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Saturday, June 28, 2008

Pythagoras Was NOT a Vegetarian!

The evidence in black and white, Latin and Greek - Click to Enlarge Image

As the title of this blog indicates, my purpose hereon is not simply to publish Greek food recipes. This post is a “Reflection” on a matter related to the wider topic of the history of Greek gastronomy as a whole, and was inspired by a recent trip to a bookstore. It is always interesting to see the kind of books that get published as serious reading these days…

Meandering among the shelves of the Philosophy and History sections of the shop, I ran across a title which set my teeth on edge: “The Longest Struggle: Animal Advocacy from Pythagoras to PETA”. With a sigh, I picked the book up off the shelf and started reading the first few chapters and the bibliography to get a sense of the author’s argument(s) and evidence. The title aside, my irreconcilable difficulties with the book started as early as Chapter Three, where the author, Norm Phelps, deals with the purported vegetarianism of the widely renowned ancient philosopher Pythagoras.

Now, celebrity endorsements are everywhere in today’s world. Famous personalities are recruited to peddle everything from automobiles and lip rouge, to clothing and foodstuffs. They are even paid big bucks to promote lifestyles and ideas that they may not actually follow or hold themselves. Such endorsements and advertisements are not a new phenomenon; the practice is as old as civilization itself. People have always had some kind of a fascination with the habits and preferences of notable personalities. Time and again, clever marketers of every era have successfully exploited this all too human tendency to successfully hawk their wares.

However, the practice of hiring famous people to lend their names to any given product, service, concept, or way of life, can be quite an expensive proposition; unless of course they happen to be long dead. In which case, the further back one can place a claim that redounds to the credit of a particular product, service, or notion, the more authority such an endorsement will likely appear to have. Religions use this principle quite effectively in the establishment and promotion of their creeds and practices.

Today, marketers and adherents of various belief systems use famous figures from the past to promote all sorts of ideas. More often than not, these endorsements are spurious as they are based on incomplete research and can usually be dismissed out of hand as erroneous (if not purposeful) misrepresentations. The assertion that Pythagoras was a vegetarian is an excellent example of one such questionable claim of celebrity imprimatur.

Like Socrates and Jesus, the fact that there are no extant writings which can be attributed to Pythagoras himself leaves us at the mercy of later writers who took it upon themselves to provide posterity with ‘Pythagorean’ writings. The evidence which contradicts the widely promulgated notion that Pythagoras was a vegetarian can be found in a set of books entitled “Attic Nights” by one Aulus Gellius, an ancient Roman grammarian and chronicler. Gellius’ books include many valuable excerpts from texts which have long been lost to us, texts which were still available in his own day during his scholarly sojourn at Athens.

Now, it bears mentioning that Gellius actually debunks two mistaken notions relating to Pythagoras which were current in his own time. The first correction deals with the contention that Pythagoras advised against the eating of beans. Gellius produces a quote from a book entitled “On Pythagoras” by the fourth century B.C. philosopher and musician Aristoxenus, a student of Aristotle:

“As for legumes, Pythagoras recommended the consumption of beans on the grounds that they were easy to digest and excrete, and so he ate them himself.”

As Aristoxenus had also studied under the Pythagorean teachers, Lamprus of Erythrae and Xenophilus, he was undoubtedly familiar with the dietary habits of “The Brotherhood” (as the followers of Pythagoras were then known). Indeed, according to Gellius, it was from Xenophilus the Pythagorean, his elderly friend and mentor that Aristoxenus learned about Pythagoras’ taste for suckling pig and young kid; a fondness which Gellius tells us was corroborated by the comic poet Alexis in his play “The Pythagorean Dame” (of which only a small fragment remains to us today).

Gellius also cites confusion between the Greek word for beans (κύαμος) and a metaphorical Pythagorean usage of the same term by the poet Empedocles to connote animal testicles, which were a proscribed food among members of the Brotherhood as they were believed to promote lasciviousness. He (Gellius) also preserves the evidence of the ancient historian and biographer Plutarch who refers to Aristotle on the question of whether or not the Pythagoreans consumed the flesh of animals:

“Aristotle states that the Pythagoreans did not eat uterus, heart, anemones and similar things, but made full use of the rest.”

So, based on the foregoing it appears that Pythagoras did in fact eat beans and meat, just not certain parts of animals like the testicles, heart and uterus, along with certain sea creatures. All of which brings me back to Mr. Phelps and his book which I mentioned above. The only explicit ancient source which he quotes as evidence for his contention that Pythagoras was a vegetarian is a few lines from a poem by a Roman fabulist poet by the name of Ovid who is anything but a reliable source on historical matters. Suffice it to say, I did not buy the book.

So, the next time you read or hear the claim that Pythagoras was a vegetarian, look for the evidence that is provided to support the assertion. Chances are there will be few (if any) actual references to original source material and the reason is pretty simple: Pythagoras was NOT a vegetarian!

Kali Orexi! (Bon Appetit)

Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand™
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.


Laurie Constantino said...

You tell'em Sam! Great exegesis.

deb said...

Very Interesting. I'll take facts over fiction anyday.

Sam Sotiropoulos said...

Laurie - I have not even thought of the word "exegesis" since I studied Hermeneutics in University! Good use of the word!

Deb - my sentiments exactly! But if you do a search on the web on the terms "Pythagoras" and "vegetarian" in combination you will find a veritable deluge of pages and sites which make the claim that Pythagoras was a vegetarian! Preposterous!

Lore said...

Isn't it strange how credulous people tend to be? If we're not very interested in the subject we just tend to believe anything without verifying the facts.

Foodies said...

Nice..I don't know that Pythagoras was not a vegetarian...really informative blog u got here.

Mother Earth School Grade One said...

"Bean pottage has a sanctity of its own in sacrifice to
the gods. It occupies a high place as a delicacy for
the table, but it was thought to have a dulling effect on the senses, and also to cause sleeplessness, and it was under a ban with the Pythagorean system on that account — or, as others have reported, because the souls of the dead are contained in a bean, and at all events it is for that reason that beans are employed in memorial sacrifices to dead relatives. Moreover, according to Varro's account it is partly for these reasons that a priest abstains from eating beans, though also because certain letters of gloomy omen are to be found inscribed on a bean-flower. - Pliny the Elder "Natural History"