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Don’t quote ancient texts in modern veganism – you could be wrong

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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.

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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.

  1. 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.[1] 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?

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(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).

  1. 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.

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Source

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.

[1] Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 8.13.

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0 Comments
  • Whereforetherefore.com

    You are incorrect, I am classist, who wrote his bachelors on ancient, pre-Socratic mysticism… Almost all our sources suggest Empedocles and Pythagoreans, along with numerous Pythagoreans (and other spiritual movements), were vegetarians, mostly plant based, practitioners even refrained from the use of leather in many cases; a fact for which they were renowned. The “Pythagoras” you are referring to, who offered meat to an athlete, is widely accepted to be another Pythagoras, it is far from unreasonable to suppose there to have been more than on Pythagoras mentioned throughout antiquity.
    Moreover, you have misunderstood the magnitude of the inclusiveness of these ancient giants (nor that of their Indian counterparts); there philosophy (love of knowledge) pursuit led these light towers of humanity to understand the inherent Oneness of all things. That – animals, plants, cosmos, matter, every-thing – is One. What you call anthropocentric is really much more inclusive than any unenlightened, postmodern philosophy. Conversely, I reckon these luminaries would be utterly flabbergasted by our modern unawareness of the Universal Interconnectedness.

    • Josef Bloomfield

      Hi, I also study Classics. In my studies I have that pre-Socratic views on the animal are deeply contradictory and fragmented. You are incorrect when you claim the identity of the Pythagoras in that example is widely accepted to be another Pythagoras. On the contrary, no certainty can be found, and all we can conclude is that the Pythagorean school of thought had no consistent message when it came to animals.
      You claim that ancient anthropocentrism is more inclusive than modern philosophy. Your claim seems to be based on the spiritual significance it has to you.I find it impossible to come to the same conclusion

      • Whereforetherefore.com

        It is not my spiritual understanding; inclusiveness is the very premise which underlines the entire principle of western and eastern reincarnation awareness. The underlying principle is everything is ONE. What you do to me will come back to you.
        Most neoplatonists, and Plutarch, and host of other more contemporary sources, were adamant that true Pythagoreans were vegetarians.

        • Josef Bloomfield

          Your interpretation of their philosophy ignores the overwhelming focus on the human. At the centre of the reincarnation philosophy lies the importance of human spirituality. There is no concern with the animal body and soul, other than that it may be human. My point in this article is to tackle attitudes, such as yours, where we treat ancient philosophy as exempt from proper analysis. If this was a modern philosophy, any vegan would be right to reject it. Yet as it is ancient you seem to believe that it supports unity over anthropocentrism. I see very little support for your claim in the actual literature. Also it is important to remember that there is disagreement over whether Pythagoras actually believed animals had souls. Many scholars maintain his vegetarianism was motivated by spiritual purity.

          Neoplatonists (and Plutarch) likely had little evidence to base their theories on, given that they flourish around 700 years after the last of the pre-Socratics. Again we must question their assumptions, rather than accepting it, just because it’s ancient.

          • Whereforetherefore.com

            I see your interpretation as being wisdom deprived, without understanding the meaning of inclusiveness, despite all your attempts at modern literary criticism. With all due respect, :-), I would advise you to sojourn in a dark cave for a week or two, as Pythagoras and Parmenides are said to have done, and Tibetan buddhists still so do to this day (for years at a time), and afterwards see if you better understand the meaning of inclusiveness in the context of the mystic. Or even intake LSD, in one of the many top universities, which are currently employing it to induce phenomenal mystical experiences, such as were available at Eleusis.
            We could go over the sources, and see how vegetarianism even influenced Plato and many of his successors, but it would be a waste of time, for both of us, because one can find justifications for whatever one desires in the final analysis. And it takes the perspective of a mystic, or a true philosopher, to truly come close to understanding some of the underlying principles. Alas, the inexperienced mind often cannot see the forest for the trees.

          • “And it takes the perspective of a mystic, or a true philosopher, to truly come close to understanding some of the underlying principles.”

