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Action Precedes Theory

We have spoken of several philosophies corresponding to different human outlooks on living creatures in general and on animals in particular. We must speedily add that a person’s professed philosophy (or religion) is not always — is not even generally — that which guides him in his everyday dealings with living creatures of other species. It may of course influence him to some extent; and he may refer to it, in some cases to justify his conduct — like those good Christians who tell us that they can see “no harm” in eating meat, for “God created certain animals on purpose to be man’s food.” But he will never follow the logic of his creed consistently and to the bitter end if it be definitely going against the grain of his deeper nature. And when he does abide by its principles, it is, in most cases, less because he sees in them the outcome of “God’s will’ or of “reason” or of “social interest” than because they are the natural and adequate expression of his own deeper attitude towards life.

A man who has always felt an unsurmountable, physical disgust for animal slaughter, and to whom the very sight of meat is nauseating, is hardly likely to force himself to become a flesh eater just because the books he was taught to consider as sacred or infallible (be they religious scriptures or “scientific” works) seem to encourage such a diet rather than forbid it, or because the founder of his faith, or the geniuses he reveres the most, obviously ate meat. He may not always have the courage to denounce the man-centered religion or philosophy in which he was educated, on the sole ground that its ethics are not high enough for him (in fact, shockingly below his own natural ethics.) But he will not bring himself to live as do the majority of those who outwardly profess the same creed as himself.


In the same way, a man brought up in one of the life-centered creeds of the East may well act, all through his life, as though he believed man to be the only creature on earth worth loving. He might admit that all living creatures have an immortal soul of the same nature as his own, because he has learnt to respect, nay to admire, sages who have expressed this view, books that have popularized it. But no teaching can bring him to feel for the emaciated dog or the overloaded buffalo he encounters in the street, if the sheer sight of their distress be not sufficient to move him spontaneously. No exalted example from history or mythology, no saint, no religious leader, no incarnation of the divine can force him to throw the remnant of his dinner to a hungry animal, or to interfere in favor of an ill-treated beast of burden, if his kind heart fails to command him to do so.

There are many outlooks on life, many philosophies, many religions according to which our relation to other living creatures appears in various lights. But from the point of view of practical behavior, there are, properly speaking, only two kinds of people: those who really love animals (and plants) and those who do not. And one might, in turn, divide the first of these two groups into people who love all living nature consistently, and people who love it but partially or occasionally, the latter being the immense majority of the so-called animal lovers and nature lovers.

* * *

There is more to be said. Not only does a man seldom wait for inspiration from the faith or philosophy he professes to determine his course of action towards animals in daily life, but, whatever be his professed faith or philosophy, he generally manages to justify his actions in its name, if he be himself sophisticated enough to feel that they need a justification. And the practical conclusions which different people actually reach, on the apparent basis of the same belief, are often each one equally defendable, though contrary.

We are, for instance, all acquainted with the belief, shared by many, that animals (and, a fortiori, plants) have “no soul,” or that if they have, their soul is of a nature entirely different from ours, in particular that it is not immortal. We all know that Christianity enjoins us to “love our neighbors,” including our enemies, “as ourselves,’” but is completely silent about our duties towards subhuman creatures. Still it is a fact that there are animal lovers brought up in the Christian faith who feel that Christ’s commandment to love one’s enemies implies most naturally love


towards all creatures. They have told us so. And there is indeed nothing illogical or anti-Christian in their attitude. And we know well that, were we personally followers of any form of Christianity, we would undoubtedly link up our natural solicitude for all that lives with that particular religion by saying that, if one is to “love” a man who has murdered one’s parents, committed atrocities upon one’s countrymen, or robbed one of one’s livelihood, then it appears obvious that one should, a fortiori, love the lamb, the kid, the cow, and all innocent irresponsible creatures enough, at least, not to encourage the butcher’s hideous industry; and that one should love harmless frogs and guinea pigs enough to protest against the use of them in scientific experimentation. And it is also a fact that if we believe the human soul alone to be immortal, that belief, far from prompting us to pay more attention to distressed human beings than to animals, would have exactly the contrary effect. For an immortal creature can well afford to wait; one whose only life is contained in the span of a few brief years cannot. Consequently, if we were to become convinced that man alone has an immortal soul, we would feed the hungry dog before the hungry child, nay, we would let the latter die if there were not enough food for both-a specimen of a species so cocksure that death is but the gate to a broader and better life should not mind dying. And this course of action of ours would be perfectly logical; far more logical, in our eyes, than the usual course.

