'Is Vegetarianism Stoic?' – by Steven Umbrello

Is Vegetarianism Stoic?


As a student of Stoicism, I began, like most practitioners, by adopting its basic tenets. I learned to practice mindfulness, negative-visualization, acceptance of inevitability and of course emotional control. However, as Stoicism begins to become part of my everyday life I look for new ways to integrate it into my daily physical practices, such as my diet and exercise. But what exactly do the Stoics say about our diet? What do they say we can and cannot eat?
I have been a vegetarian for over a year now after I had an epiphany – there was no good reason for me to support the killing of animals so that I may sustain myself. I realized that I could survive, and perhaps even attain greater health, by avoiding a meat-based diet. I made this decision independently of Stoic ideology, however I’m sure that Stoicism had something subconsciously to do with it. However, after a full year of being a vegetarian I wanted to know if what I was doing is actually aligned with Stoic teachings. Is it Stoic to be vegetarian?
I consulted Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD) to see if he held a similar stance on a vegetarian diet as I hold and I was surprised by his answer. Seneca admitted that he was influenced by the Pythagoreans abstinence of meat. Seneca says that Sextus, a Pythagorean, believed that humans were perfectly capable of eating a healthful diet without resorting to the spilling of blood. It appears that he was so influenced by their beliefs that he adopted them for his own use, saying that:
I was imbued with this teaching, and began to abstain from animal food; at the end of the year the habit was as pleasant as it was easy. I was beginning to feel that my mind was more active; though I would not today positively state whether it really was or not. Ep. 108. 22.
Unfortunately, Seneca eventually abandoned the practice of abstaining from meat to avoid being associated with a political group of vegetarians. Regardless, I can’t see why he would not have continued the practice otherwise.
We see that Seneca’s dabble in vegetarianism was not necessarily Stoic in origin, but rather a derivative of Pythagorean practice. So again we have to ask, is vegetarianism Stoic? Musonius Rufus (c. 30 AD – c. 101/2 AD), the famed Stoic teacher of Epictetus, has something to say about a Stoic diet and eating meat. He believed that we should eat those things that are easy to attain such as fruits, vegetables and herbs. By doing this we are better able to properly nourish our bodies without having to take the lives of animals. Peerlkamp, who collected the fragments of Rufus’ sayings, iterates something very similar to that of the Pythagorean Sextus:
Eating of flesh-meat he [Musonius Rufus] declared to be brutal, and adapted to savage animals. It is heavier, he said, and hindering thought and intelligence; the vapour arising from it is turbid and darkens the soul, so that they who partake of it abundantly are seen to be slower of apprehension. (Haarlem 1822)
So when we ask the question “Is vegetarianism Stoic?” we can safely say yes, at least according to Musonius Rufus.
I find it comforting to find Stoic doctrine that affirms my already held beliefs. But we have to remember that the Stoics require each individual to arrive at their own conclusions. Musonius Rufus may have advocated vegetarianism in a Stoic diet, but that does not mean you must be vegetarian to be a Stoic. I don’t eat meat, not because Musonius said not to, but because I think that it is right not to. I believe doing what you think is right is Stoic enough!
Hornblower, Simon, Anthony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow, ed. The Oxford Classical    Dictionary. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Rufus, C., and J. Venhuizen Peerlkamp. C. Musonii Rufi Reliquiae Et Apophthegmata.  Kessinger Publishing, 1822.
Seneca, Ep. 108. 22.
Steven Umbrello is an undergraduate student of philosophy of science at the University of Toronto, and has been a practicing Stoic for most of his young adult life.

16 thoughts on 'Is Vegetarianism Stoic?' – by Steven Umbrello

  1. Nigel Glassborow says:

    An interesting piece.
    Having read some of the ancients’ ideas I looked to what would be the next stage in food issues and came to the conclusion that there would be a movement against the killing of plants for food – after all a plant is just as much a manifestation of the Divine Fire as an animal. Not only that but science has shown that plants are conscious and can feel pain – maybe not as we are conscious or as we feel, but consciousness and feeling all the same.
    So I experimented for a good few years, and yes one can survive without killing an animal or a plant. There is much that we can take from animals by way of milk and the like without killing them. There is much that we can take from plants such as seeds and fruit and leaves without killing them. In fact many plants have evolved to provide benefit to various animals in exchange for services that help them thrive.
    Unfortunately there is always something that is missing from a limited diet.
    As it is the Divine Fire has evolved us to be omnivores – not meat eaters or vegetarians. We are designed as omnivores and as Stoics we are advised to accept that which we cannot alter.
    There again Nature also teaches us that variety helps survival – so for the sake of the survival of the human race we need those who prefer meat to vegetables, those who prefer vegetables to meat and those who are happy with both.
    For the Stoic it is a matter choice – not Stoic doctrine.

