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

Pierre Gassendi, Painted by Louis Édouard Rioult

Gassendi - extracts

Pierre Gassendi 1592-1655
(text from the 1st edition, 1883 )

Gassendi, one of the most eminent men, and, what is more to the purpose, the most meritorious philosophic writer, of France in the seventeenth century, claims the unique honour of being the first directly to revive in modern times the teaching of Plutarch and Porphyry. Other minds, indeed of a high order, like More and Montaigne, had, as already shown, implicitly condemned the inveterate barbarism. But Gassendi is the writer who fit, since the extinction of Platonic philosophy, expressly and unequivocally attempted to enlighten the world upon this fundamental truth.

He was born of poor parents, near Digne, in Provence. In his earliest years he gave promise of his extraordinary genius. At nineteen he was professor of philosophy at Aix. His celebrated "Essays against the Aristotelians" (Exercitationes Paradoxicœ Adversus Aristoteleos) was his first appearance in the philosophic world. Written some years earlier, it was first published in part, in the year 1624. It divides with the Novum Organon of Francis Bacon, with which it was almost contemporary, the honour of being the earliest effectual assault upon the old scholastic jargon which, abusing the name and authority of Aristotle, during some thee or four centuries of mediæval darkness had kept possession of the schools and universities of Europe. It at once raised up for Gassendi a host of enemies, the supporters of the old orthodoxy, and, as has always been the case in the exposure of falsehood, he was assailed with a torrent of virulent invective. Five of the Books of the Exercitationes, by the advice of his friends, who dreaded the consequences of his courage, had been suppressed. In the Fourth Book, besides the heresy of Kopernik (which Bacon had not the courage or the penetration to adopt), as already taught by Bruno; while the Seventh, according to the table of contents, contained a formal recommendation of the Epicurean theory of morals, in which Pleasure and Virtue are synonymous terms.

In the midst of the obloquy thus aroused the philosopher devoted himself, by way of consolation, to the study of anatomy and astronomy, as well as to literary studies. "As to the result of his anatomical researches he composed a treatise to prove that man was intended to live upon vegetables, and that animal food, as contrary to the human constitution, is baneful and unwholesome." (1) He was the first to observe the transit of the planet Mercury over the Sun's disc (1631), previously calculated by Kepler. He next appears publicly as the opponent of Descartes in his Disquisitions Anticartesianœ (1643) - a work justly distinguished, according to the remark of an eminent German critic, as a model of controversial excellence. The philosophic world was soon divided between the two hostile camps. it is sufficient to observe here that Descartes whatever merit may attach to him in other respects, had done as much as he well could do to destroy is reputation for common sense and common reason with all the really thinking part of the world. Yet this "animated machine" theory, incredible as it may appear, has recently been revived by a well-known physiologist of the present day, in the very face of the most ordinary facts and experience - a theory about which it needs only to be said that it deserves to be classed with some of the most absurd and monstrous conceptions of mediævalism. As though, to quote Voltaire's admirable criticism, God had given to the lower animals reason and feeling to the end that they might not feel and reason. It was not thus, as the same writer reminds us, that Locke and Newton argued. (2)

In 1646 Gassendi became Regius Professor of Mathematics in the University of Paris, where his lecture-room was crowded with listeners of all classes. His Life and Morals of Epikurus (De Vitâ et Moribus Epicuri), his principle work, appeared in the year 1647. It is a triumphant refutation of the prejudices and false representations connected with the name of one of the very greatest and most virtuous of the Greek Masters, which had been prevalent during so many ages. Neither his European reputation, nor the universal respect extorted by his private as well as public merits, could corrupt the simplicity of Gassendi; and his sober tastes were little in sympathy with the luxurious or literary trifling of Paris :-

"He had only with difficulty resolved to quit his southern home, and being attacked by a lung complaint, he returned to Digne, where he remained until 1653. Within this period falls the greater part of his literary activity and zeal in behalf of the philosophy of Epikurus, and simultaneously the positive extension of his own doctrines. In the same period Gassendi produced, besides several astronomical works, a series of valuable biographies, of which those of Kopernik and Tycho Brahe are especially noteworthy. He is, of all the most prominent representatives of Materialism, the only one gifted with a historic sense, and that he has in an eminent degree. Even in his Syntagma Philosophicum he treats every subject, at first historically from all points of view. . . . Gassendi did not fall a victim to Theology, because he was destined to fall a victim to Medicine. Being treated for a fever in t he fashion of the time, he had been reduced to an extreme disability. He long, but vainly, sought restoration in his southern home. On returning to Paris he was again attacked by fever, and thirteen fresh blood-lettings ended his life. He died October 24th, 1655."

