International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
IVU logo 35th World Vegetarian Congress
'Food for all our futures'

Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh, Scotland
July 8-14, 2002
Hosted by

The Vegetarian Society
of the United Kingdom

Philosophy of diet - or philosophy of life?

by Derek Antrobus, tuesday 10.00am-11.00am

In the British House of Commons a few years, the most prominent of all left-wing radicals was Tony Benn. One of the most colourful right wing conservatives was the late Alan Clark. Both were vegetarians. That simple observation might lead one to conclude that adopting a vegetarian diet was independent of some wider philosophy of life. Yet my researches have suggested that there are deep ideological undercurrents that have persisted in (at least) the principal proponents of vegetarianism and that this has led to a tendency in vegetarians to adopt similar attitudes to issues beyond that of diet alone.

In my book, A Guiltless Feast, I theorise that there are two great contending traditions of human thought: the holistic and the anthropocentric. By the holistic tradition, I understand a fundamental belief that human beings are an integral part of nature. They are caught in a web relationships, well understood by modern ecologists: what happens to one part of nature has an impact on another. Ecology assumes a biological relationship. But in the past, the holistic tradition has suggests other bases for the relationship. Much of paganism is founded on a magical relationship between human beings and the natural world. Many religions are founded on mysticism, a belief in direct communion with a God which is the unit of all things. My argument is that, whatever, the basis of holistic beliefs, they lead to certain philosophical attitudes: a reverence for all life and a profound egalitarianism.
By contrast, the anthropocentric tradition takes human beings as the centre of things. Nature is a separate entity. It is something to be used by us, or something that can abuse us. Rather than a reverence for all life, nature is there to be exploited or controlled. Rather than egalitarianism, the view that humans are above nature suggests a natural hierarchy in the world.

I want to consider the evidence for this theory in the hope of provoking a debate which might suggest alternative frameworks. We must also be alert to the argument that we cannot make such sweeping generalisations and need to focus on the particular philosophies of particular individuals.


We may as well begin by looking at Pythagoras who is generally acknowledged to be the father of Western vegetarianism. Indeed, until the nineteenth century, vegetarians were known as Pythagoreans. He lived about 2,600 years ago and was born into a society where holistic ideas were dominant. For Greeks before the time of Socrates believed that the world was a living organism which unified all life. Pythagoras developed a view about the transmigration of souls: the belief that on death the soul migrates to the body of another living creature. Pythagoras is famously said to have warned a follower not to eat an animal lest it be his grandmother! For Pythagoreans, all souls spring from the same source and inhabit every living thing. It follows from this that all living things are related and there is literally a kinship of nature.

Pythagoras and his followers set up institutions throughout the Mediterranean which promoted education, were egalitarian and, it seems, offered an emancipated role for women. Many Pythagorean communities were suppressed - it has been suggested that this was due to their political radicalism. But from about 300BC the philosophy underwent a resurgence. Among the famous adherents were the Roman poet Ovid and Porphyry, whose On Abstinence from Animal Food, published in the third century, is the classic statement of Pythagorean attitudes to vegetarianism.

In Pythagorean philosophy, then, we see a link between a notion of kinship in nature, vegetarianism and radical social ideals.

Thomas Tryon

Let me now move on to a more recent example, that of Thomas Tryon, the earliest English propagandist for vegetarianism, who lived from 1634 to 1703. Tryon's religious beliefs were influenced by the German mystic Jacob Behmen (1575-1624) who rejected the notion of God as a bearded deity in the clouds. For Behmen, God existed in and worked through nature. Trees and flowers were sufficient evidence for nature of God: you did not need to have a Bible interpreted by a priest. Behmen's nature mysticism was popular among anti-clerical Puritans in Cromwell's time. Mysticism is a belief in direct communion with God which Behemenists experienced through the natural world. In doing so, they rejected the hierarchy of the church and privileged the equality of human souls.

Tryon developed his vegetarian ideals from this belief in the kinship of nature. But he also developed from this egalitarian political views. He was one of the earliest opponents of slavery, he lobbied for the establishment of free schools for the poor and was a pacifist. Among those converted by Tryon's writings was Benjamin Franklin.

