How Vegetarianism Was Born Out of Philosophy and Mysticism.

King Pentheus torn apart by Maenads in a Bacchic frenzy. Roman wall painting from the House of the Vettii, Pompeii. The Dionysian rite of sparagmos involved dismembering a living animal or even a human being. The flesh was then eaten raw, while still warm and dripping with blood. Pentheus, like Pythagoras and Empedocles, had refused to embrace Dionysus.

Pythagoras (d. c. 495 BCE) is usually remembered for the theorem that bears his name, concerning the relation between the three sides of a right triangle. But although he may have introduced the theorem to the Greeks, it had been discovered centuries earlier, and separately, by the Babylonians and Indians. Instead, Pythagoras ought to be remembered for being the first recorded vegetarian in the West.

At the age of 40, Pythagoras left his native Samos for Croton in southern Italy, where he established a philosophically minded religious community. The men and women who entered the community’s inner circle were governed by a strict set of ascetic and ethical rules, forsaking personal possessions, assuming a mainly vegetarian diet, and observing the strictest silence. Some of the community’s more idiosyncratic rules, such as “do not break bread” or “do not poke the fire with a sword,” may have stood as riddles or metaphors.

Music played an important role in Pythagoras’ community. Pythagoreans recited poetry, sang hymns to Apollo, and played on the lyre to cure illnesses of body and soul. One day, or so the story goes, Pythagoras passed by some blacksmiths at work and noticed that their hammering on anvils produced especially harmonious sounds. He then found that the anvils were simple ratios of one another, one being half the size of the first, another two-thirds of the size, and so on. This discovery of a relationship between numerical ratios and musical intervals led him to believe that mathematics underlies the structure and order of the universe. According to his “harmony of the spheres,” the heavenly bodies move according to equations that correspond to musical notes and form part of a grand cosmic symphony.

Pythagoras never divorced religion from philosophy and science, which, even in his day, left him open to accusations of mysticism. No doubt under the influence of Orphism, a mystery religion rooted in pre-Hellenic beliefs and the Thracian cult of Zagreus, he came to believe in metempsychosis, that is, in the transmigration of the soul at death into a new body of the same or a different species, until such a time as it became moral. According to lore, he once recognized the cry of his dead friend in the yelping of a puppy. He himself claimed to have lived four lives and to remember them all in detail: in his first life, he had had the good fortune of being Aethalides, son of the god Hermes, who had given him the faculty of remembering everything even through death.

Pythagoras’ influence and legacy

In Croton, Pythagoras laid down a constitution. According to the first-century historian of philosophers, Diogenes Laertius, he and his Pythagoreans governed the state so well that it was “in effect a true aristocracy (government by the best)”. But after Croton’s victory over neighbouring Sybaris in 510 BCE, certain prominent citizens demanded a democratic constitution. When the Pythagoreans rejected it, the supporters of democracy attacked them. Supposedly, Pythagoras almost managed to escape but came over a field of fava beans and refused to step over it. His aversion to fava beans might have owed to a belief that fava beans contain the souls of the deceased, or to favism, an inherited disease that is exacerbated by the consumption of fava beans.

After Pythagoras’ death, the Pythagoreans deified him, and attributed him with a golden thigh and the gift of bilocation (being in two places at once). He became a paradigm of the sage, such that the Romans tried to assimilate him and claim him as their own. But in his lifetime, Pythagoras had always been a paragon of humility, declining to be called a “wise man” [sophos] and preferring instead to be called a “lover of wisdom” [philosophos]—thereby coining the term “philosopher”.

In his Metaphysics, Aristotle says that Plato’s teachings owed much to those of the Pythagoreans; so much, in fact, that Bertrand Russell upheld not Plato but Pythagoras as the most influential of all Western philosophers. Pythagoras’ impact is perhaps most evident in Plato’s mystical approach to the soul and his emphasis on mathematics, and, more generally, abstract thought, as a secure basis for the practice of philosophy.

Pythagoras’ community served as an inspiration and prototype for later philosophical institutions such as Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum, and Epicurus’ Garden, and, subsequently, for the monastic life and associated early universities. Pythagoras’ teachings as represented in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (8 CE) influenced the modern vegetarian movement to such an extent that, until the word “vegetarianism” was coined in the 1840s, vegetarians were simply referred to in English as “Pythagoreans”.


Like Pythagoras, of whom he knew, the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles (d. c. 432 BCE) believed in metempsychosis, and his beliefs, at least in this area, may shed light on those of Pythagoras. Empedocles held that, to atone for an original sin involving bloodshed, souls must go through a series of mortal incarnations before they are able to rejoin the immortal gods. They can, however, help themselves by adhering to certain ethical rules, such as refraining from meat, beans, bay leaves, and heterosexual intercourse

Empedocles himself claimed to have already been a bush, a bird, and ‘a mute fish in the sea’. But now, as a doctor, poet, seer, and leader of men, he had reached the highest rung in the cycle of incarnations—and could, just about, count himself among the immortal gods. In a story that is almost certainly false but too good not to tell, he killed himself by leaping into the flames of Mount Etna, either to prove that he was immortal or make people believe that he was.

