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Eating and Believing

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Eating and Believing

Interdisciplinary Perspectives on
Vegetarianism and Theology

Edited by
David Grumett
Rachel Muers

Published by T&T Clark

A Continuum imprint
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Copyright Rachel Muers, David Grumett and contributors, 2008
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted
in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying,
recording or any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in
writing from the publishers.
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
ISBN-10: HB: 0-567-03284-1
ISBN-13: HB: 978-0-567-03284-3

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Printed on acid-free paper in Great Britain by Biddles Ltd, Kings Lynn, Norfolk


Rachel Muers and David Grumett

Part 1

Developments in Biblical and Historical Theology

Food and Diet in the Priestly Material of the Pentateuch

Nathan MacDonald
2 Mosaic Food Rules in Celtic Spirituality in Ireland
David Grumett
3 Biblical Vegetarianism? A Critical and Constructive Assessment
David G. Horrell
4 Angels, Beasts, Machines and Men: Conguring the Human
and Nonhuman in Judaeo-Christian Tradition
David Clough

Part 2 Perspectives from Antiquity

5 Vegetarianism, Heresy, and Asceticism in Late
Ancient Christianity
Teresa M. Shaw
6 The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk?
but, Can they suer?: The Ethics of Vegetarianism in the
Writings of Plutarch
Michael Beer
7 Hoi polloi: Spiritual Choices for the Many and the Few
John Wilkins

Part 3

Faith at the Origins of Modern Vegetarianism

8 Ours is the Food that Eden Knew: Themes in the Theology

and Practice of Modern Christian Vegetarians
Samantha Jane Calvert










9 A Lutheranism of the Table: Religion and the
Victorian Vegetarians
James R. T. E. Gregory

Part 4

The Theory of Vegetarianism

The Argument from Marginal Cases: A Philosophical

and Theological Defense
Daniel Dombrowski
11 Seeing and Believing: Gender and Species Hierarchy in
Contemporary Cultures of Animal Food
Erika Cudworth
12 Seeing, Choosing and Eating: Theology and the FeministVegetarian Debate
Rachel Muers
13 Structure and Agency in the Antislavery and Animal
Liberation Movements
Nigel Pleasants




Part 5





Theological Views on Current Food Debates


14 Symbol, Community and Vegetarianism

David Brown
15 Eucharistic Eating, and Why Many Early Christians
Preferred Fish
Michael S. Northcott
16 Protological and Eschatological Vegetarianism
Christopher Southgate



Rachel Muers





Michael Beer has recently been awarded a doctoral degree by the University of
Exeter for a thesis on the role of dietary restriction in the construction of identity
in the Graeco-Roman world.
David Brown is Professor of Theology, Aesthetics and Culture in the University of
St Andrews. He is author of God and Grace of Body: Sacrament in Ordinary (Oxford
University Press, 2007). He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2002.
Samantha Jane Calvert is pursuing doctoral research in the University of
Birmingham on the modern history of vegetarianism. She has published an article
on vegetarianism and Christianity in this period in The Journal of Ecclesiastical
History (2007), and has another article forthcoming in Studies in Church History.
She has worked as Head of Public Affairs for The Vegetarian Society UK.
David Clough is Senior Lecturer in Theology in the University of Chester. He is
author of Ethics in Crisis: Interpreting Barths Ethics (Ashgate, 2005). He is currently
leading a research project on the theological place of human and nonhuman
animals, and co-editing a collection of essays on this topic.
Erika Cudworth is Senior Lecturer in Politics and Sociology in the University of
East London. She is author of Developing Ecofeminist Theory: The Complexity of
Difference (Palgrave, 2005), and Environment and Society (Routledge, 2003).
Daniel Dombrowski is Professor of Philosophy in Seattle University. He is author
of Babies and Beasts: The Argument from Marginal Cases (University of Illinois
Press, 1997), Hartshorne and the Metaphysics of Animal Rights (SUNY, 1988), and
The Philosophy of Vegetarianism (University of Massachusetts Press, 1984).
James R. T. E. Gregory is Lecturer in Modern British History in the University of
Bradford. He has authored Of Victorians and Vegetarians: The Vegetarian Movement
in Nineteenth-century Britain (Tauris, 2007).
David Grumett is Research Fellow in Theology in the University of Exeter. He has
published a study of Francis of Assisis dietary practices in the Journal for the Study
of Nature of Religion, Nature and Culture (2007).
David G. Horrell is Professor of New Testament Studies in the University of Exeter.
He is author of Solidarity and Difference: A Contemporary Reading of Pauls Ethics
(T&T Clark, 2005). He is currently leading an AHRC-funded project Uses of the
Bible in Environmental Ethics, whose outputs will include a collection of essays



Towards an Ecological Hermeneutic: Biblical, Historical, and Theological

Perspectives (T&T Clark, 2010).
Nathan Macdonald is Lecturer in Old Testament in the University of St Andrews.
He is author of Not Bread Alone: The Uses of Food in the Old Testament (Oxford
University Press, 2008), What Did the Ancient Israelites Eat? Diet in Biblical Times
(Eerdmans, 2008), and Deuteronomy and the Meaning of Monotheism (Mohr
Siebeck, 2003).
Rachel Muers is Lecturer in Christian Studies in the University of Leeds, UK. She
is author of Living for the Future: Theological Ethics for Generations (T&T Clark,
2008) and Keeping Gods Silence: Towards a Theological Ethics of Communication
(Blackwell, 2004). She is principal investigator for the AHRC-funded project Vegetarianism as Spiritual Choice in Historical and Contemporary Theology, of which
this collection forms a part.
Michael S. Northcott is Professor of Ethics in the School of Divinity of the
University of Edinburgh. He is author of Moral Climate: The Ethics of Global
Warming (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2007), and The Environment and Christian
Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 1996).
Nigel Pleasants is Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Philosophy in the University
of Exeter. He is author of Wittgenstein and the Idea of a Critical Social Theory:
|A Critique of Giddens, Habermas and Bhaskar (Routledge, 1999), and co-editor
(with Gavin Kitching) of Marx and Wittgenstein: Knowledge, Morality and Politics
(Routledge, 2002).
Teresa M. Shaw is Research Professor of Religion at Claremont Graduate University, California. She is author of The Burden of the Flesh: Fasting and Sexuality in
Early Christianity (Fortress, 1998).
Christopher Southgate is Research Fellow in Theology in the University of Exeter
and Dean of Studies for the South West Ministry Training Course. He is author of
The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution and the Problem of Evil (Westminster
John Knox, 2008).
John Wilkins is Professor of Greek Culture in the University of Exeter. He is
co-author of Food in the Ancient World (Blackwell, 2006), author of The Boastful Chef:
The Discourse of Food in Ancient Greek Comedy (Oxford University Press, 2000), editor
of Food in European Literature (Exeter University Press, 1996), co-editor of Food in
Antiquity (Exeter University Press, 1995), and co-author of Archestratus: The Life of
Luxury (Prospect, 1994).

Rachel Muers and David Grumett

What does Christian theology have to do with everyday life? If we look at many
of theologys fundamental categoriesincarnation, salvation, communitythe
answer would seem to be Everything. Yet the texts that theologians produce
frequently suggest a wide separation between theology and everyday life. They
often rely on abstract starting-points for theological reasoning, extrapolating into
material reality rather than commencing with that reality. Theology thus seems to
consist of words, ideas and texts, rather than practices, communities and contexts.
The latter need not, of course, be at the expense of the former, but it seems that in
academic discourse they often are.
It is hard to think of anything more everyday than food and eating. At one
level, Christian theology affords considerable attention to this basic component of
human experience. The eucharistic elements of bread and wine have, for instance,
inspired much detailed reflection and artistic representation. Frequently, however,
these have contributed to the dissolution of practice in metaphor, with the essential human activity of eating being seen as providing a supply of images to service
Christian doctrine and ethical theory. For instance, feasting imagery is typically
employed to describe a spiritual reality in which the actual consumption of real
food is either absent or marginal. In other cases, requests for food such as that
in the Lords PrayerGive us this day our daily breadprovoke calls for justice
and the equitable distribution of resources. In many such accounts, food is conceived in instrumental terms as a generic product requiring production, distribution and consumption in order to serve human needs.1 The possibility that food
is the bearer of complex meanings of a historically located and ambiguous nature
is, in contrast, largely overlooked.
In the early twenty-first century, food appears repeatedly on the global political
agenda. We live in an age of climate change, intensive farming and global trade
injustice; in the West, we hear repeatedly about rising levels of obesity, cancer and
heart disease, the continuing problem of anorexia, scares over infected farm
animals or contaminated food, and the domination of local suppliers by supermarkets. Every day as we buy food, prepare food and eat food, we locate ourselves
in relation to these global and local issues, as well as on complex cultural and social

Rachel Muers and David Grumett

maps of which we might not even be aware. It is therefore all the more remarkable
that, even within theological ethicswhere we would most expect theology to
engage with everyday lifethere is relatively little discussion of food. Far more
attention is devoted to better-known ethical issues that few Christians are called to
address on a daily basis, such as abortion, war, nuclear weaponry and euthanasia.2
Most of the papers in this collection were presented at an interdisciplinary colloquium held at the University of Exeter as part of a research project Vegetarianism
as Spiritual Choice in Historical and Contemporary Theology, funded by an award
from the United Kingdoms Arts and Humanities Research Council. One of the
aims of this project has been to develop a practice-focused theology of food and
eating, within which particular food practices become lenses through which doctrine and theological ethics are refracted. We thus aim to contribute to the revival
of a practical literacy within theology, re-discovering, re-appropriating and celebrating modes of Christian identity, patterning and expression that have been
marginalized or forgotten in recent discourse, or shorn of their historic theological
Attention to food and food practices, as perhaps to any aspect of everyday life,
necessitates an interdisciplinary approach. Within this collection, normative claims
about Christian theological tradition and about the ethics of eating are therefore
juxtaposed with detailed historical, sociological and philosophical studies that
recall the many layers of meaning in food. We hope that such an approach has
enabled us, in convening the colloquium and compiling this collection, to avoid
reifying vegetarianism or food as ahistorical essences. The term vegetarian did
not come into common use until around the time of the founding of the British
Vegetarian Society in 1847 and the American Vegetarian Society in 1850.3 Vegetable diets had previously been referred to with such epithets as primeval (George
Nicholson) or Pythagorean (Antonio Cocchi).4 Moreover, the category of meat,
on which vegetarianism is parasitic in so far as it is construed in the terms of
abstention, has been considered to comprehend different categories of food at different times. In Benedictine monasteries up until the fourteenth century, for
example, the principal prohibition was of the flesh of quadrupeds, and as Michael
S. Northcott shows in this volume, the eating of fish was normal practice. This
diversity of observance over time means that medieval monks and nuns cannot
simply be enlisted as forerunners of modern vegetarianism. Nonetheless, their
practices are far from irrelevant to an understanding of modern vegetarianism, and
assist the development of a nuanced and polyphonic account of meat abstention.
We would like to clarify what this collection is not. We do not intend it as a contribution to applied theology: its object is not to bridge the divide between theology and practice by demonstrating, with the aid of other disciplines, that Christian
theological principles correctly applied support the view that Christians or other
religious people should be vegetarian. Neither are the chapters here presented primarily exercises in reflective practitioner theology, in which theory is regarded as
emerging from practical issues and problems, and in need of continual reference
back to them in order to remain relevant and accountable. The collection is only


strictly contextual in the limited sense that its contributors all need to eat in order
to survive, and probably do so for various other reasons too. Several of our contributors are vegetarian, in various senses of the term, but the majority eat meat.
The contributions here presented could be seen as contributions to an exercise
in practical theology, providing that this term be suitably understood. The category practical theology has, since the late nineteenth century, been used to
designate topics in theology whose subject matter is relevant to practical church
ministry and preaching.5 More recently, an empirical turn within practical theology has made it considerably more open to insights from other intellectual
disciplines, as reflected in this collections own interdisciplinary approach.6 As a
corollary, its outputs are more likely to generate interest among people who are not
theologians or church ministers, as we hope this collection will. Yet a focus on
practice is not here adopted as an alternative to a commitment to theory. All the
chapters here presented have theoretical relevance, and some are primarily theoretical. Neither is it true that the value of theological ideas is a direct function of
their relevance to real life, and our focus on practice is in no way intended to
appease this opinion. Because of these various ambiguities, this collection is best
seen as a step towards a practice-focused theology.

Summary of contributions
Insights from a range of intellectual disciplines have, as already stated, been invaluable in the task of beginning to develop this practice-focused theology, as have
perspectives from various subdisciplines within theology. Two biblical specialists
and two theologians focus on the places of food and dietary regulation in scripture.
Nathan MacDonald examines the complex system of dietary rules laid down for
ancient Israel in the Pentateuch, showing how food and specifically meat served as
a key indicator of belief and obedience to the law. David Grumett appraises some
remarkable aspects of the later Christian appropriation of these dietary rules in
Ireland via penitential texts. David G. Horrell discusses uses of the New Testament
to promote vegetarianism on the grounds that Jesus was vegetarian, and assesses
the contribution to defences of vegetarianism of such presentations via ideas about
asceticism, creation and eschatology, as well as considering their wider implications. David Clough assesses some of the striking later development of these
biblical traditions, yet shows how Christian attitudes have frequently rendered
animals invisible in ways that have resulted in an impoverished and problematic
image of humanity.
Historical perspectives have been crucial in recovering evidence of food in
Christian practices and understanding how these were formulated and transmitted. Such perspectives also reveal some of the functions that food practices have
performed with respect to Christian identity, and how these interacted with other
aspects of Christian life. Teresa M. Shaw demonstrates how meat abstention could
function as a marker of both doctrinal orthodoxy and heresy, depending on
circumstances, and shows how the principles, motives and origins articulated in

Rachel Muers and David Grumett

its defence cannot be understood properly outside this polemical context. Two
chapters focus on classical civilization, with significant continuities and contrasts
with Christian practice emerging. Michael Beer examines in detail the vegetarian
elite, analysing the arguments employed in defence of vegetarianism, and comparing them with modern justifications. Partly because of these non-Christian associations, abstention from meat in Christian antiquity often held ambiguous
doctrinal significance, despite being a widespread practice. John Wilkins examines
how dietary choices operated differently for elite groups than for the wider populace, suggesting that in the classical context of sacrifice, meat-eating provided
ordinary people with the civic identity and location in the natural order that many
in the present day seek via vegetarianism.
Vegetarianism was born as a modern movement in Britain in the 1840s, and had
significant origins in marginal Christian groups. Samantha Jane Calvert surveys a
range of Christian vegetarian groups that flourished through the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries, and identifies common motivating ideals including the return
to Eden, humanitarianism, reincarnation, purity concerns, control of the passions
and divine-human fellowship. James R. T. E. Gregory situates the Christian vegetarianism of the Victorian era in wider intellectual context, exploring the people
and personalities who followed vegetarian diets and promoted them to others, as
well as highlighting the varying shades of their Christian identity.
Four contributors from a range of disciplines focus on aspects of the theory
underlying vegetarianism and arguments in its defence. Daniel Dombrowski contends that marginal cases can be invoked constructively in arguments supportive
of vegetarianism, and that they offer more convincing theological resources than
defences dependent on the idea of sentience. Erika Cudworth offers a sociological
perspective on the ideas and beliefs surrounding food, examining their manifestation in popular culture with special reference to the representation of animals as
food products. Rachel Muers draws on feminist theory to conceive vegetarianism
theologically as an oppositional and communal political practice enacting an
alternative ontology, and as posing challenges to assumptions about nature and
necessity. Nigel Pleasants considers how vegetarianism encompasses both personal
decision and participation in an existing network of beliefs and judgements, by
comparing its key ideas and social dynamics with those of the movement for the
abolition of slavery.
The authors of the final three chapters articulate from Christian standpoints
how food rules in general and vegetarianism in particular have present-day
theological relevance. David Brown unfolds the social dimensions of eating crucial
in earlier historical epochs to both Christians and wider culture, yet points to the
need to situate these in their own contexts before trying to draw from them any
general lessons. Michael S. Northcott advances an incisive critique of the modern
meat-eating industry founded on scriptural and eucharistic perspectives, arguing
that this critique now extends to fish farming. Christopher Southgate considers
whether the better case for Christian vegetarianism is made protologically, inferring how God originally intended creation to be, or eschatologically, founded on a
vision of what God intends nature in the future to become.


Vegetarians and animals

In recent decades, increasing numbers of people in the Western world have
embraced vegetarian diets. A major factor contributing to the spread of vegetarianism has been increasing public concern over human treatment of nonhuman
animals. In particular, the groundbreaking work of Andrew Linzey has established
animals as beings essential to the theological agenda.7 The relationship between
vegetarianism and animal ethics is by no means straightforward, however. Some of
the concerns of present-day advocates of animal ethics have certainly featured in
historic discussions of vegetarianism. These include the capacity of nonhuman
animals for suffering, as shown by Michael Beer in his discussion of Plutarch. Such
considerations have not always been the primary concerns of those advocating
vegetarianism, though, at least within historic Christian tradition. As various
chapters of this collection suggest, asceticism, community identity and sharing a
life of poverty have often been far more significant.
Talk about the rights of nonhuman animals has often been identified as particularly problematic in Christian theology. Stanley Hauerwas, writing with John
Berkman, has noted the shortcomings of rights theories: The very idea of inalienable rights; they state, is the product of individuals who no longer trust their lives
to the hands of those they live with, and who, thus, seek to protect themselves
through having trumps against the actions of their neighbours. They continue: We
think that Christians have far richer resources by which to address the question of
how we should relate to other animals; any appeal to rights pales in comparison
with the peace and love of Christ to which the Christian is called.8 The shortcomings of rights discourse are not limited to its incompatibility with the distinctive
constructive methods of Christian theology, however. Some rights discourse has
assumed an excessively repetitive character, with a body of theory being applied to
a series of different questions in which animals feature, on the assumption that an
animal rights focus provides the best response to them all. It is thus difficult for
rights discourse fully to address the specificities and complexities of particular
questions or to take seriously the various factors which in practice structure, in
different proportions according to the situation, many real-life dilemmas. In the
case of food, these include symbolism, memory, deep-seated avoidances and community identity. A practice-focused theology will, in contrast, be likely to develop
a diversity of theoretical content attuned to the specific practice in question.
This collection, and many of its individual chapters, can justifiably be seen as a
contribution to animal theology, even though nonhuman animals as such do not
form the primary focus. In many respects, a focus on eating encourages a more
relational and embodied approach to thinking about animals than one based on
animal rights. In the act of eating, foods are obtained, prepared, ingested and
digested by the body in a series of actions of progressively more fully assimilated
physical interiority. Reflection on how food is thus taken into the body throws into
deeper relief the theological significance of eating. Moreover, the categorization of
a product as food suggests the establishment of a new relation with that product,
or in the case of abstention, the refusal of one type of relation in favour of another.

Rachel Muers and David Grumett

Vegetarianism may in this way be seen as the human refusal of a relation to

animals founded on subordination in favour of a relation with animals grounded
in peaceable co-existence.

Principal themes
i) Eating and believing
The question about the status of nonhuman animals raises a wider issue that is
considered by several contributors: the relationship between food practices, and
their associated ontologies and cosmologies. Daniel Dombrowskis chapter pursues
significant debates within contemporary theological ethics, making a case for vegetarianism on the basis of re-conceiving the boundary between human and nonhuman animals. For Dombrowski, marginal cases of humanitythe newborn
infant, or the person with severe learning difficultiescreate, as it were, a margin
of error in fundamental human categorizations of reality. This margin of error
renders the categorizations unsustainable, and in turn undermines the practices
they seek to justify, such as the eating of meat.
Dombrowski highlights the ethical and social significance of the underlying
structures of thought that allow certain animals to be designated as potential food
or meat, as well as the anxieties attendant on the human/nonhuman distinction
and the social and intellectual work needed to maintain it. Theorists like Carol
J. Adams and Nick Fiddes, discussed in Rachel Muers chapter, highlight from
a cultural perspective the problematic character of meat as a symbol of the human/
nonhuman boundary.9 Nonhumans can be meat, whereas humans cannot, but this
fact masks the material and social processes that construct animals as meat. Erika
Cudworth, looking at the representation of foodand, in particular, of animals as
foodin contemporary popular culture, takes this analysis further by describing
the discursive regime within which domestic animals are offered to consumers as
becoming-meat. Cudworths study draws attention to the complex relationships
between explicitly articulated beliefs concerning humans and animals (as analysed
by Dombrowski), symbolic frameworks, and practices of food production and
John Wilkins identifies similarly complex relationships in a different context,
analysing in detail the ways in which a particular historical form of meat productionnamely, sacrifice in the ancient worldfunctioned to maintain not only the
human/nonhuman boundary but also a social system and a cosmology. Sacrifice
ordered the relationships between gods, humans and animals, and thereby also
between different human groups and individuals. Wilkins work demonstrates
how problematic it would be to establish a one-way relation between belief and
practice, treating food practices as instances of the application of a set of doctrines
primarily theoretical in character.
Some similar points about this relationship emerge from Nathan MacDonalds
examination of the function of food in the Old Testament. The sanctuary, around
which animals were sacrificed by the priests, was modelled on the cosmos, with
food thus centrally and concretely implicated in the communitys systems of ritual


and identity. It should come as no surprise, then, that food imagery featured
so prominently in Israels founding myths, including the temptation of Adam and
Eve, and the Exodus. If the place of food in these myths is neglected, their meaning
is misunderstood.
What preoccupations become apparent in the formation of categories and
perceptions within a Christian theological context? David Clough, following a clue
from Derrida, argues that a succession of thinkers within Jewish and Christian
tradition use talk of animals to prop up anthropocentric cosmologies and theologies. A stable human/nonhuman boundary is a requirement of such cosmologies
and theologieswhich is why, for Clough, theological readings of the human and
animal remain resolutely pre-Darwinian, refusing fully to engage with any discourse that would make the human/nonhuman distinction one of degree rather
than kind. Again, we see here an analysis of how ways of believing support, and are
supported by, ways of eating.
David G. Horrell, in his discussion of the uses of the New Testament in arguments for vegetarianism, makes a parallel case when he contends that a simple
exemplarismdefending vegetarianism on the basis that Jesus was vegetarian
fails to do justice to the scriptural material itself or to how Christians read it.
In scriptural reading, as in cosmology, ambivalence needs to be acknowledged.
Instead, Horrell draws attention to more basic ways in which the New Testament
texts call for a re-ordering of human existence in the worldincluding a
re-envisioning of the world, both human and nonhuman, as Gods creation that
returns praise to God. In stating that this theme of creations praise does not, of
course, get us very far in terms of practical guidance for Christian ethics, nor
specifically in terms of whether it is right to eat animal meat, Horrell directs us to
the deeper cosmological and theological assumptions that are in place even before
the question is asked of whether animal meat should be eaten or avoided. Teresa
M. Shaw, leading the discussion forward into the patristic period, shows how
by the end of the fourth century, Christian discourse on fasting and abstinence
interprets dietary practice as a theological statement on the very value of Gods
creation. In Jeromes context, as Shaw describes it, recognition of the value of
creation is a reason not to abstain from animal foods. Conversely, to commend
abstinence from such foods, as Jerome did, is to leave oneself vulnerable to the
charge of rejecting the goodness of Gods creation. Shaw demonstrates that practices were relevant to theological debates because they were bound up with issues
of community self-definition, and of the boundaries between orthodoxy and heresy, with these being regulated primarily through attention to the minute details
of ascetic practice. The theological and cosmological debates over the goodness of
creation were realbut mapping them onto decisions about what could and
could not be eaten, when, and by whom, was a complex process that again calls
into question the notion that ascetics simply put beliefs into practice. As evinced
in the chapters by Samantha Jane Calvert and James R. T. E. Gregory, as well as
in a recent article by David Grumett on Francis of Assisi,10 the question of abstinence from meat as a mark of heresy has re-appeared at numerous points in
Christian history. This recurring theme suggests a theological interpretation of
vegetarianism as countercultural.

Rachel Muers and David Grumett

Horrell also refers to eschatology as a key aspect of the New Testaments

reconfiguration of the world, identifying its significant implications for the treatment of nonhuman creation. Christopher Southgates chapter, in analysing protological and eschatological vegetarianism, reminds us that at many points in
Christian history, vegetarianism or similar dietary restrictions have been used to
relocate the Christian believer or the Christian communityback in the Garden
of Eden, where the first human beings were given the green plants for food,
or ahead in Isaiahs peaceable kingdom, where even the lions are vegetarian.
Samantha Jane Calverts analysis of Victorian vegetarianism, whether of Christian
or tenuously Christian varieties, provides detailed testimony of the imaginative
force of these visions of the lost beginning and the promised end. Yet Southgates
chapter serves as a reminder, from the viewpoint of constructive theology, that the
instantiation, by means of present practices, of a return to the beginning or a leap
ahead to the end, is not necessarily desirable or possible.
David Grumett, in a study of a particularly intriguing historical aspect of
Christian dietary restriction, identifies a material and symbolic boundary that is
arguably more fundamental to Jewish and Christian texts and traditions than that
separating humans from nonhumansthe boundary between life and death. In
the colloquium at which these papers were presented, there was discussion of the
significance of respect for life as an integral part of the Christian tradition, and
one that could form a basis for challenging the human/nonhuman boundary.
Grumetts work, like David Cloughs from a wider historical perspective, draws
attention to the continuities between Christianity and Judaism on such questions
continuities that, as Grumett points out, appear particularly surprising to those
Christians who are accustomed to thinking of themselves as the people who
rejected Jewish food laws. In supersessionist narratives of Christian history,
believing replaces eating as the focus of religious identity, the inward replaces the
outward and attitudes replace rules. The contributions to this collection suggest
that such an account is flawed both empirically and theoretically.

ii) Vegetarianism as culture and counterculture

David Brown suggests that many aspects of diningincluding etiquette, ritual,
grace and the use of cutleryare intrinsically communal, and that against a
modern individualized surrounding culture, become immediately counter-cultural.
Yet in earlier periods, when this collective context was central to human experience, the act of declining meat, and still more of establishing communities defined by their refusal of meatsuch as the Pythagorean schools, or Benedictine
monasteriesenabled groups of people to conceive of themselves as offering a
rival or alternative model for society to ordinary secular life. Christianity continues to be centrally concerned with food in its eucharistic imagery.
The food practices that have helped to construct Christian identity have
frequently differentiated Christians from their surrounding culture, despite being
part of a wide and interlinked cultural panorama. David Grumett examines the
role of the Mosaic food laws in Celtic spirituality in Ireland as providing both


a model of personal discipline, applied via systems of confession and penance,

and a means of distinguishing Christian communities from surrounding pagan
culture. These food rules recognized meat as a problematic foodstuff, although did
not, significantly, require vegetarianism. They were also sensitively adapted to the
particular local situation: there was no attempt, for instance, to impose a blanket
prohibition on the consumption of pork. In the context of the sacrificial system of
ancient Greece, John Wilkins argues more strongly that the espousal of complete
vegetarianism there amounted to a withdrawal from civilized society, considering
how the vegetarian philosophical elites lived in separation from the wider populace. The rise of vegetarianism in modern Western societies, socially privatized
and largely deracinated from rural life, suggests the ascendancy of a curiously
similar type of privileged counter-culturalism. Yet Michael Beers examination of
the motives for meat abstention in Plutarch reminds us that one persons civilization might seem to another person to be little more than barbarism. Plutarch did
not, for instance, regard the mass slaughter practised in the arena, or the cruelties
routinely perpe-tuated in abattoirs, as contributing to a civilized society. Michael S.
Northcott, pursuing similar themes, shows how early Christian abstention from
meat formed part of a wider protest against both the luxurious ostentation of the
Roman Empire and the dominating economic power of the Jewish sacrificial
system, as illustrated by Jesus cleansing of the Temple.
Teresa M. Shaw reveals how, by the end of the second century, vegetarianism
had for reasons such as these become a key marker of Christian identity, and a
feature shared with various other religious groups with links to emergent Christianity. Yet in a later epoch, vegetarianism could be seen not as an essential dimension
of a countercultural faith, but as a marginal practice within a well-established
Christian culture. James R. T. E. Gregory uncovers some of the striking personalities who espoused vegetarianism in Victorian England and their frequent links
with other unusual causes. Samantha Jane Calvert describes how, through this
period and later, vegetarianism was embraced by marginal Christian groups such
as the Bible Christian Church, the Order of the Danielites, and the continuing
Order of the Cross, rather than by the mainstream churches. More recently
founded groups include Universal Life in Germany, and Hallelujah Acres in the
United States.
Notwithstanding these trends of the last two centuries, it would be theologically
simplistic to equate counterculture with disempowerment or social estrangement.
In classical Greece, the vegetarian members of the philosophical schools constituted an intellectual and spiritual elite, whom Plato even speculated should be the
rulers of society. In medieval Europe, abstention from red meat in the refectory
was a key feature of the daily life of English Benedictine monasteries.11 This
resulted from legislation specifically designed to limit the extreme counterculture
of desert hermits, including their extreme dietary abstention. The Benedictine rule
constituted, as such, an intentional monastic re-engagement with culture
although devices were admittedly developed to make possible the consumption of
meat in places other than the refectory as the monasteries evolved into large and
powerful institutions.12 In the twentieth century, the Kellogg breakfast cereal empire,


Rachel Muers and David Grumett

founded on the vegetarian ideals of Seventh Day Adventism, has developed a

powerful global brand. An important theological perspective on the concept of
counterculture is provided by Christopher Southgate, who argues that the value of
vegetarianism is primarily prophetic. It is therefore countercultural in the sense
that it has a reference beyond culture. It cannot, however, be assumed that vegetarians will comprise a social minority, still less an underprivileged social minority.
The theologian in particular will naturally be unwilling to cast counterculture in
purely sociological terms.
Indeed, vegetarianism is currently becoming an increasingly mainstream counterculture, with ever greater numbers of people in Western countries embracing
vegetarian diets. In a distinct but related development, fruits and vegetables are
now seen as worth privileging above other foodstuffs in publicity to promote
healthy eating.13 Although vegetarianism has not entirely shed its radical identity,
and rightly so, it is now an accepted and normal feature of life. Sandals and plastic
tablecloths, synonymous with vegetarianism in the 1970s as exemplified in the
pioneering work of Julia Twigg, are now rarely to be seen.14 Some people will
mourn the passing of an era when vegetarianism had a restricted and highly
committed following, likely to be committed to other radical causes.15 Yet the wider
diffusion of a range of vegetarian values through omnivorous society testifies to
their increasing relevance and power to transform human culture.

iii) Food, theory and practice

A third conviction emerging from this collection, of great relevance to future
constructive theological and ethical study of food practices, relates to the insufficiency of arguments and reasoned justifications for particular dietary choices.
This is nowhere more apparent than in Nigel Pleasants discussion of structure and
agency, in which he compares human treatment of nonhuman animals with
slavery. This illuminating comparison was made on several other occasions at the
colloquium. Pleasants draws attention to the possibility that the changes in social
and economic practices that rendered slavery unnecessary were the reason for the
emergence of ethical and religious arguments against slavery and their eventual
dominance, and not a mere consequence of those arguments. For Pleasants, can
produces ought in such matters: if, for example, people believe that they can live
without eating meat, the arguments that they ought to do so will acquire a purchase they do not currently have. Daniel Dombrowski begins from an opposing
perspective, arguing in the face of the meat-eating majority that animals ought not
to be eatenalthough also admits that the argument from marginal cases is alone
unlikely to be sufficient to persuade the meat-eater to change her diet.
Supporting evidence for the ambiguous status of arguments for vegetarianism
comes, in Samantha Jane Calverts chapter, from vegetarians themselves. Calvert
illustrates in detail the commitment of various groups to the practice and promotion of vegetarianism, but the range of justifications given is very wide and contains
elements that are at least partially contradictory. Vegetarian identity, at least for
some of the groups and individuals discussed by Calvert, comes to assume



precedence over vegetarian arguments. A similar phenomenon, much more

temporally and geographically extended, may be seen in reflections on the highly
complex reasons for monastic restrictions of diet, as discussed in the preceding
The role of the emotions in arguing both for and against vegetarianism appears
in this collection both historically, in Michael Beers discussion of Plutarch, and in
contemporary context in Rachel Muers account of feminist-vegetarian ethics.
Emotions and emotionally inflected perception may prove to be an important area
of reflection in future work towards a constructive theology of food. Food is associated with the senses and the passionsand, as several contributors suggest,
dietary restriction has historically had much to do with the re-education of the
passions, if not their suppression. To connect eating and believing is to raise wider
questions about feeling and believing, and about seeing and believing. This takes
us back to the questions with which this introduction commenced: the relationship between theology and everyday life, and why ordinary food and eating have
been relatively little discussed within theology.
Having argued at length for the place of eating as concrete spiritual practice in
theology, we wish briefly to situate our approach in relation to some strands within
the predominantly textual and intellectual trajectory of modern theology. There
are, of course, good reasons why theologians are often centrally concerned with
theories and concepts, and with expressing and recording these in textual form.
Christian history has been portrayed as an unfurling of the Word, present with
God at the beginning of creation as the fount of life and enlightenment, and later
becoming human and living with humankind (John 1.114). Accounts of this historic dwelling of the Word on earth have been preserved in textual form. Christian
identity has been formed, inter alia, around scriptures, through ongoing oral
debate and deliberation, by the formulation of credal statements, and in the production of a vast corpus of interpretive texts. In the era when the circulation of
theological texts was limited to a small scholarly community, that tiny proportion
of the populace controlled and interpreted those texts to the wider community
through teaching, preaching and legislation. The spread of texts through the wider
church was, in contrast, a gradual process, assisted by new printing technologies
and rising standards of literacy.16 The patterning of religious identity by material
practices such as worshipping, eating and dressing thus came gradually to be
occluded by models of piety based around the private reading of texts, and private
prayer. This was despite the fact that food practices had previously featured prominently precisely in scholarly monastic communities, and had frequently been
highly structured and transmitted textually, as David Grumett shows in his exposition of the Liber ex Lege Moisi and Celtic penitential books. Theologians need once
again to become open to seeing that texts transmit practices and not just ideas.
In reaction to this modern focus on textuality, recent theology has been characterized by renewed engagement with oral tradition. The notion that theology
is pre-eminently conversational has been a significant product of this search.17
However, although conversation is certainly one important dimension of theological reasoning, it does not follow that it is the primary mode in which Christians in


Rachel Muers and David Grumett

the wider church express, present or act out belief. The concept of literacy has too
often and too easily been assimilated to a restrictive conception of orality as
approximating to written grammar and spoken sounds, with its full range of meaning left unembraced.18 For example, in the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, which has
exerted profound influence over many theologians, community is presented as
constituted by narrative and storytelling rather than, for example, by eating or
other material practices.19
A further response to the critique of textuality has been a revived interest in
liturgy as constituting the setting for the verbal activities of intellectual enquiry and
proclamation, which thus serve as prolegomena to a fuller sacramental reality.20
Although comprising a very welcome move beyond orality towards practice, this
revival has tended to locate Christian practice solely within historic church institutions. This is despite the fact that historic liturgical practice has seen no absolute
separation between the ecclesial liturgy celebrated inside church buildings and the
whole productive and transformative human economy of which church worship is
the culmination. In many Orthodox traditions, for instance, the activities of baking the bread for the Eucharist and the church celebration itself can be seen as
forming a single continuing liturgical action, with clergy or members of religious
orders often required to act as bakers and to recite psalms and wear liturgical
clothing while performing their work.21 During the early Christian centuries,
moreover, bread and wine were by no means the only elements selected for use in
the Eucharist, as Michael S. Northcott discusses, with other products also employed
depending on local dietary practices. Furthermore, as David Brown suggests, the
gradual privileging of those elements over others seems to have been due to a
correlation between the quasi-miraculous transformative processes of rising and
fermentation fundamental to the manufacture of bread and wine, and the theological transformation which these products were believed to undergo during the
formal eucharistic celebration, with eucharistic doctrine thus emerging in part
from the material reality of the elements themselves.
A practice-focused theology will commence with actual practice and seek to
construe doctrine and ethics around the practice itself. We are well aware that this
collection lays foundations for this enterprise rather than completes it. We are
most grateful to all our contributors for their expertise, enthusiasm and friendship
generously and graciously offered, both at the colloquium and on numerous other
occasions. These have enabled us to reflect on the many theological issues surrounding food and eating far better and far more enjoyably than we ever could
have done by ourselves.

1 For example, Cathy Campbell, Stations of the Banquet: Faith Foundations for
Food Justice (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2003).
2 A similar point is made about philosophical ethics in Peter Singer, A vegetarian
philosophy, in Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety, eds Sian Griffiths
and Jennifer Wallace (Manchester University Press, 1998), pp. 7180 (79).



3 Colin Spencer, The Heretics Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (London:

Fourth Estate, 1994), p. 252.
4 In the present day, it is more accurate to speak of vegetarianisms rather
than vegetarianism simpliciter, even when addressing only the contemporary
situation. As long ago as 1989, one survey identified as many as nine different
types: lacto-ovo, lacto, ovo, vegan, macrobiotic, natural hygienist, raw foodist,
fruitarian and semi-vegetarian. See Paul Amato and Sonia Partridge, The New
Vegetarians (New York: Plenum, 1989), p. vii.
5 Such as the Oxford Library of Practical Theology (18991912).
6 For discussions of this transformation, see Hermeneutics and Empirical
Research in Practical Theology: The Contribution of Empirical Theology by
Johannes A. van der Ven, eds Chris Hermans and Mary Moore (Leiden: Brill,
2004). A prime example is the New Studies in Christian Ethics series, launched
by Cambridge University Press in 1993.
7 Andrew Linzey, Animal Rights: A Christian Assessment (London: SCM, 1976);
Christianity and the Rights of Animals (London: SPCK, 1987; New York:
Crossroad, 1988); Political Theory and Animal Rights, ed. with Paul Barry
Clarke (London: Pluto, 1990); Animal Rights: A Historical Anthology
Handbook, ed. with Paul Barry Clarke (New York: Columbia University
Press, 2005).
8 Stanley Hauerwas and John Berkman, The Chief End of all Flesh, Theology
Today 49 (1992), pp. 196208 (200, 201). Also published as A trinitarian
theology of the chief end of all flesh , in Good News for Animals? Christian
Approaches to Animal Well-Being, eds Charles Pinches and Jay B. McDaniel
(Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993), pp. 6274.
9 Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical
Theory (New York: Continuum, 1995); Nick Fiddes, Declining meat:
past, present . . . and future imperfect?, in Food, Health and Identity, ed. Pat
Caplan (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 25267; idem, Meat: A Natural Symbol
(London: Routledge, 1991).
10 David Grumett, Vegetarian or Franciscan? Flexible Dietary Choices Past and
Present, Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 1, 4 (2007),
pp. 45067.
11 The Rule of St Benedict, 39 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1981), p. 46.
12 David Knowles, The Monastic Order in England: A History of its Development
from the Times of St Dunstan to the Fourth Lateran Council, 9401216
(Cambridge University Press, 2nd edn, 1976), pp. 45962; The Diet of English Black Monks, The Downside Review 52/150 (1934), pp. 27590.
13 In Britain, governmental health advice based around the concept of a balanced
diet comprising the correct proportions of carbohydrate, protein, fats, vitamins
and minerals, has been superseded by clear emphasis on the need to eat more
fruits and vegetables. The prominent Five a Day campaign, exhorting people to
consume at least five portions of fruits and vegetables each day, has been promoted with professional and appealing marketing showing brightly coloured
portions of different fruits and vegetables against a shiny white background.



Rachel Muers and David Grumett

Julia Twigg, Food for Thought: Purity and Vegetarianism, Religion 9 (1979),
pp. 1335.
For example, Warren Belasco, Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture took
on the Food Industry (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2nd edn, 2007).
Vox Intexta: Orality and Textuality in the Middle Ages, eds A. N. Doane and
Carol Braun Pasternack (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991).
Theology and Conversation: Towards a Relational Theology, eds Jacques Haers
and P. de Mey (Leuven University Press, 2003).
Time, Memory and the Verbal Arts: Essays on the Thought of Walter Ong, eds
Dennis L. Weeks and Jane Hoogestraat (Selinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna
University Press, 1998).
Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (London: Duckworth,
2nd edn, 1985).
Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of
Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998).
Archdale King, Rites of Eastern Christendom (Rome: Catholic Book Agency,
194748), vol. I, pp. 10405, 25051, 404; II, pp. 306, 471; Reginald Maxwell
Woolley, The Bread of the Eucharist (London: Mowbray, 1913), pp. 3132.

