- Ovid – Metamorphoses
In the book XV of the Metamorphoses, Ovid talks about a philosopher who greatly influenced him – Pythagoras. Born in 570 BC in Samos, Pythagoras contributed to mathematics with his scientific discoveries, including the Pythagorean theorem, the Theory of proportions, the sphericity of the Earth, etc. He was a strict vegetarian and he implored people to adopt his diet. It is a little known fact that before the word vegetarian was invented, the vegetarians were referred to as Pythagoreans. Here is what Ovid says about him in his Metamorphoses:
“Human beings, stop desecrating your bodies with impious foodstuffs. There are crops; there are apples weighing down the branches; and ripening grapes on the vines; there are flavoursome herbs; and those that can be rendered mild and gentle over the flames; and you do not lack flowing milk; or honey fragrant from the flowering thyme. The earth, prodigal of its wealth, supplies you with gentle sustenance, and offers you food without killing or shedding blood. […] So amongst such riches, that earth, the greatest of mothers, yields, you are not happy unless you tear, with cruel teeth, at pitiful wounds, recalling Cyclops’s practice, and you cannot satisfy your voracious appetite, and your restless hunger, unless you destroy other life!”
“But that former age, that we call golden, was happy with the fruit from the trees, and the herbs the earth produced, and did not defile its lips with blood. Then birds winged their way through the air in safety, and hares wandered, unafraid, among the fields, and its own gullibility did not hook the fish: all was free from trickery, and fearless of any guile, and filled with peace. But once someone, whoever he was, the author of something unfitting, envied the lion’s prey, and stuffed his greedy belly with fleshy food, he paved the way for crime.“
“He is truly thankless, and not worthy of the gift of corn, who could, in a moment, remove the weight of the curved plough, and kill his labourer, striking that work-worn neck with his axe, that has helped turn the hard earth as many times as the earth yielded harvest. It is not enough to have committed such wickedness: they involve the gods in crime, and believe that the gods above delight in the slaughter of suffering oxen! A victim of outstanding beauty, and without blemish (since to be pleasing is harmful), distinguished by sacrificial ribbons and gold, is positioned in front of the altar, and listens, unknowingly, to the prayers, and sees the corn it has laboured to produce, scattered between its horns, and, struck down, stains with blood those knives that it has already caught sight of, perhaps, reflected in the clear water.”
“On this (so great is man’s hunger for forbidden food) you feed, O human race! Do not, I beg you, and concentrate your minds on my admonitions! When you place the flesh of slaughtered cattle in your mouths, know and feel, that you are devouring your fellow-creature.“
2. Plato – The Republic
Did you know that Plato’s ideal society was vegetarian, which Socrates himself calls it a “healthy city”? In the book II of The Republic, he describes meat as a ‘luxury’ leading to an unsustainable and unjust society.
“They will live on barley meal and wheat flour. Kneading and baking these, they will have fine barley cakes or wheat loaves served on reeds or fresh leaves” (372b).
“Obviously they will use salt, and olives, and cheese, and they will boil the usual country dishes of wild roots and vegetables. And for dessert we can offer them figs and chickpeas and beans; and they will roast myrtle berries and acorns in front of the fire, with a modest amount to drink” “[t]hey can live very well like this – they and their children…living lives which are peaceful and in all probability healthy…handing down the same way of life to their descendants” (372b,d).
Of course, the diet proposed by Socrates is essentially based on ethics, as the main goal of the ideal society is justice.
Socrates: Would this habit of eating animals not require that we slaughter animals that we knew as individuals, and in whose eyes we could gaze and see ourselves reflected, only a few hours before our meal?
Glaucon: This habit would require that of us.
Socrates: Wouldn’t this [knowledge of our role in turning a being into a thing] hinder us in achieving happiness?
Glaucon: It could so hinder us in our quest for happiness.
Socrates: And, if we pursue this way of living, will we not have need to visit the doctor more often?
Glaucon: We would have such need.
Socrates: If we pursue our habit of eating animals, and if our neighbor follows a similar path, will we not have need to go to war against our neighbor to secure greater pasturage, because ours will not be enough to sustain us, and our neighbor will have a similar need to wage war on us for the same reason?
Glaucon: We would be so compelled.
Socrates: Would not these facts prevent us from achieving happiness, and therefore the conditions necessary to the building of a just society, if we pursue a desire to eat animals?