    • “Not only that but science has shown that plants are conscious and can feel pain – maybe not as we are conscious or as we feel, but consciousness and feeling all the same”
      I think that you could argue this reduction ad absurdum….what is consciousness and feeling if it is not consciousness and feeling as we know it?
      The ancient vegetarians would draw a line at not-eating something with a soul. I draw my line at not-eating anything that has a nervous system.
      That a blade of grass reacts in some way to being cut is a meagre justification for rearing billions of creatures, that we know feel pain just as we do, for the sole purpose of, needlessly, killing and eating them.

      • Nigel Glassborow says:

        Roger, you say, “you could argue this reduction ad absurdum….what is consciousness and feeling if it is not consciousness and feeling as we know it?”
        In fact Stoicism does argue to the nth degree that the prime matter that manifests as the whole of existence incorporates the quality of ‘consciousness’ (something that quantum science is having to grapple with). It may not all be ‘life as we know it’ but at the back of all of the Stoic teachings is the concept that the whole of the Cosmos is a living conscious rational oneness and that we are just ‘sparks’ or individualisations of this intelligent, conscious matter.
        So even a grain of sand contains an element of consciousness in that it is part of the overall conscious whole.
        If what we eat were to be limited to that which is not conscious, we would starve. As has been shown, health (a preferred indifferent) is better maintained by eating a balanced diet where there is as much variety as possible while sticking to the principle of moderation regards any aspect of our diets.
        Which is why the Stoic is more likely to be an omnivore in that, as I said, Nature “has evolved us to be omnivores – not meat eaters or vegetarians. We are designed as omnivores and as Stoics we are advised to accept that which we cannot alter.” After all, we would not expect a lion to become a vegetarian, would we?
        Stoicism is a very pragmatic life philosophy.

  2. Sergio Fabbri says:

    Dear Steven, I appreciated really much the way you shared your thoughts about vegetarianism, particularly the mild conclusion: «I don’t eat meat, not because Musonius said not to, but because I think that it is right not to».
    Among the many things I would like to discuss here, just one that greatly surprised me becoming recently, without a conscious reason – but perhaps because of many instinctive motives – a vegetarian: how simply it is to change our habits when we aren’t forced (by a cruel doctor, for instance), but as a voluntary choice!
    As an elderly adult who’s mulling in his mind some reasoning about Stoicism, I’m pleased to remind that the philosopher Peter Singer said that no ethics can be founded today without considering that animals have our same rights!

  3. Gerard says:

    I have been also interested in this topic and in my opinion being vegetarian aligns with Stoicism because it represents acting according to one’s principles (as you say in the end of the post).

  4. esteban says:

    There are three reasons for vegetarianism: 1. Moral 2. Health 3. Environment. Don’t know which is more important. But i am also both Stoic and Vegetarian. It is among the things I can control.

  5. Jay says:

    Very interesting article. Personally, I have pondered at one point in my life over the topic of what I should consume and in the end, I concluded to be a “conscientious omnivore”. That means, I shall not eat meat daily (twice weekly). I shall not purchase meat. I am a hunter and eat what I cull. In that manner I know the animal had a healthy, free life. Secondly, I know that the culled game was taken very humanely, with respect and I know what I am eating. Thirdly I know that the wildlife in our hunting area (Revier) is managed correctly and that the environment provides enough sustenance so that all is in balance… and the wildlife is healthy. I am tied to the outdoors as both a farmer and hunter. I understand the workings of mother nature and bear witness to how she works. Animals are free of dilemmas over what to consume and as they are in harmony with their design, as am I. On the topic of Stoicism, I agree with the comment by Nigel G. as posted above.

  6. I had an epiphany – there was no good reason for me to support the killing of animals so that I may sustain myself. I realized that I could survive, and perhaps even attain greater health, by avoiding a meat-based diet.
    Doesn’t this way of putting the matter rather stack the deck? It presumes that sustenance and survival and health are the only reasons for eating. And on those grounds, of course, you are correct.
    But of course, the history of culture and cuisine tell a very different story. I can think of all sorts of reasons to eat meat, reasons that have to do with aesthetic and cultural traditions and values. One might still want to try and make a moral argument, but I would then want to know why such reasons should be overriding of other values and valuations.
    In short, I think you rather beg the question with this formulation. Certainly, it doesn’t speak at all to why I prepare and eat my Great Grandmother’s paprikas csirke recipe with my family.

