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

(text from the 2nd edition, 1896, scanned by )

THE earliest of the Latin Christian authorities extant has a place in the history of anti-kreophagist literature on account of his strong protest against the general contempt for the teaching, or example, of the original founders of Christianity as to Diet. As the first apologist of the new religion in the Latin and Western world, and as the author of numerous more or less important Christian controversial writings, Tertullian, necessarily, always has held a very eminent position in the history of Christianity. The well known heterodoxy of his later and more experienced life, however, has debarred him from the due honours of canonisation—the Protestant section of Christendom, for whatever reason, never having ventured to dispute the authority of the Papal Church in its distribution of those ecclesiastical posthumous dignities.

The known facts of his life are scanty ; nor even is it ascertained at what period he became a convert to the new religion. He was a native of Carthage, the third most considerable city in the Empire—and one of the most luxurious and licentious of the provincial capitals, scarcely surpassed by Antioch—son of a military officer under the Proconsulate of Africa. Both his parents were non-christian, and he seems to have been educated liberally in the Hellenic as well as in the Latin Literature—at least, in the polite part of it. For the philosophic writers, generally, no less than for the theologists of the established religion he always exhibits the greatest contempt. It was at about the age of thirty that he seceded to the Christian body (190, A.D.) up to which time he seems to have led a somewhat free life; although there is no reason to suppose his early career to have been so licentious as that of St. Augustine or even of St Jerome. From the moment of his secession from the ancient creed of Zeus and Apollo he was incessantly occupied in fierce controversy either with the established faith or (upon his adoption of the Montanist heresy) with the "Catholics." To the period (about the year 168) when the African Christians were subjected to a severe persecution—it was then that the well-known cries Christianos ad leones, Christianas ad lenones were first heard in the African capital—belong some of the most celebrated of his writings, An Address to the Martyrs ; the most famous of them all, the Apology or (accurately) the Book of Apology (Apologeticus ) ; and On the Shows (De Spectaculis) In the Book of Apology he indignantly repudiates the common accusations brought against his co-religionists of indulgence in the grossest vices and even crimes ; and pours out all the powers of an invective style in which he has been unsurpassed by any Christian controversialist (the great rival Latin theologian, St. Jerome, excepted) retorting upon their enemies—for the moment, almost in the spirit of Lucian. More interesting is his connexion with the sect of Montanus, who, in the middle of the second century, in conjunction with Prisca and Maximilla, the two women associated with him, founded a very considerable sect, which may be regarded as the prototype both of Puritanism and of the Society of Friends. According to the account of Jerome, he went over to these first Puritans disgusted at his ill-treatment by the Catholics who resented his denunciations of their corrupt morals. From this time the great Apologist assailed the Orthodox Party in a succession of vehement charges. On a Soldier's Wreath was his first decided assertion of Montanism. In this one of his most famous treatises he applauds the refusal of a Christian soldier to wear the accustomed garland of laurels, on a certain public occasion of military display, and celebrates his consequent meritorious martyrdom. (1) On Flight in Persecution, inspired by the recent conduct of many Christians under Severus (202) ; On Monagomy ; On the Dress of Women (De Culla Fœminarum) in which he denounces with yet greater vehemence than John Chrysostom at Constantinople, two hundred years later, the extravagance of the feminine fashions of the time ; "On Chastity or Modesty" (De Pudicitiá), in which all proportion in the estimate of the gravity of offences, even more conspicuously than is usual, is wanting ; "On Fasts" (De Jejuniis). He wrote, also, as reported, several works in Greek, all of which are lost.

