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The Ethics of Diet - A Catena
by Howard Williams M.A., 1883

Clement of Alexandria - Titus Flavius Clemens: Died 220 (?) A.D.
(text from the 1st edition, 1883)

Titus Flavius Clemens, the founder of the famous Alexandrian school of Christian theology, and at once the most learned and most philosophic of all the Christian Fathers, is generally supposed to have been a native of Athens. His Latin name suggests some connexion with the family of Clemens, cousin of the emperor Domitian, who is said to have been put to death for the crime of atheism, as the new religion was commonly termed by the orthodox pagans.

He travelled and studied the various philosophies in the East and West. On accepting the Christian faith he sought information in the schools of its most reputed teachers, of whom the name of Pantænus is the only one known to us. At the death of Pantænus, in 190, Clement succeeded to the chair of theology in Alexandria, and at the same time, perhaps, became a good presbyter. He continued to lecture with great reputation till the year 202, when the persecution under Severus forced him to retire from the Egyptian capital. He then took refuge in Palestine, and appears not to have returned to Alexandria. the time and manner of his death are alike unknown. He is supposed to have died in the year 220. Amongst his pupils by far the most famous, hardly second to himself in learning and ability was Origen, his successor in the Alexandrian professorship.

His three great works are : A Horatory Discourse Addresses to the Greeks [Greek], The Instructor (Paidagogos - strictly, Tutor, or Conductor to school),and the Miscellanies (Stromaeis or Stromata - lit. "Patch-work"), (1) The three works were intended to form a graduated and complete initiation and instruction in Christian theology and ethics. The first is addressed to the pagan Greek world, the second to the recent convert, and in the last he conducts the initiated to the higher gnosis, or knowledge. The Miscellanies originally consisted of eight books, the last of which is lost. The whole series is of unusual value, not only as the record of the opinions of the ablest and most philosophical of the mediators between Greek philosophy and the Christian creed, but also as containing an immense amount of information on Greek life and literature. Eloquence, earnestness and erudition equally characterise the writings of Clement.

He assumes the name and character of a Gnostic, (2) or philosophic Christian, not in the historical but in his own sense of the word, and professes himself an eclectic - as far as a liberal interpretation of his religion admitted. "By philosophy," he says, "I do not mean the Stoic, the Platonic, the Epicurean, or the Aristotelian, but all that has been well said in each of these sects teaching righteousness with religious science - all this selected truth (Greek) I call philosophy." Again, he echoes the sentiments of Seneca in lamenting that "we incline more to beliefs that are in repute (Greek), even when they are contradictory, than to the truth" (Miscellanies, i. and vii.). "It would have been well for Christianity if the principles, which he set forth with such an array of profound scholarship and ingenious reasoning, had been adopted more generally by those who came after him . . . If anyone, even in a Protestant community, were to assert the liberal and comprehensive principles of the great Father of Alexandria, he would be told that he wished to compromise the distinctive claims of theology, and that he was little better than a heathen and a publican." (3)

It is in his second treatise, the Instructor or Tutor, that Clement displays his opinions on the subject of flesh-eating :-

"Some men live that they may eat, as the irrational beings 'whose life is their belly and nothing else.' But the Instructor enjoins us to eat that we may live. For neither is food our business, nor is pleasure our aim. Therefore discrimination is to be used in reference to food : it must be plain, truly simple, suiting precisely simple and artless children — as ministering to life, not to luxury. And the life to which it conduces consists of two things, health and strength : to which plainness of fare is most suitable, being conducive both to digestion and lightness of body, from which come growth, and health, and right strength : not strength that is violent or dangerous, and wretched, as is that of athletes which is produced by artificial feeding."