  7. Dirk Baltzly says:

    Certainly the ancient Stoics had no compunctions about eating meat. In fact, there’s a kind of appalling anthropocentrism attributed to them in some of our sources (cf. Porphyry, On Abstinence 3.20.1, 3 = Long & Sedley 54P). However, the whole discussion of eating animals in antiquity is, in many ways, at cross-purposes with our own since they often had such strange views about flesh “stimulating the passions.” The considerations that seem most relevant to us, like animal suffering, don’t seem to be at the centre of the ancient debate. See, for instance, Richard Sorabji’s book Animal Minds and Human Morals.
    Nonetheless, I think that there may be a case for a modern Stoic to take on the project of vegetarian living as a form of spiritual exercise. Like the person who seeks weights to lift for physical fitness, the would-be Stoic seeks suitable challenges for disciplining his or her power of assent. (A stupid and pointless challenge to self-discipline, forethought and organisation is not, I think, appropriate.) But for all the reasons you cite, taking up the challenge to feed oneself in a world dominated by the practice of meat eating is a worthwhile challenge.
    I’ve given up the land critters myself, but I still find that Tasmanian salmon is often a temptation too great for my prohairesis in its present flaccid state.
    Good luck with the project Steven!

  8. tmfulton says:

    As a biologist, I can not quite follow the delineation necessary to become a vegetarian. You have to draw an artificial line through nature – things that have blood (plants have plenty of fluids)? Things that have a brain? (then where do fish fall)? If you live in the Northeast like I do, being a vegetarian means eating mainly foods that have been shipped for long distances during much of the year, which hardly seems better for the environment. Health-wise it requires jumping through a lot of hoops to get a full range of minerals and balanced protein.
    My personal philosophy is buy local when possible, eat a diverse diet, and choose foods and eat mindfully.

  9. Richard says:

    Years ago I realized that living a life that did not impact the lives of other species would require that I give up not just meat,
    but an entire modern lifestyle that benefits humans over animals.
    Since it is impossible for human needs to never come in conflict with the needs of animals, I concluded that the only honest ethical position was to embrace my place in the predator/prey hierarchy, but do so in the most ethical way that I could. For me, this meant raising and killing most of the meat I eat, as well as minimizing or withdrawing support for as many industries, systems, and practices as I could that impact the quality of life of other animals.

    • Veganism itself is not eliminating cruelty all together. It’s just minimizing cruelty the best you can. You wouldn’t need to give up an entire lifestyle unless that lifestyle is wearing animal products and eating animal foods. It’s not hard at all.

  10. Sergio Fabbri says:

    Dear friends…
    Perhaps the point is not: How can I justify I eat meat, being a Stoic? But: To be vegetarian could be a better way to be Stoic or whatever I would like to be?

  11. Cass says:

    I agree that veganism/vegetarianism is very well aligned with the concept of virtue (doing the right thing). The problem is that “the right thing” is too subjective, and greatly determined by one’s own bias.
    For example, a person who enjoys eating flesh reads a headline saying “Scientist says plants may feel pain” and internalizes that headline as an absolute truth (no need to look further), while the headline “Meat linked to various cancers” goes into the sensationalist-fear-mongering category.
    That’s why I base my beliefs on empirical evidence and try to always question them in light of new information, otherwise, virtue is useless. Remember that all suicide bombers believe they are doing the right thing.
    The overwhelming body of evidence points to the hypothesis that non-human and human animals experience pain and distress in very similar ways. Sentient animals are very closely related to us, biologically speaking. On the other hand, there’s no evolutionary benefit for plants to feel pain (they can’t move!), hence their lack of a nervous system, or a brain to interpret what pain means.
    As humans, we recognize that pain is a negative state to be in, and inflicting pain on another should be justified. Killing for food could definitely be justified in many circumstances, but for most of us, it’s just a preference.
    As a mater of fact, it’s a choice most of us have never made, since we were raised in a carnist society (look for lectures of Melanie Joy on carnism).
    There is a tendency to see inherent or intrinsic value as some mysterious concept. It’s not. It just reflects the reality that some things–non-sentient things like rocks, cars, and cell phones–have value only to the extent we value them. Some others–humans and sentient non-humans–value themselves even if no one else values them. Inherent value is the name we have given to the moral recognition of that valuation. Should animals be treated as property, devoid of inherent value?

  12. Richard Maclean says:

    Yes, of course, vegetarianism was common amongst the frugal cynic-stoics and within the ancient philosophic community generally. And today’s stoic ought seriously to consider, (if he is not already one,) becoming a vegatarian. Scientific investigations into the matter demonstrate clearly, unambiguously, and unequivocally, that animal production requires vast amounts of energy, land, and water in comparison to grain and pulse production. Cattle are more damaging to the environment than cars: http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2006/1000448/index.html

  13. […] Certainly, Stoic thought lends itself well to plant-based diets as Seneca, Rufus and this Modern Stoicism article […]

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