If asked about ancient Greece or Rome, the average American conjures images of famous battles, myths, and Hollywood movies. However, overlooked by the majority of modern Americans is the hidden history of ancient Greek and Roman vegetarianism and the ageless debate upon what justice is due animals. Many people assume that the predominant omnivorous diet has been the accepted diet from past to present, but history tells a different story. In addition, past philosophers reveal a fierce debate not only over diet, but about the notion of justice and to whom it applies. The debate has not ended, but in order to know where the future of this debate should go, this past should be known by all participants.
Before diving into the teachings of the Greek and Roman philosophers, it is important that the Greek and Roman diet be understood. For the Greeks and Romans, cereals, vegetables, and fruit composed much of their diet. The meat that was consumed was usually fish, fowl, or pigs, which were the cheapest and most convenient animals people could kill for their flesh. However, only the wealthiest citizens could afford to eat large amounts of meat on a regular basis.
The first philosopher in the West to create a lasting vegetarian legacy was the Greek teacher Pythagoras. He was born on the island of Samos in 580 BCE and studied in what are now the countries of Greece, Egypt, and Iraq before establishing his school in southern Italy at the city of Croton. While Pythagoras is famous for his contributions to math, music, science, and philosophy, it is his philosophy that is of particular interest. He taught that all animals, not just humans, had souls, which were immortal and reincarnated after death. Since a human might become an animal at death, and an animal might become a human, Pythagoras believed that killing and eating non-human animals sullied the soul and prevented union with a higher form of reality. Additionally, he felt that eating meat was unhealthy and made humans wage war against one another. For these reasons, he abstained from meat and encouraged others to do likewise, perhaps making him one of the earliest campaigners for ethical vegetarianism.
The Greek philosopher Plato (428/427-348/347 BCE) was influenced by Pythagorean concepts but did not go as far as Pythagoras did. It is unclear exactly what his diet consisted of, but Plato’s teachings asserted only humans had immortal souls and that the universe was for human use. Yet, in The Republic, Plato’s character Socrates asserted that the ideal city was a vegetarian city on the grounds that meat was a luxury leading to decadence and war. Thus, to Plato, abstention from flesh is warranted out of a desire for peace and an avoidance of indulgent, excessive living.
Plato’s student Aristotle (384-322 BCE) also felt the universe was for human use and that only human souls were immortal. Additionally, he argued in favor of a hierarchy of beings in which plants occupied the lowest rung of the ladder and humans the highest. In this hierarchy, Aristotle argued that women were lesser compared to men and some humans were natural slaves. As for animals, as Norm Phelps in The Longest Strugglepoints out, Aristotle reasoned that there was no ethical obligation to animals because they were irrational. Colin Spencer, in The Heretic’s Feast, noted that Aristotle argued non-human animals could not manage themselves without human aid in spite of all evidence to the contrary. In short, Aristotle established many reasons used against giving proper justice to non-human and human animals alike.
Aristotle was not the only philosopher to advance some of these views. According to Spencer, the founder of Stoicism, Zeno (c. 335-c. 263 BCE), like Aristotle, argued that there was a hierarchy of beings with plants lowest and humans highest. Similarly, Spencer said Zeno declared animals undeserving of justice due to their inability to reason, but, unlike Aristotle, he sustained himself on a diet of bread, honey, and water. Zeno demonstrated that people have embraced a vegetarian diet for many reasons and while they may not be out of concern for animals, the vegetarian diet itself was seen as providing a wholesome way of life.
A contemporary of Zeno’s was the philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE). Epicurus agreed that the universe was for humans. Spencer said Epicurus differed from the above philosophers by arguing that souls cease to exist at death; thus, death was nothing to fear. Another core element to his philosophy was a belief in the goodness of pleasure and the evil of pain. He thought that desire caused pain, and human dependence on temporary pleasures deprived them of true pleasure. Because of this belief, Epicurus did not eat meat as it was a luxury that distracted people from a better life. However, he made no prohibition against eating flesh, which allowed the practice to continue among adopters of his creed. While he lack a stated prohibition, his personal example illustrated what he thought was the ideal way to live, and so, like Zeno, provided another historical support in favor of the vegetarian diet.