Lange, from whom we have quoted this brief notice, proceeds to vindicate his position as a physical philosopher :-

"The reformation of Physics and Natural Philosophy, usually ascribed to Descartes, was at least as much the work of Gassendi. Frequently, in consequence of the fame which Descartes owed to his Metaphysics, those very things have been credited to Descartes which ought properly to be assigned to Gassendi. It was also a result of the peculiar mixture of difference and agreement, of hostility and alliance between the two systems that the influences resulting from them became completely interfused." (3)

Although of extraordinary erudition his learning did not, as too often happens, obscure the powers of original thought and reason. Bayle, writing at the end of the seventeenth century, has characterised him as "the great philosopher amongst scholars, and the greatest scholar amongst philosophers;" and newton conceived the same high esteem for the great vindicator of Epikurus. (4)

It is in his celebrated letter to his friend Van Helmont that Gassendi deals with the irrational assertions of certain physiologists, apparently more devoted to the defence of the orthodox diet than to the discovery of unwelcome truth, as to the character of the human teeth :-

"I was contending," he writes to his medical friend, "that from the conformation of our teeth we do not appear to be adapted by Nature to the use of a flesh diet, since all animals (I spoke of terrestrials) which Nature has formed to feed on flesh have their teeth long, conical, sharp, uneven, and with intervals between them - of which kind are lions, tigers, wolves, dogs, cats and others. But those who are made to subsist only on herbs and fruits have their teeth short, broad, blunt, close to one another, and distributed in even rows. Of this sort are horses, cows, deer, sheep, goats, and some others. And further - that men have received from Nature teeth which are unlike those of the first class, and resemble those of the second. It is therefore probable, since men are land animals, that Nature intended them to follow, in the selection of their food, not the carnivorous tribes, but those races of animals which are contented with the simple productions of the earth.. . . . Wherefore, I here repeat that from the primæval institution of our nature, the teeth were destined to be the mastication, not of flesh, but of fruits.

"As for flesh, true indeed, it is that man is sustained on flesh. But how many things let me ask, does man do every day which are contrary to, or beside, his nature? So great and so general is the perversion of his mode of life, which has, as it were eaten into his flesh by a sort of deadly contagion (contagione veluti quâdam jam insuta est), that he appears to have put on another disposition. Hence, the whole care and concern of philosophy and moral instruction ought to consist in leading men back to the paths of Nature."

Helmont, it seems, had rested his principal argument for flesh-eating, not altogether in accordance with, Genesis, and certainly not in accordance with Science, on the presumption that man was formed expressly for carnivorousness. To this Gassendi replied that, without ignoring theological argument, he still maintained comparative Anatomy to be a satisfactory and sufficient guide. He then applies himself to refute the physiological prejudice of Helmont about the teeth, &c. (as already quoted), and begins by warning his friend that he is not to wonder if the self-love of men is constantly viewed by him with suspicion. (5)

"For, in fact, we all, with tacit consent, conspire to extol our own nature, and we do this commonly with so much arrogance that, if people were to divest themselves of this traditional and inveterate prejudice, and seriously reflect upon it, their faces must be immediately suffused with burning shame."

He repeats Plutarch's unanswerable challenge :-

"Man lives very well upon flesh, you say, but, if he thinks this food to be natural to him, why does he not use it as it is, as furnished to him by Nature? But, in fact, he shrinks in horror from seizing and rending living or even raw flesh with his teeth, and lights a fire to change its natural and proper condition. Well, but if it were the intention of Nature that man should eat cooked flesh, she would surely have provided him with ready-made cooks; or, rather, she would have herself cooked it as she is wont to do fruits, which are best and sweetest without the intervention of fire. Nature, surely, does not fail in providing necessary than to make food pleasurable? And, as she does in the case of sexual love by which she procures the preservation of the species, so would she procure the preservation of the genus.

