Fad or philosophy? The old debate over the consumption of animals

By Zoe Farrell (@zoeffarrell)

Veganism seems to be the word of the moment. As we come to the end of ‘Veganuary’, it is estimated that a record-breaking number of individuals signed up to ditch meat and dairy for the month, with 14,000 people signing the pledge on 30th December 2018 alone.[1] As scientists are urging us to cut back on animal products, animal rights ethics are coming into play with environmentalism to create a seemingly unstoppable train. However, whilst some people see this as a fad, veganism, or at least the philosophy behind it, has a long history.

The term ‘vegan’ itself was coined by Donald Watson in 1944, to denote non-dairy vegetarians.[2] Watson, a former member of the Vegetarian Society, went on to create the Vegan Society, which rejected the exploitation of animals for any purpose, be that for food, commodities, work, or testing. However, whilst ‘veganism’ as a term is relatively new, the debate surrounding the ethics of animal consumption can be traced back to classical antiquity.

In the ancient world, abstaining from meat became one of the ideas within Platonic tradition, with philosophers such as Pythagoras arguing that there was a ‘Golden Age’ which came before him, in which a vegetarian diet was practised.[3] Philosophical vegetarianism emerged, which called for a return to this Golden Age without meat. Whilst this idea was not without its opponents, Daniel Dombrowski has argued that ‘when the ancients imagined a perfect life, it tended to be vegetarian’.[4]

In the early modern period, religious radicals adopting a vegetarian diet similarly argued that they were living by the example of another Golden Age, that of the Garden of Eden.[5] Famous characters, such as Leonardo da Vinci, also discussed the ethics of meat and even went further to question dairy and honey production. In the Codex Atlanticus, for example, he wrote about bees ‘cruelly submerged and drowned’ for making honey. He continued, ‘Of Sheep, Cows, Goats, and the like: Endless multitudes of these will have their little children taken from them, ripped open and flayed and most barbarously quartered.’[6]

Such arguments do not prove that da Vinci practised a vegan or even vegetarian diet, but show that debate in the early modern period addressed many issues which are now returning to the public consciousness with the rise of popular veganism.

Whilst few were openly vegetarian or vegan (although both diets were called ‘vegetarian’ until the 1940s), the discussion nonetheless gained momentum with a number of vocal adherents. In the nineteenth century, for example, Leo Tolstoy became an outspoken proponent of a vegetarian lifestyle. Tolstoy objected to the violence inherent in animal agriculture and instead sought to live a life in harmony with nature. He called the use of animal food ‘simply immoral, as it involves the performance of an act which is contrary to the moral feeling – killing’.[7]

Also in the nineteenth century, another advocate of abstaining from meat, Henry Thoreau, provided an early response to the question often posed to vegans today: ‘where do you get your protein?’ He wrote in his famous 1854 book Walden, ‘One farmer says to me, “You cannot live on vegetable food solely, for it furnishes nothing to make bones with;” and so he religiously devotes a part of his day to supplying his system with the raw material of bones; walking all the while he talks behind his oxen, which, with vegetable-made bones, jerk him and his lumbering plough along in spite of every obstacle’.[8]

The ideas propounded by both Tolstoy and Thoreau came as part of their wider political beliefs and a rejection of modern society. Politics also linked Edwardian feminists and vegetarianism. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed a growth in vegetarianism in the UK, which was often tied in with other forms of radicalism. Vegetarianism was pervasive within the women’s suffrage movement and many vegetarian restaurants were owned and frequented by militant suffragists, such as those opened by the Women’s Freedom League, including the Minerva Café. Whilst suffragists arrived at vegetarianism for a number of different reasons, the link between feminism and vegetarianism was clearly articulated.[9] The journal Shafts for example, gave advice on adopting a vegetarian diet, wrote against the wearing of animal skins, and was anti-vivisection.[10] Women and animals were both seen as victims of male domination, in need of liberation. It was argued that ‘Vegetarianism aims so directly, as we women aim, at the abolition of the unregenerate doctrine of physical force’.[11]

In the second half of the twentieth century, with the rise of factory farming, animal rights took on a more popular aspect, and the practice of vegetarianism became more widespread. Books such as Animal Liberation by the philosopher Peter Singer, published in 1975, became a fundamental vocalisation of the animal liberation movement.

Of course, this article talks mainly of western thought. Many of these ideas were long preceded by Hindu and Buddhist teachings. Yet, what it does hope to demonstrate is that whilst the widespread popularity of veganism is perhaps new, debates over the ethics of consuming animals are certainly not and have engaged philosophers and political activists for millennia.


Image: Vegan food @ De Plak, Nijmegen, photograph by Suzette – www.suzette.nu (Creative Commons license)


[1] ‘Record-breaking Numbers Sign Up for Veganuary 2019’, Vegan Life Magazine, https://www.veganlifemag.com/record-breaking-numbers-sign-up-for-veganuary-2019/ 2 January 2019.

[2] ‘History’, The Vegan Society, https://www.vegansociety.com/about-us/history

[3] Daniel A. Dombrowski, ‘Philosophical Vegetarianism and Animal Entitlements’, in Gordon Lindsay Campbell (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Animals in Classical Thought and Life’ (Oxford, 2014), p. 782.

[4] Ibid, p. 783.

[5] Elly Barnett, ‘Carnivorous Protestants and Radical Vegetarianism in Early Modern England’, Doing History in Public, https://doinghistoryinpublic.org/2017/05/16/carnivorous-protestants-and-radical-vegetarianism-in-early-modern-england/

[6] Jean Paul Richter (ed.), The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, Volume 2 (New York, 1989), p. 354.

[7] Josh Jones, ‘How Leo Tolstoy Became a Vegetarian and Jumpstarted the Vegetarian & Humanitarian Movements in the 19th Century’, Open Culture (26 December 2016), http://www.openculture.com/2016/12/how-leo-tolstoy-became-a-vegetarian-and-jumpstarted-the-vegetarian-humanitarian-movements-in-the-19th-century.html

[8] Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods, p. 17.

[9] Lena Leneman, ‘The awakened instinct: vegetarianism and the women’s suffrage movement in Britain’, Women’s History Review, 6 (2006), p. 276.

[10] Ibid., p. 277.

[11] Anne Ewbank, ‘How Vegetarian Food Fueled the British Suffragette Movement’, Atlas Obscura, 3 July 2018, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/what-did-british-suffragettes-eat

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