A lithe and charismatic intellectual, born around 580 BC into a wealthy Greek merchant family on the isle of Samos, decided that when he next sacrificed animals to the Gods, he would stop using the real thing. He planned to fashion miniature likenesses of animals out of bread dough and sacrifice those instead. Pythagoras defied the cultural norms of his age, and in doing so, inaugurated the longest running campaign of religious persecution, suppression, and social norm enforcement in our food and eating history.
The high status accorded to meat consumption in the West often obscures the complex and ancient ideologies that constitute alternative dietary choices. These alternatives are viscerally tied to debates about animal rights, and their story reveals much about Western food and eating patterns today. There is evidence of significant challenges to conventional views about animals. These challenges have included ideas about what people should eat, where food should come from, and how it should be prepared.
The utilitarian argument for vegetarianism made famous in the seventies by Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation has its roots in the teleological moral imperatives outlined by classical philosophers such as Pythagoras [580–500 BC], Porphyry [232–306 AD] and Plutarch [46–120 AD]. From the Greek archaic period through to late antiquity, these prominent thinkers called for a new relationship between humans and animals. Today, Pythagoras is revered as a mathematician and musical numerologist, and it is scarcely acknowledged that he was also a founder of western vegetarianism. In an extensive historical study, Colin Spencer claims that Pythagoras was the first Greek philosopher to argue for the existence of both human and animal souls:
Pythagoras saw the soul as an abstract concept beyond all material metaphors. What is more, the soul was immortal and could be endlessly transformed into other living creatures [… .] All life forms therefore should be treated as kindred.
“Metempsychosis” or, transmigration of the soul, meant in ascetic practice that animal cruelty and slaughter were forbidden, as was the eating of animals. The Pythagorean diet eliminated all meat and seafood. It consisted of seeds, pulses, fruits, nuts, honey, a wide variety of vegetables, and bread made from wheat and barley. His philosophy nearly ushered in a time in which meat and animal products were redefined as inappropriate, overly indulgent, and even offensive to the deities. It couldn’t get traction because meat was religiously, politically and economically significant and alternative foods were shunned by authorities. Greek and Italian schools teaching Pythagorean meat abstention flourished in this period, but they eventually encountered unfriendly responses from the establishment. The politico-religious system of Greece rested on a clearly structured relationship between animals, humans, and deities. To offer the Gods and the community something other than meat, as Pythagoras did, was a highly subversive act. Consequently, the bloodless liturgy of Pythagoras was vehemently derided and his followers were attacked, resulting in a decline of his order in Greece by 450 BC. However, meatless ascetic movements with elements of Pythagoreanism survived outside of Greece and grew in popularity.
The arguments for eating a plant-based diet forwarded by Plutarch, Plotinus, and his pupil, Porphyry, were shaped by the demise of Pythagoreanism. Porphyry’s text reveals an acute sensitivity to popular criticisms of meat avoidance. The philosopher’s writings were moderate in tone, with no mention of metempsychosis. He chose to call attention to the health risks associated with eating meat. This approach capitalised on the common belief that poor health was a spiritual problem that alienated humans from the Gods. In stark contrast, Plutarch did not tone down his vegetarian rhetoric. In the face of widespread opposition, he argued that to eat meat was to become primitive, beastlike and uncivilised. Furthermore, he stated that vegetarianism was the best available dietary means of avoiding manifestations of a violent and aggressive personality. Plutarch’s arguments were drawn from his insightful understanding of anatomy. He suggested—somewhat prophetically given today’s research on dementia and diet—that humans are not meant to eat meat:
… by the smoothness of his [sic] teeth, for small capacity of his mouth, the softness of his tongue and the sluggishness of his digestive apparatus, nature sternly forbids him to feed on flesh.