Part 1
Developments in Biblical and
Historical Theology

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Food and Diet in the Priestly

Material of the Pentateuch
Nathan MacDonald

When a biblical scholar such as myself is asked to contribute to a discussion of

vegetarianism, it is not surprising that the instinct is to turn to the so-called priestly
material in the Pentateuch.1 In Genesis 1, the priestly vision of a newly created world
is presented in which all animals and humans are herbivores. This is not strongly
related to a theology of revelation, but apparently to a natural theology. In this opening chapter, I will review the priestly writers view on food and vegetarian diet, before
looking elsewhere in the Old Testament for evidence of similar views. Despite the
priestly writers belief in a primitive vegetarianism and the book of Isaiahs vision of
a future peaceable kingdom, few Western Christians reflect much on these issues.
An examination of the ways in which the priestly material is subsequently expanded
reveals that food remains an important matter for the ancient Jewish scribes. While
this undermines any attempts to see the developed priestly theology of food as an
aspect of natural theology,2 the linkage of food to important covenantal realities
within Israels existence, including obedience of torah and trust in , should
prompt Christians to reflect upon how biblical their thinking on food is.

The priestly material

It is first necessary to say something about the nature of this biblical material
identified as priestly. To speak in such a way is to draw attention to the fact that
particular passages in the Pentateuch have a certain intertextual relationship with
one another, and that these passages are characterized by priestly concerns. To
connect certain texts in this way is to exclude others, in this instance most particularly the Deuteronomic texts.3 Deuteronomy has its own theology of food somewhat removed from that found in the priestly writings. This theology appears
to be somewhat less amenable to modern vegetarian thinkers for at least two
reasons. First, Deuteronomys presentation of meat consumption is permissive in
contrast to the priestly materials concessive approach. Deuteronomy imagines the
Israelites in the Promised Land saying to themselves, I am going to eat some meat.
The divine response to this wish is a capacious permission: you may eat meat


Nathan MacDonald

whenever you have the desire (Deut. 12.20). The human desire for flesh meets no
limitation. The priestly material, as we shall see, appears to view the slaughter and
consumption of animals as a concession to the human propensity to violence.
It does not represent the ideal, but holds in check the human lust for bloodshed.
Second, Deuteronomys account of eating is strongly informed by its distinctive
account of Israelite history. In Deuteronomy, eating is always an act of remembering this history.4 In the priestly material, it appears that the presentation of food is
viewed as part of a natural theology. For both these reasons, the priestly material is
more likely to appeal to modern vegetarianisms.
To connect certain texts in this way is also to entangle ourselves in the complex
questions of how exactly we are to account for this intertextual relationship in
terms of compositional intentionality. The costs of this sort of exercise are well
known, for all such theories are fragile. Nevertheless, the biblical interpreter hopes
that the result will be a sharpened focus on the biblical texts. The present state of
Pentateuchal studies is one of great ferment. The established scholarly paradigms
are giving way to fresh proposals. I will give some attention to these, but primarily
as a means of opening new vistas onto material which we have grown used to reading in particular ways.

Meat in the priestly order of the world

The priestly account of creation famously includes the allocation of the plant
world to humanity and the animals for food:
God said, See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the
earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every
beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth,
everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food. And it
was so. (Gen. 1.2930)5

To the animals is given the green vegetationwhich was not considered very
highly by the ancient Israelites.6 To humanity, on the other hand, are allocated the
grains and the fruits. These seed-bearing plants provide not only what are, from an
Israelite perspective, the quintessential human foodsbread, olive oil and wine7
but also require the kind of activity described in verse 28: fill the earth and
subdue it. To subdue the earth will mean, first of all, to work it so that it produces
fruits and crops for human consumption. Noticeably absent from the divine permission is any allocation of the animal creation to human beings for food. Although
humanity is mandated to rule over the animals, fish and birds, there is no indication that this includes consuming them.
That this is the correct way to understand the passage is confirmed by Genesis
9.3, where, after the flood, the animal world is added to the human allocation:
Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the
green plants, I give you everything. The immediate context is the renewed blessing
upon Noah and his family (vv. 1-2) and the warning against killing other human

Food and Diet in the Pentateuch


beings (vv. 46).8 In the post-diluvian world, the slaughter of animals is permitted,
but the murder of humans is not. In the priestly account of the flood, the immediate cause of the flood is violence:
And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the
earth. And God said to Noah, I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth
is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the
earth. (Gen. 6.1213)

Read together with Genesis 9, this passage has suggested to many interpreters that
Gods concession to the human appetite for animal meat is aimed at controlling
the human propensity towards violence.
Whether the priestly writer contributes more to the question of diet turns on
debates about the extent of the original priestly document. The idea that P concluded with Moses death in Deuteronomy 34 has generally been abandoned, and
most now hold that P ends somewhere in Exodus or Leviticus.9 By far the most
common position is that P culminates with the construction of the Tabernacle at
Exodus 29.46, 40.33 or 40.34. It is now generally accepted that the account of the
Tabernacles construction (Ex. 2531, 3340) mirrors the creation of the world (Gen
1.12.4a); thus, the original priestly document concludes with a neat inclusio.10
What appears pleasing to our eyes may not be decisiveafter all, the so-called Deuteronomistic History concludes with the perplexing story of King Jehoiachins
release (2 Kgs 25.2730). The conventions of ancient writers frequently diverge
from our modern expectations. Consequently, it has been argued that P ended with
the consecration of the priests (Lev. 89) or the description of the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16), since it is not possible to imagine a sanctuary without functioning
priests or a means of dealing with contamination.
In arguing for the conclusion of P at Leviticus 16, Christophe Nihan observes the
importance of food in P. The creation story in Genesis 1, which finds its correspondence in the conclusion of P, is not just a story about the construction of an
arena for divine and human activity. As we have seen, Genesis 1 is also concerned
with what the inhabitants of the world will eat. We should not be surprised then,
argues Nihan, to find food re-emerging at the end of the original priestly document. Indeed, he argues that it does re-emerge with Leviticus 11, the Old Testament dietary laws. According to Nihan: Gods revelation to Israel of the distinction
between clean and unclean animals involves an improvement on the situation of
undifferentiated consumption of meat prevailing after the Flood (Gen. 9), and thus
corresponds to the restoration of a state more in conformity with (but . . . not
equivalent to) the vegetarianism of origins.11
The dietary laws restrict the Israelite diet to certain animals. They recognize
the existence and reality of violence in the post-diluvian world, and while not
entailing a return to a vegetarian ideal, do place some constraint on human appetite. Importantly, the dietary laws are to be found at the head of the laws of impurity
(Lev. 1115). The remaining laws prescribe how impurity is to be dealt with. In
each case there is some rupture in the created worldmildew, leprosy, bodily


Nathan MacDonald

dischargeabout which something needs to be done. It is not possible to restore

the world to its original creation order, but the rupture can be controlled and the
distinctions between clean and unclean maintained. Despite the differences
between the dietary laws and the other purity laws, the dietary laws appear to have
been placed so prominently because of the importance of food for the priestly
literature and their paradigmatic role as a purity law.

Priestly theology and modern vegetarianism

The priestly writer takes it for granted that meat-eating is part of the world in
which he lives. Nevertheless, he can imagine a world in which violence is absent
and animals exist besides humans and are not killed for their flesh. For the
priestly writer, this world lies in the past. Nevertheless, this vision of the world has
proved important for those wishing to argue for a vegetarianism based on Christian principles. Andrew Linzey, for example, observes that while the priestly writer
locates this vegetarian ideal in the past, there are other Old Testament writers who
appear to project this ideal into the future. Isaiah famously envisages a peaceable
kingdom under the rule of the Davidic king:
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adders den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the
as the waters cover the sea.
(Isa. 11.69)

The final verses are re-used later in Isaiah for the description of the new heavens
and earth (65.25). Thus, the future is one of peace between animals and humans,
and between animals and animals.
The fact that P envisages an original creation where humans are vegetarian and
that Isaiah portrays an eschatological vision with peace between all creatures might
well be perceived to have significant implications for Christians. The coming of
Christ places Christians in the eschatological time-between-the-times. What might
such scriptural visions of the eschaton mean for those living in the eschaton only
partially realized? For some, like Linzey, Christians are called to begin making
steps towards the establishment of the peaceable kingdom; refusing to eat animal
flesh is just one aspect in which Christs followers might realize the breaking in of
his kingdom. The fact that Jesus and most of his early followers, including Paul

Food and Diet in the Pentateuch


(Rom. 14), continued to eat meat, as David Horrell discusses elsewhere, is likely
to preclude any decisive shift in Christian practice at this point. Nevertheless, the
sacredness of animal sacrifice in the Old Testament, and the possibility that the
priestly writer wishes to curb the human appetite for meat in the dietary laws,
places a question mark against our modern meat-centred diet. This is even more
the case if we take seriously the concern expressed in Leviticus 25 that land distribution remain relatively equitable so that every family in Israel may continue to
have access to land, and thus to food. The high costs of producing meat compared
to the cost of producing cereals or vegetables should make excessive meat consumption increasingly problematic to Christians in a world of escalating environmental degradation and population growth. The ethical imperative of the Jubilee
legislation need not be limited to debt relief. Despite the questions raised by
biblical texts and the different possible responses to them, Western Christians have
often not been exercised by issues relating to food consumption.

The importance of food in the Bible

The Old Testament addresses questions surrounding food production and
consumption, but why do most Christians in the West regard food as theologically
and ethically unimportant? The reasons are not difficult to discern, because a
number of biblical texts appear to minimize its importance. The most obvious
example is Pauls dictum, for the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14.17). Such texts influence
the interpretation of other texts, for instance, the ones we have been examining
from Genesis 111. Thus, in relation to Genesis 1.2930, previously cited, Linzey
and Cohn-Sherbok can complain that throughout the major interpretative
texts within Judaism and Christianity, while some allowance is made for this verse
[sic], its significance is often minimized or overlooked entirely.12 But have not
Christians in their interpretative practice rightly heeded Jesus rebuke of the scribes
and the Pharisees? Have not Western Christians neglected the mint, the dill
and the cumin, so as to give heed to the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy
and faith (cf. Mt. 23.23)?
One of the striking developments in New Testament scholarship over the last
twenty-five years has been the attention given to food-related issues. It has become
increasingly clear that many of the issues with which the nascent Christian movement struggled were intimately connected to food. Should Jewish and Gentile
Christians have table fellowship with one another? Were the Old Testaments
dietary laws valid for Gentile converts to Christianity? How should Christians
treat meat that had been offered to idols?13 Thus, while Paul can say that the kingdom of God is not food and drink, the kingdom is nevertheless closely tied to food
and drink, as any contextualized reading of Romans 14.17 shows.
If the New Testament can be shown to be deeply concerned with matters of
eating and drinking, can the same be done for the Old Testament? In the rest
of this paper, I wish to argue that food is a significant issue there too. More precisely, I will show how food is utilized in two significant texts, Genesis 23 and


Nathan MacDonald

Exodus 16, which a number of recent scholars have identified as post-priestly

(nachpriesterschriftliche). In other words, the inner development of the priestly
material in the Pentateuch continues to develop the interest in food already found
in the original priestly document. More than that, food becomes a major vehicle
for theological reflection.

Genesis 23: the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil
To argue for the importance of food within the Old Testament is to confront a
significant scholarly prejudice. A fine example is found in the 1990 Read-Tuckwell
lectures delivered at the University of Bristol by James Barr. In these lectures, Barr
sought to dispute the classic interpretation of Genesis 3 as a catastrophic fall into
sin. He offered a detailed exposition of the chapter, seeking to show that what is
recounted is not the origins of sin and death, but a tale of how humanity lost the
chance to be immortal. In this interpretation, the famous story of Adam and Eve is
lighter-hearted and less theologically serious.
Barrs argument has many aspects, but a not unimportant component is the observation about the sheer triviality of Adam and Eves transgression. Barr refers to (and
surely identifies himself with) those critics who complained, What a fuss about a
mere apple! .14 Barr substantiates this observation at some length, affirming:
The God who places upon humanity the one condition, that they should not eat from
a particular tree, is a God who is not insisting upon any very central ethical principle.
Eating that fruit is not in the same category of offences as murder, which was Cains
offence, or filling the earth with violence, which was that of the generation before the
Flood. Why was it wrong to eat that fruit? In fact, we are left to surmise, because God
wants to keep to himself the knowledge of good and evil . . . It is God who is placed
in a rather ambiguous light. He has made an ethically arbitrary prohibition, and backed it
up with a threat to kill which, in the event, he does nothing to carry out.15

It is striking that Barr takes his observation about the triviality of eating the fruit
to be so obvious that he does not need to substantiate it. Food is clearly not an
important ethical matter, is it? But such a view is going to be difficult to sustain in
the light of the Old Testaments dietary laws. Barrs assumptions represent a failure
to engage imaginatively with the possible concerns of the ancient biblical writers.
This is most surprising for one of the past generations most perceptive biblical
scholars and one who, in the work under discussion, is explicitly seeking to work
with the biblical text unencumbered by later preconceptions. That a scholar of
Barrs stature could be so unaware of the deep-seated modern prejudices on this
issue indicates the depth of the challenge that my argument faces.
It is important to observe that such a perspective on the story of Adam and Eve
is still residually influenced by the historical-critical assessment of the story as
delightful, quaint and rather nave. Traditionally, critical scholarship has made a
distinction between the Priestly creation story (Gen. 1.12.4a) and the JE creation
story (Gen. 2.4b3.24). Both stories belong originally to independent sources and

Food and Diet in the Pentateuch


were only combined at a late stage by a redactor (RP). The JE story represented an
enthusiastic Yahwism still lacking theological sophistication. The deity walking in
the garden, the talking snake, the naked human couple and the food prohibition all
evince a primitive storyteller. In the last twenty-five years, however, the material
attributed to the J component of JE has been dated very much later, simultaneously raising questions about whether developments in Israelite thought might
have influenced it to a greater extent than originally believed. Indeed, in the last
fifteen years, a number of scholars have began to take a significantly different view
of the material, arguing that in Genesis 111 the priestly document represents the
basic narrative structure (the Grundschrift), and the non-priestly material (i.e. the
traditional J and E sources) is a later supplement to P.16 My concern here is not
to rehearse the arguments for the literary critical arrangement of Genesis 13.
Instead, I want to observe the effects that such novel ideas might have on our
assessment of Genesis 2.4b3.24.
The creation story in Genesis 1.12.4a presents the world as a sanctuary. Through
the priestly activities of separating and hallowing, God creates a world that is fit for
humanity, the divine image, to dwell in. Thus, the first creation story ends with
nothing other than the sanctified rest of the Sabbath. The creation story in Genesis
2.4b3.24 is clearly from a different hand, but maintains the cultic focus, albeit
localized in the Garden of Eden. Eden, as Wenham observed, is described in ways
reminiscent of the Temple. Both Temple and Eden open to the east, cherubim
guard the way, and the menorah is often understood to be a stylized tree of life.17
The description of walking about the Garden is the same expression used of
the divine presence in the wilderness Tabernacle.18 Finally, Adam is commissioned
to keep and guard the garden. These two verbs are strikingly juxtaposed in the
description of Levitical service of the Tabernacle. Adam, it seems, serves not so
much as a gardener, but as a sanctuary guardian.
Since Eden is presented as a sanctuary, it is not surprising that at its heart there
are objects that are forbidden to the human couple. Biblical literature narrates a
number of stories in which sancta are violated. Invariably the violators are struck
down (e.g. Lev. 10; 1 Sam. 14; 2 Sam. 6). In the centre of the Garden is a tree whose
fruit is forbidden; the punishment for transgression is death. The wording of the
prohibition is worth examining in detail:
And the God commanded the man, You may freely eat of every tree of the garden;
but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you
eat of it you shall die. (Gen. 2.1617)

We should observe that these words are a commandment, and that s verbal
action is described with the standard word found in the law codes. What
speaks is law, torah. The form of the command is apodictic, and thus similar to
those found in the Ten Commandments. This is true not only of the actual commandment, but of the justification introduced by inclusion of the word for.19 The
commandment develops the allocation of food from the first creation story. Adam
is allowed access to all the treesthe cereal crops are omitted as not relevant to the


Nathan MacDonald

storybut an exception is now made for the tree at the centre of the Garden. As is
well known, an explanation for the prohibition is never given. Von Rad rightly
warns that to seek a purpose in the divine prohibition, as exegetes have often done,
is in our opinion not permissible; the question cannot be discussed.20 The determination of sancta is not reducible to a reason.
An interesting aspect of the commandment is revealed by the account of the
womans temptation by the serpent. Famously, the woman adds an additional
The woman said to the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God
said, You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall
you touch it, or you shall die. (Gen. 3.23, emphasis added)

How are we to understand the womans creativity at this point? Is she putting a
fence around the Torah like a good rabbinic interpreter, or has she exposed herself
to transgression by misremembering the divine commandment? A solution may
be found, I believe, by observing that this precise expression occurs in the dietary
laws. According to Leviticus 11, the carcasses of unclean quadrupeds transmit
impurity through touch, not only by consumption. In light of the dietary laws, and
also being mindful that the fruit is sanctum, we can say that the womans extension
of the commandment is logical and necessary.
The relationship between the Genesis 3 story and the subsequent realities of
Israels covenant with , particularly the torah, are also seen in the description
of the tree whose fruit is forbidden. There is no need to be detained by the problem
of the two trees, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Both
trees are described with language characteristic of wisdom literature, and the
desired end of eating is to make one wise (3.6). That the knowledge which the tree
bestows should be considered so positively elsewhere in the Old Testament is a
little perplexing. What is wrong with humanity coming to a knowledge of good
and evil, an expression used elsewhere in the Old Testament of intellectual and
moral maturity? Should not the woman wish to be made wise? Since, for Proverbs,
to find wisdom is to take hold of the tree of life, can seeking the fruit of this tree be
sinful? These difficulties provide at least one of the reasons why some scholars
have wished to argue that Genesis 3 presents a fall upwards or a story of a humanity coming to moral maturity. This depends on assumingas have most
interpretersthat God does not wish humanity to become wise. It is possible that
this is not what is at stake for the writer; it is, rather, the manner by which one
becomes wise. Indeed, many Old Testament passages present the law as the means
by which one becomes wise or as that which enlightens the eyes, utilizing the kind
of language that appears in Genesis 23.21
In summary, Genesis 23 extends the priestly creation account in Genesis 1.
It maintains the sanctuary language, introducing torah language to emphasize the
importance of obedience as the appropriate means to grasp life and wisdom.
In this lesson about torah obedience, food is the subject of the archetypal
commandment. Obedience is required, though this contravenes the experience of

Food and Diet in the Pentateuch


Eves senses. In light of all that the Torah says about food, especially the dietary
laws, it is clear that this is no fuss about a mere apple.

Exodus 16: the giving of the manna

The manna story in Exodus 16 has long been identified with the priestly material
in the Pentateuch. Nevertheless, older critical scholarship found a number of
J fragments. The inability to isolate a coherent J story, and the presence of late
expressions within these fragments, has led many recent studies to posit an original P narrative that has been expanded redactionally.22 In seeking to determine the
extent of the original narrative, scholars have often discerned a provision story
akin to the succinct stories we find in Exod. 15.2227 and 17.17. The result of
such efforts is a brief account which consists of: Israelite grumbling (vv. 12);
divine response in which quail and manna are promised (vv. 912); the provision
of quail and manna (vv. 1314); and the naming of the manna (v. 15).23
As was the case with Genesis 13, my principal interpretive interest lies not in any
putative original narrative, but in the way that the priestly material has been developed so as to function within the wider Pentateuch and relate to the Pentateuchs
central themes. It should immediately be clear that these expansions mean that
Exodus 16 now dominates the collection of three provision stories in Exodus 1517.
Moreover, the provision of manna has been placed exactly halfway, in chronological
terms, between the exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Mount Sinai. The giving
of the manna occurs on the fifteenth day of the second month (16.1). Although
Martin Noth saw these provision stories as links between the exodus from Egypt
and the entrance into the Promised Land, it is apparent that they have been shaped
in order to link Exodus and Sinai.24
This shaping is particularly in evidence in vv. 38. These verses are not essential
to the basic provision story, and in addition, introduce a number of logical difficulties. In vv. 45, the provision of the manna is presented as a divine test. However,
this announcement of the divinely ordained provision occurs prematurely, for the
confirmation that the manna shall be given does not come until v. 12. In order to
maintain the logic of the story, the first announcement of the manna is presented
as a private conversation between God and Moses.25 In vv. 68, the nature of the
divine revelation in the evening and morning is expounded at length. However, it
is impossible to harmonize the events described in vv. 68 with those described
in vv. 1014.26 Any resolution of the chronological problems is elusive. For both
vv. 45 and 68, scholars have resorted either to excising the verses or to considerable rearrangement. In my view, such solutions are mistaken, for the scribes concerns were not chronological, but thematic.
The first set of verses (45) understands the daily provision of the manna and
the double portion on the sixth day as a form of divine discipline, or to maintain
the biblical language, of a test: Then the said to Moses, I am going to rain
bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough
for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction


Nathan MacDonald

or not (v. 4). The Israelites response to the manna provision is indicative of their
future fidelity to the law. These verses clearly view the manna in a similar way to
Deuteronomy 8. There, the manna is a means of humbling the people in order to
teach them dependence on s instructions. As Deuteronomys famous
aphorism puts it: one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes
from the mouth of the (8.3). Exodus 16 and Deuteronomy 8 agree in seeing
Israels response to food and hunger as powerfully indicative of her attitude to the
entire law.
The second set of verses (68) introduces confusion by reversing the order of
events. According to vv. 1012, the divine glory appears to the Israelites, and they
are fed with meat in the evening and with manna in the morning. This all occurs
in order that the people believe in . In vv. 67, the belief in is associated with the evening, and the appearance of the divine glory with the morning.
It thus appears that confession of trust in and the revelation of the divine
glory are being equated. Verse 8 develops this by relating the confession of trust in
and the revelation of the glory with the miraculous act of provision. This
involves a significant shift in the meaning of the glory of which is usually
associated with the theophanic appearance of and is now being related to
the manna.
To understand the significance of the scribal digressions in vv. 6-8, it is necessary
to realize that these verses are relating the two main parts of the book of Exodus:
the story of Israels liberation (Exodus 115) and the account of the revelation at
Sinai and the Tabernacle (Exodus 1940). The confession of belief in is the
principal theme of the exodus story. In Exodus 714, the refrain you shall know
that I am , or something similar, occurs frequently and is a response to
Pharaohs haughty Who is ? (5.2). The plagues are a revelation of the might
and power of which is eventually recognized by all Egypt (14.4, 18). The
Israelites too come to recognize (14.31), as announced in the call of Moses
in Exodus 6.7. The portrayal in the wilderness narratives of the Israelites faltering
faith, while psychologically realistic, is somewhat unexpected after the climactic
statement of Israels belief at the edge of the Red Sea (14.31). The divine glory, on
the other hand, is associated with the Sinai revelation. The glory appears on the
mountain when Moses meets to receive the Ten Words (24.16, 17) and subsequently makes its dwelling with Israel in the Tabernacle. The climactic conclusion
of the book of Exodus occurs when the divine glory takes up residence in the completed Tabernacle (40.3438). In Exodus 16.7 and 10, the glory of appears
for the first time and somewhat prematurely, for it belongs properly at Sinai and
not before.
In the hands of the Pentateuchs editors, the story of the manna plays a crucial
role in mediating between the exodus narrative and the Sinai material. The giving
of the manna becomes an important test of the peoples trust in . To the
question Can God spread a table in the wilderness? (Ps. 78.19), the answer is a
resounding Yes. Yet the manna is also a demonstration of the glory of , and
thus intimately linked to his presence. Thus, in Exodus 16, as in Genesis 23, food
is central to how God probes his people. How Israel responds to its hunger and to

Food and Diet in the Pentateuch


the miraculous provision by characterizes her relationship to s acts

of salvation and his revelation of the law at Sinai.

For many modern Christians, food is not a matter that requires significant
theological or ethical reflection. Jesus has declared all foods clean (Mk 7.19) and
Paul affirms this as the appropriate practice for Gentile Christians. Thus, the New
Testaments primary contribution is seen as to rescind the dietary restrictiveness of
the Old Testamentalthough there have always been some Christians who
thought differently, as David Grumett shows in the following chapter. A residual
awareness of the potency of food is found in the traditional concern about gluttony and in Lenten practices, though even these are often individualized and
marginalized in modern Western Christianity. Yet a careful reading of the New
Testament demonstrates that the early Christians had a developed and distinctive
food consciousness. In the Old Testament too, food plays a more prominent role
than in most contemporary Christian reflection.
Our examination of key passages in the Pentateuch shows not only that food was
an important matter in the originally priestly document, as scholars have reconstructed it, but also in the subsequent expansions of that document. These expansions connect food and attitudes to food more explicitly with Israels covenant
realities. To eat or not to eat is simultaneously to believe or not to believe , to
obey or to disobey torah. The priestly writers understanding of food appears at first
glance to be more akin to natural theology, though in reality it too is strongly
informed by Israels theology. Genesis 1 models the cosmos on the sanctuary, and the
prohibition of blood ingestion in Genesis 9 anticipates Israelite practice (cf. Lev. 17).
The centrality of food to both Israel and the Early Churchs thinking challenges
modern Christians to be more reflective about their own food practices.


It will become clear that I understand priestly material in a capacious sense

that incorporates both the original priestly document (i.e. the priestly Grundschrift, PG) and its various expansions. For an analysis of Ps understanding
of food with a more traditional understanding of the priestly writer and a concentration on the dietary laws, see Ronald S. Hendel, Table and altar: the
anthropology of food in the Priestly Torah, in To Break Every Yoke: Essays in
Honor of Marvin L. Chaney, eds Robert B. Coote and Norman K. Gottwald
(Sheffield: Phoenix, 2007). I am grateful to Prof. Hendel for making his paper
available to me.
2 I am using the cypher natural theology here as a contrast to positive or
revealed theology. In my view, polarization of these categories is problematic,
and although it is not my intention here to consider why in detail, it will be
seen that my discussion of the priestly material nevertheless problematizes
such polarization.


Nathan MacDonald

3 Historically, certain other texts were excluded, including material identified

as belonging to a Yahwist writer. In recent years the theory of a Yahwist has
come under assault, although the Yahwist continues to enjoy high profile
defenders, including John Van Seters and Christoph Levin. See Farewell to the
Yahwist? The Composition of the Pentateuch in Recent European Interpretation, eds Thomas B. Dozeman and Konrad Schmid (Society of Biblical
Literature Symposium Series, 34; Atlanta, GA: Society for Biblical Literature,
4 For detailed discussion, see Nathan MacDonald, Not Bread Alone: The Uses of
Food in the Old Testament (Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 7099
5 Gen. 1.2930. All biblical translations are from the New Revised Standard
Version. Claus Westermann rightly observes that these verses are expressed as
an allocation, not as a command or law, in Genesis 111 (Minneapolis, MN:
Augsburg, 1984), p. 162.
6 On the rare occasions that vegetables appear in the Old Testament, they are
associated with Egypt (Num. 11.5) and with the wicked King Ahab (1 Kgs 21).
The Israelite disdain for vegetables is succinctly summarized in Proverbs
15.17: Better is a dinner of vegetables where love is than a fatted ox and hatred
with it.
7 The so-called Mediterranean triad occur together on several occasions in the
Old Testament.
8 Andrew Linzey erroneously reads verse 5 as a prohibition of the shedding of
the blood of animals and humans. His selective quote, For your lifeblood
I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of man . . . ,
introduces ellipses at precisely the point where it is clear that the lifeblood is
human only. This involves Linzey in exegetical conundrums that are quite
unnecessary: Who can take animal life without the shedding of blood? Who
can kill without the taking of blood, that is, the life itself? See Andrew Linzey,
The Bible and killing for food, in The Animal Ethics Reader, eds Susan
J. Armstrong and Richard G. Botzler (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 22734
(229); originally published in Using the Bible Today, ed. Dan Cohn-Sherbok
(London: Bellew, 1991).
9 The seminal work was L. Perlitt, Priesterschrift im Deuteronomium?, in
Deuteronomium-Studien (Forschungen zum Alten Testament, 8; Tbingen:
Mohr Siebeck, 1994), pp. 12343. For a recent discussion, see Christophe
Nihan, From Priestly Torah to Pentateuch: A Study in the Composition of the
Book of Leviticus (FAT, II/25; Tbingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007), pp. 2068.
10 For the relationship, see for example, Jon D. Levenson, Creation and Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 7899.
11 Nihan, Priestly Torah, p. 613.
12 Andrew Linzey and Dan Cohn-Sherbok, After Noah: Animals and the
Liberation of Theology (London: Mowbray, 1997), p. 18.
13 For studies see, inter alia, Craig L. Blomberg, Contagious Holiness: Jesus
Meals with Sinners (New Studies in Biblical Theology; Downers Grove, IL:

Food and Diet in the Pentateuch






InterVarsity, 2005); Willi Braun, Feasting and Social Rhetoric in Luke 14

(Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series, 85; Cambridge University Press, 1995); Kathleen E. Corley, Private Women, Public Meals: Social
Conflict in the Synoptic Tradition (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993); Dennis
E. Smith, From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian
World (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2003). Note also the Society of
Biblical Literatures Annual Meeting unit that in recent years has been devoted
to the subject of Meals in the Greco-Roman World. Its aims are described as
follows: The Greco-Roman banquet, which was a complex and highly influential hellenistic institution, will be explored as a lens into Greco-Roman
social bonding and boundaries and as a pivotal consideration in reconstructing the history of early Christianity and Judaism.
James Barr, The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality (Minneapolis,
MN: Fortress, 1993), p. 11.
Barr, Garden, p. 12.
See for example, Joseph Blenkinsopp, A post-exilic lay source in Genesis
111, in Abschied vom Jahwisten: die Komposition des Hexateuchs in der jngsten Diskussion, eds J. C. Gertz, K. Schmid and M. Witte (Beihefte zur
Zeitschrift fr die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, 315; Berlin: de Gruyter,
2002), pp. 4962; Eckart Otto, Die Paradieserzhlung Genesis 23: eine
nachpriesterschriftliche Lehrerzhlung in ihrem religionshistorischen
Kontext, in Jedes Ding hat seine Zeit . . .: Studien zur israelitischen und altorientalischen Weisheit, eds A. A. Diesel et al. (BZAW, 241; Berlin: de Gruyter,
1996), pp. 16792. See also John Sawyer, The image of God, the wisdom of
serpents and the knowledge of good and evil, in A Walk in the Garden: Biblical
Iconographical and Literary Images of Eden, eds P. Morris and D. Sawyer
(Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series, 136; Sheffield
Academic Press, 1992), pp. 6473. On the other hand, Marc Vervenne remains
unconvinced, in Genesis 1,12,4: the compositional texture of the priestly
overture to the Pentateuch, in Studies in the Book of Genesis: Literature,
Redaction and History, ed. Andr Wnin (Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensium, 155; Leuven University Press, 2001), pp. 3579.
Gordon J. Wenham, Sanctuary Symbolism in the Garden of Eden Story,
Proceedings of the World Congress of Jewish Studies 9 (1986), pp. 1925.
For further details, see Terje Stordalen, Echoes of Eden: Genesis 23 and Symbolism of the Eden Garden in Biblical Hebrew Literature (Contributions to Biblical
Exegesis and Theology, 25; Leuven: Peeters, 2000), especially pp. 31012.
The death is described not with the language of legal punishment, they shall
be put to death (cf. Ex. 21), but with the language of royal sovereignty, you
shall surely die (cf. 1 Kgs 2).
Gerhard von Rad, Genesis (Old Testament Library; London: SCM, 1961), p. 78.
D. J. A. Cliness suggestion that the author of Ps. 19.7-14 intended by his
allusions to Gen. 23 to assert the superiority of the law to the tree of knowledge as a means of obtaining wisdom is suggestive. The allusions he discerns
are not fully persuasive, but the importance of the law as a means of obtaining





Nathan MacDonald
wisdom is well made. See The Tree of Knowledge and the Law of Yahweh
(Psalm XIX), Vetus Testamentum 24 (1974), pp. 814 (8).
The seminal work was by Eberhard Ruprecht, Stellung und Bedeutung der
Erzhlung vom Mannawunder (Ex 16) im Aufbau der Priesterschrift,
Zeitschrift fr die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 86 (1974), pp. 269307.
See for example, Ludwig Schmidt, Studien zur Priesterschrift (BZAW, 214;
Berlin: de Gruyter, 1993), pp. 3645.
It is also obvious that this is not a very important or really independent theme.
It presupposes in every instance the themes guidance out of Egypt and
guidance into the Promised Land and depends on both of these. See Martin
Noth, A History of Pentateuchal Traditions (Chico, CA: Scholars, 1981), p. 58.
The content of the conversation is clearly unknown to the Israelite elders in
vv. 16-30.
William H. Propp argues that instead of forcing events into logical order,
I would conclude that the Priestly Writer was simply confused, in Exodus
118: A New Translation with Notes and Comments (Anchor Bible, 2; New York:
Doubleday, 1999), p. 594).

Mosaic Food Rules in Celtic

Spirituality in Ireland
David Grumett

It is typically assumed, and sometimes even argued, that the detailed food
regulations which feature prominently in the Hebrew Bible were, in the early
Christian churches, superseded. They were rendered obsolete, so the argument
goes, by a new dominant Pauline theology according to which the earthly life,
death and resurrection of Jesus Christ brought about a new situation in which it
became possible for humanity to be brought into right relation with God through
being made righteous by faith. The old legalistic dispensation, founded on works,
boundaries and cleanliness rituals, thereby became redundant, being replaced by a
more inclusive and humane faith grounded in a personal relationship with Jesus
and mutual support from fellow Christians also living in that relationship.
A good example is Peters sheet, often waved up and down along with all the
animals on it as proof that early Christians were permitted to eat anything and did
eat anything (Acts 10.948). John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli both saw this
image as entailing the wholesale abolition of food rules. This interpretation
became part of Protestant Reformation polemic against allegedly rule-bound
Catholicism,1 and persisted in biblical scholarship into the early twentieth
century.2 It has certainly been lent superficial support by various passages of
New Testament scripture. As Paul writes to the Galatians: Before faith came, we
were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified
by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian,
for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith (Gal. 3.2326).
This supersessionist view of food rules remains common currency in popular
Christian exposition and preaching, but is vulnerable to challenge at two key
points. First, does a close reading of scripture, informed by awareness of religious
and social context, really support the view? Jesus was born a Jew and died a Jew,
and many of his followers were also Jews. Work by biblical scholars through the
later twentieth century, including E. P. Sanders and Marcus Bockmuehl, has unsettled the idea that Jesus rendered obsolete the Jewish food rules and other literal
requirements of the Law.3 Peters sheet is better seen, in light of these new


David Grumett

perspectives, as giving metaphorical instruction to Peter that Gentiles as well as

Jews could receive baptism in Christs name, and crucially as suggesting that no
personrather than no potential food itemshould be regarded as unclean and
thereby excluded from the Christian community or from table fellowship.4 Thus
its context is provided by Peters visit to Cornelius following his dream. This reading certainly raises significant questions about which particular foods could or
should be eaten in shared company and which should not. Flexibility might have
been required, moreover, but this by no means equates with a wholesale abolition
of the food rules basic to Jewish society. The implications of these new biblical
perspectives still need further assimilation by many theologians though, judging
by the scant attention most afford to eating and other material practices. Eating is
too often allegorized in Christian theology rather than treated seriously as a concrete spiritual practice.
The second perspective from which a supersessionist account of food rules
in early Christianity appears inadequate is anthropological. It would have been
highly unusual for people living anywhere in the Middle East during the first century to have observed no food rules. The groundbreaking comparative research of
Frederick Simoons suggests, in fact, that food regulation and avoidances, especially in relation to meat, are ubiquitous in most pre-modern societies.5 Yet whether
or not all food rules are susceptible of theological interpretation is a separate question: it evidently cannot be assumed that every rule observed in a society is
religiously motivated, even if religious motivations pervade that society. Once food
rules are identified as existing in actual practice, this second issue thus presents
itself of whether and to what extent those rules can be interpreted in specifically
Christian terms. This chapter will therefore perform two tasks. It will identify and
describe the food rules in one particularly striking place in Christian history,
namely Celtic Ireland, drawing evidence from penitential books. It will then consider expressly the theological significance of these food rules.

Celtic spirituality in Ireland

The island colonized by Christian missionaries like Patrick and Columba from the
fifth century onwards was remote from the political and cultural centres of mainland Europe. It had never been brought under Roman imperial authority. There
was no developed legal or political system such as had existed in the Roman
Empire, and life could be chaotic, unpredictable and harsh. The reality of being a
Christian in this era was a world removed from the vague and self-conscious
Celtic spirituality familiar to modern practitioners. For incoming Christian missionaries, the lack of social or political structures through which the Christian
message might be spread posed an unfamiliar challenge. Their response was legislation enacted not by councils, as was the case in many other parts of Europe, but
by charismatic figures who based their teaching on existing legal texts with which
they were familiar.6 A particular preoccupation in the new texts produced was the
food that Christians ate.7

Mosaic Food Rules in Celtic Spirituality


The Canons of Adamnan, Abbot of Iona from the year 679 until his death in 704,
are singularly noteworthy for their extensive coverage of food.8 Their first and
most striking type of stipulation concerns the means of death of animals whose
flesh will be consumed by humans. Canon 2 states: Cattle that fall from a rock, if
their blood has been shed, are to be taken; if not, but if their bones are broken
and their blood has not come out, they are to be rejected as if they were carrion.
Similar requirements regarding carrion are found in the Penitential of Archbishop
Theodore of Canterbury, also dating from the seventh century. Animals torn by
wolves or dogs cannot be eaten, on pain of a penance of forty days, and stags and
goats may not be consumed under any circumstance unless it is reliably known
that they were killed by a human being.9 Another unidentified Irish penitential
forbids the consumption of cats vermin on penalty of a bread and water fast lasting one hundred days, while the Preface on Penance by Gildas lays down forty
days penance for eating carrion, even in cases when the offence is committed
unwittingly.10 Moreover, Pope Gregory III issued a general prohibition against the
consumption of blood and of strangled animals, on pain of forty days penance, at
his accession in 731.11 This suggests that at least some food rules were of not merely
local importance to Ireland around this time, but generally recognized as important by Christians elsewhere.
These various similar interdictions could each be read as applications of the
requirements enacted by the Council of Jerusalem, chaired by James the brother
of Jesus. The Councils concluding epistle to Gentile believers commanded them:
You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, [and] from the meat
of strangled animals . . . (Acts 15.29a). This injunction seems unproblematic in
theory, but leaves open in practice, as do many food rules, questions about what to
do in specific perplexing cases: when, for instance, it is not known whether flesh
has been offered to pagan gods, if the blood of a carcass has not been fully drained,
or if means of death cannot be established. In particular, it would be difficult for
anyone to verify that an animal had not been strangled or similarly suffocated
unless they had been present at its death. Moreover, certain instructions given in
different sets of canons seem inconsistent if those canons are regarded as elucidations of only this single verse of teaching. For example, one penitential of uncertain
origin lays down four months penance for eating any animal whose manner of
death is unknown.12 Adamnan, in contrast, permits in canon 1 the eating of marine
animals cast upon the shores whose method of dying is unknown, excepting the
case of decomposition, while the Confessional of Pseudo-Egbert makes similar
allowances for aquatic creatures.13
These apparently conflicting responses to the problem of carrion can be reconciled by reference to the Hebrew Bible. There, different forms of regulation apply
to land animals than to fish. This is due to the unique problems posed by the blood
of land animals in the ancient Israelite context, because blood indicated the presence of life.14 This is why the draining of blood from the carcass prior to human
consumption was a key requirement of the Mosaic food rules (Lev. 17). The
Noachide covenant points to one of the underlying rationales of those rules.15


David Grumett

After the flood, God says to Noah: You must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still
in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an
accounting from every animal (Gen. 9.45). Not to drain the blood satisfactorily
prior to consumption would blur the boundary between life and death, and result
in a mixture of life and death characteristic of Sheol.16 Adamnan pursues the
implications of this requirement to drain the blood from a carcass, proscribing in
canons 3 and 14 the eating of drowned animals on the grounds that their blood
remains within them. In the second of these two rules, he inserts an intriguing
appeal specifically to the Law as supporting evidence, to which I shall return.
The draining of the blood preserves the most important of the various boundaries which ancient Israelite culture was so concerned to protect: that between life
and death. Humans might reduce themselves to the status of predators who tore
apart live wriggling animals with their teeth, were a definition not clearly established to distinguish inedible live flesh from edible dead flesh. Alternatively, they
might cut off animal parts, for instance the fatty tails of sheep, while attempting to
keep the animal alive for other purposes. This is perhaps the reason behind
Adamnans otherwise rather puzzling statement in canon 5 that a half-alive animal
seized by sudden death is carrion if an ear or other part is cut off .17 In either case,
the categories of life and death fundamental to Christian culture would have
become inexcusably blurred.
The possibility of draining the blood prior to consumption is called into question in the curious case of the stag, owing to the viscosity of its blood. Venison is
therefore classified as carrion in canon 20, because when killed, although the
extremity of the blood has been shed through some extreme member, nevertheless
the thicker and denser blood in which the life has its seat remains clotted within
the flesh.
The second key feature of Irish monastic food rules originating in the Hebrew
Bible, following the requirement to drain the blood from flesh before consumption, is the perceived problematic status of predatory animals as potential food
sources. Adamnan instructs in canon 8: Hens that taste the flesh of a man or his
blood are in a high degree unclean, and their eggs are unclean; but their chicks are
to be preserved. The issue of the possible contamination of animal offspring is also
discussed in the preceding canon 7, where pigs that have tasted human flesh or
blood are deemed unclean, but their young are permitted to be eaten. The Law is
once again invoked in support of this position. A related and singularly intriguing
dilemma is raised in canon 6: what to do with a pig that has eaten carrion. Does the
uncleanness spread through the entire body of the pig, and does it persist for the
remainder of the pigs life? The latter would seem an impractically rigorous interpretation likely to contribute to food shortages in times of hardship, pigs being
well-known natural scavengers including even of human corpses. Adamnan offers
a practicable response that is both consistent with related legislation and sympathetic to human material need, stating that swines flesh that has become thick or
fat on carrion is to be rejected like the carrion by which it grows fat. When, however, [the swine] has grown smaller and returned to its original thinness, it is to be
taken. But if it had eaten carrion [only] once or twice, after this has been ejected

Mosaic Food Rules in Celtic Spirituality


from its intestines it is to be taken in good faith. Theodore of Canterbury grapples

with a similar question, legislating that if pigs or hens merely taste human blood
they remain clean, but that if any tear and eat the corpses of the dead, their flesh
may not be eaten until they become feeble and weak and until a year has
In an intriguing variation on the theme of not consuming the flesh of meateating animals, the Penitential of Cummean extends the ban on such flesh to cover
even the eating of the skin or a scab of ones own body on pain of a years penance
on bread and water.19 This particular interdict is, of course, susceptible of additional interpretations, including the prevention of behaviour which might develop
into cannibalism in situations of severe famine, as well as the desire to preserve the
integrity of bodily boundaries.
Adamnans ban on consuming the flesh of predatory animals extends to flesh
that has been eaten by such animals, on the grounds that the blood of the flesh has
been shed by beasts (canons 1719). This aspect of his rule reveals more visibly the
underlying justification for prohibiting the flesh of predatory animals themselves.
Such animals are seen as unclean as a corollary of the exclusive prerogative delivered
to humanity by God after the Flood to eat animal flesh. God says to Noah once the
waters subside: Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave
you the green plants, I now give you everything (Gen. 9.3). Yet food provision for
animals remains unchanged from that of the sixth day of creation, when God said:
To all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that
move on the groundeverything that has the breath of life in itI give every living
plant for food (1.30). Because the dispensation to eat meat is not extended from
humans to animals, any carnivorous or omnivorous animal effectively usurps the
place of humanity by taking from nature something that God has not given it. This
explains the frequent categorization of meat-eating animals as unclean.20
The third element of Mosaic teaching identifiable in some Irish Christian practice, in addition to the blood and predator prohibitions, is the notion that food may
become contaminated if touched by an unclean animal. Adamnan directs in canons 1214 that no food that has come into contact with pigs, crows or leeches be
eaten, on the grounds that these animals are likely previously to have consumed
contaminated flesh. Theodore of Canterbury addresses the same issue, although
adopts the contrasting and more practical approach of permitting the consumption of food touched by unclean animals.21 This difference between the two sets of
regulations is possibly explained by Theodores clear expectation that his penitential be used through all levels of society. Adamnan and other sets of Irish canons
might, in contrast, have been produced for a more restricted monastic audience
and the smaller groups of committed Christians which grew up around them in
the Irish context of missionary monasticism.22 In Ireland, bishops and other clergy
operated under monastic supervision, and monastic foundations proliferated. In
such a setting, it seems likely that the canonical requirements would have been
applied beyond the walls of the monastery as part of a diffused rigorist pattern of
Christian observance that promoted personal discipline and clearly distinguished
Christians from their pagan neighbours.


