As a continuation of our series on ancient vegans, we'll attempt here to take into consideration Porphyry's essay “On Abstinence from Animal Food”, written in the third century CE, and translated into English by Thomas Taylor in 1823.
Porphyry (234-305 CE), the student of Plotinus, and elder contemporary of Iamblichus, plays a central role in the Neoplatonism of the early centuries CE. He is perhaps best known for his compilation of his teacher's works, which are today known as the Enneads, but he was also a voluminous writer in his own right. Among his writings is the famous Life of Pythagoras, from which we gain many insights into the way of life prescribed by that great philosopher, which we touched on in our article on Apollonius of Tyana. It was this way of life that influenced Porphyry and other Neoplatonists in their adoption of a diet including no animal foods. Porphyry's strong position on animal rights and veganism is demonstrated aptly in the following quote:
“. . . to deliver animals to be slaughtered and cooked, and thus be filled with murder, not for the sake of nutriment and satisfying the wants of nature, but making pleasure and gluttony the end of such conduct, is transcendently iniquitous and dire.”
In his essay on abstinence from animal foods Porphyry takes on several key arguments brought against veganism and animal rights with in-depth and beautifully reasoned responses.
The work is composed as a letter to a friend, and former vegan, who had returned to the consumption of animal products, from which Porphyry attempts to “disclose his friend's errors”. However, the essay is clearly written with other readers in mind, being addressed to all philosophers and to “those who have arranged their life conformably to truth”.
The essay runs to almost 60,000 words, dedicated primarily to the defense of animal rights from the standpoint of Neoplatonic and Pythagorean philosophy. It is, therefore, one of, if not the most complete and exhaustive treatise on this subject predating the 20thcentury, and yet, sadly, it remains largely overlooked.
We will divide our treatment of this essay into five parts:
Let us begin with:
Porphyry's essay opens with an address to his friend:
“Hearing from some of our acquaintance, O Firmus, that you, having rejected a fleshless diet, have again returned to animal food, at first I did not credit the report, when I considered your temperance, and the reverence which you have been taught to pay to those ancient and pious men from whom we have received the precepts of philosophy. But when others who came after these confirmed this report, it appeared to me that it would be too rustic and remote from the rational method of persuasion to reprehend you . . . I have therefore thought it worthy of the friendship which subsists between us, and also adapted to those who have arranged their life conformably to truth, to disclose your errors through a confutation derived from an argumentative discussion.”
Like so many vegans and vegetarians, our philosopher is confronted with a friend who has decided to forgo a “fleshless diet” and to fall back into the consumption of animal products. Holding himself up to the high standards of both the philosopher and the vegan, Porphyry takes it upon himself to show his friend the error in his ways through logic and rational argument.
What we also find in this opening statement is the hint that the vegan lifestyle Porphyry enjoyed came to him (and to his friend, Firmus) through the precepts of the philosophy of “ancient and pious men”. This is a recognition that is not unique to Porphyry, as in previous blogs we have established the existence of veganism among the philosophers of more than one Greek school of philosophy, existing many centuries before the time of this essay. In fact, Porphyry devotes considerable space in his essay to the history of both veganism and animal consumption, which we'll explore in part 5.
Porphyry continues to address his friend:
“For when I considered with myself what could be the cause of this alteration in your diet, I could by no means suppose that it was for the sake of health and strength, as the vulgar and idiots would say; since, on the contrary, you yourself, when you were with us, confessed that a fleshless diet contributed both to health and to the proper endurance of philosophic labours; and experience testifies, that in saying this you spoke the truth.”
This might as well be from the mouth of a modern vegan, and not an ancient philosopher, as today we are constantly confronted by the same “vulgar and idiots” who in their ignorance insist that the consumption of animal products is the only way to gain strength and health. Porphyry echoes the truth that all long-term vegans come to recognize – that a vegan lifestyle leads “both to health and to the proper endurance of philosophic labours”, (i.e. contributes both to physical and mental health). Thus we see that this debate – of whether or not veganism is healthy – which may seem amplified in our age, has been with us for many long centuries.