Dietary advice of this kind also defined animals as sentient. It stressed the equal rights of all beings and the importance of food choice as part of the pathway to heaven. Not surprisingly, the emerging Christian ruling classes interpreted these ideas as a rejection of ordinary civic and rural life – a threat to the status quo. It did not matter that these concerns for animals were couched in Christian language and rooted in biblical metaphor. The increasingly dominant Church of Rome responded to alternative food practices in a calculated and decisive manner to ensure that calls for animal rights would diminish. They did this because part of the strength and appeal of their orthodoxy was the unambiguous statement of human superiority at the expense of all other creatures. In the Old Testament, Genesis 1: 27–28 endowed devotees with the ability to practise absolute dominion over animals:
Be fruitful and increase, fill the earth and subdue it, rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven, and every living thing that moves upon the earth.
In the early Christian period, Pythagorean-inspired ascetic sects rejected this dichotomy between people and nature. They believed that what you ate determined the nature and closeness of your relationship with God. Vegetarian foods were bloodless and considered cleaner than meat. The diets of popular Christian-based vegetarian ascetic sects such as the Manichaeans and Bogomils were defined by orthodox Christian leaders as heretical, and severe punishments were meted out to those who were unwilling to renounce their vegetarian faith. Manichaeans feared that the spirit was trapped by flesh-eating. Mani, the founder, came from the region of Baghdad in modern-day Iraq. He incorporated Zoroastrian, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and Gnostic beliefs into an enormously successful religion. Mani placed meat at the bottom of his hierarchy of foods because it was perceived to be descended from ‘unclean’ animals. If his beliefs and teachings had been allowed to develop, this relaxed, peaceful and contemplative form of religion would have changed the face of the Middle East. It was also poised to expand across the northern hemisphere and guide the faithful towards dietary practices that are now known to improve human health and extend longevity, but Europeans weren’t given a choice. The Manichaeans were banned from Rome in AD 311, and by AD 375 being a Manichee carried the death penalty throughout Catholic-controlled Europe.
The Bogomils were another Christian-based ascetic sect that vowed never to commit acts of violence towards humans or animals. Bogomilism spread to Macedonia in the 11th century, colonising northern Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia. Basil, a renegade monk from Macedonia, had considerable success in recruiting followers of Bogomil in Constantinople, until the Emperor, Alexius I, at the behest of the orthodox Christian clergy, imprisoned Basil and burned Bogomil leaders. Bogomils were burnt in Cologne in 1142 and barely survived sporadic persecutions in Byzantium. Bogimilism is also thought to be the inspiration behind the Cathar vegetarian religious sect emerging around AD 1030 in central Europe. The Cathari—Greek for ‘pure ones’—believed that in order to purify oneself and prepare for the afterlife it was necessary to abstain from sex, meat, and animal products, including milk. Meat was considered to be tainted by the devil, so the killing of animals was prohibited. As part of the Inquisitions, the Church of Rome branded all Cathari as heretics, resulting in numerous campaigns to eliminate followers. The ‘holy’ crusaders were instructed that heretic meat abstainers could be identified by the paleness of their faces. Suspects would be brought before a bishop, who would then order the accused to kill a chicken. In AD 1249, eighty suspects were burnt in one day by Raymond VII of Toulouse, and the last Cathar was burnt at Languedoc in AD 1330.
The church lost much of its power early in the Renaissance period, yet all of the culinary practices of Christendom remained and were designed around animals reared for consumption. This prompted concerns about intensive animal farming and again drove public discussion about the relationship between humans and animals. Later, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, growing interest in Pythagorean and Platonic studies gave rise to debates about the nature of non-human animal existence. Influential thinkers such as Sir Thomas More condemned the slaughter of animals, and in 1516 Leonardo da Vinci wrote passionately of his pity for their suffering:
O Nature! Wherefore art thou so partial; being to some of thy children a tender and benign mother, and to others a most cruel and pitiless stepmother?
Intellectual disputes over the rights of animals reached their zenith in the seventeenth century, in chorus with other oppositional voices to the dominant Cartesian worldview. As the church waned, the new apostles of science argued for societies grounded only in rational thinking, and they frowned on superstitions and fears perpetuated by religious doctrines. Regrettably, one aspect of the old Christian dogma that mainstream science failed to question was the exploitation of animals. Science upheld the orthodox religious view that animals were for eating, and could also be useful for ‘scientific progress’. Descartes’ view of a clockwork universe was empirically supported by animal experiments. Vivisection—like Genesis before it—was touted as proof of human superiority. Animals were argued to have no cognition or reason, only volition, like clocks. In contrast, humans were said to have a pineal gland that functioned as the soul animator for the body. We were portrayed as having the two essential elements of real existence: matter and spirit. The latter is characterised by the ability to think, something Descartes insisted animals could not do.
