Ancient Greek Vegetarianism
Ancient Greece, over any other culture or society in human history,
has come to be seen as the basis of Western civilization. According to Dr.
T.Z. Lavine: "It may be said that the Western world has had a long-standing
love affair with...Athens, as our ideal and model...than to any other city
in all of human history, except possibly Jerusalem. But we relate to
Jerusalem not as an ideal city, but only in devotion to the great persons
who lived there and to the sacred events that happened there.
"Why the long love affair with the ancient city of Athens? Athens is our ideal as the first democracy, and as a city devoted to human excellence in mind and body, to philosophy, the arts and science, and to the cultivation of the art of living..." The ancient Greco-Roman civilization had a tradition of poets and philosophers advocating moral and ethical consideration for animals--even to the point of not eating them.
The Greek poet Hesiod (800 BC) espoused vegetarianism. In passages 109-201 of Works and Days, he wrote that the first race of humans, the golden race, was created by the gods of Olympus under the rule of Cronus. These humans were free from sorrow, toil and grief. They did not have to labor for food: the earth spontaneously gave them nourishment. Humans in the golden age were vegetarian. Hesiod suggests that gods and men freely mixed, and even shared their meals together. Death in this age was comparable to going to sleep.
This golden age of rule under Cronus eventually gave way to rule under Zeus. A new race of silver men appeared. These were not descendants of the original golden race, but a new creation. This race was foolish and impious, and did not offer sacrifices to the gods. Zeus thus destroyed them and created a third race, a race of bronze. The bronze race was fond of violence. They did not eat bread, and they eventually destroyed each other.
The fourth race appeared in what was called the age of heroes. This age was characterized by demigods who died in battle and were rewarded for their heroism. The fifth and current race indicates the further deterioration of humanity. This is the age of iron. It is a time of anxiety, toil, sorrow, war and false pride. The human race in this age is described by Hesiod as the worst of races, and he expressed the desire to have been born in an earlier age.
Yet the centuries ahead brought a spiritual and intellectual awakening across the globe. In Egypt, Pharaoh Necho caused Africa to be circumnavigated. Zoroaster appeared in Persia, Confucius and Lao-Tzu in China, the Hebrew prophets in Israel, and the Buddha in India. In Ionia, it was the time of Thales, Anaximander and Pythagoras.
Pythagoras (570-470 BC) was born on the island colony of Samos. Historian Dr. Martin A. Larson describes him as "A universal genius...He made important contributions to music and astronomy; he was a metaphysician, a natural philosopher, a social revolutionary, a political organizer, and the universal theologian. He was one of those all-embracing intellects which appears at rare intervals."
Pythagoras' biographer Diogenes Laertius records that he did not "neglect medicine;" his followers contributed to medical wisdom. In the history of religion, Pythagoras was the first person to teach the concepts of reincarnation, heaven and hell to the Western world.
Diogenes Laertius writes that Pythagoras warned that all who did not accept his teachings would suffer torment in the afterlife, while promising his followers the spiritual kingdom. According to the early Christian father Eusebius:
"Pythagoras...declared...that the doctrines which he had received...were a personal revelation to himself from God."
Pythagoras was driven from his native Samos in 529 BC when the tyrant Polycrates declared him a subversive. He went to Croton in Italy, established a school of philosophy, and lectured to classes of up to six hundred students. He founded a monastic order that soon became very influential. It was a religious sect made up of dedicated saints practicing vegetarianism, voluntary poverty and chastity. In less that two decades, the Pythagoreans were numerous and powerful enough to take political power without having to resort to force or violence. History shows that when the Pythagoreans were attacked and massacred in Magna Grecia in 450 BC, they practiced nonviolence and did not resist their aggressors.
Ancient and modern historians alike acknowledge that Pythagoras was vegetarian. This was the conclusion of Plutarch, Ovid, Diogenes Laertius and Iamblichus in ancient times, and it is the conclusion of scholars today. Nor was vegetarianism loosely connected with the Pythagorean philosophy--it was an integral part of it.
"Oh, my fellow men!" exclaimed Pythagoras. "Do not defile your bodies with sinful foods. We have corn. We have apples bending down the branches with their weight, and grapes swelling on the vines. There are sweet flavored herbs and vegetables which can be cooked and softened over the fire. Nor are you denied milk or thyme-scented honey. The earth affords you a lavish supply of riches, of innocent foods, and offers you banquets that involve no bloodshed or slaughter."