With apparent difficulty in understanding his friend's choice, Porphyry reasons:
“It appears, therefore, that you have returned to your former illegitimate conduct, either through deception, because you think it makes no difference with respect to the acquisition of wisdom whether you use this or that diet; or perhaps through some other cause of which I am ignorant”
This, it would seem, is a very important statement. As we've seen in previous blogs, the ancient philosophers of these schools considered a vegan diet not only necessary on moral and health grounds, but a requirement for the attainment of wisdom or the true practice of philosophy. Porphyry, who is among the wisest thinkers of his age, and a respected Platonist, is clear that if indeed his friend believes that wisdom can be attained on a non-vegan diet, he is mistaken. We see this idea reflected in many ancient and modern schools of philosophy, from Pythagoras and the Orphics in Greece, to the Bramins in India, the Northern Buddhists in Tibet, and so on. The equation of veganism and wisdom is, it seems, one that has existed from time immemorial among the wise men of many nations.
“But when I was also informed by certain persons that you even employed arguments against those who abstained from animal food, I not only pitied, but was indignant with you, that, being persuaded by certain frigid and very corrupt sophisms, you have deceived yourself, and have endeavoured to subvert a dogma which is both ancient and dear to the Gods.”
This “dogma which is both ancient and dear to the Gods” is, of course, veganism (recall Apollonius's description (from a previous blog) of a “god”, being the appellation due to anyone truly Good). This lifestyle, Porphyry says, is not new; on the contrary, it has formed part of the precepts of the philosophy of the ancients and is renowned among all good men.
“Hence it appeared to me to be requisite not only to show what our own opinion is on this subject, but also to collect and dissolve the arguments of our opponents . . . and thus to demonstrate, that truth is not vanquished even by those arguments which seem to be weighty, and much less by superficial sophisms. For you are perhaps ignorant, that not a few philosophers are adverse to abstinence from animal food, but that this is the case with those of the Peripatetic and Stoic sects, and with most of the Epicureans; the last of whom have written in opposition to the philosophy of Pythagoras and Empedocles, of which you once were studiously emulous. To this abstinence, likewise, many philologists are adverse, among whom Clodius the Neapolitan wrote a treatise against those who abstain from flesh. Of these men I shall adduce the disquisitions and common arguments against this dogma, at the same time omitting those reasons which are peculiarly employed by them against the demonstrations of Empedocles.”
When Porphyry speaks of “our own opinion”, who is he speaking on behalf of? From what he says after we can easily see that there were schools of thought both for and against veganism, just as there are in today's world. The schools of Pythagoras and Empedocles (among others) firmly promoting veganism and animal rights, while those of the sophists – the Peripatetic and Stoic sects, and the Epicureans, etc. – along with certain philologists, actively arguing against veganism. This clearly demonstrates that the debate between vegans and their counterparts has been with humanity for ages. There is, as they say, nothing new under the sun.
Porphyry was a Platonist, and also a follower of Empedocles and Pythagoras (and his, then famous, code of conduct). When he speaks of “our own opinions”, he speaks on behalf of those schools, and in the fine style of vegans everywhere (and everywhen) thus sets out to “collect and dissolve the arguments of our opponents”. And from this we have his dissertation of over 60,000 words on the subject!
He begins (and so will we) with the arguments of his opponents, who would seek to justify the exploitation and murder of animals for all manner of human uses through a variety of excuses and twists of logic. Among these arguments are many quite familiar to us in modern times.
We summarize the arguments given in his essay thus:
That there is no reason to extend justice to “the irrational” (i.e. animals) but only to the “rational” (humans), which clearly demonstrates that the speciesism of today was alive and well in his day, and that animals were then considered non-sentient (irrational), as many today continue to try to convince themselves, despite growing scientific knowledge to the contrary.
