Startup Professionals Musings: How To Highlight A Sustainable Competitive Advantage

via Startup Professionals Musings: How To Highlight A Sustainable Competitive Advantage

Definitions and Examples of Rhetors

via Definitions and Examples of Rhetors

Statue of the Greek rhetor Isocrates

Coyau / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

In the broadest sense of the term, a rhetor is a public speaker or writer.

Rhetor: Fast Facts

  • Etymology: From the Greek, “orator”
  • Pronunciation: RE-tor

Word Origin

The word rhetor has the same roots as the related term rhetoricwhich refers to the art of using language to affect audiences, usually persuasively. Although it is used more often in the context of spoken language, rhetoric can also be written. Rhetor derived from rhesis, the ancient Greek word for speech, and rhema, which specifically defined “that which is spoken.”

According to Jeffrey Arthurs, in the classical rhetoric of ancient Athens, “the term rhetor had the technical denotation of a professional orator/politician/advocate, one who actively participated in the affairs of state and court.” In some contexts, a rhetor was roughly equivalent to what we would call an attorney or a lawyer.

Meaning and Usage

“The word rhetor,” says Edward Schiappa, “was used in Isocrates’ time [436–338 BC] to designate a very specific group of people: namely, the more or less professional politicians who spoke often in the courts or in the assembly.”

The term rhetor is sometimes used interchangeably with rhetorician to refer to a teacher of rhetoric or a person skilled in the art of rhetoric. Rhetor has fallen out of popular usage and is generally used in more formal or academic language in the modern world. However, the rhetor’s art is still taught as part of many educational and professional courses of study, particularly for persuasive professions such as politics, law, and social activism.

Since [Martin Luther] King was the ideal rhetor at a critical moment to pen the “Letter [from Birmingham Jail],” it transcends the Birmingham of 1963 to speak to the nation as a whole and to continue speaking to us, 40 years later.

The Sophist as Rhetor

  • “How next can we define the rhetor? Essentially, he is a man skilled in the art of rhetoric: and as such he may impart this skill to others, or exercise it in the Assembly or the law courts. It is of course the first of these alternatives that interests us here; for…the sophist qualifies for the title of rhetor in this sense should one choose to describe him in purely functional terms.” (Harrison)

The Aristotelian vs. the Neo-Aristotelian

    • “Edward Cope recognized the cooperative nature of rhetorical argument in his classic commentary on Aristotle, noting that the rhetor is dependent upon the audience, ‘for in ordinary cases he can only assume such principles and sentiments in conducting his argument as he knows will be acceptable to them, or which they are prepared to admit.’…Unfortunately, under the influence of the nominalistic individualism of the Enlightenment, the neo-Aristotelian left behind the community framework inherent in the Greek tradition to focus on the rhetor’s ability to work his will. This rhetor-centered approach led to such oxymorons as considering a community destroyer like Hitler to be a good rhetor. Whatever accomplished the rhetor’s purpose was taken to be good rhetoric, regardless of its consequences for the ecosystem as a whole…[T]his rhetor-centered approach blinded itself to the value implications of reducing the criteria of rhetorical practice to mere effectiveness in achieving the rhetor’s purpose. If pedagogy follows this idea of competence, then the neo-Aristotelian teaches that whatever works is good rhetoric.” (Mackin)

The Humanist Paradigm of Rhetoric

  • “The humanist paradigm is based on a reading of classical texts, especially those of Aristotle and Cicero, and its governing feature is the positioning of the rhetor as the generating center of discourse and its ‘constitutive’ power. The rhetor is seen (ideally) as the conscious and deliberating agent who ‘chooses’ and in choosing discloses the capacity for ‘prudence’ and who ‘invents’ discourse that displays an ingenium and who all along observes the norms of timeliness (kairos), appropriateness (to prepon), and decorum that testify to a mastery of sensus communis. Within such a paradigm, while one does recognize the situational constraints, they are, in the last instance, so many items in the rhetor’s design. The agency of rhetoric is always reducible to the conscious and strategic thinking of the rhetor.” (Gaonkar)

The Power of Eloquence

  • “Him only we call an artist, who should play on an assembly of men as a master on the keys of a piano; who, seeing the people furious, shall soften and compose them; should draw them, when he would, to laughter and to tears. Bring him to his audience, and, be they who they may—coarse or refined, pleased or displeased, sulky or savage, with their opinions in the keeping of a confessor or with their opinions in their bank safes—he will have them pleased and humoured as he chooses; and they shall carry and execute that which he bids them.” (Emerson)



Part of speech: adjective
Origin: Latin, early 18th century

Easily given to tears; weepy


Sorrowful; tending to cause tears

Examples of Lachrymose in a sentence

“Watching sad, sentimental movies always made her lachrymose.”

