Continued from a previous blog.
Having covered the bulk of Porphyry's arguments against the opponents of animal rights and veganism, we will now take into consideration the second of his central arguments, which comprises a large portion of his essay. This argument, as we will see, is interwoven with Porphyry's treatment of the history of animal consumption and its counterpart, veganism. His examination of history is worth serious consideration, as it stands in contrast to conventional modern theories but in direct correlation with alternative theories put forward in recent years.
Addressing the argument of the need to sacrifice animals to the gods and its relation to the consumption of animal products:
Porphyry speaks at length on the subject of sacrifice, but it will serve us best here to make a few selections as a summary. Prior to entering into his argument, however, let us understand that while we may not actively sacrifice animals on the alters of religious institutions in our modern times, we are very far from abolishing the underlying practice. On the contrary, we have simply replaced religion with science, and its gods with ourselves, having continued the practice of sacrifice under the name of vivisection and all manner of animal testing. We sacrifice countless animals annually to ourselves, the 'gods' of science, to please our own desires for knowledge, for medicine, fashion and so on. Let us then, read the following with this in mind, and not detach ourselves from this portion of Porphyry's essay by perceiving this to be solely an archaic practice. The act of carelessly sacrificing animals, and its underlying brutality of thought, is alive and well in our day and needs to be fought as strongly as it was in Porphyry's.
The argument Porphyry presents, opens with a little display of simple logic to separate and target the issue.
“. . .it does not follow because animals are slain that it is necessary to eat them. Nor does he who admits the one, I mean that they should be slain, entirely prove that they should be eaten.”
“. . . the laws permit us to defend ourselves against enemies who attack us [by killing them]; but it did not seem proper to these laws to grant that we should eat them, as being a thing contrary to the nature of man.” And “. . . it does not follow, that because it is proper to sacrifice certain animals to daemons, or Gods, or certain powers, through causes either known or unknown to men, it is therefore necessary to feed on animals.”
“For these things not being confused, but distinguished in a proper manner, most of the opposing arguments will be found to be vain. For the greater part of them endeavour to show, either that it is necessary to slay animals, on account of the injuries sustained from them, and it is assumed as a thing consequent, that it is proper to eat them; or because animals are slain in sacrifices, it is inferred that therefore they may be eaten by men. And again, if it is requisite to destroy certain animals, on account of their ferocity, it is conceived, that it must follow, that tame animals likewise ought to be slain. . . . all these inferences are bad, and are incapable of exhibiting any necessity for their adoption. And, indeed, that all of them are bad, will be immediately evident to men that are not contentious.”
This is important at the outset, that we separate the act of consuming an animal from the act of killing them (for whatever reasons we conceive). The two acts must be addressed individually, as one does not follow from the other. In this way, we can easily see that the argument for sacrificing animals, even if it were successful, in no way leads to the conclusion that we ought to eat animals. However, as Porphyry will explain, the two acts are related in their historical context.
So, in moving forward from this logical separation, Porphyry proceeds to trace the history of sacrifice, demonstrating that the original sacrifices made to the gods consisted of burning grasses, flowers, leaves, or by presenting fruits, cakes made of wheat, etc., but that:
“This mode . . . of offering first-fruits in sacrifices, having, at length, proceeded to great illegality, the assumption of immolations, most dire and full of cruelty, was introduced; so that it would seem that the execrations, which were formerly uttered against us, have now received their consummation, in consequence of men slaughtering animals, and defiling altars with blood; and this commenced from that period in which mankind tasted of blood, through having experienced the evils of famine and war.”
Religious sacrifice, then, was not originally meant to consist of something as cruel the slaughtering of animals, this being only a later development, spawned by the trauma of human experience.
“The sacrifice, therefore, through animals is posterior and most recent, and originated from a cause which is not of a pleasing nature, like that of the sacrifice from fruits, but received its commencement either from famine, or some other unfortunate circumstance.”
In terms of modern practices (vivisection, animal testing, etc.), we may likewise say that scientific observation of animals began in their natural environment and without injury to them, and only later did it devolve into capturing, imprisoning, torturing, murdering and dissecting them, as our thirstfor knowledge and power (over nature) overpowered our morality.
The practice of sacrifice, according to Porphyry, began as a simple showing of gratitude and respect for the gods (the embodiments of the forces of nature) – a basic act of thanking Mother Earth for supplying us with our needs – and only later was it degraded to the killing of animals to please supposedly vengeful gods (imagined to be the cause of human plight). These sacrifices, Porphyry tells us,
“. . . had their beginning, either in ignorance, or anger, or fear. . .”