Empedocles and Pythagoras believed that animals and even certain plants are our kin and should not be killed for food or sacrifice. They were vegetarians and pacifists long before the hippies came around. Their mortification of the flesh is, in some sense, the apotheosis of the pre-Socratic privileging of Apollonian reason over Dionysian sense experience.

Neel Burton is author of The Gang of Three: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle.

And the critical difference between relaxation and leisure.

In Book 10 of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle outlines the nature of happiness, which, he reminds us, is the “end of living” or purpose of life. Happiness, he says, is not a disposition but an activity, or else it might belong to someone who slept through his whole life, or to someone suffering the greatest misfortunes.

Some activities, he continues, are chosen for the sake of something else, while others are chosen for their own sake. And it is among the latter that happiness is to be found, for happiness is not in want of anything. Activities that are chosen for their own sake are those from which nothing more is sought than the activity itself, and it is also of this kind that virtuous actions are thought to be.

It would be strange if happiness lay in amusement rather than in virtuous activity, for then man would toil and trouble all his life for the sake of nothing more than amusement. In truth, he amuses himself only so that he may exert himself. Amusement is a sort of relaxation, necessary only because of the impossibility of continuous activity.

Any chance person, even a slave, can enjoy the bodily pleasures no less than the best man; but no one assigns to a slave a share in happiness—unless he assigns to him also a share in human life. For happiness, as has been said, does not reside in sensual pleasure, but in virtuous activity.

Philosophic contemplation

Having established that happiness consists in activity that is chosen for its own sake, and especially in virtue, Aristotle argues that, of all such activities, it is philosophic contemplation that leads to the highest happiness.

The pleasures of philosophy, he says, are marvelous both for their purity and their enduringness. Man, more than anything, is distinguished by reason, and the life of reason is the most self-sufficient, the most pleasant, the happiest, best, and most godlike of all.

Indeed, the activity of God, which surpasses all others in blessedness, must surely be contemplative. All life aims at God and eternity: plants and animals participate in the eternal through reproduction, but man comes nearer through philosophic contemplation. Contemplation and, therefore, happiness are the fruits of leisure, for we are busy that we may have leisure, and make war that we may live in peace.

To be happy, one does not need many or great things, and the life of virtue and contemplation can be practiced, indeed, more easily practiced, with but moderate means. The happy person is bound to seem strange, since the many and miserable only perceive, and judge by, external possessions.

Leisure in Politics

Aristotle returns to the subject of leisure in Politics. The state, he says, should aim at something more than mere survival or self-sufficiency:

Men must be able to engage in business and go to war, but leisure and peace are better; they must do what is necessary and indeed what is useful, but what is honourable is better … If it be disgraceful in men not to be able to use the goods of life, it is peculiarly disgraceful not to be able to use them in time of leisure—to show excellent qualities in action and war, and when they have peace and leisure to be no better than slaves.

To make time for leisure, virtue, and contemplation, Athenian citizens should have no part in agriculture or manufacturing—which are to be left in the care of slaves.

Discussion and relevance today

Anyone who loves his or her work, and who does it for its own sake, will agree with Aristotle: performing this activity, whether it be a job or a hobby, is a source of bliss. And if this activity can help or touch others, then our happiness is all the more complete.

But the most complete happiness comes from reflecting on the preferred activity, its purpose, and its meaning. For instance, it is a great thing to love gardening, but it is an even greater thing to understand why we love gardening, because it tells us something eternal and universal about what it is to be a human being, and connects us with everyone else who loves, has loved, or will love gardening.

Insightful and illuminating is the distinction drawn between time spent in amusement and relaxation, necessary because of the impossibility of continuous activity, and time spent in leisure, that is, in contemplation, friendship, and other virtuous activities.

Economic imperatives have led us to associate free time exclusively with amusement and relaxation, so that many people who retire, and no longer need to flop on a beach or in front of a screen, find themselves at a loss—essentially, because they have never been schooled in leisure (in fact, the Greek word for “leisure”—schole— is the root of our word “school”). But by conflating relaxation and leisure, we risk losing out on the fruits of peace and civilization, and, so, on the highest happiness.

As a moral philosophy, Aristotelian ethics, also called virtue ethics, is astonishingly modern, even futuristic, with people poised to have much more free time as robots take over from slaves and workers.

So much has changed since the time of Aristotle, and yet so little.

Neel Burton is author of The Gang of Three: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle

His students Plato and Xenophon described Socrates as ugly and made much out of this. But his supposed repulsiveness did not prevent Socrates from leading a rich and remarkable love life. So how ugly was Socrates, and might Plato and Xenophon have had good reasons for inventing or exaggerating their teacher’s ugliness?

Socrates was remarkably full-blooded for an ascetic philosopher. In Xenophon’s Symposium, he says, “For myself I cannot name the time at which I have not been in love with someone.” By all accounts, Socrates’ greatest love was with the famously handsome Alcibiades, who was by some twenty years his junior.