“Bring your tissues, because I’ve heard it’s a lachrymose play.”


Part of speech: adjective
Origin: Latin, early 18th century

Easily given to tears; weepy


Sorrowful; tending to cause tears

Examples of Lachrymose in a sentence

“Watching sad, sentimental movies always made her lachrymose.”

“Bring your tissues, because I’ve heard it’s a lachrymose play.”

Wisdom Quotes

Put your everything in even the smallest step and you’ll be on the path to success.

Put your heart, mind, and soul into even your smallest acts. This is the secret of success. (Swami Sivananda)

Even your smallest action can change the world for the better.
In a gentle way, you can shake the world. (Mahatma Gandhi)

10 Strange Personal Traits You Might Not Know Could Be Inherited – Listverse

via 10 Strange Personal Traits You Might Not Know Could Be Inherited – Listverse

10 Strange Personal Traits You Might Not Know Could Be Inherited


The unique appearance of each person on the planet is the cumulative result of generations of inherited traits, mixed with the traits of their chosen partners, to produce the next generation. But while is common knowledge things such as skin color, eye color and hair color are inherited, there are many other things that are passed through families, not always to good effect. There are many genetic diseases, for example, that we might wish were not passed on.

But genetics also has its lighter side. Some of the traits that have been passed from generation to generation without dying out appear to have little or no benefit to mankind from an evolutionary perspective.

But they do make a good talking point.

See Also: 10 Fruits, Nuts, And Vegetables You Did Not Know Were Man-Made

Primis Player Placeholder

10Tongue rolling

Around two thirds of people are able to roll each side of their tongue together to form a tube shape, without the least effort, whilst the rest are cursed with flat tongues. One of the more pointless genetic traits, the phenomenon was first noticed by pioneer geneticist Alfred Sturtevant in 1940. He maintained that the ability to roll tongues was a Mendelian trait, meaning that it needed only to be passed down from one of the parents rather than as a blend of both, hence its prevalence. Other Mendelian traits include eye colour and freckles.

Unlike freckles, however, tongue rolling can sometimes be managed. With a lot of practice non-rollers can learn to twist their tongue into a tube shape, though why they would want to is beyond us. A study at Delaware’s Department of Biological Sciences involving 33 non tongue-rollers showed that after a solid month of practice, 1 person managed to master the ‘skill’. Could it be that the other 32 just weren’t bothered?

It is also true that the ability to roll your tongue is not always down to genetics, as studies have shown that sometimes non-genetic causes can also affect the ability of the tongue to bend. And, it seems, there are a few unfortunate people who are neither rollers nor non-rollers, being able to curl their tongues just a little.[10]


9Hairy knuckles

If you have hair on the upper part of your fingers, between your knuckles (on the mid-phalangeal joint), it may not be because of your latent Jekyll and Hyde tendencies, but because of your genes.

Anthropologists have studied these stray strands for nearly a hundred years. We can only surmise that it must have been a slow century. It is said to appear most often on the fourth finger, or ring finger, and never appears on thumbs. It is also said to be most common among Caucasians, though the reason for this is not clear.

Researchers believe that the cause may be related to prenatal exposure to androgens, the hormones related to the development of male characteristics. The trait is said to be dominant, meaning that it must be present in one or both of the parents, though the gene for hirsute digits has yet to be isolated.[9]

Surely, there’s Nobel Prize right there?

8Hand clasping

We may not always be aware of it, but every time we clasp our hands together, we are said to be following the hand-clasping traits of our ancestors. At least one of our parents is likely to fold their hands in the same way we do. Which would, perhaps, be impressive if there was a large number of options. Basically, however, you can clasp your right hand over your left, or your left hand over your right.

So, in a fifty-fifty choice it would be a fair bet that one of our parents clasped hands the same way we do, wouldn’t it? Researchers, however, have gone to great lengths to study this ‘phenomena’, and studies have shown that around 55% of people are left-hand-claspers, 44% are right-hand-claspers, while 1% refuse to be put in a box, and report having no preference.