Glaucon: Yes, they would so prevent us.
3. Plutarch – De esu carnium (On the Eating of Flesh)
Plutarch, another great ancient philosopher, describes meat eating as unnatural.
Can you really ask what reason Pythagoras had for abstaining from flesh? For my part I rather wonder both by what accident and in what state of soul or mind the first man who did so, touched his mouth to gore and brought his lips to the flesh of a dead creature, he who set forth tables of dead, stale bodies and ventured to call food and nourishment the parts that had a little before bellowed and cried, moved and lived. How could his eyes endure the slaughter when throats were slit and hides flayed and limbs torn from limb? How could his nose endure the stench? How was it that the pollution did not turn away his taste, which made contact with the sores of others and sucked juices and serums from mortal wounds? [De esu carnium, I]
In addition, he explains that if humans really had no other choice due to different weather conditions and shortage of food, this is not the case anymore (quick reminder: we are talking about a philosopher who claimed this 2000 years ago). We live in an age where it’s easiest to have a plant-based diet.
We declare, then, that it is absurd for them to say that the practice of flesh-eating is based on Nature. For that man is not naturally carnivorous is, in the first place, obvious from the structure of his body. A man’s frame is in no way similar to those creatures who were made for flesh-eating: he has no hooked beak or sharp nails or jagged teeth, no strong stomach or warmth of vital fluids able to digest and assimilate a heavy diet of flesh. It is from this very fact, the evenness of our teeth, the smallness of our mouths, the softness of our tongues, our possession of vital fluids too inert to digest meat that Nature disavows our eating of flesh. If you declare that you are naturally designed for such a diet, then first kill for yourself what you want to eat. Do it, however, only through your own resources, unaided by cleaver or cudgel or any kind of axe. Rather, just as wolves and bears and lions themselves slay what they eat, so you are to fell an ox with your fangs or a boar with your jaws, or tear a lamb or hare in bits. Fall upon it and eat it still living, as animals do. But if you wait for what you eat to be dead, if you have qualms about enjoying the flesh while life is still present, why do you continue, contrary to nature, to eat what possesses life? Even when it is lifeless and dead, however, no one eats the flesh just as it is; men boil it and roast it, altering it by fire and drugs, recasting and diverting and smothering with countless condiments the taste of gore so that the palate may be deceived and accept what is foreign to it. [De esu carnium, I]
4. Federico Garcia Lorca – The Cow
Lorca is one of the best Spanish poets of all time. He expressed his love towards animals and gave voice to the voiceless through his poems.
“The cows, the quick and the dead,
the ripening light or the honey of stables,
bawling with half-opened eyes.“
“Cows, dead and alive,
blushing light or honey from the stables,
bellowed with half-closed eyes.“
“The dead cows and the living,
redness of light or honey of the stable,
bleated with their eyes ajar.”
5. Isaac Bashevis Singer – Shadows on the Hudson
Nobel laureate in literature, Singer often included vegetarianism in his literary works. As a Jew who escaped the Nazi concentration camps during World War II, he described slaughterhouses as “an eternal Treblinka” for animals. In his book “Shadows on the Hudson”, he shares his thoughts on justice, ethics and animal sacrifice in religion.
“How can we speak of right and justice if we take an innocent creature and shed its blood?”
6. Voltaire – Dictionnaire philosophique (Philosophical Dictionary)
In his philosophical article named “Viande” (Meat), the French philosopher talks about the noble ability of the humankind to empathize with animals. As a philosopher of the Lumières (literally: Enlighteners, a French philosophical, cultural and intellectual movement fighting against irrationality), Voltaire underlined that human reason and ethics go together.
“We feel that we should excite compassion if the same were done to us”
“How pitiful, and what poverty of mind, to have said that the animals are machines deprived of understanding and feeling.