"Nor, let anyone say that Nature in this is corrected, since, to pass over other things, that is tantamount to convicting her of a blunder. Consider how much more benevolent she would be proved to be, in that case, towards the savage beasts than towards us. Again, since our teeth are not sufficient for eating flesh, even when prepared by fire, the invention of knives seems to me a very strong proof. Because we have no teeth given us for rending flesh, and we are therefore forced to have recourse to those non-natural organs, in order to accomplish our purpose. As if, forsooth, Nature would have left us destitute in so essential things! I divine at once your ready reply: 'think that Nature has given man to reason to supply defects of this kind.' But this, I affirm, is always to accuse Nature, in order to defend our unnatural luxury. So it is about dress - so it is about other things.

"What is clearer [he sums up] than that man is not furnished for hunting, much less for eating, other animals? In one word, we seem to be admirably admonished by Cicero that man was destined for other things than for seizing and cutting the throats of other animals. If you answer that 'that may be said to be an industry ordered by Nature, by which such weapons are invented,' then, behold! it is by the very same artificial instrument that men make weapons for mutual slaughter. Do they this at the instigation of Nature? Can a use so noxious be called natural? Faculty is given by Nature, but it is our own fault that we make a perverse use of it."

He, finally refutes the popular objection about strength-giving properties of flesh-meat, and instances Horses, Bulls, and others. (6)

In his Ethics (affixed to his Books on Physics) he quotes and endorses the opinions of Epikurus on the slaughter of innocent life :-

"There is no pretence," he asserts, "for saying that any right has been granted us by law to kill any of those animals which are not destructive or pernicious to the human race, for there is no reason why the innocent species should be allowed to increase to so great a number as to be inconvenient to us. They may be restrained within that number which would be harmless, and useful to ourselves." (7)

With that Great Master he thus rebukes the fashionable "hospitality" :-

"I, for my part, to speak modestly of myself, lived contented with the plants of my little garden, and have pleasure in that diet, and I wish inscribed on my doors : Guest, here you shall have good cheer! here the Summum bonum is Pleasure. The guardian of this house, humanely hospitable, is ready to entertain you with pearl-barley (polenta), and will furnish you abundantly with water. These little gardens do not increase hunger, but extinguish it; nor do they make thirst greater by the very potations themselves, but satisfy it by a natural and gratuitous remedy.' " (8)



    1. See Article in English Cyclopœdia
    2. See Riémes de la Philosophie de Newton. The whole passage breathes the true spirit of humanity and philosophy and deserves to be quoted in full in this place: "(long quotation in French given)" - Elémens v. An expression of feeling in sufficiently striking contrast to the ordinary ideas. Compare Essay on the Human Understanding, ii., 2.
    3. History of materialism. - We may here observe that Descartes seems to have adopted his extraordinary theory as to the non-human races as a sort of dernier resort. In a letter to one of his friends (Louis Racine) he declares himself driven to his theory by the rigour of the dilemma, that (seeing the innocence of the victims of man's selfishness) it is necessary either to that they should be insensible to suffering, or that God, who made them, should be unjust. Upon which Gleizes makes the following reflection : "This reasoning is conclusive. One must either be a Cartesian, or allow that man is very vile. Nothing is more rigorous than this consequence." - (Thalysie Ou La Nouvelle Existence). La Fontaine has well illustrated the absurdity of the animated theory in Fables x. 1.
    4. See "Elémens de la Philosophie de Newton."
    5. Suspecta mihi semper fuerit (he writes) ipsa hominis [Greek]
    6. See Gassendi's Letter Vivo Clarissimo et Philosopho ac Medico Expertissimo Joani Baptiste Helmontio Amico Suo Singulari. Dated Amsterdam, 1629.
    7. Physics. Book II. De Virtutibus.
    8. See Philosophie Epicuri Syntagma. De Sobriete contra Gulam ("View of the Philosophy of Epikurus : On Sobriety as opposed to Gluttony.") Part III. Florentiæ, 1727. Folio. Vol. III.


Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index