Not satisfied with these results, researchers went further and researched the family genetics of their subjects, and discovered that the preference follows the same model of genetic inheritance that governs left or right handedness, but that their preference for hand clasping was not related to which hand was dominant.[8]


The same research also discovered the link between hand clasping preferences and arm folding preferences, and the somewhat anomalous findings that menstruating women often changed their minds about which they preferred.

We are not even going to touch that joke.

7Free Earlobes

If you ever really look at an ear, it starts to look weird. Ears come in all shapes and sizes, and one might think that the ears you get are just down to dumbo luck. But while the shape, size and sticky-outness may be down to chance, your earlobes, it seems, are the result of genetics.

Ears are unique. It is believed that no 2 ears are exactly alike (except, possibly, the one on the other side of your head). The shape of the earlobe, however, is determined by an allele gene, of which, as with all genes, we will receive 2 copies, one from each parent.

Earlobes may seem to have no real purpose, except, perhaps, as an appendage to hang jewelry from, but they are believed to help keep our ears warm due to their generous blood supply, and may even help us maintain balance. The lobe also contains an unusually large number of nerve endings, which is why it is often considered an erogenous zone.

There are 2 major types of earlobes, free and attached. Free earlobes are the most common, where a portion of skin hangs below the point at which it is attached to the side of the head. The free earlobe is thought to be the result of a dominant gene. Attached earlobes, however, tend to be smaller in size and do not hang freely. They are thought to be the result of a recessive gene. However, to date, no discernible benefit has been discovered in the possession of either type of lobe.[7]

Because ears are weird.


Most sneezing, of course, is not genetic. Most often it is caused by a virus, an allergy, or environmental factors such as a dusty room. Some types of sneezes, however can have a genetic link.

Some people have an inherited sneeze reflex that is most often linked to exposure to bright light, but can be triggered by other causes too. This photic sneeze reflex, wittily dubbed ACHOO syndrome (which stands for “Autosomal dominant Compelling Helio-Ophthalmic Outburst”, because “Genetically Induced Sneezing” just wasn’t funny enough), is thought to affect between 11 and 35 percent of the population, with Caucasian females being most affected.

The sneezing is a dominant trait, meaning that if one of your parents has the syndrome, there is a 50% chance that you will also have it. However, the syndrome often goes unrecorded because, well, people sneeze a lot. The exact gene responsible for these sneeze attacks has yet to be identified. People with the condition can expect to sneeze up to 40 times each time they walk into bright light, after which their body will adjust.[6]

There is no treatment for the condition, though it can be managed with tissues.

5A Bent Pinkie Finger

Although not always the result of genetics, a little finger that appears to be bow outwards, can often be said to be an inherited trait. If you want to find the reason your finger is a bit crooked, it may be worth checking out your parents hands first, since if one of your parents has a crooked pinkie, there will be a 50% chance that they will be passing that on.

As with a lot of ‘conditions’ the bent finger may have other non-genetic causes, including injury or disease, and the degree of ‘bentness’ has also been a matter that has concerned researchers. What angle does a finger need to be, in order to be considered ‘bent’? Is it the angle that is inherited, or just the bentness?

Clearly, much more work needs to be done in this vital area. The good news is that corrective surgery is available should the angle of bentness become acute.[5]

4A Widow’s Peak

It is generally known that male baldness can be linked to genes inherited from the mother. The X chromosome of the mother can contain a genetic predisposition to baldness, although it is not the only cause. Genes passed on from the father can also be a factor, although the chances are higher that the ‘faulty gene’ was passed by the mother where baldness occurs before the age of 40. Hair loss can also be caused by environmental factors, particularly smoking and drinking.

The case for a genetic cause of hair loss in a widow’s peak, however, is much stronger. The distinctive v-shaped hair-line is a dominant trait that can be passed on from father or mother, and both men and women can have a widow’s peak, although, it is much less noticeable in women because they do not tend to lose their hair.

The ‘peak’ refers to a triangular shaped hairline, which becomes more pronounced with hair-loss. Although the peak is hereditary, it does not necessarily mean that baldness will follow as a result.[4]

Although, it probably will.

3A Long Second Toe

‘Morton’s toe’ is an inherited condition where the second toe is longer than the big toe, and occasionally, the third toe is also elongated. Estimates vary on the number of people who have the ‘condition’, which is named after an orthopaedic surgeon, rather than a man with unusually long foot digits, but it can affect anywhere between 3% and 20% of the population.