Judge (in the same way as you would judge your own) the behaviour of a dog who has lost his master, who has searched for him in the road barking miserably, who has come back to the house restless and anxious, who has run upstairs and down, from room to room, and who has found the beloved master at last in his study, and then shown his joy by barks, bounds and caresses. There are some barbarians who will take this dog, that so greatly excels man in capacity for friendship, who will nail him to a table, and dissect him alive, in order to show you his veins and nerves. And what you then discover in him are all the same organs of sensation that you have in yourself. Answer me, mechanist, has Nature arranged all the springs of feeling in this animal to the end that he might not feel? Has he nerves that he may be incapable of suffering?“
7. Claude Lévi-Strauss – Nous sommes tous des cannibales (We are all cannibals)
The french anthropologist and sociologist Claude Lévi-Strauss imagined a future without the meat industry: “A day will come when the thought that to feed themselves, men of the past raised and massacred living beings and complacently exposed their shredded flesh in displays shall no doubt inspire the same repulsion as that of the travellers of the 16th and 17th century facing cannibal meals of savage American primitives in America, Oceania or Africa“. This was one of the ideas that made him become vegetarian himself. As a sociologist, he links exploitation of animals with human exploitation, as being able to harm an animal may lead to harming people. Interestingly enough, he predicted global health crisis such as today’s pandemic whose cause is supposed to be a bat-to-human infection (result of animal consumption). Other examples are the Nipah virus, caused by human contact with infected pigs or avian influenza, infection found in domestic poultry.
8. Franz Kafka – Letters to Grete Bloch
Rumor has it that the Czech author Franz Kafka once looked at a fish in an aquarium and said, “Now I can look at you in peace; I don’t eat you anymore.” This thought sums up the serenity one feels after giving up meat. You may call him extreme, but he was brutally honest and realistic in the following quote: “One sits at the table laughing and talking and meanwhile tiny shreds of meat between the teeth produce germs of decay and fermentation, no less than a dead rat squashed between two stones.”
In his letters to Grete Bloch, he recommends the vegetarian diet as a healthy way of living.
9. Leo Tolstoy – Unpalatable Pleasures
One of the greatest Russian novelists, Leo Tolstoy wrote in defense of animal liberation. He became vegetarian after visiting a slaughterhouse himself, which he described in details:
“Even at the entrance one noticed the heavy, disgusting, fetid smell, as of carpenter’s glue, or paint on glue. The nearer we approached, the stronger became the smell. The building is of red brick, very large, with vaults and high chimneys. We entered the gates. To the right was a spacious enclosed yard, three-quarters of an acre in extent—twice a week cattle are driven in here for sale—and adjoining this enclosure was the porter’s lodge. To the left were the chambers, as they are called—i.e., rooms with arched entrances, sloping asphalt floors, and contrivances for moving and hanging up the carcasses. On a bench against the wall of the porter’s lodge were seated half a dozen butchers, in aprons covered with blood, their tucked-up sleeves disclosing their muscular arms also besmeared with blood. […]Through the door opposite the one at which I was standing, a big, red, well-fed ox was led in. Two men were dragging it, and hardly had it entered when I saw a butcher raise a knife above its neck and stab it. The ox, as if all four legs had suddenly given way, fell heavily upon its belly, immediately turned over on one side, and began to work its legs and all its hind-quarters. Another butcher at once threw himself upon the ox from the side opposite to the twitching legs, caught its horns and twisted its head down to the ground, while another butcher cut its throat with a knife. From beneath the head there flowed a stream of blackish-red blood, which a besmeared boy caught in a tin basin. All the time this was going on the ox kept incessantly twitching its head as if trying to get up, and waved its four legs in the air. The basin was quickly filling, but the ox still lived, and, its stomach heaving heavily, both hind and fore legs worked so violently that the butchers held aloof.“
He concludes: “We cannot pretend that we do not know this. We are not ostriches, and cannot believe that if we refuse to look at what we do not wish to see, it will not exist. This is especially the case when what we do not wish to see is what we wish to eat. If it were really indispensable, or, if not indispensable, at least in some way useful! But it is quite unnecessary, and only serves to develop animal feelings, to excite desire, and to promote fornication and drunkenness.”
“And see, a kind, refined lady will devour the carcasses of these animals with full assurance that she is doing right, at the same time asserting two contradictory propositions:
First, that she is, as her doctor assures her, so delicate that she cannot be sustained by vegetable food alone, and that for her feeble organism flesh is indispensable; and, secondly, that she is so sensitive that she is unable, not only herself to inflict suffering on animals, but even to bear the sight of suffering.
Whereas the poor lady is weak precisely because she has been taught to live upon food unnatural to man; and she cannot avoid causing suffering to animals—for she eats them.“