Animal Rights: A History

Percy Bysshe Shelly

The Deeper Minds Of All Ages Have Had Pity For Animals
Friedrich Nietzsche

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This page is part of the section: Animal Rights:A History

Percy Bysshe Shelley 1792 - 1822

Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the major English Romantic poets was a controversial personality, an unconventional thinker of the time in which he lived. His uncompromising idealism and unorthodox life made him a much maligned figure. Shelly championed such causes as free love, atheism and vegetarianism, all of which were totally radical ideas in his day. He was an advocate of social justice for the working classes and likewise

for the injustices which he saw perpetrated upon all living creatures. Shelly became a fighter for the rights of animals after personally witnessing many and varied mistreatments which occurred during the domestication and and slaughtering of animals. In the more modern era it was Shelly who was among the first to speak out in regard to our treatment of animals as a progressive political issue equivalent with our treatment of other human beings. He considered that the slaughter of animals for food was not only the root crime of the human race but also the cause of all our other immoral and criminal behaviours.

In addition Shelly considered a vegetarian diet man's natural diet, the return to which would enhance health and eliminate disease. He Wrote:
On a natural system of diet, old age would be our last and our only malady; the term of our existence would be protracted; we should enjoy life, and no longer preclude others from the enjoyment of it.

Furthermore he considered that the domestication of animals for food brought unnatural ill health to such animals as a result of human interference with their nature, such as selective breeding:
the domestic hog, the sheep, the cow, and the dog, are subject to an incredible variety of distempers; and, like the corrupters of their nature, have physicians who thrive upon their miseries.

Shelly considered that the adoption of a vegetarian diet and a cessation of animal slaughter would lead to the end of social injustices such as poverty, crime, aggression, capitalism and war.

Shelly was to have a great influence on Henry S Salt, another proponent of animal rights and advocate of vegetarianism.

Concerning vegetarianism Shelly wrote several essays, the most notable of which are  "On the Vegetable System of Diet" and "A Vindication of Natural Diet"  from which the extracts below have been taken:

A Vindication of Natural Diet

Shelly was an advocate of the vegetarian diet for a number of reasons.

As already mentioned Shelly considered that a vegetarian diet was not only more healthy but consequently was necessary for moral perfection. Shelly  refers to the myth of Prometheus as an allegory concerning the consequences of ill health as a result of meat eating.

"The story of Prometheus, is one likewise which, although universally admitted to be allegorical, has never been satisfactorily explained. Prometheus stole fire from heaven, and was chained for this crime to mount Caucasus, where a vulture continually devoured his liver, that grew to meet its hunger..."

How plain a language is spoken by all this. - Prometheus, (who represents the human race) effected some great change in the condition of his nature, and applied fire to culinary purposes; thus inventing an expedient for screening from his disgust the horrors of the shambles. From this moment his vitals were devoured by the vulture of disease. It consumed his being in every shape of its loathsome and infinite variety, inducing the soul-quelling sinkings of premature and violent death. All vice arose from the ruin of healthful innocence. Tyranny, superstition, commerce, and inequality, were then first known, when reason vainly attempted to guide the wanderings of exacerbated passion. I conclude this part of the subject with an extract from Mr. Newton’s Defence of Vegetable Regimen, from whom I have borrowed this interpretation of the fable of Prometheus.

Making allowance for such transposition of the events of the allegory, as time might produce after the important truths were forgotten, which the portion of the antient mythology was intended to transmit, the drift of the fable seems to be this: - Man at his creation was endowed with the gift of perpetual youth; that is, he was not formed to be a sickly suffering creature as we now see him, but to enjoy health, and to sink by slow degrees into the bosom of his parent earth without disease or pain. Prometheus first taught the use of animal food (primus bovem occidit Prometheus[1]) and of fire, with which to render it more digestible and pleasing to the taste. Jupiter, and the rest of the gods, foreseeing the consequences of the inventions, were amused or irritated at the short-sighted devices of the newly-formed creature, and left him to experience the sad effects of them. Thirst, the necessary concomitant of a flesh diet,” (perhaps of all diet vitiated by culinary preparation) “ensued; water was resorted to, and man forfeited the inestimable gift of health which he had received from heaven: he became diseased, the partaker of a precarious existence, and no longer descended slowly to his grave” (pp. 8-9 ).

But just disease to luxury succeeds,
And every death its own avenger breeds;
The fury passions from that blood began,
And turned on man a fiercer savage - Man.

Man, and the animals whom he has infected with his society, or depraved by his dominion, are alone diseased. The wild hog, the mouflon, the bison, and the wolf, are perfectly exempt from malady, and invariably die either from external violence, or natural old age. But the domestic hog, the sheep, the cow, and the dog, are subject to an incredible variety of distempers; and, like the corrupters of their nature, have physicians who thrive upon their miseries.

