Erewhonians, lilies of the valley, and people who really do know what they say they know…
In Samuel Butler’s chapter “Rights of Vegetables” from Erewhon (1872), the narrator describes the philosopher’s take on plant life, which leads into the character’s argument for veganism but first echoes many of the scientific principles of evolution that Darwin had recently developed in regard to the common origins of plant and animal life. In dealing with such subjects, the chapter offers intriguing bits of both scientific and religious discussions. (In fact, the narrator even goes so far as to give a rendition of the lilies of the valley parable from the Bible, complete with dialogue from personified lilies – actually quite an interesting move that figuratively blurs animal and plant life to ridiculous effect.)
Despite some of the chapter’s stereotypical gestures of the British meat-eater and the satirical tone the narrator takes when describing the title issue of the chapter, the reader nevertheless encounters some very engaging questions. For instance, the question of whether or not a rose seed wants to grow into a rose bush develops into the parallel question about whether a human embryo wants to grow into a human. What more relevant question can we ask in terms of today’s public policy and ethical concerns? The chapter concludes with the reflection that “so engrained in the human heart is the desire to believe that some people really do know what they say they know, and can thus save them from the trouble of thinking for themselves” (294).
Looking back over the text, this chapter seems to focus on various figures of authority or knowledge and on how those figures project/manipulate their messages. Whether it’s the lilies of the valley who have real knowledge, but alas! lack a voice, or the scientists and doctors and policy makers, who do indeed have voices, clearly there is a dual responsibility to develop knowledge but then also to acknowledge and participate in how one’s knowledge and information is received and understood. Sometimes people do not want to think for themselves, but in terms of complex medical issues for instance, patients often might not know how to think for themselves, or rather by themselves, on such matters.
Thus, the metaphor of plant life versus animal life, of those who cannot vocalize their vitality and those who can, those who cannot or do not articulate knowledge and subjective concerns and those who can and do, is quite useful here.