Pythagoras' meals consisted of honeycomb, millet or barley bread, and vegetables. He would pay fishermen to throw their catch back into the sea. Ironically, he claimed to have been a fisherman in a previous life. He abhorred animal sacrifice and wine, and would only sacrifice cakes, honey, and frankincense to the gods. He revered the altar at Delos because it was free from blood sacrifices. Upon it, he offered flour, meal, and cakes made without the use of fire. Pythagoras would not associate with cooks or hunters.
According to Iamblichus, Pythagoras taught his followers not to kill even a flea, especially in a temple. He not only showed respect for gods, humans, and animals, but also for the trees, which were not to be destroyed, unless absolutely necessary. It is said Pythagoras pet an eagle, told an ox not to trample a bean field, and fed a ferocious bear barley and acorns, telling it not to attack humans any more.
Pythagoras not only taught transmigration of the soul, or reincarnation, but even claimed to remember his previous lives. It is said Pythagoras once stopped a man from beating a dog, because in the dog's yelping he recognized the voice of an old friend. For Pythagoras, killing animals for food meant causing suffering or death to living creatures just as worthy of moral concern as human beings, and who may also have been human in previous lifetimes.
The Roman poet Ovid (43 BC - 18 AD), quoted Pythagoras in the 15th chapter of Metamorphosis as follows: "Our souls are immortal, and are ever received into new homes where they live and dwell, when they have left their previous abode... All things change, but nothing dies; the spirit wanders hither and tither, taking possession of what limbs it pleases, passing from beasts into human beings, or again our human spirit passes into beasts, but never at any time does it perish...Alas, what wickedness to swallow flesh into our own flesh, to fatten our greedy bodies by cramming in other bodies, to have one living creature fed by the death of another!"
If souls can transmigrate from one species to another, and all souls are of the same nature, then the unnecessarily killing animals is as morally indefensible as the unnecessary killing of human beings. Pythagoras may have also drawn a parallel between the plight of animals in human hands, and the fate of humans in the hands of the gods. We humans would suffer should the gods unnecessarily kill or torment us; we should likewise treat the animal world with mercy.
Local tradition says Pythagoras spent time living in a cave on Mount Kerkis in Samos. He was the first person in the history of the world to deduce that the Earth is a sphere. He may have reached this conclusion by comparing the Earth to the Sun and the Moon, or perhaps he noticed the curved shadow of the Earth upon the Moon during a lunar eclipse, or he may have seen that when ships depart and recede over the horizon, their masts disappear last.
The famous "Pythagorean theorem" is now known to have been mathematical knowledge long before Pythagoras. Square roots and cube roots and the "Pythagorean" theorem are mentioned in the Sulbha Sutras of Bodhayana, in India. (700 BC) Bodhayana also calculated the areas of triangles, circles, trapezoids and determined the value of pi = 3.14136 in measuring and constructing temple altars. Some scholars believe Pythagoras may have received his wisdom from the East.
What was significant about Pythagoras' approach, however, was that he developed a method of mathematical proof of the theorem, based on deduction. Our modern tradition of mathematical proof, the basis for every kind of science, originated in the West with Pythagoras. Whereas classical Indian mathematics tended to be intuitive, the Greeks established a tradition of rigorous mathematical proofs. Pythagoras further taught that the world is well-ordered, harmonious, and may be comprehended through human reason. He was the first to use the word "cosmos" to denote a fathomable universe. According to Pythagoras, the laws of nature could be deduced purely by thought.
During the Renaissance and the age of Enlightenment, Kepler and Newton thought of the world in terms of harmony--the order and beauty of planetary motion and the existence of mathematical laws explaining such motion, and from them came our modern scientific belief that the entire universe can be measured, quantified, and explained in terms of mathematical relationships. These ideas began with Pythagoras. "Chemistry is simply numbers," said Dr. Carl Sagan, "an idea Pythagoras would have liked."
Pythagorean science was far more theoretical than experimental. However, one of Pythagoras' students, Alcmaeon, is the first person known to have dissected a human body. He further identified arteries and veins, discovered the optic nerve and the eustachian tubes, and declared the brain to be the seat of the intellect. This final contention was denied by Aristotle, who placed intelligence in the heart. Alcmaeon also founded the science of embryology.