Referring to the injunction of Jesus, "When thou makest an entertainment, call the poor," for "whose sake chiefly a supper ought to be made," Clement says of the rich :-

"For they have not yet learned that God has provided for his creature (man I mean) food and drink, for sustenance, not for pleasure : since the body derives no advantage from extravagance in viands. On the contrary, those who use the most frugal fare are the strongest and the healthiest, and the noblest : as domestics are healthier and stronger than their masters, and agricultural labourers than proprietors, and not only more vigorous but wiser than rich men. For they have not buried the mind beneath food. Wholly unnatural and inhuman is it for those who are of the earth, fattening themselves like cattle, to feed themselves up for death (4) ; looking downwards on the earth, and bending ever over tables, leading a life of gluttony, burying all the good of existence here in a life that by and by will end for ever : so that cooks are held in higher esteem than the tillers of the ground. We do not abolish social intercourse, but we look with suspicion on the snares of Custom, and regard them as a fatal mischief. Therefore daintiness must be spurned, and we are to partake of few and necessary things. . . . Nor is it suitable to eat and to drink simultaneously. For it is the very extreme of intemperance to confound the times whose uses are discordant. And 'whether ye eat or drink, do all to the glory of God,' aiming after true frugality, which Christ also seems to me to have hinted at when he blessed the loaves and the cooked fishes with which he feasted the disciples, introducing a beautiful example of simple diet. And the fish which, at the command of the Lord, Peter caught, points to digestible and God-given and moderate food.

We must guard against those sorts of food which persuade us to eat when we are not hungry bewitching the appetite. For is there not, within a temperate simplicity a wholesome variety of eatables - vegetables, roots, olives, herbs, milk, cheese, fruits, all kinds of dry food? 'Have you anything to eat here?' said the Lord to the disciples after the resurrection : and they, as taught by Him to practise frugality, 'gave him a piece of broiled fish' and besides this, it is not to be overlooked that those who feed according to the Word are not debarred from dainties - such as honey combs. For of sorts of food those are the most proper which are fit for immediate use without fire, since they are readiest : and second to these are those which are simplest, as we said before. But those who bend around inflammatory tables, nourishing their own diseases, are ruled by a most licentious disease, which I shall venture to call the demon of the belly : and the worst and most vile of demons. It is far better to be happy than to have a devil dwelling in us : and happiness is found only in the practice of virtue. Accordingly, the apostle Matthew lived upon seeds and nuts, (Greek - hard-shelled fruits) and vegetables without flesh. And John, who carried temperance to the extreme, 'ate locusts and wild honey.' "

As to the Jewish laws : "The Jews," says Clement, "had frugality enjoined on them by the Law in the most systematic manner. For the Instructor, by Moses, deprived them of the use of innumerable things, adding reasons - the spiritual ones hidden the carnal ones apparent - to which later, indeed, they have trusted" :-

"So that altogether, but a few [animals] were left proper for their food. And of those which he permitted them to touch, he prohibited such as had died, or were offered to idols, or had been strangled : inasmuch as to touch these was unlawful . . . Pleasure has often produced in men harm and pain ; and full feeding begets in the soul uneasiness, and forgetfulness, and foolishness. It is said, moreover, that the bodies of children, when shooting up to their height, are made to grow right by abstinence in diet; for then the spirit, which pervades the body, in order to its growth, is not checked by abundance of food obstructing the freedom of its course. Whence that truth-seeking philosopher Plato, fanning the spark of the Hebrew philosophy when condemning a life of luxury, says : "On my coming hither [to Syracuse], the life which is here called happy pleased me not by any means. For not one man under heaven, if brought up from his youth in such practices, will ever turn out a wise man, with however admirable genius he may be endowed.' For Plato was not unacquainted with David, (5) who placed the sacred ark in his city in the midst of the tabernacle, and bidding all his subjects rejoice 'before the Lord, divided to the whole host of Israel, men and women, to each a loaf of bread, and baked bread, and a cake from the frying-pan.' (6) This was the sufficient sustenance of the Israelites. But that of the Gentiles was over-abundant, and no one who uses it will ever study to become temperate, burying, as he does his mind in his belly, very like the fish called onos which, Aristotle says, alone of all creatures has its heart in its stomach. This fish Epicharmus, the comic poet calls 'monster-paunch.' Such are the men who believe in their stomach,'whose God is their belly, whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.' To them the apostle predicted no good when he said, 'whose end is destruction.' " (7)

In treating of the subject of sacrifices, upon which he uses a good deal of sarcasm (in regard to the pagan sacrifices at least), Clement incidentally allows us to see, still further, his opinion respecting gross feeding. He quotes several of the Greek poets who ridicule the practice and pretence of sacrificial propitiation, e.g., Menander :-

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . "the end of the loin,
The gall, the bones uneatable, they give
Alone to Heaves : the rest themselves consume."