David Grumett

Christian practices and Mosaic texts

Some of the food rules described so far could be derived directly from the edict of
the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15.29). This restated the commandment of God to
Noah to drain the blood from animal flesh prior to consumption. The ban on
eating predatory animals could be seen as a corollary of this requirement, due to
the evident fact that they would not kill their prey by draining its blood. In various
other cases, however, the origins of the rules clearly lie elsewhere. The idea of
transmitting uncleanness by touch, previously shown to be the third element of
Mosaic tradition identifiable in the canons, does not feature in the Jerusalem edict.
Moreover, two canons have been noted in which Adamnan justifies proscriptions,
with no further explanation, with reference to the Law. Third, some of the rules
discussed so far draw on the Jerusalem legislation but develop significantly greater
detail. Pseudo-Egbert extends the prohibition on eating things strangled (pnikton) to encompass strangled birds, a requirement made explicit only in Leviticus
17:1314.23 Pseudo-Egbert admittedly demonstrates close reliance on the Jerusalem edict by quoting Acts 15.29 in the same paragraph, but in spite of this, legislates
beyond the obvious terms of that verse.
Such explicit use of a New Testament text is in any case exceptional. More
frequently, texts from the Hebrew Bible seem to be providing unwritten footnotes.
The concepts present in the canons extend well beyond the simple prohibitions of
the Jerusalem epistle to encompass boundaries, clean and unclean animals, and
predation. Why do these regulations, originating in ancient Israel, feature in Celtic
texts long after the formation of a Christian identity distinct from the Jewish? The
answer to this puzzle is fortunately not based on mere conjecture. Patrick and
other early missionaries to Ireland appear to have made use of a standard compilation of thirty-five excerpts from the Pentateuch, known as the Liber ex Lege Moisi.24
This collection seems in some instances to have formed one section of a larger
grouping of legal texts and rules known as the Collectio canonum Hibernensis.25
Seven of the excerpts comprising the Liber ex Lege Moisi are likely to have informed
the food practices previously described in the penitential canons. Since this important text is so little known, its food-related chapters warrant brief summary. i) The
third passage, Exodus 22.131, concludes with the instruction that no flesh torn by
animals is to be eaten by humans, but must be thrown to dogs. ii) The fourth text,
Exodus 23.119, proscribes the cooking of the offspring of animals in their mothers milk. iii) The eighth excerpt, Leviticus 7.1927, prohibits the consumption of
flesh that has touched anything unclean, requiring instead, on pain of death, that
such flesh be burnt. Here is also forbidden the eating of the fat of dead or torn animals, and the consumption of blood, again on pain of death. iv) The eleventh text
is fragmentary, consisting of portions from Leviticus 17, and reiterates the prohibition of the eating of blood, justifying this on the grounds that the life is in the
blood. It furthermore states that hunted birds or animals must be slaughtered by
blood-letting if they are to be eaten, and reaffirms the ban on human consumption
of animal prey or any animal that has died of natural causes. v) The thirteenth
passage, comprising parts of Leviticus 13, includes a repetition of the ban on blood

Mosaic Food Rules in Celtic Spirituality


consumption. vi) The fifteenth excerpt, of verses from Leviticus 15, commences by
reaffirming that humans are not permitted to consume the food of animals that
have died of natural causes or animals torn by beasts. vii) The twenty-fourth passage, from Deuteronomy 14.2122, reaffirms previous bans on eating any animal
that has died a natural death and on cooking a kid in its mothers milk.
In Ireland, preservation of the essential character of the Mosaic food rules in the
canons cited earlier enabled Christian missionaries to employ these rules as one
means of differentiating themselves from pagans. Despite this desire for differentiation, the canons grapple with several detailed issues of how the content of the
rules should be transposed in a different geographical and cultural setting. It is
clear, for instance, that pigs formed a more natural part of the human diet in
Ireland than in Palestine, due to the moist climate and widespread woodland and
forest habitat available. Hence it should come as no surprise that the classic Jewish
proscription of pigs flesh (Lev. 11.78) is conveniently ignored in the Irish context.
Indeed, the Liber ex Lege Moisi omits entirely the sections of Leviticus 11 which
classify as edible only those animals with a split hoof and which chew the cud (18,
2628). In the ancient Israelite context, the fact that the pig is a natural scavenger
of animal flesh and even human flesh was, as previously discussed, the key reason
why its flesh was prohibited as human food. This fact is recognized in some of
the penitential canons, especially the discussion in Adamnans canon 6 about the
length of time that must elapse before humans may consume a pig that has fed on
carrion. The practical implications drawn from the pigs scavenging are very different, however, because no absolute prohibition on the human consumption of
pork is enacted. On the contrary, through such detailed reflection on the dilemmas
surrounding pork, considerable efforts are devoted to justifying its continued consumption by Christians.
Quite apart from the problems posed by geographical transposition, difficult
cases inevitably arise when general rules are applied to particular instances. Can a
cow that has fallen from a cliff be eaten? Can venison be consumed, given that its
blood cannot easily be drained? What happens to a hen when it bites a persons
hand while its eggs are being collected? Such questions are not directly answered
in the collection of texts presented in the Liber ex Lege Moisi. The penitential rules
therefore perform a similar function in relation to the Law as does Jewish midrash,
clarifying the implications of the authoritative text for particular local situations.
Indeed, some of the issues raised in the two contexts are similar, such as the circumstances under which uncleanness is deemed to have been transferred between
items.26 In another case, the censuring in the Penitential of Cummean of a persons
consumption of minute parts of their own body, such as a piece of skin or a scab,
bears comparison with the prohibition by Maimonidies of the swallowing of the
blood on a piece of bread produced by a tooth bleeding in a persons mouth while
they are eating, if the bread has been removed from the mouth.27
Western readers might presume that in order for a text to count as authentically
Christian, any Mosaic material it contains needs ultimately to be regarded as secondary. Abigail Firey suggests, in an excellent discussion, that the lack of variation
in the subject matter and descriptive mode of the food proscriptions posits


David Grumett

recourse to a common, written corpus by their compilers. That hypothesis has

been confirmed in this chapter. She then proceeds to argue, however, that the
Levitical cast of the rules is to a large extent a literary affectation, and that their
Christian orientation is instead to be found in the exceptions granted to the hungry and infirm.28 There are certainly some notable deviations from the Pentateuch,
such as the case of the pig. Moreover, although provision is occasionally made
in the canons for exemptions to be granted in extreme cases,29 there seems to be
little direct evidence that this was typical. The understating of the Levitical influence on the rules does not fit with the evidence presented in this chapter. Moreover,
it seems unclear on what grounds excusing people from rules can be regarded
as more characteristically Christian behaviour that requiring them to observe
rules, especially in the context of a general absence of similar rules in wider nonChristian society.
The implications of the persistence of Mosaic food rules in Christian tradition
are several. First, the Christian food rules serve as a reminder that the Noachide
covenant is presented in the Hebrew Bible as applicable to the whole of humanity,
who were granted permission to eat meat provided that they observed the necessary rules, as well as to all living creatures, who were given no such permission.30
It therefore seems reasonable, even from a Gentile Christian viewpoint, for the
Noachide prescriptions to have been reiterated at the Council of Jerusalem and
enacted in subsequent Christian tradition. To this extent at the very least, the Jewish practices of the draining of blood and the refusal to eat predatory animals are
equally Christian traditions. Yet the detailed expositions of these requirements in
the Irish penitential rules go beyond this much less precise Noachide-Jerusalem
tradition, as has been seen. Moreover, as has also been identified, the supporting
texts are mostly from Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, rather than the Acts of
the Apostles or other New Testament books.
The Mosaic food laws thus constituted the central part of what had by then
become a distinctively Christian scriptural identity. The dissemination of physical
texts, and literal interpretation of those texts, formed a key part of this enterprise.
Patrick is believed to have deposited a copy of the books of the Law in each church
that he founded, Columba is stated to have taught the books of the Law, and Brigit
of Kildare is described as a keeper of Gods commandments.31 There was at least
one other later explicit medieval attempt to apply legislation from the Pentateuch
to Christian law, the Mosaicarum et Romanarum Legum Collatio, originating in
Italy during the period 390438, but this compilation is notable for a focus on
more familiar fields of civil and criminal law, with food rules being completely
absent.32 Indeed, it could well for this reason have been retrospectively derived for
the edification of early Christian jurists.
The Liber ex Lege Moisi constituted a far more thoroughgoing attempt to regulate aspects of everyday life than the Mosaicarum et Romanarum Legum Collatio.
Its intended audience appears to have been Christian rather than civil.33 As Howard
Eilberg-Schwartz has argued, Leviticus lays down in food rules and other rules
about aspects of everyday living a systematic government of the body. He comments: Had it not been for Leviticus, the problem of governing the body would

Mosaic Food Rules in Celtic Spirituality


not have had the prominence it does within subsequent forms of Judaism.34 This
chapter has shown that a similar comment could be made about the prominence
of bodily government by means of food rules in Celtic spirituality in Ireland, even
though this can only be regarded in a limited sense as a subsequent form of Judaism. The specific means by which this government was effected was the extension
of regulatory systems, via texts disseminated by monastic missionaries, into wider
society. Many of these figures appear to have seen themselves as a mandarin caste,
and successors to the priests and Levites of ancient Israel.35 This does not mean,
however, that they saw food rules as applicable only within the confines of their
own elite. The comparison with the priests and Levites suggests, on the contrary,
what has previously been shown: a project to draw the whole Christian community into particular observances, with the confessional system a key instrument of
their regulation.

Ireland and Christendom

Can the enterprise delineated in this chapter be seen as part of a wider European
attempt pursued during the so-called Dark Ages to found a new post-Roman
Christian identity by means, in significant part, of textually based food rules?
A range of evidence lends support to this hypothesis. At least two eighth-century
popes, Gregory III and Zacharius, spent time corresponding with Boniface, missionary to the Germanic peoples, about which specific animals he should forbid
them from eating.36 Second, the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne forbade the
consumption of meat during Lent, on pain of death,37 and in 805 instituted a fast
throughout the empire in response to bad weather, crop failure and famine.38
Third, in Anglo-Saxon England, the consumption of blood, strangled animals and
the prey of wild beasts was prohibited.39 Furthermore, various animal species and
food practices were identified as unclean. Ann Hagen states that the specifically
Old Testament taboos do not seem to have been observed, citing as evidence the
failure to outlaw the consumption of hawk.40 I would suggest in contrast that the
broad trajectories of the Anglo-Saxon food rules, such as blood abstention, are
derived from the Pentateuch as in the Irish case, allowing for geographical and
cultural transposition as previously discussed. Fourth, the Council of Trullo, which
met in Constantinople in 695, required that any cleric who ate animal blood be
deposed and any layperson excommunicated.41 Although the status of the Council
was disputed in the West, its canons were, fifth, belatedly accepted in their entirety
by Pope Adrian I in the late eighth century. Adrian wrote to the bishops of Spain in
785 instructing them to enforce abstention from strangled flesh as well as from
pork.42 Enumeration of these various examples suggests that food rules were by no
means exceptional in early Christian societies.
It is striking that many of the leading proponents of the Mosaic food rules were
from the Eastern Mediterranean and members of Orthodox Churches. Popes
Zacharius and Adrian I were Greek, while Pope Gregory III and Archbishop
Theodore came to the West from Syria. This correlation of nationality with doctrine
could be taken to indicate that the Christian food practices examined in this


David Grumett

chapter originated in Greece and Syria, and are therefore explicable in terms of the
greater affinity of the Church in those places with Jewish traditions by virtue of
geographical proximity and cultural affinity.43 In particular, the context of the
Council of Trullo and its aftermath was one of renewed competition for power
between West and East, and the imposition on Western Christendom of practices
widely accepted in the East was one way in which Byzantium could exercise
The Irish food rules were not, however, primarily a result of Byzantine influence,
despite Theodores Penitential and notwithstanding the possibility that some missionaries made their voyages to Ireland from the Eastern Mediterranean. One
mark of their distinctiveness is their textual transmission. Another is their development within a culture that lacked any direct contact with Judaism. Allegorical
interpretation of the Levitical food rules, which, as Abigail Firey has noted, was the
dominant mode of reading among Western Christian interpreters from the 820s,
made sense in cases where Christians, or their leaders or rulers, wished to distinguish themselves from Jews, who were far more likely to observe the rules literally.44
In light of this contrast, the intensive use made of Levitical material in the Irish
context, far removed from Jewish populations, makes perfect sense. The Mosaic
food rules could be seen in Ireland as a defining marker of Christian identity
against pagan religion, rather than as contributing to the conflation of Christian
religious identity with that of Judaism.

Meat as a Christian problem

What are the implications for a modern theology of vegetarianism of the observance in Celtic spirituality in Ireland of Mosaic food rules? The rules reveal the
importance of food practices to Christian identity. They provide one means of
identifying the Christian community and distinguishing it from its surrounding
culture and other religions. The spiritual discipline they promote offers Christians
a practical way to express their devotion in a shared public world. They enable
Christians to inhabit a tradition of faith observance stretching back to the early
Christian centuries, and even further back, to origins in ancient Israel.
In the face of rational and discursive notions of Christian identity, these practices could appear as at best adiaphorous and at worst superstitious. Such critiques
of food rules indeed contributed to the later medieval identificatious by Christians
of Judaism as irrational.45 Christian non-observance of the Jewish food rules fostered the idea that Christian beliefs not only accorded with reason, but transcended
reason, by virtue of the allegorical reading of scripture on which non-observance
was based.46 Yet it seems implausible that Christian belief, or for that matter the
belief of any religion, can be lived or understood apart from its community identity, its historical expressions, its public profile or its interactions with culture and
proximate religions. These dimensions of belief construct a setting within which
rational discourse may take place, and food practices contribute to forming all
of them.
An interesting parallel can be drawn between the function of the food rules
in the context of wider Irish cultural practice, and the role of Mosaic legislation

Mosaic Food Rules in Celtic Spirituality


in other areas of Irish civil law. The civil law enacted in Ireland by pre-Christian
figures could be viewed by incoming Christians as an implicitly biblical natural
law upon which the law of Christ is built, perhaps even prefigured,47 suggesting a
considerable degree of sympathy by Christians for the culture into which they
were moving and gaining converts, and for its native wisdom. The food laws may
similarly be seen as Christian responses to some perennial issues in material
culture chosen partly for their compatibility with existing culture, partly for their
distinctiveness and transformation of that culture and partly for the simple purpose of keeping individuals and communities free from disease.
The Levitical food rules do not, of course, require complete vegetarianism. They
nevertheless reveal the highly ambiguous status that meat has been considered to
possess in significant portions of Christian tradition. The widespread modern perception of meat-eating as entirely unproblematic is at the very least in tension with
the plurality of views identifiable within this tradition. Human consumption of
animal flesh has been hedged around with many requirements and proscriptions,
yet even these do not entirely remove the ambivalent status of that flesh as representing life, through the food and status it provides, but also death, by virtue of
having had its own life purposively taken from it. Vegetarianism is one possible
modern Christian response to this fundamental ambiguity.




John Calvin, Commentary upon the Acts of the Apostles (2 vols; Edinburgh:
Calvin Translation Society, 1844), vol. I, pp. 42223; Ulrich Zwingli, Liberty
Respecting Food in Lent, in The Latin Works (3 vols; Philadelphia: Heidelberg
Press, 191229), vol. I, pp. 7374.
For example R. B. Rackham, The Acts of the Apostles: An Exposition (London:
Methuen, 7th edn, 1914), p. 152.
E. P. Sanders, Jewish association with Gentiles and Galatians 2.11-14, in The
Conversation Continues: Studies in Paul and John in Honor of J. Louis Martyn,
eds Robert T. Fortna and Beverly R. Gaventa (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990),
pp. 17088; Markus Bockmuehl, Jewish Law in Gentile Churches: Halakhah
and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000),
especially pp. 5861.
F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, rev. edn,
1988), p. 206.
Frederick J. Simoons, Eat Not This Flesh: Food Avoidances from Prehistory to the
Present (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2nd edn, 1994 [1961]).
Paul Fournier, Le Liber ex Lege Moysi et les tendances bibliques du droit
canonique irlandais , Revue Celtique 30 (1909), pp. 22134 (22829).
A lucid and accessible summary is Rob Meens, Pollution in Early Modern
Europe: The Case of the Food Regulations in Penitentials, Early Modern Europe
4 (1995), pp. 319.
The Canons of Adamnan, in Medieval Handbooks of Penance: A Translation of
the Principal Libri Poenitentiales and Selections from Related Documents, eds
John T. McNeill and Helena M. Gamer (New York: Columbia University









David Grumett
Press, 1990), pp. 13034. This along with various of the other texts cited is also
available in parallel Latin-English translation in The Irish Penitentials, ed.
Ludwig Bieler (The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1975). Neither
collection includes the section of the Penitential of Pseudo-Egbert dealing
with food, but these canons are listed in an appendix in Abigail Firey, A Contrite Heart: Prosecution and Redemption in the Carolingian Empire (Leiden:
Brill, 2008).
Chs XI.1 and VII.6, in Medieval Handbooks, pp. 207, 191.
Medieval Handbooks, pp. 159, 176.
Gratian, Decretum, pt. 1, disc. 30, ch. 13, in Patrologiae Latinae 187, col. 167. For
more on Christian blood prohibitions, see Blutverbot, in Karl Bckenhoff,
Speisesatzungen mosaischer Art in mittelalterlichen Kirchenrechtsquellen des
Morgen- und Abendlandes (Mnster: Aschendorffsche, 1907), pp. 3749.
Medieval Handbooks, p. 309.
Ch. 38, in Medieval Handbooks, p. 248.
Mary Douglas, The Forbidden Animals in Leviticus, Journal for the Study of
the Old Testament 59 (1993), pp. 323, especially 1718; Calum Carmichael,
On Separating Life and Death: An Explanation of Some Biblical Laws, The
Harvard Theological Review 69 (1976), pp. 17.
Gen. 9.4; cf. Lev. 1.5, 11, 15.
Carmichael, On Separating Life and Death, pp. 67.
In the Islamic context, when Muhammad migrated from Mecca to Medina in
622, he ordered that such practices cease. See Al-Hafiz B. A. Masri, Animals
in Islam (Petersfield, UK: Athena, 1987), p. 23.
Ch. XI.8, in Medieval Handbooks, p. 208.
Medieval Handbooks, p. 113.
See especially Jean Soler, The semiotics of food in the Bible, in Food and
Drink in History, eds Robert Forster and Orest Ranum (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1979), pp. 12638.
Ch. XI, in Medieval Handbooks, p. 208.
Rob Meens, Eating animals in the early Middle Ages: classifying the animal
world and building group identities, in The Animal-Human Boundary:
Historical Perspectives, eds Angela N. H. Creager and William Chester Jordan
(Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2002), pp. 328 (17).
Ch. 38, in Medieval Handbooks, p. 248.
Described in Leslie Hardinge, The Celtic Church in Britain (London: SPCK,
1972), pp. 20916. There are four known extant manuscripts: in the Bibliothque Nationale, the British Library, the Bibliothque municipale dOrlans,
and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
Henry Bradshaw, The Early Collection of Canons known as the Hibernensis:
Two Unfinished Papers (Cambridge University Press, 1893), pp. 2532.
See Taharoth (on uncleanness), in Mishnayoth (7 vols; New York: Judaica, 2nd
edn, 196364), div. VI, pp. 469534.
The Code of Maimonides, V: The Book of Holiness, VI.2, trans. L. I. Rabinowitz
and P. Grossman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965), p. 181.
Firey, The public welfare: pollution and purgation, in A Contrite Heart, ch. 2.

Mosaic Food Rules in Celtic Spirituality


29 For example in the Customs of Tallaght 52, in Medieval Handbooks, p. 423.

30 D. J. J. Friend, The Noachide Covenant in Biblical and Rabbinic Tradition
(unpublished M.A. dissertation, University of Exeter, 1995), pp. 6366.
31 Hardinge, Celtic Church, p. 50, and generally The role of the Scriptures,
pp. 2957.
32 Mosaicarum et Romanarum Legum Collatio, trans. Moses Hyamson (London:
Oxford University Press, 1913).
33 As proposed in Raymund Kottje, ,,Der Liber ex lege Moysis in Irland und die
Christenheit : Bibelstudien und Mission, eds Prinsas N Chathin and
Michael Richter (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1987), pp. 5969.
34 Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, The problem of the body for the People of the
Book, in Reading Bibles, Writing Bodies: Identity and the Book, eds Timothy
Beal and David Gunn (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 3455 (3638).
35 D. Corrin, Liam Breatnach, and Aidan Breen, The Laws of the Irish,
Peritia 3 (1984), pp. 382438 (394).
36 The Letters of Saint Boniface (New York: Columbia University Press, 1940),
pp. 58, 161.
37 Charlemagne, Capitulatio de partibus saxoniae, 4, in Laws of Charles the
Great, Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History 6.5, ed. Dana Carleton Munro (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania
Press, 1900), p. 2.
38 Mayke de Jong, Charlemagnes Church, in Charlemagne: Empire and Society,
ed. Joanna Story (Manchester University Press, 2005), pp. 10335 (12829).
39 Stephen Perks, The laws of King Alfred, prologue, 39, 49, in Christianity and
Law: An Enquiry into the Influence of Christianity on the Development of
English Common Law (Taunton: Kuyper Foundation, 1993), pp. 63, 64.
40 Ann Hagen, Tabooed food, in A Second Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food and
Drink: Production and Distribution (Hockwold cum Wilton: Anglo-Saxon
Books, 1995), pp. 18794 (188).
41 Canon 67, in The Council in Trullo Revisited, eds George Nedungatt and
Michael Featherstone (Rome: Pontificio Istituto Orientale, 1995), p. 149.
42 Charles Reginald Haines, Christianity and Islam in Spain, A.D. 7561031
(London: Kegan Paul, 1889), p. 167.
43 Karl Bckenhoff, ,,Die rmische Kirche und die Speisesatzungen der
Bussbcher, Theologische Quartalschrift 88 (1906), pp. 186220 (200, 203, 216).
44 Abigail Firey, The letter of the Law: Carolingian exegetes and the Old
Testament, in With Reverence for the Word: Medieval Scriptural Exegesis
in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, eds Jane Dammen McAuliffe, Barry D.
Walfish and Joseph W. Goering (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003),
pp. 20424.
45 Anna Sapir Abulafia, Christians and Jews in the Twelfth Century Renaissance
(London: Routledge, 1995).
46 Jeremy Cohen, Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval
Christianity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).
47 Bryan Carella, The Source of the Prologue to the Laws of Alfred, Peritia 19
(2005), pp. 91118 (116).

Biblical Vegetarianism? A Critical

and Constructive Assessment
David G. Horrell

As with other areas of dispute and debate in Christian ethics, theological

arguments about whether it is right to kill and eat animals inevitably appeal, inter
alia, to the Bible, in a variety of ways, to justify or ground their proposals and convictions. My own interest in this area arises from my involvement in a research
project concerned with a related but not identical set of concerns, namely the
appeals to the Bible in discussions of the environment, and the possible contribution of biblical texts, via an ecological hermeneutic, to an ecological reconfiguration
of Christian theology and ethics.1 In both areas of Christian ethics, it seems to me,
a critical appraisal of the kinds of appeal that are made to the Bible is a necessary
precursor to any constructive proposals about the ways in which the Bible might
inform contemporary thinking.2
As is the case with Christian environmentalism, where the first point of engagement is often a defensive one, addressing the notion (or the accusation) that the
mandate to dominate and subdue the earth (Gen. 1.26, 28) legitimates the kind
of aggressive human domination of the earth that has caused our ecologic crisis,3
so proponents of a Christian vegetarianism have to address a point that appears
to favour their opponents: that the Bible clearly allows the eating of meat.4 This
permission is given to Noah and his descendants after the flood (Gen. 9.14),
along with the prohibition of eating meat with its life-blood in it.5 Both the permission and the prohibition are fundamental to the Torahs food regulations, which
presume the acceptability of eating (clean) meat (Lev. 11) and reiterate the proscription of blood (e.g. Lev. 3.17; 17.14; 19.26; Deut. 12.23). Animal sacrifices are
central to the functioning of the priestly cult (e.g. Lev. 17).
In the early Christian traditions, Jesusto whom we shall later returnwas
evidently understood as having declared all foods clean (Mk 7.19), a position that
Paul also presents to the Christians at Rome, perhaps echoing the dominical teaching in this matter (Rom. 14.14). Paul also cites Psalm 24.1 as a basis for instructing
the Corinthians to eat everything sold in the market (1 Cor. 10.2526),6 despite
the fears of some Corinthians about being defiled by eating food offered to idols.
Luke records a visionary experience in which Peter is instructed that even unclean

Biblical Vegetarianism?


animals may be eaten (Acts 10.916), though the point of the vision is evidently to
legitimate a mission to (unclean) Gentiles (Acts 11.312). The author of 1 Timothy,
like Paul before him, appeals to God as creator of all things to argue against an
ascetic rejection of certain foods (4.34). A good deal remains open to scholarly
debate here. Did Mark and Paul, for example, mean to imply that all foods were
acceptable, including animals prohibited in the Torah and even food that had been
offered to idols, or are they presenting teaching which remains within the bounds
of loyalty to the Law?7 Whichever way we interpret this material, however, it unambiguously points in the direction of permission to eat (all? some?) meat.
Apart from the positive arguments to which we shall turn, the biblical vegetarian8
response to such material is essentially to argue that it represents a permission
rather than a positive command, and that it is a permission which reflects the fact
that humananimal relationships are not what they should be; it constitutes an
accommodation to human sinfulness.9 In terms of a positive argument for biblical
vegetarianism, the most important and often-cited texts are those which depict
both the original creation and the new, eschatological creation as vegetarian.10
In the account of Genesis 1, it is clearly stated that for both human and animal,
plants are to provide their food (Gen. 1.2930). The terms of this provision are
repeated after the flood, when the new permission to eat meat is introduced: Every
moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green
plants, I give you everything (Gen. 9.3, NRSV). This aspect of the creation story
finds a clear parallel in the prophetic depictions of an eschatological future in
which all creation is at peace. Most influential is the Isaianic vision: The wolf shall
live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and
the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall
graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox
(Isa. 11.67). This is later reiterated, in the context of Gods promise to make a new
heavens and a new earth (Isa. 65.17, 25; cf. Hos. 2.18).
This vision of a peaceable, non-violent existence for humans and animals continued to be influential in subsequent Jewish literature. As Richard Bauckham has
shown, there seem to be two main ways in which humanitys peaceful existence
with creation was envisaged as coming about. One was in the existence of the
righteous person, for whom God would ensure a harmonious relationship with
the nonhuman worldyou shall not fear the beasts of the earth. For you shall be
in league with the stones of the field, and the beasts of the field shall be at peace
with you (Job 5.2223). The second was in the messianic/eschatological age, as
shown in a variety of texts that echo the themes of Isaiah 11.69.11 It is this messianic/eschatological theme that Bauckham argues underpins the concise comment
by Mark that Jesus was with the wild animals (Mark 1.13); Jesus has established
his messianic peace with the animals.12
While the protological and the eschatological visions of creation are by no
means identical, there are significant points of contact and correlation.13 Most
crucial for our topic, of course, is the fact that both depict a vegetarian world from
which the violence of predation is absent. Other notable motifs in the Isaianic
visions include the promise of longevity (Isa. 65.20; cf. Gen. 5.16.3; Ps. 90.10) and


David G. Horrell

the serpents assignment to dust-rations (Isa. 65.25; cf. Gen. 3.14). In the New
Testament, Revelations vision of a new heaven and a new earth (21.1) is clearly
different from that of creation in Genesis; it is an emphatically urban vision, for a
start (21.1221). Yet again, motifs from Eden are significant: the tree of life and the
river (22.12; cf. Gen. 2.10), the promise of an end to pain and death (Rev. 21.4;
cf. Gen. 2.17; 3.3, 1619).14 The new Jerusalem is, as John Sweet comments, paradise regained.15 This correlation of protological and eschatological vision is
significant here insofar as it adds weight to the argument for biblical vegetarianism: the vision of a future (non-predatory) peace is also a return to the Creators
original intention, and in living eschatologically, in anticipation of the realization
of Gods peaceable kingdom, Christian vegetarians are, it is argued, aligning themselves with this original intention and ultimate goal.

Jesus the vegetarian?

Arguments for Christian vegetarianism also, and understandably, attend to the
figure of Jesus, finding in his teaching and conduct some degree of support for
commitment to vegetarianism. Some argue for a thoroughgoing vegetarianism on
the part of Jesus. According to Charles Vaclavik, for example, Jesus (born around
23 BCE and influenced by Pythagorean commitment to vegetarianism) became
the leader of a Judaic Nazarene-Essene movement whose members were vegetarian. This Judaic Christianity was subsequently opposed by Gnostic (Gentile)
Christianity represented by Paul, then later excluded as heresy by the Catholic
Church, and its communalistic, pacifist and vegetarian ethic swept aside.16 A great
deal of this reconstruction is highly questionable and historically unconvincing.
The evidence for such vegetarian practice and conviction on the part of Jesus is
heavily dependent on the (fragmentary) evidence of the Jewish-Christian gospels
(especially that of the Ebionites), often as reconstructed from orthodox antiheretical writers such as Epiphanius, and on other apocryphal and non-canonical
literature. These depictions date from some considerable time after the first century, and are heavily shaped by distinctive (often ascetic) agendas. The Synoptic
Gospels, though undoubtedly also shaped by theological agendas subsequent to
the lifetime of Jesus, are generally regarded as more reliable historical sources.17
More cautious treatments are also offered by proponents of a Christian vegetarianism. Andrew Linzey, for example, feels the need to address one majorand
some would say conclusiveobjection to my pro vegetarian thesis . . . Jesus was no
vegan and probably no vegetarian.18 Linzey immediately goes on to note that there
are no recorded examples of Jesus eating meat in the Gospels. The possible exception of the Passover is uncertain, since it is not entirely clear that Jesus ate the
traditional Passover meal.19 Linzey concedes, nonetheless, that Jesus ate fish, and
sees this as the issue needing a response.20 There are four possible answers. One is
that the canonical Gospels are mistaken and Jesus was actually a vegetarian.21 The
second is that Jesus was not perfect in every conceivable way.22 The third is that
the killing of fish is not a morally significant matter, or, at least, not as significant
as the killing of mammals.23 The fourth answer, which Linzey finds the most

Biblical Vegetarianism?


convincing, is that sometimes it can be justifiable to kill fish for food in situations
of necessity . . . real necessity for human survival, such as may be argued in the case
of Jesus himself .24 Furthermore, Jesus is presented in the Gospels as identifying
himself with the world of animals.25
A broadly similar argument is presented by Stephen Webb, who notes that we do
not see Jesus eating any meat in the Gospels. He comments that there is no biblical
evidence that the Passover lamb was served at the Last Supper, though the
evidence seems slightly [sic!] weighted toward the conclusion that Jesus ate fish.26
There is sufficient evidence, moreover, to justify calling Jesus a lover of animals.27
Webb concedes that we simply do not know the detailed answer to the question of
what Jesus ate, though his overall conclusions regarding Jesus are as follows:
My best guess is that Jesus was not a strict vegetarian, because the earliest Gospels do not
mention this belief and, more importantly, Jesus was against erecting food rituals that
separate people. However, since there is no mention of him eating meat (besides fish) in
the New Testament . . . it seems likely he avoided meat whenever that was consistent with
his ministry. He was especially critical of self-righteousness, which would have made it
difficult for him to defend his diet as superior to the alternatives . . . He was, in all probability, a loose vegetarian, one who abstains from meat without drawing undue attention
to that dietary choice.28

It is a long time since Albert Schweitzer presented his devastating criticism of the
lives of Jesus written before his rigorously historical quest, in which writers had
made a Jesus in their own image, finding their own (often Victorian) moral values
anticipated and reflected in his teaching.29 More recently, of course, we have learned
to be suspicious of any claim to present an objective historical account of Jesus,
since we have come to recognizepace Schweitzerthat our various readerly contexts and presuppositions decisively shape our enquiry. Nonetheless, it is interesting
not only that portraits of a vegetarian, animal-loving Jesus rather perspicuously
present a Jesus made in the image of his contemporary interpreters but also that
these depictions are presented, with considerable energy and industry, as historical
portraits based on careful assessment of the best evidence. Thus there are both
historical and hermeneutical issues to probe here.
It is difficult, both historically and exegetically, to sustain the claim that Jesus was
a loose vegetarian who showed a concern for animals and ate (only) fish under
pressure of necessity. For a start, while Jesus does mention animals in his teaching,
in a way which broadly affirms Gods providential care for all creatures, this is
clearly in the context of an a minori ad maius argument intended to stress the
value of human life (Mt. 6.2534//Lk. 12.2231). The fact that Jesus uses animals
and other images from rural life in his parables does not reveal anything significant about any moral value he might place upon them, despite the arguments of
many ecotheologians to the contrary.30 This is not to say that Jesus is inimical to an
agenda of care for animals, but simply that he expresses no significant convictions
on the subject; anything relevant to the topic only represents an implicit affirmation of established Jewish teachingby no means an insignificant observation, but
one which indicates that Jesus neither innovates nor emphasizes any aspect of


David G. Horrell

a Jewish Torah-based animal ethic.31 As Richard Bauckham puts it: Jesus, in his
recorded teaching, does not teach compassion for animals, but he places himself
clearly within the Jewish ethical and legal tradition which held that God requires
the people to treat their fellow-creatures, the animals, with compassion and consideration.32 Similarly, the Gospels do not record specific instances of Jesus
exercising compassion for animals,33 and certain incidents, most obviously the
drowning of the Gerasene/Gadarene pigs (Mk 5.120 and pars) raise questions
about any priority for animal welfare on the part of Jesus.34 Bauckham deals with
the difficulty by regarding this as an instance, unique in the Gospels, where the
principle that human beings are of more value than other animals calls for a
choice to be made, and where Jesus thus permits a lesser evil.35 There is, however,
no indication in the story that the drowning of the pigs is a regrettable lesser evil,
and no comment whatsoever that indicates any measure of concern about the pigs
on Jesus part. Clearly this is not a story which is about animal welfare, but rather
an exorcism story with various levels of political imagery and meaning.36 Nevertheless, the absence of any indication that the pigs suffering even registers in Jesus
thinking casts doubt on the portrayal of him as an animal-loving vegetarian.
There is also little, apart from silence, to commend the view that Jesus opposed
animal sacrifice and ate fish only out of human necessity. Most recent scholarship
has located Jesus firmly within a Jewish framework and argued that, with a few
possible exceptions (notably Mt. 8.22//Lk. 9.60), he upheld and observed the Torah
(though he disagreed with some Pharisaic interpretation of it).37 As Bauckham
notes, since Jesus attitude to animals belongs firmly within the Jewish tradition, in
which it was permitted to kill certain animals for sacrifice to God in the temple
and for food, it would have been a very significant innovation for Jesus to reject
either of these practices, and one which the Gospel writers would have been likely
to record, especially as they were addressed to Christians who had abandoned participation in Temple sacrifice.38 On the contrary, Jesus is recorded as commanding
the healed leper to offer the sacrifice that Moses required (Mk 1.44), and as attending the Temple himself, notably at the season of Passover (Mk 11.1ff; note 14.12,
49). Moreover, the earliest Christians continued to attend, which is difficult to
understand if Jesus had somehow rejected its practices in toto (Acts 3.1). Jesus
action in the Temple (Mk 11.1517 and pars) is often cited by proponents of biblical vegetarianism as a key incident where Jesus opposes the Jewish sacrificial system
because of his opposition to the killing of animals.39 However, this important incident, the subject of various scholarly interpretations, is unlikely to reflect a rejection
of Temple worship and animal sacrifice per se. Even if Jesus here reiterates a prophetic critique of the functioning of the sacrificial system (cf. Mt. 9.13; 12.7; quoting
Hos. 6.6), that is a long way from showing that he intended to reject sacrifice as a
whole, and still further from indicating that he did so because of a concern for
animal welfare, of which there is scarcely a hint in the Synoptic Gospels.40
Similar points apply to the Gospels silence as to Jesus eating of meat or including it in a Passover meal. Since meat was an occasional luxury in most ancient
societies, including Jewish Palestine, it is unlikely that Jesus ate it frequently. But to
imply from silence that Jesus actively avoided meat, and did so on grounds of

Biblical Vegetarianism?


concern for animals, is historically implausible.41 First, we would have expected

some comment, from Jesus, or his disciples, or his critics, on this unusual behaviour. What we have, on the contrary, is the (no doubt polemical) report that he
was a glutton and a drunkard, in contrast to the more ascetic John the Baptist
(Mt. 11.1819//Lk. 7.3334). Ebionite concerns to depict Jesus and John as ascetic
vegetariansfor example, changing Johns diet from locusts (akrides) to cakes
(enkrides)42reveal more about the convictions of this later ascetic JewishChristian group than they do about the historical Jesus.43 Second, insofar as Jews
avoided meat in this period, this was most likely to reflect either a perceived need
to avoid contact with Gentile idolatry (Dan. 1.5-16) or a (temporary) commitment
to self-denial, such as in fulfilment of a Nazirite vow (Num. 6.3; Judg. 13.4). Again,
we find little indication of such an ascetic lifestyle on the part of Jesus (in contrast
to John); his disciples are asked why they do not fast (Mk 2.18). Third, as we have
already mentioned, there are no explicit expressions of concern for animals on the
part of Jesus, making it very difficult to see him as any kind of model for a modern
ethical vegetarianism in which concern for animals is a central consideration.
What is hermeneutically interesting is that (some) modern arguments for Christian vegetarianism feel the need to invest such energy into depicting Jesus as a
proto-vegetarian. The presumption seems to be that an argument for what Christians must do needs, ideally at least, to be based on what Jesus did and taught: if
one wants to convince Christians to be vegetarian, one must show, inter alia, that
Jesus was (more or less) a vegetarian. Yet this approach to using the Bible (including the Gospels) in ethics seems both problematic and inadequate in a number of
ways. First, it reflects a questionable approach to the Gospel material, seeking to
find in the teaching and actions of Jesus precise, rule-like precedents on specific
ethical issues that can be straightforwardly transferred to our time. Not only do
such rule-seeking approaches to the Bible soon run into insurmountable problemssince the ethical rules that accumulate are neither consistent nor morally
acceptable44but they also arguably fail to take proper account of the genre of the
Gospels, as Richard Burridge has recently suggested.45 Second, such an approach
gives inadequate consideration to the vast cultural and historical gap that separates
the Bible in general and Jesus in particular from our time and place. Depictions of
Jesus as a loose vegetarian on the basis of his (supposed) love and concern for
animals are anachronistic.46 Third, such an approach reflects a theologically superficial notion of the imitation of Christ, operating at the level of asking what Jesus
did and copying it, rather than seeking a deeper christological pattern that might
inspire what Stephen Fowl calls non-identical repetition, an imitation of Christ
differently enacted in our own (diverse) contemporary contexts.47

A constructive biblical contribution?