The Pythagoreans also contributed to medical ethics through the Oath of Hippocrates. Hippocrates was a physician who lived in the 5th century BC. In a treatise entitled "The Sacred Disease," he maintained that epilepsy and other illnesses were not the result of evil spirits or angry gods, but due to natural causes.
Hippocrates has been called the "Father of Medicine," the "wisest and greatest practitioner of his art," and the "most important and most complete medical personality of antiquity." Before Hippocrates, the physician studied plants and animals and had a working knowledge of both harmful and beneficial remedies. He could simultaneously heal some patients while killing others.
Hippocrates believed in the sanctity of life and called other physicians to the highest ethical standards and conduct.
"Throughout the primitive world, the doctor and the sorcerer tended to be the same person," observed anthropologist Margaret Mead. "He with the power to kill had the power to cure, including especially the undoing of his own killing activities. He who had the power to cure would necessarily also be able to kill."
According to Mead, the Oath of Hippocrates marked a turning point in the history of Western civilization because "for the first time in our tradition" it caused "a complete separation between curing and killing.
"With the Greeks," concluded Dr. Mead, "the distinction was made clear. One profession, the followers of Asclepius, were to be dedicated completely to life under all circumstances, regardless of the rank, age, or intellect--the life of a slave, the life of the Emperor, the life of a foreign man, the life of a defective child."
The Oath reads:
I swear by Apollo Physician, by Asclepius...I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgement, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing. Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course.
Similarly, I will not give to a woman a pessary to cause abortion...Into whatsoever houses I enter, I will enter to help the sick, and I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm, especially from abusing the bodies of man or woman, bond or free.
During the abortion debate on USENET in 1986, pro-choicers argued the
reference to abortion in the Oath was not written with respect for life, but
intended to prevent "back-alley" abortions.
The United States Supreme Court, however, clearly saw the Oath as pro-life in Roe v. Wade, downgrading the historical influence of the Oath of Hippocrates, by noting it "echoes Pythagorean doctrines," and the Pythagoreans were a minority religion in ancient Greece.
Dr. Herbert Ratner observes: "Hippocrates' profound grasp of the nature of a learned profession serving one of man's basic needs makes the Hippocratic Oath one of the great documents and classics of man, a fact not only signified by its universal inclusion in collections of the great books of Western civilization, but by the universal veneration accorded it by physicians, singly and collectively, throughout the ages...the Oath, properly constituted, becomes the one hope of preserving the unconfused role of the physician as healer."
American medical science consultant Dr. Andrew C. Ivy said, "The moral imperative of the Oath of Hippocrates I believe is necessary for the survival of the scientific and technical philosophy of medicine."
The Oath of Hippocrates and its modern equivalent, the Declaration of Geneva, enacted by the World Medical Association in 1948, are frequently cited by the American Medical Association in its prohibition against medical participation in legally authorized executions. A code of conduct for physicians as healers, as well as concern for the rights and well-being of the patient, originated with Hippocrates and the Pythagorean tradition.
Despite these and many other outstanding contributions to ethics, medicine, music, astronomy, geometry and general science, mathematics dominated Pythagorean thought. The Pythagoreans were mathematicians as well as mystics. Pythagoras taught that the laws of Nature could be deduced through logic and reason. They delighted in the absolute certainty of mathematics, and found in it a pure and undefiled realm accessible to the human intellect. They believed that in mathematics they had glimpsed a perfect reality, a realm of the gods, of which our own world is but an imperfect reflection.
Pythagorean theology was dualistic; it contrasted this corruptible, earthly sphere with a pure and divine realm. One's higher nature, the eternal soul, is entangled in temporal flesh. The body is like a tomb. The soul must not become a slave to the body and its lusts. One must not fall prey to the demands of the flesh.
Pythagoreanism exerted a profound influence upon Plato, and, later, Christian theology. In Plato's famous parable of the cave, prisoners are tied to stakes so they can only see shadows of passerby and believe the shadows to be real--unaware of the higher reality that is accessible if they would simply turn their heads. The Pythagorean concept of a perfect and mystical world, unseen by the senses, and inaccessible to flesh and blood was also readily accepted by the early Christians.
