Recently, I got into a debate over vegetarianism on a Stoic group on Facebook about the morality of eating meat. One gentlemen insisted that eating meat was against human nature and that, given our intelligence, we shouldn’t debase ourselves in partaking meat. Many, including myself, disagreed with him. But despite his occasional insulting words (calling people who ate meat “corpse-eaters”), I found it difficult to defeat his arguments. After all, he was correct in saying we could get everything we need from eating a plant-based diet (complete nourishment, health, and even pleasurable food) and what’s more, there does seem to be a bit of a Stoic tradition of vegetarianism. I thanked the man for arguing his point, because it got me wondering: why does it seem that of the handful of Stoics we know of, half were vegetarians for at least some time in their lives? And why of those, only one, Musonius, made it a point of discussion?
Eat Your Veggies?
As it turns out, Stoicism and vegetarianism might not mix so well together after all.
On the surface, there seems to be some correlation. Zeno ate a simple diet that contained no meat, Seneca wrote about eating a vegetarian diet in one of his letters, and Musonius Rufus straight out told his students eating meat tainted the soul. However, any correlations break down quick. Zeno’s “vegetarianism” seemed about living simply rather than sparing animals (and, as we’ll get to, he might have argued against vegetarianism). Seneca was a vegetarian, and stopped being one, before becoming Stoic, so Stoicism didn’t influence his decision. It is only Musonius where we see a Stoic teach vegetarianism, but even here, his teachings might have been a mix of several schools when it comes to this point.
What is Vegetarianism, Anyway?
According to The Vegetarian Resource Group,
Vegetarians do not eat meat, fish, and poultry. … Among the many reasons for being a vegetarian are health, environmental, and ethical concerns; dislike of meat; non-violent beliefs; compassion for animals; and economics.
Of course, it isn’t so much the question of what vegetarians eat, but rather why. Is a person vegetarian because they don’t eat meat, or are they vegetarian for the reasons why they don’t? It would seem to me that vegetarianism isn’t defined simply by the lack of meat-eating, but also by the reasons.
To me, it’s like the question, “If someone acts like a Stoic, but doesn’t know about Stoicism, are they Stoic?” Simply acting Stoic isn’t enough because one can disagree with Stoic philosophy and still end up acting like one. So, a person eating a vegetarian diet may disagree with the reasons why people end up vegetarian. They just happen to not to eat meat. This is important because, as we’ll get to shortly, the early Stoics may have argued against not eating animals. This is even the case for Zeno, who famously didn’t eat much at all, let alone meat.
The Early Stoa: Zeno’s Simple Diet and…Cannibalism?
Zeno, according to Diogenes Laertius, ate a simple diet:
He used to eat little loaves and honey and to drink a little wine of good bouquet.
Zeno’s eating habits were well-known enough to earn him a jab by the comedian poet and playwright Philemon. In a piece titled Philosophoi (Philosophers), Philemon wrote:
This man adopts a new philosophy.
He teaches to go hungry: yet he gets
Disciples. One sole loaf of bread his food;
His best dessert dried figs; water his drink.
Zeno had a bit of a reputation with his diet, at least enough for it to mentioned by a few people. However, while there is no mention of meat consumption in any of this, we mustn’t take this to mean that Zeno espoused vegetarianism. In fact, according to Johannes Haussleiter, in his book Der Vegetarismus in der Antike, the early Stoics argued against vegetarianism.
Now, to be sure, Zeno himself doesn’t seem like he stood against vegetarianism. While Theophilus of Antioch states Zeno advocated for cannibalism—a decidedly anti-vegetarian idea—Johannes believes Theophilus’s statement is likely made up, though as we’ll see, the issue isn’t gone for good. Johannes goes on to say that if Zeno were asked about vegetarianism, he would have taken a practical stance, which would have ended up with Zeno becoming more of a random vegetarian. By this, Johannes means to say that Zeno’s diet was about frugality, not protecting animals. It makes sense that, if meat was available to him, Zeno would have allowed himself to eat it. This is illustrated by a story Diogenes writes about Zeno. At a dinner party, Zeno prepared to eat a big fish by himself to cure a glutton, by not offering him any. It’s still foggy at this point, but if Zeno is willing to eat animal meat to make a point, it’s hard to pin him as a strict vegetarian.