All this might seem to imply a general view that the Bible cannot really be expected
to inform Christian ethics and a specific view that the Bible cannot offer support
to contemporary Christian vegetarianism. I intend to imply neither of these positions. I do mean to imply that arguments about whether Jesus was a vegetarian


David G. Horrell

cannot make a positive or convincing contribution to the case for contemporary

vegetarianism. On the other hand, certain themes from the Gospels depiction
of Jesus can valuably inform ethical reflection, particularly when linked with
other biblical material. In what follows, then, I will reassess the contribution of
selected biblical themes to the case for a biblical vegetarianism. There are three
such themes I wish to consider, and, eventually, to link together and relate to the
issue at handthough given the limits of space, the treatment will have to be partial and illustrative only.
The first such theme is asceticism. Having pointed out above that Jesus was, in
many respects, no ascetic, this may seem an unpromising start. However, there are
respects in which Jesus may be regarded as ascetic, most obviously in his renunciation of family, home and marriage, and his life of voluntary itinerant poverty:
Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head
(Mt. 8.20//Lk. 9.58). Moreover, Jesus commands his disciples to abandon even the
minimum of protection and possessions as they conduct their mission (Mk 6.89
and pars). This pattern of itinerant radicalism, as Gerd Theissen has shown, was an
important role-model for the first disciples of Jesus and in the earliest Church.48
Paul too follows and promotes a lifestyle of sexual asceticism, recommending to
the Corinthians that they follow his example of single-minded devotion to God
(1 Cor. 7.7, 2935). Paul can depict this pattern of discipleship as requiring an
almost violent disciplining of ones own body (1 Cor. 9.27), and in practical terms
the renunciation of ones own rights and privilegesincluding the freedom to eat
meat (Rom. 14.21; 1 Cor. 8.13)out of concern for ones sisters and brothers. This
kind of early Christian asceticism has often been criticized with the now wellworn accusation that it entails a negative view of the body, and of the physical and
sexual dimensions of human existence. However, recent studies have begun to
attempt a more positive appraisal, following an influential article by Richard
Valantasis, who defines asceticism as performances within a dominant social
environment intended to inaugurate a new subjectivity, different social relations, and
an alternative symbolic universe.49 From this perspective, ascetic practices are indications of early Christians attempts to construct and inhabit an alternative social
world, one which stands at odds with the dominant society and its imperial order.
Furthermore, the kind of self-renunciation Paul practises, and presents as a
model for the Corinthians to imitate, follows a christological pattern, a praxis Paul
regards as rooted in the self-giving and self-emptying of Christ.50 This might give
a particular and ethical shape to Christian asceticism, which would not be simply
about the disciplining of bodily desires and actions, but the disciplining of bodily
practices for the sake of the other. This, I would suggest, offers a richer notion of the
imitation of Christ than is implicit in the arguments for Jesus vegetarianism surveyed above, though one which, being less rule-specific, requires considerable
contemporary and contextual work to discern its practical ethical demands. For
example, an obvious question for contemporary reflection, and one which immediately takes us beyond the anthropocentric focus of New Testament ethics, is
whether, and in what sense, animals can or should be regarded as others worthy
of generous other-regard.51

Biblical Vegetarianism?


Ascetic considerations such as the avoidance of luxury loomed largest in the

dietary disciplines of later (monastic) Christian communities, while moral concern for animals is little in evidence as a motivation for abstaining from meat. It is
easy to criticize this focus not only for its failure to make animal welfare a significant consideration, but also for its apparent denigration of the body and its ethos
of denial. Yet, as the comments above will already have suggested, it is at least
possible to see such asceticism, and the moral virtue it is intended to develop, as
both a powerful rejection of the dominant social order and a christologically
shaped praxis which, at its best, has regard for the other at its heart.
The second theme is creations praise. As Terence Fretheim, Richard Bauckham
and others have shown, the idea that all of creation praises the creator is a significant biblical theme, particularly in the Psalms, but elsewhere too.52 For Bauckham
what this indicates is that all creatures bring glory to God simply by being themselves and fulfilling their God-given roles in Gods creation.53 Moreover, Bauckham
sees this as having considerable significance for ecology: wary of the notion of
stewardship, with its implication that nature functions best when managed by
humans, he urges that we learn to let nature be, to resist the urge to dominate and
control every last corner of wilderness.54 It should be noted, however, that none of
the biblical texts cited by Bauckham explicitly states that creation worships simply
by being itself . Many are a call to praise, with no necessary assumption that nonhuman or human creation responds to that call, or already fulfils it (Dan. 3.5290;
Ps. 69.34; 96.1112; 98.78; 103.22; 148; 150.6; Isa. 42.1011; Joel 2.2122). Other
texts have (or in some cases, also have) a clearly eschatological context in view
(Ps. 96.1112; 98.78; Isa. 42.1011; Joel 2.2122; Phil. 2.1011; Rev. 5.13). Still
other texts indicate that creation stands as testimony to Gods glory and greatness
(Ps. 19.14; 104). As I (along with Dominic Coad) have argued elsewhere, via an
engagement with Luke 19.40, it might therefore be more fruitfulethically as well
as exegeticallyto regard creations praise not only as something which creation
simply and already does, by its very existence, but also as its eschatological telos.55
Like human praise, one might suggest, the praise which creation currently offers is
as yet imperfect and incomplete.
This theme does not, of course, get us very far in terms of practical guidance for
Christian ethics, nor specifically in terms of whether it is right to eat animal meat.
But it does offer a theological basis for the intrinsic worth of all creationeach
individual part, animate and inanimate, as well as in totowhich in turn invites
reflection on the implications of that intrinsic worth in ethics and practice. The
ethical imperative, Coad and I have elsewhere suggested, should not be taken
simply to imply a demand to leave nature alone, even if that were possible, but
instead invites consideration of what it might mean to enable and foster creations
praise.56 Here I suspect that notions of beauty, integrity, diversity and so onnonutilitarian and non-consumption-focused criteriawould find their place in a
central topic for serious theological and ethical reflection.
The third theme is eschatology. As has already been noted, the prophetic visions
of paradise restored, when the violence of predation is no more, have been key
biblical contributions to arguments for Christian vegetarianism. But it is here,


David G. Horrell

I want to suggest, that the Gospels presentation of Jesus, as well as the contribution
of Pauline theology, might also be most valuable. It is widely agreed that the
Synoptic Gospels (and quite possibly the historical Jesus) present the kingdom of
God neither as entirely future nor as entirely present, but as breaking-in to the
present. Their eschatology, in other words, is neither future nor realized, but
inaugurated.57 Pauls theology, similarly, is often seen as profoundly characterized
by an eschatological tension: the new creation is already but not yet.58 What this
means is that whatever the biblical vision of the age to come, the Christian vocation is to live that vision in the present, to anticipate already the new creation that
is not yet fully come. Already in the Hebrew prophets, of course, visions of a glorious future are intended to inspire the people to righteous living now (Isa. 2.15;
Mic. 4.15).
The Gospels do not record Jesus as referring to those aspects of the prophets
vision that concern the peaceable relations among animals as well as humans,
though if Bauckham is right, Mark 1.13 hints as his establishing his messianic
peace with the animals.59 The aspects Jesus refers to are those which concern the
healing and liberation of human beings (cf. the echoes of Isa. 61.13 in Mt. 5.34//
Lk 6.2021; Mt. 11.5//Lk 7.22, 4.1819). So for the idea that the eschatological
peace will encompass animals as well as humans, we remain largely dependent on
the prophets (though note also Phil. 2.10; Rev. 5.13). What the Jesus of the Gospels
adds is the conviction that the eschatological transformation, the inbreaking of
Gods reign on earth, is already underway.
Many Christians would agree, I suspect, that eschatological living, inspired by
the vision of the peaceable kingdom, implies an ethical commitment to work for
the healing and liberation of suffering humanity, for a peaceful end to human conflicts and so on. There is a strong case, then, as the Christian vegetarians argue, to
include the vision of peace with the animals as another aspect of this ethical commitment. As Sibley Towner puts it, reflecting on the Isaianic vision: If peace is the
hallmark of the new age (Isa. 11:19), then our work in this time of tribulation is
to abolish war and to effect reconciliation between people, as well as between
people, wolves, and snakes.60 Yet, inspiring though this sentiment might be, there
are also difficulties in discerning what the ethical implications of this vision ought
to be. These arise particularly when we try to take account of the insights science
has given us into the evolution and characteristics of the species that now populate
our planet. Put briefly, there are two crucial insights: one is that there was never a
time when the animals, let alone humans, existed in a pre-predatory herbivorous
paradise.61 The second is that the very shape and form of the animals we know
both hunter and huntedreflect their activity in the chains of predation. Lions
would not be lionshave lion-like jaws and lion-like limbsif they did not hunt
prey and tear it apart. Gazelles would not be sleek and swift if they did not have to
run from predatory lions.62 Leaving aside speculation as to what sort of new creation could possibly allow a lion to be a lion without its hunting prey, it seems clear
enough that this aspect of eschatological transformation cannot be achieved, nor
is it even desirable to achieve, in the world as we know it. Whatever Christian

Biblical Vegetarianism?


responsibility for eschatologically orientated action might be, it cannot include a

this-worldly imperative to bring predation to an end.
The Christian vegetarian will immediately reply, with some justification, that
while it may not be possible, this side of the eschaton, for lions to nourish themselves on straw, it is certainly possible for humans, at least for those who have the
necessary resources and opportunity, to nourish themselves adequately on a vegetarian diet.63 But whether this is whaton the basis of the biblical vision64humans
should therefore do, remains at least open to discussion, given the questions about
the extent to which the vision of a non-predatory peace among all animals and
humans is in any sense a realizable or even desirable vision, and also a different set
of questions about whether the use and killing of animals could realistically be
eliminated from sustainable patterns of agriculture.65

In conclusion, and in a brief attempt to draw my three biblical themes together, it
seems to me that the Bible cannot, on this and on many other topics, adequately
serve as a source of substantive contemporary ethicsor to be more specific, sufficiently undergird an argument for Christian vegetarianism. What the Bible can
contribute, however, is broader facets of a worldview which inspires and sustains
a commitment to discipline bodily practices out of a christologically shaped regard
for the other, to foster the flourishing and praise of the whole of creation, and to
anticipate in practice the eschatological renewal of all creation. Whether one takes
these biblical themes, and particularly the eschatology, as sufficient reason to adopt
a specifically vegetarian diet will depend in large part on how one assesses the ethical implications of the eschatological vision of a peaceable new creation in which
killing and predation will be no more and in which lions as well as humans will
once again be herbivores.
While we might disagree, as Christopher Southgate and Michael Northcott do in
their chapters in this collection, about whether a commitment to vegetarianism is
the most appropriate sign of present commitment to this eschatological vision, a
broader agreement, shared by Southgate and Northcott, should finally be stressed.
The kind of biblical theology I have tried to sketch here might remain inconclusive
on the question of vegetarianism, depending in part on how we integrate our scientific understanding of the world into our appropriation of it. But it clearly calls
for disciplined, self-giving patterns of human interaction with the nonhuman
world marked by a concern for the welfare and the flourishing of all creation; and
for patterns of communityincluding animals as well as humansthat embody
the justice and peace of the prophets vision. Given the negative consequences of
industrial-scale agribusiness, for corn as well as cows, for humus as well as humans,
it may well be that the vegetarian question is only one facet, and perhaps not the
most crucial one, of the critical battles that surround the politics of food.66 While a
commitment to vegetarianism is certainly one possible way to express a critical
ascetic rejection of dominant systems of industrial food productionthough by


David G. Horrell

no means a certain way, since vegetables too (even organic ones!) can be produced
on a mass scale and flown around the world to satisfy consumer demanda
commitment to humane, small-scale, diverse and locally focused patterns of
agriculture might be a more crucial step.

1 The project is on Uses of the Bible in Environmental Ethics, and is funded by
an award from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (Grant No. AH
D001188/1). I would like to thank the AHRC for their support and the members of the project teamCherryl Hunt, Christopher Southgate, Francesca
Stavrakopoulou, Dominic Coad and Jonathan Morganfor the ways in which
our shared work has shaped my thinking as expressed here. I am especially
grateful to Christopher for comments on a draft of this chapter.
2 In relation to the issue of the environment, see David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt
and Christopher Southgate, Appeals to the Bible in Ecotheology and Environmental Ethics: A Typology of Hermeneutical Stances, Studies in Christian
Ethics 21, 2 (2008), pp. 5372.
3 Here, of course, I echo the critique of Christianity classically presented by Lynn
White Jr, The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis, Science 155 (1967),
pp. 120307. As Ernst Conradie remarks, many biblical contributions to ecological theology have been deliberately aimed at defending Christianity against
the accusations of Lynn White. See his Towards an Ecological Biblical Hermeneutics: A Review Essay on the Earth Bible Project, Scriptura 85 (2004),
pp. 12335 (126).
4 For example, Andrew Linzey, Animal Theology (London: SPCK, 1994),
pp. 12528; Stephen Webb, Good Eating (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2001),
pp. 2526, 7072.
5 The identification of life with blood is suggested here in both the Hebrew and
Greek versions of v. 4: benap dm (MT); en haimati psuchs (LXX).
6 Pan, everything, is placed emphatically at the beginning of the sentence.
7 A well-established view is that both Mark and Paul represent a Christian rejection of Jewish food laws, but for alternative arguments see for example, James
G. Crossley, The Date of Marks Gospel (London and New York: T&T Clark,
2004), who argues that Mark depicts Jesus as always observant of biblical laws,
and Markus Bockmuehl, Jewish Law in Gentile Churches (Edinburgh: T&T
Clark, 2000), pp. 14573, who argues that Pauls view is that Jews should keep
the Torah and Gentiles should keep that which pertains to them, namely, the
Noachide laws.
8 In using this label I am following Stephen Webb, who promotes a biblical
vegetarianism as a clear alternative to the utopian rigor of the animal rights
movement (Good Eating, p. 13, et passim).
9 Linzey, Animal Theology, p. 127; cf. Webb, Good Eating, p. 71: Gods acceptance
of meat-eating should be seen in the context of Gods reluctant approval of the
death-penalty [cf. Gen. 9.5-6] to stem the human tide of violence.

Biblical Vegetarianism?


10 See Webb, Good Eating, pp. 5981; Linzey, Animal Theology, pp. 12537.
Gen 1.2930 has been especially important in inspiring Christian vegetarianism from Victorian times onwards, as Samantha Calvert discusses in this
11 Cf., The Sibylline Oracles, 3.78895, in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha
(ed. J. H. Charlesworth; 2 vols; London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1983
85); Philo, On Rewards and Punishments, 8890, in The Works of Philo (trans.
C. D. Yonge; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993).
12 Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the wild animals (Mark 1:13): a christological
image for an ecological age, in Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ: Essays on
the Historical Jesus and New Testament Christology, eds Joel B. Green and Max
Turner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Carlisle: Paternoster, 1994), pp. 321; idem,
Jesus and animals II: what did he practise?, in Animals on the Agenda, eds
Andrew Linzey and Dorothy Yamamoto (London: SCM, 1998), pp. 4960
13 Pace Christopher Southgate, elsewhere in this volume. Otto Kaiser, for example, writing on Isa. 11.6-9, states: According to priestly belief, peace had
prevailed in the beginning between men and animals. The end of this peace
was not affirmed by God until after the flood (Gen. 9.2f.). The people . . .
longed for the restoration of the lost peace . . . Like his contemporary Hosea,
Isaiah also expects that in the time of salvation which is to come, peace will
be restored between men and animals. See Isaiah 112: A Commentary
(London: SCM, 1972), p. 160.
14 George Beasley-Murray, for example, comments that the conjunction of the
river with the tree of life (v. 2) shows that the author has in mind in the first
place the river which flowed through Eden (Gen. 2:9f.) along with Ezekiels
description of the river in the vision of the new temple (Ezek. 47.1-9). See
The Book of Revelation (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1974), p. 330;
also David E. Aune, Revelation 1722 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998),
pp. 117578.
15 John Sweet, Revelation (London: SCM, 1979), p. 308.
16 Charles P. Vaclavik, The Vegetarianism of Jesus Christ (Three Rivers, CA:
Kaweah, 1986). A similar but more cautious and cogent argument is presented
by Keith Akers, The Lost Religion of Jesus: Simple Living and Nonviolence in
Early Christianity (New York: Lantern, 2000), who also sees Jewish Christianity, and especially the Ebionites, as having best understood and preserved
Jesus message of communalism, simplicity, non-violence and vegetarianism.
17 See the brief but judicious consideration of the sources in Bauckham, Jesus
and animals II, pp. 5153. Webb, Good Eating, pp. 10229, discusses theories
such as Vaclaviks and Akerss under the (rather loaded) category of conspiracy theories, finding the arguments mostly unpersuasive.
18 Linzey, Animal Theology, p. 132.
19 Linzey, Animal Theology, p. 132; cf. Akers, Lost Religion, p. 126.
20 Linzey, Animal Theology, pp. 132, 134.
21 Linzey, Animal Theology, pp. 13233.








David G. Horrell
Linzey, Animal Theology, p. 133.
Linzey, Animal Theology, p. 134.
Linzey, Animal Theology, pp. 13435.
Linzey, Animal Theology, p. 135.
Webb, Good Eating, pp. 129, 150, 131. Vaclavik, Vegetarianism, pp. 25882, also
makes many of the same points in arguing for the vegetarianism of Jesus, but
proposes (implausibly) that Jesus did not eat fish and that the references to
his having done so reflect the later influence of a Christianity which had
abandoned its original vegetarian principles (27780). Similarly Akers, Lost
Religion, p. 129, suggests that the fish stories were later additions to the gospel
accounts, and not present in the original tradition.
Webb, Good Eating, p. 137.
Webb, Good Eating, pp. 13435.
See Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (London: SCM, 2000
Cf. Linzey, Animal Theology, p. 135; Sean McDonagh, The Greening of the
Church (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1990), pp. 15859; idem, Passion for the Earth
(London: Chapman, 1994), p. 140.
Furthermore, while the Jewish legal traditions demanding compassionate
treatment of animals are certainly relevant to considerations of animal
welfare, they can hardly provide much impetus for an argument for biblical
vegetarianism as such.
Richard Bauckham, Jesus and animals I: what did he teach?, in Animals on
the Agenda, pp. 3348 (38); also Akers, Lost Religion, pp. 12425.
Bauckham, Jesus and animals II, p. 49.
Paul famously cites Deut. 25.4, the saying about the threshing ox, only to
apply it to an issue of human conduct, questioning rhetorically whether God
is concerned about oxen (1 Cor. 9.9).
Bauckham, Jesus and animals I, p. 48.
On which see Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of
Marks Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988), pp. 19094.
See for example, E. P. Sanders, The synoptic Jesus and the Law, in Jewish
Law from Jesus to the Mishnah: Five Studies (London: SCM, 1990), pp. 196.
Sanders concludes (p. 90): The synoptic Jesus lived as a law-abiding Jew.
Bauckham, Jesus and animals II, p. 50.
For example, Vaclavik, Vegetarianism, pp. 26071; Webb, Good Eating,
pp. 9397; and Akers, Lost Religion, pp. 11334, who states (117): Cleansing
the temple was an act of animal liberation.
Cf. Bauckham, Jesus and animals II, p. 50.
On this subject, see the judicious discussion by Bauckham, Jesus and animals
II, pp. 5054, some of whose key points I summarize in what follows.
The Gospel of the Ebionites, as quoted by Epiphanius, Pan. 30.13.4: His food
was . . . wild honey, of which the taste was that of manna, like cakes in olive oil
(hs enkris en elai). Epiphanius then comments (30.13.5): They say this to
turn the word of truth into a lie and they say honey-cakes (enkrida en meleti)
instead of locusts (anti akridn). Cf. Mt. 3.4//Lk. 3.6. For the Greek text and

Biblical Vegetarianism?










English translation, see A. F. J. Klijn and G. J. Renink, Patristic Evidence for

Jewish-Christian Sects (Leiden: Brill, 1973), pp. 17879.
Pace Akers, Lost Religion, p. 131; cf. p. 218 et passim: the Ebionites best understood Jesus.
Cf. John Rogerson, According to the Scriptures? The Challenge of Using the
Bible in Social, Moral and Political Questions (London and Oakville, CT:
Equinox, 2006), pp. 17.
Richard A. Burridge, Imitating Jesus: An Inclusive Approach to New Testament
Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007).
Also anachronistic is another facet of Webbs depiction of Jesus as a loose vegetarian, that is, as someone who, because of his criticism of self-righteousness,
avoided drawing undue attention to that dietary choice (Good Eating,
p. 135)a rather convenient explanation for the lack of explicit evidence in
the Synoptic Gospels!in contrast to self-righteous vegetarians Jesus doubtless would have known (p. 132). This makes Jesus remarkably like the kind
of vegetarian Webb most likes, namely one who remains humble and nonjudgmental about their own and others dietary choices. As Schweitzer
comments: It was not only each epoch [of Theology] that found its reflection
in Jesus; each individual created Jesus in accordance with his own character.
There is no historical task which so reveals a mans true self as the writing of
a Life of Jesus (Quest, p. 6).
See Stephen Fowl, Christology and ethics in Philippians 2:5-11, in Where
Christology Began: Essays on Philippians 2, eds Ralph P. Martin and Brian J.
Dodd (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1998), pp. 14053 (148). Burridge argues in Imitating Jesus for a New Testament ethics shaped by the
imitation of Jesus, not in the specific words of his teaching so much as in his
practice of generous inclusion.
See Gerd Theissen, The First Followers of Jesus (London: SCM, 1978) =
Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1978);
and idem, The wandering radicals, in Social Reality and the Early Christians:
Theology, Ethics, and the World of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T&T Clark,
1993), pp. 3359.
Richard Valantasis, Constructions of Power in Asceticism, Journal of the
American Academy of Religion 63 (1995), pp. 775821 (797), italics original.
See further Asceticism and the New Testament, eds Leif E. Vaage and Vincent
L. Wimbush (London and New York: Routledge, 1999).
See further David G. Horrell, Solidarity and Difference: A Contemporary Reading of Pauls Ethics (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2005), pp. 20445; also
Christopher Southgates call in this volume for a kenotic pattern to characterize humanitys relation to animals.
See for example, the section on the right treatment of animals, the question of
animal rights, etc., in Animals and Christianity: A Book of Readings, eds
Andrew Linzey and Tom Regan (London: SPCK, 1989), pp. 11344.
Terence E. Fretheim, Natures Praise of God in the Psalms, Ex Auditu 3
(1987), pp. 1630; Richard Bauckham, Joining Creations Praise of God,
Ecotheology 7 (2002), pp. 4559.


David G. Horrell

53 Bauckham, Joining Creations Praise, p. 47; cf. idem, God and the Crisis of
Freedom: Biblical and Contemporary Perspectives (Louisville, KY: Westminster
John Knox, 2002), pp. 17677.
54 Cf. Richard Bauckham, Stewardship and relationship, in The Care of Creation, ed. R. J. Berry (Leicester: IVP, 2000), pp. 99106, esp. 10203; idem,
God, pp. 16872.
55 David G. Horrell and Dominic Coad, The Stones Would Cry Out (Luke
19.40): A Lukan Contribution to a Hermeneutics of Creations Praise, forthcoming.
56 See Horrell and Coad, The Stones Would Cry Out.
57 See for example, Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, The Historical Jesus:
A Comprehensive Guide (London: SCM, 1998), pp. 24080.
58 See further David G. Horrell, An Introduction to the Study of Paul (London &
New York: T&T Clark, 2nd edn, 2006), pp. 6973; James D. G. Dunn, The
Theology of Paul the Apostle (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), pp. 46198.
Specifically in relation to Pauls ethics, see J. Paul Sampley, Walking Between
the Times: Pauls Moral Reasoning (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1991).
59 See above, with n. 12.
60 Sibley Towner, The Future of Nature, Interpretation 50 (1996), pp. 2735 (33).
61 Michael Lloyds argument that evil in the natural worldwhich he takes to
include the evil of predationis the result of the distortion of creation
brought about by the angelic Fall (p. 160), does not get around this problem,
since taking Darwin seriously (as Lloyd does, see p. 156) makes it impossible
to accept that animals ever existed in some prelapsarian herbivorous paradise, even if a pre-human Fall can be conceptualized, albeit speculatively. See
Michael Lloyd, Are animals fallen?, in Animals on the Agenda, pp. 14760.
62 Cf. Holmes Rolston III, Science and Religion: A Critical Survey (New York:
Random House, 1987), p. 134. I owe this reference to Christopher Southgate.
For theological engagement with the issues this raises, see Christopher Southgate, God and Evolutionary Evil: Theodicy in the Light of Darwinism, Zygon
37 (2002), pp. 80324; idem, The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution and the
Problem of Evil (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2008). Kaiser, Isaiah
112, p. 161, already makes a similar observation: The present-day reader . . .
is unable to look forward, like the Old Testament, to a time in which lions eat
grass, because of his knowledge of natural history. He believes that there was
conflict in the animal world at the very beginning, before there were men.
63 But to argue, as Vaclavik does (Vegetarianism, pp. 114, 318) that humans are
genetically herbivores, and that the consumption of meat is responsible for
generating our warlike urges, is to move well beyond the bounds of rational
64 In other words, I do not claim here any judgement on whether the theological, moral and philosophical arguments presented in this volume and elsewhere might or might not be convincing.
65 On this last point, see the reflections of Michael Pollan, The Omnivores
Dilemma (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), pp. 30433.

Biblical Vegetarianism?


See Pollan, Omnivores Dilemma. One of the many things Pollan shows so well
(see the section on Corn, pp. 15119) is how ethical consideration of contemporary food production requires as much attention to patterns of plant
production as to the treatment of animals, and an appreciation of how
inextricably intertwined these are.

4 Angels, Beasts, Machines and Men:

Configuring the Human and
Nonhuman in Judaeo-Christian
David Clough

In The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow), Jacques Derrida presents,

via a meditation on being seen naked by his cat, a persuasive deconstruction of the
term animal:
Confined within this catch-all concept, within this vast encampment of the animal, in this
general singular, within the strict enclosure of this definite article (the Animal and not
animals), as in a virgin forest, a zoo, a hunting or fishing ground, a paddock or an abattoir,
a space of domestication, are all the living things that man does not recognize as his
fellows, his neighbors, or his brothers. And that is so in spite of the infinite space that separates the lizard from the dog, the protozoon from the dolphin, the shark from the lamb, the
parrot from the chimpanzee, the camel from the eagle, the squirrel from the tiger or the
elephant from the cat, the ant from the silkworm or the hedgehog from the echidna.
I interrupt my nomenclature and call Noah to help insure that no one gets left on the ark.1

This meditation poses a theological problem. Establishing the place of human

beings in relation to the rest of creation has been an enduring concern throughout
the Judeo-Christian tradition. From the opening two chapters of Genesis to the
discovery in the 1980s that humans and chimpanzees have 98.4 per cent of their
DNA in common, Jews and Christians have puzzled over how human beings are
like and unlike their fellow creatures, and what this means for their respective
places in creation. The qualities singled out to distinguish humans from nonhuman animals have been diverse: the ability to walk erect, the ability to reason,
the use of language and the possession of an immortal soul, among many others.
But the concern to establish and regulate the boundary between the human and
nonhuman in order to maintain the significance of the former is impressive in its
continuity across millennia, with alternative positions becoming definitive of atheism, or at the very least heterodoxy.

Angels, Beasts, Machines and Men


I have two interests in interrogating the theological significance of the distinction

between human and nonhuman life. The first is simply intellectual curiosity: it is
not immediately apparent, at least to me, why Jewish and Christian thinkers should
have considered the definition of this boundary of such crucial importance, which
encourages me to seek possible reasons for their concern. My second interest is
more immediate and pressing: my judgement is that the way in which the line
between human and nonhuman has been drawn and the significance given to it is
both theologically and ethically problematic. This chapter is part of a wider project
to critique and modify this demarcation, and thereby set out a new foundation for
thinking theologically about human beings and other animals.
In this chapter, I cannot hope to present a fully supported argument for a
particular reading of the theological discussion of this topic. Instead, I offer four
snapshots from the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and argue in conclusion that
Derrida, like Darwin before him, makes clear that existing theological accounts of
human and nonhuman animals are inadequate.

Philo: creation as Gods banquet

The work of the first-century Jewish thinker Philo of Alexandria is a good place to
start, both chronologically and because of the clear and uncompromising stance
he adopted on the place of animals. This is clearest in a passage from his Questions
and Answers on Genesis, where he is responding to the question of why, in the
Great Flood, all the animals should die along with human beings, since animals
cannot sin. Philos response is threefold. First, since when a king is slain in battle,
the whole kingdom is also crushed, so since the human race is by analogy sovereign over the animals, God thought it reasonable that they should also be destroyed.
Philos second argument is also by analogy: he says when a persons head is cut off,
no one blames nature if other parts die with it, and since human beings are the
head and chief of the animals, it is not strange if the animals are destroyed with
them. Third, he observes that as wise men reason, animals were not originally
made for their own sakes, but to serve humankind. Therefore it is reasonable that
animals should be destroyed with the human beings for whose sake they exist.2
In his treatise On Creation, Philo rejects anthropomorphic interpretations of the
creation of humanity in the image of God in favour of making the human mind
the form of the divine image, arguing that the position of the human mind within
the human body is analogous to the position God occupies in the world.3 Philos
concern to establish the pre-eminence of human beings within creation is made
clear later in the creation treatise when he discusses the problem of why humanity
was created last of the creatures, suggesting its inferiority. He provides four illuminating reasons to explain this apparent anomaly. First, he says that just as those
hosting a banquet or gymnastic contest do not invite their guests until all their
entertainers are gathered, so God wished human beings to find a feast and a great
spectacle on coming into the world. Second, arriving in a world provided with
abundance would be instructive to future generations that they were to spend
their days without toil or trouble. Third, God wanted to unite the beginning and


David Clough

end of creation, and having started with heaven, finished with the being that is
a miniature heaven. Finally, humanity was created last so that its sudden appearance would amaze the other animals and make them do homage to their ruler.4
Philos discomfort with continuity between the human and nonhuman parts of
creation is also illustrated in his belief that the first two chapters of Genesis describe
the creation of two different kinds of human being: the first made in the image of
God, the second moulded from the earth as the other creatures are. The second
being is of rather dubious status: it is not fit to serve God by caring for the Garden,
and after being placed in the Garden soon runs away and is cast out.5 Later in his
allegorical interpretation of Genesis, the relationship between human beings and
the wild beasts and birds that attack them is likened to the relationship between
the understanding soul and the passions that assail it:6 for Philo, the soul is
unearthly and rational, while the earth and the creatures made from it are irrational and wild.
Philos treatise On the Animals was translated from the Armenian only in 1981.
It narrates a dialogue between Philo and his apostate nephew Alexander, though a
dialogue without a great deal of interaction: a monologue from Alexander makes
up the first two-thirds, and is followed by a monologue from Philo. Alexander
observes that men subjugated women because they considered women weaker,
and that when they saw other animals bending over the earth when humans
walked upright, they differentiated themselves from the other animals and held
them in disdain. He is concerned to establish that animals should be helped by
human beings without hesitation, and argues his case by asserting that nonhuman
animals possess a rationality that is imperfect but fundamental to understanding
their existence.7 Multifarious examples follow, which a brief sample will suffice to
illustrate. The spider, Alexander notes, is proficient in various web designs and
produces them without co-workers or tools.8 The intelligence of the bee is hardly
distinguishable from the abilities of the human mind in contemplation.9 The swallow demonstrates prudence in its nest-building.10 The ability of animals to learn
skills is impressive: monkeys can be taught to drive chariots, fawns to dance and do
tricks, and the performance of circus animals is not merely comical but worthy of
high regard.11 Alexander comments that nature has placed a sovereign mind in
every soul12 and claims that every creature is possessed of wisdom and discernment: they make plans to catch other animals, seek shelter from predators and
human beings, and medicate themselves with herbs when ill.13 Animals are commendable examples of sexual self-restraint, engaging in sexual relations only for
the purpose of reproduction, and the most virtuous abstain from eating flesh.14
After a long catalogue of such examples, Alexander concludes:
It is obvious that not only men but also various other animals have inherited the faculty
of reason. Furthermore it is believed that they possess both virtues and vices. An excuse
is considerately made for those who have neither heard such a subject nor studied it on
their own and so have remained in ignorance. But to those who have been endowed by
God and natural agencies with fundamentals of knowledge and who have been instructed
orally, it is fair to speak angrily as to laggards and enemies of truth.15

Angels, Beasts, Machines and Men


Philos response is succinct and dismissive of these claims. Spiders and bees do not
act by skill or reason, but just work diligently; birds fly, fish swim and land animals
walk by nature, not by learning. All apparently foresightful action by nonhuman
animals is involuntary.16 They have good qualities but are not rational, for reasoning ability extends itself to a multiplicity of abstract concepts in the minds
perception of God, the universe, laws, provincial practices, the state, state affairs,
and numerous other things, none of which animals understand.17 In conclusion,
Philo states that inaccurately to ascribe capacities to animals diminishes human
beings: Let us now stop criticizing nature and committing sacrilege. To elevate
animals to the level of the human race and to grant equality to unequals is the
height of injustice. To ascribe serious self-restraint to indifferent and almost invisible creatures is to insult those whom nature has endowed with the best part.18

Rabbinic literature: angels and beasts

Later Jewish sources seem a little more at ease than Philo with the idea of humans
sharing attributes with the animals. The Talmud says that of the six main characteristics of human beings, three make them like the angels and three like the beasts.
Like the angels they understand, walk erect and speak in the holy tongue; like the
beasts they eat and drink, procreate and relieve themselves.19 Genesis Rabbah pictures God making peace between the celestial and terrestrial worlds through a
creature partaking in the immortality of the celestial sphere and the reproduction
characteristic of earthly beings (12:8). This image is later amplified as human
beings are given four animal attributes and four angelic attributes: like the animals
they eat and drink, procreate, excrete and die; like the angels they stand upright,
speak, understand and see (14:3).20 Similarly in Leviticus Rabbah, the creation of
human beings in Genesis 2 is pictured as the union of the lower spheres, formed
from dust, with the upper spheres, through the enlivening breath of God.21
Concerning the significance of humans being created last, there is agreement
with Philo. Talmudic and Midrashic texts state that humankind was last in creation,
but first in thought. Human beings were contemplated before the creation of the
world, and the world came into being only to serve their needs.22 Elsewhere, the
Talmud echoes Philos explanation that being created last allowed humans to enter
straight into the banquet God had prepared for them.23 There is, however, one
alternative explanation: that humans were created last so they may be reminded
that even the gnats preceded them in the order of creation.24 Another text in
Genesis Rabbah cites Rabbi Yehuda saying that everything in creation has a purpose, even those things people may consider unnecessary, such as flies, fleas and
While these Talmudic and Midrashic texts are more tolerant of commonalities
between humans and animals than Philo seems to be, there is common ground in
the view of creation as for the sake of human beings. In these Rabbinic accounts,
humans are half earthly and half heavenly, suspended between the two spheres
and establishing a relationship between them.26


David Clough

Maimonides and Aquinas: cities, rulers and clocks

The twelfth-century Jewish thinker Moses Maimonides is a particularly interesting
figure in tracing Judaeo-Christian views on animals. This is partly because he is a
point of contact between the Rabbinic tradition and Aristotle, partly because he is
constitutive of the Jewish philosophical tradition that followed him27 and influential on Thomas Aquinas among other Christian theologians, and partly because he
performed a rapid volte-face in his attitude to the place of human beings in the
universe and their relationship with nonhuman animals.
In his early introduction to the Mishnah, Maimonides is resolutely anthropocentric in his interpretation of the world. Everything exists for the sake of humankind: some animals to be eaten or to serve other purposes such as carrying loads
or speeding travel, and plants to be eaten or used as medicines. No herb, fruit or
animal can fail to be beneficial to human beings, from the elephant to the worm,
and Maimonides instructs his reader that if you find animals or plants that you
think cannot be eaten and seem to have no purpose, you should blame it on your
lack of knowledge. It is impossible for any herb, fruit or animalfrom the elephant
to the wormnot to be beneficial for man.28 In the later Guide of the Perplexed,
however, Maimonides has changed his mind.29 He agrees with Philo that the image
of God in human beings is their unique possession of intellectual apprehension,30
but his disagreement with both Philo and the Rabbinic tradition over the place of
humankind in the purposes of the universe is absolute.
It is sometimes thought, Maimonides observes, that the finality of all that exists
is solely the existence of the human species so that it should worship God, and that
all that has been made has been made for it alone so that even the heavenly spheres
only revolve in order to be useful to it and to bring into existence that which is
necessary for it.31 He cites passages from the Prophets in support of this view, but
then asks whether if we grant that the final end of creation is the existence of
humankind, it would have been possible for God to have created human beings
without all the preliminaries of the rest of creation. Maimonides considers it
obvious that God could have done so, and argues that this means that the whole of
nonhuman creation has been brought into existence without any final end at all,
since its assumed final end, human beings, could have existed without any of them.
Therefore it should not be believed that all the beings exist for the sake of the
existence of man. On the contrary, all the other beings too have been intended for
their own sakes and not for the sake of something else.32 Maimonides cites the
verse from Proverbs, The Lord has made everything for a purpose (16.4) as well
as the first Genesis creation narrative affirming each part of creation as good
without reference to any other part. To think that the world was created for humankind is like an individual in a city thinking that the final end of the citys ruler is to
keep his house safe at night: from his point of view it looks like this, but only from
his point of view. This does not entail radical egalitarianism between species for
Maimonides: he believes plants were made to nourish animals and that humankind is the most noble earthly thing.33 But to acknowledge these differences
between parts of creation is very different from believing that all things were

Angels, Beasts, Machines and Men


created for the sake of human beings. In an earlier discussion about the problem of
evil, he comments: Every ignoramus imagines that all that exists exists with a view
to his individual sake; it is as if there were nothing that exists except him.34
Christian theologians of the thirteenth century were indebted to Maimonides,
and particularly to the way he integrated reflection on biblical texts and traditions
of interpreting them with key emphases in Aristotelian thought. But Christian
reception of Maimonides could clearly not be uncritical, and the Errors of the
Philosophers, a work from the mid-thirteenth century attributed to Giles of Rome,
lists fifteen errors through which the author views Maimonides as conceding too
much to the scientists, thus making him worse than Pelagius!35 Thomas Aquinas
depends on Maimonides for the way he construes the relationship between reason
and revelation, Gods knowledge, logical absurdity and omnipotence, and creation
in time.36 His interpretation of the hierarchical ordering of creation means, however, that he cannot follow Maimonides in denying that the rest of creation exists
for the sake of humankind: Less perfect things are ordered to the more perfect,
just as a man is first of all alive, then an animal, and finally a man, so such things
as plants that have merely life exist for animals, and animals exist for man.37 While
Gods providence conserves all living things in being, plants and animals are not
conserved for their own sake, but for the sake of human beings. Therefore humans
have no duties to animals, and biblical injunctions against animal cruelty are
merely aimed at opposing habits that would lead to cruelty towards human
beings.38 Animals are irrational and unable to make choices: their actions appear
purposeful only because God has set within them a natural inclination to pursue
their ends, just as human art sets arrows and clocks in motion.39 They are therefore
unable properly to possess goods, so it is improper even to consider them objects
of charity.40
When Aquinas discusses whether human beings were originally masters over all
the creatures, he claims that in some sense or another all things are in man, and
therefore in the measure that he holds sway over what is in himself, in the same
measure it falls to him to hold sway over other things. He explains that human
beings share reason with the angels, sense forces (vires sensitivas) with the animals, natural vital forces (vires naturales) with the plants, and the body itself with
inanimate objects. Just as reason holds sway in human beings, so human beings
hold sway over everything in the world that does not have reason, that is, everything except the angels.41
Aquinas cites Maimonidess view that it is foolish to think that the heavenly
bodies were made for the sake of human beings, when considering the question of
whether the brightness of the heavens will be increased when the world is renewed.
He considers Maimonidess argument that it were not a wise craftsman who would
make very great instruments for the making of a small work, and human beings
are very small compared with the heavenly bodies. Aquinas answers that although
the heavenly bodies far surpass the human body, yet the rational soul surpasses the
heavenly bodies far more than these surpass the human body. Therefore, he argues,
it is not unreasonable to say that the heavenly bodies were made for mans sake so
long as it is recalled that the principal end of all things is God.42


David Clough

While Aquinass view that it is appropriate to say that all things were made for
the sake of human beings seems to place him in the same anthropocentric position
as Philo, the final provision of this argument denotes a decisive difference in
emphasis with the potential to lead to a very different view of the respective place
of human and nonhuman animals in Gods purposes. Aquinass caution that it is
only appropriate to speak of the heavenly bodies being made for the sake of human
beings if one recalls that God is the principal end of all things points to a theocentric position rather than an anthropocentric position. In fact, emphases elsewhere
in Aquinas suggest that human beings are not Gods sole end in creation. In the
Summa Contra Gentiles, he explains that diversity in creation is vital in order to
communicate divine goodness: Inasmuch as every created substance must fall
short of the perfection of the divine goodness, it was needful to have diversity in
things for the more perfect communication of the divine goodness, that what cannot perfectly be represented by one created exemplar, might be represented by
divers such exemplars in divers ways in a more perfect manner.43 In the Summa
Theologica, Aquinas makes an analogous argument. When discussing whether the
inequality in created things originates in God, he affirms that God did not make
everything equal in creation, but also observes that the universe is perfect only
because it exhibits different grades of goodness in different creatures.44 He also
agrees with Philos nephew Alexander that animals can demonstrate prudence.45
Aquinass view of creation is resolutely hierarchical: human beings undoubtedly
have the highest place, but the purposes of Gods creation of nonhuman creatures
are not exhausted in the utility of those creatures for human beings.46
Before leaving Aquinas behind, we should note a very different mode in which
he discusses animals: as allegories with meaning for human life. For example, when
discussing the rationale for the ceremonial law of Israel, he explains why animals
were considered clean and unclean: An animal that chews the cud and has a
divided hoof is clean because it signifies the distinction of the two Testaments, or
of the Father and the Son, or of the two natures in Christ, or of good and evil; and
chewing the cud signifies meditation on the Scriptures and the right understanding of them.47 Similarly, the eagle stands for pride, the griffon for the cruelty of the
powerful, the osprey for those who oppress the poor, the kite for those who are
fraudulent and the vulture for those who rejoice in death and fighting. And so on,
and so on, for another thirteen species in this section alone.

