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This page is part of the section: Animal Rights: A History
Pythagoras - c552-496 BCE
The teachings of Pythagoras regarding our treatment of animals has had a profound effect on animal rights and vegetarianism right down to the present day.
Pythagoras known as "the father of numbers,"(582 BC - 496 BC), was a Greek mathematician and philosopher, indeed he was the first man to call himself a philosopher, or lover of wisdom. He however is known best for the Pythagorean Theorem. He was born on the Island of Samos, the Greek Island in the eastern Aegean, from where he travelled to Mesopotamia and Egypt, here he commenced his basic studies and eventually founded his first school. He founded his second school in Croton in Southern Italy having moved to avoid political unrest. The school was open to all students; there was no discrimination of race, gender, financial or social standing. The doctrines of these schools, which included
strict rules of conduct, have had a profound effect on philosophy down through the ages to present times. Pythagoras is widely regarded as the founder of modern mathematics, musical theory, philosophy and the science of health (hygiene). Pythagoras and his students believed that everything was related to mathematics and that numbers were the ultimate reality and through mathematics everything could be predicted and measured in rhythmic patterns or cycles.
Pythagoras believed in the transmigration of souls; he held that the soul was immortal and that after death it migrates into other bodies including animal bodies. It is thought that Pythagoras was the first person to believe that the soul, revolving around the circle of necessity, is transformed and confined in different times into the bodies of different creatures until the person becomes truly moral. He believed that past events repeated themselves in a cyclical process and that therefore nothing is new.
Most importantly for our purposes he considered that all living beings should be regarded as kindred. For ethical reasons Pythagoras advocated a vegetarian lifestyle; his belief in the biological Kinship of all creatures and the transmigration of souls formed the basis of his condemnation of carnivorous diets. His thinking has had a significant and lasting effect on the cause of vegetarianism; throughout the centuries Pythagoreanism or the Pythagorean diet were synonyms for vegetarianism right into the ninetieth century. Furthermore he admonished against animal sacrifice and advocated justice towards animals. He himself lived by these rules and abstained from eating animal flesh and worshiped at alters where animals where not sacrificed, the only alter that he was seen to frequent was that of Apollo, the giver of life, at Delus, where only wheat, barley and cheese cakes were used as offerings. He endeavoured to prevent others from harming animals and was said to have talked to animals and corrected and instructed savage animals rather than causing them injury or death.
If we may credit what ancient and trustworthy writers have related of him, he exerted an influence even over irrational animals. The Daunian bear, who had committed extensive depredations in the neighborhood, he seized; and after having patted her for awhile, and given her barley and fruits, he made her swear never again to touch a living creature, and then released her. She immediately hid herself in the woods and the hills, and from that time on never attacked any irrational animal.
Porphyry: The life of Pythagoras
Some of the teachings of Pythagoras concerning the abstinence of meat were described by Lamblichus in Life of Pythagoras "dietary suggestions":
"The most contemplative of the philosophers, who had arrived at the summit of philosophic attainments, were forbidden superfluous, food such as wine, or unjustifiable food such as was animated; and not to sacrifice animals to the Gods, nor by any means to injure animals, but to observe most solicitous justice towards them. He himself lived after this manner, abstaining from animal food, and adoring altars undefiled with blood. He was likewise careful to prevent others from destroying animals of a nature kindred to ours, and rather corrected and instructed savage animals, than injured them as punishment. Further, he ordered abstaining from animal food even to politicians; for as they desired to act justly to the highest degree, they must certainly not injure any kindred animals. How indeed could they persuade others to act justly, if they themselves were detected in an insatiable avidity in devouring animals allied to us. These are conjoined to us by a fraternal alliance through the communion of life, and the same elements, and the commingling of these."
Interestingly Xenophanes of Colophon, 570 – 480 BCE , a Greek philosopher, poet, and social and religious critic and contemporary of Pythagoras, gives an account of Pythagoras interceding on behalf of a dog that was being beaten, professing to recognise in its cries the voice of a departed friend.
The teachings of Pythagoras concerning our treatment of animals
Pythagoras did not write down anything himself and what we know of his philosophy and teachings comes from the writings of his students and disciples and subsequent commentators. Nonetheless a quite accurate piecing together of the teaching of this philosopher can be put together well enough to provide an accurate account of his doctrines.
Concerning his stance on the treatment of animals the following is a selection of writings concerning Pythagoras along with brief comments about the authors.
