The Ethics of Diet
By: Howard Williams, M.A.
Brief Biography of: Sylvester Graham, 1794-1851
As an exponent of the physiological basis of the Vegetarian theory of diet, in
the most elaborate minuteness, Sylvester Graham the author of Lectures on
Science of Human Life has always had great repute amongst food reformers
both in the United States and in this country.
Collaterally connected with the ducal house of Montrose, his father, a graduate
of Oxford, emigrated to Boston, U.S., in the year 1718. He must have attained
an advanced age when his seventeenth child, Sylvester, was born at Suffield,
Yet he seems to have been of a naturally dyspeptic and somewhat feeble
constitution, which was inherited by his son, whose life, in fact, was preserved
only by the method recommended by Locke - free exposure in the open air.
During several years he lived with an uncle, on whose farm he was made to
work with the laborers. In his twelfth year he was sent to a school in New
York, and at fourteen he was set for a short time to learn the trade of
He is described as handsome, clever, and imaginative. "I had heard" he says,
"of noble deeds, and longed to follow in the field of fame." Ill health soon
obliged his return to the country, and at sixteen symptoms of consumption
Various occupations were tried until the time, when about twenty years of age,
he commenced as a teacher of youth, proving highly successful with his
pupils. Again ill health obliged the abandonment of this pursuit.
At the age of thirty-two he married, and soon after became a preacher in the
Presbyterian Church. Deeply interested in the question of "Temperance" he
was invited to lecture for that cause by the Pennsylvania Society (1830).
He now began the study of physiology and comparative anatomy, in which his
interest was unremitting. These important sciences were used to good effect
in his future dietetic crusade. At this time he came in contact with William
Metcalfe of the Bible Christian Church, Philadelphia, by whom he was
confirmed in, if not in the first instance converted to, the principles of radical
He was soon led to believe that no permanent cure for intemperance could be
found, except in such change of personal and social customs as would relieve
the human being from all desire for stimulants.
This idea he soon applied to medicine, so that the prevention and cure of
disease, as well as remedy for intemperance, were seen to consist mainly in
the adoption of correct habits of living, and the judicious adaptation of
These ideas were elaborated in an Essay on Cholera (1832), and a course of
lectures, which were delivered in various parts of the country, and
subsequently published under the title of Lectures on the Science of Human
Life. This has been the leading textbook of all the dietetic and nearly all the
health reformers since.
The Science of Human Life is one of the most comprehensive as well as
minute text books on scientific dietetics ever put forth. If it errs at all, it errs on
the side of redundancy - a feature which it owes to the fact that it was
published to the world as it was orally given.
It therefore well bears condensation, and this has been judiciously done by Mr.
Baker, whose useful edition is probably in the hands of most of our readers.
Graham was also the author of a treatise on Bread and Bread-Making, and
"Graham bread" is now universally known as one of the most wholesome
kinds of he "staff of life".
Besides these more practical writings, for some time before his death he
occupied his leisure in the production of a Philosophy of Sacred History, the
characteristic idea of which seems to have been to harmonize the dogmas of
the Jewish and Christian Scriptures with his published views on physiology
and dietetics. He lived to complete one volume only which appeared after his
Tracing the history of Medicine from the earlier times, and its more or less of
empiricism in all its stages, Graham discovers the cause of a vast proportion
of all the egregious failure of its professors in the blind prejudice which
induces them to apply to the temporary cure, rather than to the prevention, of
disease as it was in its first barbarous beginning, so it has continued, with little
really essential change, to the present moment: Graham states:
"Everything is done with a view to cure disease, without any regard to its
cause, and the disease is considered as the infliction of some supernatural
being. Therefore, in the progress of the healing art thus far, not a step is taken
towards investigating the laws of health and the philosophy of disea se.
The result is, that when men prodigally waste the resources as if the energies
of life were inexhaustible; and when they have brought on disease which
destroys their comforts, they fly to the physician, not to learn by what violation
of the laws of life they have drawn the evil upon themselves, and by what
means they can avoid the same; but, considering themselves visited with
afflictions which they have in no manner been concerned in causing, they
require the physician's remedies, by which their sufferings may be alleviated.
In doing this, the more the practice of the physician conforms to the appetites of
the patient, the greater is his popularity and the more generously he is
Everything, therefore, in society tends to confine the practicing physician to the
department of therapeutics, and make him a mere curer of disease; and the
consequence is, that the medical fraternity have little inducement to apply
themselves to the study of the science of life, while almost everything, by
which men can be corrupted, is presented to induce them to become the mere
pandera of human ignorance and folly; and, if they do not sink into the merest
empiricism it is owing to their own moral sensibility rather than to the
encouragement they receive to pursue an elevated scientific professional
Thus the natural and acquired habits of man concur to divert his attention from
the study of human life, and hence he is left to feel his way to, or gather from
what he calls experience, all the conclusions which he embraces.