Where we see anti-vegetarian ideas take shape starts more with Chrysippus. According to Cicero, writing in De Legibus, he quotes Chrysippus as saying:
For the convenience and benefit of man, nature has given such abundance of things that their products have been given to us intentionally, not by accident; not only what fruits and berries produce through the fertility of the earth, but also the animals, because it is clear that they are created partly for the benefit of man, partly for their benefit, partly for food.
We also see another philosopher, Porphyry, argue against Chrysippus in his book, On Abstinence from the Flesh of Living Beings. That book, from what I can see, is only in Latin. However, Johannes provides a quote of Chrysippius from that book that also provides a bit of an idea of how the early Stoics thought about using animals as food:
The gods created us humans only for their sake and for us, but the animals only for our sake: the steeds, that they lead the wars with us, the dogs, that they help us hunt, panthers, bears, and lions for the exercise of our bravery, but the pig—and therein lies the most agreeable favor of the gods—was created only to be sacrificed, and God, as it were, added salt to his flesh, by giving us a wealth of food. But in order to have abundance of soup and subsidiary dishes, he has created all sorts of shells, snails, jellyfish, and various kinds of birds, for no other reason than to offer a great part of himself to enjoyment, still surpassing the mother’s breast and with these joys and pleasures filling the earthly space.
Here we see that Chrysippius saw the animals as created for us and to be used by us. Horses went to war with us, dogs helped us hunt, and the more dangerous animals made us braver. The others? To eat for enjoyment.
And, as another blow to the idea that the early Stoics were against meat-eating, the idea of cannibalism is brought up yet again, this time by the more reputable sources of Diogenes Laertius and Sextus Empiricus. Diogenes states that Chrysippius “gives instructions in a thousand lines to consume the dead.” And Sextus states in Against the Mathematicians:
In the work on righteousness, Chrysippus asserts that if a part of the limb useful for food is chopped off, one should not bury it or throw it away, but consume it so that it becomes another part of ours.
Seneca: Vegetarian and Stoic (Just Not at Once)
We now look at Seneca the Younger, a man who admits being a vegetarian in his youth.
In Letter CVIII, he writes about how, after exposure to Pythagorean philosophy, he adopted vegetarianism for some time. eating meat was akin to cannibalism. Seneca seemed to find it quite enjoyable, too, but he was forced to stop. This is what he says in his letter about his vegetarianism:
I was imbued with this teaching, and began to abstain from animal food; at the end of a 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 to-day positively state whether it really was or not. Do you ask how I came to abandon the practice? It was this way: The days of my youth coincided with the early part of the reign of Tiberius Caesar. Some foreign rites were at that time being inaugurated, and abstinence from certain kinds of animal food was set down as a proof of interest in the strange cult. So at the request of my father, who did not fear prosecution, but who detested philosophy, I returned to my previous habits; and it was no very hard matter to induce me to dine more comfortably.
According to James Romm, in his book Dying Every Day, a bit of xenophobia took hold of Rome and led to Jewish rites being banned. Because vegetarianism “looked uncomfortably similar to a kosher [diet],” Seneca’s father might have pushed him more on fears of prosecution than Seneca lets on. Still, it seems rather clear that Seneca was, at some point during his life, a vegetarian. However, this doesn’t support the idea that Stoics were vegetarians down the road.
Remember, Seneca learned of vegetarianism from his teacher, Sotion. While Sotion did teach Seneca about Stoicism, he used Pythagorean arguments for vegetarianism. As we saw, there simply weren’t any early Stoic arguments against meat-eating, so we can’t say that Stoicism influenced Seneca in this regard. And, honestly, it doesn’t matter all that much if Seneca ever returned to his vegetarian ways when he got older. The fact doesn’t change: it would have been the Pythagoreans, not the Stoics, that gave him his vegetarian foundation.
The Emperor and the Slave
Now, while Musonius Rufus is next in line when it comes to the Stoics, we’re going to save him for last, as he is the only one out of the group that advocated for vegetarianism in his teachings. For now, we’ll turn our attentions to Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.
