioned? Outside of the cloisters and Catholicism, it’s an intellectual free-for-all.

There are populist gurus that merge the vegetable diet with their own take on world history. Religious groups who seek the herbivorous morality of Eden. And best-selling diet books.

Especially to the radicals of the English civil war. And that is where we turn, next episode.

With the voices of Guillaume Blanchard, Sally Beaumont…

[Theme starts – music with sound of gongs]

Ian:

…and, from Joot Theatre Company Dundee, Vachel Novesha, Conor Ogg, and Iain Brodie. Brian Hoyle produced for Joot.

With the music of Monteverdi performed by Anna Simboli, Purcell by Papalin, Gesualdo by Denis Carpenter, and Robb Masters.

Please follow on facebook and twitter dot com slash veganoption. And discover more at veghist dot org.

[Theme ends]

END OF EPISODE 9.

This transcript was posted April 1 2018, but dated so that it appears after the show itself in listings. Featured image is of the title page of an early (Latin) edition of Descartes’ “Meditations”. Many thanks to Amy Carpenter.

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About Ian McD

I'm a British new media person with a passion for radio, and interested in the kind of stories best told when we see humans as part of the world of animal minds. I blogged about why I'm producing The Vegan Option.

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