While this specific type of animal sacrifice (to the gods) is, as said, no longer a direct concern in our current societies (though its morphed 'brother' is), what is of great important in Porphyry's treatment of this issue is his explanation of the history underlying animal sacrifice – and it is important because he traces not only the history of animal sacrifice, but the history of animal consumption itself. He begins this by recounting specific instances of the first animal sacrifices, after which he concludes that:
“All of them however, are full of explanations that are not holy. But most of them assign famine, and the injustice with which it is attended, as the cause. Hence men having tasted of animals, they offered them in sacrifice, as first-fruits, to the Gods; but prior to this, they were accustomed to abstain from animal food.”
Here Porphyry agrees with several modern historians, taking the position that the consumption of animal products is a relatively recent adaptation, and that humans were once “accustomed to abstaining from animal food,” and he is clear on the cause of this transition to eating animals:
“. . . pestilence and war were the causes that introduced the necessity of eating them [animals].”
We must also recognize that even his opponent, Claudius, himself verified this tradition – that humanity was once accustomed to abstaining from animals (see Part 1, Claudius's first argument).
Furthermore, Porphyry relates:
“. . . at first, indeed, sacrifices of fruits were made to the Gods; but, in the course of time, men becoming negligent of sanctity, in consequence of fruits being scarce, and through the want of legitimate nutriment, being impelled to eat each other, then supplicating divinity with many prayers, they first began to make oblations of themselves to the Gods, not only consecrating to the divinities whatever among their possessions was most beautiful, but, proceeding beyond this, they sacrificed those of their own species.”
We can imagine the process: the trauma and desperation of famine and pestilence leading men to face the choice of death or such acts as cannibalism. This history (as we'll discuss later) is pre-agricultural, wherein the skills to grow and harvest were not utilized, and given that, according to Porphyry, they were “accustomed to abstaining from animal foods” the skill of hunting was likewise absent, and thus in the advent of famine humanity found themselves rather helpless.
To appreciate this process, the trauma of famine must be fully recognized, understood and appreciated for its magnitude. The psychological effect of starvation, without the prospect of availability of food has, throughout human history, led to many terribly difficult decisions, cannibalism among them. And according to Porphyry, with many historical records at his disposal that are unavailable today, humans were first accustomed to abstaining from animal foods, but then faced the trauma of famine, pestilence and war, which led some to adopt, out of desperation, the practice of sacrificing and eating each other.
“Proceeding therefore from hence, they made the bodies of other animals supply the place of their own in sacrifices, and again, through a satiety of legitimate nutriment, becoming oblivious of piety, they were induced by voracity to leave nothing untasted, nothing un-devoured. And this is what now happens to all men with respect to the aliment from fruits. For when, by the assumption of them, they have alleviated their necessary indigence [need], then searching for a superfluity of satiety, they labour to procure many things for food which are placed beyond the limits of temperance. Hence, as if they had made no ignoble sacrifices to the Gods, they proceeded also to taste the animals which they immolated; and from this, as a principle of the deed, the eating of animals became an addition to men to the nutriment derived from fruits.”
So men began by sacrificing vegetation and “first-fruits” to the gods – i.e. they sacrificed that which they also ate – and when they began eating animals (which started only as a response to pestilence, famine and war) they continued the habit of sacrificing that which they ate. But more importantly, the consumption of animal products, while it started as a reaction to harsh conditions, became a habitual part of human life, even when conditions improved and fruits were again in plentiful supply.
From here, Porphyry cuts straight to the point of the issue, making his position on animal sacrifice absolutely clear.
“But the most beautiful and honourable of those things, by which the Gods benefit us, are the fruits of the earth. For through these they preserve us, and enable us to live legitimately; so that, from these we ought to venerate them. Besides, it is requisite to sacrifice those things by the sacrifice of which we shall not injure any one. . . . if someone should say, that God gave animals for our use, no less than the fruits of the earth, yet it does not follow that they are, therefore, to be sacrificed, because in so doing they are injured, through being deprived of life. For sacrifice is, as the name implies, something holy. But no one is holy who requites a benefit from things which are the property of another . . . for how can this be holy, when those are injured from whom they are taken? . . . In sacrifices, therefore, we should abstain from animals.”
From his arguments we can see that the sacrifice of animals is firstly not holy or necessary, even from the perspective of one steeped in the holy life, as Porphyry was, and secondly that even if one does insist on the practice of sacrificing animals (or killing them for any reason) there is no logic in the sentiment that they then ought to be eaten. Indeed, he takes the position that the consumption of animal products began only as a response to imminent starvation and only later did it become habitual. Therefore, neither act, animal sacrifice or animal consumption, need play a role among humanity, as both are artificial additions to human life.
