A Brief History of Vegetarianism, Part I

This post is the first of a continuing series of posts on the history of vegetarianism.

“The Death of Socrates” Jacques-Louis David, 1787, Oil on canvas. Photo courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

According to archaeologists, human beings have been eating meat for 2.3 million years. Humanity would not have gotten to where it is without killing a bunch of mastodons with spears and eating them.

In the Western world, the concept of vegetarianism was first propagated during the time philosophy, reason, logic, and math was invented: ancient Greece. When the Greeks weren’t busy inventing math and fighting Persians, they were speculating about the human ideal and how it can be achieved.

The mathematician Pythagoras (570 BC – 490 BC) strongly advocated vegetarianism for increased mental capacity and sound living. Vegetarianism was referred to as “abstinence from beings with a soul” (Greek: ἀποχὴ ἐμψύχων) in classical antiquity.

The philosopher Plato (428 BC – 348 BC) described a vegetarian diet as “divinely ordained.”

Though Plato often commented that man was the only creature to possess reason and logic, he placed importance on the capacity of animals to use perception that in some cases was superior to that of humans. He also frequently discussed the “migration of souls across species lines.”

Plato’s renowned teacher Socrates was also a proponent of a vegetarian diet. In this excerpt from his “Republic,” Socrates outlines his idea of the diet and lifestyle best suited to a sustainable social utopia.

“The work-people will live , I suppose, on barley and wheat, baking cakes of the meal and kneading loaves of the flour. And spreading these excellent cakes and loaves upon mats of straw or upon clean leaves, and themselves reclining upon beds of yew or myrtle boughs, they will make merry, themselves and their children, drinking their wine, weaving garlands, and singing the praises of the gods, enjoying one another’s society and not begetting children beyond their means through a prudent fear of poverty or war … We shall also set before them a dessert, I imagine, of figs, peas, and beans; they may roast myrtle berries and beech nuts at the fire, taking wine with their fruit in great moderation. And thus passing their days in tranquility and sound health, they will, in all probability, live to a very advanced age and, dying, bequeath to their children a life in which their own will be reproduced.”

Socrates then proceeds to point out how the new ideal Republic will become plunged into injustice and violence and fall into decline as soon as it “oversteps the limits of necessities and makes the flesh diet and the acquisition of wealth objects of supreme endeavor.”

Plato’s Academy encouraged and pleaded society to adopt vegetarianism until it was shut down by the Romans when pagan philosophical thought was discouraged.

Next time: India!


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