"In the next place, justice is introduced by association with other people, while injustice is, produced by unsociability and neglect of other people. Wishing therefore to spread this sociability as far as possibility among men, he ordered his disciples to extend it to the most kindred animal races, considering these as their intimates and friends, which would forbid injuring, slaying, or eating any of them. He who recognizes the community of elements and life between men and animals will in much greater degree establish fellowship with those who share a kindred and rational soul."
Iamblichus "Justice and Politics"
"Pythagoras also ordained abstinence from animal food, for many reasons, besides the chief one that it conduced to peaceableness. Those who are trained to abominate the slaughter of animals as iniquitous and unnatural will not think it much more unlawful to kill a man, or engage in war. For war promotes slaughter, and legalizes it, increasing it, and strengthening it."
Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras, "Justice and Politics"
Iamblichus was an Assyrian Neoplatonist philosopher who determined the direction taken by later Neoplatonic philosophy, and perhaps western Paganism. He is perhaps best known for his compendium on Pythagorean philosophy.
"...the following is a matter of general information. He taught that the soul was immortal and that after death it transmigrated into other animated bodies. After certain specified periods, the same events occur again; that nothing was entirely new; that all animated beings were kin, and should be considered as belonging to one great family. Pythagoras was the first one to introduce these teachings into Greece."
Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras
Porphyry (original name, Malchus) A.D. 234–to about 305, was a philosopher and a scholar with an insatiable appetite for knowledge, he was however best known for his contributions to philosophy. He edited and published the Enneads, the only collection of the work of his teacher Plotinus. He also wrote many works himself on a wide variety of topics including "On Abstinence from Animal Food, a major work specifically dedicated to ethical vegetarianism.
"Moreover Eudoxus, in the second book of his Description of the Earth, writes that Pythagoras used the greatest purity, and was shocked at all bloodshed and killing; that he not only abstained from animal food, but never in any way approached butchers or hunters."
Eudoxus: Description of the Earth quoted in Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras. Eudoxus of Cnidus 410 or 408 BC – 355 or 347 BC was a Greek astronomer, mathematician, scholar and student of Plato.
"There was a man here, Pythagoras, a Samian by birth, who had fled Samos and its rulers, and, hating their tyranny, was living in voluntary exile. Though the gods were far away, he visited their region of the sky, in his mind, and what nature denied to human vision he enjoyed with his inner eye. When he had considered every subject, through concentrated thought, he communicated it widely in public, teaching the silent crowds, who listened in wonder to his words, concerning the origin of the vast universe, and of the causes of things; and what the physical world is; what the gods are; where the snows arise; what the origin of lightning is; whether Jupiter, or the storm-winds, thunder from colliding clouds; what shakes the earth; by what laws the stars move; and whatever else is hidden; and he was the first to denounce the serving of animal flesh at table; the first voice, wise but not believed in, to say, for example, in words like these :
‘Human beings, stop desecrating your bodies with impious foodstuffs. There are crops; there are apples weighing down the branches; and ripening grapes on the vines; there are flavoursome herbs; and those that can be rendered mild and gentle over the flames; and you do not lack flowing milk; or honey fragrant from the flowering thyme. The earth, prodigal of its wealth, supplies you with gentle sustenance, and offers you food without killing or shedding blood.
‘Flesh satisfies the wild beast’s hunger, though not all of them, since horses, sheep and cattle live on grasses, but those that are wild and savage: Armenian tigers, raging lions, and wolves and bears, enjoy food wet with blood. Oh, how wrong it is for flesh to be made from flesh; for a greedy body to fatten, by swallowing another body; for one creature to live by the death of another creature! So amongst such riches, that earth, the greatest of mothers, yields, you are not happy unless you tear, with cruel teeth, at pitiful wounds, recalling Cyclops’s practice, and you cannot satisfy your voracious appetite, and your restless hunger, unless you destroy other life!
‘But that former age, that we call golden, was happy with the fruit from the trees, and the herbs the earth produced, and did not defile its lips with blood. Then birds winged their way through the air in safety, and hares wandered, unafraid, among the fields, and its own gullibility did not hook the fish: all was free from trickery, and fearless of any guile, and filled with peace. But once someone, whoever he was, the author of something unfitting, envied the lion’s prey, and stuffed his greedy belly with fleshy food, he paved the way for crime. It may be that, from the first, weapons were warm and bloodstained from the killing of wild beasts, but that would have been enough: I admit that creatures that seek our destruction may be killed without it being a sin, but while they may be killed, they still should not be eaten.