Emanuel Swedenborg

My final example of the existence of these links is the Swedish mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg, or, more accurately, his followers who established the Vegetarian Society. Swedenborg, who lived from 1688 to 1772, believed in the underlying unity of life: all were one in God, God was Love, wherever there was love, there was God. To teach this Gospel of Love, he established a church - the New Church - which counted amongst its members the poet and artist William Blake.
An offshoot of the New Church was the Bible Christian Church established by William Cowherd in Salford in 1809. These Cowherdites adopted vegetarianism because they saw God existing in and through animals.

The Bible Christians were pacifists and helped to organise the Peace Society; they opposed capital punishment and their leader Joseph Brotherton is said to have been the first Parliamentarian to argue against the death penalty; they campaigned against slavery; lobbied for laws to improve the conditions of the Victorian working class; and influenced the local and national political agenda to extend culture and education. In other words, they were radical in their egalitarianism.
There are many other examples which illustrate this link -from the 11th century Cathars to the poet Shelley. But we must also consider the evidence for the anthopocentric world view leading to different outcomes.


The most influential philosopher in this respect was Aristotle. He argued that since animals do not possess reason, they are subject to humans. It follows that there is a hierarchy in nature. Animals eat plants, so animals are superior to plants. Humans eat animals, and so are superior to them. Aristotle takes the argument a crucial step further. If humans eat animals, then animals must be designed for eating. It is the intention of nature, the gods, the Supreme Power that humans should eat animals. In Aristotle's world view, there is a belief in a hierarchy which leads him to adopt authoritarian views in politics. But there is also the argument from design: if that's the way things are, that's how they are meant to be. Not only is this profoundly conservative but, when linked to authoritarianism, it is totalitarian. The authorities know what should be and they will enforce it. And this is the central message of his political writings.

The Church

Aristotle was the philosopher beloved of the Church. His teachings fused with those of the Judaic tradition's emphasis on the immortality of the soul to create a profoundly human-centred religion. God had given humans dominion over the rest of nature. There was a natural hierarchy in the universe, the nation developed of a chain of being. At the top was the Trinity, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in that order. The chain of being not only justified and sanctified human dominion over animals, but royal dominion over subject through the theory of the Divine Right of Kings. Access to God was through the priesthood.

In this view, the church was a hierarchy which justified the hierarchical organisation of society. It monopolised power, it monopolised knowledge and learning; and it monopolised the fate of souls. It had a track record of declaring heretical anyone who challenged that monopoly, notably the vegetarian sects which flourished from time to time.

From this analysis it would seem we could argue that vegetarians are, on the whole, egalitarian, libertarian reformers whereas meat-eaters are selfish, authoritarian, totalitarian and exploitative. But, of course, that does not entirely ring true.

Aristotle's genius led him to some abhorrent prescriptions for conduct and society. But Christians have drawn on a variety of traditions. It is true that many have interpreted the Bible's promise of dominion over nature as carte-blanche to exploit nature. But others have interpreted that responsibility as a requirement of stewardship, to conserve and care for the natural world. Others see it as duty to exercise dominion as a power for good, to make perfect this imperfect world. This has been particularly true of unitarian tradition in Christianity which rejects the hierarchy of the Trinity and opens the way for the holistic ideas which have had such an influence on vegetarians.

Nor must we blind to the fact that not all vegetarians have an ethical stance on animals. Some forsake meat not because of its impact on the slaughtered victim, but it impact on personal health. Others adopt vegetarianism because its is cheaper for them - or they see it as cheaper for society, helping to avoid famine. Many vegetarians argue that meat-eating leads to aggression. All these reason focus on the benefits to humans, individual or collectively. They can thus be seen as anthropocentric.
Finally, we must acknowedge the body of opinion that denies a distinction between the holistic and anthropocentric traditions. The holistic view, they say, is a view that can only be held by human beings. It is held by people who get psychological pleasure from seeing themselves as at one with nature. The holistic view is ultimately anthropocentric because it's consequence is to benefit humans.
Despite these objections, I am entranced by the patterns I see in the history of vegetarian thought. Time and again the same arguments, the same attitudes arise. Perhaps the answer lies in the ideological purity of vegetarian's philosophers, and philosophy's dilution among practising vegetarians, each subject to particular motives rather than a general ideal.