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

Thomas Tryon 1634-1703
(text from the Appendix to the 1st edition, 1883)

One of the best known of the seventeenth century humane Hygeists, was born at Bilbury, a village in Gloucestershire. His father was a tiler and plasterer, who by stress of poverty was forced to remove his son, when no more than six years of age, from the village school, and to set him at the work of spinning and carding, (the woollen manufacture being then extensively carried on in Gloucestershire). At eight years of age he became so expert, he tells us, as to be able to spin four pounds a day, earning two shillings a week. At the age of twelve he was made to work at his father's employment. At this period he first learned to read. He next took to keeping sheep. With the sum of three pounds, realised by the sale of his four sheep, he went to London to seek his fortune, when seventeen years old, and bound himself apprentice to a "castor-maker," in Fleet Street. His master was an Anabaptist - "an honest and sober man;" and, after two years' apprenticeship, Tryon adopted the same religious creed. All his spare time was now devoted entirely to study; and, with the usual ardour of scholars who depend entirely upon their own talents and exertions, he scarcely gave any time to food or sleep. The holiday period, too, spent by his fellow-apprentices in eating and drinking, and gross amusements, was utilised in the same way. Science and Physiology in particular, attracted his attention.

At the age of twenty-three he first adopted the reformed diet, "my drink being only water, and food only bread and some fruit, and that but once a day for some time; but afterwards I had more liberty given me by my guide, Wisdom, to eat butter and cheese; my clothing being mean and thin; for, in all things, self-denial was now become my real business." This strict life he maintained for more than a year, when he relapsed, at intervals, during the next two years. At the end of this period he had become confirmed in his reform, and he remained to the end strictly akreophagist, and, indeed, strictly frugal, "contenting myself with herbs, fruits, grains, eggs, butter and cheese for food, and pure water for drink." About two years after his marriage he made voyages to Barbados and to Holland in the way of trade - "making beavers." He finally settled in England, and at the age of forty-eight he published his first book on Dietetics.

His brief autobiography, from which the above facts are drawn, ends at this period. His editor adds, as to his appearance and character: "his aspect easily discovered something extraordinary; his air was cheerful, lively, and brisk; but grave with something of authority, though he was of the easiest access. Notwithstanding he was of no string make, yet, through his great temperance, regularity, and by the strength of his spirits and vigour of his mind, he was capable of any fatigue, even to his last illness, equally with any of the best constitutions of men half his years. Through all his lifetime he had been a man of unwearied application, and so indefatigable that it may be as truly said of him as it can be of any man that he was never idle; but of such despatch that, though fortune had allotted him as great multiplicity of business as, perhaps, to any one of his contemporaries, yet, without any neglect thereof, he found leisure to make such a search into Nature, but also into almost al arts and sciences, of some whereof he was an improver, and of all innocent and useful ones as encourager and promoter." (1)

In spite of that penetration of mind and justness of thought which influenced him to abandon the cruelty and coarseness of the orthodox diet, the author of The Way to Health could not free himself from certain of the credulous fancies of his age; and, it must be admitted, his writings are by no means exempt from such prejudices. It is as a moral reformer that he has deserved our respect, and of his numerous books the following are noteworthy :-

A Treatise on Cleanliness in Meats and Drinks. London, 1682
The Way to Health, Long Life, &c. 1683, 1694, 1697. 3 vols., 8vo.
Friendly Advice to Gentlemen-Planters of the East and West Indies. London 1684
The Way to make all People Rich: or, Wisdom's Call to Temperance and Frugality. 1685
Wisdom's Doctrine: or, Aphorisms and Rules for preserving the Health of the Body and the Peace of the Mind. 1696
England's Grandeur and the Way to Get Wealth: or, Promotion of Trade Made Easy and Lands Advanced. 1699. 4to.

Nothing can be more just or forcible than these expositions :-

"Most men will, in words, confess that there is no blessing this world affords comparable to health. Yet rarely do any of them value it as they ought to do till the feel the want of it. To him that hath obtained this goodly gift the meanest food - even bread and water - is most pleasant, and all sorts of exercise and labour delightful. But the contrary makes all things nauseous and distasteful. What are full-spread Tables, Riches, or Honours, to him that is tormented with distempers? In such a condition men do desire nothing so much as Health. But no sooner is that obtained, but their thoughts are changed, forgetting those solemn promises and resolutions they made to God and their own souls, going on in the old road of Gluttony, taking little or no care to continue that which they so much desired when they were deprived of it.

"Happy it were if men did but use the tenth part of that care and diligence to preserve their minds and bodies in Health, as they do to procure those dainties and superfluities which do generate Diseases, and are the cause of committing many other evils, there being but few men that do know how to use riches as they ought. For there are not many of our wealthy men that ever consider that as little and mean food and drink will suffice to maintain a lord in perfect health as it will a peasant, and render him more capable of enjoying the benefits of the Mind and pleasures of the Body, far beyond all 'dainties and superfluities.' But alas! the momentary pleasures of the Throat-Custom, vanity, &c., do ensnare and entice most people to exceed the bounds of necessity or convenience; and many fail through a false opinion or misunderstanding of nature - childishly imagining that the richer the food is, and the more they can cram into their bellies, the more they shall be strengthened thereby. But experience shews to the contrary; for are not such people as accustom themselves to the richest foods, and most cordial drinks, generally the most infirm and diseased?