He was a voluminous writer, and it is unnecessary to refer to more than one of the various controversial Tracts of the last period of his life. Of all the anti-heretical pieces, full as they are of the odium theologicum (inspired, however, in Tertullian's case by apparent sincerity rather than by mere partisanship) that which reflects most discredit upon his character as a controversialist is his attack, or rather libel, on Marcion, the distinguished heresiarch, author of the famous Antitheses. (2) His method of seeking to secure victory by exciting prejudice by calumny—so favourite, and so successful a device in theological or ecclesiastical history from the days of Lucian's Timoklês to the present day—against the heretic cannot too strongly be reprobated. According to Augustine, after his secession from Catholicism, he separated himself even from his Puritan friends, and, "propagated conventicles of his own." He is said to have died at an advanced age.

As for the erudition of the first of the Latin fathers, Erasmus, endorsing the sentence of Jerome, calls him by far the most learned of all the Latin theologians. (3) Of his ethics, a recent historian of Latin literature asserts that "he is the only early Christian writer who anticipates the [better] modern feeling, that in a living, healthy, community, the standard of conduct ought to be constantly rising ; the instinct, which recognises it, constantly growing." (4) His eloquence, and remarkable originality and vigour of style, are equally unquestionable (5) As for his personal character, it deserves at once admiration and much censure. Its merits are transparent sincerity, and consistency of life, though not of (ecclesiastical or theological) opinion ; extreme simplicity and frugality of living—from the date of his Montanist conversion—in contrast with the large majority of professing, orthodox Christians of his time. His faults are obvious—theological intolerance and fanaticism, as well as inconsistency in the expression of many of his ecclesiastical or theological beliefs ; and, it must be added, not infrequent logomachy and word-splitting. These grave faults, however, may chiefly be attributed to, and be largely discounted by, the period as well as by the atmosphere—climatic and religious—in which he was born and reared. (6)

The treatise, which concerns us here, is his De Jejuniis : Adversus Psychicos, (7) an essay in dietetic ethics which, apparently, has enjoyed no greater repute than the many other anti-carnal treatises with ecclesiastical authorities, whether papal or protestant. The champion of the anti-materialistic diet undertakes to expose the subterfuge of the professing Christians of his time, who appealed to the authority of their Founder and his immediate followers. He severely criticises the alleged defence of kreophagy in the much-disputed Pauline (or post-Pauline) Pastoral letter. As to the passage in Genesis, in which the writer by special reference to it seems specially to recommend, if, indeed, not absolutely to enjoin, the vegetable diet, the opponents of abstinence allege later permission :

"To this we reply," says Tertullian, "that it was not proper that man should be burdened with an express command to abstain, who had not been able, in fact, to support even so slight a prohibition, as not to eat one single species of fruit ; and, therefore, he was released from that stringency that, by the very enjoyment of freedom, he might learn to acquire strength of mind ; and, after the 'flood,' in the reformation of the human species, the simple command to abstain from blood sufficed, and the use of other things was freely left to his choice. Inasmuch as the Deity had displayed his judgment through the 'flood,' and had threatened, moreover, requisition of blood (whether at the hand of man or of beast), giving evident proof beforehand of the justice of his sentence, he left them liberty of choice and responsibility, supplying the material for discipline by the freedom of will ; intending to enjoin abstinence by the very indulgence granted, in order, as we have said, that the primordial offence might be the better expiated by greater abstinence under the opportunity of greater license." (Quo magis, ut diximus, primordiale delictum expiaretur majoris abstinentice operatione in majoris licentim occasione.)

He quotes various passages in the Hebrew Scriptures, in which the causes of the idolatrous proclivities, and the crimes, of the earlier Jews, are connected by Jehovah and his prophets with flesh-eating and gross living :

"Whether or no," he proceeds, "I have unreasonably explained the cause of the condemnation of the ordinary food by the deity, and of the obligation upon us, through the divine will, to denounce it, let us consult the common conscience of men. Nature herself will inform us whether, before gross eating and drinking, we were not of much more powerful intellect, of much more sensitive feeling, than when the entire domicile of men's interior has been stuffed with meats, inundated with wines, and, fermenting with filth in course of digestion, turned into a mere preparatory place for the draught [prœmeditatorium latrinarum.] (8)

