“Artificiality has become dominant in every phase of our existence”
Henry Salt (1851-1939) was a socialist, campaigner for both human and animal rights and critic of industrial capitalism.
He stressed the need to recognise the common bond “that unites all living beings in one universal brotherhood” (1) and opposed the cold, mechanical outlook of the age in which he lived.
Salt wrote, summarising and channelling the organic vision of Richard Jefferies: “All life, whether social or individual, that is permanently divorced from communion with the vitalising influences of free air and sunshine, will be a stunted and diseased life; and to the long disuse and degradation of natural instinct, until artificiality has become dominant in every phase of our existence, must be attributed the present numerous evils of civilised mankind”. (2)
Salt’s 1892 book Animals’ Rights has been translated into a number of foreign languages and he also wrote studies of Henry David Thoreau and Percy Bysshe Shelley. In 1891 he formed the Humanitarian League.
He was friends with Edward Carpenter, Thomas Hardy, W.H. Hudson, William Morris and George Bernard Shaw, corresponded with Mohandas Gandhi, who had been inspired by Salt’s writing on vegetarianism, and met Peter Kropotkin, quoting his theories on natural solidarity in the pages of Animals’ Rights.
Like the Russian anarchist, Salt thought human beings had a natural sense of right and wrong, “a sense of justice which marks the boundary-line where acquiescence ceases and resistance begins, a demand for freedom to live their own lives, subject to the necessity of respecting the equal freedom of other people”. (3)
An old Etonian who was later taken on by the school as an assistant master, Salt resigned his post in order to dedicate his life to socialism, vegetarianism and other causes, which he saw as forming part of one wider struggle for freedom, justice and solidarity.
Looking back later on his rejection of this privileged world, he wrote: “By slow degrees, incident after incident brought a gradual awakening, until at last there dawned on my mind the conviction which alone could explain and reconcile for me the many contradictions of our society – that we were not ‘civilized’ but ‘savages’ – that the ‘dark ages’, far from being part of a remote past, were very literally present”. (4)
Part of the savagery that Salt identified among the British ruling class was its fetichisation of the imperial armed forces and its warped obsession with military parades and commemorations.
He wrote, in 1935: “To such a pitch has this glorification of warfare been carried out that in some quarters there is an insolent attempt to represent the policy of a simple pacifist body, such as the ‘No More War’ Movement, as ‘bordering on sedition’. Is it surprising, in these circumstances, that wars do not cease?” (5)
Every time a new military intervention loomed, it was the same story. While war itself was regarded as unpleasant in principle, “the particular conflict in which they are engaged is righteous, inevitable, one of pure defence – in their own words, ‘forced on us’. Every people says and believes this faithfully, pathetically; yet even if we admit its truth in any rare instance, a modern war is none the less an offence against humanity”. (6)
Salt’s highly principled world view left him feeling completely alienated from the pragmatic, money-orientated, meat-eating industrial jingoism of the Britain in which he spent his life, as can be gauged by the tongue-in-cheek title of his memoirs, Seventy Years Among Savages.
But it also set him apart from the mainstream currents of a Left which was increasingly prepared to compromise with capitalism in the pursuit of power and had little time for old-fashioned idealists.
Writes John F. Pontin: “Salt was soon forgotten and neglected by the Socialist movement which he had so long served. His ethical embrace of many causes was too much for the doctrinaire influences of the Fabians”. (7)
Salt’s nature-spirituality must also have increased his separation from a movement increasingly dominated by sterile industrial materialism.
His own beliefs shine through in his explanations of the thinking of Thoreau, Jefferies or, in this case, Shelley: “It was not the presence, but the absence, of spirituality in the established creed that made Shelley an unbeliever.
“I regard Shelley’s early ‘atheism’ and later ‘pantheism’ as simply the negative and affirmative sides of the same progressive but harmonious life-creed.
“In his earlier years his disposition was towards a vehement denial of a theology which he never ceased to detest; in his maturer years he made more frequent reference to the great World-Spirit in whom he had from the first believed”. (8)
Audio link: The Logic of Vegetarianism by Henry Salt (4 hrs).
1. Henry Salt, Animals’ Rights, cit. The Savour of Salt: A Henry Salt Anthology, ed. by George Hendrick and Willene Hendrick, (Fontwell, Sussex: Centaur Press, 1989) p. 61.
2. Henry Salt, Richard Jefferies: His Life and His Ideals (Sussex: Winter Oak Press, 2014) p. 57.
3. Salt, Animals’ Rights, cit. The Savour of Salt, pp. 56-57.
4. Henry Salt, Seventy Years Among Savages, cit. The Savour of Salt, p. 18.
5. Henry Salt, The Creed of Kinship, cit. The Savour of Salt, p. 194.
6. Salt, The Creed of Kinship, cit. The Savour of Salt, p. 197.
7. John F. Pontin, Preface, The Savour of Salt, p. 8.
8. Henry Salt, Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet & Pioneer, cit. The Savour of Salt, pp. 136-37.