History tells us there were two classes of Pythagoreans. The akousmatikoi heard the teachings of the Master and followed them to a degree, but were never initiated into the deeper levels of mysticism. By contrast, the mathematikoi were strict Pythagoreans, living as ascetics, and observing the holy way of life taught by the Master.
Pythagoras established a monastic order at Croton that soon became a vegetarian colony. After the massacre in Magna Grecia in 450 BC, the political fortunes of the Pythaoreans declined. By 350 BC, Pythagoreanism had become more of a religious sect than a philosophical school of thought. As a religion, Pythagoreanism continued to attract spiritual seekers for over seven centuries.
Pythagorean thought was familiar to the leadership of the early Christian church. The Christian father Justin Martyr wrote that when he was a youth seeking spiritual enlightenment, he first went to the Pythagoreans. A "celebrated" Pythagorean teacher told him, however, that before he could be initiated into any kind of mysticism, he would first have to master music, geometry and astronomy.
Discouraged, he turned to the Platonists. Their way of life may have been equally demanding. Jesus' demands upon anyone wishing to become his disciple are well-known. (Matthew 19:16-24; Mark 10:17-23; Luke 9:57-62, 14:25-26,33, 18:18-25) These demands did not deter Justin Martyr from eventually converting to Christianity.
Although the Pythagoreans acknowledged the minor gods of the Greek pantheon, they also recognized a Supreme Being. According to authorities within the early Christian church, the Pythagoreans were monotheists:
"God is one; and He is not...outside of the frame of things, but within it; but, in all the entireness of His being is in the whole circle of existence...the mind and vital power of the whole world," wrote Clement of Alexandria in Exhortation VI, quoting Pythagoras. The Pythagoreans held a pantheistic concept of God, recognizing His omnipresent Spirit, but with no knowledge of His personal qualities--a concept which the Stoics were to adopt. Like the Jews and the Zoroastrians, the Pythagoreans consequently forbade the worship of images and statues.
First century Pythagoreanism is described in detail in The Life of Apollonius of Tyana. The ancient texts records this neoplatonic philosopher and miracle worker having a divine birth, absorbing the wisdom of Pythagoras, practicing celibacy, vegetarianism, as well as voluntary poverty; healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, exorcising demons, foretelling the future, and teaching the innermost secrets of religion. Finally, the text says he never died, but went directly to heaven in a physical assumption.
The philosopher Empodocles (5th century BC) wrote that the ancients were much more fortunate than modern man because they were vegetarian and there was neither animal sacrifices nor war. He described humanity in previous ages using statues, pictures, perfumes and honey in their worship. They did not offer animals, Empodocles maintained, because to kill an animal for sacrifice or food is the greatest moral wrong. Empodocles described these ancient races as gentle to animals and birds as well as to each other.
Empodocles was greatly influenced by Pythagorean doctrine. He believed in the transmigration of souls:
"For I was once already boy and girl,
Thicket and bird, and mute fish in the waves
All things doth Nature change,
In unfamiliar tunics of the flesh"
Because of reincarnation and the equality of all living beings, Empodocles felt meat-eating was comparable to cannibalism. "Will ye not cease from this great din of slaughter?" he once wrote. "Will ye not see, unthinking as ye are, how ye rend one another unbeknoweth?"
With a vision of eternal souls endlessly being clothed in new bodies, Empodocles compared flesh-eating to fathers unknowingly killing their sons, and children similarly killing their parents:
"The father lifteth for the stroke of death
His own dear son within a changed form...
Each slits the throat and in his halls prepares
A horrible repast. Thus too the son
Seizes the father, children the mother seize,
And...eat their own dear flesh."
Belief in the golden age and vegetarianism existed outside the Pythagorean tradition. The Cynic, Crates (4th century BC), wrote a poem linking nonviolence to vegetarianism, and expressing the hope for a vegetarian utopia. Dicaerchus' Life in Greece has been called the first cultural history of a people. Dicaerchus, who lived in the late 4th century BC, did not believe in reincarnation, the soul, or the afterlife. Nonetheless, he also wrote in favor of ethical vegetarianism, insisting it is morally wrong to cause unnecessary suffering to a being that can experience pain.
In her book, From Socrates to Sartre: The Philosophic Quest, Dr. T.Z. Lavine writes:
"Plato is the most celebrated, honored and revered of all the philosophers of the Western world. He lived in Athens...in the fourth century before Christ...He is said to be the greatest of the philosophers which Western civilization has produced; he is said to be the father of Western philosophy; the son of the god Apollo...