"I greatly mistake (mentior) if the deity himself, upbraiding the forgetfulness of himself by Israel, does not attribute it to fulness of stomach. In fine, in the book of Deuteronomy, bidding them to be on their guard against the same cause, he says, 'Lest when thou hast eaten and art full—when thy flocks and thy herds multiply,' etc. He makes the enormity of gluttony an evil superior to any other corrupting result of riches. So great is the privilege (prerogative) of a circumscribed diet that it makes the deity a dweller with men [contubernalem:—'a fellow-guest'], and, indeed, to live (as it were) on equal terms with them. For, if the Supreme—as he testifies through Isaiah—feels no hunger, man, too, may become equal to deity, when he subsists without gross nourishment."

He instances Daniel and his companions "who preferred vegetable food and water to the royal dishes and goblets, and so became better in looks than the rest, in order that no one might fear for his personal appearance; while, at the same time, they were still more improved in understanding." As to the priesthood :—

"It was divinely proclaimed to Aaron, 'Wine and strong liquor shall you not drink, you and your sons after you,' etc. So, also, he upbraids Israel : 'And you gave the Nazarites wine to drink.' (Amos ii., 3.) Now this prohibition of drink is essentially connected with the vegetable diet. Thus, where abstinence from wine is required by the deity, or is vowed by man, there, too, may be understood suppression of gross feeding, for as is the eating, so is the drinking ( qualis enim esus, talis et potus). It is not consistent with truth that a man should sacrifice half of his stomach (gualm) only to God—that he should be sober in drinking, but intemperate in eating. (9)

"You reply, finally, that this [abstinence] is to be observed according to the will of each individual, not by imperious obligation. But what sort of thing is this, that you should allow to your arbitrary inclinations what you will not allow to the will of heaven? Shall more licence be conceded to human inclination than to the divine power ? I, for my part, hold that, free from obligation to follow the fashions of the world, I am not free from obligation to the requirements of Religion.

In regard to the well-known Pauline sentences (Rom. xiv., i, etc.), Tertullian supposes them to refer to certain teachers of abstinence who acted from pride, not from a sense of right :—

"And even if he have handed over to you the keys of the slaughterhouse or butcher's shop (macelli), in permitting you to eat all things, excepting sacrifices to idols, at least he has not made the kingdom of heaven to consist in butchery 'for,' says he, 'eating and drinking is not the kingdom of God, and food commends us not to him.' You are not to suppose it said of vegetable, but of gross and luxurious, food ; since he adds, 'neither if we eat have we anything the more, nor if we eat not have we anything the less.' (10) How unworthily, too, do you press the example of Christ as having come eating and drinking into the service of your lusts. I think that he who pronounced not the full but the hungry and thirsty' blessed,' who professed his work to be (not as his disciples understood it) the completion of his Father's will, I think that he was wont to abstain—instructing them to labour for that meat which lasts to eternal life, and enjoining in their common prayers petition, not for rich and gross food, but for bread only.

"And if there he One who prefers the works of justice, not, however, without sacrifice—that is to say, a spirit exercised by abstinence—it is surely that God to whom neither a gluttonous people nor priest was acceptable—monuments of whose concupiscence remain to this day, where lies buried a people greedy and clamorous for flesh-meats, gorging quails even to the point of inducing jaundice. (11)