Morton believed that the long toe may have been a throw-back to a prehuman era when our ape-like selves used a ‘grasping toe’. This theory, however, has never been proved. Shoe-fitters are apt to call this shape the ‘Greek foot’ after the classical sculptures from Ancient Greece where the long second toe was considered the most aesthetically pleasing. The Statue of Liberty boasts a Morton’s toe.[3]

It is not known whether she inherited it from her mother or her father.

2A Shock of White Hair

A white patch of hair, usually at the front of the head can be the result of an inherited trait. The streak is known as poliosis, or a ‘Mallen Streak’ after a family in a TV programme who all had a distinctive white patch of hair. Poliosis can affect not just the hair, but also the eyebrows, skin and even eyelashes.

Where the condition is not genetic, the patches may a symptom of an illness. Despite popular myths, however, hair cannot turn instantly white from shock.

For those with inherited poliosis, there appears to be no associated conditions, and no downsides, except a distinctive look that is particularly favoured by devilish women with a penchant for spotty dogs.[2]

1Tone Deafness

Tone deafness, and its antithesis, perfect pitch, can both be inherited characteristics.

Known as Congenital Amusia, (perhaps because it makes people laugh when you try to sing), inherited tone deafness is a condition in which sufferers are unable to recognize and distinguish musical pieces. They cannot recognize a song from its tune alone, and cannot detect when a song is sung out of tune. Studies have also shown that those with the condition are not able to detect a striking ‘bum note’ in a tune, an ability which most babies are able to demonstrate.

Although it can manifest as part of a brain injury, the vast majority of those who are tone deaf have no other symptoms, and suffer no hardships except being banned from Karaoke. Which is no hardship at all.

In particular, those with congenital amusia are unable to tell that they are singing out of tune themselves. Between 70 and 80% of people who are tone deaf have the inherited condition, and around 4% of the population are thought to be affected.[1]

Which, perhaps, explains the popularity of dubstep.


Did you know…

Did you know…

… that today is South Pole Discovery Day? Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and four companions reached the true South Pole on December 14, 1911. Trivia buffs: Amundsen was one of the world’s most notable polar explorers. In 1903, he became the first to make a ship voyage through the Northwest Passage, the sea route through the Arctic Ocean on the northern coast of North America.


Today’s Inspirational Quote:

“We only know a tiny proportion about the complexity of the natural world. Wherever you look, there are still things we don’t know about and don’t understand. There are always new things to find out if you go looking for them.”

— David Attenborough Newsletter

welcome to this week’s edition of the newsletter by Maria Popova. If you missed last week’s edition — Neil Gaiman’s feminist poem about science, animated;Oliver Jeffers’s lovely illustrated fable about enoughness; poet Ross Gay on delight as resistance — you can catch up right here. And if you are enjoying this labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation – for thirteen years, I have been spending innumerable hours and tremendous resources on it each week, and every little bit of support helps enormously. If you already donate: THANK YOU.

The Shortest Day: A Lyrical Illustrated Invitation to Presence with the Passage of Time, Our Ancient Relationship with the Sun, and the Cycles of Life


“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her timely exhortation for presence over productivity. It may be an elemental feature of our condition that the more scarce something is, the more precious it becomes. Just as the shortness of life calls, in that Seneca way, for filling each year with breadths of experience, so the shortness of the day calls for the fulness of each hour, each moment. No day concentrates and consecrates its elementary particles of time more powerfully than the shortest day of the year. With our awareness pointed to its brevity by ancient rites and modern calendars alike, as we “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” something rapturous happens — a kind of portal into heightened presence opens up as every minute ticks with a supra-consciousness of its passage, pulsates with an extra fulness of being, while at the same time attuning us to the cyclical seasonality of time, reminding us of the cycles of life and death.




That is what writer Susan Cooper and artist Carson Ellis celebrate in The Shortest Day (public library) — an illustrated resurrection of Cooper’s 1974 poem by the same title, originally composed for John Langstaff’s beloved Christmas Revel shows, which fuse medieval and modern music in grassroots theatrical productions across local communities.





