I’ve been a vegetarian since about 1989 when I went away to college and could control my diet for the first time in my life. When asked why, I usually reply it was a mix of health and conscience reasons, though as time goes on, I’ve realized I’ve stuck to it for more of the latter than the former.
In the novel I’m currently writing, I debated about putting in or leaving out a scene where an animal is sacrificed on an altar to an ancient Roman god. My own disgust at the practice had to contend against the desire to be faithful to the historical time period I was writing about.
In seeking examples of how fellow vegetarians had written about violence toward animals, I came across this piece by Leo Tolstoy. It is an excerpt from “The First Step”, the preface Tolstoy wrote for the Russian translation of The Ethics of Diet by Howard Williams (1883). It combines Tolstoy’s masterful gift for dramatic prose, as well as his deep philosophical reasoning. I could never hope to live up to either, but it did help me identify what was needed in my scene, as well as the moral compassion that was largely behind my own vegetarianism.
It is from an English translation now in the public domain, and only a small part of the whole piece:
There never has been, and cannot be, a good life without self-control. Apart from self-control, no good life is imaginable. The attainment of goodness must begin with that…
I had wished to visit a slaughter-house, in order to see with my own eyes the reality of the question raised when vegetarianism is discussed. But at first I felt ashamed to do so, as one is always ashamed of going to look at suffering which one knows is about to take place, but which one cannot avert; and so I kept putting off my visit.