"The British philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead said of him that the history of Western philosophy is only a series of footnotes to Plato. The American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said, 'Plato is philosophy, and philosophy is Plato...Out of Plato come all things that are still written and debated among men of thought.'"
According to Diogenes Laertius, Plato (427-347 BC) began as a follower of Socrates. After Socrates' death, he became the pupil of the leading Pythagoreans of his day--Philolaus, Eurytas, Archytas, and others. Plato was also the greatest collector of Pythagorean literature in antiquity. Ovid attributed Plato's great longevity to his "moral purity, temperance, and natural food diet of herbs, berries, nuts, grains and the wild plants...which the earth, the best of mothers, produces."
An economic link between flesh-eating and war can be found in Plato's Republic. Plato records a dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon in which Socrates extols the peace and happiness that come to people eating a vegetarian diet. The citizens, Socrates says, will feast upon barley meal, wheat flour, salt, olives, cheese, onions, greens, figs, chickpeas, beans, myrtle berries and acorns.
These are the foods of peace and good health: "And with such a diet they may be expected to live in peace and health to a good old age, and bequeath a similar life to their children after them."
Glaucon does not believe people will be satisfied with such fare. He insists that people will desire the "ordinary conveniences of life," including animal flesh. He asks Socrates what foods would be eaten if he were not founding a Republic but a city of pigs. Pigs are omnivores, they can be made to eat even the flesh of their own kind, and they experience inebriation on alcohol.
Socrates responds: "The true state I believe to be the one we have described--the healthy state, as it were. But if it is your pleasure that we contemplate also a fevered state, there is nothing to hinder."
Socrates then proceeds to stock the once ideal state with swineherds, huntsmen, and "cattle in great number." The dialogue continues. Socrates asks Glaucon:
"...and there will be animals of many other kinds, if people eat them?"
"And living in this way we shall have much greater need of physicians than before?"
"And the country which was enough to support the original inhabitants will be too small now, and not enough?"
"Then a slice of our neighbor's land will be wanted by us for pasture and tillage, and they will want a slice of ours, if, like ourselves, they exceed the limit of necessity, and give themselves up to the unlimited accumulation of wealth?"
"That, Socrates, will be inevitable. "
"And so we shall go to war, Glaucon. Shall we not?"
"Most certainly," replies Glaucon.
Critics of Plato, reading the rest of the Republic, have complained that Plato's "ideal" society is a militaristic or fascist state, with censorship and a rigidly controlled economy. Plato would hardly disagree with these critics; what they have failed to observe is that the state which he describes is not his idea--it is merely a result of Glaucon's demand for meat, which Socrates himself disavows.
Philosophy professor Daniel Dombrowski says, "That the Republic was to be a vegetarian city is one of the best-kept secrets in the history of philosophy." (Republic 369d-373e)
Plato also developed a theory that it would not be possible to have a just and good society until kings were philosophers or until philosophers became kings. In this way, the leaders would have a true understanding of justice and virtue, and would be able to rule properly for the benefit of all the citizens. According to Plato, the ideal society consists of three classes of men: the governing class, the military class, and the mercantile class.
Perhaps because he lived in a slave state, Plato failed to recognize laborers as a fourth, or working class. However, he did teach that people fall into different classes according to their talents and abilities, rather than as a result of their birth. Plato taught further that women are recognized as equals with men in the ideal society, and may also become rulers, soldiers, or merchants.
In Plato's ideal state, the guardian (ruling) class and the military class are trained to be just and virtuous. They must live like members of an ascetic religious order. They have no worldly possessions or private property, nor do they have any dealings with money. Sex and marriage in these classes exist solely for the sake of procreation. They take their meals communally, the food itself is simple, and consumed in moderation.
Plato infers that the guardian class, which consists entirely of philosophers, should be vegetarian. In the Republic, he depicts what history would be if philosophers of the golden age were to rule, and in the Statesman, he describes the people of the golden age as vegetarian.