Cooper’s buoyant verses and Ellis’s soulful, mirthful illustrations bring to life, across time and space and cultures and civilizations, the ardor with which our ancestors have welcomed the winter solstice since long before the astronomer Johannes Kepler coined the word orbit in an era when few dared believe that the Earth spins on its axis while revolving around the Sun. (It is a function of the tilt of Earth’s axis and the elliptical shape of its orbit — another radical contribution of Kepler’s, who debunked the millennia-old dogma of perfect circular motion — that when our planet’s axial tilt leans one pole as far away as it would go from our star, we are granted the shortest possible day and the longest possible night of the year.)



2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngSo the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.



2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThey lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.




In an afterword reflecting on the universal human impulse to celebrate light — its departure and its return — Cooper writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngIf you live on a planet that circles a sun, your time is governed by the patters of light and darkness, summer and winter, warmth and cold. And, of course, life and death. Once our forebears learned to farm, they planted and harvested at the equinoxes, but it was the solstices that caught their attention. The extremes. They watched their days shrink from the bright abundance of high summer to the bleak, dark cold of winter, and they invented rituals to make sure the light would come back again: to bring the new day, the new year, the rebirth of life.

The rebirth rituals have become traditions we still celebrate, whether or not we remember where they came from. Some of them are so old that only their monuments remain. On the morning of the winter solstice at the great earthwork Newgrange, in County Meath, Ireland, the day’s first beam of sunlight shines in through a passage that Neolithic people built there five thousand years ago to catch it, and for seventeen minutes, a dark room deep within is filled with the sunshine of the shortest day.





Complement The Shortest Day with the great nature writer Henry Beston on solstice, seasonality, and the human spirit and poet Jane Hirshfield’s lovely ode to the leap day, then revisit Ellis’s lyrical illustrated meditations on the cycle of life and the many meanings of home.

Poem text © Susan Cooper; illustrations © Carson Ellis, courtesy of Candlewick Press; photographs by Maria Popova



In 2019, the 13th year of Brain Pickings, I poured tremendous time, thought, love, and resources into this labor of love, which remains free and is made possible by patronage. If you found any joy and solace here this year, please consider supporting it with a donation. And if you already donate, from the bottom of my heart: THANK YOU.

monthly donation

You can become a Sustaining Patron with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a Brooklyn lunch.

one-time donation

Or you can become a Spontaneous Supporter with a one-time donation in any amount.

Start Now

Give Now

Margaret Atwood on Marriage


“I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other,” Rilke wrote in his meditation on freedom, togetherness, and the secret to a good marriage. But how do two people protect this sacred necessity of the bond from the daily proximity of cohabitation, which now presses their closely neighboring solitudes into inevitable frictions, now pushes them apart into neighboring lonelinesses?

That is what Margaret Atwood explores in a short, stunning poem originally published in her 1970 collection Procedures for Underground, later included in her altogether wondrous Selected Poems: 1965–1975 (public library), and read here by musician, poetry-lover, and my dear friend Amanda Palmer to the serendipitous sound of church bells in the winter-quieted streets of Portugal.


by Margaret Atwood

Marriage is not

a house or even a tent
it is before that, and colder:
the edge of the forest, the edge

of the desert

                the unpainted stairs

at the back where we squat

outside, eating popcorn
the edge of the receding glacier
where painfully and with wonder

at having survived even

this far
we are learning to make fire

Complement with Anna Dostoyevskaya on the secret to a happy marriage and Virginia Woolf on what makes love last, then revisit other soulful and stirring readings by Amanda (who supports her music and life-poetry, like I do my writing and life-poetry, via donations): “When I Am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver, “Questionnaire” by Wendell Berry, “The Mushroom Hunters” by Neil Gaiman, “The Hubble Photographs” by Adrienne Rich, “Having It Out With Melancholy” by Jane Kenyon, “Humanity i love you” by E.E. Cummings, and “Possibilities” by Wisława Szymborska.


Shelley’s Prescient Case for Animal Rights and the Spiritual Value of Vegetarianism


“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals,” the great nature writer Henry Beston wrote in 1928 as he contemplated belonging and the web of life, adding: “In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.”

Since the dawn of our species and its consciousness, we have reverenced other animals and incorporated them into our myths and our metaphors, into the basic fabric of our stories. But we have also eaten them — we may be the storytelling animal, but we are fundamentally animal.

One aspect of being primates endowed with higher consciousness and creators of culture is the will and willingness to transcend our primal impulses and regard that which is other with the dignity and respect we grant ourselves. And one existential expression of that willingness, not suited to all human animals but chosen by more and more in the past century, is the choice not to eat other animals.