"Now the sorts of foods and drinks that breed the best blood and finest spirits, are Herbs, Fruits, and various kinds of Grains; also Bread, and sundry sorts of excellent food made by different preparations of Milk, and all dry food out of which the sun hath exhaled the gross humidity, by which all sorts of Pulses and Grains become of a firmer substance. So, likewise, Oil is an excellent thing, in nature more sublime and pure than Butter. . . .

As to the unsuspected cause of the various diseases so abundant :-

"Many of the richest sort of people in this nation might know by woful experience, especially in London, who do yearly spend many hundreds, I think I may say thousands, of pounds on their ungodly paunches. Many of whom may save themselves that charge and trouble they are usually at in learning of Monsieur Nimble-heels, the Dancing-Master, how to go upright; for their bellies are swollen up to their chins, which forces them 'to behold the sky.' (2) but nor for contemplation sake you may be sure, but out of pure necessity, and without any more impressions of reverence towards the Almighty Creator than their fellow-brutes; for their brains are sunk into their bellies; injection and ejection is the business of their life, and all their precious hours are spent between the platter and the glass and the close-stool. Are not these fine fellows to call themselves Christians and Right-Worshipfuls." (3)

In his xiv chapter, "Of Flesh and its Operation on the Body and the Mind," Tryon employs all his eloquence in proving that the practice of slaughtering for food is not only cruel and barbarous in itself, but originates, or, at all events, intensifies the worst passions of men.

Eulogising the milder manners of the followers of Pythagoras, and of the Hindus generally, he tells his countrymen that :-

"The very same, and far greater, advantage would come to pass amongst Christians, if they would cease from contention, oppression, and (what tends and disposes them thereunto) the killing of other animals, and eating their flesh and blood; and in a short time, human murders and devilish feuds and cruelties amongst each other would abate, and, perhaps, scarce have a being amongst them. For separation has greater power than most imagine, whether it be from evil or from good; for whatever any man separates himself from, that property in him presently is weakened. Likewise, separation from cruelty does wonderfully dispel the dark clouds of ignorance, and makes the understanding able to distinguish between the good and evil principles - first in himself, and then in all other things proportionately. But so long as men live under the power of all kinds of uncleanness, violence, and oppression, they cannot see any evil therein. For this cause, those who do not separate themselves from these evils, but are contented to follow the multitude in the left-hand way, and resolve to continue the religion of their fore-fathers - though thereby they do not but continue mere Custom, the greatest tyrants - 'tis, I say, impossible for such people ever to underestimate or know anything truly, either of divine or of human beings.

"It is a grand mistake of people in this age to say or suppose: That Flesh affords not only a stronger nourishment, but also more and better than Herbs, Grains, &c.; for the truth is, it does yield more stimulation, but not of so firm a substance, nor so good as that which proceeds from the other food; for flesh has more matter for corruption, and nothing so soon turns to putrefaction. Now, 'tis certain, such sorts of food as are subject to putrify before they are eaten, are also liable to the same afterwards. Besides, Flesh is of soft, moist, gross, phlegmy quality, and generates a nourishment of a like nature; thirdly, Flesh heats the body, and causeth a drought; fourthly, Flesh does breed a great store of noxious humours; fifthly, it must be considered that 'beasts' and other living creatures are subject to diseases (4) and many other inconveniences, and uncleanness, surfeits, over-driving, abuses of cruel butchers, &c., which renders their flesh still more unwholesome. But on the contrary, all sorts of dry foods, as Bread, Cheese, Herbs, and many preparations of Milk, Pulses, Grains, and Fruits; as their original is more clean, so, being of a sound firm nature, they afford a more excellent nourishment, and more easy of concoction; so that if a man should exceed in quantity, the Health will not, thereby, be brought into such danger as by the superfluous eating of flesh.

* * * * *

"What an ill and ungrateful sight is it to behold dead carcasses, and pieces of raw flesh! It would undoubtedly appear dreadful, and no man but would abhor to think of putting it in his mouth, had not Use and Custom from generation to generation familiarised it to us, which is so prevalent, that we read in some countries the mode is to eat the bodies of their dead parents and friends, thinking they can no way afford them a more noble sepulchre than their own bowels. And because it is unusual they do it with as little regret or nauseousness as others have when they devour the leg of a Rabbit or the wing of a Lark. Suppose a person were bred up in a place where it were not a custom to kill and eat flesh, and should come into our Leadenhall Market, or view our Slaughter Houses, and see the communication we have with dead bodies, and how blythe and merry we are at their funerals, and what honourable sepulchres we bury the dead carcasses of beasts in - nay, their very guts and entrails - would he not be filled with astonishment and horror? Would he not count us cruel monsters, and say we were brutified, and performed the part of beasts of prey, to live thus on the spoils of our fellow-creatures?

