World history of vegetarianism


Far from being a relatively new phenomenon, vegetarianism has enjoyed a long and diverse history and has been preserved in most cultures since the beginnings of time.

In antiquity, vegetarianism found favour with some of the great figures of the classical world, most notably Pythagoras (580 BCE). Well known for his contributions to mathematics, Pythagoras was an independent thinker, the first to admit women to his intellectual circle on equal terms and to argue that the world was a sphere. His teaching that all animals should be treated as kindred included the abstinence from meat. Pythagoras's ideas mirrored, in part, the traditions of much earlier civilisations including the Babylonians and ancient Egyptians. A vegetarian ideology was practised among religious groups in Egypt around 3,200BCE, with abstinence from flesh and the wearing of animal derived clothing  based upon karmic beliefs in reincarnation.

In the Greek tradition of Pythagoras, it was not only the avoidance of animal cruelty that established vegetarianism as a way of life, he also saw the health advantages a meat-free diet. Pythagoras viewed vegetarianism as a key factor in peaceful human co-existence, putting forward the view that slaughtering animals brutalised the human soul. Other notable Ancient Greek thinkers that came after Pythagoras favoured a vegetarian diet. These included Theophrastus, pupil of Aristotle and successor to him as head of the Lyceum at Athens. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle all debated the status of animals though Aristotle's conclusion that the animal kingdom exists for human use (and in his view, as equal to slaves) prefigured the the view of the Romans and the christian church that was to become the dominant view in the west.

Pythagorean ideals found very limited sympathy within the brutality of Ancient Rome, where many wild animals were murdered at the hands of gladiators in the name of sport and spectacle. Pythagoreans were despised as subversives, with many keeping their vegetarianism to themselves for fear of persecution. However, the term 'Pythagorean' was to become synonymous with 'vegetarian' and vegetarianism was to spread throughout the Roman Empire from the 3rd to 6th centuries among those influenced by Neo-Platonist philosophy. Such authors included Plutarch (c.CE46) whose 16 volume work Moralia includes the 'Essay on Flesh Eating' , Porphyry (c.CE232) who wrote 'On Abstinence From Animal Food' and Apollonius who was a well travelled healer and strict vegetarian who spoke out against deliberately imposed grain restrictions.

Eastern religions

In Asia, abstention from meat was central to such early religious philosophies as Hinduism, Brahinanism, Zoroasterianism and Jainism. Vegetarianism was encouraged in the ancient verses of the 'Upanishads' and also mentioned in 'Rig Veda' -- the most sacred of ancient Hindu texts. Pivotal to such religions were doctrines of non-violence and respect for all life forms.

Vegetarianism has always been central to Buddhism, which enshrines compassion to all living creatures. Buddha and Pythagoras were almost exact contemporaries and it is possible that the Greek thinker was influenced by Indian mystical teachings.The Indian king Asoka (who reigned between 264~232 BC) converted to Buddhism, shocked by the horrors of battle. Animal sacrifices were ended as his kingdom became vegetarian.


Early Christianity brought with it ideas of human supremacy over all living things, but several unorthodox groups did break ranks. Practiced between the 3rd and 10th centuries AD, Manicheanism was another philosophy against animal slaughter. These non-violent vegetarian ascetics were painted as fanatical deviants, feared, loathed and frequently persecuted by the established church. The vegetarian Bogamils, a christian sect living in what is now Bulgaria, were burned at the stake for heresy, against the paranoid backdrop of Mediaeval Europe in the 10th Century. There was a fervent 'anti-heretic' tone to most of Europe during this dark period and many innocents perished. However, two notable vegetarians escaped: St David, Patron Saint of Wales, and St Francis of Assisi.

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The Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom Limited, Parkdale, Dunham Road, Altrincham WA14 4QG
Registered Charity No. 259358, Registered Company No. 959115 (England and Wales)

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