We have already seen how a life-centered doctrine like that of reincarnation can be — and is, in fact — used to justify entirely different practical attitudes towards living things. The great Indian Masters, pondering over the glorious unity underlying all life (which the hypothesis of birth and rebirth implies) concluded that we have to consider all creatures as our fellow beings and to be kind to them — at least to do them no harm; and that it is our duty to feel for them. But the millions of Hindus who easily throw away the surplus of their food without thinking of the starving animals lying at their door, and who would never interfere to prevent a child from kicking a sleeping dog, or from knocking down a bird’s nest; the thousands who beat their overloaded bullocks and buffalos, horses and donkeys; who mercilessly twist the animals’ tails to make them walk faster; who carry unwanted newly born kittens away from their houses (or tell a servant to carry them away) and leave them on the roadside to “fend for themselves,” that is to say, to starve; who have organized countless public meetings in protest against political injustices and a few, sometimes, against blood


sacrifices in Hindu temples, but not one in order to stop the tortures inflicted upon animals in the name of science, or the killing of cattle in the municipal slaughterhouses, generally in the most barbaric manner; who have not shown a sign of indignation, not,. raised a voice of protest at such news, for instance, as that of a butcher from Calcutta being condemned to one month’s rigorous imprisonment only for having flayed two goats alive in 1943; those millions, we say, and those thousands would, if asked why they show such callousness, merely reply that it was so planned that every living individual should suffer the fate determined by the sum of its deeds, and that the animals which undergo hardships or tortures doubtless deserved it by sinning in their previous lives, though no one knows how.

And if the joyous Wisdom which we have tried to describe in the preceding chapter has succeeded in retaining a nominal hold upon men; if the worship of eternal Energy, through the tangible beauty of light and life, as preached by Akhnaton, had remained the official religion of any organized society, the hereditary cult of even a few hundred thousands of people, it is highly probable that its logical implications concerning man’s behavior towards other living beings would have been overlooked by the majority of its professed adherents. It is probable that nearly all of these would have, by this time, long ceased to be different from other men and that, while bowing down to the Sun morning and evening, and paying an outward homage to him who once sang the joy and beauty of all life, they would have tolerated the various cruelties of our age as easily as the believers in any man-centered creed. And when one comes to realize how even the most perfect creeds seem incapable of inspiring, for long, a kindlier and more rational conduct to any but a 1 very few of their followers, one is inclined to be almost glad that the beautiful old solar philosophy never developed into a widespread popular doctrine; that it never yet became the basis of a Church, the nominal foundation of a civilization.

We must say, however, that with all the power of distortion that characterizes the human mind, it would have been very difficult, if not altogether impossible, to justify any indifference to suffering in general,, and in particular any sort of callousness towards helpless animals or even plants, in the name of that happy creed stressing the joy of all creatures to see and feel the Sun, and centered mainly around this tangible world and this short life.


* * *

The fact is that, as we have remarked above, action precedes theory, and does not proceed from it. Whenever it can be, the prevailing theory is used in order to justify action. Originally, it became prevailing precisely because it was, or seemed to be, the one that justified the best sort of action which people spontaneously did. Whenever it cannot be actually used, action continues to take place without its support; and finally, it is theory that is changed to suit action, not action to suit theory.

The gap that exists between the ethical ideals of some creeds (especially of life-centered ones) and the daily conduct of their average followers is generally all the more shocking as the creeds are more lofty. And the high standards of behavior that those ideals imply can often be, it seems, counted among the factors responsible for a creed’s complete worldly failure. Up till today, no creed obviously implying consistent active kindness towards all sentient beings has ever succeeded in imposing itself upon the practical life of any human society. And wherever such a creed is officially accepted, and even exalted (as in Hindu India and in the countries that profess Buddhism) the people’s conduct towards living creatures in everyday life falls hopelessly short of the ideals set forth by the masters to whom they pay an outward homage.

Man’s practical behavior towards creatures of other species depends, in reality, not upon what he believes, nor upon what he worships, nor what he knows, nor what he might think of animals and plants in general. It depends, first and foremost, upon what he spontaneously feels in the presence of the individual specimens of the different species he meets on his way; upon his instinctive reaction at the sight of a cat, a dog, a buffalo, a pig, a tree, a blade of grass.

It depends also to a great extent upon his power of imagination. A great many of the town-bred meat-eaters we know, in Europe at least, are animal-lovers at heart. Even if they be hungry, they are the last people to feel, at the sight of a sheep, a cow or a calf grazing in a meadow, the murderous propensity that would possess a famishing tiger in the same circumstance. On the contrary, they are capable of going up to the animal to stroke its head, or of plucking some grass and flowers and offering them to it, just for the pleasure of seeing it eat out of their own hands. They love to watch it gambol through the sunlit fields, its tail in the air, or to see it ruminating in an attitude of calm and comfortable


repose in the shade of some tree. If a man suddenly came along and started ill-treating it, they would surely rush to its defense, and that, probably in a vehement manner. Yet they go home and eat a slice of mutton, beef or veal without the slightest sense of guilt. Although they well know that some beast, just as alive, just as innocent and beautiful, just as willing to respond to man’s kindness and to eat out of a human hand as the one in the meadow, died a premature and violent death so that a piece of flesh might appear on their table; although, nine times out of ten, they would rather starve than kill the lovely creature themselves; although they generally express a sincere horror after reading or hearing a vivid description of a slaughterhouse, yet they do not spontaneously connect all the ghastliness of animal killing with that particular chunk of meat they see before them in a dish with roast potatoes and onions all around it. They do not automatically picture to themselves, at the sight of it, the agony of a sheep, of a bullock, of a young calf, once enjoying the taste of fresh grass and the light of heaven, then suddenly drawing its last breath in a pool of blood . . . and for what? — for them to have some mutton, beef or veal on their menu. If they did actually imagine that, half of them would shrink in horror, and not only eat no more meat themselves, but also despise all those who refuse to give up that habit as one despises the accomplices in some hideous murder case. But they do not. The custom of feeding on flesh and the knowledge that “men have always done so from the beginning of the world” — the reaction of daily repeated misdeeds upon one’s true sense of values — have blunted, if not completely obliterated, their power of visualizing at once that which they wish to forget. They are not obsessed by the unavoidable connection between an appetizing roast with potatoes around it and the sickening reality of the death struggle of a slaughtered beast, as we would be. A whole series of associations of ideas has been suppressed in them by an obnoxious “education,” and they have not enough imagination to revive it of their own accord.

The same could be said about all those inconsistent animal lovers who would not refuse the present of a fur coat, nay, who would not hesitate to buy one if they could afford it; who take medicine (preventive and curative) prepared at the cost of the suffering of many guinea pigs and white rats; and who hire a carnage when they are in a hurry (in places where taxis are not available) without making sure that the horse is not tired, sometimes even without paying attention whether the driver beats it or not.


A natural, spontaneous feeling of sympathy for any individual living creature, allied to a sufficiently vivid imagination, is a rare quality. And consequently real animal lovers — not merely those who keep pets, or those who burst into indignation at the thought of one form of cruelty and tolerate or even encourage another — are very few. Real plant lovers who feel for the trees themselves, and not merely for the shade, fruit or flowers they give, are equally rare. And that, both in the east and in the West — both among the people who profess to believe in the great brotherhood of all life, and those whose explicit faiths and philosophies give an undue place to man within the scheme of creation.

* * *

One may also wonder whether any substantial progress has ever been made in that line, from the beginning of historical times. One may even wonder whether organized society has not deliberately worked to destroy such spontaneous brotherly feelings towards beasts as might have existed in some of the better human beings living outside its pale.

Enkidu, whom the Gods destined to be the companion and friend of Gilgamesh, king of Erech, who lived some seven or eight thousand years ago — or more — was, at first, the companion and friend of the wild beasts, with whom he dwelt alone. He used his human intelligence to help them, and taught them how to outdo the hunter’s cunning and to avoid death. But, says the old Sumerian epic, once he experienced the charm of woman he began to side with the hunter against his former friends and playmates, until soon he consented to forsake his dwelling among the beasts and let himself be taken to the town, thus becoming a confirmed member of human society.