"If, in fact," remarks Clement, "the savour is the special desire of the Gods of the Greeks, should they not first deify the cooks, and worship the Chimney itself which is still closer to the much-prized savour?"

"If." he justly adds, "the deity need nothing, what necessity has he for food? Now, if nourishing matters taken in by the nostrils are diviner than those taken in by the mouth, yet they imply respiration. What then do they say of God ? Does He exhale like the oaks, or does he only inhale, like the aquatic animals, by the dilatation of the gills, or does he breathe all around, like the insects ?"

The only innocent altar he asserts to be the one allowed by Pythagoras :-

"The very ancient altar in Delos they celebrated for its purity ; to which alone, as being undefiled by slaughter and death, they say Pythagoras would permit approach. And will they not believe us when we say that the righteous soul is the truly sacred altar? But I believe that sacrifices were invented by men to be a pretext for eating flesh, and yet, without such idolatry, they might have partaken of it."

He next glances at the popular reason for the Pythagorean abstinence, and declares :-

"If any righteous man does not burden his soul by the eating of flesh, he has the advantage of a rational motive, not, as Pythagoras and his followers dream, of the transmigration of the soul. Now Xenocrates, treating of 'Food derived from Animals,' and Polemon in his work 'On Life according to Nature', (8) seem clearly to say that animal food is unwholesome. If it be said that the lower animals were assigned to man—and we partly admit it — yet it was not entirely for food; nor were all
animals, but such as do not work. And so the comic poet, Plato, says not badly in the drama of The Feasts : —

"For of the quadrupeds we should not slay
In future aught but swine. For these have flesh
Most delicate : and about the swine is nought
For us, excepting bristles, dirt, and noise."

Some eat them as being useless, others as destructive of fruits. And others do not eat them, because they are said to have a strong propensity to coition. It is alleged that the greatest amount of fatty substances produced by swine's flesh : it may then be appropriate for those whose ambition is the body ; it is not so for those who cultivate the soul it is not so, by reason of the dulling of the faculties resulting from eating of flesh. The Gnostic, perhaps, too, will abstain for the sake of training, and that the body may not grow wanton in amorousness. 'For wine,' says Andokides, 'and gluttonous feeds of flesh make the body strong, but the soul more sluggish.' Accordingly such food, in order to clear understanding, is to be rejected." (9)

In a chapter in his Miscellanies, discussing the comparative merits of the Pagan and of the Jewish code of ethics, he displays much eloquence in attempting to prove the superiority of the latter. In the course of his argument he is led to make some acknowledgement of the claims of the lower animals which, however incomplete, is remarkable as being almost unique in Christian theology. He quotes certain of the "Proverbs," e.g., 'The merciful man is long-suffering, and in every one who shows solicitude there is wisdom,' and proceeds (assuming the indebtedness of the Greeks to the Jews) ;-

"Pythagoras seems to me, to have derived his mildness towards irrational animals from the Law. For instance, he interdicted the employment of the young of sheep, and goats and cows for some time after their birth ; not even on the pretext of sacrifice allowing it, on account both of the young ones and of the mothers ; training men to gentleness by their conduct towards those beneath them. 'Resign,' he says, 'the young one to the mother for the proper time.' For if nothing takes place without a cause, and milk comes is produced in large quantity in parturition for the sustenance of the progeny, he who tears away the young one from the supply of the milk and the breast of the mother, dishonours Nature.