We don’t have direct evidence from Epictetus about whether he followed his teacher or not when it comes to vegetarianism. However, we do know that, unlike Musonius, Epictetus makes no provisions against eating meat. In fact, the only thing Epictetus calls for is its moderation, in the Enchiridion:
Provide things relating to the body no further than mere use; as meat, drink, clothing, house, family. But strike off and reject everything relating to show and delicacy.
Epictetus also points out that some animals were made to be eaten, as per Providence, as seen in the Discourses:
Well then God constitutes every animal, one to be eaten, another to serve for agriculture, another to supply cheese, and another for some like use; for which purposes what need is there to understand appearances and to be able to distinguish them?
This line is like the one Chrysippius gives, reinforcing the idea that the Stoics believed that the animals were given us for our own use, including the eating of. It seems the only rule that Epictetus gives towards meat is moderation.
When it comes to Marcus Aurelius, we enter some muddy waters. His Mediations refers to animals and meat in a few different places. In Book 10, we see a statement that seems vegetarian in nature:
A spider is proud when it has caught a fly, and another when he has caught a poor hare, and another when he has taken a little fish in a net, and another when he has taken wild boars, and another when he has taken bears, and another when he has taken Sarmatians. Are not these robbers, if thou examinest their opinions?
The wording sounds as if anyone taking a life—from flies all the way up to people—are nothing more than robbers. Even in the case of spiders catching food, he seems to have little respect for anything that takes a life. Yet, a few lines later, we get this:
Imagine every man who is grieved at anything or discontented to be like a pig which is sacrificed and kicks and screams.
In this instance, we see a different attitude towards slaughtering animals. Now, there’s an insult to the man who is aggrieved for acting like a pig getting slaughtered with reluctance. If we remember the Chyrsippus quote from before, pigs were “created” to be sacrificed. A man feeling aggrieved about anything is like the pig trying to fight its fate. Why use this analogy if he didn’t believe it was a proper one? At the very least, it doesn’t reflect a vegetarian view of pigs.
Another passage shows Marcus having to deal with meat:
When we have meat before us and such eatables we receive the impression, that this is the dead body of a fish, and this is the dead body of a bird or of a pig; and again, that this Falernian is only a little grape juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool dyed with the blood of a shell-fish: such then are these impressions, and they reach the things themselves and penetrate them, and so we see what kind of things they are.
It seems indictive from the wording (say “we” instead of “others”) that Marcus was reminding himself that, when he was eating meat, he should remind himself of what it truly was. Interestingly, when I debated the vegetarian mentioned in the beginning, he also made the same point (and led to his “corpse-eater” comments). It seems that at least some vegetarians would agree with how Marcus views meat, though it seems clear it didn’t stop Marcus from eating meat.
Musonius Rufus: Vegetarian or Raw Foodist?
Of all the Stoics whose writings still exist, Musonius stands above the others in many ways. He’s more practical than Seneca, more prescriptive than Epictetus, and more of a common man than Marcus. And, unlike everyone else, he is the only one to teach vegetarianism as part of his lessons.
In Musonius Rufus, Lectures and Sayings, there is a two-part lecture that Musonius gives about food. It’s made clear that he thinks meat isn’t human food, but it’s also clear that cooking isn’t the best for people, either:
And what is suitable for us is food from things which the earth produces: the various grains and other plants can nourish a human being quite well. Also nourishing is food from domestic animals which we don’t slaughter. The most suitable of these foods, though, are the ones we can eat without cooking: fruits in season, certain vegetables, milk, cheese, and honeycombs. … Even those food that requiring cooking, including grains and some vegetables, are not unsuitable; all are proper food for a human being.
These few lines tell us two things about Musonius: he wasn’t a vegan and he thought raw foods were best, though not totally against cooking some foods. But, we still must answer a critical question: was Musonius a vegetarian for the typical vegetarian reasons, or is he more like Zeno, his diet less about animal welfare and more about simplicity?
As it turns out, Musonius is more like Zeno in that it isn’t about the animals, but he has a different reason than Zeno in his choice. Musonius thought that meat was “too crude and more suitable for wild beasts.” He also said that meat slowed our mental activity and that the fumes from cooking the meat is “too smoky and darken the soul.” He also asserts that because humans are the most like the gods, we should eat like they do. As “the vapors coming from earth and water are enough for them”, we, too, should only eat “the lightest and more pure food.” Ultimately, this will make our soul “both pure and dry” which, quoting Heraclitus, will make it “best and wisest.”
