International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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Ancient Greece and Rome
Plutarch (c.AD 46 - c.120)


Parallel Lives, Amyot translation, 1565

Greek biographer and philosopher, noted for his Parallel Lives of distinguished Greeks and Romans

Various extracts from 'Moralia':
from The Extended Circle by Jon Wynne-Tyson.

Can you really ask what reason Pythagoras had for abstaining from flesh? For my part I rather wonder both by what accident and in what state of soul or mind the first man did so, touched his mouth to gore and brought his lips to the flesh of a dead creature, he who set forth tables of dead, stale bodies and ventured to call food and nourishment the parts that had a little before bellowed and cried, moved and lived. How could his eyes endure the slaughter when throats were slit and hides flayed and limbs torn from limb? How could his nose endure the stench? How was it that the pollution did not turn away his taste, which made contact with the sores of others and sucked juices and serums from mortal wounds?

The obligations of law and equity reach only to mankind, but kindness and benevolence should be extended to the creatures of every species, and these will flow from the breast of a true man, is streams that issue from the living fountain.
Man makes use of flesh not out of want and necessity, seeing that he has the liberty to make his choice of herbs and fruits, the plenty of which is inexhaustible; but out of luxury, and being cloyed with necessaries, he seeks after impure and inconvenient diet, purchased by the slaughter of living beasts; by showing himself more cruel than the most savage of wild beasts .... were it only to learn benevolence to human kind, we should be merciful to other creatures.

... we eat not lions and wolves by way of revenge, but we let those go and catch the harmless and tame sort, such as have neither stings nor teeth to bite with, and slay them.
... But if you will contend that yourself were born to an inclination to such food as you have now a mind to eat, do you then yourself kill what you would eat. But do it yourself, without the help of a chopping-knife, mallet, or axe - as wolves, bears, and lions do, who kill and eat at once. Rend an ox with thy teeth, worry a hog with thy mouth, tear a lamb or a hare in pieces, and fall on and eat it alive as they do. But if thou hadst rather stay until what thou eatest is to become dead, and if thou art loath to force a soul out of its body, why then dost thou against Nature eat an animate thing?

Why do you belie the earth, as if it were unable to feed and nourish you? Does it not shame you to mingle murder and blood with her beneficent fruits? Other carnivora you call savage and ferocious - lions and tigers and serpents - while yourselves come behind them in no species of barbarity. And yet for them murder is the only means of sustenance! Whereas to you it is superfluous luxury and crime!

But for the sake of some little mouthful of flesh we 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.

Extract from a review of Animal Minds and Human Morals - The Origins of the Western Debate by Richard Sorabji. Review by Stephen Salkever:

For Sorabji, the pro-animal side of the ancient debate, the side arguing that the gap between human and animal psychology is not so large, is best represented by various Aristotelians (especially Theophrastus, Aristotle's successor as leader of the Peripatos) and Platonists (especially Plutarch and Porphyry). A key figure in Sorabji's history of the fading away of this alternative is Iamblichus, who turned Neoplatonism away from its earlier assertions of a significant kinship between humans and other animals, and so sets the stage for the nearly complete triumph of the anti-animal view.

- from the 1957 IVU Congress souvenir book

PLUTARCH (40 to 120 A.D. approx.) Prince of Biographers and Historians. His essay on flesh eating contains arguments for vegetarianism not superseded. A few excerpts follow :

"You ask me upon what grounds Pythagoras abstained from feeding on the flesh of animals. I, for my part, marvel of what sort of feeling, mind, or reason, that man was possessed who was the first to pollute his mouth with gore, and to allow his lips to touch the flesh of a murdered being; who spread his table with the mangled forms of dead bodies, and claimed as his daily food what were but now beings endowed with movement, with perception, and with voice. How could his eyes endure the spectacle of the flayed and dismembered limbs? How could his sense of smell endure the horrid effluvium? How, I ask, was his taste not sickened by contact with festering wounds, with the pollution of corrupted blood and juices? ... The first man who set the example of this savagery is the person to arraign; not, assuredly, that great mind [Pythagoras] which, in a later age, determined to have nothing to do with such horrors.

