International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
IVU logo

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

Bust of Pythagoras of Samos in the Capitoline Museums, Rome

Pythagoras - extracts

PYTHAGORAS.—580-500 (?) B.C.
(text from the 2nd edition, 1896, scanned by - the 1st edition included an extra at Article II in the Appendix, giving 'The Golden Verses' in the original Greek.)

"A GREATER good never came, nor ever will come, to man than that which was imparted by the gods through Pythagoras." Such is the enthusiastic expression of admiration of one of his biographers. If this eulogy indicates the importance of the radical reformation in the dietary habits of his species, attempted by the first historical founder of anti-Kreophagy in the West, to the profounder students of the course of human history it may scarcely seem to be the extravagant estimate of mere hero-worship. Nor, if his teaching be regarded as a factor in the development of human thought, or of metaphysical speculation, is it possible to over-rate his influence. By all who are acquainted with the historical development of Hellenic philosophy, the influence of Pythagoreanism, direct or indirect, upon the later Jewish, and upon very early Christian ideas, will be recognised to be as important as it is indisputable.

There is a false, but there may also be a true (and reasonable), hero-worship. The former always has tended to maintain blind, unreasoning, subservience to mere authority, and thus has incalculably retarded the progress of the world towards the attainment of Truth. The old-world occupants of the popular Pantheon—"the patrons of mankind, gods, and sons of gods, destroyers rightlier called, and plagues of men"—have lost, indeed, much, if they have not as yet lost all, of their long-continued credit ; but their only partly-vacant places have yet to be filled by representatives of the better ideals of Right and Worth. Whenever, in place of the heroes of mere physical, or of mental power, the true heroes shall be enthroned ; among the moral luminaries, who have contributed to the lessening of barbarism, selfishness, and ignorance, the name of the Western prophet of the humaner life must assume a prominent position.

The personality of many of the most-interesting and important of the Master-spirits, in all ages, is of a vague and shadowy kind ; and when we reflect that little more is known of the personal life of Shakespear than that of Pythagoras—not to mention other eminent names—astonishment will be diminished, that, in an age long preceding the discovery of printing, the records of lives so influential as those of Pythagoras and Sakya-Muni are so altogether meagre. The earliest account of the teaching of Pythagoras is given by Philolaus of Tarentum, who, born about fifty years after the death of his master, was contemporary with Sokrates and Plato. His lost Pythagorean System (the fragments of which have been elaborately commented upon by Böckh) seems to have been largely incorporated by Plato in his Tinzæus. The remaining authorities for the Life are Diogenes of Laerte, Porphyry (one of the most erudite writers of any age), and Iamblichus. Of these, the biography of the last is the fullest, but not the most critical.

The more important one of Porphyry, unhappily, wants the beginning and end. Of the ten books of Iamblichus Of the Pythagorean Sect, of which only five remain, the first was devoted to the Life. Diogenes, who seems to have been of the school of Epikurus, belongs to the second, Porphyry and Iamblichus, the well-known exponents of new-Platonism, to the third and fourth centuries of the Christian era. (1) It must be stated at once that the life of Pythagoras is, to a large extent, half-legendary, and that much of his teaching has been more or less absurdly presented, or distorted, by later (and often hostile) writers.

According to the generally received account, Pythagoras was born in the island of Samos, about the year 570 B.C He acquired, it is probable, the best science and learning of the time in the school of Thales, and, more certainly, in that of Pherecydes, of Syros, from whom he is supposed to have imbibed the idea of the Metempsychosis. Urged by that insatiable curiosity and thirst for knowledge, common to most of the great Hellenic philosophers, he early set out on his travels; proceeding, in the first instance, naturally to Egypt—the nursery of old-world Science—having introductory letters from Polykrates, the ruler of Samos (celebrated by the fine story of Herodotus, and the ballad of Schiller) to Amasis, the Egyptian monarch. How far he extended his travels is uncertain. He visited parts of Syria, and, probably, Persia and Babylon—possibly, as the captive of the conqueror of Egypt, the Persian Kambyses. That he may have penetrated eastwards, so far as to the Indus, as some assert, is possible, but scarcely probable; the immense difficulties of the journey, in those days, considered. But some information of Hindu theology, and of its characteristic dogma of transmigration of souls, may have reached him indirectly through Persian sources ; a dogma common to Brahmanism and to its offshoot Buddhism. It is a highly remarkable coincidence, in the history of religious or moral ideas, that the two great prophets of the humaner life, in the East and in the West, were almost contemporary.