In congruence with other dissenting ideologies in Renaissance Europe, meat abstaining social movements advanced the utilitarian principle that animals should be left alone and allowed to pursue their own interests. Reducing or eliminating meat from one’s diet became an expression of personal ethics and resistance to moral norms that excluded the animal world, rather than as part of the asceticism of earlier sects that threatened Christian expansion. Throughout the eighteenth-century rise of humanism, fledgling vegetarian groups drew from animal rights-based beliefs, gender politics, and environmental and health concerns to promote alternative food practices across Europe and North America. Championed by literary elites and philosophers, the unpopular and previously endangered supporters of plant-based diets evolved into a stable minority. The centuries-old Pythagorean diet also underwent its first recorded name change. Pythagoreanism was officially dubbed “Vegetarianism” in 1847 at Northwood Villa, Ramsgate, Kent, in England, the birthplace of the first “Vegetarian Society”.
These mid-nineteenth century vegetarian social movements also marked a significant turning point for the status of women. The consumption of animal flesh was argued to be socially regressive and morally unacceptable, in that it exacerbated all the commonly perceived and more troublesome aspects of human personalities, such as aggression, alcohol abuse, and sexual promiscuity. In an analysis of Russian meat abstention, Darra Goldstein found that temperance and vegetarian movements were closely allied. Renowned women crusaders against alcohol introduced meatless diets to the masses by opening up cafeterias and publishing cookbooks throughout Eastern Europe. In Britain and central Europe, vegetarian political groups also helped to build social frameworks that emphasised gender equality.
Suffrage leaders like Charlotte Despard, Constance Lytton, Leonora Cohen, and Maud Joachim argued that wives would have more time in their lives to pursue interests outside of home and family responsibilities when the burdens of preparing meaty dinners were lifted from their lives. Suffragists were also drawn to theosophy and socialist-oriented movements. Theosophy—derived from the Greek: theosophia, meaning ‘divine wisdom’—emerged in the latter quarter of the nineteenth century. It was a movement inspired by Gnostic, Pythagorean, Hindu and Buddhist teachings, and it offered leadership positions to women. Leah Leneman suggests that the interest in vegetarianism and alternative philosophies is an example of a critical underlying ethos in women’s suffrage: a desire to alleviate gender inequalities coupled with a non-patriarchal form of religion. Arguments for meat abstention were articulated as part of wider campaigns for women’s social and political inclusion. Vegetarianism was viewed with less suspicion and fear than in previous times, but it was again confined to a marginal social cohort. Even after the political activism of the suffragettes succeeded and gave women the vote, going meatless was not even close to becoming as globally enfranchised.
This inability to recapture the public imagination in the ways that Pythagoreanism did was probably related to political economy. The contempt for advocates of animal rights parallels innovations in meat processing. At the end of the nineteenth century, meat industries had the power to create enormous wealth, build nations, and shape cultural identities. Outside of Central Europe, British and Spanish explorers colonised new worlds and instilled European culinary traditions. Despite political independence from Great Britain in 1783, Americans stayed with the British beef diet for over a century. In South America, the introduction of livestock was integral in the cultural conquest of the continent. Cattle herds imported in the sixteenth century grew exponentially, dispossessing Indigenous peoples from their lands and devastating cereal crops. Indigenous communities in Australia similarly struggled with the pastoral invasion of sheep, cattle, and other animals. Domestic pigs were introduced by European settlers throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in places where Indigenous communities had thrived on locally available foods which they hunted, gathered, farmed, and fished. The destructive impact of these introduced species is well documented. Indigenous people shared the experience of dispossession with all of the flora and fauna of their surrounding environment.
In what the late Australian historian, Bill Thorpe, describes as the “Fauna Wars”, pastoralists throughout Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, mounted bloody campaigns to eliminate native animals, birds, and reptiles. The cultural fallout was just as devastating. Traditional Aboriginal hunting skills were sometimes utilised to aid the pastoralist assault on native animals, and Aboriginal people were pressed into driving fauna off of newly sequestered station land.  The impact on the health of Indigenous people as a result of the near annihilation of local food sources, not to mention the local way of life, is now clearly understood. Before white settlement, the traditional Aboriginal fare was made up of foods like acacia seeds and cheeky yams that were high in complex carbohydrates, proteins and nutrients, yet low in fats and sugars. Diet-related diseases were uncommon. Conversely, modern Aboriginal diets tend to be high in fat and sugar, but low in overall nutritional value. The typical Australian diet has been linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, malignant neoplasms (cancers), stroke and hypertension, all of which are at exceptionally high levels in the Indigenous population.
The role of animal-based primary production in forging a distinctly ‘white’ Australian nation deserves special attention. It is in eighteenth and nineteenth century manufacturing developments that meat retains its high status and concretes its place in Australian food and eating. In a scholarly exploration of food, agriculture, and taste, Carson Ritchie argues that Australia was created by the demand for cattle products. The British considered Australia to be a successful convict depository, but it was also deemed a financial disaster and an encumbrance on the English taxpayer. The standard colonial solution of the time was to ship animal products such as beef, mutton, animal hides and skins, back to England. These products further benefited from technological advances in refrigerated shipping and canning factories. Combined with textiles, wool, and gold, the exploitation of animals completed the development of an ‘Australian’ economy:
Thereafter Australia became a larder of Europe, the growth of its monoculture of meat raising elevated it to a point where it had enough capital to develop goldmining and other industries and also absorb the influx of population that followed… 
The ‘outback-pioneering spirit’ invoked by public intellectuals, artists, and politicians is a social construct founded on a business decision made over two hundred years ago by the profiteering British. The insatiable European appetite for meat dragged a geographically designated Asian-Australia firmly into a Western orbit. It could have just as easily been pulses, seeds, or nuts, but it ended up being animal products that laid the foundations for economic diversification. This is the primary reason why the centrality of meat in the imagined Australia remains and is epitomised by numerous rural adventure stories. For Carson Ritchie, the iconic folksong about the swagman who steals a sheep for food, and when surprised by a squatter, drowns himself in a billabong for fear of punishment, reflects the struggle and sadness of a time in which intensive animal farming and food production by convict labour, at the behest of an imported British aristocracy, changed the pristine landscape of an entire continent, and profoundly influenced the dietary norms and health of its peoples.
Popular ideas about what humans should consume are now grounded and suffused with health-related discourses and scientific jargon. Throughout the twentieth century, researchers discerned a scientifically verifiable relationship between food, eating, and some of the deadliest and most painful diseases in the West. Medical science inquiry in the 1980s vindicated Plutarch’s classical-era warning about eating meat. A raft of independent studies found an association between vegetarianism and reduced risks for hypertension, coronary artery disease, non-insulin dependent diabetes and gallstones. Further evidence surfaced that correlated meatless diets with a reduced risk of breast cancer, diverticular disease, colon cancer, calcium-containing kidney stones, osteoporosis and dental caries.
After centuries of disregard by science, the latter part of the twentieth century saw a high degree of consensus amongst medical researchers. Plant-based diets were proven to carry a portfolio of natural products for the human body which provided substantial metabolic advantages. Unfortunately, the canon of knowledge related to food and human behaviour in the psychological and psychoanalytic sciences was not updated and in keeping with these new clinical recommendations. Psychological evaluations and profiling of vegetarians at this time perpetuated the norm enforcement of the Archaic period – when refusing meat and animal products was seen as a highly transgressive and heretical activity. Some twentieth century researchers in human behaviour paradigms have voiced strong opposition to plant-based diets. For example, a number of studies published in popular peer-reviewed psychology journals have argued that excluding meat from the diet is ‘abnormal’. These papers defined vegetarians and vegans as perverse. The avoidance of meat was argued to be a serious illness – a manifestation of mental disease characterised by the mental suppression of “cannibalistic urges” that required treatment.