Two decades before the word vegetarian was coined and two centuries before some of the world’s most prominent scientists signed the landmark Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, acknowledging definitively that many non-human animals are conscious and capable of experiencing emotions, and a world order before science demonstrated unambiguously that animal agriculture is the third leading cause of climate change, vegetarianism found an improbable and impassioned champion in one of humanity’s most beloved and influential storytellers in verse: the great Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (August 4, 1792–July 8, 1822), who was among the first to present a reasoned philosophical argument — as opposed to a purely emotional appeal or political stance — around the ethics of meat consumption.


Percy Bysshe Shelley by Alfred Clint

Together with his wife, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley — herself a creative visionary and intellect ahead of her time by centuries — Shelley advocated for ideas and practices utterly countercultural in his day: sexual liberation, atheism, individual freedom. Signing a hotel guestbook among the sheepishly pious inscriptions left by other guests, he declared himself a “Democrat, Philanthropist, and Atheist.”

Central to his credo was the insistence that eating other animals was antithetical to the moral and spiritual enlightenment of human consciousness. In his first literary masterpiece, the 1813 philosophical poem Queen Mab, Shelley envisioned a world in which “man has lost his terrible prerogative, and stands an equal amidst equals.” He expounded on the then-radical ideas presented in the poem in a set of notes later published in the 1893 book The Ethics of Diet: A Catena of Authorities Deprecatory of the Practice of Flesh-Eating by the English humanitarian Howard Williams, republished in the twenty-first century under the more palatable title The Ethics of Diet: An Anthology of Vegetarian Thought (public library) and presenting a case for vegetarianism drawn from the lives and writings of such famous proponents as Plato, Tolstoy, Thoreau, Schopenhauer, and Gandhi.

More than two millennia after Pythagoras pioneered the notion of a vegetarian diet as a pillar of his model of wisdom, Shelley begins by posing a fundamental question about the costs at which the benefits of so-called civilization come:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngMan, and the other animals whom he has afflicted with his malady or depraved by his dominion, are alone diseased. The Bison, the wild Hog, the Wolf, are perfectly exempt from malady, and invariably die either from external violence or from mature old age. But the domestic Hog, the Sheep, the Cow, the Dog, are subject to an incredible variety of distempers, and, like the corruptors of their nature, have physicians who thrive upon their miseries. The super-eminence of man is, like Satan’s, the super-eminence of pain; and the majority of his species doomed to poverty, disease and crime, have reason to curse the untoward event that, by enabling him to communicate his sensations, raised him above the level of his fellow animals. But the steps that have been taken are irrevocable. The whole of human science is comprised in one question: How can the advantages of intellect and civilisation be reconciled with the liberty and pure pleasures of natural life? How can we take the benefits and reject the evils of the system which is now interwoven with the fibre of our being? I believe that abstinence from animal food and spiritous liquors would, in a great measure, capacitate us for the solution of this important question.

Nearly half a century before Darwin revolutionized our understanding of the biosphere with his theory of evolution, Shelley observes that we humans have developed in such a way as to lose our survival advantages as carnivorous predators — we can’t really kill large prey with our clawless appendages or devour carcasses with our small, blunt teeth — and have instead come to resemble herbivores far more closely. Pointing out that our cellulated colons are present in no carnivores and that the animal most akin to us is the orangutan, which is an herbivore, he writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngComparative anatomy teaches us that man resembles frugivorous animals in every thing, and carnivorous in nothing; he has neither claws wherewith to seize his prey, nor distinct and pointed teeth to tear the living fibre. A Mandarin of the first class, with nails two inches long, would probably find them alone inefficient to hold even a hare. After every subterfuge of gluttony, the bull must be degraded into the “ox”, and the ram into the wether, by an unnatural and inhuman operation, that the flaccid fibre may offer a fainter resistance to rebellious nature. It is only by softening and disguising, dead flesh by culinary preparation, that it is rendered susceptible of mastication or digestion; and that the sight of its bloody juices and raw horror, does not excite intolerable loathing and disgust… The structure of the human frame then is that of one fitted to a pure vegetable diet, in every essential particular.


Art by Ralph Steadman from the special 50th anniversary edition of Animal Farm by George Orwell.