That “if we spare, and do not employ them, that it will be impossible for us to live. We shall also, after a manner, live the life of brutes, if we reject the use of which they are capable of affording.” A classic argument, founded in a rural society accustomed to the habits of exploiting animals for personal use, and unable to imagine a world in which this 'norm' is absent.
That “what work would be left for us on the earth or in the sea, what illustrious art, what ornament of our food would remain, if we conducted ourselves innoxiously and reverentially towards brutes, as if they were of a kindred nature with us?” An argument that remains with us today, among those whose livelihood depends on the exploitation and slaughter of animals, who complain that veganism will strip them of their means of survival.
That “our nature, not being sufficient to itself, but indigent of many things, would be entirely destroyed, and enclosed in a life involved in difficulties . . . if excluded from the assistance derived from animals.” Essentially, we are too weak and feable to live without the help of animals – an obviously flawed argument, and of course, one no longer even remotely valid in our modern times.
And “what greater injury does he do, who cuts the throat of an ox or a sheep, than he who cuts down a fir tree or an oak?” A classic argument, demonstrating the extreme of sophistry, or twisted logic based wholly outside of reality.
“These,” Porphyry says, “are the principal arguments of the Stoics and Peripatetics.” He continued then, to the Epicureans and their chief arguments against veganism.
Firstly, that “those . . . who first defined what we ought to do, and what we ought not, very properly did not forbid us to kill other animals.” This argument (of which Porphyry goes on in length) springs from a recognition of the justness of the other laws in which the society (of Porphyry's time and place) lived (i.e. that men should not kill one another, etc.), and concludes that because those laws are just and well reasoned therefore if it were just and well reasoned to not kill animals surely the lawmakers would've included laws to that end. A beautifully woven fallacy, if ever we've heard one!
Secondly, and as a continuation of the appeal to existing law, they state that “it is not possible that men could be preserved, unless they endeavoured to defend those who are nurtured with themselves from the attacks of other animals,” and “it was not only found to be useful for men not to separate from each other, and not to do any thing injurious to those who were collected together in the same place, for the purpose of repelling the attacks of animals of another species; but also for defence against men whose design was to act nefariously.” Etc.
The core of the Epicurean argument is an appeal to community and the notion that the community should do that which aids the community and refrain from doing what does it harm. From this they deduce that it is beneficial to the community to allow for the slaughter of animals (and other tribes), but not to allow for the slaughter of those who belong to their community, mostly for reasons of safety and defense. It is a well arranged argument that can be easily reduced to the corrupt idea of “us” and “others”, and that our laws apply to each other but not to others (animals being squarely relegated to the latter). Porphyry sums this up nicely with the Epicurean sentiment that “the destruction of every thing noxious, and the preservation of that which is subservient to its extermination, similarly contribute to a fearless life.” The Epicureans seem to be arranging their argument from a purely fear-based position, selfishly seeking to keep the scary world relegated to lands outside their walls and/or to maintain utter control over it. Thus, maintaining forceful dominion over animals is seen (by them) to lend itself to the good of the community.
That “if we suffered them [animals] to increase excessively, they would become injurious to us. But through the number of them which is now preserved, certain advantages are imparted to human life. For sheep and oxen, and every such like animal, when the number of them is moderate, are beneficial to our necessary wants; but if they become redundant in the extreme, and far exceed the number which is sufficient, they then become detrimental to our life. . .”. This is a common argument in our time as well, which is founded upon a grave misunderstanding of how holistic ecosystems (like the Earth) work. Imagining that it is our job to maintain the order of the ecosystem and to keep the animals in appropriate numbers, through imprisonment and slaughter, is a serious corruption of human supremacy syndrome and an example of extreme arrogance.