This strange and sad story of a half-mythical figure of early humanity is perhaps the story of many of the best among primitive men — enthusiastic lovers of all nature, spontaneously aware of the fact that the beasts of the forest are their brothers, until the influence of society, exercised through woman, curtails their glorious freedom, stems their indiscriminate generosity, and cuts down their broad outlook to an all-too-human one. If so, it is the most eloquent condemnation of organized human society as it stands from the far-off days of Enkidu to our own times. It points out — without, probably, the authors of the archaic tale having intended it to do so — one of the main charges than can be brought against organized collective life as it has been conceived up till


now. It shows at the very origin of society a tremendous gregarious selfishness, connected with sex, and soon expanded from the family to the tribe and to the species, but never beyond; and it makes us see, in the organization of the human race itself, an increasing effort to place for all times the domination of the world in the hands of man, for man’s benefit alone. It illustrates the well-known conviction of the average man of primitive societies no less than of the average socially-minded man of today, both in the East and in the West: the conviction — stronger even than the traditional religious belief in the unity of all life, wherever that belief exists — that the exploitation of all living nature, and particularly of animals, in the interest of man, is normal and desirable, and that the enemy of the hunter (as well as of the butcher, of the scientist who experiments on living creatures, etc.) is an enemy of mankind, while he who, on the contrary, approves of killing animals for man’s food, or of inflicting pain upon them for man’s ultimate welfare — he who at least does not love them enough to be perturbed by the thought of such atrocities — is a “normal” man, a “sane” man, and a friend of man.

Whatever some of the great religions and philosophies of the y world might be, this seems indeed to be the outlook of most people in all countries — their real outlook, if not also the one they openly profess to have. Doctrines that preach love and active kindness to all that lives never repressed the actual feeling of more than a small minority of better people. Wherever apparently successful — i.e., wherever nominally widespread, like Buddhism — they owe their success to other factors, not to that side of their ethics concerning man’s attitude towards living creatures other than human.

Nothing is more rare, everywhere — and nothing has always been more rare — than uniform, indiscriminate love towards animals and even plants; love that makes one feel for each one of them individually.

In a few countries of the north and northwest of Europe, as in a part at least of North America, people boast of being comparatively kinder to animals than anywhere else, in spite of the strongly man-centered creeds which they profess. But as we have already remarked, their love for creatures of other species is skin-deep. Skin-deep, and partial, too. Those people are in general either dog lovers or cat lovers or horse lovers, or, maybe lovers of all those species and of a few more. But they are not what we could call actual lovers of animals. Many who would fondle a cat or a dog would mercilessly drown a mouse in a trap, as though it were the


most natural thing in the world. Yet mice have life and sensitiveness; and beauty also. But those men — “kind to animals” as they might think themselves to be — seem to forget it. They seem never to have known it; never to have thought of it. Others, who vehemently stand up against scientific experimentation upon animals, do not object to fox hunting or to tiger hunting, or to the hunting or trapping of those equally beautiful animals whose skin goes to make fur coats and muffs. And many of those who protest against these and other forms of cruelty, and who would never dream of drowning a mouse — who would perhaps also refuse to join in a tiger hunt on the grounds that they feel for the splendid stripy felines — are still not consistent enough to give up eating meat and fish.

On the other hand, most of those Hindus for whom vegetarian diet means more than a mere social tradition — more than a part and parcel of the caste rules that regulate their whole life in detail — and who willingly despise the Mohammedans and Christians for not being vegetarians, are no animal lovers at all. They are at the most cow lovers, and that also often only theoretically. They are generally the last people to keep any animals as pets, and if by chance they do, to take real interest in them and to keep them for long. They will easily continue discussing high-flown philosophical ideas (that have mostly little to do with their lives) or broad national and international problems which they have no power to solve, while some stray cat, to which they never cared to give a home, keeps on mewing for food at an audible distance. They will not pay attention to the helpless, distressed voice; they will not interrupt the pleasure they draw from their worthless conversation, in order to seek out the creature and give it something to eat. They will boast of their superiority over the meat-eating peoples, but eat their food unperturbed by the sight of the hungry dog lying near by and looking up at them with longing eyes. And more often than not, when they have finished their meal, they will ask the servant to carry away the leavings and not even think of telling him to give them to, the poor animal. And the servant will throw the clean rice and vegetables into the dust bin. The dog can find them there if it likes, they tell you. It will find them there no doubt, mixed up with ashes and rotting food from the day before, and with all the rubbish from the street — perhaps with the corpse of some cat or dog already stinking. And it will eat them “if it likes,” that is to say, if it can; if they are still edible, even for a hungry dog; while with a little care on the part of the man so


proud of his high philosophy, it could have eaten them clean and enjoyed the whole of them. You tell the man so, and he answers the usual thing we have heard over and over again — the answer of the selfish, jealous human beast to the problem of hungry animals from Belgrade to Shanghai — “there are millions of starving children, and you speak of dogs and cats!” For this argument is not used only by the Hindu vegetarian. It would be put forward also by any fellow who believes in a man-centered creed — by any Christian or Mohammedan; not one who professes to uphold the unity and sacredness of all life, and whose vegetarianism is supposed to be, partly at least, a sign of that belief. It is, irrespective of all professed creeds, the argument of the selfish, callous majority of men.

