The following pages were written in the Concentration Camp Dachau, in the midst of all kinds of cruelties. They were furtively scrawled in a hospital barrack where I stayed during my illness, in a time when Death grasped day after day after us, when we lost twelve thousand within four and a half months.
My dear Friend!
How shall I begin to tell you what I want to say? It is hard, and I hardly know how to begin.
And yet I will try my best; at first, I want you to know my fundamental thoughts, before come to the details:
I believe that, as long as man tortures and kills animals, he will torture and kill humans as well — and wars will be waged — for killing must be practiced and learned in a small scale, inwardly and outwardly. As long as animals are confined in cages, there will be prisons as well — for incarceration must be practiced and learned, in a small scale, inwardly and outwardly. As long as there are animal slaves, there will be human slaves as well, — for slavery must be learned and practiced, on a small scale — inwardly and outwardly.
I don’t think it necessary to be shocked at the little or big atrocities and cruelties others are committing, but I do not think it very necessary that we begin to be shocked where we are acting cruelly ourselves, in a large or small scale. As it is more easy to accomplish small things than great ones, I think we should try to overcome our own small thoughtless cruelty, to avoid it, to abolish it. Then one day it won’t be so hard to fight and overcome our great heartlessness.
But all of us are still asleep in our traditions. Traditions are like a greasy, tasteful gravy, which lets us swallow our own selfish heartlessness without noticing how bitter it is.
But I don’t want to point at him or her — no, I want to wake up myself and begin to be more understanding, more helpful, and kinder, on a small scale. Why shouldn’t I succeed on a large scale later on?
You see, that’s what it’s all about: I want to grow, to live into a more beautiful world, a world with higher, more blissful rules, with the divine rule for all future: Love for all Creation.
You asked me why I eat no meat, and you conjecture various reasons. You think I might have committed myself to a pledge — like some sort of penitence — to resignation of all of those wonderful relishes of meat. You are thinking of the savory roast meat, the grand fish meals, the tasteful gravy, the delicious smoked ham, the tender poultry, and all the thousands of different relishes made of meat to delight millions of palates. And when I voluntarily avoid all of these feasts, you think only a penitence, a pledge, a great sacrifice could cause me to resign of enjoying life in this way. But then you ask yourself, if perhaps some modern physicians might have convinced me that eating meat is not very healthy, that pure vegan nutrition keeps the human body more resilient and juvenile and might even prolong human life. My dear friend — I don’t care so much about what the doctors say, for their knowledge is — like all knowledge — subject to frequent changes. Maybe they are right. Maybe plant nutrition is more agreeable to the human body, but it might as well be that the other doctors are right, those who say that not all humans can exist on solely vegan nutrition. I’m almost inclined to believe that myself, because a great many humans still resemble beasts of prey in their actions, their instincts, and even in their emotions.
Those doctors also say that meat is a more complete, more concentrated product, as the plants which the animals ate before are prepared in the meat, so the human stomach is relieved of the task of digestion of the plants. Instead of eating a great many plants, it would be enough to eat a comparatively small amount of meat.
This seems very credible to me, although I am sure that man, even a carnivorous man, could not exist without eating any plants or fruit, whereas many people have lived and are living without any meat. For, you know, the priests of ancient, holy religions were not allowed to eat meat, as eating meat arouses base instincts and obstructs the way to higher perceptions.
And yet all of those doctors’ opinions have no influence on my way of nutrition. They are merely of interest to me, like all thinking is of interest to me, and I would not venture to decide which of them are right. I feel there is some truth in either of them — for everything we perceive can never be more than a ray or a fragment of the wholeness we call truth.
But I agree not only with the doctors, no, I also agree with you, when you say the meals of meat taste so fine and delicious and are a treat for the palate, a relish for the eater. By the way of skilful preparation, they can indeed by turned to savory dishes, which make people forget that they are made of carcasses. Carcasses … this word is true, dreadful as it sounds.
Now some people say you might speak of plant carcasses as well as of animal carcasses. I admit, it would be illogical to contradict. There is but one exception, the fruit. A fruit is never a carcass, it is the only thing nature throws into our lap, saying “Eat!”
Yes, the fruit is the true gift of nature, it gives itself. You can take it without infliction of suffering. It ripens for you, its own ripeness makes it fall into your lap. Ripeness is a sort of perfection. so it must be the most noble, most perfect diet, to eat nothing but fruits. I believe it would be the diet for those humans who are closest to perfection. Other persons could hardly exist on such a diet, because all their imperfection would make them crave for the food which is appropriate to their level of mind.
Now you see, I have spoken a lot, and yet I still haven’t directly answered your question. I have talked with you about your assumptions. But I have not yet dealt with your first assumption, concerning a pledge — so let me do it now.
With this assumption, you have intuitively come close to the heart of the matter. Yes — it is a kind of pledge that keeps me from eating meat, but it is different from what you think. It grew out of a perception within myself, a perception that evoked a hard struggle within myself, when I began to try living according to it.