Reverting to the Jewish religion, he asserts :-

"The Law, too, expressly prohibits the slaying of such animals as are pregnant till they have brought forth, remotely restraining the proneness of men to do wrong to men; and thus also it has extended its clemency to the irrational animals, that by the exercise of humanity to beings of different races we may practise amongst those of the same species a larger abundance of it. Those, too, that kick the bellies of certain animals before parturition, in order to feast on flesh mixed with milk, make the womb created for the birth of the foetus its grave, though the Law expressly commands 'but neither shalt thou seethe a lamb in its mother's milk.' (10) For the nourishment of the living animal, it is meant, may not be converted into sauce for that which has been deprived of life ; and that which is the cause of life may not co-operate in the consumption of the its flesh. (11)



    1. The full title of the treatise is - The Miscellaneous Collection of T. F. Clemens of Gnostic (or Speculative) Memoirs upon the true Philosophy.
    2. This celebrated term distinguished the superiority of knowledge (gnosis) of "the most polite, the most learned, and the most wealthy of the Christian name." During the first three or four centuries the Gnostics formed an extremely numerous as well as influential section of the Church. They sub-divided themselves into more than fifty particular sects, of whom the followers of Marcion and the Manicheans are the most celebrated. Holding opinions regarding the Jewish sacred scriptures and their authority the opposite to those of the Ebionites or Jewish Christians, they agreed, at least a large proportion of them, with the latter on the question of kreophagy.
    3. History of the Literature of Ancient Greece, by K. O. Müller, continued by J. W. Donaldson, D.D., vol. iii, 58.
    4. The argument here suggested, although rarely, if ever adduced, may well be deemed worthy of the most serious consideration. It is, to our mind, one of the most forcible of all the many reasons for abstinence. That the life even of a really useful member of the human community should be supported by the slaughter of hundreds of innocent and intelligent beings is surely enough to "give us pause." What then, shall be said of the appalling fact, that every day thousands of worthless, and too often worse than useless, human lives go down to the grave (to be thenceforth altogether forgotten) after having been the cause of the slaughter and suffering of countless beings, surely for superior to themselves in all real worth? To object the privilege of an "immortal soul" is, in this case, merely a miserable subterfuge. Sidney Smith calculated that forty-four wagon-loads of flesh had been consumed by himself during a life of seventy years! (See his letter to Lord Murray.)
    5. It was the fond belief of the mediating Christian writers that the best parts of Greek philosophy were derived, in whole or in part, from the Jewish Sacred Scriptures. For its belief, which has prevailed widely, which, perhaps, still lingers amongst us, and which has engaged the useless speculation of so many minds, an Alexandrian Jew of the age of the later Ptolemies is responsible. It is now well known that he deliberately forged passages in the (so-called) Orphic poems and "Sybilline" predictions, in order to gain the respect of the Greek rulers of his country for the Jewish Scriptures. This patriotic but unscrupulous Jew is known by his Greek name of Aristobulus. He was preceptor of counsellor of Ptolemy VI.
    6. 2 Sam. vi., 19, Clement, in common with all the first Christian writers, quotes from the Septuagint version, which differs considerably from t he Hebrew. The English translators of the latter, presuming that "flesh" must have formed part of the royal bounty, gratuitously insert that word to the context.
    7. Pœdagogus ii. 1, "On Eating."
    8. These works which would have been highly interesting, have, with so many other valuable productions of Greek genius, long since perished.
    9. Miscellanies, vii. "On Sacrifice."
    10. See Plutarch's denunciation of the very same practice of the butchers of his day, Essay on Flesh Eating. Unfortunately for the credit of Jewish humanity, it must be added that the method of butchering (enjoined, it is alleged, by their religious laws) entails a greater amount of suffering and torture to the victim than even the Christian. This fact has been abundantly proved by the evidence of many competent witnesses. The cruelty of the Jewish method of slaughter was especially exposed at one of the recent International Congresses of representatives of European Societies for Prevention of Cruelty.
    11. Miscellanies ii, 18. We have used for the most part the translation of the writings of Clement published in the Ante-Nicene Library, by Messrs. Clarke, Edinburgh 1869. The Greek text is corrupt.
  • The Ante-Nicene Fathers: (PDF 52mb) Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325 edited by A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, Vol.2 (of 10 vols.)

Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index