We may here take occasion to observe that the fact of sacrifice throughout their history necessarily involves the practice of flesh-eating : indeed, the two practices are, historically, clearly connected. What however, we may fairly deduce from their more frugal living in the Egyptian slavery, lasting, as it did, through several centuries, during which period they must have been largely weaned from the gross living of their previous barbarous pastoral life, is this—that but for the sacrificial rites (and, perhaps, the necessities of the desert) the Jews would have, like other Eastern peoples, probably adopted this frugal living—of cucumbers, melons, onions, etc.—in their new homes. Such, at least, seems to be a legitimate inference from the highly-significant fact that, throughout their sacred scriptures, not flesh-meats but corn, and oil, and honey, and pomegranates, and figs, and other vegetable products (in which their land originally abounded), are their highest dietary—e.g., "oh ! that my people would have hearkened to me ; for if Israel bad walked in my ways. . . . he should have fed them with the finest wheat flour : and with honey out of the stony rock should I have satisfied thee." (Ps. ixxxi., 17; cf. also Ps. civ., 14, 15.) It is equally significant of the latent and secret consciousness of the unspiritual nature of the products of the Slaughter-House, even in the Western world, that in the liturgies or "public services" of the Christian churches, wherever food is prayed for, or whenever thanks are returned for it, there is (as it seems) a natural shrinking from mention of that which is obtained only by cruelty anal bloodshed and it is "the kindly fruits of the earth" which represent the legitimate dietary wants of the petitioners.

"Your belly is your god," thus he indignantly reproaches the apologists of kreophagy, "your liver is your temple, your paunch is your altar, the cook is your priest, and the fat steam is your Holy Spirit ; the seasonings and the sauces are your chrisms, and your eructations (12) are your prophesyings. I ever," continues Tertullian with bitter irony, "recognise Esau, the hunter, as a man of taste (sapere), and as his were, so are your whole skill and interest given to hunting and trapping—just like him you come in from the field of your licentious chase. Were I to offer you 'a mess of pottage,' you would, doubtless, straightway sell all your 'birthright.' It is in the cooking-pots that your love is inflamed—it is in the kitchen that your faith grows fervid—it is in the flesh dishes that all your hope lies hid. . . . Who is held in so much esteem with you as the frequent giver of dinners, as the sumptuous entertainer, as the practised toaster of healths?

"Consistently do you men of flesh reject the things of the spirit. But if your prophets are complacent towards such persons, they are not my prophets. Why preach you not constantly, 'Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die,' just as we preach, 'Let us abstain, brothers and sisters, lest to-morrow, perchance, we die' ?

"Let us openly and boldly vindicate our teaching. We are sure that they who are in the flesh cannot please God. (13) Not, surely, meaning 'in the covering or substance of the flesh,' but in the care, the affection, the desire for it. As for us, less grossness (macies) of the body is no cause of regret, for neither does God give flesh by weight any more than he gives spirit by measure. . . . Let prize-fighters (14) and pugilists fatten themselves up (saginentur)—for them a mere corporeal ambition suffices. And yet even they become stronger by living on vegetable food (xerophagia—literally, 'eating of dry foods'). But other strength and vigour is our aim, as other contests are ours, who fight not against flesh and blood. Against our antagonists we must fight—not by means of flesh and blood, but with faith and a strong mind. For the rest, a grossly-feeding Christian is akin (necessarius) to lions and wolves rather than to God, although even as against wild beasts it should be our interest to practise abstinence. (15)



