Why be a veggie? According to a 2008 poll, the top three reasons American people gave for their lifestyle choice were: reservations about animal welfare, a desire to improve overall health, and environmental concerns. In India, where 40% of people are vegetarian, religious and cultural reasons play a far more significant role.
Vegetarianism is certainly not a new idea. The word was first popularised in 1847 upon the founding of the Vegetarian Society, but the topic has been debated and discussed for hundreds, even thousands of years before then. So what have some famous people around the world and throughout history said on the matter? Some of them might surprise you!
1. Dame Jane Goodall
Jane Goodall is a leading expert on chimpanzees, having studied all aspects of their lives for nearly six decades. She is also a UN Messenger of Peace and has worked on many animal rights campaigns. Goodall became averse to meat after reading a book about intensive farming. She says on her website:
‘We now know that intensive meat-eating, which is getting more common all around the world, is horribly damaging to the environment as well as being terribly cruel.’
2-3. Venus and Serena Williams
These American sisters have garnered some seriously impressive achievements for their tennis skills. Between them they have 28 Singles and 17 Doubles Grand Slam titles, plus four Gold Olympic Medals each.
Venus’s health took a downturn in 2011 when she was diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease which can cause dry soreness all over the body, muscle pain and fatigue. As a result she started a raw vegan diet soon after diagnosis, believing it would help her with the symptoms. She was a keen carnivore before, and admits she still occasionally enjoys meat. ‘I think it’s pretty well known I’m a cheagan (a cheating Vegan!). I’m not perfect, but I try,’ she says.
In solidarity, Serena has also taken on a similar regime, saying ‘I don’t want her to come home and see a piece of chicken and be like, “Oh, I want it,” and she can’t have it. It would be like a stumbling block for her.’
4. Count Leo Tolstoy
This Russian writer is often hailed as one of the greatest novelists of all time. His seminal works War and Peace and Anna Karenina are recognised as masterpieces of realist literature, presenting an inspiring challenge for many a reader. Tolstoy’s staunch vegetarianism was derived from moral and religious convictions, leading him to write passionately about the subject. In The First Step, he penned:
‘This [vegetarian] movement should cause special joy to those whose life lies in the effort to bring about the kingdom of God on earth… because it is a sign that the aspiration of mankind towards moral perfection is serious and sincere’
One notable figure among many who absorbed Tolstoy’s works was Mahatma Ghandi himself. Through this and personal correspondence, Ghandi was inspired and influenced in his teachings of nonviolence, peace and vegetarianism.
5. Albert Einstein
Einstein’s name has become synonymous with genius. Born in Germany to a Jewish family, he won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 and developed the theories of general and special relativity which consider gravity and the relationship between space and time. Einstein was outwardly a vegetarian only in the last few years of his life. However he appears to have been a long-term sympathiser to the cause, in 1930 writing:
‘Although I have been prevented by outward circumstances from observing a strictly vegetarian diet, I have long been an adherent to the cause in principle. Besides agreeing with the aims of vegetarianism for aesthetic and moral reasons, it is my view that a vegetarian manner of living by its purely physical effect on the human temperament would most beneficially influence the lot of mankind.’
6-7. Percy & Mary Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley was a notable English Romantic poet and radical thinker. His second wife Mary was the author of perhaps the first ever science-fiction novel, Frankenstein. Percy Shelley wrote ardently on vegetarianism, in essays with titles such as ‘A Vindication of Natural Diet’. In them he expresses his belief in meat-eating as a primary cause of physical ill-health and mental instability:
‘There is no disease, bodily or mental, which adoption of vegetable diet and pure water has not infallibly mitigated, wherever the experiment has been fairly tried. Debility is gradually converted into strength, disease into healthfulness; madness in all its hideous variety… into a calm and considerate evenness of temper, that alone might offer a certain pledge of the future moral reformation of society.’
His attitudes appear to be shared at least some extent with his wife Mary. Her misunderstood literary creation, Frankenstein’s monster, says ‘I do not destroy the lamb and the kid to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment’.
8. Sir Ian McKellen
Ian McKellen is a world-renowned British actor whose wide range of skills has seen him play multiple Shakespearean roles as well as X-Men’s Magneto and a much-loved Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies. Ian became a vegetarian very suddenly, and it wasn’t for ‘reason or conscience’, as he puts it:
‘I looked down from my terrace hanging over the Thames one morning. It was low tide and there, stranded on the pebbles, was a four-legged corpse—hairless, white and bloated. Was it a calf or a sheep or a goat or a dog? I stared at it until the tide rose and washed it away. For 24 hours I was off my food. When I started eating again, I couldn’t face meat—fresh or tinned.