Descartes and Malebranche: human souls and

Four centuries after Aquinass passing comparison of animals with clocks, Ren
Descartes became fascinated with comparing animals with the machines of the
seventeenth century, and planned a magnetic man-machine and two different
machines simulating animals. He also spent time dissecting animals. He concluded
that if there were . . . machines which had the organs and appearance of a monkey
or of some other irrational animal, we would have no means of recognizing that
they were not of exactly the same nature as these animals, whereas we could

Angels, Beasts, Machines and Men


identify supposedly human-machines because they could not use words to convey
thoughts, or adapt themselves to act like reasonable human beings in a wide
variety of circumstances. For Descartes, this shows the difference between humans
and animals: their lack of speech means that animals not only have less reason
than human beings, but that they have none at all, because it is otherwise unbelievable that not even the most talented parrot or monkey could equal the achievements of the most stupid child.48
Both Descartes and his contemporaries considered major theological commitments to be at stake in the question of whether animals were merely machines.
Following the argument I have just outlined, Descartes explains that the question
of animal souls is important because there is nothing which leads feeble minds
more readily astray from the straight path of virtue than to imagine the soul of
animals is of the same nature as our own. This is because we then think we have no
more to fear or hope for after this life than flies or ants, whereas once we appreciate
our difference from animals, we understand why human souls are entirely independent of the body and do not die with it.49 Descartes may have also shared the
concern that the doctrine of the afterlife would become implausible if the humblest animal possessed an immortal soul.50 Descartes is inconsistent on the question
of whether animals feel pain,51 but for one of his most ardent adherents, Nicolas
Malebranche, this belief is the conclusion to a simple but crucial theological argument.52 Malebranche cites Augustines view that under a just God, no one suffers
who has not deserved it. Since animals cannot sin, he reasons, they cannot justly be
subjected to suffering. Therefore, despite all appearances, animals cannot suffer
pain. Malebranche complains at his lack of success persuading others to set aside
the evidence of their senses in favour of this incontrovertible argument, noting
that in so doing one risks exposing oneself to the laughter of superficial and inattentive minds.53 In Objectiones sextae, published with the first edition of the
Meditations, a group of theologians warned that if animals could be thought of as
pure automata, then same would be said of human beings.54 This prophecy was
fulfilled in the work of La Mettrie, whose 1747 work LHomme machine (Machine
Man) argued that both animals and human beings could be understood as

Where are the animals?

In his commentary on his translation of Philos De animalibus, which I discussed
above, Abraham Terian makes an odd observation: In spite of the title of the treatise and the frequent references to animals, the work as a whole is basically
anthropological.56 In other words, Philo embarks on this careful natural history
not primarily to understand the animals he describes, but to defend the position
that human beings are the only rational creatures. In the dialogue, they function as
landmarks on a map intended to identify the location and boundaries not of
animal life, but of human life, or perhaps just the life of the wise man. This purpose
is made explicit in the allegorical interpretation of the flood narrative, where men
in the story stand for the mind, and animals for either the senses or the passions.57


David Clough

We should note that elsewhere, allegorical interpretations read women in the

same way. Stories of the world therefore become just a way of re-describing the
humanor malecondition.
This raises a larger question. If, in his discussions of animals, Philo is not talking
about animals at all, what of the rest of the Judaeo-Christian tradition? The
question is an unsettling one. In the Rabbinic literature I have surveyed, animals
are largely placeholders for the creaturely elements in human beings, rather than
beings of intrinsic interest. Aquinass use of the different species of animals as
examples of human sins is precisely an instance of talking about animals in order
to talk about human beings. His use of an individual human being as a metaphor
for the whole of creation is arguably an even more obvious example of failing to
attend adequately to nonhuman creation, though he does come closer to recognizing the particularity of nonhuman animals when discussing their capacities and
contribution to the perfection of creation. When we turn to Descartes and Malebranche it is clear that concerns about the human soul, or Gods justice, are central:
Descartes objects to the belief that other animals have souls because it makes the
Christian doctrine of the immortality of the soul less credible; Malebranche is
concerned that God would seem unjust if animals were thought to suffer without
having sinned. Maimonides is the only figure in my brief survey who sees clearly
that nonhuman parts of creation must have been created as ends in themselves,
and not for their utility to human beings. His is a rare perspective that runs against
the grain of the bulk of discussion treating animals only as they relate to human
identity or interests.
Derridas gestures indicating the oddity of collapsing all but one of the 1.25
million species of living creature into the singular animal encourage the belief
that this term manifests little interest in the species falling under the term. Instead,
following Philo, Jewish and Christian thinkersas well as the philosophical traditions that came in their wake58have used animal to prop up constructions of the
human, and are usually not discussing animals even when they appear to be doing
so. For those who are interested in the development of a theology that does attend
to nonhuman animals, the significance of this is double-edged. First, it seems
hopeful, given the previous lack of attention to this topic, if there is more room for
manoeuvre. On the other side, however, the position of nonhuman animals is so
closely tied to theological anthropology in the tradition that it seems there will
have to be significant developments in a theology of the human in order to make
space for an adequate theology of the nonhuman. As recipients of Gods revelation
and covenant promise, however, Jews and Christians have no reason for insecurity
about the place of human beings in Gods good purposes, and no need to establish
their identity at the cost of diminishing the importance of others of Gods creatures. We stand in need of a theological description of the human and nonhuman
that gives due account to each. To affirm that God watches over me, my coreligionists, or my species, is not inconsistent with believing that these purposes
are not the sum of Gods purposes in the creation and redemption of the universe.
Over one hundred years ago, Charles Darwin showed that the difference between
human and nonhuman animals was a difference of degree rather than kind, but

Angels, Beasts, Machines and Men


theologians have been slow learners in this context.59 Theological readings of the
human and animal remain resolutely pre-Darwinian, let alone pre-Derridean.
A new account is required, not only to do justice to the particularity of the other
creatures God made alongside human beings, but to rescue theological anthropology from implausibility and incoherence as well.

1 Jacques Derrida, and David Wills, The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to
Follow), Critical Inquiry 28, 2 (2002), pp. 369418 (402).
2 Philo, Quaestiones et solutiones in Genesim, bk 2, q. 9 (cf. the similar question
in bk 1, q. 94), in Philo Suppl. I (trans. F. H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker;
London: Heinemann, 1929).
3 Philo, De opificio mundi, 23, in Philo I (trans. F. H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker;
London: Heinemann, 1929).
4 Philo, De opificio mundi, 2528.
5 Philo, Legum allegoria, bk 1, 16, in Philo I.
6 Philo, Legum allegoria, bk 2, 4.
7 Philo of Alexandria, Philonis Alexandrini: De animalibus (trans. Abraham
Terian; Chico, CA: Scholars, 1981), 1012. This association between
women and nonhuman animals is a recurrent one in the tradition and has led
me to use the gender-exclusive term men in my title to avoid ignoring this
gender issue.
8 Philo, De animalibus, 1719.
9 Philo, De animalibus, 20.
10 Philo, De animalibus, 22.
11 Philo, De animalibus, 2325.
12 Philo, De animalibus, 29.
13 Philo, De animalibus, 3039.
14 Philo, De animalibus, 48, 62.
15 Philo, De animalibus, 70.
16 Philo, De animalibus, 7780.
17 Philo, De animalibus, 85.
18 Philo, De animalibus, 100.
19 Hagiga 16a, Babylonian Talmud, cited in Eilon Schwartz, Mastery and
stewardship, wonder and connectedness, in Judaism and Ecology: Created
World and Revealed Word, ed. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 2002), pp. 93106 (98).
20 Gen. Rabbah 14:3, cited in Noah J. Cohen, Sa`ar Ba`aley Hayim : The
Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: Its Bases, Development and Legislation in
Hebrew Literature (Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1976), p. 32.
21 Lev. Rabbah 9:9, cited in Cohen, Sa`ar Ba`aley Hayim, p. 32.
22 Gen. Rabbah 1:4; Sanhedrin 98b, cited in Cohen, Sa`ar Ba`aley Hayim, p. 32.
23 Schwartz, Mastery and stewardship, p. 98.
24 Sanhedrin 38a; Lev. Rabbah 14:1, cited in Cohen, Sa`ar Ba`aley Hayim, p. 32.







David Clough
Gen. Rabbah 10:8, cited in Judaism and Ecology, ed. Aubrey Rose (London:
Cassell, 1992), p. 59.
Elijah Judah Shochets conclusion that in these texts animals should be seen
as an intricately shaped and valuable tool loaned to man for his use (Animal
Life in Jewish Tradition: Attitudes and Relationships (New York: Ktav, 1984),
p. 78) is perhaps too extreme, and is contradicted by other modern commentators who stress other elements in the tradition (e.g. Cohen, Sa`ar Ba`aley
Daniel Frank argues that Jewish philosophy is inconceivable without
Maimonides, in Maimonides and medieval Jewish Aristotelianism, in The
Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy, eds Daniel H. Frank
and Oliver Leaman (Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 15354.
Moses Maimonides, Rambam: Maimonides Introduction to the Mishnah
(trans. Rabbi A. Y. Finkel; Scranton, PA: Yeshivath Beth Moshe, 1993), p. 76.
Abraham Joshua Heschel attributes this change to a loss of confidence in an
anthropocentric universe following the death of his brother, in Maimonides:
A Biography (trans. Joachim Neugroschel; New York: Farrar, Strauss and
Giroux, 1982), p. 129.
Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, 1:1 (trans. Shlomo Pines;
Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1963).
Maimonides, Guide, 3:13.
Maimonides, Guide, 3:13.
Maimonides, Guide, 3:13.
Maimonides, Guide, 3:12. James Diamond links this rejection of anthropocentrism to the humility Maimonides requires of the sovereign, in Maimonides on Kingship: The Ethics of Imperial Humility, Journal of Religious
Ethics 34, 1 (2006), pp. 89114 (97).
Cited in Leon Roth, The Guide for the Perplexed: Moses Maimonides (London:
Hutchinson, 1948), pp. 8687.
For a survey, see Charles Singer, and Dorothea Singer, Jewish elements in
thirteenth-century scholasticism, in Studies in Maimonides and St. Thomas
Aquinas, ed. Jacob I. Dienstag (Bibliotheca Maimonidica; Texts, Studies, and
Translations in Maimonidean Thought and Scholarship, 1; New York: KTAV,
1975), pp. 16983, and in the same volume Zevi Diesendruck, Maimonides
and Thomas Aquinas, pp. 18491. Aquinas cites Maimonides twenty-five
times in the Summa Theologica, usually with approval. For a listing of the
citations, see Charles H. Lohr, St. Thomas Aquinas: Scriptum Super Sententiis:
An Index of Authorities Cited (Amersham: Avebury, 1980).
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, IIaIIae, q. 64, a. 1 (60 vols; London:
Blackfriars, 1963).
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, bk III, ch. 112 (5 vols; Notre Dame,
IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975).
Aquinas, Summa Theologica, IaIIae, q. 13, a. 2.
Aquinas, Summa Theologica, IIaIIae, q. 25, a. 3.
Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Ia, q. 96, a. 3.

Angels, Beasts, Machines and Men


42 Aquinas, Summa Theologica, suppl., q. 91, a. 3.

43 Summa Contra Gentiles, bk III, ch. 97, quoted in Thomas Aquinas, Of God and
His Creatures (trans. Joseph Ricaby; London: Burns & Oates, 1905), p. 260.
44 Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Ia, q. 47, a. 2.
45 Aquinas, Summa Theologica, IaIIae, q. 13, a. 2. See Judith A. Barad, Aquinas on
the Nature and Treatment of Animals (San Francisco: International Scholars,
1995), pp. 95112, for a survey of Aquinass estimation of the capacities of
nonhuman animals.
46 Judith Barad argues in Aquinas that his ontology of nonhuman animals as
each possessed of its own degree of perfection does not fit with his judgement
that they are not deserving of moral consideration, and recommends that this
inconsistency be resolved in favour of his ontological view. Dorothy Yamamoto
offers a more pessimistic reading of Aquinas in this context in Aquinas and
animals: patrolling the boundary?, in Animals on the Agenda: Questions About
Animals for Theology and Ethics, eds Andrew Linzey and Dorothy Yamamoto
(London: SCM, 1998), pp. 8089.
47 Aquinas, Summa Theologica, IaIIae, q. 102, a. 6.
48 Ren Descartes, Discourse on Method and Other Writings (trans. F. E. Sutcliffe;
Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), pp. 7475. The argument based on language
as a unique human possession was given new vigour by its adoption by Noam
Chomsky in Language and Mind (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch,
1968), p. 10. It must be brought into question, however, by examples of chimpanzees and gorillas communicating successfully in sign language. For an
overview of some of these studies, see Nancy R. Howell, The Importance of
Being Chimpanzee, Theology and Science 1, 2 (2003), pp. 17991.
49 Descartes, Discourse on Method and Other Writings, p. 76.
50 For an example of one theologian who developed an account of the afterlife
with a place for all creatures, see John Hildrop, Free Thoughts upon the Brute
Creation: In Two Letters to a Lady, in Miscellaneous Works of John Hildrop,
vol. 1, pp. 159294 (London: Rivington, 1754), reprinted in Animal Rights and
Souls in the Eighteenth Century, ed. Aaron Garrett (London: Thoemmes,
51 For a discussion of this question, see John Cottingham, A Brute to the
Brutes? Descartes Treatment of Animals, Philosophy 53 (1978), pp. 55161;
and Peter Harrison, Descartes on Animals, The Philosophical Quarterly 42,
167 (1992), pp. 21927.
52 This is, I believe, the worst theological argument I have come across, though
readers may have their own candidates for this honour.
53 Nicolas Malebranche, The Search After Truth (Cambridge University Press,
1997), pp. 32324. Leonora Cohen Rosenfield documents the way Cartesian
vivisectionists mocked those who pitied the animals subject to their cruel
experiments, in From Beast-Machine to Man-Machine (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1941), p. 54.
54 Rosenfield, From Beast-Machine to Man-Machine, p. 10. In the pages that
follow, Rosenfield notes the debate about Descartes theological motivations,




David Clough
concluding: One sometimes suspects that the religious aspect of Descartes
reasoning about the beast-machine was above all a self-defense and a means
of gaining approbation for his revolutionary thesis (23).
Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Machine Man and Other Writings (ed. Ann
Thomson; Cambridge University Press, 1996).
Philo, De animalibus, 112.
Philo, Quaestiones et solutiones in Genesim, bk 1, q. 94; bk II, q. 9.
Derrida considers that all preceding philosophersAristotle to Heidegger,
from Descartes to Kant, Lvinas and Lacanhave failed to see the problematic of animal, in The Animal, p. 396.
Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (London:
Murray, 1871). In fact, one could argue that theologians have had considerably longer than a century to come to terms with this issue. Luthers
commentary on Genesis, for example, already demonstrates awareness and
consequent concern at what human and nonhuman animals have in common. See Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis, Chapters 15 (ed. Jaroslav
Pelikan; Luthers Works, 1; Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 1958).

Part 2
Perspectives from Antiquity

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5 Vegetarianism, Heresy, and

Asceticism in Late Ancient
Teresa M. Shaw

An analysis of early Christian discourse on vegetarianism will challenge even

the most patient reader. This is not because the sources are lacking, the discussions
tedious, or the topic marginal. On the contrary, the sources are numerous and
varied, the discussions are often colorful and impassioned, and the topic is connected to core debates of the period. Nevertheless, for the historian there are three
challenges. First, while early Christian writers views of vegetarianism are deeply
informed by and share ideals with medical, philosophical, and non-Christian arguments about food, health, psychology, and renunciation, and while it is important
to view the Christian material through these lenses, the Christian discussion of
vegetarianism, as we find it in our sources, is entirely framed and constrained by
the discourse of heresy, and related tensions over asceticism, fasting, virginity,
and the value of marriage. Second, because of this constraint, many of our authors
are extremely careful (although some are more careful than others). In a kind of
rhetorical and exegetical bob and weave, even those who make the strongest case
for the value of a meat-free diet refuse to advocate for daily, long-term, or community-wide vegetarianism, which become associated with heresy by the second
century. By the end of the fourth century, if we rely on literary sources, the uncontested forms of religious dietary abstinence in general, and vegetarianism in
particular, include limited periods of ecclesiastically specified fasting or the
remarkable abstinence of the ascetic elite, the holy men and women and monastics
praised in hagiographies and sermons. Third, both ancient sources and modern
scholarship tend to adopt and perpetuate stock heresiological, hagiographical,
and theological categories that appear in the second century and are entrenched
by the fourth century. Thus, as Alain Le Boulluec notes in his analysis of the
concepts of orthodoxy and heresy in recent scholarship, by constraining their
analysis of ancient religious practices within the ancient theoretical framework,
historians risk reproducing the discourse arising from theological, ecclesiastical,


Teresa M. Shaw

and confessional controversies.1 These tensions make it impossible to know

what people were actually doing in relation to diet, since the behavior is so
theorized, idealized, or contested in the literary sources. If, as Pierre Bourdieu
writes, practice has a logic that is not that of the logician, early Christian discourse
on food practice perfectly illustrates what Bourdieu calls the theorization
effect, the drive nevertheless to wring logical and discursive coherence from
practice, to have practice express something that can be expressed in discourse.2
Keeping this in mind, a careful reading of the discourse on vegetarianism
in the early Christian period dramatically illustrates issues of religious practice,
authority, and the ideal of a Christian bodily way of life. It also challenges some
of the theoretical categories through which scholars have approached these
In this paper, I will examine arguments about meat avoidance in early Christian
literature of the late second century through the fourth century. Specifically, I am
interested in the ways that the vegetarian diet functions as both an ideal, and as a
mark of deviance, in the debates on asceticism, heresy, and Christian identity.
In the sources we will consider, a diet free of meat is associated with angels, biblical
and ascetic heroes, the life in paradise before the fall, and the food of immortality,
but alsoand often in the same textwith heretics, creation-hating perfectionists,
and lawless renegade monks and their loose female followers. This is because vegetarianism, like fasting, virginity, celibacy, and other ascetic practices, is subjected
through ascetic theory to a discursive logic3 that requires both praise and constraint. This paper will therefore not include a survey of evidence for vegetarianism
in early Christianity, nor a discussion of fasting or other dietary options motivated
by piety.4 Neither will it give attention to hagiographical depictions, heroic fasting,
or monastic advice on diet and food asceticism.5 Rather, I will focus on the representation of dietary practices in the developing rhetorical categories of orthodoxy
and heresy.
I will first briefly highlight the association of food abstinence with heresy in two
of the earliest heresiologists, Irenaeus of Lyons and Hippolytus of Rome. Next
I will analyze two authors of the late second and early third centuries in whom the
tensions over diet and fasting and the establishment of heresiological categories
are seen most clearly, Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian of Carthage. I will then
examine in detail these debates in the fourth century, as represented in Basil of
Caesarea and Jerome, two prominent ascetic practitioners, leaders, and writers
who struggled to define legitimate dietary renunciation in very different contexts
but with similar tensions and rhetorical categories. Jerome and Basil represent the
ways in which, through the logic of the discourse on fasting and vegetarianism,
food choice in late ancient Christianity is not simply a practical behavior, but,
through the theorization effect, becomes a belief statement about creation itself,
and therefore a marker of conformity and deviance. In service to this discourse,
individuals such as Tatian became caricatures, and classificatory entities such as
encratite, which is in many respects, a heresiological fiction,6 take on a reality
that continues to influence our reading.

Vegetarianism, Heresy, and Asceticism


Heresiological representations of vegetarianism

By the end of the second century and the early third century, meat-eating and
meat-avoidance were already established touch points of Christian self-definition,
especially in the developing rhetoric of heresy. Moreover, sustained abstinence
from any one food, in particular from meat, was linked rhetorically to a condemnation of marriage, procreation, and the material creation of God, and was associated
with specific heretical teachers and groups, most notably Marcion, Tatian, and the
so-called encratites (abstinent ones, from enkrateia).7 Our understanding of these
issues and people is, however, frustrated by the fact that we know them primarily
through the polemic of their opponents, and through the heresiological ruses that
classify subjects, practices, and beliefs as deviant errors or faithful norms.8
For example, in his treatise Against all Heresies, Ireneaeus of Lyons (c. 130
c. 200) writes that those known as encratites were inspired by Marcion and
Saturninus and announced abstinence from marriage, thus repudiating the ancient
creation of God and obliquely accusing him who made both male and female for
the purpose of human procreation. In a similar display of ingratitude toward God,
some of these encratites have also introduced abstinence from animal food.9
Moreover, they deny salvation to Adama teaching Irenaeus attributes to Tatian.
Irenaeus notes that Tatian was a former student of the revered Justin Martyr, but
withdrew from the church after Justins death. Motivated by pride, Tatian began
to teach an idiosyncratic system that included gnostic aeons, like the followers of
Valentinus, and the denigration of marriage as corruption and fornication,
like Marcion and Saturninus.10 Irenaeuss short description captures all of the
basic elements of the discourse on proper dietary abstinence that will continue
through the fourth century, including the association of heretical abstinence with
Marcion, Tatian, and the encratites, the link between vegetarianism, sexual abstinence, and creation, and the charge that Tatian was first a faithful Christian who
later broke away through wicked motives.11
In his early-third-century Refutation of all Heresies, Hippolytus of Rome adds
little to Irenaeuss description of Tatian specifically,12 but elaborates on the encratites, reporting that out of pride they abstain from meat, forbid marriage, and drink
only water, and in the rest of their lives they continue in a dry manner.13 Hippolytus also claims that Marcion forbids marriage and procreation, and requires
abstinence from certain foods. In these practices and other teachings, Hippolytus
asserts that Marcion is following not the Gospel but the philosopher Empedocles.14 Thus in both Irenaeus and Hippolytus, meat abstinence is linked with the
denigration of marriage and characterized as a prideful straying from Christian
teaching under the influence of gnostic teaching, pagan philosophy, and the attraction of novelties. Hippolytus, in addition, associates both Marcion and the
encratites with the warning in 1 Timothy 4.15, that some would depart from the
faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, and would forbid
marriage and enjoin abstinence from foods which God created to be received with
thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.15 Hippolytus here makes


Teresa M. Shaw

use of one of the scriptural passages that are most central to the Christian
discourse on fasting and food abstinence in late antiquity, as we shall see below.

Diet and heresy in the second and third centuries: Clement

of Alexandria and Tertullian of Carthage
If Irenaeuss and Hippolytuss categorization of meat avoidance as heresy suggests
that there were in fact groups who advocated for the value of vegetarianism in the
Christian life, their treatment of the topic is short and hostile, as one might expect
in heresiological texts. If we turn to other types of sources and other authors, however, we find discussions of dietary choices, fasting, and proper Christian lifestyle
that are decidedly more complicated and appear to be more personal. In the late
second and early third centuries, Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian of Carthage
both offer arguments for the value of food abstinence and describe the physiological and psychological ill-effects of eating meat (and drinking wine). Both distinguish their own positions from the type of heretical dietary restrictions, most
notably vegetarianism, condemned in Irenaeus and Hippolytus.
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150215) discusses food abstinence primarily in his
well-known set of instructions on Christian moral life and behavior, the Paedagogus, and also in his treatise On Marriage, which forms the third book of his
Stromata. Because the three books of Clements Paedagogus aim to offer practical
moral instruction for Christians, they include an abundance of information on
daily life, human interactions, bodily habits, manners, and indulgences.16 Book II
in particular takes up the topic of how we should each behave in relation to our
own body,17 and considers diet, gluttony, and the value of abstinence, while offering advice on public behavior, table manners, and deportment. Like the Stoic
and Platonic philosophers he admired and studied, Clement makes a strong case
against overindulgence in general, and points out the ill-effects of eating meat and
drinking wine in particular. Using standard concepts from ancient medicine and
ethical theory regarding the nature of the soul, the effects of diet, and the qualities
of hot, cool, dry, and moist,18 Clement observes that the strongest, wisest, and
healthiest people are those who eat the most frugally, because their minds are not
obscured by foods or deceived by pleasure.19 Indeed, meat and wine, being naturally heating and moistening foods, can darken and corporify the soul with their
moist, thick vapors. But a dry soul is lightest, healthiest, and wisestand thus, in
Clements view, best for the activity of contemplation.20
Further, in sometimes graphic images Clement connects the consumption of
meat and wine to the increase of sexual lust, noting that wine is especially dangerous for younger persons whose bodies already contain excess heat. It is wise, he
notes, for young people to avoid wine and even for adults, on some days, to eat
only bread and drink nothing, thus absorbing their excess moisture by eating dry
food (xerophagia).21 Clement in addition quotes Paul that it is good neither to eat
flesh, nor to drink wine (Rom. 14.21),22 recommends water as a natural and
temperate drink,23 and cites biblical examples of abstinence from meat and
wine, making the general point that simple and easily prepared foods are more

Vegetarianism, Heresy, and Asceticism


suitable to the Christian life, and contrasting this to the complicated preparations,
fussiness, and obsessions of those gourmets ruled by the demon of the belly.24
Yet for all of his insistence on the dangers of meat and wine, the value of abstinence, and the connection between what one eats and the health of ones soul,
Clement is just as insistent that, in fact, the natural use of food is indifferent (adiaphora), using a Stoic term to convey the idea that Christians are not required to
abstain from any type of food. If they choose to abstain for a time, or in order not
to scandalize their neighbors, they likewise will eat whatever their host offers
only avoiding gluttony. 25 Moreover, in his discussion of how to drink wine with
temperance (sophrosyne), Clement directly opposes those called encratites, by
insisting that Jesus himself drank wine and was called a glutton and wine-drinker.26
In a remarkably telling passage, Clement borrows from Plato, Musonius Rufus, and
Plutarch (nearly quoting Musonius and Plutarch) for his description of a temperate and appropriate diet, which includes onions, olives, some vegetables, milk,
cheese, fruits in season, and boiled food of all sorts without sauce, but he departs
from his sources when he adds, and if roasted or boiled meat is required, let a
portion be given.27 Clements addition of meat to the dietary inventory of his philosophical forbearers, though seemingly less than enthusiastic in this passage,
exemplifies his intention to balance advocacy for abstinence in the Christian life
with resistance to his encratite opponents.28
These tensions over diet are directly related to Clements defense of marriage
in book III of the Stromata, and it is here that Clement makes his strongest heresiologically oriented arguments against the encratites, and against Tatian in
particular.29 For Clement, those who oppose meat-eating, and marriage and sexual
relations, even for the purpose of procreation, do so because they really oppose
Gods creation and hate the flesh, denigrating meat and marriage as corruptions of
the fallen creation.30 In his extended scriptural support for his position,31 the
abstainers from meat and marriage are those whom the author of 1 Timothy
foretold, who forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence.32 Still, just as Clements views
on dietary abstinence display his fundamental understanding of the physical and
moral dangers of certain foods even as he rejects dietary requirements such as
vegetarianism, it is clear that Clements vehement rejection of required sexual
abstinence is held in tension with a clear sense of the dangers of sexual activity
(not at all uncommon in the moral philosophy of late antiquity) and an ambivalence about even marital intercourse (which has its sole purpose in procreation).33
Although Clement of Alexandria is rightly recognized for his almost unique exposition of the value of marriage and an accommodating balance of dietary restraint
and sociability,34 to read him is nevertheless to be reminded of the attractions of
enkrateia in the Christian life, even his own.
If we consider now the writings of Clements contemporary (if not his neighbor),
Tertullian of Carthage, ambivalence and accommodation are not words that come
to mind.35 But it is instructive to read Clement and Tertullian together on the topic
of meat abstinence; if Clement seems comfortably on the offensive against those
who would insist on regular abstinence as a differentiating feature of Christian
lifestyle, Tertullian appears aggressively defensive of precisely such differentiating


Teresa M. Shaw

practices as fasting. Yet both praise food abstinence and condemn overindulgence
using medical, moral, and biblical arguments, and both use stock heresiological
categories and individualsClement to label the tendency he criticizes, and
Tertullian to separate his own eating practices from those of the heretics. In this
they together demonstrate the common rhetorical ground of the discourse on
dietary renunciation that is developing in the early third century and will continue
into the fourth century.
Tertullian wrote his forceful treatise On Fasting around 210 CE, primarily as a
defense of the particular fasting practices of the New Prophecy movement, to
which Tertullian had recently become attached. Briefly, as Tertullian tells it, he and
others identified with the New Prophecy observed xerophagies, periods during
which they ate dry food, abstained from all meat, avoided any food or drink with a
wine-like flavor, and did not bathe during the fast.36 For this (and their rejection
of second marriages), they were charged with novelty, heresy, pseudo-prophecy,
and pagan superstitions.37 Tertullian summarizes the opinions of his opponents
who, he says, believe that apart from the few established periods of Christian fasting, xerophagia is otherwise indifferently38 to be observed, out of choice rather
than command. They cite biblical passages such as Galatians 5.1 and 1 Corinthians
10.25 on dietary freedom in Christ, 1 Timothy 4.15 against those who would
require abstinence from the foods which God created, and descriptions of Jesus
himself eating and drinking (Mt. 11.19; Lk. 7.34).39 Tertullian responds with a
lengthy scriptural analysis that includes biblical examples of both the dangers of
gluttony and the righteousness of fasting and frugal diets.40 While on the one hand
food either kills or wounds all discipline, on the other hand the discipline of
fasting and abstinence makes a friend of God, as shown by Moses and Elijah who
fasted and received visions.41
Regarding the charges of heresy, Tertullian criticizes those who use passages
such as Romans 14.2021, stating that all foods are clean, to condemn those who
abstain. It is as if, he says, having the keys to the market (1 Cor. 10.25), they feel
compelled to keep eating abundant and rich foods without any discipline!42
Further, Tertullian notes that those condemned in 1 Timothy for requiring meat
abstinence are those who demand perpetual abstinence, to the point of destroying
and despising the works of the creator, such as Marcion, Tatian, Jupiter, and the
Pythagorean heretic. In contrast, he asserts that his groups interdiction of foods
is restricted to two weeks of xerophagies out of the year, during which time they
abstain from things which we do not disdain, but postpone.43 Tertullian does not
deny that there is heretical abstinence, but he identifies it with those who have
already been classified, in other sources, as heretical because they demand food
abstinence out of disdain for creation and the gifts of God. Thus both the argument of his critics, and the points of his response, share features with the developing
rhetoric of heresy, asceticism, and diet.
At first glance, Tertullians response and counterarguments do not focus particularly on meat-eating and vegetarianism, except that vegetarianism would be the
primary feature of the fasting regimen. Yet meat in the human diet is central to his
biblical arguments for the importance of fasting in the Christian life. Tertullian

Vegetarianism, Heresy, and Asceticism


argues that Adams sin was gluttony, and that fasting is satisfaction for the first sin.
Moreover, he observes that the first diet in paradise was vegetarian, based on fruits
and foods grown from seed (Gen. 1.29); it was only after the flood that God granted
animals as food (Gen. 9.24). Tertullian explains that God relaxed dietary allowances because humans had just recently shown themselves to be incapable of
keeping even a light prohibition from the fruit of one tree in paradise. Yet, Tertullian argues, by this very indulgence God prepared a stricter discipline, permitting
everything, in order to take some things away . . . to command abstinence, since he
had previously sent indulgence. Tertullian here implies that a greater abstinence is
now required, even commanded, of Christians.44 Furthermore, in linking vegetarianism to the diet of paradise and gluttony to the disobedience of Adam, Tertullian
anticipates what, by the fourth century, becomes a common protological argument
in favor of dietary abstinence.45 Finally, Tertullians energetic, combative style, his
rigorism, and his scriptural interpretation will directly impact the arguments over
asceticism and fasting in the late fourth century, particularly the debate between
Jerome and Jovinian, as we shall see below.

Diet and heresy in the fourth century: Basil of Caesarea

and Jerome
Basil of Caesarea (c. 330c. 379), was an active and prolific bishop, a seeker of
philosophical wisdom, and one of the most important ascetic leaders of the fourth
century.46 In his homilies and ascetic writings Basil praises the fasting diet, which
includes meat abstinence, as well as the vegetarian lifestyle of paradise, yet he
regards inflexible and required dietary regimens as dangerous errors. Basils two
homilies On Fasting47 are distinctive for their broad appeal on the benefits of
fasting. Fasting is not simply an exercise in lay piety or an extraordinary feat of
ascetic renunciation reserved for monks and virgins. Rather, it has practical and
spiritual value for every Christian. Fasting is good for physical health, as any doctor
will testify, as well as the well-being of the community, the market, households, and
marriages.48 Likewise, it is an armor of protection against demons and a companion of prayer.49 As we saw in Clement and Tertullian, Basil also links fasting with
the control of sexual desire and overindulgence in foods with lust, although he does
not devote much attention to this specific issue. Even within the marital relationship, Basil writes, fasting helps to set the proper measure of marital acts so as to
create the harmonious repose needed for husband and wife to remain in prayer.50
Basils most specific discussions of vegetarian diet appear in the homilies On
Fasting, as well as in his homilies On the Creation of Humanity.51 Like Tertullian,
as well as other theorists of the fourth century, Basil associates fasting practices
with creation, paradise, and the life to come. Indeed, the first command to Adam,
not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2.17), was the law of
fasting and abstinence (enkrateia).52 Because Eve did not fast then, it is now necessary for us to fast as a kind of repentance or satisfaction to God, in order that we
might return to paradise.53 But, Basil notes, fasting is also the image of the way of
life in paradise, not just in that it makes humans like the angels, but also regarding


Teresa M. Shaw

the things that those leading a course of life in paradise had not yet thought of:
wine drinking, animal sacrifice, or other things that disturb the human mind.54
He clarifies further that in paradise there was no wine, not yet animal sacrifice, not
yet meat eating. After the flood came wine, after the flood came, Eat everything,
just as you previously ate green vegetables (Gen. 9.3).55
In his homilies On the Creation of Humanity, Basil returns to the theme of the
diet of paradise and adds that the vegetarian rule applied even to animals. Along
with humans, animals changed their diet and went outside the limit only after the
flood. If they once shared a free and simple vegetarian diet with humans, their diet
now reflects a fallen condition: lions hunt other animals to satisfy their carnivorous cravings and vultures search for dead meat. Yet Basil assures his audience that
in the restoration (apokatastasis), humans will return to the life of paradise, which
is not enslaved to passions of the flesh, which is free and intimate with God and the
same regimen as the angels.56 Here Basil carefully negotiates one of the fundamental questions in ascetic theory, and one that serves discursively to categorize
extreme or heretical behaviors: how are we to conduct our lives now in relation to
the lifestyle and regimen of paradise?57 His response to this question involves a
delicate affirmation of the goodness of creation and the current human diet, as
well as a rationale for dietary simplicity and control. Thus he is clear that the vegetarian diet of paradise does not require us to abstain from the use of foods given
to us by God (Gen. 9.3). Indeed, Basil argues that although variety in the human
diet is a consequence of sin, it is also consolation for the loss of paradise. At the
same time, Basil asserts that those who want to live in imitation of the life in paradise should make use of fruits and grains, and reject the excess as useless. 58
Is Basil acknowledging in so many words that a regular vegetarian diet is ideal?
I think so. But his reticence in actually naming meat here is no accident. Even if he
himself believed, for spiritual as well as medical reasons, that a vegetarian diet was
superior, he did not see it as an expectation for all Christians, and by the fourth
century any advocacy of such a view could be associated with heresy, as Basil
understood well. Unlike Tertullians treatise On Fasting, Basils homilies are not
defensive responses in the face of any criticism but are rather encouraging, explanatory, and addressed to a broad and diverse audience. In this way, they recall Clement
of Alexandrias Paedagogue. Yet precisely these characteristics may reflect a deeper
and much more personal struggle with the value and appropriate expression of
ascetic renunciation.
We have some hints of this struggle in Basils Letters and Rules. Just as he has
argued in the homilies that it is not necessary to avoid any particular food, he here
refers to 1 Timothy 4.15 and other scriptural passages in opining that vows of
abstinence from pork are absurd, and that ascetics should taste whatever is set
before them at meals, or risk being counted among the enemies of God who are
seared in their conscience and so avoid foods which God created to be received by
the faithful with thanksgiving.59 We actually get a glimpse of a debate with such
abstainers, in a letter in which Basil suggests how to respond to vegetable-eating
encratites who challenge those who criticize their abstinence from meat to explain
why, in that case, we humans do not eat all things indiscriminately. Basils somewhat provocative suggested response is, first, we also feel a loathing for our own

Vegetarianism, Heresy, and Asceticism


excrement, and second, while we could of course eat all things, we must distinguish
between good and harmful meats as well as vegetables.60
Basils mild and broad approach to fasting undoubtedly shows the influence of
fourth-century conflicts in Asia Minor over the expectations of enkrateia. These
debates held a very personal element for Basil. His teacher and model during the
formative period of his ascetic development and reflection was Eustathius of
Sebaste, who had been named in the canons of the Council of Gangra for the
improper activities and teachings of his followers.61 The Canons anathematize
those who condemn marriage, refuse to eat meat, dress distinctively, fast on irregular days, disregard the authority of church leaders, encourage disruptions in
families and households, and otherwise behave arrogantly.62 Thus Gangra makes
manifest the tensions over lay and ascetic piety, rigor and accommodation, and
ecclesiastical authority and ascetic elitism. Ascetic piety has its place and deserves
recognition, the Canons state, but it is controlled by ecclesiastical authority and
does not imply a lower status for married or wealthy Christians.
Eustathiuss own practices and teachings on these matters, as well as the longterm impact of the Councils judgment, are not exactly clear. The historian
Sozomen, writing in the mid-fifth century, admires Eustathius for his lifestyle and
teaching as well as his leadership of ascetic communities. He asserts that Eustathius
accepted the criticism of the Council and thereafter wore more regular clothing,
thus demonstrating that he had introduced and practiced these things not from
self-will but from godly asceticism.63 As Basil later (in the 370s) separated himself
from Eustathius over theological disputes around Arianism and the place of the
Holy Spirit in the Trinity, he nevertheless bitterly recalled his zealous early attraction
to the ascetic lifestyle of Eustathius and his community, a zealousness that, he claims
retrospectively, blinded him to the warning signs of Eustathiuss heretical beliefs.64
These wider tensions in Asia Minor, as well as the personal conflicts related to
ascetic piety, are thus clearly visible in Basils writings on abstinence, and in particular on dietary choices. In this way we can understand his elaboration of the idea
we saw in Tertullian, that the sin of the first humans was willful eating, as part of
an entire protological and eschatological discourse on creation, diet, sexuality, and
the human condition that characterizes fourth-century ascetic theory and,
ultimately, addresses the challenge of what is called the encratite view.65 For Basil,
finally, humans may imitate the life of paradise through their eating, but they
may not conduct their lives outside of this world, with its consolations of meat
and marriage.
Jerome (c. 342420) had no such qualms. If Basil argued that the benefits of fasting applied to all Christians in all situations, Jeromes focus is those who would be
perfect (Mt. 19.21), who have dedicated themselves to a life of ascetic renunciation. He has a hard time accommodating married householders and happy meateaters into his vision, and for that he was criticized and forced to distinguish his
practice and understanding from that of the heretics. In so doing, he relied on the
heresiological conventions, classifications, and portraits that were readily at his
disposal, while adding sometimes dramatic nuance not only with his exegetical
skills but also with his argument that ascetic perfectionism and elitism do not
necessarily stem from heresy, but have their place in a hierarchy of merit.


