The original vegans & vegetarians
The rise of vegetarianism and veganism in recent years has made it easier than ever to follow a plant-based diet. Tofu, tempeh and a whole bunch of milks that didn’t come from a cow are readily available at supermarkets, and even the most far-flung pubs and restaurants usually have at least one non-meat eating option.
With plant eaters being spoilt for choice these days, spare a thought for the original vegetarians, who couldn’t chuck a tub of Tofutti into their shopping basket or fry up a dish of mock meats. Despite being restricted product-purchasing wise, these folk did pretty well in their lives.
c. 570 BC – c. 495 BC
For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love.
Greek philosopher and scholar Pythagoras was truly a man ahead of his time. While many of us know him for the maths theorem we had to learn at school and have since forgotten, Pythagoras was a hugely influential figure. As well as shaping the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, Pythagoras is also credited with promoting vegetarianism – so much so that a plant-eating diet was known as a ‘Pythagorean diet’ back in the day (the term ‘vegetarianism’ wasn’t coined until 1847)
Pythagoras believed that no animals should have to suffer just so we can have a tasty meal. He also said that harming or killing an animal would reduce our moral status as human beings, a belief truly going against the grain of common practice.
1879 - 1955
"Nothing will benefit health or increase chances of survival on earth as the evolution to a vegetarian diet"
This quote from the most famous physicist of all time is often used to promote the cause of vegetarianism, with Einstein’s own exalted image said to be proof of how smart we could all be if our systems weren’t pre-occupied digesting animal gristle. This theory is a bit of a stretch though as Einstein didn’t give up meat and fish until later on in his life.
It’s believed that this removal of meat and fish from his diet came from the recommendation of his doctor to try to relieve Einstein’s many digestive issues. That’s not to say that Einstein wasn’t very willing to adopt this diet, as eating animals hadn’t ever sat well with him though – he confessed in a letter to a friend that he’d always felt guilty about it.
1797 – 1851
My food is not that of man; I do not destroy the lamb and the kid, to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment.
When Mary Shelley wrote the classic Gothic novel ‘Frankenstein’ in 1818, she created a monster with one very uncharacteristic trait – he craved plants instead of flesh. The monster of scientist Victor Frankenstein (who many of us think of as ‘Frankenstein’, although the monster isn’t referred to by a name in the book) is described as being a vegetarian, an unusual choice for the time.
However Shelley was part of a group of writers, including her husband Percy, Lord Byron and Alexander Pope, who were involved in the Romanticism movement of the 1800s. Vegetarianism and Romanticism went hand-in-hand, with many of the books coming out of this movement both directly and indirectly promoting vegetarianism.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
1792 – 1822
If the use of animal food be, in consequence, subversive to the peace of human society, how unwarrantable is the injustice and the barbarity which is exercised toward these miserable victims.
Mary’s hubby Percy was a prolific Victorian poet who used his influence to spruik vegetarianism in his 1813 essay ‘A Vindication of Natural Diet’. Although he hadn’t grown up eating much meat, Mr Shelley’s conversion to vegetarianism can be traced back to when a friend who’d returned from India suggested it to him as an adult (although others think he did it to imitate fellow poet Lord Byron). Whatever the reason, the Shelleys no doubt knew how to put on a tasty and humane dinner banquet.
Main image: Anna Pelzer