    1. For this disapproval of military service (or rather of its pagan ritual, perhaps), Tertullian has been severely criticised by many of his modern Christian biographers—who, apparently, ignore the "Sermon on the Mount."
    2. "Oppositions" (between the Hebrew and Christian sacred books). The most interesting and most eminent of the Gnostic leaders, in the Christian body, upon the confession of his "Catholic" enemies themselves, was of the most irreproachable manner of life. He was noted as a strict vegetarian. The loss of the Antitheses is especially to be deplored, anticipating as it did by some sixteen centuries the Higher Criticism in certain respects.
    3. Hieronymus ( Jerome) himself excepted, it must be added. The author of Vulgate, like Origen, was well versed in the Hebrew language as well as in the Hellenic and Latin literatures. He was a vegetarian of the strictest kind. But his voluminous writings, both theological and epistolary, it must be allowed, do not exhibit all the amenity to be expected from the unsanguinary diet.
    4. Hist. of Lat. Lit, by G. A. Simcox, 1883. From this statement must be excepted, at least, Clemens of Alexandria and John Chrysostom.
    5. To him modern scholars are indebted for many interesting particulars in obscure Latin archaeology, allusions to which lie scattered in his multifarious writings.
    6. Some of the principal authorities for the life of Tertullian are Grotemeyer ; Weber, Tertullian's Lebon und Schriften (1863) ; Schwegler Der Montanismus (Tübingen, 1841); and a very full article in Dict. of Chr. Biography (W. Smith).
    7. " On Abstinence (Or Fasting) Against the Carnal-minded."
    8. Compare Seneca, Epistles, cx., and Chrysostom, Homilies.
    9. Aquis sobrins, et cibis ebrius. This important truth we venture to commend to the earnest attention of those reformers, or hygeists, who are adherents of what may he termed the semi-temperance Cause—who abstain from alcoholic drinks but not from flesh.
    10. A more accurate version of the original than that of the A. V. (I. Cor. viii., 8-13). We may here quote the conclusion of the Greek-Jew Apostle—"Wherefore, if [the kind of] meat is a cause of offence to my brother, I will eat no flesh while the world stands, that I may not be a cause of offence to my brother"—and press it, more particularly, upon the attention of English residents, and especially of Christian missionaries, among the sensitive and refined Hindus, who form so overwhelming a proportion of the population of the British Empire. According to the evidence of the missionaries of the various Christian churches themselves, their habits of flesh-eating have not infrequently been found to prejudice all but the lowest caste of Hindus against the reception of other ideas of Christian and Western civilisation.
    11. Usque ad choleram ortygometras cruditando. In the present case, it seems that the wanderers in the Arabian deserts were not so much clamorous for flesh as for some kind of sustenance, or rather for something more than the manna with which they were supplied ; since the late Egyptian slaves are reported to have said, "we remember the fish that we did eat in Egypt freely—the cucumbers, the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic ; but now our soul is dried away : there is nothing at all besides this manna before our eyes."
    12. Cf. Plautus Menæch., Act. I. i. ; Juv. Sat. xi. iil, etc.
    13. "For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh ; but they that are after the spirit the things of the spirit. For to be carnally minded is death ; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. . . . So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God. . . .Therefore, we are debtors not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if you live after the flesh, you must die ; but if you, through the spirit, do mortify the deeds of the body, you shall live." (Rom.5, etc.) A more spiritual apprehension of 'divine verities,' if we may so say, than the apparently more equivocal utterance of the same great reformer elsewhere. Here it is well to observe, once for all, that the whole significance of the utterances of the Christian teacher upon flesh-eating depends upon the bitter controversies between the older Jew and the newer Greek or Roman sections of the rising Church. It is, in fact, a question of the lawfulness of eating this flesh of the victims of the Pagan and Jewish sacrificial altars—not of the question of flesh-eating in the abstract at all. In fine, it is a question not of ethics, but of theological ritual.
    14. No expression of contempt for the gross feeding of the (later) athletes could well be stronger than that of Euripides, who represents, doubtless, the feeling of the higher culture of his day:—
    15. De Jejunius Adversus Psychicos. (Quint. Sept. Flor. Tertulliani Opera. Edited by Gersdorf, Tauchnitz.)
      Tertullian retorts upon his psychic opponents, who reproached him with heresy in exceeding the biblical laws on "fasting," that, whatever it was to them, "to him every day was equally holy." He is convinced that the "carnalist" is capable of every vice, and he even asserts that the agape(love-feast) was the frequent scene of incest as well as of gluttony : the former being the fitting sequel to the latter. "An apostle had given double honour to elders who were temperate : the carnalist gave double honour to bishops, who ate and drank most freely." See Dict of Ch. Biography, article Tertulliani (ed. by Wm. Smith and II. Wace, D.D. 1887.)

Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index