by Joan Clair
[dropcap]G[/dropcap]eorge Bernard Shaw [1856-1950] and William Blake [1757-1827], two of the greatest writers in the English language, connected cruelty towards animals with the evils of society, including war which destroys humans and animals alike.
In the book What Shaw Really Wrote About War, editors J. L. Wisenthal and Daniel O’Leary wrote that Shaw’s “mode of argument is to fire all sorts of strong assertions into the air” as a way of compelling people to reflect on the issues he was writing about. Shaw’s poem “Living Graves” certainly fits this description:
We are the living graves of murdered beasts.
Slaughtered to satisfy our appetites.
We never pause to wonder at our feasts
If animals, like men, can possibly have rights.
We pray on Sundays that we may have light,
To guide our footsteps on the path we tread.
We’re sick of War, we do not want to fight —
The thought of it now fills our hearts with dread,
And yet — we gorge ourselves upon the dead.
Like carrion crows, we live and feed on meat.
Regardless of the suffering and pain
We cause by doing so, if thus we treat
Defenseless animals for sport or gain
How can we hope in this world to attain
The PEACE we say we are so anxious for.
We pray for it, o’er hecatombs of slain,
To God, while outraging the moral law.
Thus cruelty begets its offspring — WAR.
Shaw was a Fabian Society socialist. The platform of the Society included vegetarianism and a gradual transformation of society to eliminate the unequal distribution of wealth and oppression of the working class.
The Society believed productive land and natural resources should belong to everyone in common, rather than being owned and exploited privately for profit, which was considered “a form of theft.”
Shaw, himself, was an ardent vegetarian, and he spoke out against vivisection and any form of cruelty towards animals, including rodeos. In his preface to his play Major Barbara, Shaw’s comments about economic conditions seem surprisingly contemporary, and speak directly to our era in which the pay of CEOs is astronomically higher than the pay of rank-and-file employees.
Shaw wrote: “The first duty to every citizen is to insist on having money on reasonable terms; and this demand is not complied with by giving four men three shillings each for ten or twelve hours’ drudgery and one man a thousand pounds for nothing.”
It is rare when a political group’s platform links cruelty towards animals with cruelty towards people, and strongly opposes both forms of interlinked inhumanity, as Shaw’s political organization did.
For example, in a recent and excellent article in the West Contra Costa Times, Rep. Barbara Lee states, “Time after time, Republicans actively promote ideas and policies that push seniors, the disabled, children and veterans off the cliff.” However, as is most often the case, even this most progressive and caring of advocates does not mention cutbacks in aid to homeless people and animal welfare groups — two of the most marginalized and oppressed groups in our society today.
Regarding war and its destructive effects on the homeless and poor, Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”
This is an eloquent description of a terrible truth — the poor and hungry pay the ultimate costs for the weapons of war. Yet Eisenhower’s insight does not go as far as William Blake’s vision of the connection between war, poverty and violence towards animals. In his poem, “Auguries of Innocence,” Blake wrote:
“A dog starved at his Masters Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State.”
Although Shaw was from the upper classes, William Blake lived in poverty most of his life. According to a biography of Blake, he believed that materialism and the economic power of the upper classes led to injustice and corruption. Blake hoped that the French and American revolutions would bring to an end the inequities brought about by wealth and the class system.
Like Shaw, Blake believed that cruelty towards creatures seemingly different from ourselves resulted in self-destruction and the destruction of society. Rather than seeing the cruelty as a violation of moral law, he saw it as a violation of spiritual law, resulting in retribution to the collective of humans. Quoting again from “Auguries of Innocence,” Blake wrote:
A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
A dove house filled with doves and Pigeons
Shudders Hell thru all its regions ….
A Horse misused upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human blood.
A Skylark wounded in the wing
A Cherubim does cease to sing
Blake connected acts of cruelty towards animals in this realm to indignation and rage in the spiritual realm with which, through his visions, he was in frequent contact.
Neither Blake nor Shaw were adherents of traditional religions. In fact, Blake believed that traditional, organized religion was authoritarian and rigid, as epitomized by the Church of England. Blake very likely would support the new movement of Pope Francis which focuses on the poor rather than church doctrine: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” [Francis, “Evangelli Gaudium”]
Although the new pope has spoken sympathetically about animals, thus far, in spite of being a namesake of Francis of Assisi, he has not advocated strongly about ending cruelty to animals. Many animal rights groups are now calling on Pope Francis to speak out publicly for the compassionate treatment of animals.
