Don’t quote ancient texts in modern veganism – you could be wrong
Pythagorean veganism? I think not.
If one was to spend enough time on the internet, perusing vegan blogs and the like, one would soon come across a pre-Socratic thinker supposedly advocating veganism (see image below). The intention of this essay is to reveal the pre-Socratics’ inherent anthropocentrism, thus showing the dangers of using their philosophy in modern vegan activism.
Pre-Socratic Greece was a very different world from the one in which we live. Religious animal sacrifice was commonplace and industrialised farming was beyond imagination. Any serious scientific study of animal anatomy was several centuries in the future, and philosophy itself was a new experiment. Out of this environment arose two philosophers, whom are often given a special status in the animal rights movement. These two philosophers were called Pythagoras and Empedocles.
I believe it is necessary that we do not impose moral standards upon the ancient philosophers before we begin. As stated, the world in which they lived was extremely different, and it would be anachronistic to impose our moral baseline. Despite this, the use of their individual philosophies and (supposed) quotes endorses their overall belief scheme, as it would with a modern thinker. For example, to use a Pythagoras quote in vegan activism implicitly accepts his philosophy, which, as I will show later, is anthropocentric. In the same way, if we were to use a Peter Singer quote in vegan activism, we would implicitly endorse non-veganism. Due to this, I believe it is important that we assess what the pre-Socratics believed, and whether we should use them in modern activism. The dangers of using their philosophy are twofold.
- An issue of sources.
The evidence of Pythagoras’ and Empedocles’ philosophies is deeply contradictory and flawed. Although it is remarkable that we are still able to access their philosophy, it is nevertheless constrained by the validity of the sources. No work of Pythagoras or Empedocles has survived, or was possibly ever recorded, and therefore all evidence is second/third/fourth hand. We find evidence of their beliefs in a great number of sources, including Ovid and Diogenes Laertius. For example, in one account, Pythagoras is said to have fed athletes a diet of meat. This account, among very many others, describes Pythagoras’ rejection of the moral status of the animal. In another account he is possibly being ridiculed for his ‘kindness’ towards a dog.
What he says of him is as follows :
They say that, passing a belaboured whelp,
He, full of pity, spake these words of dole :
“Stay, smite not ! ‘Tis a friend, a human soul ;
I knew him straight whenas I heard him yelp !”
(Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 8.36. Trans. Hicks 1972)
Here we see Pythagoras intervening when a dog is being beaten. One may see this as proof of Pythagoras’ respect towards animals, but I will explain why even this is problematic later on.
The issue arising here is that we have no consistent philosophy from Pythagoras, and a rather unstable one with Empedocles. Any vegan activist who is looking to use a pre-Socratic quote would be entangling themselves in debate that divides scholars, nevermind activists. If we are to present a clear vegan message, how are we to do this when there is such a great disparity between the sources?
(A comment on a PETA blog. Beyond the ‘animal loving vegetarian’ oxymoron, this comment is grounded in very contradictory evidence that is anything but conclusive, in regards to pre-Socratic, particularly Pythagorean, vegetarianism).
- Anthropocentrism as a central motive.
Unlike the abolitionist vegan philosophy, the central motive of the pre-Socratic view was anthropocentric. Anthropocentricity is what we call placing humanity at the centre of a philosophy. The problems with this are that the philosophy results in being one of human experience and human interest, rather than a rational evaluation of a greater field of experience. If we do this anything that is outside the realm of human experience (i.e. animal sentience) is excluded or marginalised. This is proven to be true when we look at the pre-Socratic’s philosophy. Both Pythagoras and Empedocles believed in reincarnation and argued that human souls could ‘transmigrate’ into animal bodies. It is not entirely clear what criteria the reincarnation was influenced by, if one at all, but it seems reasonable to suggest it was a moral one, given the references to ‘spiritual purity’. Yet, whichever the way that their reincarnation was formed, it is clear that transmigration of a human soul into an animal form presented a big worry for them. In their philosophy, the danger of using animals is, therefore, that one may unintentionally use a human soul. This is shown in the passage given above, where Pythagoras pleads to save a dog, because he recognised that the ‘whelp’ belonged to his deceased friend. Here the value of non-human animal sentience is ignored, if not rejected, while the animal body only gains moral value when it contains a human soul. Without a human soul, therefore, the animal body has no inherent value, with an implication that it is morally acceptable to use them. If we are to use pre-Socratic quotes in our vegan activism, we are implying that these views are okay and we align ourselves with them. On the contrary, as vegans we must reject all forms of animal use and uphold the moral status of every sentient being, regardless of their physical form.
In conclusion, it is awfully tempting to rely on ancient quotes in a modern debate. However, we must treat ancient philosophy with the same scrutiny as modern. Both Pythagoras and Empedocles place humans at the centre of their philosophies and therefore neither philosopher attributes inherent moral value to the non-human animal. Modern vegan activists may implicitly (and often accidentally) condone anthropocentrism. The pre-Socratic ‘animal rights debate’ was motivated not by justice, nor a respect for sentience, but an anthropocentric belief in reincarnation. The danger of using ancient quotes is one worth avoiding.
 Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 8.13.