Upon his return to Samos, finding a despotic form of government established, and, apparently, despairing of his country, the future philosopher, in self-exile, betook himself to continental Hellas, and visited many of its principal city-states—Sparta, Delphi, and Athens, in particular. It is probable that he was admitted to the Sacred Mysteries of Eleusis, while in Attica. He then proceeded to Southern Italy, at that period crowded with powerful Hellenic city-states, as abounding in demoralising luxury as famous for a high degree of perfection in art and science. At Croton, or Crotona, his reputation secured for him an eager welcome from the oligarchic or aristocratic government of that State; and the philosopher, whose training, and, perhaps, natural bias, led him towards aristocratic rather than democratic institutions, seems readily to have responded to its, doubtless, highly flattering advances. But aristocracy was understood by the Samian sage in the proper and etymological sense of that much-abused term—not in its prevalent meaning. He meant by it government by the wisest and best ; although he must soon have been undeceived, if he had conceived hopes of establishing his idea of it, politically, in the administration of States.

His great purpose, however—to form a select society, regulated according to the higher ideal formed by him of human living—he seems to have realised not long after his arrival at Krotona in the first historical anti-flesh association in the Western World. It consisted of about three hundred young men, carefully chosen, belonging to the most influential families of the city and neighbourhood—the prototype, in its religious character, in certain respects, of the (earlier) ascetic establishments of Greek and Latin Christendom. To the School of Pythagoras women were admitted; and some of them seem to have distinguished themselves not only as learners but—like some of the Italian women, such as Vittoria Colonna, of the Revival period—also as lecturers. Among them the name of Theano, who has been supposed to have become the wife of the great Teacher, has been handed down as the most conspicuous ; and an extant collection of letters, bearing her name, whether genuine or not, proves the high estimation of her genius. In the celebrated fresco of Raffaelle, in the Vatican, known as the "School of Athens," Theano appears in the foreground by the side of her reputed husband, among the illustrious assemblage of the "Famous Wits." In a later age, in the new Platonist School of Alexandria, the world-renowned Hypatia—renowned equally for her eloquence, her learning, her beauty, and her fearful death at the hands of her fanatical persecutors—outshone all her male contemporaries, according to the witness of friends and enemies alike. The Female Pythagorean is the title of one of the innumerable dramas of the New Comedy (of the 4th and 3rd centuries, B.C.), fragments of which have been preserved in that miscellany of lost Hellenic literature, the Deipnosophists of Athenæus (2). With the poets of the latest development of the Attic Comedy—who may be regarded as the precursors of the modern novelist and littérateur—the frugality of the Pythagorean mode of living became (as it is, or lately was, with their modern representatives) a frequent subject for fashionable witticism.

It was the characteristic feature of the Egyptian and, in greater or less degree, of all sacerdotal religions, to reserve what they may have possessed of higher knowledge—of a higher kind, at least, than the barbarous system of theology that was promulgated to the mass of the people as the State religion—into which only privileged persons obtained initiation. This esoteric method, which, under the name of the Mysteries, in Hellas, has exercised the ingenuity of many modern writers, who, for the most part, have failed to penetrate the obscurity enveloping that remarkable institution of Hellenic theology—was accompanied with the strictest vows and circumstances of secrecy and silence. As for the sacerdotal order itself, its interests have always tended to maintain the superstitious ignorance of the people, and to hold them in unquestioning subjection. The philosophic sects, on the other hand, shielded themselves from priestly or popular suspicion by shrouding their scepticism in a convenient disguise. The esoteric method was a necessity, perhaps, of the earlier ages, but it is less to be excused in modern times; and it is to be lamented that the old theory, or pretext, of "expediency," (3) still maintains its ground. Whether from the philosophic motive, or influenced by mystic inclination, the founder of the new society constituted grades of catechumens and a probationary course, upward, to the completely initiated. The nature of all his interior instruction, necessarily, is very much matter of conjecture; for, whether he committed his system to writing, or not, nothing from his own hand has survived. But it is evident that its general spirit was ascetic, or rather self-control, founded on the great principles of Temperance and of Justice; and that the common life was a principal aim of his Sociology. He was the originator, indeed, of communism in the West; his communistic ideas, however, it must be added, were of an exclusive or aristocratic, (in the better meaning) rather than cosmopolitan or democratic kind "He first taught," says Diogenes, "that the property of friends is to be held for the common good; that friendship is equality; and his disciples laid down their money and goods at his feet, and had all things common."

The moral precepts of the great master may readily be believed to have been much in advance of the conventional ethics of the day. Upon his followers he enjoined, according to the same biographer, each time they entered their houses to interrogate themselves, "how have I transgressed? What have I done? What have I left undone that I ought to have done?" They were to live in perfect harmony, to do good to their enemies, and to convert them into friends by kindnesses. He forbade them either to pray for themselves (seeing that they were ignorant of what was best for them) (4) or to offer slain victims in sacrifice—teaching them to respect only a bloodless altar. Cakes and fruits were the only ceremonial sacrifices allowed. This and the new commandment, not to kill or injure any innocent animal, formed the grand distinguishing doctrine of his moral religion—as addressed, at least, to the fully initiated. So far did he carry his respect for the beautiful or beneficent in Nature, that he prohibited wanton injury to useful plant-life.

By confining themselves to the innocent, pure, and spiritual dietary he promised his followers enjoyment of health and equanimity, undisturbed and invigorating sleep, no less than superiority of mental and moral perceptions. As for his own diet "he was satisfied," says Porphyry, "with honey and bread, nor did he take wine in the daytime: his principal food was often kitchen herbs, cooked or uncooked." Fish he ate rarely.

The obligation to abstain from the flesh of animals, it is to be admitted, seems to have been founded, primarily, rather upon mental or spiritual than upon strictly humanitarian reasons. Humanitarianism—the extension of the sublime principles of justice and of compassion to all harmless sentient existence, irrespective of nationality, creed, or species—is a very modern, and even now very inadequately recognised, principle of morals; and, although there have been here and there a few, like Plutarch or Seneca, "splendidly false" to the spirit of the age, yet the recognition of the obligation (the practice always has been a very different thing) of benevolence and beneficence, so far from being extended to the non-human races, until quite recent times has been limited to the narrow bounds of country and citizenship; patriotism and internationalism still conflict as two antagonistic principles. Yet that the humane principle was not ignored by the prophet of Anti-Kreophagy appears evidently by his prohibition of infliction of pain, no less than of death, upon the lower animals as well as by his injunction to the initiated, at least, to abstain from the bloody sacrifices of the altar. Such was his abhorrence of the Slaughter-House, we are informed by Porphyry, that he could never endure contact with, or even the sight of, butchers and butcher-shops.

While thus careful of the lives and rights of the nonhuman races, he acknowledged the necessity of contending against the predatory carnivora, Yet to such a degree had he become familiar with the habits of all living beings, that he is said by the exclusive use of vegetable food not only to have tamed a formidable bear, whose devastations of the crops had injured the neighbourhood, but to have accustomed that half-carnivore (5) to live wholly without flesh. The story may be fictitious, but is not at all incredible ; for well-proved instances may be cited, in our own times, of true flesh-eaters that, for longer or shorter periods, have been successfully thus fed.

Among other reasons, says Iamblichus, Pythagoras enjoined abstinence from the flesh of living beings, because it conduces to peace. For those accustomed to abominate the slaughter of other animals as unjust and unnatural, will think it yet more unjust and unlawful to kill a man, or to engage in war. In particular, he exhorted politicians and legislators to abstain (6); since how could they pretend to enjoin justice, when they themselves violated all justice be sacrificing to cruel gluttony beings closely allied to us by nature ? For, through community of life and of the same essential elements, and the close sympathy, that ought therefore to subsist, they are conjoined to us, as it were, by a fraternal alliance.

I this refined thinker of the Sixth Century, B.C., were now living, what (we may pause to reflect) would be his indignation at the enormous slaughter of innocent life for the public banquets at which statesmen, and leaders of public opinion, are constantly feasted ("sumptuous gluttonies and gorgeous feasts," in Milton's language), and which are recorded in the journals with so much magniloquence! In the language of the great Latin satirist : "What would not Pythagoras denounce, or whither would he not flee, could he see these monstrous sights!" That such should be the outcome of two thousand years of a religion, of which he may, in some degree, be regarded as the original source, would give him just reason to lament his wasted labours for the regeneration of his fellow men.

How long the Communistic society of Krotona remained undisturbed, is uncertain. As its reputation and influence were widely spread, the outbreak of violence—the origin of which is obscure, but apparently traceable to the not unnatural suspicions of the democratic party—by which the Association was dissolved, and the disciples perished by a terrible death, may be supposed to have happened about the year 510. The Master himself seems to have escaped, or to have been absent at the moment of the outbreak, and is commonly believed to have survived to an advanced age. Porphyry, who quotes many of the older authorities, cites one biographer to the effect that he was saved only by the self-sacrifice of his disciples when the building, in which they were assembled, had been set on fire.

It is as a moralist that Pythagoras deserves prominent commemoration in this work ; nor is it within its purpose to discuss minutely the physical, or theological, theories attributed to him. In accordance with the abstruse speculative character of the Ionic school of Science, which inclined to refer the origin of the Universe to some one primordial principle, his mathematical predilections led him to discover the Cosmic element in number or harmonical proportion. Regarding the sun as more divine than the earth, and for that reason setting that ultimate source, as well as luminary, of our planetary universe in the centre of the system, he may be said to have taught the theory of Kopernik prematurely and imperfectly (7). His older contemporary, and possible master, the celebrated Thales may claim, it is a yet more interesting fact in the history of Thought, to have been the remote originator of the nebular origin of the universe—the theory revived and developed by La Place and modern astronomy.

Another doctrine of less scientific basis, peculiar to the Pythagorean School, was the Harmonical or Musical (as it is generally termed), which supposed the intervals between the planetary globes to be regulated by the laws of the musical scale; and their movements, producing certain sounds or notes, depending on their distances and velocities, to form a regular, harmonious, rhythm. Hence the fanciful idea, so popular with the poets (well known, in particular, in the Shaksperian Lorenzo's eloquent Platonic discourse) of the "music of the spheres," imperceptible by mortal ears, because—in the language of the Christian Fathers, who adopted it from Plato—the "muddy vesture," in which human souls are imprisoned, hinder them from so spiritual perception.

Music assumes a prominent place in the Pythagorean philosophy, and to it was attributed the greatest influence in the control of the passions. In its larger sense, music denoted not only the "concord of sweet sounds," but, also, an artistic and êsthetic education in general. In the scientific curriculum medicine and geometry occupied a foremost place. The famous dogma of the Metempsychosis, or transmigration of souls, undoubtedly formed a principal and prominent feature in the Pythagorean system. Possibly, Pythagoras intended through it to convey to the "uninstructed" the sublime idea that the soul is gradually purified by discipline until, finally, it becomes fitted for a fleshless life of immortality (8), or (in Buddhistic language) for the ultimate goal of all existence—Nirvana, final cessation from all conscious existence. The human soul he is said to have taught to be a particle of the divine essence, constantly floating in the aerial envelope, until it is inbreathed by the human being at the very moment of birth—that, at the dissolution of "the tenement of clay," it descends to the lower world, reascending, after certain long periods, to resume its flight in the upper air until once more "that fiery particle" reanimates, at need, another human birth (9).