In 432 BCE, Socrates and Alcibiades fought together at the Battle of Potidaea, where the middle-aged plebeian and the young aristocrat became unlikely tent-mates. In his Life of Alcibiades, Plutarch relates that “all were amazed to see [Alcibiades] eating, exercising, and tenting with Socrates, while he was harsh and stubborn with the rest of his lovers.” In Plato’s Symposium, Alcibiades says that Socrates singlehandedly saved his life at Potidaea and, after that, let him keep the prize for valour.

At the end of Plato’s Symposium, Alcibiades confesses that he tried several times to tempt Socrates with his good looks, but each time without success. Finally, he turned the tables round and began to chase the older man, inviting him to dinner and on one occasion persuading him to stay the night. He then lay beside him and put it to him that, of all his lovers, he was the only one worthy of him, and he would be a fool to refuse him any favours if only he could make him into a better man.

Socrates replied in his usual, ironical manner:

Alcibiades, my friend, you have indeed an elevated aim if what you say is true, and if there really is in me any power by which you may become better; truly you must see in me some rare beauty of a kind infinitely higher than any which I see in you. And therefore, if you mean to share with me and to exchange beauty for beauty, you will have greatly the advantage of me; you will gain true beauty in return for appearance—like Diomedes, gold in exchange for brass.

After this, Alcibiades crept under the older man’s threadbare cloak and held him all night in his arms—but in the morning arose “as from the couch of a father or an elder brother.”

Other lovers

Socrates also had several women in his life, the earliest, perhaps, being Aspasia of Miletus, who is mostly remembered for her relationship with Pericles, the architect of the Athenian Golden Age.

In Plato’s Menexenus, Socrates says that he learnt the art of rhetoric from Aspasia, “an excellent mistress … who has made so many good speakers [including] the best among the Hellenes—Pericles, the son of Xanthippus.” Socrates agrees to recite a funeral oration that Aspasia recently wrote and taught to him. He tells Menexenus that he ought to remember the speech since, each time he forgot the words, Aspasia threatened to slap him! The speech that Socrates delivers resembles, and satirizes, the famous funeral oration delivered by Pericles and preserved for posterity by the historian Thucydides. When Socrates is done reciting, Menexenus marvels that such a fine speech could have been written by a woman.

Late in life, Socrates married the much younger Xanthippe, with whom he had three sons. That their eldest son, Lamprocles, was named after Xanthippe’s father suggests that he was the more eminent of the child’s two grandfathers.

In Plato’s Phaedo, when his friends come to visit Socrates in the state prison, they find Xanthippe sitting beside him with a babe in arms. Socrates is not long to drink of the deadly hemlock, and Xanthippe is in such a state, “crying out and beating herself,” that Socrates asks a friend to have her taken home.

Xanthippe is not otherwise mentioned in Plato, but in Xenophon’s Symposium it transpires that she had quite the temper. When a friend asks him why he does not tutor his own wife “instead of letting her remain, of all the wives that are … the most shrewish,” Socrates compares himself to an expert horseman with a fondness for spirited horses, and claims that it is precisely for her temperament that he married Xanthippe [Greek, “Yellow Horse”]—for “if I can tolerate her spirit, I can with ease attach myself to every other human being.”

There is much confusion and contradiction in later sources as to whether Socrates married twice, and as to whether Myrto, the daughter of Lysimachus, was his first wife, second wife, concurrent wife, mistress, ward, or lodger.

Socrates seeking Alcibiades in the House of Aspasia, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1861).

His appearance

In Plato’s Theaetetus, the geometer Theodorus describes the young Theatetus to Socrates as “very like you, for he has a snub nose, and projecting eyes, although these features are not so marked in him as in you.”

In Xenophon’s Symposium, Socrates himself says that he has protruding eyes, a snub nose, thick lips, and a paunch. He jokes that these features are to his advantage, his eyes, for instance, enabling him to “squint sideways and command the flanks.” Since Xenophon’s Symposium is set in 422 BCE, Socrates is describing himself at the age of around 48.

But despite his supposed repulsiveness, Socrates seems to have formed profound romantic attachments, including with the much younger Alcibiades, who would have topped any Golden Age list of most eligible bachelors, and the famously attractive and accomplished Aspasia, from whom he learnt the art of rhetoric.

Parallels with the mythological satyr Silenus, who hid his inner beauty, may have led later writers, starting with Plato and Xenophon, to exaggerate his aberrant features. But if Socrates really did look like a satyr, why did the comedian Aristophanes, who knew him, and satirized him on the stage, not pick up on his physical appearance?

Socrates was condemned to death in part for “corrupting the youth”, and the story of Alcibiades trying and failing hard to seduce him may have been invented by Plato to help rehabilitate his reputation. In this context, making him as ugly as possible served to diminish any threat that he might have posed. It also created a golden opportunity to present wisdom, even in the ugliest of bodies, as infinitely more beautiful than the most beautiful of bodies.

Socrates, while not handsome, may not have been all that ugly. But even if he was very ugly, he, like most of us, would have been more attractive, or less repulsive, in his younger days, as a fit battle-ready hoplite.​

Neel Burton is author of The Gang of Three: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle.