Here is a slightly different list of early vegetarians which includes some well-known figures and some other later names which are not quite so well known.
Hesiod, (c 800 BC)
Hesiod was a poet from Boeotia, Asia Minor who believed in the simple way of life and everlasting peace.
His book entitled “Works and Days” expresses his thoughts on living a rural lifestyle and being close to nature.
Hesiod left the city in old age to retire to a mountain and to exist on a diet of grains, berries and fruits.
Hesiod never expressly states in his writings his preference for a vegetarian lifestyle; however, his works definitely lean towards vegetarianism.
Herodotus, (484-425 BC)
Herodotus was the first and possibly the best of all historians.
The father of history from Halicarnassus in Asia Minor travelled widely before settling in Athens.
Herodotus was an admirer of nature, loved flora, rivers, mountains and studied mother nature.
He travelled all over the then known world and described tribes, races, nations and their customs, (including religions and governments) as he saw them.
For a period, he abstained from the consumption of all animal foods and was a vegetarian.
His prose was eloquent and beautiful, and one quote sticks out for me viz.” why eat flesh, dripping with innocent blood?”
It’s a pity (for me) that the” Father of History” is not also honoured today as an early advocate of hygienic vegetable foods and complete abstinence from meat.
Pythagoras, (570-470 BC)
Possibly the most famous of all ancient vegetarians, Pythagoras was the outstanding philosopher of his day.
Born on the Island of Samos, to the northwest of Greece, his father was a foreigner and not Greek.
Similar to Herodotus he travelled widely, including visits to India, Egypt, Babylon (modern day Iraq) and was an advocate of reincarnation.
Pythagoras’s reincarnation doctrine influenced his teaching of abstinence from animal flesh and showing kindness to all animals.
In addition, he refused to wear leather sandals because they came from slaughtered animals.
Pythagoras was a spiritual and mental vegetarian and influenced many subsequent idealistic philosophers.
As most scholars say he was first and foremost a spiritual leader, with a profound message of abstinence from the slaughter of animals for food, mainly because it was conducive for peace and would prevent humans killing humans by engaging in wars.
Plato, (428-347 BC)
The most illustrious of Greek philosophers Plato was born into a high family in Athens.
Plato was a student of Socrates and used Socrates as one of his main interlocutors in many of his dialogues.
In his masterpiece: the outstanding book – “Republic”, Socrates develops his ideas on the best diet adopted by the general community, viz.
“The ordinary workers will live on barley and wheat, baking cakes for the meal, and kneading loads of flour, they will enjoy wine, weaving garlands and enjoy one another’s society… thus they will pass their days in peace and sound health and live to a great age”.
Plato’s works are extensive and varied due to the luxury of his time. With no outward labours and plenty of personal money to boot, he was able to commit himself to his personal intellectual studies, which may or may not explain his idealistic beliefs.
On the other hand in all of Plato’s works, it is quite easy to come to the conclusion that, contrary to his own high status in life, he is promoting a peasant vegetarian diet for the ordinary people as a norm, yet, on the other hand, he is strangely silent on his own idealistic needs.
Perhaps he was too busy doing other things.
Ovid was a popular poet from Rome. His early works were the “Amores” and his most celebrated work, “The Metamorphoses.”
The Romans loved their bloody combats between both men and wild animals which gave them a taste for slaughter and bloody theatre. It was only the higher middle classes which we might expect to rally against flesh eating and the killing of animals.
It was against this bloody background that Ovid wrote:
“From where did hunger in humans for unnatural and unlawful food come? Do you still feed on flesh? Do it not, and give heed to my admonitions”
Ovid was probably more against the bloody combats in the arena than for animal rights per se, at any rate in that atmosphere of slaughter, it must have taken some extraordinary courage on his part to order his fellow (bloodthirsty) citizens to desist from eating meat.
Seneca was a Roman Stoic born in Spain. He was physically weak and so abstained from eating meat quite early in his life.
He was a teacher and an adviser to Nero.
Roman’s in Seneca’s time were fearful of the early Christians; and their vegetarian lifestyle, so he decided to avoid suspicion by reverting back to eating meat.
Over time Nero became jealous of Seneca’s wealth and so ordered him to commit suicide.
Seneca himself justifies his return to meat eating because of the imperial suspicion of a foreign religion (Christianity) and huge pressure from his father.
It seems Seneca was not strong enough mentally or physically to continue with his vegetarian lifestyle, and it is such a shame (for him) his sacrifice came to nought, since he was eventually ordered to die.
Nevertheless, it is because of his writings on the cult of Christianity that we first learn that the early Christians were indeed, regarded mostly as vegetarians.
Born in Boeotia, Plutarch was an author of biographies and is best known for his work “Plutarch’s Lives”.
Plutarch’s writings also included “Essay on Flesh Eating”, “On the Sagacity of the Lower Animals” and “Rules for the Preservation of Health”.
From his abundant writings here are a couple of interesting snippets on the subject of meat eating, and the care of animals viz,
“it would be best to accustom ourselves to eat no flesh at all, since the earth is rich in natural products”
“A good man will take care of his horses and dogs, not only when young, but also when old”
Plutarch was a splendid writer and his biographies are always entertaining, however he did in his other writings express forcefully his views on animal rights and the eating of meat.