We are chiefly concerned with his attitude in regard to butchering for food. There can be no reasonable doubt that abstinence from flesh—as far, at all events, as the initiated were concerned—was a fundamental principle of his teaching. Yet some modern critics—little in sympathy with the practical manifestation of the higher life—have affected either to question the fact, or have passed it by in contemptuous silence, ignoring what, for all after time, remains by far the most important residuum of Pythagoreanism. In support of this doubt, the story of the celebrated athlete, Milon, whose prodigies of strength have become proverbial, has been quoted. Yet if these critics had been at the pains of inquiring further, they would have learned that the non-flesh diet, reasonably practised, is exactly that which has been proved to be most conducive to physical vigour—that in the East (no less than in the West) at this day there are Vegetarians who, in feats of strength, surpass even the strongest of the orthodox-living Europeans. The extraordinary vigour of the boatmen and porters of Constantinople has been remarked with astonishment by many travellers; and Chinese coolies are almost equally famous for their surpassing powers of endurance. Yet their food not only is of the most frugal sorts, rice, dhourra (millet), onions, etc.—but of the scantiest amount What, perhaps, is more to the point, the older Greek athletes themselves, for the most part (probably, wholly) trained in the same abstinent way. Not to multiply details here, the simple fact that, upon a moderate computation, two-thirds of the population of our globe—including the mass of the inhabitants of these islands—live, willingly or unwillingly, upon a dietary from which flesh is almost wholly excluded—forms in itself a sufficient reply to the pretended doubts, and a sufficient proof of the superfluousness of the diet, which necessarily everywhere is limited, for the most part, to the rich or richer classes.

While the general consent of earlier and of later times has accepted, as undoubted, the obligation of strict abstinence on the part of the immediate followers of Pythagoras; it seems to be doubtful whether the obligation lay upon the uninitiated, or (to use ecclesiastical language) the catechumens, or those who were being instructed in the mysteries. As to the mass of the people, their physical or spiritual interests received as little attention, from teachers or rulers, as did those of the proletariat in the Age immediately preceding our own. If the critics had been more intent on displaying the excellence of the dietary reform of Pythagoras, in general, than on discussing, with frivolous diligence, the possible reasons of his alleged prohibition of beans, it would have redounded more to their credit for wisdom and love of truth. Assuming the fact of the prohibition, in place of collecting all the absurd gossip of antiquity, they might have discovered a more rational cause in the hypothesis, that the bean (10), being, as used in the ballot, an outward and visible sign of political life, was employed by the philosopher, symbolically, to dissuade his followers from participating in the idle strife of party faction ; and to exhort them to concentrate their efforts for the reformation of the world, not for the selfish interests of this or that political pretender.

Blind hero-worship and idolatry of genius or intellect—even of intellect directed to high moral aims—forms no part of our creed ; and we are forced to confess the founder of anti-kreophagy to have been not exempt from human infirmity, and to have not been able wholly to rise above the wonder-loving spirit of necessarily uncritical and non-rationalist ages. But deducting all that fairly may be imputed to him of the fanciful or fantastic, enough still remains to compel us to recognise in the philosopher-prophet of Samos one of the master-spirits of the world (11).