It has been observed that men, in their (so-called) inductive reasoning deceive
themselves continually, and think that they are reasoning from facts and
experience, when they are only reasoning from a mixture of truth and
The only end answered by facts so incorrectly apprehended is that of making
error more incorrigible. Nothing, indeed, is so hostile to the interests of Truth
as facts incorrectly observed.
On no subjects are men so liable to misapprehend facts, and mistake the
relation between cause and effect, as on that of human life, health, and
By the opponents of dietetic reform it has been pretended that climate, or
individual constitution, must determine the food proper for nations, or
"We have been told that some enjoy health in warm, and others in cold
climates; some on one kind of diet, and under one set of circumstances, and
some under another; that therefore, what is best for one, is not for another;
what agrees well with one, disagrees with another; that what is one man's
meat, is another man's poison; that different constitutions require different
treatment; and that, consequently, no rules can be laid down adapted to all
circumstances which can be made a basis of regimen to all.
Without taking pains to examine circumstances, people consider the bare fact
that some intemperate individuals reach old age evidence that such habits are
not unfavorable to life. With the same loose reasoning, people arrive at
conclusions equally erroneous in regard to nations. If a tribe subsisting on
vegetable food is weak, sluggish, and destitute of courage and enterprise, it is
concluded that vegetable food is the cause.
Yet examination might have shown that causes fully adequate to these effects
existed, which not only exonerated the vegetable diet, but made it appear that
the vegetable diet had a redeeming effect, and was the means by which the
nation was saved from a worse condition.
The fact that individuals have attained a great age in certain habits of living is
no evidence that those habits are favorable to longevity. The only use, which
we can make of cases of extraordinary old age, is to show how the human
constitution is capable of sustaining the vital economy, and resisting the
causes, which induce death.
If we ask how we must live to secure the best health and longest life, the
answer must be drawn from physiological knowledge; but if we ask how long
the best mode of living will preserve life, the reply is, Physiology cannot teach
Probably each aged individual has a mixture of good and bad habits, and has
lived in a mixture of favorable and unfavorable circumstances.
Notwithstanding apparent diversity, there is a pretty equal amount of what is
salutary in the habits and circumstances of each. Some have been 'correct' in
one thing, some in another. All that is proved by instances of great longevity in
connection with bad habits is, that such individuals are able to resist causes
that have, in the same time, sent thousands of their fellow-beings to an
untimely grave; and, under a proper regimen, would have sustained life,
perhaps a hundred and fifty years.
Some have more constitutional [or inherited] powers to resist the causes of
disease than others, and, therefore, what will destroy the life of one may be
borne another a long time without any manifestations of immediate injury.
There are, also, constitutional peculiarities; but these are far more rare than is
Indeed, such may, in almost every case be overcome entirely by a correct
regimen. So far as the general laws of life and the application of general
principles of regimen are considered, the human constitution is one; there are
no constitutional differences, which will not yield to a correct regimen, and thus
improve the individual.
Consequently, what is best for one is best for all. Some are born without any
tendency to disease while others have the predisposition to particular disease
of some kind. But differences result from causes which man has the power to
control; and it is certain that all can be removed by conformity to the laws of life
for generations; and the human species can be brought to as great uniformity,
as to health and life, as the lower animals.
Physiological science affords no evidence that the human constitution is not
capable of gradually returning to the primitive longevity of the species.
The highest interests of our nature require that youthfulness should be
prolonged. And it is as capable of being reserved as life itself, both depending
on the same conditions.
If there ever was a state of the human constitution, which enabled it to sustain
life [much beyond the present period], that state involved a harmony of relative
conditions. The vital processes were less rapid and more complete than at
present, development was slower, organization more perfect; childhood
protracted, and the change from youth to manhood took place at a much
greater remove from birth.
Hence, if we now aim at long life, we can secure our object only by conformity
to those laws by which youthfulness is prolonged."
As for the omniverousness of the human animal, Graham says:
"The orangutan, on being domesticated, readily learns to eat animal food. But if
this proves that animal to be naturally omnivorous, then the Horse, Cow,
Sheep, and others are omnivorous, for every one of them is easily trained to
eat animal food.
Horses have frequently been trained to eat animal food, and sheep have been
so accustomed to as to refuse grass. All carnivorous animals can be trained to
a vegetable diet, and brought to subsist upon it, with less inconvenience and
deterioration than herbivorous or frugivorous animals can be brought to live
on animal food.
Comparative anatomy therefore proves that man is naturally a frugivorous
animal, formed to subsist upon fruits and vegetables."
The stimulating, or alcoholic, property of flesh produces the delusion that it is,
therefore, the most nourishing.
