Shelley, Wish You Were Here


Vegetarian or vegan statements in literature are rare, just as they are rare in everyday life (which does not include Facebook where like-minded people seek each other out). Reading literature frequently serves up one dead animal after the other, akin to the quotidian reality of driving down the road and passing the meat truck and turning on the radio to hear that politicians are cramming down dead pigs in Iowa. Case in point is All Quiet on The Western Front, where hardly a page goes by without canned meat, a dead fowl, some occasion to find and kill an animal as if vegetables and grains do not exist. Maybe there is a thematic link between the ubiquity of animal slaughter and the horrors of WWI, as the novel depicts to the veganistically aware reader the notion that one insensate carnage deserves the other.

How thrilling then to meet the anti-speciesist philosophy of Percy Bysshe Shelley inhabiting the lines of his lofty poetry. Over two hundred years before Peter Singer helped us out by clarifying speciesism, Shelley had the concept down pat: he saw all animals (humans included in that category) as kindred and abhorred the cruelty of raising animals for slaughter whether in the name of religion, sport, or food. He gave up meat, as did Mary Shelley, his second wife. Mary Shelley, by the way, created one of the most famous characters in literature, the creature in Frankenstein, who is a vegetarian; existing in a natural and childlike state, he is innately good and therefore does not eat animals. He only turns to vengeful acts after suffering cruelty and isolation.

In Shelley’s philosophical poem “Queen Mab,” a fairy leads a spirit on a tour of humanity — past, present, and future. (I wonder if Dickens got the idea of his various ghosts taking Scrooge on tours from this poem.) The future constitutes his utopia of which one feature is that animals are no longer subjected to the cruelty of Man.

“. . .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.”

Also, in “Alastor,” the narrator/poet avows that he has not injured any “bright bird, insect, or gentle beast . . .but still loved and cherished these my kindred.”

Aside from the feeling of serendipity that discovering such lines brings, can any importance attach to the fact that one or two random literary geniuses from the past share in my beliefs? Shelly’s veganism has importance to some degree as inspiration for others, those English majors who take a course in Romantic poetry and pay attention to what Shelley says. For me personally, Shelley’s magnanimity of spirit endears him to me, attracting me even more to his work. However, just as I have to associate with nonvegans in daily life, I still must and will read non vegan writers and will still revere my household gods, Emily Bronte and John Keats, who were not vegan. (By the way, I do believe that Emily Bronte would have been if circumstances had been different.)

Beyond serving as possible inspiration to the select few and a kindred link to my world, his conviction against cruelty to nonhuman animals illustrates what I, as a Stoic, value most among Stoic ideals: self-sufficient thinking and the application of reason. How odd he was at the time, not eating meat (and not believing in god, an avowed atheist). He knew of Pythagoras as a vegetarian forerunner, but his decision to quit meat made him a renegade and activist facing a culture notable for an extremely callous attitude toward nonhuman animals, fueled by a religion that insisted that Man, of all the species, was the only to have the all-important soul. He arrived at his principles through the exercise of his own reason and he had no qualms about living in accordance with his principles.  Although I might value my own independent judgment and don’t need Shelley’s example to endorse what I know is right, I suppose there is nothing wrong in harboring a hero or two and feeling slightly smug that I am in good company.


The Self-sufficiency of Emily Brontë

I would not make a case that Emily Brontë was an accidental Stoic, as I did for John Keats in the article “The Stoic Philosophy of John Keats,” that appears in this blog under “ Start Here.”  The expressions of philosophy in Keats’s life and poetry echo Seneca’s Stoic statements so precisely, it would seem that Keats had been influenced by him, although he never read a word of any Roman Stoic and held his philosophical notions through his own invention. One can only feel that there must be arch-ideas in the human realm that great minds discover coincidentally and naturally. Emily Brontë wrote no letters, as Keats did, but her view-point on life, if not her philosophy of life, can be discerned from her poetry. That process of defining her character from the lines of her poems figures largely in my book The Poetic World of Emily Brontë, published by Sussex Academic Press, which will appear in August 2014. On the whole, Bronte does not fit even unevenly into the Stoic pattern.

