Eating Animals

In my reading of Walden, I have keenly followed Thoreau’s food ethics, hoping to find a kindred spirit. I mentioned in class, but will mention again, a quote very near the beginning of the book: “One farmer says to me “You cannot live on vegetable food solely for it furnishes nothing to make bones with…” but Thoreau points out the irony of this, as the man is walking behind an oxen which is pulling a plow with “vegetable-made bones” (10). I think of my own vegetable-made bones and feel like Thoreau is on my side, somehow. Within the same chapter, he seems to object to animal exploitation all together, making an interesting case in writing, “Certainly no nation that lived simply in all respects, that is, no nation of philosophers, would commit so great a blunder as to use the labor of animals” (42). Simply. Through these lines and throughout Walden, Thoreau seems to identify a relationship between living simply and living without reliance on animal food or labor. The word philosopher translates to “lover of wisdom”—Thoreau is saying that in a nation where all are wise and thoughtful, reliance on animals for labor is foolish and negates any accomplishments a man achieves through exploiting this labor, as they are not truly his own.

And then, in the chapter “Higher Laws,” Thoreau approaches the question of food ethics much more directly. At first, his statements about hunting frustrated me, and felt inconsistent with things he had said previously (though contradiction is kind of his thing). He begins by telling fathers that they should teach their children (well, sons) how to hunt, since a well-rounded environmental ethic and understanding of nature will be incomplete without the experience. But shortly thereafter, he changes course and ultimately states: “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…” (147). How can he reconcile these two positions? It seems like the progression of thought throughout the chapter was intentional and maturing. As a child, he explains, one does not possess the sympathy to understand that the act of killing an animal means inflicting pain upon another being. Sympathy develops as one matures. He recounts the development of his own ethic over time, which, to be clear, is not particularly linear or even complete. His love of nature first developed hunting, so who is he to deny that to other young boys? But, in adulthood, he found that his sympathy extended to all creatures, not just people.

Furthermore, I think that his stance goes back to a desire to live simply and free of wanting for more than what brings him vital warmth. If animal food is not necessary to maintaining his life, and he finds the practice of killing distasteful, then it figures that he would advocate for vegetarianism. While he acknowledges his own animalistic instincts and desires, the book centers primarily around an appreciation and love for being alive among so many other living things. He discusses animals as having brains and thoughts, even wars, intentions, and feelings. By presenting animals as near equals in intellect and ability, and not assuming that he is above them simply because he is human, Thoreau is able to approach the human relationship with animals both critically and thoughtfully.

I return to his relationship with birds as a symbol of freedom, which I think is important to explore in this context, too. Originally he shoots birds for the purposes of ornithological study, but in “Higher Laws” says that there is “a higher way of studying” them (144).  Based on his previous discussion of birds, and the interactions he describes in later chapters (such as “Brute Neighbors”), it seems clear that he appreciates studying the habits of live birds more than the appearance of dead ones.  To kill a bird for study (or even for food) is an exploitation of a purer life, and even as he continues to eat animals, Thoreau reveals his struggle with these contradictions.

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