"Yet by so much as the stimulation exceeds that which is necessary for the
performance of the functions of the organs, the more does the expenditure of
vital powers exceed the renovating economy; and the exhaustion which
succeeds is commensurate with the excess.
Hence, though food which contains the greatest proportion of stimulating
power causes a feeling of the greatest strength, it also produces the greatest
exhaustion, which is commensurately importunate for relief; and, as the same
food affords such by supplying the requisite stimulation, their feelings lead the
consumers to believe that it is most strengthening.
Those substances, the stimulating power of which is barely sufficient to excite
the digestive organs in the appropriation of nourishment, are most conducive
to vital welfare, causing all the processes to be most perfectly performed,
without any unnecessary expenditure thus contributing to health and
Flesh-meats average about thirty-five per cent, of nutritious matter, while rice,
wheat, and several kinds of pulse (such as lentils, peas, and beans) afford from
eighty to ninety-five per cent; potatoes afford twenty-five per cent, of nutritious
So that one pound of rice contains more nutritious matter than two pounds and
a half of flesh-meat; three pounds of whole meal bread contain more than six
pounds of flesh; and three pounds of potatoes more than two pounds of flesh."
"The peasantry of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Poland, Germany, Turkey,
Greece, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, France, Portugal, England, Scotland, Ireland, a
considerable portion of Russia, and other parts of Europe subsist mainly on
The peasantry of modern Greece, like those in the days of Pericles, subsists on
coarse brown bread and fruits.
The peasantry in many parts of Russia live on very coarse bread, with garlic
and other vegetables, and, like the same class in Greece, Italy, etc., they are
obliged to be extremely frugal even in this kind of food.
Yet they are for the most part healthy, vigorous, and active. Many of the
inhabitants of Germany live mainly on rye and barley, in the form of coarse
bread. The potato, is the principal food of the Irish peasantry; and few portions
of the human family are more healthy, athletic, and active, when uncorrupted by
intoxicating substances [and, it may be added, when under favorable political
and social conditions].
But alcohol, opium, etc., equally with bad laws have extended their blighting
influence over the greater portion of the world, and nowhere do these scourges
so cruelly afflict the self-devoted race, as in the cottages of the poor, and when
by these evils and neglect of sanitation etc., diseases are generated, sometimes
epidemics, we are told that these things arise from their poor, meager, low,
Wherever the various sorts of intoxicating substances are absent, and a decent
degree of cleanliness is observed, the vegetable diet is not thus calumniated.
That portion of the peasantry of England and Scotland who subsist on their
barley and oatmeal bread, porridge, potatoes and other vegetables, with
temperate and cleanly habits [and surroundings] are able to endure more
fatigue and exposure than any other class of people in the same countries.
Three-fourths of the whole human family, in all periods of time excepting
perhaps, in the primitive wholly predatory age, have subsisted on non-flesh
foods, and when their supplies have been abundant, and their habits in other
respects correct, they have been well nourished.
That the sanguinary diet and savagery go hand in hand, and that in proportion
to the degree of carnivorism is the barbarous or militant character of people, all
History, past and present, too clearly testifies. Nor are the carnivorous tribes
conspicuous by their cruel habits only.
Taking all flesh-eating nations together, though some, whose other habits are
favorable, are, well-formed, as a general average they are a small, ill-formed
races; and taking all vegetable-eating nations together, though many, from
excessive use of narcotics and from other unfavorable circumstances, are
comparatively small and ill-formed, as a general average, they are a much better
formed races than the flesh-eaters.
It is only among those tribes whose habits are temperate, and who subsist on
the non-flesh diet, that the more perfect specimens of symmetry are found.
Not one human being in many thousands dies a natural death. If a man be
shot or poisoned, we say he dies a violent death; but if he is ill, attended by
physicians, and dies, we say he dies a natural death.
This is an abuse of language - death in the latter case being as truly violent as if
he had been shot. Whether a man takes arsenic and kills himself, or by small
doses or any means, however common, gradually destroys life, he equally dies
a violent death.
He only dies a natural death, who so obeys the laws of his nature as neither by
irritation nor intensity to waste his energies, but slowly passes through the
changes of his system to old age, and falls asleep in the exhaustion vitality."
Graham adduces a number of instances both of individuals and of
communities who have attained to protracted ages by reason of a pure diet.
He afterwards proceeds to prove from comparative physiology and anatomy,
and, in particular, from the conformation of the human teeth and stomach
(which, by an astounding perversion of fact, are sometimes alleged to be
formed carnivorously, in spite of often-repeated scientific evidence, as well as
of common observation), the natural frugivorous character of the human
species, and he quotes Linnaeus, Curvier, Lawrence, Bell, and many others in
support of this truth.
By: Howard Williams M.A., 1883
Article: The Ethics of Diet