‘From that, the wickedness spread further, and it is thought that the pig was first considered to merit slaughter because it rooted up the seeds with its broad snout, and destroyed all hope of harvest. The goat was led to death, at the avenging altar, for browsing the vines of Bacchus. These two suffered for their crimes! What did you sheep do, tranquil flocks, born to serve man, who bring us sweet milk in full udders, who give us your wool to make soft clothing, who give us more by your life than you grant us by dying? What have the oxen done, without guile or deceit, harmless, simple, born to endure labour?
‘He is truly thankless, and not worthy of the gift of corn, who could, in a moment, remove the weight of the curved plough, and kill his labourer, striking that work-worn neck with his axe, that has helped turn the hard earth as many times as the earth yielded harvest. It is not enough to have committed such wickedness: they involve the gods in crime, and believe that the gods above delight in the slaughter of suffering oxen! A victim of outstanding beauty, and without blemish (since to be pleasing is harmful), distinguished by sacrificial ribbons and gold, is positioned in front of the altar, and listens, unknowingly, to the prayers, and sees the corn it has laboured to produce, scattered between its horns, and, struck down, stains with blood those knives that it has already caught sight of, perhaps, reflected in the clear water.
‘Immediately they inspect the lungs, ripped from the still-living chest, and from them find out the will of the gods. On this (so great is man’s hunger for forbidden food) you feed, O human race! Do not, I beg you, and concentrate your minds on my admonitions! When you place the flesh of slaughtered cattle in your mouths, know and feel, that you are devouring your fellow-creature."
Ovid: Metamorphoses Book 15
Pythagoras’s Teachings: Vegetarianism Book 15 :60-142
‘Now (lest I stray too far off course, my horses forgetting to aim towards their goal), the heavens, and whatever is under them, change their form, and the earth, and whatever is within it. We, as well, who are a part of the universe, because we are not merely flesh, but in truth, winged spirits, and can enter into the family of wild creatures, and be imprisoned in the minds of animals.
‘We should allow those beings to live in safety, and honour, that the spirits of our parents, or brothers, or those joined to us by some other bond, certainly human, might have inhabited: and not fill our bellies as if at a Thyestean feast! What evil they contrive, how impiously they prepare to shed human blood itself, who rip at a calf’s throat with the knife, and listen unmoved to its bleating, or can kill a kid to eat, that cries like a child, or feed on a bird, that they themselves have fed! How far does that fall short of actual murder? Where does the way lead on from there?
‘Let the ox plough, or owe his death to old age: let the sheep yield wool, to protect against the chill north wind: let the she-goats give you full udders for milking! Have done with nets and traps, snares and the arts of deception! Do not trick the birds with limed twigs, or imprison the deer, scaring them with feathered ropes, or hide barbed hooks in treacherous bait. Kill them, if they harm you, but even then let killing be enough. Let your mouth be free of their blood, enjoy milder food!’
Pythagoras’s Teachings: The Sanctity of Life Book 15 :453-478
Metamorphoses (Kline) 15, the Ovid Collection, Univ. of Virginia E-Text Center
Publius Ovidius Naso, 20 March 43 BC – AD 17 or 18, known simply as Ovid in the English-speaking world, was a Roman poet who wrote about love, seduction, and mythological transformation. He completed Metamorphoses, an epic poem derived from Greek mythology, in 8 AD
"Pythagoras laid down the doctrine of the monad and of foreknowledge and the interdict on sacrificing to the gods then believed on, and he bade men not to partake of beings that had life, and to refrain from wine. And he drew a line between the things from the moon upwards, calling these immortal, and those below, which he called mortal; and he taught the transmigration of souls from bodies into bodies even as far as animals and beasts.
Pythagoras the Samian, son of Mnesarchos, said that the monad is god, and that nothing has been brought into being apart from this. He was wont to say that wise men ought not to sacrifice animals to the gods, nor yet to eat what had life, or beans, nor to drink wine. And he was wont to say that all things from the moon downward were subject to change, while from the moon upward they were not. And he said that the soul goes at death into other animals. "
Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans: Passages in the Doxographists
Photo: Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509, depicting Pythagoras, writing in foreground, with Averroes, Hypatia of Alexandria, and Parmenides behind him.
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Photo: Pythagoras advocating vegetarianism (1618-20); Peter Paul Rubens
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Important please note:
I am not an animal expert of any kind just your average person who loves animals, all animals, and feels deeply about the plight of many of our fellow creatures. Neither am I a writer, or any other expert. Therefore please keep in mind that the information included in this website has been researched to the best of my ability and any misinformation is quite by accident but of course possible.
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