Arguing against Aristotle’s views on animals was Aristotle’s pupil and friend Theophrastus (c. 372-c. 287 BCE), a Greek biologist and philosopher. Theophrastus argued that killing animals for food was wasteful and morally wrong. Hypothesizing as to the origin of flesh eating, he argued that war must have forced humans to eat meat by ruining the crops that they otherwise would have eaten. Unlike his teacher, Theophrastus proclaimed that animal sacrifices angered the gods and turned humanity towards atheism. Clearly, religious arguments have long been used as motivation to pursue a vegetarian diet.
Preserving the legacy of Pythagoras was the poet and moralist Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE). Ovid was a Pythagorean-influenced Stoic, who was exiled to Tomis in 8 CE by the emperor Augustus. In his poem Metamorphoses, Ovid evoked the passionate pleas of Pythagoras for people to abandon animal sacrifice and abstain from eating flesh. These passages kept the memory of Pythagoras alive and served as testament to Ovid’s own vegetarian lifestyle.
Influenced by Pythagoras and Epicurus, the Roman philosopher Seneca (c. 4 BCE-65 CE) adopted a vegetarian diet. Spencer states that Seneca denounced the cruelty of the games used by Rome to distract the citizenry and challenged the decadence of his time. Seneca was forced to hide his vegetarianism for a time under the emperor Caligula due to Caligula’s distrust. Under the emperor Nero, his former student, Seneca was forced to commit suicide at age 60, due either to rumors in the court or Nero’s jealousy.
Another Greek philosopher who argued on behalf of animals was the biographer and philosopher Plutarch (46-c. 120 CE). Influenced by Pythagorean philosophy, Plutarch adopted a vegetarian diet and wrote several essays in favor of vegetarianism as well as arguing that animals were rational and deserving of consideration. In particular, his essay On the Eating of Flesh is noteworthy for some arguments familiar to today’s vegetarians, such as the inefficiency of the human digestive system to handle flesh or the fact that humans lack the claws and fangs necessary for to the satisfaction of a carnivorous appetite. For these reasons, Plutarch is truly noteworthy as one of the earliest advocates of animal issues.
After Plutarch, the Greek philosopher Plotinus (205-270 CE) combined Pythagoreanism, Platonism, and Stoicism into a school of philosophy called Neoplatonism. He taught that all animals feel pain and pleasure, not just humans. According to Jon Gregerson, author of Vegetarianism: A History, Plotinus believed in order for humans to unite with the Supreme Reality, humans had to treat all animals with compassion. Seeking to practice what he preached, Plotinus avoided medicine made from animals. He allowed for the wearing of wool and the use of animals for farm labor, but he mandated humane treatment.
Continuing the work of Plotinus was the great Phoenician author and philosopher Porphyry (c. 232-c. 305 CE). He argued with observational and historical evidence in defense of vegetarianism and the rationality of animals. According to Spencer, in On the Impropriety of Killing Living Beings for Food, Porphyry argued meat eating encouraged violence, demonstrated the ability of animals to reason, and argued that justice should be extended to them. Like Plutarch, Porphyry ranks as one of the greatest voices for early Western vegetarianism.
Vegetarianism and animal rights have a long history in Western civilization stretching to antiquity that is unknown or forgotten by many people today. What this hidden history teaches is that many Greeks and Romans survived without eating animal flesh or using animal products. Likewise, it teaches that arguments for and against animal rights are as ancient as Greek philosophy. It demonstrates that many of the same reasons for not eating flesh today are the same as those in the past whether out of spirituality, health, peace, or justice. Furthermore, the modern animal rights movement is built upon this past. Finally, this information presents important voices that should be considered in the debate on vegetarianism and animal rights.
Nathan Morgan, a 2010 graduate of Montana State University Billings, gave a paper on the topic of vegetarianism in the classical world at a recent animal welfare conference in Minneapolis.
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