Sunday, October 17

Lewis Gompertz, a 19th century proto-vegan

At the beginning of the 19th century, Britain was leading an industrial revolution, but also a moral revolution. The West’s first animal welfare society was founded there in 1824 and its first vegetarian society in 1847. The British animalistic turn has been considered the greatest epistemic rupture of an extremely disruptive century. Its causes are varied. One, the propensity for philosophical utilitarianism, which, at its best, prioritizes well-being without looking too much at who (so they are soon it was the hand with women, slaves and other sentient beings). Another, Darwin’s groundbreaking thesis and the comparative biology research they unleashed. Anti-racist, anti-slavery, and sometimes even anti-colonialist reflection also contributed… It all adds up. We cannot forget that the United Kingdom had under its colonial tutelage almost the entire Indian subcontinent, where the vast majority of the world’s vegetarians lived (and do live), and indeed put great effort and enthusiasm into studying its ancient traditions of non-violence. . Between both worlds, esoteric currents such as theosophism – whose underground influence defies imagination – were located, which managed to formulate a more homely, familiar and scientific version of the so-called oriental philosophies.

In the 19th century, Britain was even too advanced for herself. The basic approach to animal rights from a Western philosophical perspective was already formulated by Henry Salt (coincidentally, born in India) in 1892, in a book called Animals’ Rights, forgotten for almost a century. Ethicist Peter Singer, in the preface to the 1990 edition of his classic Animal Liberation, he lamented that his generation had to formulate the arguments again, not knowing that “everything had been said before, but in vain.”

Lewis Gompertz (1783 / 4-1861) is another character that today we consider a precursor, although in his day he was seen as one more eccentric of the English landscape. He is a founding member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in 1824. Born into a Jewish family of diamond merchants, Gompertz is one of the first vegans to there is news in the modern history of Europe, more than a century before his compatriot Donald Watson coined the term in 1944. For ethical principles, our activist did not consume animals or derived products, he excluded them from his wardrobe and refused to travel by car of horses, which was the only means of transportation available in its day. One is not surprised that he ended up running the SPCA, for truly in England, if not in Europe, there was hardly anyone fitter.

But such radical animalism was uncomfortable within the Society, whose members, according to us informs Hannah Renier, “they hunted and ate meat carelessly”, like so many defenders of animals until the second half of the twentieth century, moved less by consistent reflection than by pious emotions, directed at a few species that we usually find sympathetic. Gompertz had been born two centuries before his time, and they immediately accused him of “Pythagorean” (antispeciesist, or less speciesist) and tried to remove him from the spotlight. The formal excuse? The SCPA, whose first secretary was an Anglican priest, declared that from now on they would be guided by “Christian” principles (killing animals, apparently), so that “certain sects” would be banned from joining.

Gompertz had to resign as a Jew and “Pythagorean”. He dedicated the rest of his days to defending animals, in a society founded by him and in two pioneering volumes that were hardly read. He was also an inventor: he almost did not invent the bicycle – he was the second to design a model – and he formulated the concept of bike lane. His plan was to save work for the long-suffering horses of Victorian England, after giving up his fantasy of sending them all to Arabia. He wrote: “I admit as an axiom that every animal has more right to use its own body than others have to use it.” Also: “How could man manage without the help of horses …? Finding out is his problem.”

Although Gompertz’s most enduring invention is the expandable chuck drill, his ambitious protobicycle – powered directly by the feet – reflects the fate of his ethical postulates: it fell on deaf ears, but someone reinvented it decades later and it is still the latest cry . His contemporaries were simply not prepared. Let us remember his painful expulsion from the (now Royal) Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: Christian hunters vetoing a vegan Jew because he was declared religiously incapable of understanding animal welfare … Fortunately, we have clarified our ideas a bit since So, although not enough so that European languages ​​can express in a single word what it is that people like Lewis Gompertz refused to consume.