Also that “the slaughter of animals of this kind [i.e. those of use to mankind] is not prohibited, in order that as many of them as are sufficient for our use, and which we may be able easily to subdue, may be left. For it is not with horses, oxen, and sheep, and with all tame animals, as it is with lions and wolves, and, in short, with all such as are called savage animals, that, whether the number of them is small or great, no multitude of them can be assumed, which, if left, would alleviate the necessity of our life. And on this account, indeed, we utterly destroy some of them; but of others, we take away as many as are found to be more than commensurate to our use.” This argument – a continuation of the last – would see no use for so-called “savage” animals and would therefore rather “utterly destroy” them. It is, as is obvious to any thinking person, a shallow and baseless and incredibly ignorant argument. It rests wholly on a foundation that assumes the inherent right of man's dominion over animals.
Lastly, the Epicureans, in their appeal to the institutions of the law, argue: “If, therefore, it was possible to make a certain compact with other animals in the same manner as with men, that we should not kill them, nor they us, and that they should not be indiscriminately destroyed by us, it would be well to extend justice as far as to this; for this extent of it would be attended with security. But since it is among things impossible, that animals which are not recipients of reason should participate with us of law, on this account, utility cannot be in a greater degree procured by security from other animals, than from inanimate natures. But we can alone obtain security from the liberty which we now possess of putting them to death.” The essential argument is that since we cannot strike up a human peace treaty with the animals, we are left only with the option to kill them to secure ourselves. One can only find pity for the state of mind that would live so fearful a life.
Porphyry sums up the Epicurean position with the following statement:
“On this account . . . it is similarly requisite to think, that what pertains to the eating of animals, was ordained by those who from the first established the laws; and that the advantageous and the disadvantageous were the causes why some animals were permitted to be eaten and others not. So that those who assert, that every thing beautiful and just subsists conformably to the peculiar opinions of men respecting those who establish the laws, are full of a certain most profound stupidity.”
Using the very argument of the Epicureans, Porphyry subtly points out that:
“It is not necessary, however, that these institutes [of laws] should be preserved by us, because we do not dwell in the same place as those did by whom they were made.”
The Epicureans, it seems, were all about the existing laws, respecting them and their authority as just and wise, and yet, as their argument insists (point #5 above), if it were possible to modify these laws and still maintain the safety of the community, it ought to be done. Therefore, as Porphyry has them say, we need not, after all, maintain laws simply for the sake of tradition – that if found to be unjust laws may be necessarily changed. This is a position very familiar to modern animal rights activists and composes a central point of the movement, namely that new laws are demanded by the progress of humanity, that our existing laws are simply not good enough when the morality in our hearts outgrows them.
Porphyry, leaving behind the arguments of the Epicureans, moves on to the increasingly absurd arguments of Claudius the Neapolitan, who had published “a Treatise against Abstinence from Animal Food”. We may summarize Claudius's arguments as follows, using his words as much as possible:
That “. . . the ancients abstained from animals, not through piety, but because they did not yet know the use of fire; but that as soon as they became acquainted with its utility, they then conceived it to be most honourable and sacred . . . and afterward they began to use animals. For it is natural to man to eat flesh, but contrary to his nature to eat it raw. Fire, therefore, being discovered, they embraced what is natural, and admitted the eating of boiled and masted flesh.” And furthermore, that “at first, therefore, men did not eat animals, for man is not [naturally] a devourer of raw flesh. But when the use of fire was discovered, fire was employed not only for the cooking of flesh, but also for most other eatables. For that man is not [naturally] adapted to eat raw flesh, is evident . . . that man, however, is adapted to feed on flesh, is evident from this, that no nation abstains from animal food.”
This beautifully absurd fallacy, appealing to the argument that since everyone does it, it must be natural and right, is one that is maintained even in our time. It is, of course, baseless and believed in only by the most ignorant, as there is simply no logic to be found in it. Similarly, the notion that man is meant to eat flesh, just not raw, stands in stark contrast to absolutely everything observable in Nature. Porphyry addresses both of these at length.