George Bernard Shaw did not want to be identified with the beliefs of any particular religious group and thus was considered an atheist by some. Blake was a mystic with a deeply spiritual outlook that shaped his poetry and his entire life. In spite of these differences, both writers shared certain insights about the negative effects of acts of cruelty to human beings and to animals. Both men warned that the after-effects of acts of cruelty did not just return to cause harm to the perpetrator alone, but could trigger a chain reaction of negative consequences that could affect the whole of society and even the cosmos.
In this, they seem to support the Hindu and Buddhist concept of karma. Good actions result in good consequences or good karma, and bad or cruel actions result in bad consequences or bad karma. These consequences affect the whole, not just the individual.
Mohandas Gandhi, a vegetarian, strongly believed in karma. He suggested to a man who had killed a Muslim child that he should raise another Muslim child as his own to offset the bad karma of his actions. Gandhi also said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
In “Auguries of Innocence,” Blake not only touches on karma but describes countless unseen linkages that connect the lives of humans and animals in the web of life.
“The wild deer wandering here and there
Keeps the Human Soul from Care.”
“The Beggar’s Dog and Widow’s Cat
Feed them and thou wilt grow fat.”
Blake’s words echo down through the ages to offer a clear message to our time. Currently, in order for homeless people to be allowed entrance into the portable shelters set up by city officials at the Albany Bulb, they must give up or abandon their dogs, an unbearable loss for many people. Blake’s poetic vision is unalterably opposed to taking away “the Beggar’s Dog” from a homeless human companion, as Albany officials are demanding today.
Although there is no indication that Shaw or Blake were aware of Buddhist philosophy, their writing seems to reflect an understanding of the interconnectedness of all beings, sometimes referred to as “radical Buddhist interdependence.”
According to Lisa Kemmerer in “Buddhist Ethics: Compassion for All,” “Radical Buddhist interdependence does not allow for an independent entity, action, word or thought … all things influence all other things…. Each being, each act is critical to every other being and every other act. To cause suffering to a dog or pig is to cause suffering to oneself.”
Shaw includes war as one karmic outcome of this suffering and Blake includes the ruin of the State, as well as retribution on a cosmic level. Karma envelops us in the world we live in and cannot be ignored. A friend described a red aura filled with violence, pain and fear that radiated from the slaughterhouses in Chicago, affecting the surrounding areas and going beyond them.
As Blake said, we can either be a force for good or evil to the extent we are aware. All our actions have a ripple effect on the whole.
In his book, World Peace Diets, Eating for Spiritual Health and Social Harmony, Will Tuttle writes that a meat-eating culture based on animal suffering and torture (the worst example being factory farms) results in the elevation of male dominance as a value embodying aggressive and violent behavior. Weakness in the male dominance model is not tolerated, including the weakness of animals who can’t fight back against the machinery of factory farms and vivisection laboratories.
The same belief would hold for homeless people in this paradigm. As described by Timothy Egan in “Good Poor, Bad Poor” [New York Times, Dec. 22, 2013], many members of Congress believe that people are poor because they are weak. The homeless, poor people and animals — “the weakest members of our society” — don’t deserve to be treated well or given help in the male dominance model that rewards violence and aggression, and penalizes so-called weakness.
In the United States, we may be slowly moving away from the overconsumption of the flesh of other species. There is also increased awareness and opposition to cruelty towards animals in the process of raising them for food, and the tremendous toll that meat production takes on the environment through pollution, deforestation, and wasted energy.
Howard Lyman, a former cattle rancher, says the number of calories used to produce meat versus the number of calories used to produce plants is astronomical. That is why more people are embracing a vegetarian and vegan lifestyle.
Eisenhower described how the instruments of war, rockets and bombs, deprive the hungry and poor of what they need to survive. However, the war on animals in factory farms and laboratories, as well as animals in the rain forests and other habitats, also results in homelessness, starvation and death for animals and humans and a less sustainable environment all the world’s creatures.
There is no greater form of homelessness than a planet that no longer sustains life.
Yet, we may still choose life. In that case, we will reap a different future. “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance.” [2 Corinthians 9:8]
This may still be a possibility for our world if we come to value the lives of other creatures as having spiritual value and stop the siege of suffering and slaughter we inflict on them which results in an onslaught of suffering to ourselves in the form of war and other forms of harm. The prophetic writings of George Bernard Shaw and William Blake, not taken seriously enough in their time, deserve to be listened to today.