In a major 1975 psychoanalytic science journal article devoted to vegetarianism, Stanley Friedman argued that commonplace hypotheses of vegetarianism as a mental aberration were evident in his case studies of two male patients. The first case study refers to a man in his forties who sought therapy after he separated from his wife, and then felt depressed and lethargic. Following psychoanalytic therapy, Friedman concluded that the man’s inability to work and his poor appetite were the result of a pathology that Friedman referred to as “Intermittent unconscious vegetarianism” [his italics]. He describes vegetarianism as an alien impulse that can attack individuals at random, and can clearly be traced to the maternal neglect that the man supposedly experienced in his childhood:
One meaning of the patient’s nausea and aversion to fatty meat was an appeal to his mother to return the breast to him, for, unlike his brother, he would control his oral sadism and never bite it. 
Friedman further claims that his second case study is an example of “True vegetarianism”. The analysis here is derived from sessions with a man in his twenties who sought therapy for depression and an inability to maintain relationships with women. Friedman seized on the fact that this man was also a vegetarian from the age of five, and associated the man’s refusal to eat animals with a variety of pathologies. Vegetarianism was considered to be the cause for the young man’s alleged suppressed sadistic urges, problems with socialisation—particularly with women—and his alleged inadequate mental development:
Aside from his sexual inhibitions, vegetarianism was related to blocks in reading and learning, and these three areas were frequently linked in his associations. In each, the object is forbidden because of his destructive wish to penetrate it with his teeth, penis, or mind.
In both of these case studies, Friedman does not acknowledge that there may be other explanations for the difficulties experienced by both the older man who sought counselling after the dissolution of his marriage, and the younger man who struggled to adjust to the pressures of early adulthood. Friedman also overlooks the complex and ancient ideologies that have inspired generations to consider the positive psychological and biological benefits of eating less meat and extending basic rights to animals. He posits a reductive definition of vegetarianism as an: “interesting and not rare condition” – which he also thinks is related to depression.
Many social scientists still consider meat-eating to be a benchmark for normality and mental stability, and view departures from such norms as symptomatic of behavioural problems. The influence of these monographs on public and scholarly perceptions about vegetarianism and its advocates should not be underestimated. Psychoanalytic studies of eating disorders have since described vegetarianism as an “ancillary symptom” of conditions as diverse as bulimia, kleptomania, and laxative abuse. In a review of psychoanalytic perspectives on Bulimia, or binge eating, in 1986, Harvey J. Schwartz contended that the avoidance of red meat is an “eating conflict” that manifests through an assortment of pathological behaviours.
This alleged link between vegetarianism and disordered eating has taken hold outside of psychiatric medicine and is noticeable in contemporary eating disorder studies. In addition to the earlier portrayals of vegetarians as deeply troubled individuals in need of therapy, psychologists in the 1990s argued that choosing to abstain from meat is evidence of psychopathology, and that the adoption of a plant-based diet carries significant risks of developing eating disorders. These views persist in the twenty-first century academic literature.
In a Finnish study published in the influential journal, Eating Disorders, the authors compared food choice motives and alleged symptoms of eating disorders among vegetarians and non-vegetarians. They also claimed that people with eating disorders and vegetarians are similar in many respects:
Both anorexics and vegetarians are typically young Western women who have changed their diet in their teenage years. They have adopted food attitudes which are more extreme, ascetic, and dichotomic than those of other people, and by non consumption of specific foods they both seem to strive for a stronger sense of purification, control, and identity.