Teresa M. Shaw

Jerome spells out the importance of fasting and, more significantly, the reasons
for avoiding meat, in his Letters and his treatise Against Jovinian (393).66 Briefly,
the Roman monk Jovinian, using established anti-ascetic rhetorical categories,
argued that among baptized Christians there is no distinction in merit between
those who are married and procreate and those who have professed celibacy or
virginity, nor is there a higher merit or heavenly reward for those who eat meat
with thanksgiving, as granted by God, or those who fast. In fact, for Jovinian, those
who argue otherwise are no more than creation-hating heretics.67 Thus, while the
ground of the debate between Jovinian and Jerome is familiar from previous
authors, Jovinians points about hierarchy of merit and reward add a new dimension to the discourse on marital and dietary choices.
Jeromes response is aggressive and multifaceted. While the goodness of marriage is dominant, it is intertwined with the debate about diet and meat-eating. In
order to make the case for the higher value of fasting and the rationale for avoiding
meat, Jerome uses medical, philosophical, historical, anthropological, and of course
biblical knowledge. He agrees with other writers before him that the first diet was
vegetarian, that the prohibition against eating from the tree of knowledge of good
and evil amounted to a fasting regimen, and that by fasting now we can return to
paradise.68 In framing his defense of ascetic fasting, he draws directly on (or, as we
would say, plagiarizes) Tertullians treatise on fasting as well as Porphyrys On
Abstinence from Animal Foods, and cites medical arguments from Galen and
Hippocrates. He describes in exotic detail the variety of food practices in the world,
but insists that the fact that there is no worldwide law of nature on food means
nothing for those who have their concern in heaven, who are no longer constrained
by the habits and culture of their place of birth but live in relation to their new
birth. In this, he says, Christians have something in common with Empedocles,
Pythagoras, and all who love wisdom.69
Medical understandings of diet, the humors, and bodily constitution feature
prominently in Jeromes view of fasting, both here and in his Letters. These concepts establish the physiological connection between types of foods and intensity
of sexual desire that informs Jeromes ascetic piety. So powerful is the effect of food
abstinence on chastity for Jerome that, he writes, while God does not take pleasure
in the stomach pains of those who fast, it is not possible to maintain chastity in any
other way.70 Jerome refers directly to Galens model of the four qualities (of heat,
cold, dry, and moist) that exist in human bodies as well as in foods. Foods and
medicines possess certain powers or faculties to increase or decrease these qualities in the body. In this model, heating and moistening foods and drinks, most
notably meat and wine, are likely to increase the bodily fluids associated with
sexual activity, and therefore are likely to increase sexual lust, especially among
adolescents and young adults.71 In his correspondence to the young widow Furia
and the young monk Rusticus, for example, he notes that a cooling regimen will
reduce the natural heat of the body.72
Jerome explains Galens observations on natural heat to Furia and tells her that
in order to battle the enemy of lust within her own body she must reject heating
foods such as meat, wine, and certain vegetables, and drink only water. While meat
is of course to be avoided (citing only a portion of Romans 14.21, that it is good

Vegetarianism, Heresy, and Asceticism


not to eat meat or drink wine), some vegetables may seem harmless but in fact
have heating faculties.73 But Jeromes primary target is meat, which is so completely
associated with sexual life and procreation that he concludes: Let them eat flesh
who serve flesh, whose heat is worked off in sexual intercourse, who are bound to
husbands and give attention to generation and offspring. Let the ones whose
wombs carry fetuses fill their guts (intestina) also with flesh.74
With such a complete association and denigration of marriage and meat-eating
as service to the flesh, Jerome seems to invite accusations of heresy.75 It is hard to
imagine how he can make room in his world for those who do procreate and do eat
meat. But Jerome knew the arguments about heretical abstinence, and he displays
at least a rhetorical confidence that the practices he advocates do not fall into this
category. Rather, it is Marcion, Tatian, and others who are the heretics indicated in
scripture.76 Jerome insists that, unlike the heretics, he does not believe that all
Christians must abstain; but he accommodates those who do not fast and do not
keep sexual chastity through the notion of a hierarchy of merit and reward, not to
mention perfectionism.77 For his part, Jerome insists that he praises every creature
of God (1 Tim. 4.4) and yet prefers thinness to being fattened with food, abstinence to extravagance, fasting to fullness.78 In the same way, acknowledging the
scriptural constraint while simultaneously defending ascetic abstinence, Jerome
elsewhere explains that while he knows that Paul said every creature of God is
good, he would remind his reader that Paul also wrote it is good to not to eat meat
or drink wine (Rom. 14.21).79
In short, Jerome justifies his advocacy of strict dietary regimen and abstinence
from certain foods by carefully aligning his view with the standard heresiological
categories: he does not require abstinence for all Christians (far from it!), and does
not denigrate creation or the works of the creator. He goes further by claiming that
those who criticize him and his associates for their fasting use now-familiar scriptural texts, the concepts of the freedom of a Christian and the gifts of creation, and
charges of heretical abstinence, to justify their own heresy and indulgences. Thus
Jerome is not surprised when fallen and false virgins condemn a true virgin who
is fasting as a miserable Manichean monk, because they themselves excuse their
sexual wanderings as well as their drunkenness and gluttony by quoting that to the
pure all things are pure (Tit. 1.15) and asserting that one should not abstain from
foods which God created for use (1 Tim. 4.3).80 Thus also Jovinian himself is the
Latin advocate of Basilides heretical gospel of pleasure,81 emboldened to fornication by the assurance of his baptism and the option of marriage as a consolation,
surrounded by effeminate men and Amazonian women who compete in battles of
lust.82 Jeromes vehement counteroffensive demonstrates both the endurance of
the rhetorical model of heresy as first articulated in the second century, as well as
its adaptability to the particular debates of the late fourth century.

Karen King and Michael Williams have both argued that the traditional category
of gnosticism actually impedes historical understanding of the texts and the
groups normally labeled gnostic because all of the categories and assumptions


Teresa M. Shaw

about origins, motives, influences, and worldviews, are too deeply implicated in
the project of defining the boundaries of a normative Christianity.83 Similarly, in
early Christian treatises and sermons on Christian lifestyle, asceticism, diet, and
fasting, there is no discursive space for vegetarianismas long-term individual or
communal dietary commitment and practiceunencumbered by the weight of
heresiological concerns. A vegetarian diet is praised, though usually as part of a
limited fasting regimen, for its spiritual and health benefits and as an imitation of
the diet of paradise or angelic regimen. It is praised as a feature of the aweinspiring lives of biblical figures and desert holy men and women, and thus safely
removed to an elite realm of piety. Otherwise, it is a suspect practice associated
with the worst long-standing heretical tendencies. Not eating meat, finally, is presented and interpreted in both positive and negative terms because of the theoretical apparatus that drives toward the establishment of principles (e.g. the
goodness of creation or hatred of creation), motives (e.g. the imitation of paradise
through abstinence or indulgence in lust and fornication), and origins (pagan and
heretical inspirations, or biblical and apostolic ancestries) for making sense of
practice. The discourse on food abstinence, which by the end of the fourth century
interprets dietary practice as a theological statement on the very value of Gods
creation, is an example of what Bourdieu calls the logic of the symbolic, that
makes absolute all or nothing differences out of infinitesimal differences.84 Thus,
seemingly for all parties involved, length and times for fasts, days of the week,
types of foods, definitions of arrogance, and so on, become determining factors in
evaluating the validity of practice.
The heresiological distinction between valid food abstinence and heresy rests on
whether abstinence (especially from meat) is long-term, required (not merely
advocated) or arrogant, and whether or not it affirms or disparages bodily life in
general and procreation in particular. This distinction perpetuates the concept of
successions and genealogies by which error is inspired or sustained. And it establishes fundamental differences between moderation and excess, whether encratite
or libertine. These categories inform the arguments even of those who, like Jerome
and Tertullian, find themselves accused of heretical ascetic practices. And while
the categories of heresiological rhetoric may in fact prevent us from finding the
vegetarian in late antiquity, they are nevertheless seductive to the modern reader,
because by the fourth century they are part of a fully articulated, theologically
grounded, and appropriately contested and complicated theoretical framework.85
Not only are we trained to read these kinds of arguments, we tend to think in the
same categories, to reproduce the discourse of our sources even if we recognize
their rhetorical ploys.86
We see a tendency, for example, to use the term encratite, such a loaded term
in antiquity, even as we recognize that there may be no such group outside of the
heresiological imagination, or to distinguish moderate and radical asceticism,
even as we acknowledge that moderation is in the eye of the beholder (witness the
arguments over Jesus and Pauls support for enkrateia).87 While these distinctions
may be useful in relation to an analysis of rhetorical constructions, they also tie

Vegetarianism, Heresy, and Asceticism


historical inquiry too tightly to the ancient theorized framework, and too quickly
leave the category of practice behind in favor of motives or the theoretical basis
for behavior.88 As King and Williams have shown that scholars need to find other
ways of talking about the texts and pieties traditionally labeled as gnostic, so we
need to find other ways to talk about food piety that do not replicate the discourse
of heresy or the theological debates of antiquity.

1 Alain Le Boulluec, Orthodoxie et hrsie aux premiers sicles dans
lhistoriographie rcente , in Orthodoxie, christianisme, histoire/Orthodoxy,
Christianity, History, eds Susanna Elm, ric Rebillard, and Antonella Romano
(cole Franaise de Rome, 2000), pp. 30319 (303).
2 Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice (trans. Richard Nice; Stanford, CA:
Stanford University Press, 1990), pp. 86, 92.
3 Bourdieu, Logic of Practice, pp. 8687.
4 Recent scholarship on dietary renunciation in early Christianity specifically
and late antiquity generally includes Teresa M. Shaw, The Burden of the Flesh:
Fasting and Sexuality in Early Christianity (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1998);
Andrew McGowan, Ascetic Eucharists: Food and Drink in Early Christian
Ritual Meals (Oxford: Clarendon, 1999); Veronica E. Grimm, From Feasting to
Fasting, the Evolution of a Sin: Attitudes to Food in Late Antiquity (London
and New York: Routledge, 1996); Dianne Bazell, Strife Among the TableFellows: Conflicting Attitudes of Early and Medieval Christians Toward the
Eating of Meat, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 65 (1997),
pp. 7399; and Daniel A. Dombrowski, The Philosophy of Vegetarianism
(Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984). Useful older sources and
surveys include Herbert Musurillo, The Problem of Ascetical Fasting in the
Greek Patristic Writers, Traditio 12 (1956), pp. 164; Rudolph Arbesmann,
Das Fasten bei den Griechen und Rmern (Religionsgeschichtliche Versuche
und Vorarbeiten, 21, 1; Giessen: Tpelmann, reprint edn, 1966); idem, Fasten,
Fastenspiesen, Fasttage, in Reallexikon fr Antike und Christentum, ed.
Theodor Klauser (Stuttgart: Hiersemann, 1969), vol. 7, pp. 447524; idem,
Fasting and Prophecy in Pagan and Christian Antiquity, Traditio 7
(194951), pp. 171; and Johannes Haussleiter, Der Vegetarismus in der Antike
(Religionsgeschichtliche Versuche und Vorarbeiten, 24; Berlin: Tpelmann,
5 For a discussion and sources, see Shaw, Burden of the Flesh, especially pp. 1017.
In the hagiographical sources representing early Egyptian monasticism, for
example, meat and wine are commonly excluded from the monastic diet.
6 David G. Hunter, Marriage, Celibacy, and Heresy in Ancient Christianity: The
Jovinianist Controversy (Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 2.
7 A full discussion of these figures is beyond the limited scope of these pages,
but there are several useful recent studies focusing on ascetic practice. See





Teresa M. Shaw
Peter Browns overview in The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual
Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press,
1988), pp. 83102. On Tatian and issues of the heresiological construction
of Tatian and encratism, see in particular the recent revisionist study by
Emily J. Hunt, Christianity in the Second Century: The Case of Tatian (London
and New York: Routledge, 2003). David Hunter has recently examined in
Marriage, Celibacy, and Heresy the heresiological material as well as the views
of Clement, Tertullian, and Jerome (among others), with attention to the
ascetic view of marriage and the influence of the so-called encratite option.
On fasting and the use of water and other foods and drinks as alternatives to
bread and wine in the eucharist, see McGowan, Ascetic Eucharists. On
encratism in general, see Giulia Sfameni Gasparro, Asceticism and anthropology: enkrateia and double creation in early Christianity, in Asceticism, eds
Vincent L. Wimbush and Richard Valantasis (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1995), pp. 12746; eadem, Image of God and sexual differentiation in
the tradition of enkrateia: protological motivations, in Image of God and Gender Models in Judaeo-Christian Tradition, ed. Kari Elisabeth Brresen (Oslo:
Solum, 1991), pp. 13871; Henry Chadwick, ,,Enkrateia, in Reallexikon, vol. 5,
pp. 34366; Henri Crouzel, Les Sources bibliques de lenkrateia chrtienne ,
in La Tradizione dellEnkrateia: Motivazioni ontologiche e protologiche, ed. Ugo
Bianchi (Rome: Ateneo, 1985), pp. 50526; Robert McL. Wilson, Alimentary
and sexual encratism in the Nag Hammadi Tractates, in La Tradizione
dellEnkrateia, pp. 31739; Georges Blond, LHrsie encratite vers la fin du
quatrime sicle , Recherches de science religieuse 32 (1944), pp. 157210.
Alain Le Boulluec, La Notion dhrsie dans la littrature grecque, IIe-IIIe
sicles (2 vols; Paris: tudes Augustiniennes, 1985), vol. I, pp. 19, 35.
Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, I.28.1, in Irne de Lyon: Contre les hrsies: Livre
I (eds Adelin Rousseau and Louis Doutreleau; Sources chrtiennes [=SC]
26364; 2 vols; Paris: Cerf, 1979), vol. 2, p. 354.
Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., I.28.1, vol. 2, pp. 35456. See also on the denial of salvation to Adam, an idea Irenaeus insists was new with Tatian, Irenaeus, Adv.
Haer., III.23.8, in Irne de Lyon: Contre les hrsies: Livre III (eds Adelin
Rousseau and Louis Doutreleau; SC 21011; 2 vols.; Paris: Cerf, 1979), vol. 2,
pp. 46668. Le Boulluec analyzes in an illuminating fashion Irenaeuss use of
categories of both successions and innovations in his description of heretical ideas and practices, La Notion dhrsie, vol. I, pp. 16472.
This also represents what Walter Bauer outlined as part of the classical theory
of heresy, namely, that truth precedes error, that heresy is always a deviation
from original pure belief. See Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest
Christianity (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1971), pp. xxiiixxiv. For an example,
see Tertullians treatise On Prescription Against Heretics, in Tertullien: Trait
de la prescription contre les hrtiques (ed. R. F. Refoul; SC 46; Paris: Cerf,
1957). He argues that truth always precedes error, and notes that both
Marcion and Valentinus were believers is true doctrine and submitted to the
church in Rome until curiosity led them astray (De praescriptione haeretico-

Vegetarianism, Heresy, and Asceticism








rum, 2930, pp. 12529). Note also that by locating Tatians apostasy after
Justins death, this last observation shields Justin Martyr from association
with error (Hunt, Christianity in the Second Century, p. 177).
Hippolytus, Refutatio Omnium Haeresium, 8.16 (ed. Miroslav Marcovich;
Patristische Texte und Studien, 25; Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 1986),
p. 336.
Ref., 8.20 (Refutatio, p. 339). I have translated kataxrs fairly literally, as in a
dry manner, in order to bring out the physiological nuance of dryness that we
will see also in Clement, Tertullian, and Jerome on diet. A less literal translation would be in an ascetic way. See A Patristic Greek Lexicon, ed. G. W. H.
Lampe (Oxford: Clarendon, 1961), p. 713.
Ref., 7.2930 (Refutatio, pp. 30412). One of Hippolytuss primary methods in
the Refutation is the demonstration that heretical teachings have their origins
in pagan philosophy and cult.
Hippolytus, Ref., 7.30 (Refutatio, pp. 31112). 1 Timothy 4.15 reads, in the
RSV: (1) Now the spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart
from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, (2)
through the pretensions of liars whose consciences are seared, (3) who forbid
marriage and enjoin abstinence from foods which God created to be received
with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. (4) For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received
with thanksgiving; (5) for then it is consecrated by the word of God and
prayer. David Hunter notes that the deutero-Pauline epistles, and especially
the pastoral epistles provide the scriptural foundation of anti-ascetic arguments, particularly in light of the unresolved tensions between the biblical
portrayals of Jesus and Paul, and the ambiguity of Pauls teaching, on these
issues (Marriage, Celibacy, and Heresy, pp. 8797).
Clment dAlexandrie: Le Pdagogue (eds Henri-Irne Marrou et al.; SC 70,
108, 158; Paris: Cerf, 196070). Useful discussions include Marrous introduction, in vol. 70, pp. 797; Brown, Body and Society, pp. 12239; Salvatore R. C.
Lilla, Clement of Alexandria: A Study in Christian Platonism and Gnosticism
(Oxford University Press, 1971); Blake Leyerle, Clement of Alexandria on the
Importance of Table Etiquette, Journal of Early Christian Studies 3 (1995),
pp. 12341; Grimm, From Feasting to Fasting, pp. 90113; and Shaw, Burden
of the Flesh, pp. 4852.
Paed., II.1.1, p. 10.
See the discussion and sources in Shaw, Burden of the Flesh, pp. 5378.
Paed., II.1.5, p. 18.
Paed., II.1.11; II.2.29, pp. 30, 64.
Paed., II.2.20-21, pp. 4850. On the connection between eating and sexual
pleasures, see also Paed., II.10.90, pp. 17476; and Stromata, II.20.105, in
Clemens Alexandrinus (ed. Otto Sthlin; Die Griechischen Christlichen
Schriftsteller der Ersten Jahrhunderte [=GCS]; 2 vols; Berlin: Akademie,
1960), vol. 2, pp. 17071.








Teresa M. Shaw
Paed., II.1.11, p. 30. Like others, Clement quotes only part of this verse, and
takes it out of context without 14.20. Rom. 14.2021 reads, in the RSV: (20)
Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed
clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make others fall by what he eats. (21) It is
right not to eat meat or drink wine, or do anything that makes your brother
Paed., II.2.19, p. 46.
Paed., II.1.1516, pp. 3842.
Paed., II.1.910, pp. 2430.
Paed., II.2.3233, p. 70; Mt. 11.19.
Paed., II.1.15, p. 38; Plato, Respublica, II.13, 372c (ed. Paul Shorey; 2 vols;
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963), vol. I, p. 158; Musonius Rufus,
Discourse, 18A, in Musonius Rufus: The Roman Socrates (ed. Cora B. Lutz; Yale
Classical Studies, 10; New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1947), pp. 3147
(112); Plutarch, Quaestiones convivales, 4, 664a, in Plutarch, Moralia (eds Paul
A. Clement and Herbert B. Hoffleit; 15 vols; Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1969), vol. 8, p. 316.
As Marrou notes, in Clement of Alexandria, Le Pdagogue, p. 39, n. 10. Marrou
also observes that Clements specific dietary argumentation in the Paedagogue,
so influenced by moral philosophy, would seem to be leading toward absolute
abstinence, although does not in fact go this far, and that Clement separates
himself from those heretics who do (p. 60).
A proper review of Clements view on marriage is beyond the scope of this
essay. David Hunters useful analysis of these issues focuses in particular on
Clements opposition to the encratite view. See Marriage, Celibacy, and Heresy,
pp. 10513. For a detailed analysis of Clements representation of heresy see
Le Boulluec, La Notion dhrsie, vol. 2, pp. 263438, and for a discussion of
Clements use of genealogical and kinship imagery for heresy, see Denise
Kimber Buell, Making Christians: Clement of Alexandria and the Rhetoric
of Legitimacy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), pp. 7998.
Stromata, III.7.60; 63, pp. 22325. And see III.12.81, where Clement quotes
Tatians otherwise-lost treatise On Perfection According to the Savior, in
which Tatian associates marital sexual relations with incontinence, fornication, and the devil (pp. 23233).
See Hunter, Marriage, Celibacy, and Heresy, pp. 10711. Elizabeth Clark has
analyzed Clements use of scripture in relation to marriage and creation in the
context of a wider study of exegetical strategies in ascetic discourse. See Reading
Renunciation: Asceticism and Scripture in Early Christianity (Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 1999), especially pp. 271, 287, 297, 31617.
Stromata, III.6.51, p. 219.
See Stromata, III.11.71, p. 228; and Musonius Rufus, Discourse, 12, p. 86.
Hunter, Marriage, Celibacy, and Heresy, p. 105; Brown, Body and Society,
pp. 13639.

Vegetarianism, Heresy, and Asceticism


35 For discussions of Tertullian on issues of marriage and fasting, see Brown,

Body and Society, pp. 7682; Hunter, Marriage, Celibacy, and Heresy, pp. 11620;
Grimm, From Feasting to Fasting, pp. 11439.
36 Tertullian, De ieiunio adversus psychicos, 1; 15, in Tertulliani Opera Omnia, 1
(eds Augusti Reifferscheid and Georgii Wissowa; Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum [=CSEL], 20; Vienna: Tempsky, 1890), pp. 275, 293.
Recall that Clement of Alexandria acknowledged the value of xerophagia for
absorbing excess moisture in the bodily constitution, but in a more general
context (see above).
37 De ieiunio, 12, pp. 27476.
38 The Latin adverb is indifferenter, related to the Stoic term adiaphora. Recall
that Clement used this term against what he argues is an overly restrictive
abstinence, while Tertullian here uses the term in representing the views of
his opponents.
39 De ieiunio, 2, pp. 27576.
40 De ieiunio, 69, pp. 28086.
41 De ieiunio, 6, pp. 28081.
42 De ieiunio, 15, pp. 29394.
43 De ieiunio, 15, pp. 29394.
44 De ieiunio, 34, pp. 27779. See Clark, Reading Renunciation, pp. 181 and
passim, on the motif of the difference in times in ascetic exegesis. See also De
ieiunio, 15, in which Tertullian argues that while Romans 14.20-21 and
1 Timothy 4.15 rightly condemn those who abstain out of contempt for
God, Christians should fast not out of contempt, but from duty; not to insult,
but to honor the creator (p. 293).
45 For discussion and examples, see Shaw, Burden of the Flesh, pp. 161219.
46 See Philip Rousseau, Basil of Caesarea (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1994). On Basils ascetic writings, see especially pp. 190232.
47 De ieiunio homiliae, 1-2, in Patrologia Graeca [=PG], vol. 31 (16497).
48 De ieiunio hom., I.9 (fasting improves physical appearance, gait, and demeanor); I.11 (fasting is the refinement of the city, the stability of the market, the
peace of households, the preservation of properties); II.2; (fasting is valuable
for rich and poor, women and men, young and old); II.5 (personal and public
benefits of fasting); II.7 (fasting is the mother of health and is useful to every
person in every walk of life) (177B; 184B; 185C188B; 192B193A; 193C
196D). On the hygienic motif in the discourse on fasting, see Musurillo,
Problem of Ascetical Fasting, pp. 1719; and on medicine and fasting, see
Arbesmann, Fasten, pp. 46768; and idem, Das Fasten, pp. 11826.
49 De ieiunio hom., I.7; I.9; II.1 (173C; 180C; 185A-C).
50 De ieiunio hom., I.9 (181A). See also I.7 (173B-C).
51 Homiliae de hominis structura, in Basile de Csare: Sur lorigine de lhomme
(eds Alex Smets and Michel van Esbroeck; SC 160; Paris: Cerf, 1970). While
the attribution of these homilies to Basil is not straightforward, several scholars now accept them as, in Rousseaus words, essentially the work of Basil







Teresa M. Shaw
(Rousseau, Basil, p. 318, n. 1). See pp. 1326 for the editors argument for
De ieiunio hom., I.3 (168A).
De ieiunio hom., I.34 (168AB).
De ieiunio hom., I.3 (168B).
De ieiunio hom., I.5 (169B).
De hom. struc., II.67, pp. 23846.
On the issue of protological and eschatological theories for ascetic abstinence,
see Gasparro, Asceticism; eadem, Image of God and sexual differentiation;
Ton H. C. Van Eijk, Marriage and virginity, death and immortality, in Epektasis: Mlanges patristiques offerts au Cardinal Jean Danilou, eds Jacques
Fontaine and Charles Kannengiesser (Paris: Beauchesne, 1972), pp. 20935.
Since we no longer gaze upon the tree of life, nor glory in that beauty, henceforth butchers and bakers and a variety of pastries and fragrant foods have
been given to us for our enjoyment, and such things console us for our fall
from that place (De hom. struc., II.7, pp. 24446). Note that ascetic authors
also referred to marriage as a consolation for the loss of immortality in the
fall. Meat-eating and procreation are both consequences of the fall yet mercifully bestowed by God. For a discussion and texts, see Shaw, Burden of the
Flesh, pp. 186, 192, 198. On the ideal of the simple diet see also Regulae fusius
tractatae, 19, in PG 31, 968A969B.
Epistula 199.28, in PG 32, 725A; Reg fus. tract., 18, 965A-B.
Epistula 236.4, in PG 31, 881CD. On the encratites, see also Epistulae 188.1
and 199.47, in PG 31, 668B672A; 729C-732B.
There is no definite historical evidence for the date of the Council of Gangra.
T. D. Barnes has recently argued for a date of 355, The Date of the Council of
Gangra, Journal of Theological Studies, n.s. 40 (1989), pp. 12124, although
others have proposed dates as early as 340. On the biography and sources for
Eustathius, see Jean Gribomont, Eustathe de Sbaste , Dictionnaire de
spiritualit 4 (1961), pp. 170812; and idem, Eustathe de Sbaste , Dictionnaire dhistoire et de gographie ecclsiastiques 16 (1967), pp. 2633.
Canons from the Council of Gangra, trans. O. Larry Yarbrough, in Ascetic
Behavior in Greco-Roman Antiquity, ed. Vincent L. Wimbush (Minneapolis,
MN: Fortress, 1990), pp. 44855. The bishops at Gangra also assert that they
admire ascetic renunciations, including virginity, abstinence (enkrateia), and
withdrawal, when observed with humility and without condemnation of the
larger Christian community (Epilogue, p. 454).
Sozomen, Historia ecclesiastica, III.14, in PG 67, 1080BC. On Eustathian
asceticism, the evidence for Asia Minor, the influence of Eustathius on Basil,
Basils moderation and reserve, and the end of their friendship, see Jean
Gribomont, Le Monachisme au IVe s. en Asie Mineure: de Gangres au
Messalianisme , in Studia Patristica 2 (Berlin: Academie, 1957), pp. 40015;
idem, Saint Basile et le monachisme enthousiaste , Irenikon 53 (1980),
pp. 12344; Charles A. Frazee, Anatolian Asceticism in the Fourth Century:

Vegetarianism, Heresy, and Asceticism










Eustathios of Sebastea and Basil of Caesarea, Catholic Historical Review 66

(1980), pp. 1633; Gilbert Dagron, Les Moines et la ville: le monachisme
Constantinople jusquau concile de Chalcdoine (451) , Travaux et mmoires
4 (1970), pp. 22976 (especially 24953, 27576); and now Rousseaus very
helpful discussion, Basil, pp. 2324, 7376, 23945, and passim.
Epistula 223.3, PG 31, 824D828A. Rousseau demonstrates that Basil is here
reconstructing the past (Basil of Caesarea, p. 243).
On the protological and eschatological theories about diet, see Shaw, Burden
of the Flesh, pp. 161219; and in the context of modern vegetarianism, Christopher Southgate in this collection.
For a full discussion of the Jovinianist controversy in the context of ascetic
debates and other anti-ascetic literature, see now David Hunter, Marriage,
Celibacy, and Heresy, passim. Grimm discusses the dietary points of the
debate, in From Feasting to Fasting, pp. 15779.
Jerome, Adversus Jovinianum, I.3; II.5, Patrologia Latina 23, 224B; 303A-304B.
Epistulae 22.10; 130.10, in CSEL 54, pp. 15758; 56, p. 189; Adv. Jov., II.15
Adv. Jov., II.7 (307D310A).
Ep., 22.11, in CSEL 54, p. 158. Note that Basil of Caesarea makes a similar point
in the Rules, that abstinence (enkrateia) is necessary for those who struggle for
piety, in order to mortify the body (Reg. fus. tract., 18 (965AB)).
See my discussion of the medical material, dietary theory, and the connection
Jerome draws between diet and desire, and the sources cited, in Burden of the
Flesh, pp. 5378; 96112; and passim.
Epp., 54.910; 125.7, in CSEL 54, pp. 47477; 56, p. 124. See also Ep. 22.17 to
Eustochium, where Jerome idealizes a virginal body in which the moisture
associated with sexual function and lust has been dried up through fasting
(CSEL 54, pp. 16466).
Those who wish to maintain chastity must therefore eat sparingly and not
stuff themselves with vegetables, thinking that they are at least avoiding the
more obviously dangerous meat. In fact, heavy eating itself is dangerous, as
Jerome writes, nothing so inflames the body and tickles the genital members
than undigested food and convulsive belching (Ep. 54.10, in CSEL 54, p. 477).
Ep. 79.7, in CSEL 55, p. 96.
Indeed, even Jeromes friends in Rome were disturbed by the vehemently
unbending and hostile tone of his ascetic argument. See J. N. D. Kelly, Jerome:
His Life, Writings, and Controversies (London: Duckworth: 1975), pp. 17994;
Hunter, Marriage, Celibacy, and Heresy, pp. 24550.
Adv. Jov., II.16 (323B-C).
This theme runs throughout the treatise, but see especially II:1834. In II.6,
Jerome notes that while none are commanded to be poor, Jesus said, If you
would be perfect, go and sell all that you have, give it to the poor, and come,
follow me (Mt. 19.21). In the same way, although food abstinence is not commanded, those who would be perfect should abstain from wine and meat. Go








Teresa M. Shaw
ahead and eat, he tells Jovinian, no one will take your delicacies from you
Adv. Jov., I.3; II.16 (223A; 323BC).
Ep. 79.7, in CSEL 55, p. 96. See also Ep. 54.9, in CSEL 54, p. 474, where Jerome
notes that he does not condemn food created by God for human use with
thanksgiving (1 Tim. 4.4), but wants to eliminate incentives to pleasure. On
this method of both acknowledging and refuting, see Bazell, Strife, p. 78; and
Clark, Reading Renunciation. Clark identifies several exegetical strategies by
which ascetic authors brought scriptural passages into line with their reading.
In Jeromes case we see here what Clark calls talking back, using one passage
to refute or counterbalance another (pp. 12832), and changing the audience,
reading passages critical of asceticism as referring to others, usually stock
heretics (pp. 13638).
Ep. 22.13, in CSEL 54, pp. 16061.
Note that Irenaeus associates Basilides with sexual and dietary libertinism
(Adv. Haer., I.24.5; I.28.2, in SC 264, pp. 32930; 356), and Clement of
Alexandria discusses Basilidess and (his son) Isidores view on marriage in
Stromata, III.1.1-3, in GCS 2, pp. 19597. But Clements representation is rather
ambiguous. Basilides and Isidore seem to have advocated celibacy, based in
part on the ideal of eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 19.1112), but
accepted marriage, while some of their followers lived impurely. See the discussion of Basilides in Michael Allen Williams, Rethinking Gnosticism: An
Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 1996), pp. 16667.
Adv. Jov., II.36-37 (349A-352A). Hunter discusses Jeromes harsh depiction of
Jovinians circle in relation to competition for aristocratic support in Rome, in
Marriage, Celibacy, and Heresy, pp. 7274.
Karen L. King, What is Gnosticism? (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard
University Press, 2003), p. 2; also Williams, Rethinking Gnosticism. Williams
proposes the alternate title of biblical demiurgical myth as a replacement for
gnosticism (pp. 5153), but King has criticized this solution as too dependent on the polemical literature and its categories (pp. 21416).
Bourdieu, Logic of Practice, p. 137.
Bourdieu would remind us, however, that theory is totalizing, and that it projects
meaning, symbolic value, and logic onto a practice (in this case food choice)
that excludes this type of discursive logic (Logic of Practice, pp. 8097).
Le Boulluec, Orthodoxie et hrsie -, p. 303.
See for example, the excellent recent studies of Hunter (Marriage, Celibacy,
and Heresy, p. 2) and Gasparro (Asceticism, p. 129), which both warn against
the heresiological construction of encratism, yet continue to use the term and
to distinguish between types of encratism on the basis of moderation, extremism, and protological or eschatological motivations. Emily Hunts study has
begun to question some of these distinctions in relation to the figure of Tatian
(Christianity in the Second Century, pp. 15055, 17778).

Vegetarianism, Heresy, and Asceticism


88 For example, Gasparro, Asceticism, p. 129. I have recently shown that, in

the case of the Greek Discourse on Salvation to a Virgin attributed to
Athanasius of Alexandria, the ambiguous instructions in the text about
fasting, especially the phrase everything non-animal is pure are sufficient
reasons for many scholars in the early twentieth century to associate the
author with extremist or heretical asceticism, in spite of the texts repeated
emphasis on moderation and the accommodation of others eating habits and
needs. See Ascetic practice and the genealogy of heresy: problems in modern
scholarship and ancient textual representation, in The Cultural Turn in Late
Ancient Studies: Gender, Asceticism, and Historiography, eds Patricia Cox
Miller and Dale Martin (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005),
pp. 21336.