"For the wretches who first applied to flesh-eating may justly be alleged in excuse their utter resourcelessness and destitution, inasmuch as it was not to indulge in lawless desires, or amidst the superfluities of necessaries, for the pleasure of wanton indulgence in unnatural luxuries that they (the primaeval people) betook themselves to carnivorous habits...

"Does it not shame you to mingle murder and blood with their beneficent fruits? Other carnivora you call savage and ferocious - lions and tigers and serpents - while yourselves come behind them in no species of barbarity. And yet for them murder is the only means of sustenance; whereas to you it is a superfluous luxury and crime!

"For, in point of fact, we do not kill and eat lions and wolves, as we might do in self-defence - on the contrary, we leave them unmolested; and yet the innocent and the domesticated and helpless and unprovided with weapons of offence - these we hunt and kill, whom Nature seems to have brought into existence for their beauty and gracefulness.

"Nothing puts us out of countenance, not the charming beauty of their form, not the plaintive sweetness of their voice or cry, not their mental intelligence, not the purity of their diet, not superiority of understanding. For the sake of a part of their flesh only, we deprive them of the glorious light of the sun - of the life, for which they were born. The plaintive cries they utter we affect to take to be meaningless; whereas, in fact, they are entreaties and supplications and prayers addressed to us by each which say, 'It is not the satisfaction of your real necessities we deprecate, but the wanton indulgence of your appetities. Kill to eat, if you must or will, but do not slay me that you may feed luxuriously.'

"Alas for our savage inhumanity! It is a terrible thing to see the table of rich men decked out by those layers-out of corpses: the butchers and cooks; a still more terrible sight is the same table after the feast - for the wasted relics are even more than the consumption. These victims, then, have given us their lives uselessly. As other times, from mere niggardliness, the host will grudge to distribute his dishes, and yet he grudged not to deprive innocent beings of their existence!

"Well I have taken away the excuse of those who allege that they have the authority and sanction of Nature. For that man is not, by nature, carnivorous is proved, in the first place, by the external frame of his body - seeing that to none of the animals designed for living on flesh has the human body any resemblance. He has no curved beak, no sharp talons and claws, no pointed teeth, no intense power of stomach or heat of blood which might help him to masticate and digest the gross and tough flesh-substance. On the contrary, by the smoothness of his teeth, the small capacity of his mouth, the softness of his tongue, and the sluggishness of his digestive aparatus, Nature sternly forbids him to feed on flesh.

"If, in spite of all this, you still affirm that you were, to begin with, kill yourself what you wish to eat - but do it yourself with your own natural weapons, without the use of butcher's knife, or axe, or club. No; as the wolves and lions and bears themselves slay all they feed on, so, in like manner, do you kill the cow or ox with a grip of your jaw, or the pig with your teeth, or a hare or a lamb by falling upon and rending them there and then. Having gone through all these preliminaries, then sit down to your repast. If, however, you wait until the living and intelligent existence be deprived of life, and if it would disgust you to have to rend out the heart and shed the life-blood of your victim, why, I ask, in the very face of Nature, and in despite of her, do you feed on beings endowed with sentient life?

"But more than this - not even, after your victims have been killed, will you eat them just as they are from the slaughter-house. You boil, roast, and altogether metamorphose them by fire and condiments. You entirely alter and disguise the murdered animal by use of ten thousand sweet herbs and spices, that your natural taste may be deceived and be prepared to take the unnatural food. A proper and witty rebuke was that of the Spartan who bought a fish and gave it to his cook to dress. When the latter asked for butter, and olive oil, and vinegar, he replied, 'Why, if I had all these things I should not have bought the fish!'