In the Statesman, the Eleatic Stranger, who is the hero of the dialogue, describes an age similar to the creation account found in Genesis 1, in which "God was supreme governor...So it befell that savagery was nowhere to be found nor preying of creature on creature, nor did war rage nor any strife whatsoever...they had fruits without stint from trees and bushes; these needed no cultivation but sprang up of themselves out of the ground without man's toil." (Statesman 271e, 272a)
According to Plato, vegetarianism was divinely ordained. In the Timaeus, Plato says the gods created certain kinds of life to be our food:
"These are the trees and plants and seeds which have been improved by cultivation and are now domesticated among us; anciently there were only the wild kinds, which are older than the cultivated." (Timaeus 77a) These kinds of life were especially created "to be food for us." (77c)
Plato also makes a passing reference to "the fruits of the earth or herb of the field, which God planted to be our daily food." (80d)
Plato's writings contain frequent references to reincarnation. The souls of animals and the souls of men are taught to be of equal worth. This is made clear in the story of Er. (Republic 614-621) In this story, souls with human bodies become animals in their next life, while souls clothed in animal bodies become human.
Plato presented detailed accounts of reincarnation in many of his other writings. (Phaedrus 248c; Phaedo 81-83, 85a; Meno 81b;Timaeus 90e-91c, etc.) According to Plato, pure souls have fallen from the plane of absolute reality because of sensual desire, and have taken on physical bodies.
First, the fallen souls are embodied in human forms. Of these, the highest is that of the philosopher, who delights in higher knowledge, and lives on the level of the mind, rather than the body. As long as he remains caught up in the heavenly spheres, he returns to eternal life and existence. But if he becomes entangled in carnal desires, he will descend into the animal kingdom.
Plato believed gluttons and drunkards could easily become asses in future lifetimes, cruel and violent people may take birth as hawks or wolves, and blind followers of social convention may be reborn as bees or ants. Eventually, the soul will again receive another human body, and with it another opportunity to seek first the spiritual kingdom, righteousness, and eternal life.
Plato wrote about ethics, politics, justice, knowledge, virtue, the soul, rebirth, judgment, heaven, hell, monastic living, and a transcendent realm of goodness. The early church historian Eusebius observed: "Plato, more than anyone else, shared in the philosophy of Pythagoras." Early church father Justin Martyr is known to have said repeatedly that Plato must have been versed in Christian prophecy.
Aristotle (384-322 BC) was a student of Plato's who became a leading philosopher with his own school of thought. Theophrastus, a student of Aristotle, taught that grass was the most ancient kind of offering made to the gods. This was followed later by trees, and eventually fruits, barley, frankincense, and so forth. The sacrifice of animals came much later. According to Theophrastus, a vegetarian, this defiled the pure religion.
Porphyry (3rd century AD), wrote in his masterpiece De Abstentia that Theophrastus regarded vegetarianism as a return to primeval perfection. Theophrastus taught that the most ancient libations were performed with sobriety. Water was initially offered, and only in later times did the offerings consist of honey, oil, and wine. When animal sacrifices began, not only did meat-eating become widespread, but so did atheism, as a reaction against the anger of the gods for deliberately killing animals. (De Abstentia 2:7,20,32)
Theophrastus also regarded vegetarianism as a matter of ethics. To kill animals unnecessarily is unjust. (De Abstentia 2:11-12) He suggested that war, pestilence and damaged crops may have caused humans to start killing animals for food, but in a world where fruits, grains, nuts, and vegetables are in abundance, there is no need to sacrifice or eat animals. Besides, he insisted, the gods consider the products of the soil to be the most beautiful and honorable gifts.
Diogenes Laertius recorded that Theophrastus wrote several books on animals. Theophrastus has been called the "father of ecology." He conducted the most extensive studies of plants in antiquity. More than any Greek philosopher, Theophrastus understood the difference between plants and animals, especially with regard to conscious awareness and suffering. He taught that piety and justice require us to refrain from harming others whenever we can. And animals can be harmed, whereas plants cannot. He observed that animals are capable of passion, perception and reason.
Humanism was gradually replacing mysticism. During the 1st century BC, Diodorus Siculus wrote his universal history of the world. Dismissing the idea of a golden age, he wrote that the first humans were vegetarians learning to cope with the elements. According to Siculus, humans in the beginning enjoyed neither peace nor bliss. They were brutish, undisciplined, and attacked by wild animals.