Shelley brings into sharp relief the central psychological dissonance of considering oneself a good human while eating animals:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngLet the advocate of animal food, force himself to a decisive experiment on its fitness, and as Plutarch recommends, tear a living lamb with his teeth, and plunging his head into its vitals, slake his thirst with the steaming blood; when fresh from the deed of horror let him revert to the irresistible instincts of nature that would rise in judgment against it, and say, Nature formed me for such work as this. Then, and then only, would he be consistent.

A vegetarian diet, Shelley notes, is no silver bullet for the superficial symptoms of societal ills. Rather, it is a curative refinement of the very character of human beings, which would in turn effect a healing of the underlying maladies rotting the marrow of civilization. Building his ardent case upon a rhetorical foundation of logical reasoning, he exhorts:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngCrime is madness. Madness is disease. Whenever the cause of disease shall be discovered, the root from which all vice and misery have so long overshadowed the globe, will lay bare to the axe. All the exertions of man, from that moment, may be considered as tending to the clear profit of his species. No sane mind in a sane body resolves upon a real crime… The system of a simple diet promises no Utopian advantages. It is no mere reform of legislation, whilst the furious passions and evil propensities of the human heart, in which it had its origin, are still unassuaged. It strikes at the root of all evil, and is an experiment which may be tried with success, not alone by nations, but by small societies, families, and even individuals. In no cases has a return to vegetable diet produced the slightest injury; in most it has been attended with changes undeniably beneficial. Should ever a physician be born with the genius of Locke, I am persuaded that he might trace all bodily and mental derangements to our unnatural habits, as clearly as that philosopher has traced all knowledge to sensation.


By all that is sacred in our hopes for the human race, I conjure those who love happiness and truth, to give a fair trial to the vegetable system. Reasoning is surely superfluous on a subject, whose merits an experience of six months would set for ever at rest. But it is only among the enlightened and benevolent, that so great a sacrifice of appetite and prejudice can be expected, even though its ultimate excellence should not admit of dispute. It is found easier, by the short-sighted victims of disease, to palliate their torments by medicine, than to prevent them by regimen.


Illustration by Rebecca Green from How to Be a Good Creature by Sy Montgomery.

Shelley concludes with a crowning argument of even greater relevance today. Writing during the final chapters of the First Industrial Revolution, he notes that meat-eating is part of the power structure — only the wealthy of his era could afford feasts of flesh. But while the Second Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism have seemingly equalized and even inverted this symptom of the system, the foundational malady remains just as true, perhaps even more grimly so: In most industrialized countries today, commercial agriculture subsidies have made cheap meat more accessible to the poor than healthy produce — animal flesh is now baked into the most elemental political and governmental structure of our society. Shelley’s impassioned plea to citizens as agents of change sounds suddenly not out of time and place but all the more urgently relevant to our world:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThe advantage of a reform in diet, is obviously greater than that of any other. It strikes at the root of the evil. To remedy the abuses of legislation, before we annihilate the propensities by which they are produced, is to suppose, that by taking away the effect, the cause will cease to operate.


I address myself not only to the young enthusiast: the ardent devotee of truth and virtue; the pure and passionate moralist, yet unvitiated by the contagion of the world. He will embrace a pure system, from its abstract truth, its beauty, its simplicity, and its promise of wide-extended benefit; unless custom has turned poison into food, he will hate the brutal pleasures of the chance by instinct; it will be a contemplation full of horror and disappointment to his mind, that beings capable of the gentlest and most admirable sympathies, should take delight in the death-pangs and last convulsions of dying animals… How much longer will man continue to pimp for the gluttony of death, his most insidious, implacable, and eternal foe?


Art by Alice and Martin Provensen from a vintage edition of Aesop’s fables

Complement with Christopher Hitchens on George Orwell’s subversive message of animal rights and a little boy’s touching case against eating octopus — a case any adult can’t help but make for themselves after reading Sy Montgomery’s masterpiece The Soul of an Octopus.



In 2019, the 13th year of Brain Pickings, I poured tremendous time, thought, love, and resources into this labor of love, which remains free and is made possible by patronage. If you found any joy and solace here this year, please consider supporting it with a donation. And if you already donate, from the bottom of my heart: THANK YOU.

monthly donation

You can become a Sustaining Patron with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a Brooklyn lunch.

one-time donation

Or you can become a Spontaneous Supporter with a one-time donation in any amount.

Start Now

Give Now