Shelly regarded the creation myth as a similar allegory:
The allegory of Adam and Eve eating of the tree of evil, and entailing upon their posterity the wrath of God, and the loss of everlasting life, admits of no other explanation, than the disease and crime that have flowed from unnatural diet.

Shelly like Rousseau was influenced by Plutarch's essays on the Eating of Flesh. Like Plutarch Shelly maintained that a meat diet was not natural. In fact Shelly believed that human beings are naturally frugivorous, he advocated a diet of vegetables and pure water and abstention from alcohol, he regarded ...animal flesh and fermented liquors, as slow, but certain poisons.

Shelly gives reasons why meat is unnatural, the consequences of the cessation of meat eating with regards to an improvement in morality, the improvement of health and longevity as a result of the adoption of a meat free diet and envisions a future when mankind will return to a natural diet:

Comparative anatomy teaches us that man resembles frugivorous animals in every thing, and carnivorous in nothing; he has neither claws wherewith to seize his prey, nor distinct and pointed teeth to tear the living fibre. A Mandarin of the first class, with nails two inches long, would probably find them alone inefficient to hold even a hare. After every subterfuge of gluttony, the bull must be degraded into the ox, and the ram into the wether, by an unnatural and inhuman operation, that the flaccid fibre may offer a fainter resistance to rebellious nature. It is only by softening and disguising, dead flesh by culinary preparation, that it is rendered susceptible of mastication or digestion; and that the sight of its bloody juices and raw horror, does not excite intolerable loathing and disgust. Let the advocate of animal food, force himself to a decisive experiment on its fitness, and as Plutarch recommends, tear a living lamb with his teeth, and plunging his head into its vitals, slake his thirst with the steaming blood; when fresh from the deed ofhorror let him revert to the irresistible instincts of nature that would rise in judgment against it, and say, Nature formed me for such work as this. Then, and then only, would he be consistent.

Man resembles no carnivorous animal...

The intestines are also identical with those of herbivorous animals, which present a larger surface for absorption, and have ample and cellulated colons. The cæcum also, though short, is larger than that of carnivorous animals; and even here the orang-outang retains its accustomed similarity. The structure of the human frame then is that of one fitted to a pure vegetable diet, in every essential particular.

Young children evidently prefer pastry, oranges, apples, and other fruit, to the flesh of animals; until, by the gradual depravation of the digestive organs, the free use of vegetables has for a time produced serious inconveniences; for a time, I say, since there never was an instance wherein a change from spirituous liquors and animal food, to vegetables and pure water, has failed ultimately to invigorate the body, by rendering its juices bland and consentaneous, and to restore to the mind that cheerfulness and elasticity, which not one in fifty possess on the present system.

Again, the spirit of the nation that should take lead in this great reform, would insensibly become agricultural; commerce, with all its vice, selfishness and corruption, would gradually decline; more natural habits would produce gender manners, and the excessive complication of political relations would be so far simplified, that every individual might feel and understand why he loved his country, and took a personal interest in its welfare.

A Vegetable diet brings health and longevity

There is no disease, bodily or mental, which adoption of vegetable diet and pure water has not infallibly mitigated, wherever the experiment has been fairly tried. Debility is gradually converted into strength, disease into healthfulness; madness in all its hideous variety, from the ravings of the fettered maniac, to the unaccountable irrationalities of ill temper, that make a hell of domestic life, into a calm and considerate evenness of temper, that alone might offer a certain pledge of the future moral reformation of society. On a natural system of diet, old age would be our last and our only malady; the term of our existence would be protracted; we should enjoy life, and no longer preclude others from the enjoyment of it. All sensational delights would be infinitely more exquisite and perfect. The very sense of being would then be a continued pleasure, such as we now feel it in some few and favoured moments of our youth. By all that is sacred in our hopes for the human race, I conjure those who love happiness and truth, to give a fair trial to the vegetable system.


The proselyte to a simple and natural diet who desires health, must from the moment of his conversion attend to these rules –

Read the entire essay: A Vindication of Natural Diet

On the Vegetable System of Diet

It is evident that those who are necessitated by their profession to trifle with the sacredness of life, and think lightly of the agonies of living beings, are unfit for the benevolence and justice which is required for the performance of the offices of civilised society. They are by necessity brutal, coarse, turbulent and sanguinary. Their habits form an admirable apprenticeship to the more wasting wickedness of war, in which men are hired to mangle and murder their fellow beings by thousands, that tyrants and countries may profit. How can he be expected to preserve a vivid sensibility to the benevolent sympathies of our nature, who is familiar with carnage, agony and groans? The very sight of animals in the fields who are destined to the axe must encourage obduracy if it fails to awaken compassion. The butchering of harmless animals cannot fail to produce much of that spirit of insane and hideous exultation in which news of a victory is related altho' purchased by the massacre of a hundred thousand men.