6 The question is not, Can they

reason? nor, Can they talk? but,
Can they suffer?1: The Ethics of
Vegetarianism in the Writings
of Plutarch
Michael Beer

This chapter will attempt to locate some of the writings of Plutarch within the
history of vegetarian thought. Although there are references to vegetarianism and
the treatment of animals scattered throughout his oeuvre, this paper will focus on
just three essays contained in the collection of moral tracts known as the Moralia.
The first two, Whether Land or Sea Animals are Cleverer and Beasts are Rational,
attempt to prove the intelligence of animals, and their right to receive fair and equitable treatment from humans. The latter text even attempts, perhaps somewhat
playfully, to assert the superiority of animals over humans. These texts act as a useful prelude to the third text, On the Eating of Flesh (divided into two parts), although
were perhaps not originally conceived as such. This third text is a sustained polemic
against the iniquity and immorality of killing animals and eating their flesh. It uses
powerfully emotive language to proclaim the cruelty of the practice. It also attempts
to rebuff some of the prevailing arguments, principally deriving from Stoic philosophy that sought to classify animals as irrational beasts valuable only as objects of
human utilization. Plutarch combines these arguments with those of a more anthropocentric nature: the mistreatment and slaughter of animals is not only detrimental
to animals, but also to humans. Plutarch is certainly not unique in exploring the
latter issue, as similar arguments had been advanced in the past to extol the virtues
of a vegetarian diet. It is his concern with the suffering of animals that not only
makes him almost unique in the ancient worldat least up until this point of
historybut renders him eerily prescient of the sorts of arguments offered by
modern philosophers espousing the cause of animal rights. When we consider the
plight of battery hens, the potential for suffering and distress of a cow in an abattoir

Vegetarianism in the Writings of Plutarch


or the rights and wrongs of animal vivisection, we are, in a sense, the spiritual heirs
of Plutarch.2
Before examining the texts more closely, it will be useful to locate Plutarch
geographically and temporally, and briefly contextualize his writing in terms of
how animals were treated during his lifetime. Plutarch was born around AD 46 in
Boeotia and lived until about AD 120 . He was educated in rhetoric and philosophy
in Athens and eventually elected to the priesthood of Apollo at Delphi. He was a cosmopolitan figure, widely travelled, and his writings were numerous. Perhaps the best
known to a modern audience are the Lives, a collection of twenty-four sets of parallel
lives of famous Greek and Roman statesmen, and the seventy-eight essays comprising the Moralia. The three texts presently under consideration form part of the latter
corpus. They seek to address issues that had already been considered by other
Graeco-Roman philosophers. Plutarchs vegetarian ideology was by no means unique,
and to some extent not particularly innovative, as numerous references may be found
in Plato, Theophrastus and others favouring such a diet. The Pythagorean School in
particular was renowned for its espousal of a meat-free diet. Yet the Pythagorean
biographical tradition is to some extent confused, habitually veering between pseudohistoricity and blatant myth making. So great is the chronological distance between
the lifetime of Pythagoras (in the sixth century BC) and the accounts of the biographies (written several hundred years later), that much of what is known, or knowable,
about Pythagoras is pure conjecture. What is relevant here, and will be discussed
later, are the Pythagorean arguments advanced and disseminated in favour of vegetarianism: the positive effects of a vegetarian diet on physical and moral health; the
doctrine of reincarnation; and the brutalizing of human sensitivities resulting from
meat-eating. Plutarch does not reject these arguments in his writings; in fact, he
seems to concur with many of them. Yet he also goes much further than Pythagoras
by seeking to move the debate beyond the sphere of what is relevant to humans. His
discussions aim to make animal welfare the locus of concern.
It is vital to realize that the espousal of vegetarianism in antiquity was very much
a countercultural action. Meat-eating, the utilization of animals within the economic system and the killing of animals for both religious purposes and entertainment,
were woven into the very fabric of Graeco-Roman society. Those who promoted the
merits of a non-carnivorous dietary regimen were almost certainly few. They must
frequently have been viewed, at the very least, as oddities or religious eccentrics,
operating at the very margins of society.3 They may even have been regarded with
suspicion or hostility, with their beliefs being perceived as a threat to established
systems of ideology, as suggested by John Wilkins in the next chapter. Meat-eating
as a practical necessity may be rather less significant than is first supposed. Meat
may have not been part of the quotidian diet, if it were considered that animals
served more useful purposes alive than dead. They acted as beasts of burden, and
produced numerous by-products, for example milk and wool or fur, the supply of
which would cease if they were slaughtered. They also consumed plant and vegetable matter that could otherwise go straight to humans. Meat might have been
regarded as simply an inefficient way for humans to consume precious resources.4


Michael Beer

However, if meat were regarded as an aberration from normal diet, and thus an
exceptional and much-anticipated treat, refusal to eat it might have been considered even more inexplicable.
The religious use of animals and the place of animals within the culture of the
Roman arena are both more problematic. Animal sacrifice was basic to both the
Greek and Roman religious systems.5 Divination and the analysis of omens, using
the entrails of animals and birds, and the sacrifice of animals to the gods, was an
important element of worship.6 The animal or animals were butchered as an offering to the gods. To reject meat within this sacred context implied a gross impiety:
a repudiation of the hallowed act of communion between mortal and god.
If ancient religious ritual can be interpreted predominantly as a communal act, a
public covenant between man and deity, in which the former seeks guidance or
protection from the latter in order to ensure the continued survival and prosperity
of the body politic, then its rejection may be seen as a renunciation of the gods,
and even a betrayal of the community. Participation in religious ritual, and often
the consumption of animal flesh, was thus integral to community membership.
Jean-Pierre Vernant notes:
Society always acts as the mediating link between the faithful and the god. It is not a direct
link between two individual personalities but is rather the expression of the relationship
which links a god to a human groupa particular household, a city, a type of activity, a
certain place in the land. If the individual is banished from the domestic altars, excluded
from the temples of his town, and proscribed from the territory of his fatherland, he is
thereby cut off from the world of the divine. He loses both his social identity and his
religious essence: he is reduced to nothing.7

Similarly integral to a sense of communal identity, at least within the Roman world,
was the spectacle of animal slaughter in the arena. Along with gladiatorial combats, this was a staple on the menu of carnage of the Roman arena. Common phenomena included animal hunting (venatione), the death of criminals at the jaws of
ravenous wild animals (damnatio ad bestias), and the so-called fatal charade, in
which animal and human participated in the theatrical re-enactment of popular
myth. This usually involved the erotic coupling of human and god, the latter in the
guise of an animal. The end result was anything but erotic.8 An enormous number
of animals were killed in arenas all across the Roman Empire, particularly in
Rome during Plutarchs lifetime. At the dedication of the Coliseum in AD 80, the
Emperor Titus had 9,000 animals killed over 100 days, including 5,000 in a single
day, while during the Dacian triumph of Trajan in AD 107 , 11,000 animals were
killed over 123 days.9 Such a colossal scale of animal slaughter suggests that the
spectators either possessed a deep sadistic streak, or were wholly desensitized to
death.10 However, more importantly, animal slaughter in the arena served, like religious sacrifice, to reconfirm humanitys place in the hierarchy of the universe. Just
as animal sacrifice reaffirmed humans middle position in the triptych of god
humananimal, so the audience in the arena saw not only the concrete enactment
of Roman justicethe just deserts awaiting those who rebelled against Roman

Vegetarianism in the Writings of Plutarch


rulebut also human subjugation of the natural world. Rare and exotic beasts
from the furthest regions of the empire were brought, by Roman ingenuity and
power, to fight in the capital for the edification and glory of Emperor and people.
One should not discount the importance of hunting as an adjunct to this, not necessarily for the supply of food but as a way of honing martial skills and as a source
of human pleasure and excitement.11
It is against this backdrop that we must consider the vegetarian writings of
Plutarch. The three writings currently under scrutiny were probably not conceived
as a coherent trilogy. Nonetheless, taken together, they present a formidable and
sustained statement of intent, attacking meat-eating on multiple fronts: the status
and treatment of animals, the health implications of a vegetarian diet and the
spiritual implications of vegetarianism. It is unclear whether the texts are complete. Their rather abrupt endings suggest that substantial portions are missing.
It is, of course, possible that, were we able to recover these missing fragments, we
may view the texts rather differently, but we are compelled to judge the Plutarchian
view on what remains. We must assume that whatever is lost presents no substantial problems for the scholar. Moreover, the texts may not constitute a coherent
Plutarchian viewpoint. After all, they are presented in the form of dialogues, offering debate about these issues and presenting the reader with several opposing
viewpoints. They may be no more than exercises in rhetoric: a way of illustrating
the knowledge and intellectual agility of the author. However, the preoccupation
with such an iconoclastic standpoint and the emotive language used, especially in
the third text, point not to a dispassionate conversation piece but a very real and
partisan concern with the subject.
The first essay is entitled De sollertia animalium (On the Cleverness of Animals),
although translates from the original Greek as Whether Land or Sea Animals are
Cleverer.12 It takes the form of a conversation between six people: Autobulus, Soclarus, Optatus, Aristotimus, Phaedimus and Heracleon. The debate centres on
whether terrestrial or aquatic creatures are more intelligent. No clear conclusion is
reached, and the abrupt ending seems to point to a missing portion of text
although it is possible that Plutarch did not intend to reach a definitive conclusion,
and merely wished to argue that all nonhuman creatures possessed some form of
rationality. The dialogue opens with a reference to a lost work, On Praise of Hunting,
discussed the previous day. Autobulus, who was Plutarchs father, contends that it
was the pastime of hunting that engendered in humans a taste for violence and killing.13 During the early life of the text, this may have seemed to be not an indictment
of hunting, but rather an endorsement of the practice. The inculcation of martial
virtues would not have been viewed negatively when Plutarch was writing. If anything, it is pacifism that would have been regarded with suspicion. Autobulus uses
as an analogy the execution of a man at Athens which led to the killing of many
undeserving of such punishment. It was as if the first act unleashed an unstoppable
tide of savagery. In the same way, the slaughter of wild animals was praised, perhaps
for the valour of the act or because such feats were justifiable acts of self-defence
against violent predators.14 After this came a downward spiral, with the process of
killing extending to less formidable creatures such as horses and dogs.


Michael Beer

It is at this point that Plutarch first mentions Pythagoras. He asserts that the
Pythagorean rationale for humane treatment of animals was that such treatment
engenders feelings of compassion within humans (w3sper au} pa/lin oi9 Puqa
gorikoi\ th\n ei0j ta\ qhri/a prao/thta mele/thn e0poih/santo pro\j to\ fila/
nqrwpon kai\ filoi/ktirmon).15 It is worth noting two things at this point. First,
Plutarch will go on to invoke Pythagoras at a later stage of his discussion. Second,
it seems that this Pythagorean justification for restraint in killing animals is entirely
anthropocentric. The act of not killing animals is only seen to have a beneficial
effect upon human behaviour. Animal welfare is not considered, at least at this
stage. Plutarch next proceeds to consider the putative rationality of animals. He
sees animals as creatures possessing more qualities than mere sentience. In laying
traps for prey and seeking hiding places, they demonstrate intelligence. The fact
that they do not participate in the level of reason demanded by the Stoic definition
of rationality should not result in them being judged irrational. Plutarch proceeds
to elaborate on this. Soclarus objects that animals do not explicitly aim at virtue,
which is why reason exists.16 The rebuttal of this point, from Autobulus, attributes
to animals not a lack of reason, as the Stoics would have it, but merely an imperfection of reason. There may exist a spectrum of degrees of rationality within the
animal kingdom. If Stoics equate rationality with perfection, they would fail to
locate the former quality in humans. Also, if the Stoic position is that affection for
offspring is a central wellspring of justice (which in turn is what reason aims for),
then denying that animals do not care for their offspring is to deny the empirical
evidence of their own eyes.17 For the modern reader, the argument concerning levels of rationality has become more subtle and complex, and hinges on the question
of marginality, as discussed by Daniel Dombrowski elsewhere in this collection.18
If we concede that humans and animals possess differing degrees of sentience, we
should also acknowledge that different human beingssuch as the severely mentally disabled or newborn infantsmight experience varied cognitive states. Some
would argue that a well-trained dog or horse enjoys a richer cerebral existence
than a small child or someone who exists in a near-vegetative state. This argument
may well work in Plutarchs favour. If sentience is to be used as a guide to treatment, some animals should receive more consideration than some humans.
The discussion continues, with Soclarus arguing for humanitys superior capacity for learning and wisdom. A counterargument is offered by Autobulus that very
often, animals possess superior natural faculties, such as eyesight, hearing and
smell. The first part of the text concludes with a statement of vegetarian intent.
Autobulus (and perhaps the author himself) proclaims the irrelevance of meat to
human diet, and the cruelty of hunting animals. He notes: ou0 ga\r a0nairei=tai to\
zh=n ou0de\ bi/oj a0po/llutai toi=j a0nqrw/poij, a2n mh\ lopa/daj i0xqu/wn mhd'
h3pata xhnw=n e2xwsi mhde\ bou=j mhd' e0ri/fouj katako/ptwsin e0p' eu0wxi/a|.19
He continues:
to\n ga\r pai/zonta kai\ terpo/menon oi}mai sumpai/zousi dei=n xrh=sqai kai\
i9laroi=j, ou0x w3sper o9 Bi/wn e1lege ta\ paida/ria pai/zonta tw=n batra/xwn
toi=j li/qoij e0fi/esqai, tou\j de\ batra/xouj mhke/ti pai/zontaj a0ll a0lhqw=j

Vegetarianism in the Writings of Plutarch


a0poqnh|/skein, ou3tw kunhgei=n kai\ a9lieu/ein, o0dunwme/noij terpome/nouj

kai\ a0poqnh|/skousi, toi=j d' a0po\ sku/mnwn kai\ neossw=n e0leeinw=j a0gome/noij.
ou0 ga\r oi9 xrw/menoi zw|/oij a0dikou=sin, a0ll' oi9 xrw/menoi blaberw=j kai\
o0ligw/rwj kai\ met' w0mo/thtoj.20

A further observation may be made here. Even though Plutarch has denounced
the tormenting and killing of animals, particularly young ones, as needlessly cruel,
he is not arguing that humans should make no use of animals at all. It is clear that
Plutarch sees in the humane treatment of animals a way for both to co-exist.
A contract is made in which the human looks after and feeds the animal, in return
for which the animal performs a series of manual tasks. The fact that this relation
mirrors that of the master and slave only proves Plutarchs point that relations
between animals and humans can, in some way, be considered in similar terms. In
neither case is free will evident, and an element of compulsion must be assumed.
I shall pass over much of the rest of the essay, not because it is uninteresting, but
because for our purposes largely redundant to the substance of Plutarchs argument. It consists of a series of illustrations of the behaviour of both land and sea
creatures that are meant to demonstrate that such creatures display an intelligence
either equal or superior to that of humans. The examples are consistently interesting, although to a modern audience sometimes unintentionally amusing, owing to
the paucity of Plutarchs zoological knowledge. He may wax lyrically over the intricacy of the webs spun by spiders, the structural efficiency of ant society and the
ingenuity of dogs. He is, however, unafraid to include dubious anecdotal material.
This might have appeared charming, and perhaps even convincing, to an ancient
audience, but appeals less to a modern readership. An example is his tale of the
Alexandrian flower girl, courted by both Aristophanes the grammarian and an
elephant. The latter is reported as bringing her gifts of fruit and using its trunk to
reach under her garments to caress her breasts.21 In a similar vein, Plutarch speaks
of a snake in love with a woman and a goose enamoured of a boy. These stories are
obviously intended to show animal capacity for tender emotions. Modern readers
may simply see inappropriate behaviour between species, while those in antiquity
might have felt less uncomfortable with the tales, seeing them in the context of
repeated mythological stories of sexual coupling and love between humans and
gods in the guise of animals. The text ends abruptly, perhaps indicating some loss.
No verdict has been reached on whether terrestrial animals or fish are cleverer.
The outcome is in a sense irrelevant. Plutarch is arguing for the rationality of all
nonhuman creatures. Their possession of rationality, denied by the Stoics, entitles
them to a degree of consideration from humans.
This theme is developed further in the next text under examination. Bruta
animalia ratione uti (Beasts are Rational), also known as Gryllus, is a relatively
light-hearted and much shorter work based around the events of the tenth book of
Homers Odyssey. Odysseuss men have been transformed into beasts by the sorceress, Circe. Odysseus demands that they be restored to their former state. Circe
retorts that they may well be happier in their new guise. She gives to one of the
creatures the ability to speak so that he may give his opinion upon the matter.


Michael Beer

The beast, a pig, is unaware of his human name, and is given the name Gryllus
(Greek for pig).
Gryllus states that he believes himself to be happier as a pig than as a man.
Plutarch then has Gryllus offer proof that, in all respects, humans are inferior to
other creatures. He first asserts that animals are naturally virtuous.22 This is largely
in accord with the view presented in De sollertia animalium. However, whereas
Plutarch previously appeared to be arguing merely for an acknowledgement of
intelligence in animals, he here goes much further and argues for their superiority
over humans. He begins indeed by actually condemning the virtues concomitant
with developed human intelligence. Gryllus declares that bestial valour surpasses
human valour because valour in animals is unsullied by self-interest or fear.23 They
attack their enemies without apprehension, acknowledging the possibility of neither death nor capture. Animals will fight until death, and if captured will starve
themselves rather than endure slavery. Courage, Gryllus ventures, does not exist
naturally in humans.24 This is shown by the equal distribution of such virtues
between the male and female of the species within the animal kingdom, in contrast
with their unequal distribution among humans, in whom it is necessary to inculcate virtues through education and law: w3sq u9mei=j kata\ no/mwn a0na/gkhn ou0x
e9kou/sion ou0de\ boulome/nhn a0lla\ douleu/ousan e1qesi kai\ yo/goij kai\ do/caij
e0ph/lusi kai\ lo/goij plattome/nhn, meleta=te a0ndrei/an: kai\ tou\j po/nouj u9fi/
stasqe kai\ tou\j kindu/nouj, ou0 pro\j tau=ta qarrou=untej a0lla\ tw=| e3tera
ma=llon tou/twn dedie/nai.25 This argument, and its appeal to the virtues of primitivism, appears to suggest that guile and artifice are in some way cowardly methods
to employ in combat situations. Plutarch not only ignores Grylluss arguments that
humans do not possess the same natural faculties as many wild animals and therefore may have recourse to their own methods in these situations, but also fails to
take into account that these human failingsfleeing from combat, a willingness to
accept capitulationmay be mere stratagems to ensure survival. Such actions display an ability to plan for the future and foresee the possible consequences of a
course of action: the beast that lives in the moment may act irrationally because
unable to take measures to ensure its own future survival. Plutarch offers further
examples of contradictions of his stance in De sollertia animalium by stating that
animals do not desire to mate outside their own species, despite having offered
up several examples of such behaviour in the other work. Here he seeks not to
prove the superiority of animals over humans, but their equality, acknowledging
that inter-species sexual behaviour is a taboo, unlike in De sollertia animalium.
Plutarch seems to possess an uncanny ability to subvert and twist the logic of his
Plutarch moves on to arguments from morality. He posits that animals do not
indulge in behaviour that may be deemed luxurious. By this, he means that they
do not covet riches and wealth, indulging instead only in natural pleasures. 26 They
do not anoint themselves with expensive and exotic perfumes, preferring the
odour of natural bodily scents. They indulge in sexual activity not for reasons of
self-gratification but to procreate. Thus, he states, in the kingdom of the animals
there is no homosexual or lesbian behaviour.27 And yet again, Plutarch strays into

Vegetarianism in the Writings of Plutarch


the realm of self-contradiction by asserting that the extremes of human passion

manifest themselves in acts of bestiality. It is clear here that he wishes to show that
these unnatural acts are perpetrated by humans, with animals being passive objects
of human lust. Thus, when such behaviour is instigated by animals, it is a display
of virtue, but when initiated by humans, is a perversion. The result of such bestiality is the creation of dreadful animal/human hybrids such as the Minotaur, the
Sphinx and the Centaurs.28
So far as food and drink are concerned, Plutarch is at pains to emphasize that
animals are true to the dictates of their own physiognomies and ingest only what
their bodies require. Often this will take the form of plants or fruit (toi=j me\n
po/a toi=j de\ r9i/za tij h2 karpoj).29 If the animal is carnivorous by nature, it will
consume flesh. Only in the direst hunger will it resort to eating beyond its quotidian diet. Humans, however, in their ceaseless desire to experience culinary innovation, are omnivorous: o9 d' a1nqrwpoj e0pi\ pa/nta tai=j h9donai=j u9po\ laimargi/aj
e0cago/menoj kai\ peirw/menoj pa/ntwn kai\ a0pogeuo/menoj, w9j ou0de/pw to\
pro/sforon kai\ oi0kei=on e0gnwkw/j, mo/noj ge/gone tw=n o1ntwn pamfa/gon.30
Plutarch here returns to a theme familiar to those readers of his moral essays: the
phenomenon of the growing wealth circulating in the Roman Empire, bringing
with it decadence like an infection. These superfluous desires distort and degrade
humans essential character.31 It is not intrinsic to human nature to kill and eat animals; there is an abundance of plants and fruit on which to feed. Animals eat but
one type of food; humans eat all kinds.
This brings us to Plutarchs principal vegetarian tract, De esu carnum (On the
Eating of Flesh). The two essays already examined act almost as an hors doeuvre
for this main course, and anticipate some of its themes. Plutarch has sought to
establish the independent status of animals, their intelligence and right to just
treatment from humans. He has tried to show that animals are not merely dumb
brutes. Even the lowliest beast of burden possesses an interior life, and some animals may even surpass humans in many of their faculties. Plutarch has briefly
touched upon the view that a meat-based diet is not a condition of future human
existence. In this last work, he moves in, as it were, for the kill.
The work is regarded as being one from Plutarchs youth, hence his emotive
languagewhat translator William Helmbold calls exaggerated and calculated
rhetoric32an immature work, badly mutilated and truncated, and unrepresentative of its authors later views. However, even if this is true, the text should not be
disparaged or ignored. It is divided into two parts, and attempts, through shock
tactics, to destroy any justifications for meat consumption. It employs both anthropocentric arguments and graphic imagery to shake the reader from his comfortable
mindset and ingrained dietary habits. It metaphorically grabs the reader by his
lapels and forces him to confront the uncomfortable truths of animal husbandry
and slaughter.
Plutarchs opening comments return to Pythagoras, and pose the question: Why
did Pythagoras refrain from eating flesh? But Plutarch appears to regard this
question as almost redundant. The real question should be: Given the unpleasant
and unnatural nature of the idea of humans eating dead flesh, and the aesthetically


Michael Beer

unpleasant smell, sight and texture of an animal carcass, why would anyone choose
to indulge in such behaviour? He writes:
'Alla\ su\ me\n e0rwta|=j ti/ni lo/gw| Puqago/raj a0pei/xeto sarkofagi/aj;
e0gw\ de\ qauma/zw kai\ ti/ni pa/qei kai\ poi/a| yuxh=| h2 lo/gw| o9 prw=toj a1nqrwpoj
h3yato fo/nou sto/mati kai\ teqnhko/toj zw/|ou xei/lesi prosh/yato sarko\j kai\
nekrw=n swma/twn kai\ e9w/lwn proqe/menoj trape/zaj o1ya kai\ trofa\j
prosei=pen ta\ mikro\n e1mprosqen bruxw/mena me/rh kai\ fqeggo/mena kai\
kinou/mena kai\ ble/ponta. pw=j h9 o1yij u9pe/meine to\n fo/non sfazome/nwn
derome/nwn diamelizome/nwn, pw=j h9 o1sfrhsij h1negke th\n a0pofora/n .33

Here the reader has his face rubbed in the reality of animal slaughter. It is easy to
think of animal slaughter in antiquity as a phenomenon associated with the reliefs
depicted in the pristine white marble remains on temple faades. This cold, silent
representation would have been entirely divorced from reality: the stench, the heat
and terrible noise of animal slaughter, and the atmosphere saturated in the almost
tangible sense of fear and expectation. A recent BBC documentary named Kill it,
Cook it, Eat it confronted a group of modern consumers with the opportunity to
view the process of animal slaughter in an abattoir, to witness the butchery of the
carcass and then to eat the flesh once it had been cooked by a chef.34 The programme was an attempt to bridge the gulf of perception that exists between the
modern consumers notion of meatan amorphous mass in a sealed plastic container purchased in a supermarketand a living animal. The fact that many
viewers found the sight shocking, in spite of the constant reassurance that the
process of death was rapid and painless, and happens many times each day in
many countries, says much about the distance between the modern Western consumer and agricultural processes. At the time Plutarch was writing, people would
almost certainly have had more direct exposure to the experience of animal slaughter. In rural areas, this would have been through the process of animal husbandry,
and in cities through the sight of animals killing and being killed in the amphitheatre. Yet he still feels that such an emotive plea must still carry some weight with
his readership, and one may need to reassess modern theories about the level of
desensitization towards animal slaughter in antiquity in light of this. His arguments seek to shock the reader out of their complacency. Plutarch talks of the
shrieks and cries of animals begging not to be killed.35 Later, he talks of the tortures
inflicted upon animals to satisfy the appetites of gourmands.36 Some of the activities he describes may be alien to us, such as the thrusting of red-hot spits down the
throats of pigs to emulsify the blood, or jumping on the udders of pregnant sows
to produce abortions. Other practices, such as the force-feeding of animals and
their containment in darkness, bring to mind modern methods of intensive factory farming.
The main impetus of Plutarchs argument lies in his assertion that the human
body is not designed to consume flesh. Not only do we lack the necessary bodily
instruments to inflict death, such as talons, claws or beaks, but we are biologically
unsuited to digesting raw flesh. Before humans consume flesh, they need to alter it
through boiling or roasting, softening it and often disguising it with condiments

Vegetarianism in the Writings of Plutarch


and sauces. This argument from design is unsatisfactory. First, it ignores the fact
that a lack of natural killing faculties is more than compensated by superior intelligence: this means that humans are able to fashion tools with which to perform the
task. Second, it is untrue that humans are unable to process raw flesh: such
delicacies as beef carpaccio and sushi/sashimi prove the contrary. Plutarch is willing to grant a concession, which within the context of the vegetarian argument is
an important one: he says that if humans feel that they really must eat meat, then
this should be done without using weapons and while the animal being consumed
still lives. Plutarch may be attempting to force the meat-eater into facing the true
reality of his act of eating, but fails to acknowledge the appalling suffering that
both animal and human would experience if a human being tried to eat an animal
while it was still alive. In this instance, animal welfare appears to come a very poor
second to Plutarchian moralizing.
Thus far, Plutarch has tended to concentrate on the sadism and cruelty that he
believes lie at the heart of humananimal relations. However, he now returns to an
anthropocentric justification for vegetarianism: it is bad for the soul. He writes:
Ou0 toi/nun mo/non ai9 kreofagi/ai toi=j sw/masi gi/nontai para\ fu/sin, a0lla\
kai\ ta\j yuxa\j u9po\ plhsmonh=j kai\ ko/rou paxu/nousin.37 The question must
be asked: Is this just an argument proffered to reinforce those preceding it, or is it
the real reason for Plutarchs vegetarianism? If the latter, then Plutarchs concern
with the welfare of animals may just be a smokescreen. If the state of the soul is
what concerns him, the argument is turned around with significant implications.
If good health depended not on a lack of meat in human diet, but a surfeit of meat,
would animal slaughter then be justified?38 Plutarch returns to an argument he has
used elsewhere: that cruelty to animals encourages humans to be cruel to each
other. This argument seems no more convincing here than when it appeared
before; a modern reader may be tempted to dismiss it with the objection that common sense tells us that people who eat meat do not routinely take it upon themselves
to kill others, nor are all vegetarians free from murderous homicidal impulses.
This trilogy of anthropocentric arguments is concluded, with pleasing symmetry, by a return to Pythagoras, and this time to metempsychosis (reincarnation, or
the transmigration of the soul). According to this doctrine, a human soul may be
encased within the shell of an animal. Hence, by killing an animal, one might inadvertently be killing a human being. Of course, some have argued that by ending the
life of an animal, one is doing the human soul trapped within it a favour by releasing it prematurely, so that it may continue upon its journey of birth and rebirth,
and thus be hastened towards its final goal. Plutarch does not seem entirely convinced by this argument, but inclines towards a policy of better safe than sorry.
Shortly afterwards, the text breaks off; the rest is missing.
What is to be made of this trilogy of texts? It would be a mistake to regard the
texts as a cohesive and unified whole. It seems unlikely that they were conceived as
such, and much of the material is repeated. The texts do constitute a sustained
polemic against the mistreatment of animals, however, and seek to justify both the
ethical treatment of animals and their removal from the human diet. They do this
both by using existing arguments, notably from the Pythagorean School, and by


Michael Beer

demolishing traditional Stoic arguments about the status and sentience of animals.
The Stoic view of animals as little more than slavish tools to be used freely by
humans may have been widely held in contemporary society. Challenging it was
undoubtedly a hazardous undertaking, and Plutarchs views would almost certainly
have been regarded as eccentric or esoteric. It is his concern with the treatment of
animals that would have seemed especially peculiar, in a context where the casual
and daily mistreatment and killing of animals would have been normal. Concern
with animal welfare may have been synonymous in the popular imagination with
the strange religious practices of the Egyptians, and their worship of animal gods.39
At a time when humans of other races could routinely be dismissed as barbaric,
and with the widespread circulation and acceptance of the Aristotelian notion of
certain races being naturally slaves, it is hardly surprising if Plutarchs pleas for
ethical regard towards animals fell on deaf ears. This might be why he occasionally
uses arguments based on the benefits of a meat-free diet for humans, rather than
on animal welfare. A modern audience may be receptive to more subtle and complex analysis of the interplay between humans and animals. In spite of Plutarchs
prescience, we still have a long way to go. On the one hand, humans continue to
torture and kill on a large scale, commit genocide and undertake ethnic cleansing.
Yet the fact that animal vivisection, hunting, the fur trade and battery farming still
manage to provoke passionate fury on both sides of the divide shows that at least
some of his concerns are more prominent now than ever before.

1 Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 18.4, quoted in Bioethics: An Anthology, eds Helga Kuhse and Peter
Singer (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), p. 640.
2 Colin Spencer, The Heretics Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (London: Fourth
Estate, 1995), p. 98, asserts implausibly that a Plutarchian influence upon
modern vegetarian philosophy is negligible: It is astonishing then that one of
Plutarchs most passionate themes, a horror of killing and consuming the
dead flesh of animals, has had no influence whatsoever. Future societies and
individuals appear to have disregarded this element in his work.
3 Catherine Osborne, Ancient vegetarianism, in Food in Antiquity, eds John
Wilkins, David Harvey and Mike Dobson (Exeter University Press, 1995),
pp. 21424 (222), avers that refusing meat may not be difficult in practical
ways but yet profoundly cranky as regards the social, cultural and religious
expectations of the community.
4 An argument that has been advanced on more than one occasion as a solution to the scarcity of food resources across the planet. A change to a vegetarian
diet releases extra crop resources that are currently being consumed by agricultural animals.
5 Ingvild Saelid Gilhus, Animals, Gods and Humans: Changing Attitudes to
Animals in Greek, Roman and Early Christian Ideas (London: Routledge,
2006), p. 115: In Greece, all meat came in principle from animals that had

Vegetarianism in the Writings of Plutarch








been sacrificed. The same vocabulary encompassed both sacrifice and

butchering, and all consumable meat came from ritually slaughtered animals.
In Rome, the consumption of meat was not confined to sacrifices.
This is not to say that animal sacrifice was always essential. Sometimes an
animal was not available, or perhaps a particular deity did not demand a
blood sacrifice. Iamblichus refers to the altar of Apollo on the island of Delos,
which alone is unstained with blood (o3 mo/noj a0nai/makto/j e0stin), in On
the Pythagorean Way of Life, VIII.35 (trans. John Dillon and Jackson Hershbell;
Atlanta, MA: Society of Biblical Literature, 1991). He also refers to the exhortation of Pythagoras to the women of Croton regarding the manner and
content of their sacrifices. He wishes them to sacrifice flat cakes (po/pana),
ground barley cakes (yaista\), and honeycombs (khri/a). He stipulates that
the gods should not be honoured by slaughter and death (fo/nw? de\ kai\ qana/
tw? to\ daimo/nion mh\ tima~n) (XI.54).
Jean-Pierre Vernant, Myth and Thought among the Greeks (London: Routledge,
1983), p. 324.
Donald G. Kyle, Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome (London: Routledge,
1998), pp. 9, 5455. It may be interesting to speculate as to whether those
animals engaged in these activities were viewed any differently by the spectators to beasts that were simply savaging condemned prisoners or fighting
other beasts or humans. Did their roles in scenes of myth re-enactment somehow elevate their status?
Kyle, Spectacles, p. 187; Suetonius, De vita Caesarum, book 7 (London:
Longmans and Green, 1930), on Titus.
Ancient societies lived in closer proximity to death than do modern Western
societies. Life expectancy was lower, infant mortality was higher and death
was almost certainly not surrounded by a veil of secrecy and taboo. Even if
few urban dwellers had first-hand experience of animal slaughter in an agricultural context, they would have repeatedly seen the death of animals at the
altar and in the arena. They would have had frequent exposure to the associated noise, stench and bloodletting.
S. H. Lonsdale, Attitudes Towards Animals in Ancient Greece, in Greece and
Rome 26, 2 (1979), pp. 14659 (153); Richard Sorabji, Animal Minds and
Human Morals: The Origins of the Western Debate (London: Duckworth,
1993), p. 172.
Stephen T. Newmyer, Animals, Rights and Reason in Plutarch and Modern
Ethics (London: Routledge, 2006), p. 30, suggests that the Latin rendering of
the title is an inaccurate reflection of the concerns of the text.
Plutarch, De sollertia animalium, 959D, in Moralia, vol. 12 (London:
Heinemann, 1957).
Plutarch, De sollertia animalium, 959EF.
Plutarch, De sollertia animalium, 959F: It was in this way that the Pythagoreans, on the contrary, made a habit of consideration towards animals to
engender humanity and compassion.
Plutarch, De sollertia animalium, 962A.


Michael Beer

17 Plutarch, De sollertia animalium, 962BC.

18 See also Daniel A. Dombrowski, Vegetarianism and the Argument from
Marginal Cases in Porphyry, Journal of the History of Ideas 45, 1 (1984),
pp. 14143; Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (London: Random House, 2nd
edn, 1990), p. 265.
19 Plutarch, De sollertia animalium, 965AB: For living is not abolished nor life
terminated when a man has no more platters of fish or pt de foie gras or
mincemeat of beef or kids flesh for his banquets. Plutarchs mention of foie
gras is significant, and something to which he will return later. The Loeb
edition of this text notes the importance of this dish to the Roman connoisseur, and it is a food whose production method still inflames opinion today.
20 Plutarch, De sollertia animalium, 965AB: For I think sport should be joyful
and between playmates who are merry on both sides, not the sort of which
Bion spoke when he remarked that boys throw stones at frogs for fun, but the
frogs dont die for fun, but in sober earnest. Just so, in hunting and fishing,
men amuse themselves with the suffering and death of animals, even tearing
some of them piteously from their cubs and nestlings. The fact is that it is not
those who make use of animals who do them wrong, but those who use them
harmfully and heedlessly and in cruel ways.
21 Plutarch, De sollertia animalium, 972D.
22 Plutarch, Gryllus, 987B, in Moralia, vol. 12.
23 Plutarch, Gryllus, 987C988E .
24 Plutarch, Gryllus, 987F.
25 Plutarch, Gryllus, 988B: It follows that your practice of courage is brought
about by legal compulsion, which is neither voluntary nor intentional, but in
subservience to custom and censure and moulded by extraneous beliefs and
arguments. When you face toils and dangers, you do so not because you are
courageous, but because you are more afraid of some alternative.
26 Plutarch, Gryllus, 989B.
27 Plutarch, Gryllus, 990D.
28 Plutarch, Gryllus, 991A.
29 Plutarch, Gryllus, 991B.
30 Plutarch, Gryllus, 991C: But man in his pleasures is led astray by gluttony to
everything edible; he tries and tastes everything as if he had not yet come to
recognize what is suitable and proper for him; alone of all creatures he is
31 Compare with Plutarchs laudatory remarks about Sparta in The Ancient
Customs of the Spartans, in Moralia, vol. 3 (London: Heinemann, 1931); and
the Life of Lycurgus, in Parallel Lives, vol. 1 (London: Heinemann, 1914).
32 Introduction to De esu carnum, p. 537, in Moralia, vol. 12.
33 Plutarch, De esu carnum, 993B: Can you really ask what reason Pythagoras
had for abstaining from flesh? For my part I rather wonder both by
what accident and in what state of soul or mind the first man who did so,
touched his mouth to gore and brought his lips to the flesh of a dead creature,
he who set forth tables of dead, stale bodies and ventured to call food and

Vegetarianism in the Writings of Plutarch





nourishment the parts that had a little before bellowed and cried, moved
and lived. How could his eyes endure the slaughter when throats were slit and
hides flayed and limbs torn from limb? How could his nose endure the
Broadcast on BBC Three, 57 March 2007.
Plutarch, De esu carnum, 994E.
Plutarch, De esu carnum, 997A.
Plutarch, De esu carnum, 995DE: Note that the eating of flesh is not only
physically against nature, but it also makes us spiritually coarse and gross by
reason of satiety and surfeit.
This concern with the effect that eating meat has upon the health of the soul
is not just a pagan concern, finding echoes in the writings of Christian theologians such as Clement of Alexandria, in To the Newly Baptized (London:
Heinemann, 1919).
Clement of Alexandria, contemptuous of such primitive and superstitious
behaviour, accuses the Greeks of fostering similar theistic beliefs concerning
animals, and cites numerous examples of Greek communities who worship
ants, mice, doves and fish, in his Exhortation to the Greeks, II.34 (London:
Heinemann, 1919).

Hoi polloi: Spiritual Choices

for the Many and the Few
John Wilkins

A recent study of Porphyry of Tyre, the ancient advocate of vegetarianism, by

Catherine Osborne, concludes with the following remarks:
Porphyry was, of course, perfectly aware that he was writing for philosophers, and doubtless he was anticipating an audience drawn from the affluent elite: people whose normal
diet would certainly not be confined to simple necessities. Modern discussions of vegetarianism may also assume an affluent readership, the supermarket consumers in a Western
post-industrial economy. In such circumstances it might make sense to claim that people
should choose not to eat meat, because vegetarian alternatives are always available to
them, and meat is not essential for human well being. That might be a possible position
for someone who is accustomed to browsing the supermarket shelves in a European or
North American city, before paying with a plastic card funded from a petroleum-based
economy. It is not a possible position if one is addressing a traditional Welsh sheep farmer,
or someone who ekes out a living from fishing in the North Sea, or a nomadic tribesman,
or an Inuit seal-hunter. Of course, someone who had been convinced by the arguments in
book 2 of Porphyrys treatise might think that she could say to the Inuit, or to members of
a hunter-gatherer tribe, that they are acting unjustly in killing animals for food. She might
like to advise the hill farmer that his sheep were being slaughtered in a cruel way for feeding people who ought to have been eating bread and lentils. But should she not hesitate
before she complains about the practice of rearing animals for meat? Does that complaint
not rely upon the idea that one can choose whether to eat the local lambs or imported
lentils from Canada? And is not that idea, that we are free to choose, premised upon
exploitation of other human beings and of the environment the world over?1

Osborne presents a powerful case to the urbanized countries of the affluent West
which depend upon a global economy. The challenge to the potential vegetarian
living in an affluent country is that his or her ethical choice is based on the unequal
distribution, in his or her favour, of global resources. The refusal to act as a predator
of other animals might leave the potential vegetarian as a privileged predator high
up the food chain in the human competition for food. This proposition certainly
resembles Porphyrys opening statement, namely that vegetarianism is the choice
of the philosopher of means, since people who have to work manually for a living,

Hoi polloi


such as labourers and soldiers, need meat to sustain their labour, as do people in
public life.2 (The reason for meat-eating among the political class is slightly different, and will emerge in due course.) We may note that abstaining from meat in the
Indian caste system is also the choice for the Brahmins of highest status.
The aim of the present chapter is to suggest that the pagan inhabitants of the
Graeco-Roman world ate animals both through necessitynutritional need3
and by choice, because their religious system offered them a strong identity and
place in the natural world by virtue of consuming meat in community with gods
and other human beings. There are very important exceptions to this claim:
Pythagoras and his followers, who included Porphyry; certain other mystery
religions, such as Orphism; and other philosophers who did not face economic
constraints and made a different choice. It is my contention in this chapter that for
the vast majority of people in antiquity, meat-eating may have been as important a
spiritual choice as vegetarianism is for millions of people in our own time. I phrase
the case in these terms since there might be a temptation in 2008 to consider that
in every respect there may have been a spiritual progression away from an earlier,
pagan world that openly endorsed slavery, sexual discrimination and (in Roman
culture, at least) the dismemberment of human beings and animals for public entertainment.4 Part of my contention will rest on the claim that when ancient people
ate meat, they often did so after participating in an act of worship that included the
death of the animal, an event that was recognized as violent and disturbing and in
need of ritual mediation. That participation brought benefits unavailable to modern meat-eaters, since for nearly all modern consumers of meat, the animal is killed
away from the public gaze and its meat displayed in supermarkets in ways that disguise its animal origin. Eyes, snouts and feet, for example, are rarely eaten, and cuts
of meat are often packaged to look like a rectangular piece of food. Some consumers are thereby encouraged to forget that their meat-eating derives from the death
of sentient animals, and this forgetfulness masks a dislocation between the human
consumer and the natural world.5
The eating of one species of animal by another in a food chain is an expression
of hierarchy which has many examples in the natural order. The songbird eats the
insect; the raptor eats the song bird. The salmon eats crustaceans; the bear eats the
salmon. The human being, as an omnivore, is capable of eating all these animals,
but for the most part confines himself or herself to farm animals. The human
being is traditionally permitted to eat animals according to dispensations which
vary according to culture, but are often sanctioned by religion. The Jews, according
to Genesis, were given dominion over the animals by God; the Oglala of South
Dakota hunted bison that were closely related to their gods and their ancestors;6
and the ancient Greeks similarly expressed their relationship to their gods through
their eating of animals.
The classic demonstration of Greek sacrifice is expressed in Hesiods versions
of the myth of Prometheus. In the Theogony, a poem drawing on a mythology
inherited from the Near East in which one generation of the gods dethrones its
predecessor through patriarchal conflict, there comes a decisive moment when
gods and men are separated from each other through Prometheuss attempt to


John Wilkins

trick Zeus.7 The Titan Prometheus offers Olympian Zeus the choice of two
portions of an ox. The first portion comprises the meat and inner parts hidden in
the belly of the ox, as if a giant haggis; and the second comprises the white bones
of the ox carefully arranged and hidden in a coat of rich fat. Zeus recognizes the
unequal portions, and resents the trick of concealment that is being played. He
chooses the bones and plans evil for men, who are the dependants of Prometheus.
Men are henceforth obliged to burn animal bones on altars in sacrifice. They can
do this because Prometheus has stolen fire for them (Zeus having removed it from
men as part of the evil he planned), but the price men pay for fire is the creation of
women.8 The misogyny and other negative elements of this account are echoed in
Hesiods Works and Days, in which the gods are said to have hidden the means of
life in the soil, and details are added about Pandora and women in general: they are
superficially attractive, but in fact conceal an insatiable belly (a bad thing) and
a womb (a good thing)the latter producing children for men but only at the
price of living with the insatiable wife.9
The sacrificial myth has been brilliantly analysed by Jean-Pierre Vernant, who
has shown that this account of the beginning of culture places humanity between
gods (the recipients of sacrifice) and animals (the victims of sacrifice).10 Human
beings are characterized as mortals because they received the more mortal parts of
the animalthe meat and the entrailswhereas the gods receive the bone marrow, in which the life of the animal was believed to be most closely contained. The
sacrificial animals are the domesticated animals of agriculture in the new order,
which has replaced the life with the gods that men earlier enjoyed. It is hard for
human beings to wrest a living from the soil, but that agricultural toil identifies
them as settled farmers rather than hunter-gatherers. Since human beings now
have fire, they can cook food11 and develop such technologies as smelting, along
with the fires of sacrifice, which remind them of the bad terms on which they
relate to the gods. With sacrifice, agriculture, cooking and technology, also comes
marriage, in the full package which constitutes the civilized life of culture.
Hesiods scheme is in broad agreement with sacrificial practice in Homer,
a rather older poetic tradition based on oral transmission. In Homer, sacrificial
practice is based on the burning of the thigh bones in fatthe part of the animal
most imbued with the life-forceand most suitable for the gods, despite Zeuss
ambivalent role in the Prometheus myth. Those who do not sacrifice as they should
are severely punished. Thus the companions of Odysseus sacrifice the cattle of the
Sun god, despite being told that the animals are off-limits.12 Lacking the barleycorns and wine of civilization that the sacrificial code demands, they substitute
oak leaves and water, but the sacrificed animals continue mooing after butchering
because the ritual has not succeeded.13 Equally strong in Homer is the community
of worshippers as eaters of the meat of sacrifice, with those who eat being reinforced within the social group, and those excluded or excluding themselves
characterized as outside the communion of gods and men.
Human life as defined in the Prometheus myths of Hesiod is hard, as is the life
of Adam and Eve after their expulsion from Eden; but the myth also provides an
aetiology for the cultural order based on the relationship between human beings