  1. Clemens of Alexandria (Stromat.) records that there were no less than twenty biographies extant in his day (2nd century, A.D.), a fact confirmed by Porphyrius.
  2. In his Female Pythagorean, the dramatist Alexis excites the "inextinguishable laughter" of his Athenian audience of the beau monde—with the "groundlings," the witticism must have failed of its intended effect—by thus holding up to ridicule the reformed diet :
    . . . . "The banquet shall be figs and grapes and cheese,
    . . . . For these the victims are which the strict Law
    . . . . Allows Pythagoras' sect to sacrifice."
    See, also, the Tarentines of Alexis, and the Monuments of Antiphanes as given (in quotation) by Athemeus in the Dinner-Philosophers.
    As for feminine Hellenic intellect, the names of Sappho, Erinna, Corinna, Agnodike, Aspasia, Zenobia, Praxilla, with the two illustrious ones mentioned above, prove it to be quite possible that the Ecclesiazusa ("Women in Parliament,") satirised by the surpassing comic genius of Aristophanes, if realised, may very well have at least, equalled the Ecclesiazontes ("Parliament Men") of Athens, in legislative as well as intellectual ability—possibly surpassed them in the sense of justice. But the latter achievement, as respects any age or country, would have been no very difficult matter.
  3. Among others, Polybius (in his Pragmateia or History), Cicero, and Strabo (Geographica), in remarkable passages, defend the policy of concealment.
  4. Cf the Platonic Dialogue Alkibiades, II. and Juvenal Sat. X. passim.
  5. Some of the Bear species, however, seem to be, frugivorous.
  6. In his famous speech on the Gin Act in the house of Peers, Lord Chesterfield (who was honourably distinguished from his confrerés by a certain degree of humaneness of disposition), commended this same argument to the attention of the British Senators and Legislators ; although with small hope, it may be presumed, of the adoption of his panacea.
  7. According to Philolaus (ap. Böckh), who possibly misunderstood the physical exposition of the Master, he taught rather that the Sun, with our planet and the rest, circled round a central globe of fire. Even this presentation of the astronomical theory was much in advance of his contemporaries. Even the scientific acumen of Aristotle failed to discover the truth. Aristarchus (of Samos), however, in the third century B.C., seems to have, in some measure, anticipated the great revolutionary discovery of the German savant. Herakleitus, who asserts the primum mobile to be the electric fluid, seems to have been a strict Vegetarian.
  8. The allegory of the sufferings, and final deliverance and purification, of the human soul, embodied in the charming story of the loves and sorrows of Psyche and Eros, was a favourite one with the New Platonists. Apuleius inserted it, as is well known, in his romance of the Metamorphoses, commonly entitled the Golden Ass.
  9. See, among other critics, Ritter, Die Geschichte der Pythagorischen Philosphie. It is to this psychological theory that Virgilius alludes (Æners VI.) where he adumbrates, by anticipation, the Christian Purgatory no less than the Christian Inferno. Pythagoras seems to have limited the migrations of the human soul to human habitations.
  10. In a well known passage Horatius refers to the Pythagoran bean : "O noctes cœnœque deûm," Sat. II. 6. See Lucian's very witty satire, the Sale of Lives.
  11. "As for the fruits of this training or belief [the Pythagorean], affirms the author of the article on "Pythagoras," in the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography (edited by Dr. W. Smith), wherever we have notices of distinguished Pythagoreans we usually hear of them as men of great uprightness, conscientiousnesss and self-restraint, and as capable of devoted and enduring friendship." Among them the names of Empedoklês, Archytas, Æschylus (with some probability : see the opening of the most splendid of Greek tragedies, the Agamemnon and the Prom. Bound), Epicharmus (the most distinguished poet of the Doric Comedy), and, in large degree, Plato may be reckoned. Empedoklês is treated separately in the next section. Archytas was one of the very greatest mathematical and scientific geniuses of antiquity. He was distinguished alike as a philosopher, savant, and statesman. In mechanics he was the inventor of the famous Flying Dove, one of the wonders of the older world. In the annals of friendship no names have become better known than those of Damon and Pythias [Phintias], whose devoted fidelity forms the subject of one of Schiller's finest ballads, Die Bürgsehaft ("The Pledge" ). Among the Latin race, the legendary, or half legendary, second king of Rome, and the sacred legislator of the incipient State, is claimed as Pythagorean. (Plutarch's Par. Lives and Ovid Metem. xx. inter alios.) For an interesting monogram on Pythagoras see Der Weise von Samos of Eduard Baltzer (late Pres. of the Vegetarian Society in Germany) Leipzig, 1879. He uses the Forschungen of E. Rõth. Of the orthodox critics, Ritter (Die Geschichter der Pyth. Phil.) is one of the most extensive.

Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index