Vegetarianism In Antiquity

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The term vegetarianism was coined relatively recently — in the mid-1800s — when abstinence from meat began to take on the form of an organized movement. As a practice, however, it dates to quite early times in Western society, at least to Pythagoras, the Greek natural philosopher of the 6th century BC, who founded a religious community in southern Italy in which vegetarianism is supposed to have been part of the rule of life. Pythagoras' rejection of the eating of meat seems to have been based on the doctrine of the transmigration of souls: in Orphic tradition, the human spirit was reborn in other creatures. If so, animal souls were of the same quality as human souls, and animals thus of the same moral standing as people. Slaughtering an animal equated to murder, and eating it was akin to cannibalism.2-3

Additional justifications of vegetarianism on moral grounds were put forward by other writers in later antiquity. During the first two centuries of the Christian era, Ovid and Plutarch both spoke out against the killing of animals for food. It was "horrible cruelty!," the latter insisted, to "deprive a soul of the sun and light, and of that proportion of life and time it had been born into the world to enjoy" merely "for the sake of some little mouthful of flesh." Plutarch's essay "On Eating of Flesh," was, in fact, the most thorough condemnation of conventional diet to be penned before the Renaissance. Furthermore, while it was fundamentally a moral analysis, it did include physical arguments to complement the spiritual ones. Flesh foods, Plutarch maintained, were guilty of "clogging and cloying" the body, thereby making meat-eaters' "very minds and intellects gross." He seems also to be the first to offer an anatomical argument for vegetarianism as the natural human diet. "A human body no ways resembles those that were born for ravenousness," he observed, for it lacks fangs, claws and all the other predatory equipment of carnivores. Plutarch believed that meat was injurious to health because it brought on "grievous oppressions and qualmy indigestions" and "sickness and heaviness upon the body."4

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