In relation to modern practices we may say that the study of animals need not include harm to any animal. In this case also “it is requisite to sacrifice [only] those things by the sacrifice of which we shall not injure any one.” In seeking the abandonment of cruelty to any animal, we must fully remove any injury resulting from scientific study as well as the practice of consumption.
Porphyry moves to an explanation of the proper substance to be sacrificed and the proper state of mind from which real sacrifice naturally arises in the form of gratitude:
“. . . the benefit derived from fruits is the first and the greatest of all others, and which, as soon as they are matured, should alone be offered to the Gods, and to Earth, by whom they are produced. For she is the common Vesta of Gods and men; and it is requisite that all of us, reclining on her surface, as on the bosom of our mother and nurse, should celebrate her divinity, and love her with a parental affection, as the source of our existence.”
This is sacrifice: gratitude. It is an offering of our thanks to the Earth that sustains us and gives us life. As she supplies us with fruits for our sustenance, it is fruits that constitute the most noble objects of our gratitude, being the symbol and source of our health and of our Mother Earth's love.
Argument against the fallacy that consuming animal products is natural because all nations engage in it.
Following his arguments on sacrifice, Porphyry expands upon the history of veganism, which we will summarize here. He does not bother to directly counter the very obvious fallacy that because something is customary it is right, but simply illustrates that not all nations or individuals do engage in the consumption of animal products, which in itself dismantles the fallacy.
“. . . we shall confute the assertion of our opponents, that no wise man, nor any nation, has rejected animal food, as it leads those that hear it to great injustice, through the ignorance of true history. . .”
“. . . we shall begin from the abstinence of certain nations, in the narration of which, what is asserted of the Greeks will first claim our attention, as being the most allied to us, and the most appropriate of all the witnesses that can be adduced. Among those, therefore, that have concisely, and at the same time accurately collected an account of the affairs of the Greeks, is the Peripatetic Dicaearchus, who, in narrating the pristine life of the Greeks, says, the ancients, being generated with an alliance to the Gods, were naturally most excellent, and led the best life; so that, when compared to us of the present day, who consist of an adulterated and most vile matter, they were thought to be a golden race; and they slew no animal whatever. The truth of this, he also says, is testified by the poets, who denominate these ancients the golden race, and assert that every good was present with them.”
We must again remember that Porphyry had many works available to him that we no longer have, many of these having been destroyed by the budding Christian Church in the centuries after his time. Our approach to Greek history is, therefore, almost surely lacking in comparison to the history available to Porphyry. And while we explored, in a previous blog, the Orphics – the most ancient of philosophers of Greece – who were known to have eaten no animal products, the prehistoric Greece described here as the “golden age” would refer to far more distant eras, indeed, as we'll see, to the pre-argriculturalGreeks.
“All things, therefore, are very properly said to have been then [in Prehistoric Greece] spontaneously produced; for men did not procure any thing by labour, because they were unacquainted with the agricultural art, and, in short, had no knowledge of any other art. This very thing, likewise, was the cause of their leading a life of leisure, free from labours and care; and if it is proper to assent to the decision of the most skilful and elegant of physicians, it was also the cause of their being liberated from disease. . . . For they neither assumed such food as was stronger than the nature of the body could bear, but such as could be vanquished by the corporeal nature, nor more than was moderate, on account of the facility of procuring it . . .
“Moreover, there were neither any wars among them, nor seditions with each other. For no reward of contention worth mentioning was proposed as an incentive, for the sake of which some one might be induced to engage in such dissensions. So that the principal thing in that life was leisure and rest from necessary occupations, together with health, peace, and friendship.”
Truly a picture of Eden, corresponding to many other versions of prehistoric humanity found throughout religious and ancient philosophic literature. And, parallel to other traditions, Porphyry then recounts the “fall” from this condition:
“But to those in after times, who, through aspiring after things which greatly exceeded mediocrity, fell into many evils, this pristine life became, as it was reasonable to suppose it would, desirable.
. . .
A pastoral life succeeded to this, in which men procured for themselves superfluous possessions, and meddled with animals. For, perceiving that some of them were innoxious [harmless], but others malefic and savage, they tamed the former, but attacked the latter. At the same time, together with this life, war was introduced. And these things, says Dicaearchus, are not asserted by us, but by those who have historically discussed a multitude of particulars. For, as possessions were now of such a magnitude as to merit attention, some ambitiously endeavoured to obtain them, by collecting them (for their own use), and calling on others to do the same, but others directed their attention to the preservation of them when collected. Time, therefore, thus gradually proceeding, and men always directing their attention to what appeared to be useful, they at length became conversant with the third, and agricultural form of life.”