This Helsinki-based study surveyed in the first instance: one hundred and eighteen high school girls with an “eating attitudes test”. This test claims to measure behaviours and attitudes which are said to be related to bulimia, body dissatisfaction, and drive for thinness. The authors assert that the higher test scores of some of the vegetarians in the study (20% of the vegetarian sample) indicate that they have more symptoms of eating disorders than the non-vegetarians. The second part of this study implemented an eating disorder inventory which contained scales purported to measure the core psychopathology of anorexia nervosa. The sample for this section was one hundred and twenty four women university students studying first-year psychology in Helsinki. The authors insist that the findings here bolster their claims of plant-based diets being problematic for humans. They point to significantly higher scores for 14.3 percent of the vegetarians in the study. Again, the authors do not mention that in this part of the study 14.3 percent amounts to a very small number of women who scored highly on their inventory. Furthermore, despite their results indicating no difference in the importance attached to weight control between vegetarian and non-vegetarian respondents, a bold and generalised link between plant-based food choices and eating disorders is asserted:
If cognitively regulated eating is a risk for eating disorders, then vegetarianism looks like a risk factor – it restricts the food choices and develops good and bad categories in a manner similar to dieting.
Most forms of vegetarianism prescribe the avoidance of animal-derived food, and some forms of plant-based diets might very well be nutritionally inadequate, but almost all of the written arguments for vegetarianism typically emphasise the consumption of a wide variety of foods. The eating disorder researchers have chosen to assess the value of a nutritional choice only by how it scores on their constructed profile – which only comprises a small number of adolescent vegetarians. And, there is no evidence that the nutritional choices and feeding regimes of these adolescent respondents remains static into adulthood.
There are many popular meat-based diets endorsed by celebrities and medicos that certainly could not be considered liberal and unrestrictive. The bestselling South Beach Diet was based on a ‘dichotomic’ classification of ‘Good Carbs’ and ‘Bad Carbs’. The meat-based Atkins, CSIRO, and Paleo diets emphasise good fats and bad fats. They also promote restricted or non-consumption of specific foods such as bread, pasta, and some vegetables because their advocates are of the opinion that humans are a carbohydrate-sensitive species. These diets are not without their critics, but there is a conspicuous absence of academic scrutiny of highly popular meat-based diets in the eating disorder literature. The results of these psychological studies—often derived from a captive sample of young students—do not substantiate the notion that vegetarianism, as a whole, can be linked to anxiety and neurotic symptoms. Their respondents may have been influenced by any number of non-dietary and other extraneous social factors as they subvert, resist, or conform to various ideas about body image. Of course, vegetarianism has been historically cast as a practice that is against conventional social norms and values. It might then, on those grounds alone, appeal to some younger people who are looking to express their individuality or their political beliefs in ways that include food and eating. Even so, the researchers cannot offer certainty as to why barely more than a few of the student respondents “showed more anxiety-based psychopathology” and more importantly, how this higher anxiety score justifies a mental health warning about meat-free diets.
In urban centres throughout the West, vegetarianism and veganism are no longer the diets that dare not speak their names. But they are still constantly undermined. Erroneous research continues to uphold the status of meat and animal products, and remind consumers of the historically constructed idea that meat is the food of choice for ‘normal’ people. The illustration at the opening of this essay signifies the victor of a 2,500-year battle for stomachs and minds: a mouth watering Aussie mixed grill, with a Pythagorean twist. I confess that the sausages and bacon are store bought. In my defence though, the manufacturer is a reputable and long-standing purveyor of fine vegetarian meat simulacra. The patties, or burgers, I did make myself. They’re 100% vegan. I fashioned them from textured vegetable protein, tapioca flour, breadcrumbs, a dash of hot water, and a little seasoning. The battle for stomachs and minds might be over, but in disordered, cognitively regulated and cruelty-free kitchens around the world, the war for our immortal souls rages on.
Thanks are due to Desirée Prideaux for her assistance with the preparation of this essay.
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Jemàl Nath is an Australian-based research consultant. Since completing a PhD at Flinders University, he has taught sessionally and had three fellowships. His writing on consumer trust, gender, religion, food and health is published in the peer-reviewed journals, Food, Culture & Society, Australian Humanities Review, Journal of Sociology, and Health Sociology Review. He is currently editing the final draft of his first fiction novel—a counter-narrative to Ayn Rand’s neoliberalist cult classic, Atlas Shrugged. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Featured Image: “A dinkum Aussie mixed grill, with a Pythagorean twist.” by Jemàl Nath