International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
IVU logo

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

Christian and Western Literature 5th Century to 16th Century
(text from the 1st edition, 1883)

From this period - the fifth century A.D. down to the sixteenth - Christian and Western literature contains little or nothing which comes within the purpose of this work. The merits of monastic asceticism were more or less preached during all those ages, although constant abstinence from flesh was by no means general practice even with the inmates of the stricter monastic or conventual establishments - at all events in t he Latin Church. But we look in vain for traces of anything like the humanitarian feeling of Plutarch or Porphyry. The mental intelligence as well as capacities for physical suffering of the non-human races - necessarily resulting from an organisation in al essential points like our own - was apparently wholly ignored; their just rights and claims upon human justice were disregarded and trampled under foot. Consistently with the universal estimate, they were treated as beings destitute of all feeling - as if, in fine, they are the "automatic machines" they are alleged to be by the Cartesians of the present day. In those terrible ages of gross ignorance, of superstition, of violence, and of injustice - in which human rights were seldom regarded - it would have been surprising indeed if any sort of regard had been displayed for the non-human slaves. And yet an underlying and latent consciousness of the falseness of the general estimate sometimes made itself apparent in certain extraordinary and perverse fancies. (1) To Montaigne, the first to revive the humanitarianism of Plutarch, belongs the great merit of reasserting the natural rights of the helpless slaves of human tyranny.

While Chrysostom seems to have been one of the last of Christian writers who manifested any sort of consciousness of the inhuman, as well as unspiritual nature of the ordinary gross foods, Platonism continued to bear aloft the flickering torch of a truer spiritualism; and "the golden chain" of the prophets of the dietary reformation reached down even so late as to the end of the sixth century. Hierokles, author of the commentary on the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, to which reference has already been made, and who lectured upon them with great success at Alexandria; Hypatia, the beautiful and accomplished daughter of Theon the great mathematician, who publicly taught the philosophy of Plato at the same great centre of Greek science and learning, and was barbarously murdered by the jealousy of her Christian rival Cyril, Archbishop of Alexandria; Proklus surnamed the Successor, as having been considered the most illustrious disciple of Plato in the latter times, who left several treatises upon the Pythagorean system, and "whose sagacious mind explored the deepest questions of morals and metaphysics"; (2)

Olympiodorus, who wrote a life of Plato and commentaries on several of his dialogues, still extant, and lived in the reign of Justinian, by whose edict the illustrious school of Athens was finally closed, and with it the last vestiges of a sublime, if imperfect, attempt at the purification of human life - such are some of the most illustrious names which adorned the days of expiring Greek philosophy. Olympiodorous and six other Pythagoreans determined, if possible, to maintain their doctrines elsewhere; and they sought refuge with the Persian Magi, with whose tenets, or, at least, manner of living, they believed themselves to be most in accord. The Persian customs were distasteful to the purer ideal of the Platonists, and, disappointed in other respects, they reluctantly relinquished their fond hopes of transplanting the doctrines of Plato into a foreign soil, and returned home. The Persian prince, Chosroes, we may add, acquired honour by his stipulation with the bigoted Justinian, that the seven sages should be allowed to live unmolested during the rest of their days. "Simplicius and his companions ended their lives in peace and obscurity; and, as they left no disciples, they terminated the long list of Grecian philosophers who may be justly praised, notwithstanding their defects, as the wisest and most virtuous of their contemporaries. The writings of Simplicius are now extant. His physical and metaphysical commentaries on Aristotle have passed away with the fashion of the times, but his moral interpretation of Epiktetus is preserved in the library of nations as a classical book excellently adapted to direct the will, to purify the heart, and to confirm the understanding, by a just confidence in the nature of both God and Man." (3)


    1. For example, we may refer to the fact of trials of "criminal" dogs, and other non-human beings, with all the formalities of ordinary courts of justice, and in the gravest manner recorded by credible witnesses. The convicted "felons" were actually hanged with all the circumstances of human executions. Instances of such trials are recorded even so late as the sixteenth century.
    2. His biographer, Marinus, writes in terms of the highest admiration of his virtues as well as of his genius, and of the perfection to which he had attained by his unmaterialistic diet and manner of living. He seems to have held a remarkably cosmopolitan mind, since he regarded with equal respect the best parts of all the then existing religious systems; and he is said to have paid solemn honours to all the most illustrious, or rather most meritorious, of his philosophic predecessors. That his intellect, sublime and exalted as it was, had contracted the taint of superstition must excite our regret, though scarcely our wonder, in the absence of the light of modern science; nor can there be any difficulty in perceiving how the miracles and celestial apparitions - which form part of his zealous but uncritical disciples. One of his principle works is On the Theology of Plato, in six books. Another of his productions was a Commentary on the Works and Days of Hesiod. He died at an advanced age in 485, having hastened to his end by excessive asceticism.
    3. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire , xi. This testimony of the great historian to the merits of the last of the New-Platonists is all the more weighty as coming from an authority notoriously the most unimpassioned and unenthusiastic, perhaps of all writers. Compare his remarkable expression of personal feeling - guardedly stated as it is - upon the question of kreophagy in his chapter on the history and manners of the Tartar nations (chap. xxvi).

Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index