And the most disappointing of all is that, when you point out to the pious vegetarian that the food he had left was not eaten even by any famishing child but simply wasted, the man just smiles — as though your interest in street dogs were indeed a funny thing in his opinion. His own lack of interest in them, as well as in all distressed animals, is not funny at all. It is, in its way, just as criminal as the indifference of the meat eaters to the fate of the cattle driven to the slaughterhouses, and the daily encouragement they give to the ghastly industry of death which could so easily be suppressed with a little good will on their part. Just as criminal, we say, if not more; for the vegetarian Hindu outwardly professes to love all creatures; the meat eater (the Western meat eater, at least) does not.

* * *

Most men feel that living nature is just there for them to exploit. And those who make the most fuss over certain forms, or all forms, of exploitation of man by man are often the first to support the most thorough exploitation of animal-kind by man. We believe that, as long as this attitude prevails in the world, man will not cease to be, himself, just an animal among others; cleverer than the others as a rule, but in no way essentially different from them. He will never become the actually superior species which he could be if he only realized in which way lies his true line of progress.

And as long as man is nothing but an animal, somewhat more intelligent but no more generous then the others, what right has he, we ask, to claim for himself the preference of those few human individuals whose impartial love extends to all that lives? And why should those few grant him more love than to the other species,


and give him special treatment in all walks of life? “Human solidarity” appears, in their eyes, in no manner a more admirable thing than does any of the much-despised forms of narrower solidarity in the eyes of the humanitarian universalist, who boasts of having transcended all of them. It is, to us, but a partial expression of a far broader and more fundamental solidarity: the solidarity of creatures brought forth and nourished by the same Life-energy, reaching them all, ultimately, through the same Sun.

We admit, of course — one just has to admit it — that the Law of struggle for life (and of struggle for well-being) is inseparable from time-bound existence; and that Nature’s command is: “Kill, and eat!,” since even plants are endowed with life (and, to a certain degree, with sensitiveness) and since one has to eat something. But we notice that his iron law of struggle for life and for well-being is universal and that, especially in an increasingly overcrowded world such as ours, it determines, and cannot but determine, the attitude of human beings and of human collectivities towards one another just as mercilessly as it does the mutual attitude of different species. It justifies not only all defensive wars, but also all wars of so-called “aggression” inasmuch as they are, from the standpoint of the so-called “aggressor,” the only or the best solution of the dilemma: “Future — i.e. biological survival — or ruin!” We scorn all men who condemn “wars of aggression,” and who, at the same time, eat meat; nay, we scorn all pacifists who do not, in their everyday dealings, live up to the ideal of universal nonviolence preached by the Jains. We scorn all those, whoever they be, who have never raised their voice against scientific experimentation upon innocent animals (which can be neither for nor against any cause) and who dare condemn experimentation upon one’s dangerous — or potentially dangerous — human enemies. We scorn all those who never were moved to indignation at the idea of man’s lasting crime against the living Realm; — at the thought of the enormous daily round of avoidable pain inflicted by man upon beasts (and even plants) — and who, yet, dare speak of “war crimes” and of “war criminals.” We flatly refuse to condemn war, — be it a thousand times a war “of aggression” — as long as mankind at large persists in its callous attitude towards animal (and tree) life. And as long as torture is inflicted by men upon a single living creature, in the name of scientific research, of sport, of luxury or of gluttony, we systematically refuse our support to any campaign exploiting public sympathy for tortured human beings — unless the latter be, of course, such ones as we look upon


as our brothers in race and faith, or people near and dear to these. The world that exalts Pasteur and Pavlov, and countless other tormentors of innocent creatures, in the name of the so-called “interest of mankind,” while branding as “war criminals” men who have not shrunk from acts of violence upon hostile human elements, when such was their duty in the service of higher mankind and in the interest of all life, does not deserve to live.