Historically Speaking: The Many Roads to Vegetarianism

Health, religion and animal rights have all been advanced as reasons not to eat meat.

The Wall Street Journal, October 18, 2019


The claim that today’s ingeniously engineered fake meat tastes like the real thing and helps the planet is winning over consumers from the carnivore side of the food aisle. According to Barclays, the alt-meat market could be worth $140 billion a year a decade from now. But the argument over the merits of vegetarianism is nothing new; it’s been going on since ancient times.

Meat played a pivotal role in the evolution of the human brain, providing the necessary calories and protein to enable it to increase in size. Nonetheless, meat-eating remained a luxury in the diets of most early civilizations. It wasn’t much of a personal sacrifice, therefore, when the Greek philosopher Pythagoras (ca. 570-495 B.C.), author of the famous theorem, became what many consider the first vegetarian by choice. Pythogoreans believed that humans could be reincarnated as animals and vice versa, meaning that if you ate meat, Aunt Lydia could end up on your plate.

The anti-meat school of thought was joined a century later by Plato, who argued in the Republic that meat consumption encouraged decadence and warlike behavior. These views were strongly countered by Aristotelian philosophy, which taught that animals exist for human use—an opinion that the Romans heartily endorsed.

The avoidance of meat for moral and ascetic reasons also found a home in Buddhism and Hinduism. Ashoka the Great, the 3rd-century Buddhist emperor of the Maurya Dynasty of India, abolished animal sacrifice and urged his people to abstain from eating flesh.

It wasn’t until the Enlightenment, however, that Western moralists and philosophers began to argue for vegetarianism on the grounds that we have a moral duty to avoid causing animals pain. In 1641 the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed one of the earliest laws against animal cruelty. By the early 19th century, the idea that animals have rights had started to take hold: The English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley proselytized for vegetarianism, as did the American transcendentalist thinker Henry David Thoreau, who wrote in “Walden”: “I have no doubt that it is part of the destiny of the human race … to leave off eating animals.”

The word “vegetarian” first appeared in print in England in 1842. Within a decade there were vegetarian societies in Britain and America. Echoing the Platonists rather than Pythagoras, their guiding motivation was self-denial as opposed to animal welfare. Sylvester Graham, the leader of the early American vegetarian movement, also urged sexual abstinence on his followers.

Vegetarianism finally escaped its moralistic straitjacket at the end of the 19th century, when the health guru John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of corn flakes, popularized meat-free living for reasons of bodily well-being at his Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan.

There continue to be mixed motivations for vegetarianism today. Burger King’s meatless Impossible Whopper may be “green,” but it has less protein and virtually the same number of calories as the original. A healthier version will no doubt appear before long, and some people hope that when lab-grown meat hits the market in a few years, it will be as animal- and climate-friendly as plant-based food. With a lot of science and a bit of luck, vegetarians and meat-eaters may end up in the same place.

WSJ Historically Speaking: Monuments With Staying Power

In Turkey, a subterranean strategy. ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

In Turkey, a subterranean strategy. ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Mount Rushmore celebrates its 75th birthday this month, with many more to come, according to geologists: They estimate that the granite presidential faces will withstand the forces of erosion for 7.2 million years.

Poets have long bristled at efforts by the rich and powerful to immortalize themselves in stone. In “Ozymandias” (1818), Percy Bysshe Shelley portrayed such attempts as vainglorious and futile. All that remains of Ozymandias, king of kings, is “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone… Near them, on the sand, / Half sunk, a shattered visage lies.” The poem’s ironic message lies in the king’s inscribed command to “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” when all around there is nothing but empty sand. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: Burying the Body in One Place and the Heart in Another



Halloween is an eloquent denial of the finality of death. Throughout history, people have resisted the idea that life begins and ends with the human body. Even the most ghoulish Halloween story starts with the premise that life exists in more than one realm.

During the medieval period, the belief that the physical and spiritual worlds were intertwined fed into the idea that the soul was located inside the heart. Many aristocrats and royals even had their hearts removed after death. Their corpses were then interred in the family crypt, while the heart was preserved and buried in a place of spiritual significance.

That usually meant a favorite monastery. But for Richard I, known as “The Lionheart” (he supposedly once ate the heart of a lion), it meant having his body buried in England and his heart in France—a way to demonstrate his divine right to wear the crowns of both kingdoms.

Jerusalem was another popular destination. This was where Robert the Bruce (1274-1329), king of the Scots, begged his fellow knights to bury his heart. A band of Celtic crusaders duly set off, bearing the organ inside a silver casket. They got as far as Spain, where most of them were killed fighting the Moors. The heart was rescued by one of the survivors and carried back to Scotland. It was subsequently lost until the 20th century, when archaeologists accidentally stumbled upon the casket while making an inventory of Melrose Abbey in Roxburghshire, Scotland. The heart was left in situ, denying Robert his wish.

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