Bernard Mandeville, (1670-1733)
Born in Holland, Mandeville practised medicine in London.
He turned to writing in his forties and published many books including a controversial poetical satire which was subsequently censored and denounced by a grand jury as a pernicious book.
He was absolutely against the slaughter of animals for human food and in his writings mentions:
“I question whether anybody so much as killed a chicken without reluctancy the first time. And refuse to eat what they fed and took care of themselves; yet all of them feed heartily and without remorse on beef, mutton and fowls when they are bought in the market”
As a doctor it seems Mandeville is looking at animal slaughter as barbaric rather than being unhealthy, and he does not offer any thoughts or ideas on the benefits of vegetarianism.
James Thomson, (1700-1748)
Thomson was a Scottish poet born in Roxburghshire. He was a humanitarian and was a pioneer among modern poets in denouncing the crimes inflicted on animals by humans.
During his lifetime he published many books of poetry and the following extracts highlight his views on the natural way of life and the blood of animal feats:
“Of health and life and joy, the food of humankind,
While yet they lived in innocence and told
A length of golden years, unfleshed in blood?”
“To merit death. In what have they offended?
They who bleed beneath the cruel hands of humankind”
Thomson seems to be a pastoral poet with lots of sympathy for animals and the labours and gifts which they give to humans.
George Cheyne, (1671-1741)
Cheyne was a successful physician from Scotland and moved to London in his thirties.
He was overweight and had a lethargic state of body.
Cheyne published many books on disease, health and maladies including” New Theory of Fevers”.
Here are a few extracts from his writings:
“There are some cases when a vegetable diet is absolutely necessary, as in gouts, rheumatisms, cancerous, leprous and scrofulous disorders, nervous colics, epilepsies, violent fits, melancholy, consumptions and chronic disorders”
“I have seldom seen a [vegetarian] diet fail of a good effect”
Cheyne was a pioneering doctor, when it came to a vegetarian diet, since he himself used the diet to improve his own health and lifestyle. In addition, he was above all temperate in most things and lived longer than he expected.
Christoph Hufeland, (1762-1836)
Hufeland was an eminent physician in his German homeland. In 1762 Hufeland became Professor in Jena, and afterwards physician to the King of Prussia.
In 1809 he attained to the chair of special pathology in the Medical College at Berlin and in
1796 he published his most important work, “Art of Prolonging Life.”
From the above book we can quote:
“Only inartificial, simple nourishment promotes health and long life, while meats, rich and mixed foods but shorten our existence.”
Hufeland was more interested in prolonging life for humans and his work is therefore more human based. Some interesting ideas about macrobiotics is his legacy.
William Lambe, (1765-1847)
Born in Hereford, England Lambe was a consistent and popular advocate of vegetarianism.
His ill health caused him to relinquish meat eating in favour of nuts, grains and fruits
Lambe’s own results are recorded in his ‘Additional reports” viz.
“The change (to a vegetarian diet) has appeared in an increased sensibility of all the organs particularly of the senses, the touch, taste and the sight in greater muscular activity, in greater freedom and strength of respiration, greater freedom of all the secretions, and an increased intellectual power.”
Lambe is a very good example of the English vegetarian movement. He used his own medical problems to experiment with vegetarianism, which resulted in greater advocacy and enthusiasm for the vegetarian movement.
Sir Richard Philips, (1767-1840)
Philips was born near Leicester, England and was brought up on a farm. He ventured to London at an early age but soon returned home penniless and starving.
Upon his return he was welcomed as a prodigal son and was feasted on a “fatted calf.”
He discovered that this calf was an old animal playmate of his that he had raised. He therefore vowed never to eat slaughtered meat again, which he didn’t for the rest of his life.
In 1795 he started “Monthly Magazine” in London which proved a tremendous success, in addition he also published various treatises including his “A Dictionary of the Arts of Life and Civilisation” from which is found this extract:
“The author of this volume persevered with vegetarianism, despite warnings, that today he now finds at sixty he is in greater health than any other person of his age.”
Philips is a good example of a real stalwart for vegetarianism. He was determined to carry on with his healthy diet and found himself in vigorous health at an advance age compared to his peers.
Percy B. Shelley, (1792-1822)
A prophet poet and genius born in Sussex, England. Shelley was an eloquent advocate of non-flesh-eating habits. Shelly was expelled from Oxford for his atheistic views and estranged from his father he never visited his home cottage ever again.
In Naples at the age of thirty, Shelley fell from his boat and died by drowning in the Bay of Spezia.
His genius was cut short before time.
Here is an extract from “New Earth”
“By all that is sacred in in our hopes for the human race, I conjure those who love happiness and truth to give a fair trial to the vegetable system. It is found easier by the short-sighted victims of disease to palliate their torments by medicine than to prevent them by regimen.”
It is fitting to end this short list with Shelley since he was an absolute poetic genius and rising up to be on a par with Shakespeare.
Vegetarians should be proud to count this prophet poet as one of their own.