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.