The historical documents Porphyry had at his disposal seem to have been quite clear on this process, notwithstanding modern theories. Those documents give light to the idea that animal consumption is a recent addition to human life, and thus unnatural and capable of being discarded.
“And this [history] is what is said by Dicaearchus, in his narration of the manners of the ancient Greeks, and the blessed life which they then led, to which abstinence from animal food contributed, no less than other things. Hence, at that period there was no war, because injustice was exterminated. But afterward, together with injustice towards animals, war was introduced among men, and the endeavour to surpass each other in amplitude of possessions.”
We can certainly see the logic in these assertions. Infant human civilization undoubtedly had less possessions in much narrower variety; there is no indication of war among “pre-civilization” humanity – war going hand in hand with both the increase of possession and the accompanying desire for more (i.e. the “attempts to fill a perforated vessel” from Part 2). Indeed, Porphyry is clear that, according to these historical records:
“. . . together with the slaughter of animals, war and injustice were introduced.”
There is, according to this history a correlation and commonality in the adoption of cruelty to animals and the adoption of war and a consumerist mentality. And, if we reflect on the sound philosophy underlying Porphyry's arguments, we can see clearly why these things correlate with one another.
Moving on from the ancient Greeks, Porphyry then recounts a portion of the history of Lacedaemonia (Laconia, Sparta).
“Hence, this [the relation of possessions, slaughter of animals, war and injustice] being afterwards perceived by the Lacedaemonian Lycurgus, though the eating of animals then prevailed, yet he so arranged his polity, as to render food of this kind requisite in the smallest degree. For the allotted property of each individual did not consist in herds of oxen, flocks of sheep, or an abundance of goats, horses, and money, but in the possession of land, which might produce for a man seventy medimni of barley, and for a woman twelve, and the quantity of liquid fruits in the same proportion. For he thought that this quantity of nutriment was sufficient to procure a good habit of body and health, nothing else to obtain these being requisite.”
He further explains how this leader created policies to lessen the negative effects that he had observed in the “fall” into vice throughout and surrounding his region, and that this led to a most peaceful, frugal and temperate kingdom.
As the exploitation and consumption of animals became more and more ingrained into society, we see that veganism and animal rights became increasingly relegated to the priests and priestly organizations. Porphyry relates several of these bodies of holy men in regards to their abstinence of animal foods, wherein the degrees of initiation into such a life were often accompanied by increased abstinence, such that the higher degrees absolute veganism was demanded.
He speaks at length on the Egyptian priests and their strict lifestyle, saying that:
“. . . they were studious of frugality in their diet and apparel, and also of continence and endurance, and in all things were attentive to justice and equity.”
“. . . they abstained from all the fish that was caught in Egypt, and from such quadrupeds as had solid, or many-fissured hoofs, and from such as were not horned; and likewise from all such birds as were carnivorous. Many of them, however, entirely abstained from all animals; and in purifications this abstinence was adopted by all of them, for then they did not even eat an egg.”
We get a sense here then, that even during times when animal consumption was common, there were orders of men, considered by the Platonist philosophers to be of great wisdom, who practiced varying levels of vegetarian and even vegan lifestyles. He relates that:
“. . . though they neither exercised themselves in walking or riding, yet they lived free from disease, and were sufficiently strong for the endurance of modern labours. They bore therefore many burdens in the performance of sacred operations, and accomplished many ministrant works, which required more than common strength.”
Furthermore, he relates that:
“. . . the Egyptian priests, through the proficiency which they made by this exercise [of their lifestyle], and similitude to divinity, knew that divinity [the Good] does not pervade through man alone, and that soul [psyche] is not enshrined in man alone on the earth, but that it nearly passes through all animals. On this account, in fashioning the images of the Gods, they assumed every animal, and for this purpose mixed together the human form and the forms of wild beasts, and again the bodies of birds with the body of a man. . . .
For they venerated the power of God which extends to all things through animals which are nurtured together. . .”
“An unlearned man, however, does not even suspect that they [the priests], not being borne along with the stream of the vulgar who know nothing, and not walking in the path of ignorance, but passing beyond the illiterate multitude, and that want of knowledge which befalls every one at first, were led to reverence things which are thought by the vulgar to be of no worth.”
Thus, while the multitudes fell into all manner of depraved living, seeing animals (among other things) as of no inherent worth (except as of utility to Man), the proper and natural human lifestyle and diet remained among the wise, who continued to hold much reverence for animals.
