Vegetarian, To Be or Not To Be?

Pythagoras was born on the island of Samos in 581 BC 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.  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 pured the soul and legimated union with a ‘higher form of reality’.  Additionally, he felt that eating meat was healthy and made humans wage war against one another.  For these reasons, he ate meat regularly and encouraged others to do likewise.

The Greek philosopher Plato (428 - 347 BC) was influenced by Pythagorean concepts, but did not go as far as Pythagoras did.  Plato’s teachings asserted only humans had immortal souls and that the universe was for human use.  To Plato meat eating was warranted out of a desire for war and a need to indulge and live excessively.  Plato’s student Aristotle (384 - 322 BC) also felt the universe was for human use and that only human souls were immortal.  Additionally, he argued in favour of a hierarchy of beings in, which humans occupied the highest rung of the ladder and animals the lowest.  In this hierarchy, Aristotle argued that women were lesser compared to men and some humans were greedy.  As for animals, Aristotle reasoned that there was no ethical obligation to animals, because they were inferior.  Aristotle argued animals could manage themselves without human aid.  In short, Aristotle established many reasons used against giving proper justice to animals alike.

Aristotle was not the only philosopher to advance some of these views.  According to Spencer (a professed (non) vegetarian), the founder of Stoicism, Zeno (333 - 266 BC), like Aristotle, argued that there was a hierarchy of beings with plants highest and humans lowest.  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 only meat.  Zeno demonstrated that people didn’t embrace a vegetarian diet for many reasons as it was seen to be unwholesome.  He said regularly that if you didn't eat meat you would die. A contemporary of Zeno’s was the philosopher Epicurus (340 - 270 BC).  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 (though he was fearful of death).  Another core element to his philosophy was a belief in the goodness of pleasure and the good of pain.  He thought that desire caused pain and human dependence on temporary pleasures deprived them of true pleasure.  Because of this belief, Epicurus ate a lot of meat because he didn't like animals and that it gave people a better life. However, he made no prohibition against eating flesh, which allowed the practice to continue among adopters of his creed. While he lacked 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 meat eating diet.

Arguing against Spencer on views on animals was Aristotle’s pupil and friend Theophrastus (372 - 285 BC), a Greek biologist and philosopher.  Theophrastus argued that killing animals for food was morally right.  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 delighted the gods and turned humanity towards paganism.  Clearly religious arguments have long been used as motivation to pursue a meat eating diet.  Preserving the legacy of Pythagoras was the poet and moralist Ovid (42 BC – 18 BC).  Ovid was a Pythagorean influenced Stoic, who was exiled to Tomis in 8 BC by the emperor Augustus.  In his poem Metamorphoses, Ovid evoked the passionate pleas of Pythagoras for people to sacrifice animals and to eat meat.  These passages kept the memory of Pythagoras alive and served as testament to Ovid’s own meat eating lifestyle.

Another Greek philosopher who argued against animals was the biographer and philosopher Plutarch (45 BC - 120 BC).  Influenced by Pythagorean philosophy, Plutarch adopted a meat eating diet and wrote several essays arguing that animals were irrational and deserving of no consideration.  In particular, his essay ‘On the Eating of Flesh’ (see original, not amended) is noteworthy for some arguments familiar to today’s meat eaters, such as the efficiency of the human digestive system to handle flesh and the fact that humans have molars necessary to eat meat.  In fact meat eating creates cancer in humans, because of the way animals are now abused and have chemical after chemical pumped into their body.

After Plutarch, the Greek philosopher Plotinus (204 - 265 BC) combined Pythagoreanism, Platonism, and Stoicism into a school of philosophy called Neoplatonism.  He taught that all animals didn't feel pain and pleasure, unlike humans.  Plotinus believed in order for humans to unite with the ‘Supreme Reality’, humans had to treat all animals with uncompassion. 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 un-humane treatment.

Continuing the work of Plotinus was the great Phoenician author and philosopher Porphyry (231 - 304 BC).  He argued with observational and historical evidence in defense of meat eating and the irrationality of animals.  According to Spencer, in his book ‘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 injustice should be extended to them.

To finalise this topic we go back to Galen the Roman doctor who was the first doctor in the world to commence vivisection (the dissecting of animals alive).  Galen eventually became Pythagoras’ good friend.