However, there is one truly Stoic element to Brontë’s personality, which is of great interest not just because it is Stoic but because it explains an essential character trait: she was exceedingly and unusually self-sufficient.  As I have written before, the value of self-sufficiency of a personal and intellectual nature is one of the most modern and invigorating ideas Seneca propounds as a Stoic virtue. He exhorts his acolytes not only to read or listen to others, but to develop a philosophy, guiding principles, and a way of living for themselves, independent of what others have stated. “Don’t be led, create something of your own,” he suggested vehemently.  It is in this context that he reminds his readers that ideas belong to no one, so that in formulating one’s own scheme for living, any idea that is good is available for adoption.

Why was self-sufficiency of spirit such a formative and essential trait for Emily Brontë? Consider that she had almost no formal education, learning mostly from her father and on her own at her home. She had no encouragement in her writing: no mentors, no college associates, no editors, no apprenticeships, no validation from the outside world, literary or otherwise. She, herself, relying only on her own powers and inner resources wrote Wuthering Heights, a giant in the literary canon, and a large work of powerful, distinctive, and intriguing poetry. That epitomizes a kind of magnificent self-sufficiency.  Not surprisingly, that character trait of self-fostering cropped up in other areas, and those are more precisely of the kind Seneca had in mind. She developed her own religion in which she, through her imagination, answered her own prayers and reconciled herself with death.  More on how she accomplished that can be found in my book.


On Self-sufficiency

On Self-sufficiency

The trait of self-sufficiency was one that I always admired, so I felt a sense of affirmation when I read in Seneca’s letters that the good life was comprised of self-sufficiency and tranquility. Although he lists those two things separately, self-sufficiency is actually a large, necessary cause of tranquility (which is the end goal. See earlier post On Tranquility).
There are two kinds of self-sufficiency: one pertaining to the outside world and the other to the inner world of the mind. The first kind is practical and physical and means, basically, being able to take matters into your own hands effectively. I might revere that trait because I am an American and admire the iconic pioneer who set out in a covered wagon entirely self-sufficient. Of course, importing that image into the modern world too literally can lead to Jeremiah Johnson delusions: people who think they have to hunt animals, inflicting pain and suffering–as if those acts were part of any meaningful self-provision or necessity and not just plain old cruelty. For physical self-sufficiency, the paradigm for me is Aaron Ralston. Not only does he navigate in the wilderness, but, when all else fails, he cuts off his own arm, rappels down the side of a mountain, and survives.
Aside from self-sufficiency in the physical, outside world, self-sufficiency in the inner realm has even greater relevance for current, everyday life and is the trait which Seneca praised–a mind that can abide itself when left to itself. That means having inner resources, such that your tranquility is not dependent on the outside world. Seneca observed: “A man is happy when no circumstance can reduce him; he keeps to the heights and uses no buttress but himself, for a man sustained by a bolster is liable to fall. If this is not so, then many factors outside ourselves will begin to have power over us.” One such outside influence that we should not be dependent upon if we are to maintain our tranquility is the opinion of others. Trust to your own reason. First of all, who says that such and such other person, or group of people, is right or worthwhile. Seneca warned about heeding the mob: “It is so easy to go over to the majority. Neither become like the bad because they are many, nor hostile to the many because they are different. Retire into yourself, as far as you can. The many admire you, but do you have grounds for self-satisfaction if you are the kind of man the many understand? Your merits should face inward.” It is against the backdrop of inner self-sufficiency that Seneca offered one of my favorite phrases, which I have quoted before: “Do not ask why you learned these things; you did it for yourself.” And he reminded one of his followers of the aphorism of another philosopher, that no number of readers is necessary for a writer or thinker to be self-satisfied: “Few are enough, one is enough, none is enough.”
Even if achieving mental self-sufficiency may be challenging, is it harder than physical self-sufficiency? Regardless, it is a worthy and helpful goal to avoid being elevated or cast down by every wind that blows, since winds are always blowing. Given that the power to reason is our special gift, why sacrifice it to emotion or to others to define us or think for us. Jeremiah Johnson finds his own food, Aaron Ralston his way out of the canyon, and we our own self-worth and tranquility.