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Vegetarianism: The Vilification and Virtues of Verdant Victuals (A History)

Vegetarianism is often thought of as a hippie fad or a relative of the organic and local food movements. In fact, vegetarianism--voluntary abstinence from the consumption of animal flesh--has been around since ancient times. The vegetarian diet has been followed for numerous reasons, including religious, health, social, political, and moral. Many familiar historical figures, from Pythagoras and the Buddha to Leonardo Da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin, were in fact vegetarians. Since World War II, vegetarianism has expanded in the Western world in response to concerns about animal welfare and efficient resource allocation. However, the vegetarian diet is not new and has been present in most places and times throughout human history.

The story begins long ago: 24 million years ago, the first primates emerged; they are called homonoids and are genetic ancestors of both humans and apes (Spencer). Examination of homonoid teeth shows that these creatures were equipped to eat fruits, berries, nuts, roots, vegetables, and perhaps the occasional grub or insect (Spencer). Later homonids--genetic ancestors to humans but not to apes--had teeth that were not suited to meat-eating either, nor did the places where their skeletons were found contain any tools or animal bones, despite the fact that these homonids had the brain capacity and manual dexterity to create tools and use them to hunt had they so chosen (Spencer). This indicates that the homonids may have been voluntary herbivores--the first vegetarians. About two million years ago, a homonid species called Homo habilis is thought to have begun scavenging, as evidence has been found of meat consumption but not of tool building or hunting (Spencer). It is believed that not until 1.5 million years ago did human ancestors begin hunting (Spencer). The idea that humans evolved to be herbivores is supported by the fact that the human digestive system more closely resembles those of herbivores than omnivores; humans who follow a vegetarian diet are less likely to contract many diseases such as cancer and heart disease, further supporting the idea that consuming flesh is not something we are made to do (Edu.PE.CA).

Vegetarianism in the ancient world was first recorded in Egypt and Babylon (Spencer). Egyptian vegetarianism began around 3200 BCE and was rooted in a religious belief in reincarnation (Spencer). After all, if you may be reincarnated as a cow, eating beef begins to seem both cannibalistic and short-sighted. Egypt and Babylon are both located near the Fertile Crescent, thought to be the birthplace of organized civilization. Insofar as that is the case, it is believed that all ancient vegetarianism stems from the proto-religious beliefs found in that area prior to humanity’s dispersal across the continents (Spencer).

Vegetarianism was next practiced religiously in India. Both the Rig Veda and the Upanishads, two very sacred texts in Hinduism, reference and advocate a vegetarian diet (VegSoc.org). Other ancient eastern religions, such as Zoroastrianism, Jainism, and Brahmanism, also incorporated vegetarianism in their teachings of nonviolence and respect for all life (VegSoc.org). The early Indus civilization, which eventually gave birth to all of these religions, is thought to have been a migratory offshoot of the Fertile Crescent civilization, supporting the idea that all ancient vegetarianism can be traced there (Spencer).

Around 600 BCE, two very influential men became vegetarians. One was Pythagoras, the Greek who is most famous for his theorem about the relationships between the side lengths of right triangles. Pythagoras was an egalitarian and welcomed women as equals and intellectual peers (VegSoc.org). He also considered animals to be kindred souls to humans; killing animals, he argued, damaged the human soul and desensitized people to killing, so widespread vegetarianism could contribute to widespread peace (VegSoc.org). Pythagoras’s vegetarianism was so famous that Western vegetarians were often known as “Pythagoreans” until the middle of the nineteenth century (VegSoc.org), when the word “vegetarian” was invented (Edu.PE.CA). Possible influences to Pythagoras include the Orphic religion, the Eleusinian Mysteries, and the cult of Dionysus, all of which advocated nonviolence and respect for other souls (Spencer).

Curiously, another potential influence on Pythagoras was the Buddha (VegSoc.org). Later biographers of Pythagoras in ancient Greece referred to the man’s travels to India (Sacred-Texts.com). However, this may well have been a rumor. On the other hand, Pythagoras’s teacher, Pherecydes, may have been a Persian with exposure to both Eastern and Western thought and may have thus acquainted Pythagoras with the ideas of the Rig Veda and other Eastern texts that advocated vegetarianism (Sacred-Texts.com). The Buddha was a contemporary of Pythagoras who grew up a prince and became an ascetic when he saw the ways that humanity suffered (Online.SFSU.edu). As an ascetic monk, he developed many teachings that would help humanity stop suffering (Online.SFSU.edu). Among these teachings was a vegetarian diet (VegSoc.org). Pythagoras’s moral reasoning for vegetarianism much resembles the Buddha’s (VegSoc.org), although many arguments for vegetarianism throughout the centuries have closely resembled one another (Spencer), so the resemblance could be coincidental.

