Diet,  Food

Pythagoras, the first campaigner for ethical vegetarianism

By Roberta Attanasio

An article published almost 120 years ago in the New York Times (1907) focused on several questions delving on “what and how a normal person should eat.” The article detailed the resulting debate, which included the voices of many scientists. One of the discussion points was vegetarianism, and a related question was: “Should we, then, being busy New Yorkers, and having no time to waste, and no energy to spare, drop meat and eggs from our diets, and substitute other foods?” The answer was “No, emphatically No!” It was given on the basis that “the arguments in favor of vegetarianism were mainly ethical or sentimental, becoming nearly always a semi-religious piece of special pleading—the fundamental claim was that we should not eat meat because meat is produced by taking of life from some of God’s creatures.” Of course, the article stated: “The scientists pass this argument by.”

Now, ethical vegetarianism includes ecological and sustainability facets, well exemplified in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“Billions of humans eat meat. To provide it, we raise animals. We control, hurt, and kill hundreds of millions of geese, nearly a billion cattle, billions of pigs and ducks, and tens of billions of chickens each year.

To feed these animals, we raise crops. To raise crops, we deforest and use huge quantities of water. To quench these animals, we use still more water.

In turn, these animals produce staggering amounts of waste, waste that poisons water sources and soil. They produce staggering amounts of greenhouse gasses.

To raise these animals and produce this meat, farmers and slaughterhouse workers labor in conditions from onerous to brutal.

If controlling, hurting, or killing animals is wrong or if the production of these environmental effects or effects on people is wrong or if consuming the meat produced is wrong, then a breathtaking level of wrong-doing goes on daily.”

Pythagoras by J. Augustus Knapp via Wikimedia Commons

However, ethical vegetarianism—introduced in the sixth century BCE by the philosopher Pythagoras—was originally based on the concept of human-animal kinship. It even differs from “the taking of life from some of God’s creatures.”

Pythagoras is regarded as the first mathematician and the first campaigner for ethical vegetarianism. He did not leave any writings and, consequently, his teachings come to us from his disciples and their followers. The Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry of Tyre tells us: “What he said to his disciples no man can tell for certain, since they preserved such an exceptional silence. However, the following facts in particular became universally known: first, that he held the soul to be immortal, next that it migrates into other kinds of animals, further that past events repeat themselves in a cyclic process and nothing is new in an absolute sense, and finally that one must regard all living things as kindred. These are the beliefs which Pythagoras is said to have been the first to introduce into Greece.”

Notably, Pythagoras’s belief in the kinship of all living creatures and the transmigration of souls provided a long-standing framework for the defense of vegetarianism. Indeed, “Pythagoreanism” and “Pythagorean diet” served as synonyms for vegetarianism well into the nineteenth century. This diet was inherently bound to Pythagora’s doctrine of soul, life, and death. He viewed vegetarianism as a key factor of a peaceful human co-existence and believed that slaughtering animals resulted in the brutalization of the human soul.

If you lived in Paris circa 1650 or in London in the 1830s, and you decided to stop eating meat, you wouldn’t tell your friends you were going vegetarian. You would probably tell them that you were going Pythagorean. Until the word vegetarian got coined in the nineteenth century, it was Pythagoras’s name that was used to describe a diet that excluded animal flesh.” The term “vegetarian” replaced Pythagorean on September 29, 1847 in Ramsgate, England when the first vegetarian society was formed.

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