Famous Vegetarians in Western History
When referring to great vegetarian minds, the examples often cited include figures from the East such as Shakyamuni Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama. In the Western World we know of modern celebrities as well as late icons such as Steve Jobs. Here is a look at well known supporters of vegetarianism in the West dating back to the first century BC, many of whom viewed vegetarianism as a way of life and thinking.
Ancient Greece and Rome
Pythagoras was made famous for his contributions to mathematics and geometry. He is probably most well-known for the Pythagorean Theorem, which he, ironically, was not the first to discover. Pythagoras’s biographer Diogenes recorded that Pythagoras ate bread and honey in the mornings and raw vegetables at night. The mathematician was also known to pay fisherman to throw their catch back into the sea.
He was cited saying: “The earth affords a lavish supply of riches, of innocent foods, and offers you banquets that involve no bloodshed or slaughter; only beasts satisfy their hunger with flesh, and not even all those, because horses, cattle, and sheep live on grass.”
Roman author Plutarch propagated a meat-free diet at the turn of the first century AD. He wrote in his essay entitled On Eating Flesh:
“It is certainly not lions or wolves that we eat out of self-defence; on the contrary, we ignore these and slaughter harmless, tame creatures without stings or teeth to harm us. For the sake of a little flesh we deprive them of sun, of light, of the duration of life to which they are entitled by birth and being.”
Plutarch’s challenge to flesh-eaters:
“If you declare that you are naturally designed for such a diet, then first kill for yourself what you want to eat. Do it, however, only through your own resources, unaided by cleaver or cudgel or any kind of axe.”
Renaissance to Nineteenth Century
Jean Jacques Rousseau:
The French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau noted that carnivorous animals are generally more aggressive and cruel compared to herbivores. Hence, in advocating a theory of natural order, he reasoned that adopting a vegetarian diet produces more compassion in a person. Rousseau even suggested that butchers be denied the right to testify in courts and sit on juries.
The economist Adam Smith proclaimed the advantages of a vegetarian diet in his work The Wealth of Nations: “It may indeed be doubted whether butchers’ meat is anywhere a necessary of life... Decency nowhere requires that any man should eat butchers’ meat.”
Percy Bysshe Shelley:
The poet P. B. Shelley took an interest in vegetarianism when he was studying at Oxford. He and his wife became vegetarians shortly after getting married. Shelly describes a Utopian world in which men do not kill animals for food in his poem Queen Mab:
“... no longer now
He slays the lamb that looks him in the face,
And horribly devours his mangled flesh,
Which, still avenging Nature’s broken law,
Kindled all putrid humors in his frame,
All evil passions, and all vain belief,
Hatred, despair, and loathing in his mind,
The germs of misery, death, disease and crime.”
Leo Tolstoy gave up hunting and became a vegetarian in 1885. The Russian novelist believed that meat eating contributes to a progression of violence that inevitably leads to war. In his essay The First Step, Tolstoy wrote that “flesh-eating is simply immoral, as it involves the performance of an act which is contrary to moral feeling – killing... [By doing so] man suppresses in himself, unnecessarily, the highest spiritual capacity – that of sympathy and pity towards living creatures like himself – and by violating his own feelings becomes cruel.”
Henry David Thoreau:
Henry David Thoreau practiced vegetarianism at various times in his life. Although he found it difficult to remain a vegetarian, he recognised the virtues of vegetarianism and viewed it as a step in the right direction towards the ultimate betterment of humankind.
In Walden he wrote: “Whatever my own practice may be, I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilized.”
Richard Wagner and Others:
The renaissance painter, sculptor and inventor Leonardo da Vinci was also a known vegetarian. He expressed his compassion for animals throughout his notebooks. Other vegetarians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries respectively include: Benjamin Franklin, who became a vegetarian at age sixteen; and Composer Richard Wagner, who believed all life to be sacred.
George Bernard Shaw:
George Bernard Shaw first became a vegetarian at age twenty-five and noted in his autobiography that he was inspired by Shelley. He also continued to follow a vegetarian diet after his doctors warned him that the diet would kill him. He laughed about it later because the doctors passed away long before he did. He was often complimented for his “youthful” looks and would respond by saying: “I look my age. It is the other people who look older than they are. What can you expect from people who eat corpses?”
The playwright wrote the following about the connection between meat-eating and violence in human society:
“We pray on Sundays that we may have light
To guide our footsteps on the path we tread;
We are sick of war, we don’t want to fight,
And yet we gorge ourselves upon the dead.”
The author H. G. Wells wrote about vegetarianism in A Modern Utopia which depicted his vision of a future utopian society: “In all the round world of Utopia there is no meat. There used to be. But now we cannot stand the thought of slaughterhouses. And, in a population that is all educated, and about the same level of physical refinement, it is practically impossible to find anyone who will hew a dead ox or pig... I can still remember as a boy the rejoicings over the closing of the last slaughterhouse.”
Isaac Bashevis Singer:
Isaac Bashevis Singer became a vegetarian in 1962 at the age of fifty-eight. Singer voiced that the primary reason for his vegetarianism was ethical considerations. He also appreciated the health benefits of vegetarianism.
Some people mistakenly believe that vegetarianism is an Eastern concept that only recently became popular in the West. As we can see, this is not the case.
A while back I also wrote an article about What it Means to be a Vegetarian.