It was no vow, made for any deity, no sacrifice, laid on any altar — it was just a firm, deep promise I made to myself, to my own soul; never to eat meat again. And I have kept this promise gladly. Now, as I am writing these lines, twenty years have gone by since that day — twenty years in which I have eaten no meat.
And now again, you will ask in astonishment: “But why on earth? Why?” And you will be amazed at having guessed so close to the truth. But now, when I tell you the true reason in one brief sentence, you will be astonished again how far your guess still was from my true motivation. So listen: I eat no animals, because I don’t want to live on the suffering and death of other creatures — for I have suffered so much myself, that I can feel other creatures’ suffering, by virtue of my own.
I am so glad when I am not persecuted; so why should I persecute other creatures or have them persecuted? I am so glad when I am not captured; so why should I capture other creatures or have them captured? I am so glad when nobody harms me; so why should I harm other creatures or have them harmed? I am so glad not to be injured or killed; so why should I injure or kill other creatures or have them injured or killed for my sake?
Isn’t it only natural that I don’t want anything to happen to other creatures that I don’t want happening to myself? Wouldn’t it be mean of me to do it, for the mere sake of a relish, at the price of other creatures’ plight and death? The fact that these creatures are weaker and smaller than I am — could any sensitive and noble-minded person derive, from that, a right to abuse their weakness and smallness? Should not, in truth, the greater, the stronger, the more powerful always protect the weaker creatures, instead of killing and persecuting them? “Nobility obliges.” And I want to be noble.
I hear you reply: “But, what we are doing, isn’t it going on in Nature, too? Don’t the stronger ones devour the weaker ones? We are acting according to Nature!”
My answer is, you are right. It is that way in Nature — with animals, even with plants. But do you consider yourself an animal or a plant? Don’t you consider yourself on a higher level — and aren’t you proud to call yourself: Human being?
So, do you understand me when I believe that my deeds should be those of a human being, those of a higher being, and not those of a brute committed to his instincts? Isn’t it the true sense of our development to human beings, that we try to free ourselves of those base instincts? Isn’t the spirit of humanity actually based on the almost complete individual freedom of decision, which we have gained? You will reply: “Yes, but we humans are not perfect yet, we are still very much tied to the base — we still have many beastly attributes in us of which we could not yet free ourselves, and which we must satisfy.”
Yes, in this I agree with you again. Most people still are something between a conscious animal and subconscious human being, so that we are bitterly disappointed if we regard them, according to their appearance, as true human beings. Even those of us who hold higher offices are, judging them from their strong desire, generally more beast than human; they are like wolves or like sheep, whichever is more appropriate to their dispositions.
And yet I do not agree with you as completely as it might seem. — There have been, and there are now, human beings who have attained a higher level; persons in whom the beast is weaker and the human spirit stronger. And now let me ask you: should they, for the sake of convenience, sink back and continue to lead the dull life of a brute — or should they not rather try to overcome that step, to reach the peak called Humanity? And let me ask you: Should I not rather try to gain perfection, shouldn’t I strive for higher aims, instead of drifting in the dull channel of brutality? For you must know: The animal attributes remaining in use are merely the dull, the less beautiful parts of animals’ natures — their farsightedness, their great purity, their innocence, and many more of their good and lovely attributes are no longer in us. It is, at present, arrogance when man claims to be a higher being; he is not yet one. But those who earnestly attempt to become true human beings, shouldn’t they go their way in consciousness, seriousness and serene dignity, the way leading to a higher, more divine humanity, to what we would like to be, but what we are, at most, in our wishful thinking?
All those things we call “culture” — aren’t they a guide to that goal, a guide to show us the way out of the wilderness? What an object of art or a good book tells us, we must live up to it — by our deeds. Dealing with items of noble culture, with objects of art is merely the beginning — the perception of culture. But culture should grow within us, it should become deed — and harvest. The noble thoughts we perceive and the noble thoughts which we think ourselves — not until we act according to them will they be animated, not until then can they become something like a magic wand, capable of turning us into divine, higher beings — into real human beings.
Do you think it’s wrong, from this point of view, that I deliberately try to avoid inflicting death and suffering? don’t you think that this might instead be a step on the way to what we strive and long for: true Humanity? Can’t you see that it is more beautiful to live in Peace with all Creation, to spread understanding and love instead of destruction and persecution?
You don’t know in what a changed way I can face all creatures since twenty years ago, how freely I can look into the eyes of deer and dove, how much I feel myself brother to all creatures, loving brother to the snail, the worm and the horse, to the fish and the bird.
You read “worm” and you grin. And yet, yes, it’s true what I’m saying: even to the worm. I pick him up from the path where he might be stepped on and take him to a place where he will be safe — a spot of soil or lawn. and it makes me happy, much more happy than I could be if my heel would crush him and leave him writing in agony for hours to come. What does that little inconvenience matter — bending down and soiling the tips of my fingers? What does it matter, compared with the blissful feeling of having entered the circle of Nature, the circle of fellow-creatures, with love — not as an instigator of terror and destruction — no: to bring Peace — as — the elder, higher brother. But you don’t persecute brothers — you don’t kill brothers.
Do you understand now why I eat no meat?