If the use of animal food be, in consequence, subversive to the peace of human society, how unwarrantable is the injustice and barbarity which is exercised toward these miserable victims. They are called into existence by human artifice that they may drag out a short and miserable existence of slavery and disease, that their bodies may be mutilated, their social feelings outraged. It were much better that a sentient being should never have existed, than that it should have existed only to endure unmitigated misery. (The attachment of animals to their young is very strong. The monstrous sophism that beasts are pure unfeeling machincs, and do not reason, scarcely requires a confutation.)

The above extract is included in the website below, unfortunately there does not appear to be a complete on-line copy of this essay

Queen Mab

Shelley's most famous poem was Queen Mab, it was considered at the time as subversive and radical. In additon to themes such as  political tyranny, established religion, the distructive nature of war, commerce, temperance, the perversion  of love as a consequence of marriage, was vegetarianism.

In book eight of Queen Mab Shelly envisions a future were humans return to a natural diet thereby encouraging "kindly passions" "pure desires" while extinguishing  "hatred" "despair" and "loathing".

How strange is human pride!
I tell thee that those living things,
To whom the fragile blade of grass,
That springeth in the morn
And perisheth ere noon,
Is an unbounded world;
I tell thee that those viewless beings,
Whose mansion is the smallest particle
Of the impassive atmosphere,
Think, feel, and live like man;
That their affections and antipathies,
Like his, produce the Laws
Ruling their moral state;
And the minutest throb
That through their frame diffuses
The slightest, faintest motion,
Is fixed and indispensable
As the majestic laws
That rule yon rolling orbs. (21)

Immortal upon Earth: No longer now,
He slays the lamb that looks him in the face,
And horribly devours his mangled flesh,
Which, still avenging nature's broken law,
Kindled all putrid humours in his frame,
All evil passions, and all vain belief,
Hatred, despair, and loathing in his mind,
The germs of misery, death, disease, and crime. (59)

No longer now the winged habitants,
That in the woods their sweet lives sing away,
Flee from the form of man; but gather round,
And prune their sunny feathers on the hands
Which little children stretch in friendly sport
Towards these dreadless partners of their play.
All things are void of terror: man has lost
His terrible prerogative, and stands
An equal amidst equals: happiness
And science dawn though late, upon the earth;
Peace cheers the mind, health renovates the frame;
Disease and pleasure cease to mingle here,
Reason and passion cease to combat there;
Whilst each unfettered o'er the earth extends
Their all-subduing energies, and wield
The sceptre of a vast dominion there;
Whilst every shape and mode of matter lends
Its force to the omnipotence of mind,
Which from its dark mine drags the gem of truth
To decorate its paradise of peace. (59)

Source and more information:
Unfortunately the original website which provided this information no longer exists.

Extracts from other poetry relating to vegetarianism:

The Revolt of Islam:

Never again may blood of bird or beast
Stain with its venomous stream a human feast,
To the pure skies in accusation steaming.

Alastor or The Spirit of Solitude:

Earth, ocean, air, beloved brotherhood!
If our great Mother has imbued my soul
With aught of natural piety to feel
Your love, and recompense the boon with mine;
If dewy morn, and odorous noon, and even,
With sunset and its gorgeous ministers,
And solemn midnight's tingling silentness;
If autumn's hollow sighs in the sere wood,
And winter robing with pure snow and crowns
Of starry ice the gray grass and bare boughs;
If spring's voluptuous pantings, when she breathes
Her first sweet kisses, have been dear to me;
If no bright bird, insect, or gentle beast
I consciously have injured, but still loved
And cherished these my kindred - then forgive
This boast, beloved brethren, and withdraw
No portion of your wonted favour now

Prometheus Unbound:

I wish no living thing to suffer pain.

Other information concerning Shelly's Vegetarianism: and from the same website

Extracts from Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Monograph (1888) by Henry S. Salt



Joseph Severn - Posthumous Portrait of Shelley Writing Prometheus Unbound

Original imagine and licensing details

important please note:

I am not an animal expert of any kind just your average person who loves animals, all animals, and feels deeply about the plight of many of our fellow creatures. Neither am I a writer, or any other expert. Therefore please keep in mind that the information included in this website has been researched to the best of my ability and any misinformation is quite by accident but of course possible.

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