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The Ethics of Diet - A Catena
by Howard Williams M.A., 1883

Arbuthnot, Portrait by Godfrey Kneller

Jonathan Swift

'Pope's intimate friends' - Dr. John Arbuthnot, Dean Jonathan Swift,
(text from the 1st edition, 1883)

[follows the article on Alexander Pope] Amongst Pope's intimate friends were Dr. Arbuthnot, Dean Swift, and Gay. The first of these, best known as the joint author with Pope and Swift of Martinus Scriblerus, a satire on the useless pedantry prevalent in education and letters, and especially as the author of the History of John Bull (the original of that immortal personification of beef, beer, and prejudice), published his Essay Concerning Aliment, in which the vegetable diet is commended as a preventive or cure of certain diseases about the year 1730. Not the least meritorious of his works was an epitaph on the notorious Colonel Chatres - one of the few epitaphs which are attentive less to custom that to truth, and, we may add, in marked contrast with that typical one on his unhistorical contemporary Captain Blifil.

In the Travels of Lemuel Gulliver the reader will find the sœva indignatio of Swift - or, at all events, of the Houyhnhnms - amongst other things, launched against the indiscriminating diet of his countrymen :-

"I told him" [the Master-Horse], says Gulliver," we fed on a thousand things which operated contrary to each other - that we eat when we are not hungry, and drink without the provocation of thirst . . . that it would be endless to give him a catalogue of all diseases incident to human bodies, for they could not be fewer than five or six hundred, spread over every limb and joint - in short, every part, external and intestine, having diseases appropriated to itself - to remedy which there was a sort of people bred up among us in the profession or pretence of curing the sick."

Among the infinite variety of remedies and prescriptions, in the human Materia Medica, the astounded Houyhnhnm learns, are reckoned "serpents, toads, frogs, spiders, dead men's flesh and bones, birds, beasts, fishes" - no mere traveller's tales (it is perhaps necessary to explain), but sober fact, as any one may discover for himself by an examination of some of the received and popular medical treatises of the seventeenth century, in which the most absurd "prescriptions," involving the most frightful cruelty, are recorded with all seriousness :-

"My master, continuing his dicourse, said there was nothing that rendered the Yahoos more odious than their undistinguishing appetite to devour everything that came in their way, whether herbs, roots, berries, the corrupted flesh of animals, or all mingled together; and that it was peculiar in their temper that they were fonder of what they could get by rapine or stealth at a greater distance than much better food provided for them at home. If their prey held out, they would eat till they were ready to burst."

Although unaccustomed to the better living, and finding it "insipid at first," the human slave of the Houyhnhnm ( a word which, by the way, in that language, means "the perfection of nature") records as the result of his experience, in the first place, the fact of the superior healthfulness of the vegetable food. (1)



    1. See Travels, &c. Part IV.

Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index