That “. . . an innate and just war is implanted in us against brutes. For some of them voluntarily attack men, as, for instance, wolves and lions; others not voluntarily, as serpents, since they bite not, except they are trampled on. And some, indeed, attack men; but others destroy the fruits of the earth. From all these causes, therefore, we do not spare the life of brutes; but we destroy those who commence hostilities against us, as also those who do not, lest we should suffer any evil from them. For there is no one who, if he sees a serpent, will not, if he is able, destroy it, in order that neither it, nor any other serpent, may bite a man. Etc.”. One is reminded of a child pitifully crying out “but he started it!” One is also reminded of the fallacy of pre-emptive war given support by the idea that if we do not kill “them” first they might kill us! Such arguments can have no place in a truly civilized society, and this position, taken up by Claudius, demonstrates to us that the arguments against veganism were as feeble and unreasoned in Porphyry's day as in ours.
Next, an argument that strikes at the very core of diseased human thinking, that “the Greeks do not feed either on dogs, or horses, or asses . . . nevertheless, they eat swine and birds. For a hog is not useful for anything but food.”
Not useful for anything but food. It brings a tear to our eyes to think that any human being is capable of such a thought.
Claudius then appeals to the familiar: “But why should any one abstain from animals? Is it because feeding on them makes the soul or the body worse? It is, however, evident, that neither of these is deteriorated by it. For those animals that feed on flesh are more sagacious than others, as they are venatic, and possess an art by which they supply themselves with food, and acquire power and strength; as is evident in lions and wolves. So that the eating of flesh neither injures the soul nor the body. This likewise is manifest, both from the athletae, whose bodies become stronger by feeding on flesh, and from physicians, who restore bodies to health by the use of animal food.”
Convinced, as many are, that a human eating flesh will be strong just as a lion eating flesh is, Claudius puts forth this tired and outworn argument. A human is, of course, not a lion.
Another familiar argument follows: “Let it, however, be admitted that all men are persuaded of the truth of this dogma, respecting abstinence from animals. But what will be the boundary of the propagation of animals? For no one is ignorant how numerous the progeny is of the swine and the hare. And to these add all other animals. Whence, therefore, will they be supplied with pasture? . . . And the earth will not be able to bear the multitude of animals.”
And “. . .what will husbandmen do? For they will not destroy those who destroy the fruits of the earth.” Both are arguments shared by the Stoics and Peripatetics and both are addressed by Porphyry.
Claudius continues: “How many . . . will be prevented from having their diseases cured, if animals are abstained from? For we see that those who are blind recover their sight by eating a viper. A servant of Craterus, the physician, happening to be seized with a new kind of disease, in which the flesh fell away from the bones, derived no benefit from medicines; but by eating a viper prepared after the manner of a fish, the flesh became conglutinated to the bones, and he was restored to health. Many other animals also, and their several parts, cure diseases when they are properly used for that purpose; of all which remedies he will be frustrated who rejects animal food.” His examples of cures from animal products are as unbelievable as those of today's pseudo-doctors and nutritionists.
Claudius continues to reach, taking up next the all too familiar: “if as they say, plants also have a soul, what will become of our life if we neither destroy animals nor plants? If, however, he is not impious who cuts off plants, neither will he be who kills animals.”
He then embarks on a most incredible argument, based on the theory of the transmigration of souls, in which, in the corrupted understanding of non-philosophers, it was believed that the soul, in the process of reincarnation passes through the animal kingdom before returning as a human. Claudius claims: “But if they [souls] enter voluntarily . . . and pass through every species of animals, they will be much gratified by being destroyed. For thus their return to the human form will be more rapid.” And “. . . if the souls of men are immortal, but those of irrational animals mortal, men will not act unjustly by destroying irrational animals. And if the souls of brutes are immortal, we shall benefit them by liberating them from their bodies. For, by killing them, we shall cause them to return to the human nature.”