            If a moral principle can only be understood by *some* specific kind of people, then it’s useless in any significant debate. Moral principles must rely on logic and fact so that everyone can understand them. Anything less is pretty much pointless.

          • Alice Henley

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          • Whereforetherefore.com

            You may have a heart-heavy axe to grind. More power to you, may you come closer to your truth. 🙂

        • Alice Henley

          Woah there Bud, and yet, you still insist on eating plants?
          …..And Wacko Reincarnation aside.
          SO IF WE ARE ALL/ EVERYTHING IS ….ONE.
          Ya still gotta eat something- you must eat some part of that “universal everything is one” ……Then this universal “oneness” Should apply equally to a Kale leaf as much as a barbecued chicken leg.
          (P.S. you misunderstand Karma)

          • Whereforetherefore.com

            You seem to have a heart-heavy axe to grind. More power to you, may you come closer to your truth. 🙂

  • AllVegan

    “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”

    I can find no logic in this argument. If he recognized the soul of his friend in the dog, that would not imply that he would believe that the soul, human or otherwise in another dog or animal whom he did not know would have less value. Logic would dictate that all dogs be treated humanely since there would be no way to determine whether a human soul resided in it or not.

    Today there is a great deal of evidence regarding the persistence of the soul, including documented out of body experiences, past life regressions, etc. To fault philosophers who lived thousands of years ago because they valued all life recognized the soul as eternal but did not exactly espouse modern vegan animal rights mantras is at the very least misguided.

    • Josef Bloomfield

      Hi AllVegan, in your post you highlight the very point I make. “Logic would dictate that all dogs be treated humanely since there would be no way to determine whether a human soul resided in it or not.” Here the animal body and soul is given no inherent moral value. The value of the animal body isis only that it may contain a human soul, rather thanthan that animal souls have any moral significance. I would say an alternative approach to this would be (if we are assuming the existence of soul): the animal body and soul are inherently valuable, due to their sentience in compound. If animals are only valuable because they may contain a human soul, any ‘humane’ treatment of animals is entirely anthropocentic.

  • Mark Caponigro

    Very good, Josef. I too am a classicist (very much older than you, however, to judge from your portrait at the Colosseum), and agree that the appeal by some vegans to ancient wisdom traditions is usually not well-informed, and in any case those ancient religious or philosophical texts do not easily fit into the kind of argumentation that our contemporaries rightly deserve. Such materials do a lot to inspire at least some of us, so that at least is good and constructive. But it does not make sense to trundle them out as weapons in a debate.

    Note that other ancient religious text, originally written in Greek but from a rival religious tradition, in PETA’s faux-image at the Parthenon, based on Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 6.19. Actually, in that case, it’s conceivable that Christians might interpret the Pauline text in such a way as to encourage abstinence from animal-sourced foods. But it’s not at all easy to assert that Jesus or Paul or any mainstream early Christian was vegetarian. (I should add to that, though, that Keith Akers has written an interesting book about the Ebionites and allied early Christians, who believed that the anti-Temple posture of Jesus was connected to his objection to animal sacrifice and to meat-eating, and who therefore took Jesus as a teacher of vegetarianism, among other things.)

    I for my part consider myself a Platonist, after a fashion, with an especial fondness for the emphases of Plotinus and Porphyry on the cosmic connectedness of all living creatures, sharing in Psychê. (And so, btw, my favorite Pre-Socratic is neither Pythagoras nor Empedocles, nor that favorite of so many others Heraclitus, but rather Parmenides.) There too, it’s not easy to derive a straightforward profession of non-anthropocentric moral regard for nonhuman animals from their writings, even from Porphyry’s “On Abstinence.” Nevertheless, it’s possible to articulate from them a foundation of an ethic that assigns high value to life in all its forms.

    Best wishes to you!

  • Alice Henley

    GEE, all I wanna know is does the Greek version of the Pythagorean quote (see above) ,have that same rap rhythm.

    .. Only kinda kidding here. But as texts/ quotes get translated/ handed down and re-written, and meanings get well…twisted… into what one feels is the “proper” (for that time period) interpretation. They get altered to fit the views of the people from the next time period or next “Religion”.

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