Moreover, Musonius’s real disdain seems more about the act of cooking and gluttony. He laments the popularity of cookbooks and complains that there are “more cooks than farmers.” As for gluttons, he states “they resemble pigs or dogs more than humans.” He makes no mention about the welfare of animals and often uses the imagery of animals to insult people.
Vegetarianism and Stoicism: Not So Perfect Together?
When I first started this piece of writing, I saw what seemed to be evidence that Stoics were vegetarian, and that Stoic philosophy supported this. After doing some better research, I see a new, more nuanced picture.
Simply put, Stoicism and vegetarianism are two separate philosophies. Stoic teachings never denounced eating animals and, in fact, often stated that animals were there for us to use. Musonius and Seneca, as we’ve seen, are the only two Stoics we know of that were vegetarians, but neither cite any Stoic arguments for being so. Seneca cites Pythagoras and it would be safe to think that Musonius would have been aware of the same reasons.
The thing is, there seems to be two parts in which we can view vegetarianism. There’s the philosophy part, which often deals with the welfare of animals and the impact of the meat industry on animals, people, and the planet. This is the part where Stoicism and vegetarianism don’t mix. The Stoics felt that animals were there for human use, including for the use of food. This isn’t to say that the Stoics would have been in favor of factory farming or animal abuse. The Stoics thought that animals had souls, not like a human’s, but a soul nonetheless. Maybe I’m overthinking this part, but I’m suspecting that if they truly thought this, a Stoic would lean towards, if not protecting animals, at the very least not abusing and exploiting them.
But there’s also the diet part, which can be simply taken as not eating meat. What we see here isn’t a contradiction between vegetarianism and Stoicism, just a lack of opinion. The Stoics may have believed that animals were there for our use, but none ever went out of their way state that one must eat meat. As we saw, Seneca and Musonius were vegetarians. It isn’t that they didn’t have reasons to be vegetarian. They simply didn’t have any Stoic reason to.
Is Vegetarianism Stoic?
Is X Stoic? This is a question heard, perhaps, one too many times. And, honestly, it’s a senseless question. Nothing but Stoicism is Stoic. But I suppose the real question that’s being asked is would Stoics approve of x. This is the question that started the debate I had about vegetarianism to begin with.
The thing is, no matter how you look at it, the Stoics don’t “approve” of anything besides virtue. From TVs to jokes, the Stoics made it clear that anything that isn’t virtue isn’t good and anything that isn’t vice isn’t bad. In short, it’s all indifferent.
Diet is no exception.
No, vegetarianism isn’t Stoic. They wouldn’t approve of it, either. They won’t give you thumbs up and tell you not eating meat is the right, Stoic thing to do. But they aren’t against vegetarianism, either. What they’ll tell you is that animals are here for our use, but it’s up to you if eat them or not. You might think of some virtuous reasons to be a vegetarian, but they’ll remind you that it isn’t the same as being virtuous. Like any indifferent, it doesn’t make you a good or bad person.
Granted, the Stoics did have some outline some rules about eating, but outside of Musonius, there aren’t any true dietary restrictions. The Stoic “diet” is one of practicality and simplicity. Zeno ate frugally, which would preclude expensive, luxurious items. Epictetus proscribes moderation. Musonius believes food that are easy to get are the best. All of these can be used to justify almost any diet, not just vegetarianism.
So, eat your meat. Or don’t. Neither option is particularly Stoic.
- Der Vegetarismus in der Antike by Johannes Haussleiter
- Discourses by Epictetus
- Dying Every Day by James Romm
- Enchiridion by Epictetus
- Letters from a Stoic by Seneca the Younger
- Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius
- Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
- Musonius Rufus: Lectures and Sayings by Cynthia King
- Vegetarianism in a Nutshell by The Vegetarian Resource Group
 This text only exists in German, so Google Translate was used to interpret text. I will avoid direct quotations from the book, paraphrasing Johannes Haussleiter where need be.
 Translated from German, so this may not be 100% accurate.
Jeremy Corter has been a life-long lover of philosophy. He runs a Stoicism blog, The Mad Stoic, which he sometimes remembers to update. You can also find him online on Twitter and Google+.