Aside from the obvious absurdity of this argument, it is also easily seen by one familiar with the theory of the transmigration of souls to be based upon a complete and utter misunderstanding and corruption of the idea. Claudius's attempt here to not only defend killing animals, but to twist it into something noble and exalted is nothing short of disgusting. He also claims, amazingly, that “the bodies also which are eaten will not produce any pain in the souls of those bodies, in consequence of the souls being liberated from them. . .”. Such “logic” can only issue forth from a profoundly disturbed and disfigured mind.
That “If . . . we [only] defend ourselves [in putting animals to death], we do not act unjustly, but we take vengeance on those that injure us. . . . And if we defend ourselves against them, how is it possible that in so doing we should not act justly. For we destroy, indeed, a serpent and a scorpion, though they do not attack us, in order that some other person may not be injured by them; and in so doing we defend the human race in general.” The appeal to defense seems a common theme in those days.
That “Co-operating also with the Gods themselves in what contributes to piety, we sacrifice animals: for . . . the Gods . . . Demi-gods likewise, and all the heroes who excel us both in origin and virtue, have so much approved of the slaughter of animals. . .”. Even in our day we continue to see the appeal to religion as either approving of, or at the very least not denying, the slaughter of animals. The argument is, for obvious reasons, quite ineffectual to thinking human beings.
And finally, that “. . . if we abstained from animals, we should not only be deprived of pleasure and riches of this kind, but we should also lose our fields, which would be destroyed by wild beasts . . . the scattered seeds would immediately be gathered by the birds; and all such fruits as had arrived at perfection, would be consumed by quadrupeds. But men being oppressed by such a want of food, would be compelled, by bitter necessity, to attack [and eat] each other.” Can we help but laugh at a mind that could convince itself that if we stop eating animals we will somehow, out of our own ineptness and inability to find anything else to eat, end up resorting to cannibalism?
Thus is the extent of Claudius's position against veganism, and thus closes Porphyry's summary of his opponent's arguments.
In fairness to Claudius, Porphyry does have him make one extraordinary statement which we can fully agree with as vegans, wherein he (perhaps inadvertently) demonstrates the essential problem with vegetarianism. Claudius admits, that:
“If, however, some one should, nevertheless, think it is unjust to destroy brutes, such a one should neither use milk, nor wool, nor sheep, nor honey. For, as you injure a man by taking from him his garments, thus, also, you injure a sheep by shearing it. For the wool which you take from it is its vestment. Milk, likewise, was not produced for you, but for the young of the animal that has it. The bee also collects honey as food for itself; which you, by taking away, administer to your own pleasure.”
Thus Claudius echoes what many of us have come to accept, that there is no middle ground when it comes to the exploitation of animals. He, like many others, is fully willing to admit to himself that if we do indeed deem it wrong to kill animals we should also consider it wrong to injure them in any way and to exploit them in any way. As vegans, this is at the very core of our way of life.
Claudius makes it clear, however, that he believes these things (wool, milk, honey, etc.) to be within our right to take for ourselves, being unable or unwilling to see the error in his logic or the gaping whole in his heart. And sadly, there are two instances within his essay where Porphyry himself seems to forgive two specific acts, one being the shearing of sheep for wool and the other being the milking of cows. Several other statements, however, seem to counter this forgiveness or allowance of such uses, such that we get the feeling Porphyry may have been working through these aspects of his stance at the time of the composition of his essay.
Having completed our summary of his opponent's arguments, it seems important now to explore the philosophy underlying Porphyry's perspective, as this philosophy is woven throughout his essay and supports his many arguments. He did, after all, credit his veganism to the system of philosophy he learned from those who came before him and, as we'll see, this philosophy builds a solid foundation for animal rights, both in ancient times and in modern. After elucidating several basic tenets of his philosophy, we'll proceed to the arguments Porphyry presents against his opponent's positions.