Another example given of those who abstained from animal foods is the Essenes, which account Porphyry bases on the historian Josephus. The Essenes, however, in Porphyry's account, abstained from certain animals, but not entirely from animal products.
He moves on:
“Farther still, it is likewise related that the Syrians formerly abstained from animals, and, on this account, did not sacrifice them to the Gods; but that afterwards they sacrificed them, for the purpose of averting certain evils; yet they did not at all admit of a fleshly diet.”
He then relates how the Syrians devolved into the practices of both animal sacrifice and animal consumption, along the same general outline as covered in his general history.
Moving eastward, he touches on the Magi among the Persians.
“Eubulus . . . wrote the history of Mithra, in a treatise consisting of many books. In this work he says, that the first and most learned class of the Magi neither eat nor slay any thing animated, but adhere to the ancient abstinence from animals. The second class use some animals indeed [for food], but do not slay any that are tame. Nor do those of the third class, similarly with other men, lay their hands on all animals.”
Porphyry continues to India, where, like Apollonius before him, he credits the tradition of the Brahmins as including no animal foods. The average Bramins, however, may be said to be vegetarians, not necessarily vegans, as many (though not all) of them condone the consumption of milk. Porphyry relates:
“A Bramin . . . is not a subject of any government, nor does he contribute any thing together with others to government. And with respect to those that are philosophers, among these some dwell on mountains, and others about the river Ganges. And those that live on mountains feed on autumnal fruits, and on cows' milk coagulated with herbs. But those that reside near the Ganges, live also on autumnal fruits, which are produced in abundance about that river. The land likewise nearly always bears new fruit, together with much rice, which grows spontaneously, and which they use when there is a deficiency of autumnal fruits. But to taste of any other nutriment, or, in short, to touch animal food, is considered by them as equivalent to extreme impurity and impiety.”
Having completed a brief and basic survey of several vegan and vegetarian men and groups, Porphyry describes that the common groups of nomads, etc., that:
“. . . were brought to the necessity of eating animals through the infecundity of the region they inhabit, which is so barren, that it does not even produce herbs, but only shores and sands. And this necessity is indicated by their not being able to make use of fire, through the want of combustible materials; but they dry their fish on rocks, or on the shore. And these indeed live after this manner from necessity. There are, however, certain nations whose manners are rustic, and who are naturally savage; but it is not fit that those who are equitable judges should, from such instances as these, calumniate human nature. . .”
It is not fitting of those of us who are “equitable judges” (of what is right and wrong) to imagine that because some peoples, either out of necessity or savagery, consume animal products, that we also ought to do so. On the contrary, as many of the wisest men among humanity have maintained, even while the multitudes continued their unjust practices, we must follow our own sense of reason, compassion and justice and to do what we know, in our hearts, is rightful to do. As Porphyry says:
“. . . he who is perfectly legal and pious ought to abstain from all animals. For if some who are only partially pious abstain from certain animals, he who is in every respect pious will abstain from all animals.”
And this is the stance of modern vegans. We have come to recognize that true justice must be extended to all sentient beings, that to be “perfectly legal and pious” is to abstain from causing harm to any of our kin, and we have learned that animals are our kin. Indeed, we agree with Porphyry when he asks:
“. . . how is it possible not to lament the condition of the generality of mankind, who are so involved in darkness as to cherish their own evil, and who, in the first place, hate themselves, and him who truly begot them, and afterwards, those who admonish them, and call on them to return from ebriety to a sober condition of being?”
We too can but lament this condition, wherein the most depraved vices rule our actions, wherein humanity demonstrates itself to be so full of hatred and cruelty. And we agree with that great mind who first envisioned the existence of the atom, for:
“Democrates says, that to live badly, and not prudently, temperately, and piously, is not to live in reality, but to die for a long time.”
We, however, wish to live, to truly live, and to be truly human. We wish to be reasonable, rational, intelligent and compassionate beings, and it is this wish that underlies our veganism and our action as animal rights activists. We wish to walk the age-old path of the philosopher, to rise into our truest self, thus embody all that is good, all that is divine.
As vegans, our closest kindreds in human history are to be found among the (oft concealed) wise ones of every age and region, among the philosophers and spiritually minded, who despite the fall of the multitudes into unpardonable sin, continued to “adhere to the ancient abstinence from animals.”
There have been vegans and animal rights activists throughout human history, Porphyry (and his predecessors) among them. But while these have for long centuries been relegated to the few, before us today stands the opportunity to rescue the most natural and just lifestyle from the hidden corners of humanity and restore it to its rightful place among the majority. Porphyry used all the means available to him to defend the animals in his day, and it is our duty to do the same in ours.