Plutarch (45-125 AD) was a Greek priest at Delphi. This gave him access to Greece's most ancient traditions. Plutarch was one of the few writers in the ancient world to advocate vegetarianism with arguments solely based on compassion for animals without referring to reincarnation.
His essay, "On Eating Flesh," is a thought-provoking literary classic:
"Can you really ask what reason Pythagoras had for abstinence from flesh?" he began. "For my part I rather wonder both by what accident and in what state of mind the first man touched his mouth to gore and brought his lips to the flesh of a dead creature, set forth tables of dead, stale bodies, and ventured to call food and nourishment the parts that had before bellowed and cried, moved and lived.
"How could eyes endure the slaughter when throats were slit and hides flayed and limbs torn from limb? How could his nose endure the stench? How was it that the pollution did not turn away his taste, which made contact with sores of others and sucked juices and serums from mortal wounds?
"It is certainly not lions or wolves that we eat out of self-defense; on the contrary, we ignore these and slaughter harmless, tame creatures without stings or teeth to harm us For the sake of flesh we deprive them of sun, of light, of the duration of life to which they are entitled by birth and being."
Plutarch then delivered his challenge to the flesh-eaters:
"If you declare that you are naturally designed for such a diet, then first kill yourself what you want to eat. Do it, however, only through your own resources, unaided by cleaver or cudgel or any kind of ax."
He also observed that the first man put to death in Athens was the most degraded amongst knaves, but eventually the philosopher Polemarchus (what to speak of Socrates) was put to death as well.
He concluded that killing animals, whether human or otherwise, is a bloodthirsty and savage practice which only serves to incline the mind towards more brutality. His argument appears to link the needless slaughter of animals to capital punishment.
During the 3rd century AD, Porphyry made allusions to the golden age in De Abstentia. Porphyry was a disciple of Plotinus (205-270 AD), a neoplatonic philosopher who was renowned for his wisdom, asceticism, and deep spirituality. Plotinus acknowledged the reality of transmigration of souls and the equality of all living creatures. A celibate vegetarian, he would not consume even medicines which contained animal products.
Like his teacher Plotinus, Porphyry was vegetarian. He wrote De Abstentia, or On Abstinence (From Eating Animal Food) to another disciple, Firmus Castricius, who had abandoned both spiritual life and vegetarianism. Porphyry gave every possible reason why Firmus should remain vegetarian. His work is divided into four separate books, each focusing on a different aspect of vegetarianism.
Porphyry wrote that before animal sacrifice began, the human race abstained from eating animals altogether. (De Abstentia 2:10) Humans originally sacrificed grass. When widespread famine occurred, animals were offered to placate the gods. This was unnecessary. Like the biblical story of Cain and Abel (Hebrews 11:4), the gods are more pleased with the faith of the worshippers than with the object of sacrifice.
Porphyry depicted humanity in a state of gradual decline since the golden age. All sacrifices in the golden age were "simple, pure, and bloodless." The degeneration of mankind began with the shedding of blood. However, even after men began to kill animals, they still protected animals which were domesticated and working cooperatively with humans. Porphyry wrote that the moral degeneration of man will continue to the point of cannibalism, but go no further. (2:31,53)
According to Porphyry, animals have rights. Animals are our brothers and sisters. Animals have been endowed with life, feelings, ideas, memory, and industry. The only thing animals may be said to lack which sets humans apart from them is the gift of speech. "If they had it," asked Porphyry, "should we dare to kill and eat them? Should we dare to commit these fratricides?"
Porphyry further observed that, in reality, animals do possess language, which the ancients were said to have understood. The birds and beasts communicate, but men no longer understand their language. Animals not only think, feel, and suffer, they learn to understand human language. Men may not understand foreigners, but that does not make them irrational brutes. Moreover, it is absurd to say animals lack reason when we admit that dogs, elephants, and many other animals can depart from reason--i.e., go mad.
In De Abstentia, Porphyry also dealt with Greek vegetarianism and its relationship to other ancient cultures. He wrote favorably of Egyptian priests, Persian Magi (Zoroastrians), the life of the Spartans as recorded by Lycurgus, the Jews, the Essenes, the brahmana priests of India, the Buddhists, and other traditions where religious vegetarianism has been observed. The Greeks called the holy teachers of India Gymnosophists. Porphyry described the fertile Ganges region as a paradise--as if the golden age still existed in other parts of the world.
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