A Very Brief History of Vegetarianism

When the label “Vegetarian” is uttered most people know what the meaning behind it is but few know of its history and origin, so let’s remedy that with a brief look into its roots and evolution through the ages.

Originally vegetarianism was actually known as Pythagoreanism, named after the Greek Scholar, Pythagoras who lived from 570 BC to 495 BC. It was a religious cult that was bound to Pythagoras and his teachings, and kept as secretive as possible. Not much is actually known about this sect but what is known is that it consisted of both scholarly and religious elements. Supposedly the religious side of the sect was meant to help separate the men’s souls from all other beings that may inhabit their bodies. This was so that when they died they died pure and were able to live on in the afterlife as a whole, uncorrupted being. To do this they had to make sure they didn’t ingest the flesh of other living creatures as doing so took a small amount of that creature’s soul into the human body and tainted the human soul. On top of this Pythagoras also believed that when a person died their soul could come back to earth in the form of an animal, so if you ate an animal you were potentially murdering and eating a human soul. The scholarly aspect of Pythagoras’s clandestine sect is believed to have been founded as a means to discuss academic ideologies whilst practicing the aforementioned spiritual beliefs. Aside from abstaining from meat there were also other dietary requirements in place concerning the Pythagoreans and it was one of these that ultimately assisted in the death of the famous Philosopher.

Pythagoras held that the simple bean actually came from the same source as man and so to eat or harm it would be the same as eating or harming a human. In 495 BC, angry at having been refused entry into the sect, a young nobleman drummed the local village into such a frenzy against the Pythagoreans that they set out to completely eradicate the sect. They set fire to the homes of cult members and put anyone who escaped the flames to the sword, luckily Pythagoras was able to evade both and took off for the hills. Unfortunately, the angry mob discovered his escape and gave chase, pursuing Pythagoras to the edges of a bean crop. Pythagoras was so set in his divine beliefs that he had refused to take his only chance at freedom and cross the field, preventing the inevitable trampling of the beans that would have occurred had he crossed. Catching him on the field border the mob promptly slew him, and that was the end of Pythagoras, but not of his teachings.

As the centuries progressed people would continue to refuse to ingest meat for the belief that they were ingesting the soul of another living being, however, it wasn’t until the 17th C. on-wards that this belief begun to gain momentum as a humanitarian, religious, and political cause. In the 17th C English merchant Thomas Tryon wrote, “It is not said, That the Lord made all Creatures for Man to eat…but he made them for his own Glory and Eternal Honour.”[1]. Tryon believed that if he were to eat meat he would be transgressing against God and the Divine Authority would enact retribution upon him as it saw fit.

In the 18th C radical Antiquarian, Joseph Ritson, published an entire essay on the reasons men should retain a vegan diet entitled, An Essay on the Abstinence from Animal Food as a Moral Duty. As an atheist Ritson didn’t believe that eating meat was against Gods will but he did believe that it was inhumane to slaughter and ingest a living thing. His “Essay” pointed out his beliefs in this as well as laying the fall of nations and the violent nature of men and war at the feet of meat consumption. It was a politically charged publication that on one level sought to blame the madness of the world on a particular diet whilst subtly attacking the English Government, Crown, and privileged society.  His publication was ridiculed by the academic community and in 1803, the year after publishing the essay, Ritson suffered a fit of madness and died. He wasn’t completely alone in his discourse though, with many sharing his same sentiments on-wards into the 19th C.

The 19th C was quite a leap forward for the vegetarian humanist movement. It was the age that Vegetarian became correct term for someone who abstained from meat, and it was also the era that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, SPCA, was formed (it didn’t get its royal patronage to become the RSPCA until 1837, 13 years after its inception). The 19th C saw famous author Percy Byshe Shelley, use the abstinence of a flesh diet as reason why he should retain custody of his children during a court hearing. In fact Shelly’s justification for the diet was based upon the benefits it had for an individual’s health and came, in part, in the form of his literary idol, Joseph Ritson, although there isn’t any official documented evidence of this. Ultimately he lost the fight and the children went to live with his first wife, Harriet.

Although many doctors and humanists preached the health benefits of a vegan diet in the 19th C it wasn’t really until the end of that era and into the 20th C that these became accepted. Many, many more notable doctors, and public figures have contributed to the rise of Vegetarianism and understanding its benefits as its reasons for necessity have morphed throughout the centuries. And now 21st C. Veganism continues to grow in regards to moral stance, health practices and simple fad diets. It can be a powerful and very effective tool in boycotting animal cruelty, in fighting common health issues, and in simply retaining a healthy lifestyle. You’re reasons for undertaking this lifestyle are your own but now you do so with just a very small amount of the history behind the act.

Sources used to write this article are as follows;

RSPCA UK, viewed June 23, 2015

https://www.rspca.org.uk/utilities/aboutus/history

Gregory, James 2007, Of Victorians and Vegetarians: The Vegetarian Movement in Nineteenth-Century Britain, I.B.Taurus, London, Great Britain

Guerrini, Anita 1999, “A Diet for a Sensitive Soul: Vegetarianism in Eighteenth-Century Britain”, Eighteenth-Century Life, Vol. 23, No. 2 (1999), pp. 34-42

Morton, Timothy 1998, The Pulses of the Body: Romantic Vegetarian Rhetoric and it’s Cultural Contexts, viewed June 23, 2015 https://www.academia.edu/1074968/The_Pulses_of_the_Body_Romantic_Vegetarian_Rhetoric_and_Its_Cultural_Contexts

Morton, Timothy 2006, ‘Joseph Ritson, Percy Shelley and the Making of Romantic Vegetariansim’, Romanticism, Vol. 12, No. 1 p. 52-61

Pennington, Bruce 2010, “The Death of Pythagoras” in Philosophy Now- A Magazine of Ideas, Issue 78. Viewed June 23, 2015  https://philosophynow.org/issues/78/The_Death_of_Pythagoras

Preece, Rod 2008, Sins of the Flesh: A History of Vegetarian Thought, UBC Press, Vancouver,

Ritson, Joseph 1802, An Essay on Abstinence from Animal Food, As a Moral Duty, Wilks and Taylor, Chancery-Lane, London,

Whorton, James C. 1994, “Historical Development of Vegetarianism”, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, May 1994, Vol. 59, No. 5 pp. 1103S- 1109S viewed on June 23, 2015 http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/59/5/1103S.long

[1]  Guerrini, Anita 1999, “A Diet for a Sensitive Soul: Vegetarianism in Eighteenth-Century Britain”, Eighteenth-Century Life, Vol. 23, No. 2 (1999), p.35

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