"Thus, Custom has awakened the inhuman nature, which makes killing, handling, and feeding upon flesh and blood, without distinction, so easy and familiar unto mankind. And the same is to be understood of men killing and oppressing those of their own kind; for do we not see that a soldier, who is trained up in the wars of bloody-minded princes, shall kill a hundred men without any trouble or regret of spirit, and such as have given him no more offence than a sheep has given the butcher that cuts her throat. If men have but Power and Custom on their side, they think all is well.

Whatever may be thought of the zealous attempt of the pious author to meet the assertions of the (practical) materialists, who draw their arguments from the Jewish Sacred Scriptures, or elsewhere, his replies to the common subterfuges or prejudices of the orthodox dietists are able and conclusive. His humane arguments, indeed, are worthy of the most advanced thinkers of the present day; and those who are versed in the anti-kreophagist literature of the last thirty years - in the controversy in the press, and on the platform - will, perhaps, be surprised to find that the ordinary prejudices or subterfuges of this years "of Grace" are identical with those current in the year 1683. We wish that we could transcribe some of these replies. We cannot forbear, however, to quote his representation of the changed condition of things under the imagined humanitarian régime :-

"Here all contention ceaseth, no hideous cries nor mournful groans are heard, neither of man nor of 'beast'. No channels running with the blood of slaughtered animal, no stinking shambles, nor bloody butchers. No roaring of cannons, nor firing of towns. No loathsome stinking prisons, nor iron grates to keep men from enjoying their wife, children, and the pleasant air; nor no crying for want of food and clothes. No rioting, nor wanton inventions to destroy as much in one day as a thousand can get by their hard labour and travel. No dreadful execrations and coarse language. No galloping horses up hills, without any consideration for fellow-feeling of the victim's pains and burdens. No deflowering of virgins, and then exposing them and their own young to all the miseries imaginable. No letting land and farms so dear that the farmer must be forced to oppress himself, servants, and cattle almost to death, and all too little to pay his rent. No oppressions of inferiors by superiors; neither is there any want, because there is no superfluity or gluttony. No noise nor cries of wounded men. No need of chirurgeons to cut bullets out of their flesh; nor no cutting off hands, broken legs, and arms. No roaring nor crying out with the torturing pains of the gout, nor other painful diseases (as leprous and consumptive distempers), except through age, and the relics of some strain they got whilst they lived intemperately. Neither are their children afflicted with such a great number of diseases; but are as free from distempers as lambs, calves, or the young ones of any of the 'beasts' who are preserved sound and healthful, because they have not outraged God's law in Nature, the breaking of which is the foundation of most, or all cruel diseases that afflict mankind; there being nothing that makes the difference between Man and 'Beasts' in health, but only superfluity and intemperance, both in quality and in quantity."

His chapter, in which he deals with the relations between the sexes and the married state, shews him to have been as much in advance of his time, in a sound knowledge and apprehension of Physiology, and of the laws of Health, in that important part of hygienic science, as he was in the special branch of Diet. (5)

Affixed to this work is a very remarkable Essay, in the shape of A Dialogue between an East-Indian Brachman and a French Gentleman, concerning the Present Affairs of Europe. In this admirable piece, the author ably exposes the folly no less than the horrors of war -- and, in particular, religious war - all which he ultimately traces to the first source - the iniquities and barbarism of the Shambles. The Dialogue is worthy of the most trenchant of the humanitarian writers of the next century. It was by meeting with The Way to Health that Benjamin Franklin, in his youth, was induced to abandon the flesh-diet, to which revolutionary measure he ascribes his success, as well as health in after life.



    1. Some Memoirs of the Life of Mr. Thomas Tryon, late of London, Merchant. Written by himself. London, 1705.
    2. Os homini sublime dedit, cœlumque tueri. - Ovid, Met. I.
    3. Compare Seneca and Chrysostom above.
    4. If Tryon could point to diseases among the victims of the shambles in the 17th century, what might he not make of the epidemics or endemic of the present day?
    5. The Way to Health, Long Life, and Happiness: or a Discourse of Temperance, and the Particular Nature of all things Requisite for the Life of Man. . . . The Like never before Published. Communicated to the World, for the General Good, by Philotheos Physiologue [Tryon's nom de plume.] London, 1683. It is (in the best parts) the worthy precursor of The Herald of Health, and of the valuable hygienic philosophy of its able editor - Dr. T. L. Nichols.
  • Tryon's Letters, Domestick and Foreign, to Several Persons of Quality, Occasionally Distributed in Subjects, Viz. Philosophical, Theological, and Moral. (PDF 19mb) pub.1700 (see e.g. Letter XIX 'Of Flesh Broths', p.87)

Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index