To such a degree do we make luxuries of bloodshed that we call flesh a 'delicacy', and forthwith require delicate sauces for this same flesh-meat, and mix together oil and wine and pickle and vinegar with all the spices of Syria and Arabia - for all the world as though we were embalming a human corpse. After all these heterogenous matters have been mixed and dissolved and, in a manner, corrupted, it is for the stomach, forsooth, to masticate and assimilate them - if it can. And though this may be, for the time, accomplished, the natural sequence is a variety of diseases produced by imperfect digestion and repletion. Flesh-eating is not unnatural to our physical constitution only. The mind and intellect are made gross by gorging and repletion ; for flesh meat and wine may possibly tend to robustness of the body, but it gives only feebleness to the mind .... "It is hard to argue with stomachs, since they have no ears ; and the inebriating potion of custom has been drunk like Circe's, with all its deceptions and witcheries. Now that men are saturated and penetrated, as it were, with love of pleasure, it is not an easy task to attempt to pluck out from their bodies the flesh-baited hook. Well would it be if, as the people of Egypt turning their back to the pure light of day disemboweled their dead and cast away the offal as the very source and origin of their sins. we, too, in like manner, were to eradicate bloodshed and gluttony from ourselves and purify the remainder of our lives. If the irreproachable diet be impossible to any by reason of inveterate habit, at least let them devour their flesh as driven to it by hunger, not in luxurious wantonness, but with feelings of shame. Slay your victim, but at least do so with feelings of pity and pain, not with callous heedlessness and with torture, And yet that is what is done in a variety of ways.

"In slaughtering swine, for example, they thrust red hot irons into their living bodies, so that by sucking up or diffusing the blood, they may render the flesh soft and tender. Some butchers jump upon or kick the udders of pregnant sows, that by mingling the blood and milk and matter of the embryos that have been murdered together in the very pangs of parturition, they may enjoy the pleasure of feeding upon unnaturally and highly inflamed flesh! Again, it is a common practice to stitch up the eyes of cranes and swans and shut them up in dark places to fatten. In this and other similar ways are manufactured their dainty dishes, with all the varieties of sauces and spices, from all of which it is evident that men have indulged their lawless appetites in the pleasures of luxury, not for necessary food and from no necessity, but only out of the merest wantonness, and gluttony, and display."

And if any doubt that these are only ancient cruelties, let them read the sections to follow and weep for our modern times. Many of Plutarch's arguments on behalf of vegetarianism have a very modern flavour, as for example :

"Ill-digestion is most to be feared after flesh-eating, for it very soon clogs us and leaves ill consequences behind it. It would be best to accustom ourselves to eat no flesh at all, for the earth affords plenty enough of things fit not only for nourishment, but for delight and enjoyment ... But you, pursuing the pleasures of eating and drinking beyond the satisfaction of nature are punished with many and lingering diseases, which arising from the single fountain of superfluous gormandizing, fill your bodies with all manner of wind and vapours, not easy by purgation to expel. In the first place, all species of the lower animals, according to their kind, feed upon one sort of food which is proper to their natures - some upon grass. some upon roots, and others upon fruits. Neither do they rob the weaker of their nourishment. But man, such is his voracity, falls upon all to satisfy the pleasures of his appetite, tries all things, tastes all things; and, as if he were yet to see what were the most proper diet and most agreeable to his nature, among all animals is the only all-devourous (omnivorous). He makes use of flesh not out of want and necessity, but out of luxury and being clogged with necessaries, he seeks after an impure and inconvenient diet, purchased by the slaughter of living beings; for this, showing himself more cruel than the most savage of wild beasts. The lower animals abstain from most of other kinds and are at enmity with only a few, and that only compelled by necessities of hunger : but neither fish nor fowl nor anything that lives upon the land, escapes your tables, though they bear the name of humane and hospitable."

Animals photographed by telescopic cameras in the wilds of Africa, amply bear out the contentions of Plutarch. Zebras, the prey of the lion, graze undisturbed by the very Presence of the King of Beasts. Other zebras hardly raise their heads, when a lioness pounces on her prey and drags it to her lair. They know she will only slay again when she is hungry, and they accept her hunger as inevitable. Only man causes all animals to flee from his presence.

Finally Plutarch criticizes the discarding of a faithful animal servant when old, saying : " For own part, I would not sell even an old ox that has laboured for me."

"The obligations of law and equity reach only to mankind, but kindness and beneficence should be extended to the creatures of every species, and these will flow from the breast of a true man, as streams that issue from the living fountain."