While many Eastern religions have long embraced vegetarianism, however, Western religions have not. Aristotle argued against Pythagoras’s moral vegetarianism, insisting that the animal kingdom was created for humanity’s benefit and that humans had a right to consume animal flesh (VegSoc.org). Classical Rome and Medieval Christianity both agreed with Aristotle on this matter, and both considered vegetarians demonic, potentially dangerous, and subversive (VegSoc.org). However, some notable Romans were Pythagoreans anyway, including Plutarch, Porphyry, and Apollonius (VegSoc.org). During the Middle Ages, the Manichean and Bogamil sects of Christianity broke off from the established church because they believed that the consumption of animals was against God’s will and that vegetarianism was a more holy way to live (VegSoc.org). Both sects were persecuted as heretical and many were put to death (VegSoc.org). However, two notable Christian vegetarians survived: St. Francis of Assisi, now the patron saint of animals, and St. David, the patron saint of Wales (VegSoc.org).

During the Renaissance, Christianity stopped seeing vegetarianism as quite the same threat. A few critics of the excesses of high society became vegetarian, which was greatly facilitated by the advent of many new vegetables from the Americas that had recently been brought to Europe by the explorers of the day (VegSoc.org). Leonardo Da Vinci was one such Renaissance vegetarian.

During the 1700s, many Christians began to question whether God did, in fact, intend them to eat meat. An eighteenth-century physician, Dr. Cheyne, tried to cure himself of obesity and its related ills by becoming a vegetarian (VegSoc.org). Dr. Cheyne was evidently successful, because he accrued a large realm of influence that included John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement in Christianity, who became vegetarian as an adult (VegSoc.org). Benjamin Franklin was one of the most prominent vegetarians of the day (Kamin), as were the poets John Gay and Alexander Pope as well as a man named John Howard, who reformed the British prison system (VegSoc.org). These men were no longer seen as deviant for their dietary choices; times, it seems, had changed.

Romantic poet Percy Shelley (1792-1822) became a vegetarian for health reasons but proceeded to make an argument based on resource distribution: resources given to animals as feed could feed more people than the meat of the animals in question (VegSoc.org). This has been supported by many investigations since; in bringing forward this argument, Shelley added political and social dynamics to the vegetarian movement (VegSoc.org).Two prominent physicians of the day, Dr. William Lambe and Dr. John Newton, also supported vegetarianism for health reasons and accrued many followers, increasing the popularity of the vegetarian diet (VegSoc.org). Some vegetarians of the day sought to invent new foods that would offer meatless alternatives for those who sought them. John Harvey Kellogg, a Seventh-Day Adventist, invented breakfast cereal, while Sylvester Graham invented a cracker that he believed to be “nutritionally superior” to meat (Kamin).

In 1847, a Vegetarian Society was founded in England, followed in 1850 by one in the United States (VegSoc.org). It was the British Vegetarian Society that invented the term “vegetarian,” replacing the moniker “Pythagorean” that had been applied to Western vegetarians since the days of ancient Greece (Edu.PE.CA). These vegetarian societies were open to those who followed a vegetarian diet, though the societies themselves were associated with radical Christianity, which had indeed in some cases begun advocating vegetarianism (VegSoc.org). One example is the Bible Christian Church, founded by Reverend William Cowherd, whose religious experiences had been both within the Church of England and in a mystic Christian offshoot called Swedenborgianism (VegSoc.org). The Bible Christian Church urged all of its members to become vegetarians (VegSoc.org). This was becoming easier: by the late 1800s, London had several popular vegetarian restaurants (VegSoc.org).

It was lucky London had those vegetarian restaurants, because they played a great role in the life of one of the most prominent vegetarians of the twentieth century. Mahatma Gandhi was raised a Hindu vegetarian, and he remained a vegetarian when he traveled to England to pursue a law degree, but only because his mother insisted upon his vegetarianism (Sannuti). However, he had tried meat as a young man and had become convinced that only through eating meat would the Indian people become physically strong enough to fight off their British oppressors (Sannuti). In England, Gandhi found the vegetarian restaurants and was there introduced to the Vegetarian Society, which showed him reasons for vegetarianism that extended far beyond the blind religion that he had seen as driving India’s dietary choices (Sannuti). In this way, Gandhi began to form his own opinions about meat-eating and vegetarianism (Sannuti). He came to realize that meat-eating was a form of violence because meat involved the slaughter of animals, and that the spiritual strength of those who abstained from the pleasure of meat-eating for moral reasons could overcome the physical and military strength of the British who ruled India (Sannuti). This moral, conscious vegetarianism set Gandhi on a path toward his Satyagraha movement and India’s eventually successful quest for independence (Sannuti).

Ironically, shortly before finally granting India its independence, many in Britain became vegetarians. This happened because of World War II, when food rationing meant that it was much easier for Britons to gain access to protein sources such as nuts, eggs, and cheese than it was for them to get their hands on meat (VegSoc.org). Further, the British government encouraged the populace to grow their own fruits and vegetables so that farm-grown produce could be sent to the soldiers (VegSoc.org). Thus, largely out of convenience or a sense of patriotic duty, many people became complete vegetarians; by 1945, at the war’s end, there were about 100,000 Britons following a vegetarian diet (VegSoc.org).

The popularity of vegetarianism has been on the rise ever since. During the 1950s, factory farming began in earnest in the Western World, and many in the informed populace took issue with the practice and became vegetarians (VegSoc.org). The 1960s saw the rise of a counterculture that embraced vegetarianism purely because it was countercultural (VegSoc.org).

In the 1970s, backlash against factory farming intensified as the academic community began loudly addressing the issue of animal welfare for the first time (VegSoc.org). In 1970, Frances Moore Lappe wrote a book called Diet for a Small Planet, which encouraged people to become vegetarians (Edu.PE.CA). She, like Percy Shelley, focused on the resource waste involved in feeding vegetables and grains to animals in order to then consume the animals’ meat, rather than allowing people to consume the vegetables and grains directly (Edu.PE.CA). Unlike Shelley, Moore Lappe had research on her side: she found that it took 14 times as many resources to produce meat than to produce an equivalent caloric quantity of vegetarian food (Edu.PE.CA). Moore Lappe was not the only one writing on the issue, either: in 1975, an Australian ethics professor named Peter Singer wrote Animal Liberation, an academic argument for a vegetarian diet (Edu.PE.CA).

During the 1980s and 1990s, concerns about the environmental impacts of large-scale meat production rose as worries about burgeoning population pressures and human impacts on the environment in general were gaining traction (VegSoc.org). Against this backdrop, vegetarianism was seen as a way to conserve resources. Meanwhile, outbreaks of salmonella and mad cow disease convinced many people that meat was not safe, driving more people to vegetarianism (VegSoc.org). With obesity becoming a recognized problem throughout the Western world, people began to pay a new sort of attention to their diets, health, and lifestyles (VegSoc.org). This led to increased levels of vegetarianism as people saw a vegetarian diet as a part of a healthy way of living (VegSoc.org). However, myths abounded about vegetarianism, with some people saying that it was dangerous because people would not be able to get enough protein and would therefore suffer illnesses or die prematurely (Edu.PE.CA). In 1987, John Roberts wrote Diet for a New America, which aimed itself at dispelling these rumors (Edu.PE.CA). Diet for a New America highlighted that it is possible to obtain protein from meatless sources, that factory farming is abominable, and that resource waste is inherent in the production and consumption of meat (Edu.PE.CA).

Today, about five percent of Americans identify as vegetarians (Kamin). While some people cling to their beliefs about the dangers of a diet without meat or stereotype vegetarians as hippies, in reality vegetarianism has a long history involving many famous, brilliant, and admirable figures. While meat consumption is still the norm throughout the Western world, it is becoming increasingly easy to be a vegetarian as many restaurants and grocery stores become accustomed to the reality that, in the past 60 years, vegetarianism has edged its way closer to the first-world mainstream.

Voluntary abstinence from meat consumption may have begun millions of years ago with homonids who did not hunt even though they had the capacity to do so. It may be rooted in proto-religious beliefs fostered in the Fertile Crescent. It may have been a topic of agreement for Pythagoras and the Buddha. It has certainly played a prominent role in many Eastern religions for millennia, while being reviled as heretical in the West until a few centuries ago. As the Western world has played catch-up, social and environmental concerns have been thrown on top of the spiritual and religious ones that had always been used to promote vegetarianism. Today, vegetarianism is more popular than ever.

Works Cited

"Following the Buddha's Footsteps." Online.SFSU.edu. San Francisco State University, 25 Apr. 2002. Web. 10 July 2013. <http://online.sfsu.edu/rone/Buddhism/footsteps.htm>.

"History of Vegetarianism." Edu.PE.CA/SourisHigh. Souris Regional High School, Prince Edward Island, Canada, n.d. Web. 9 July 2013. <http://www.edu.pe.ca/sourishigh/Pages/Cmp6-03/Beth/Homepage/history_of_vegetarianism.htm>.

"India and Greece." Sacred-Texts.com. Evinity Publishing, Inc, 2011. Web. 10 July 2013. <http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/aot/aot/aot04.htm>.

Kamin, Sari. "Pythagoras' Other Theorem: A Short History of Vegetarianism." Web log post. HuffingtonPost.com. TheHuffingtonPost.com, Inc., 29 Apr. 2013. Web. 9 July 2013. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/heritage-radio-network/history-of-vegetarianism_b_3164074.html>.

Sannuti, Arun M. "Vegetarianism: The Road to Satyagraha." Unreasonable.org. Tom Swiss, 1 Oct. 1992. Web. 12 July 2013. <http://unreasonable.org/wrapper/ar/Gandhi.html>.

Spencer, Colin. The Heretic's Feast: A History of Vegetarianism. Hanover, NH: University of New England, 1995. Books.Google.com. Google. Web. 9 July 2013. <http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=rIjZo-cvifAC&oi=fnd&pg=PR9&dq=history+of+vegetarianism&ots=1Z2pn8IcE_&sig=doXR0cZfrp3gQqvRqFxbb0PCb5c#v=onepage&q&f=false>.

"World History of Vegetarianism." VegSoc.org. The Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom Limited, n.d. Web. 9 July 2013. <https://www.vegsoc.org/sslpage.aspx?pid=830#>.



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