Hoi polloi


and the natural world as represented by gods and animals. Human beings therefore occupy this medial place in the hierarchy of existence. Their identity is further
defined in the development of the citythe Greek polisafter the period of
Hesiod (probably the eighth century), where sacrifice to the citys gods identifies
them with the city. The city honours its gods, such as Athena at Athens, with sacrifices and festivals at which the participants offer the lives of animals to the goddess
and share the meat among themselves. They thereby seek to secure the goddesss
favour in the future; they share in the guilt of killing the animal; and they share the
benefit of a rare portion of first-class protein, theirs being a culture in which the
majority of the population is thought to have eaten meat only on special, religious
occasions, and to have been at risk of food shortages on a fairly regular basis.14 The
offering of sacrifices on religious occasions identified people as citizens, citizen
men, citizen women, non-citizens, etc., according to the particular rite and festival
in which they participated.
The sacrifices were not solely blood sacrifices, and might also or alternatively
have involved offerings of cereals, fruits and occasionally fish, according to what
was prescribed. So, first-fruit offerings of cereals were made to Demeter and
Persephone in Attica, although those goddesses also required blood offerings at
major festivals, such as the Thesmophoria at Athens that was celebrated over three
days by Athenian women, with the aim of promoting the growth of cereals and the
conception of babies.15 At the Thesmophoriain Athens at least, and probably in
other citiesthe women left their homes and set up temporary homes in tents
together on the Pnyx hill, where the men normally met in the Assembly. The first
day of the festival comprised this journey up to the hill, apparently along with the
retrieval from pits of rotting pigs flesh, which was destined to fertilize plants. On
the second day, the participants experienced the negative effects of fasting and
sitting on twigs of the agnus castus, the chaste tree (neither contributing to conception), before, on the third day, feasting on roast porkthe pig being the animal
most closely associated with fertility and the most frequent sacrificial victim. The
positive outcomes in the festival asserted themselves over the negative aspects of
the first two days, which included the ancient myth of Demeter and Persephone, in
which the abduction of the girl by Hades led to her mothers grief and the withdrawal of cereals from the lives of human beings.16 The slaughter and eating of pigs
was thus part of a ritual identifying the human participants as citizens, future
mothers, mortal and not divine, and at peril of food shortage.
At the major feasts in honour of Athena, the city demonstrated its wealth and
solidarity by organizing the eating of beef by a wide section of its population, in a
country which raised cattle with difficulty. Hundreds of cattle were slaughtered at
major festivals such as those of Athena and also Dionysus. There was singing and
dancing at these festivals. In the feasts of Dionysus, there were comedies and tragedies, but also sometimes darker elements and links with the dead. Animals were
slaughtered in large numbers on occasions when identity, relationships with the
natural and human worlds, and mortality were being rehearsed.17
It also seems likely that the human participants viewed the slaughter of animals
as necessary but problematic, and that profound unease was felt. There is some


John Wilkins

evidence for the willingness of the animal to be a necessary component,18 and

possible linking of the sprinkling of the animal with water and barleycorns as
being part of this, but there was in addition a loud ritual cry uttered by the women
present at the moment of the cutting of the animals throat. The participants
unease is related, by Walter Burkert and earlier historians of Greek religion, to the
feelings of hunter-gatherers towards animal prey.19 Burkert draws on rituals that
dealt with the death of the animal by reconstructing the animal as a mechanism to
deal with issues surrounding death itself.
Sacrifice was thus not easy, but necessarily located the human being in the city
and in the cosmos, between god and animal. The gods controlled the cosmos and
were immanent in the natural order. If rain was to fall and the crops were to grow,
divine cooperation was indispensable. Animals for sacrifice were predominately
products of agriculture, although there were exceptions for hunters and some fishermen. Sacrificial animals therefore helped to place human beings within culture,
and also differed from human beings in lacking reason: they were aloga, and therefore on this criterion inferior to humans. Some extraordinary expressions of hierarchy of this kind are found in ancient texts. A particularly striking example
occurs in Platos account of the cosmos in his Timaeus. At the end of the work,
Plato refers to a hierarchy of being based not on eating but on the transmigration
of souls according to intelligence. At the top are men, the less intelligent of whom
are reborn as women; less intelligent still are those reborn as animals; and the stupidest of all, the fish, live in water, an element thicker than air. For all its faults, this
hierarchy, like that of Aristotle, implies a unity of animal life.20
This affinity with animals took a radically different form in the teaching of
Pythagoras, or at least in the works of his followers that have survived. For the
Pythagoreans, as for Plato who was influenced by them, the transmigration of souls
linked human beings with animals so closely that human beings could not eat animals: the closeness was such that the slaughter of an animal would constitute
murder (phonos). The followers of Pythagoras should thus show their respect to
the gods through bloodless sacrifices of fruits and cereals at such cults as those of
Zeus, Demeter and in particular Apollo on Delos. Most pagan worshippers were
familiar with non-blood sacrifice through harvest offerings and other rituals, but
blood sacrifice was offered to the Olympians, and the holocaust or full animal
offering to the gods of the dead at moments of great threat, such as impending
battle. For the Pythagoreans, in contrast, fruits and cereals were the most that were
Serious implications followed, however. Whatever was achieved by Pythagoras
and his followers in southern Italy in the late sixth century BCE remains obscure;
by the fourth century, it was clear that different branches of Pythagoreans had
formed, one pure branch which abstained from animals and fish, and another
which lived more closely with the wider world and tolerated the eating of some
parts of some animals, and the eating of some fish.21 This second group thereby
managed to live within the city-state culture and its members did not isolate themselves from the ritual and life of the city, but assumed citizen identity through
participation in the citys sacrifices. The Pythagorean community thus shared the

Hoi polloi


characteristics of other religions which promote an ascetic life apart from the
community, as well as a less harsh version of the life for less extreme believers who
do not want a life of total separation from the human community. It is interesting
to note that Porphyrys text, in which the philosopher is urged to separate himself
from the mundane world of the ordinary person, nevertheless attests many otherwise unknown rituals in the city, showing how well integrated a belief in the sanctity
of animals was in Greek thought. Porphyry thereby established himself as a separatist from a compromised system of belief which nevertheless recognized the sanctity
of animal life. Abstaining from animal slaughter would allow the philosopher to
come correspondingly closer to the gods through purity of life and practice.
The debate within Pythagorean circles over the extent to which the Pythagoreans should be integrated in the city, if at all, generated a significant echo on the
Greek mainland in Athenian comedy. Fragments of several plays on Pythagorean
themes are quoted by Athenaeus of Naucratis, the historian of foods and banquets,
an author of the third century CE, like Porphyry.22 Athenaeus picks up Pythagorean inconsistencies as a topic for conversation at a dinner party of the GraecoRoman elite, but the comedies he quotes were staged for the amusement of up to
fifteen thousand spectators. Integration was not then an issue merely for the
Pythagorean communities, nor even for philosophers like Plato, being also of interest to the Athenian citizen attending a play at a festival of Dionysus in the city.
In the Men of Tarentum of Alexis, one character says: The Pythagoreans, as weve
heard, eat no fish nor anything that has life; and they alone do not drink wine. His
companion replies: But Epicharides eats dogs, and hes one of the Pythagoreans.
Yes, but hes killed it, is the reply, so it no longer has life.23 In the Pythagorean of
Aristophon, also of the fourth century BCE, a character says:
By the gods, do we believe that the old Pythagoreans were really willing to be dirty and
happily wore simple cloaks? Nothing of the kind, it seems to me. They did it through
necessity because they had nothing, and finding a good excuse for frugality they fixed
limits that are useful for the poor. And when you serve them fish or meat, if they dont
gulp them down along with their own fingers, Im ready to be hanged ten times over.24

The comic poets and presumably their audiences also relished the inconsistencies
which they had detected among the Pythagoreans. The integration debate was
therefore alive on the big stages of the fourth century, as well as in the works of
scholarly commentators on the Pythagoreans such as Aristoxenus of Tarentum
and Timaeus of Tauromenium. The inconsistencies resurfaced later in philosophical debate in Athenaeus and in Diogenes Laertius, who tries to reconcile apparently
conflicting evidence on whether or not Pythagoras ate meat.25
Meat-eating was thus a live issue in a number of different media and periods.
The most eloquent words to be put in the mouth of Pythagoras were written by
the metropolitan Augustan poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses, in the final book of
which he devotes much space to an appeal by Pythagoras to abstain from slaughtering animals.26 The argument is framed around familiar themes of the period:
to avoid gluttony, and to remember the purity of the Golden Age, from which


John Wilkins

contemporary society had declined into a state of greed and lawlessness. Gluttony
is identified as the eating of innocent animals when abundant food that requires
no slaughter is on offer from the generous earth. Such eating follows the savagery
of tigers, lions, bears and wolves, since only beasts satiate hunger with meat, and
not all beasts, since horses, cattle and sheep are herbivores. The Golden Age is
identified as a period in which trees and crops grew automatically; birds, hares and
fish feared no snares; and universal peace prevailed. The tasting of meat led to the
shedding of human blood, with one such crime precipitating the next.
This is a vegetarian variant on contemporary versions of the Golden Age in
Lucretius, Virgil and elsewherenot least in the first book of the Metamorphoses
as the Roman poets reacted to the wars of the late Republic, among other events.
Gluttony was another contemporary theme, also taken up later by Athenaeus and
Porphyry.27 Poets and philosophers drew back from the extravagance of upperclass life and longed for simplicity. This is seen in such Stoics as Musonius Rufus
and Seneca,28 and in Porphyry, of course. But it was also an issue in Platos Republic,
in which the vegetarian diet proposed by Socrates is dismissed by his interlocutor
as a diet fit for pigs. Socrates replies that the interlocutor is looking to build not a
healthy city but a luxurious cityone which includes hairdressers and butchers.29
The philosophers are thus engaging with major concerns about their own class
and the irresponsible expenditure of resources. Among the rich Athenian elite of
the fourth century BCE, or the beneficiaries of imperial Rome in the first century
CE, some serious thinkers had come to see culture as misguided, and civilization
as having made life too soft, easy and luxurious. There was a need to return to raw
foods, regarded as more natural by Musonius Rufus, and in the view of Porphyry
to foods that inflamed strong passions less than meat. Civilization had of course
brought too much luxury only to certain, very limited, sectors of society, and not
to the labourers and small farmers who raised animals, and who, according to
Galen, writing in the later second century CE, often faced food shortages in the
spring.30 Farmers had to kill their pigs and start eating the acorns; wet nurses
passed on sores to their infant charges, since they were forced to eat wild plants in
the hungry spring; and other peasants were forced to migrate down the food chain
to eat grains normally confined to animal feed. The Olympian sacrificial system
outlined above placed such people in the natural order with their gods and their
animals, and seems likely to have been emotionally satisfying. It also reflected their
social structure, their patriarchy, use of technology and use of cooking to prepare
tasty food.
Those who opted out of the Promethean system, whether via the complex mysteries of Pythagoras or partial forms of his system of belief and practice, seem, as
far as is known, to have been the rich and those who did not need to perform
manual work. In many cases, particularly in Porphyry, the concern of such people
in abstaining from meat seems to have been for themselves and their ethical wellbeing, rather than for animals. Some of the works of Plutarch, discussed by Michael
Beer in the previous chapter of this collection, seem to provide an alternative perspective where the welfare of the animal is considered.31 Much more widespread

Hoi polloi


among the philosophers, however, is the idea that shedding blood is bad for the
human perpetrator rather than the animal victim.
Porphyry is not an extreme separatist, however. He displays a strong desire to
aspire to the perfection of the gods and to reduce as far as possible the blood and
guilt attached to the mind that drag it down to a mundane level. But he also shows
how concerns about blood-guilt were built into the Olympian sacrifice, in such
rituals as the Bouphonia at Athens. Porphyry is at pains to point out the normality
of such concerns, discussing the prevalence of non-blood sacrifices as well as
sacrificial practice in Sparta and other ancient cities. His interlocutor Firmicus is
thus encouraged to embed himself in earlier practice, and not to see himself as
completely separated from Greek culture.
In conclusion, I have tried to show in this chapter that the vegetarian choice in
antiquity was confined to certain very distinguished and influential philosophers,
such as Pythagoras, Empedocles, Theophrastus, Seneca, Plutarch and Porphyry.
In most cases, the philosopher and his followers modified or abandoned the
claims for a strict vegetarian regime. This is seen most clearly in the Pythagorean
tradition and in Porphyrys work on abstinence, in which the philosopher ideally
wishes to separate himself from the mass of humankind in order to grow closer to
the purity of the divine, but is also at pains to show that such ideas of purity and
the sanctity of animal life were widely held in many ancient cults. For the vast
majority of the population, a vegetarian choice demanded too much, since it
removed a persons civic identity and location in the natural and cultural order that
sacrifice reinforced. This is an intriguing ingredient to add to the modern debate
about vegetarianism, which in Western Anglo-Saxon countries is conducted in a
culture whose population has been largely deracinated from rural life for over a
century and whose food has been produced remotely on an industrial scale by
processors who have frequently valued cost above animal welfare. The vegetarian
choice may now be more attractive because meat is far more prominent in the diet,
the animal less valued and its blood less visible.

1 Catherine Osborne, On eating animals: Porphyrys dietary rules for philosophers, in Dumb Beasts and Dead Philosophers: Humanity and the Humane in
Ancient Philosophy and Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006),
pp. 22436.
2 Porphyry, On Abstinence from Killing Animals (trans. Gillian Clark; London:
Duckworth, 1999).
3 By nutritional need, I mean nutrition as defined by ancient doctors such as
Galen, who says, for example, that pork is the most nutritious of all foods.
See his On the Properties of Foodstuffs, 3.1 (ed. Owen Powell; Cambridge
University Press, 2003).
4 Compare Osborne, Dumb Beasts, p. 242.
5 As discussed by Erika Cudworth later in this collection.


John Wilkins

6 William K. Powers and Maria Powers, Metaphysical aspects of an Oglala food

system, in Food in the Social Order: Studies of Food and Festivities in Three
American Communities, ed. Mary Douglas (New York: Russell Sage, 1984),
pp. 4096.
7 Hesiod, Theogony, 53557; in Theogony. Works and Days. Testimonia (ed. and
trans. Glenn W. Most; Harvard, NJ: Harvard University Press, 2007).
8 Hesiod, Theogony, 558616.
9 Hesiod, Works and Days, 42105, in Theogony. Works and Days. Testimonia.
10 Jean-Pierre Vernant, At mans table: Hesiods foundation myth of sacrifice,
in The Cuisine of Sacrifice among the Greeks, eds Marcel Detienne and JeanPierre Vernant (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1989), pp. 2186.
11 In much ancient thought, cooked food is considered more appropriate for the
human digestion than raw food. See especially Hippocrates, On Ancient
Medicine, 4 (ed. Mark J. Schiefsky; Leiden: Brill, 2005), a scientific account of
human development.
12 Homer, Odyssey, 12 (Princeton, NJ: Harvard University Press, 1919).
13 Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Land and sacrifice in the Odyssey: a study of religious
and mythical meanings, in Myth, Religion and Society: Structuralist Essays,
ed. R. L. Gordon (Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 8094.
14 Marcel Detienne, Culinary practices and the spirit of sacrifice, in Cuisine of
Sacrifice, pp. 120.
15 Walter Burkert, Greek Religion (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985); Robert Parker,
Polytheism and Society at Athens (Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 27089;
Marcel Detienne, The violence of wellborn ladies: women in the Thesmophoria, in Cuisine of Sacrifice, pp. 12947.
16 Helene P. Foley, The Homeric Hymn to Demeter (Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 1993).
17 Parker, Polytheism, pp. 25369; John Wilkins and Shaun Hill, Food in the
Ancient World (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), pp. 9495.
18 Fred S. Naiden, The Fallacy of the Willing Victim, Journal of Hellenic Studies
127 (2007), pp. 6173, reviews the evidence for the willing victim and
contends that it is not compelling and that it is the vitality of the animal, not
its willingness, that the gods were thought particularly to value.
19 Burkert, Greek Religion, after Karl Meuli.
20 Plato, Timaeus, in Timaeus. Critias. Cleitophon. Menexenus (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1929).
21 Burkert, Greek Religion; and his Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972); Marcel Detienne, The
Gardens of Adonis: Spices in Greek Mythology (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).
22 Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae, 4.160f164a (7 vols; Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 2007 ), vol. 2; David Braund and John Wilkins, Athenaeus
and his World: Reading Greek Culture in the Roman Empire (University of
Exeter Press, 2000).

Hoi polloi



Poetae comici graeci, vol. II/2, fr. 223, eds R. Kassel and C. Austin (Berlin:
De Gruyter, 1984).
Poetae comici graeci, vol. IV/2, fr. 9.
Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers (2 vols; Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 1925).
Ovid, Metamorphoses, book 15 (2 vols; Cambridge : Harvard University Press,
197784), vol. 2.
See the discussion of Osborne, Dumb Beasts, pp. 22631, who shows that
Porphyry does not find it easy to make an inevitable connection between
meat-eating and gluttony. Note that Ovids version has Pythagoras offer the
Golden Age as the vegetarian alternative to the gluttony of meat-eating.
Cora Lutz, Musonius Rufus, the Roman Socrates?, Yale Classical Studies 10
(1947), pp. 3147; Wilkins and Hill, Food, pp. 2047.
Plato, Republic, 372a5373c7 (Harvard, MA: Harvard University Press, 1930).
Galen, Properties, 1.29, 2.38, 3.14.
See also Osborne, Dumb Beasts; Stephen Newmyer, Animals, Rights and
Reason in Plutarch and Modern Ethics (London: Routledge, 2006).

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Part 3
Faith at the Origins of Modern

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8 Ours is the food that Eden

Knew: Themes in the Theology
and Practice of Modern
Christian Vegetarians
Samantha Jane Calvert

Vegetarianism as a spiritual choice is most often associated with Eastern religions,

or perhaps the asceticism of the Early Church. Modern Western Christianity is
perceived to have left these traditions behind, and the mainstream churches have
little to say on the subject of a flesh-free diet. Today, the practice of fasting and the
Lenten observance of a meat-free diet have been lost to such an extent that many
of these traditions are only observed in religious orders or by lay people attending
spiritual retreats. There is, however, a long-standing tradition of vegetarianism in
Christian history. From the asceticism of the Essenes, and the dualism of the
Manicheans and Bogomils, to the idea of materiality as the creation of the devil to
be found in the teachings of the Cathars and Mani, many Christiansas well as
groups considered quasi-Christians or even hereticshave found a range of reasons for commending vegetarianism.1 The Christian mystics Jacob Boehme
(15751624) and Thomas Tryon (16341703) promoted the Pythagorean ideal of
the kinship of nature, and influenced theosophy and the thought of a number of
radical non-conformist sects. Many of these early beliefs and teachings can, moreover, be found in the writings and teachings of Christian and quasi-Christian sects
in the modern period.2
This chapter explores the relationship between modern Christian vegetarian sects
and the secular vegetarian movement, and discusses the continuity of theology and
practice in these seemingly disparate groups. By examining the main themes of
Christian vegetarianism, I hope to uncover the motivations underlying these sects
espousal of vegetarianism, their vegetarian beliefs and the influence of those beliefs
on the larger secular vegetarian movement and wider society in general.
The main themes of Christian vegetarianism include biblical vegetarianism
(sometimes linked with an attempt to inaugurate a new Golden Age), humanitarianism, reincarnation, dualism and purity, meat-eating as creating a barrier


Samantha Jane Calvert

between humans and God, and meat inflaming the passions. These beliefs have
given rise to groups ranging from Gnostic sects with little impact on society at
large, to churches whose vegetarian teachings have spawned food lines, hospitals
and teams of health ministers.

Biblical vegetarianism, the return to the Edenic diet

and the Golden Age
The majority of Christian vegetarian sects, as well as those denominations which
recommend vegetarianism to their communities, make a biblical case for the diet.
The most common reference is to Genesis 1.29: And God said, Behold, I have
given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and
every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. This is closely
followed in popularity by Genesis 9.3: Every moving thing that lives shall be food
for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only, you
shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. The first reference, to the period
before the Fall, describes Gods original plan for the human diet and is the clearest
expression of Gods will for humankind. Fallen humanity was unable to attain
these standards, however, and concessions were made to its dietbut Gods original
intention remains clear. However, even after the Fall, the instruction that humans
should not eat flesh with its blood left in it requires them to observe a vegetarian
diet, it is often argued, because it is not possible to eat flesh, regardless of the
slaughter method used, containing no blood.
Many Christian vegetarian sects describe the vegetarian diet as bringing about a
return to the classical Golden Age or to Eden itself. In a reprise of Isaiah 65.25, the
carnivore will be frugivorous once again, the wolves and lambs will lie together
and the lions will eat straw. Biblical examples of the benefits of a vegetarian diet are
sometimes raised. The long lifespan of Old Testament figures is often remarked on
by Christian vegetarians in the nineteenth century. It was noted that Methuselah
lived for 969 years and that an average lifespan in the Old Testament extended to
many hundreds of years. The human lifespan only decreased to threescore years
and ten once flesh was introduced into the diet.
Biblical texts raise problems for vegetarians: the examples of Christ eating fish;
the Last Supper, which as a Passover meal would presumably have contained lamb;
Peters dream, apparently permitting the consumption of previously forbidden
foods; Pauls view of the relation between law, including dietary laws, and faith; and
false prophets telling people to avoid eating meat. All of these texts were used by
Christians to justify meat consumption.
Although groups used titles such as Bible Christians and Original Christians,
they were far from fundamentalist. They claimed to be living in accordance with
the traditions of the Early Church and the true Gospel. Reinterpretation of scripture to provide a vegetarian exegesis was common. Peter Lineham describes how
the Reverend William Cowherdfounder of the Bible Christian Church in Salford,
which in 1847 co-founded the secular Vegetarian Societywhen explaining the
principles of dietary reform to his congregation for the first time in January 1809,

Themes of Modern Christian Vegetarians


depicted the tree of life in Genesis 2 as a palm tree.3 The tree of knowledge
of good and evil was described as a vine that wound its tentacles around the lifegiving palm. Animal sacrifices in the Old Testament were dismissed as no more
than animal skins stuffed with fruit and vegetables.
The Reverend John Todd Ferrier, of the Order of the Crossa quasi-Christian
sect whose members to this day are strictly vegetarianbelieved that Saint Paul,
who did not know the Master (as Jesus is known in their tradition), had led Christians away from the true teachings of the Master. Ferrier protested: He had not
come under the influence of the life of the Master, and had no vision of its glorious
purity and sweetness. Had he done so, he could never have said what he did concerning the eating of flesh and the taking of wine, nor would the personal element
have found expression as it does in these letters.4
Universal Life, founded in Germany in 1984 by the Prophetess Gabrielesaid to
have received the first revelation of Christ in 1975has similarly created its own
texts to complement the New Testament Synoptic Gospels. These additional texts
provide vegetarian and animal welfare justification for their teachings. Other standard biblical texts are reinterpreted to provide their true meanings.
The Edenic diet and the return to Eden are the most common themes in Christian
vegetarianism.5 The desire for an Edenic diet and the imagery of Eden is probably
the single element that most Christian vegetarian sects have in common. The
Order of the Danielites, founded in 1876 by Lieutenant Colonel T. W. Richardson
(18521920), took the Edenic imagery to an extreme. The Danielites, so called
after the Old Testament figure of Danielwho some texts suggest was vegetarian,
at least in his youth (see Dan. 1.321)were based on the Freemasons but used
the imagery of Eden in their structural organization, establishing lodges known as
Gardens and designating the Presiding Officer the Chief Gardener.
A present-day group whose central theme is the Edenic diet as a cure for sickness is Hallelujah Acres, founded by the Reverend Dr George H. Malkmus in 1976.
The literature of this group makes no reference to animal welfare or animal suffering. The mission of Hallelujah Acres is to proclaim to Christians that by following
the Hallelujah Dietessentially a vegan, raw food diet with specially recommended food supplementsthey will recover their health and lead long lives.
Malkmuss books include Why Christians Get Sick and Gods Way to Ultimate
Health.6 He believes wholeheartedly that illness is the result of unnatural diet.
Malkmus gives regular seminars at Hallelujah Acres, the seventeen acre estate in
Shelby, North Carolina, that he shares with his wife and fellow worker in the cause
of the Hallelujah Diet, Rhonda. Hallelujah Acres also sports a vegan/raw food restaurant where the Hallelujah Diet may be sampled. Regular training is provided on
the estate for a worldwide team of Health Ministers, who deliver training in the
Hallelujah Diet in their own country and share Malkmuss message that Christians
do not need to be sick. They also sell the Hallelujah Acres range of books, videos
and food supplements in their own country.
With its simple teachings, minimal theology and optimistic message that health
and longevity are but a raw salad and carrot juice away, Hallelujah Acres has proved
a popular message in a Western society where cancer and heart disease are the two


Samantha Jane Calvert

major causes of premature mortality. Malkmuss recorded seminars, which include

testimonials from the floor by people cured of terminal illnesses by the Hallelujah
Diet, make for gripping viewing. However, the Hallelujah lifestyle is a major commitment: not only is it very far removed from the typical American diet, but it also
requires distilled water rather than tap water, purified water or bottled mineral
water. As might be expected, Malkmus considers not only meat and dairy products
to be injurious to health, but also alcohol. He claims: Without realizing it man has
stepped into the arena in defiance of God and changed natural raw food made by
God into a man-made artificial, non-living, processed product we call food. All
this because man thinks he must improve on the way God made raw food.7

One of the most common themes to be found in Christian arguments for vegetarianism is humanitarianism. This emphasizes human compassion towards all of
Gods creation, and in particular, towards all sentient beings, and interprets the
central role of humans in creation as being to safeguard Gods creation, rather than
to use it for their own benefit in whatever way they see fit. The secular Humanitarian League, founded in 1890, was active in campaigning for popular animal welfare
and rights issues of the day such as humane dress (avoiding what was often described as murderous millinery) and humane diet (i.e. vegetarianism), opposing
vivisection and blood sports, and promoting human welfare issues. The Order of
the Golden Age was conceived as a humane societyfor it campaigned on many
of the same issuesthat would reach out to the Christian community. Its founder
in 1882 was the Reverend Henry John Williams.8 Henry John was the brother of
Howard Williams, author of The Ethics of Diet and a well-known humanitarian,
who was present at the founding meeting of the Humanitarian League and served
on its committee for several years.9 Henry John was to play a part in the Humanitarian League himself as a member of its Humane Diet department. Almost all
Christian sects which specify vegetarianism as a condition of membership, or
which strongly recommend it, display humanitarian concern about the suffering
and slaughter of animals.

The vegetarian historian Rynn Berry notes: It is characteristic of religions that
promote a vegetarian diet that they also have a theory of reincarnation.10 Berry is
writing about the Order of the Cross, a Christian-inspired sect founded in 1904 by
the Reverend John Todd Ferrier (18551943), a former Congregational minister.
Its membership was and is entirely vegetarian, and reincarnation is a formal teaching. Although vegetarianism and reincarnation go hand in hand with many Eastern faiths, the Order of the Cross is in fact exceptional among Christian vegetarian
sects, which are generally quite orthodox on the matter of life after death. Ferriers
sect was greatly influenced by the Christian mystics and theosophists Anna Bonus
Kingsford and Edward Maitland, whose writings led Ferrier to vegetarianism

Themes of Modern Christian Vegetarians


and to a relationship with another Christian vegetarian campaigning group, the

Order of the Golden Age. While the roots of Christian vegetarianism in Britain
can be found in a radical artisan constituency in the early nineteenth century, by
the end of the century, despite strong continuing support from these groups, vegetarianism was reaching out to middle-class progressives and advocates of new
thought, such as the Theosophists. Julia Twigg observes that, during the late nineteenth century, influences such as the religion of nature, liberal Christianity,
American transcendentalism and the religion of socialism, were becoming increasingly popular. She states:
The adoption of Indian spirituality or the religion of socialism was experienced as a
release into a world of lightness and freedom . . . It was part of a wider late-nineteenth
century cult of simplicity of religion; liberal Christianity especially had rejected the anxieties and difficulties of the previous decades and emphasised a spirit of acceptance of
taking what one could from Christianity.11

Another Christian-inspired vegetarian sect teaching reincarnation is Universal

Life. The Prophetess Gabrieles revelations in 1975 led to the setting up of gatherings or churches in the 1980s, to Christ-enterprisesfarms, bakeries, shops, market stalls, two natural healing clinics as well as kindergartens and after-school
centresin 1984, and to a Christian community in Wrzburg in 1987. This movements main text is This is My Word (Das ist mein Wort), in which Christ, speaking
through the Prophetess Gabriele, expounds passages from The Gospel of Jesus
and interprets their spiritual meaning. The Gospel of Jesus appears to be a combination of recognizable passages from the Synoptic Gospels augmented with
additional stories, which have presumably been taken from non-canonical Gospels or in some sense revealed to the Prophetess Gabriele. A passage which explains
the meaning of the parable of the pouring of new wine into old wineskins is interpreted as referring to reincarnation:
As long as the sinful world exists and souls live in the wheel of reincarnation, the incarnation of earth-bound souls will still be possible. They lay aside their old garments, the old
bodies, and slip once more into new garments, into new-born bodies. However, they
repeatedly bring with them into the new garment sins which they did not clear up in
previous incarnations nor in the spheres of purification.12

Dualism and purity

Dualistic teachings can be found in many Christian vegetarian sects. In the
teaching of contemporary Christian vegetarian sects, the principal dualistic distinction drawn is usually between the physical and the spiritual. The physical
body and/or material world is seen as evil and corrupted by sin, whereas the mind
is spiritual and pure. In the Manichean tradition, flesh is evil, and the rejection of
flesh food is the rejection of all materiality and corruption. This idea of subduing
the flesh and favouring spiritual values through fasting, at least on Fridays, is identifiable in later monastic traditions, but rarely found among lay people in the


Samantha Jane Calvert

mainstream churches. As Julia Twigg notes, this dualism contrasts with the concept
of the body in modern vegetarianism, which emphasizes health, vitality and wellbeing. She observes: Vegetarians are the pioneers of sunbathing, walking in the
mountains, yoga. They glorify bodily health and at times interpret salvation in
terms of it. Health becomes a concept imbued with religious awe.13 Twigg feels that
it is crucial in understanding the vegetarian movement to appreciate that it offers
a this-worldly form of salvation in terms of the body. Although she is discussing
the secular vegetarian movement, this interpretation can also be applied to modern Christian vegetarian sects. The healthy vegetarian physical form is evidence of
the rightness and naturalness of the diet ordained by God for humankind: if one
follows the correct teachings on diet and lifestyle, one will not suffer the ravages of
illness or premature mortality. Such longevity and good health become outward
symbols or badges of honour of the spiritual heirs of this dietetic wisdom. In vegetarian terms, meat is often described as polluting to the body and dead, whereas
vegetarian food is viewed as living food. These descriptions are taken even further
by the raw food movement, which views any cooked food as dead and only raw
food as possessing healthful properties.
The concept of purity was closely allied with other nineteenth-century campaigns for physical purity, such as the anti-tobacco movement and teetotalism.14
Gnosticism was implicit in much of Swedenborgianism, according to Peter Lineham, who concludes that the notion that the flesh was evil was fully developed in
Cowherdite theology, noting that the Bible Christians saw the death of Jesus as a
symbol of the destruction of mans body so that his spirit could be set free.15 These
beliefs influenced Cowherds teachings on vegetarianism and temperance. Lineham considers that Cowherd thought that meat eating and the drinking of intoxicating liquor excited mans animal nature and prevented him from recovering his
infinite nature.16 The late-nineteenth-century manifesto of the Order of the Golden
Age similarly states that the Order was founded to proclaim the Blessing of Purity
of body and mind as being attainable under the spell of kindlier ways, and purer
and better food.
Seventh Day Adventists see the body as the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and so feel
an obligation to take care of their bodies through a healthy lifestyle. Their founder
stated: It is a duty to know how to preserve the body in the very best condition of
health, and it is a sacred duty to live up to the light which God has graciously
given.17 To this end they abstain from alcohol, smoking and non-medicinal drug
use, on the grounds that these do not promote wellness. They also avoid unclean
meats. A large proportion of Seventh Day Adventists are fully vegetarian.

The diet that quells the passions

There is a strong tradition in vegetarianism, both secular and Christian, of meat as
stimulating or exciting to the body and human temperament. In the nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries, the consumption of flesh foods was sometimes held
responsible for inflaming the desires for alcohol, carnal pleasure and war. Vegetarianism was often seen as the best diet to quell these passions or desires. Although

Themes of Modern Christian Vegetarians


such links seem highly improbable today, they were then on the fringes of
mainstream culture.
Among present-day vegetarian Christian groups, abstinence from alcohol is also
quite usual, but the reasons for its adoption differ from those of secular groups in
the nineteenth century. Today, teetotalism is most often advocated for its benefits
to human health, with alcohol seen as poisoning the physical God-given body.
Temperance, or even teetotalism, and vegetarianism, went almost hand in hand in
Victorian England: one could usually assume that a vegetarian was also temperate.
It was indeed not uncommon for vegetarianism to be referred to, by its advocates,
as the higher phase of temperance.18 Many Christian vegetarian sects of this period
eschewed the gin palace and the ale house along with the flesh pots. Bramwell
Booth of the Salvation Army, and his wife, were both vegetarians. Booth held that
a vegetarian diet is favourable to purity, chastity, and a perfect control of the appetites and passions.19 The Booths believed that vegetarianism reduced the desire for
alcohol, and a vegetarian diet was still mandatory in Salvation Army homes for
inebriates in the 1920s.20 The novelist H. Rider Haggard visited a number of the
Armys social work projects in 1910, and commented on the Hillsborough House
Inebriates Home:
With the shrewdness that distinguishes them, the Officers of the Army have discovered
that the practice of vegetarianism is a wonderful enemy to the practice of alcoholism. The
vegetarian, it seems, conceives a bodily distaste to spirituous liquors. If they can persuade
a patient to become a vegetarian, then the chances of her cure are enormously increased.
Therefore, in this and in the other female Inebriate Homes no meat is served.21

Haggard also wrote of a home for children called The Nest. The experiences of the
young girls who lived there were such that he felt unable to describe them to the
reader, but we are left to assume that they were victims of physical or sexual abuse.
One child, whose history Haggard chose to relate, had seen her father murder her
mother. Haggard notes, somewhat navely, that all the children seemed welladjusted given their experiences. However, he is told by the Officer in charge that
occasionally, when they grow older, propensities originally induced in them
through no fault of their own will assert themselves. As a result, Haggard continues, to lessen this danger, as in the case of the women inebriates, all these children
are brought up as vegetarians.22
Ellen G. White, in common with many food reformers of her day, believed that
flesh food was too stimulating for human consumption. She contended: Flesh
Food also is harmful. Its naturally stimulating effect should be a sufficient argument against its use . . . It tends to irritate the nerves and to excite the passions, thus
giving the balance of power to the lower propensities.23
This was a common theme among Christian vegetarians: not only did flesh
foods engender alcoholism, but were likely to give rise to other base instincts. This
can be seen in the lectures of Sylvester Graham, sometimes described in America
as the father of Vegetarianism. British vegetarians were describing themselves as
such from some time in the 1840s, but in the United States they were in this period


Samantha Jane Calvert

always known as Grahamites. Graham and White certainly shared a concern that
consumption of animal flesh led young people to masturbate. This Graham
considered harmful, because frequent sexual activity, including masturbation,
irritated, and therefore debilitated, the body, making it vulnerable to disease.24
The third evil which meat consumption was alleged to engender, following alcoholism and carnal debasement, was a propensity for anger and war. Throughout
history, vegetarians have regularly linked their diet with gentleness and pacifism,
and meat consumption with violence. There is a longstanding view in the vegetarian movement that, in the words of Julia Twigg,the eating of animals is an ingestion
of animal nature. Blood . . . is associated with the living essence of the animal,
so that in eating it we feed our animal nature, and this is the source of a certain
ambivalence, for dominant culture prizes the characteristics of red bloodedness
strength, aggression, sexuality, passionbut in a qualified way.25
To eat animals was thus to assume their characteristics and to fuel aggression.
Hence nineteenth-century vegetarians were often active in the Peace Movement.
Christians with pacifist beliefs, such as members of the Society of Friends, also
expressed concern for unnecessary violence towards animals, leading to the founding of the Friends Anti-Vivisection Society in 1892 and the Friends Vegetarian
Society in 1902.
Many of the Christian groups most involved with the secular vegetarian movements also devoted their energies to the organized pacifist societies. Christian
pacifist vegetarian groups included the Bible Christian Church, the Order of the
Golden Age and the continuing Order of the Cross. The Second World War saw the
end of vegetarians claims that war would end if only humans would abstain from
flesh eating and animal slaughter. Colin Spencer notes: Hitlers vegetarianism proved
the fallibility, without any shadow of doubt, of one claim which vegetarianism had
boldly made since ancient times: that if eating meat led to aggression, the converse
was also true, and vegetarians were therefore peace-loving, gentle people.26

Meat as a barrier between God and humans

A common theme in Christian vegetarian circles is the idea that the consumption
of flesh creates a barrier between humans and God which prevents better understanding or communication between them. This sometimes relates to ideas of meat
as impure or polluting to the body, and therefore to the spiritual aspect of humanity. Alternatively, it is sometimes suggested that meat consumption is a symbol
of fallen humanity and a sign that humans have not grown enough spiritually to
make the correct dietary choices. The Spiritualists, Occultists and Theosophists of
the Victorian period had strong associations with vegetarianism. Spiritualists
believed that vegetarianism was beneficial to mediums, with flesh consumption
believed to limit their abilities. Similarly, the Christian mystics Anna Bonus Kingsford and Edward Maitlandwho were Theosophists and later founders of the
Hermetic Society, and great influences on John Todd Ferrier of the Order of the
Crossboth stressed the importance of vegetarianism in allowing them to receive
messages and visions. Maitland believed that meat-eating was the cause of humans

Themes of Modern Christian Vegetarians


failing to fulfil their true natures, since only when man is purely nourished can he
attain clearness and fullness of spiritual perception.27 Ellen G. White advised:
Change your course of living, your eating, your drinking and your working. While you
pursue the course you have been following for years, you cannot clearly discern sacred
and eternal things. Your sensibilities are blunted, and your intellect beclouded. You have
not been growing in grace and in the knowledge of the truth as was your privilege. You
have not been increasing in spirituality, but growing more and more darkened.28

Some of the themes to be found in modern Christian vegetarianism have been
common to all periods, but others seem to be peculiar to a particular zeitgeist.
Humanitarian concerns are as much an issue for contemporary Christian vegetarians as they were for their counterparts in the nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries. Although mainstream Christian churches have arguably little to say about
animal welfare, and still less about how meat abstention might be an integral part
of Christian faith, some Christians in the mainstream churches have created
denominational vegetarian groups to try to bring about a dialogue within their
own traditions. Among these are the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals
(ASWA) and Catholic Concern for Animals (CCA). These two groups have combined with Quaker Concern for Animals (QCA) to form a new association, the
Association of Christian Animal Welfare Societies (ACAWS), although each group
continues to maintain its own identity. There is also an overarching Christian
Vegetarian Association (CVA), with its British equivalent, the Christian Vegetarian
Association UK (CVAUK).
The CVAUK promotes, among its other activities, an annual Veg4Lent campaign.
This encourages parishioners in mainstream churches to return to the Lenten tradition of a flesh-free diet. Its website offers a study guide for each week of Lent
which encourages reflection on such topics as Gods Covenant with all Creatures,
and the The Golden Age Must Return. For the CVA, Lent may mark the beginnings
of a new Christian vegetarianism, but the organization is anxious that observance
does not end on Easter Sunday. Its guidance asserts: At a time when reasoned and
compassionate understanding of animals and their interests is increasing in most
areas of society, there are still far too many Christians reaching for the Bible in an
attempt to justify needless bloodletting.29 In an article on the CCAs website entitled
Christmas Without Cruelty, Deborah Jones calls for Christians to eschew the
Christmas turkey in favour of a vegetarian repast. She states: To take part in the
deliberate killing of any part of creation, especially for the excuse of simply liking
the taste of a dead animal or bird, is a sign, not of the Kingdom, but of this fallen,
sinful world.30 More widely, animal welfare is not a central issue for every presentday Christian vegetarian group, but is at least a subsidiary concern. The notable
exception is Hallelujah Acres, where the Reverend George Malkmuss advocacy
seems to be focused entirely on human health and the need to obey Gods natural
laws of diet.


Samantha Jane Calvert

Another common theme observable from the nineteenth century onwards is a

concern for human health. Those groups which continue to exist are often those
which stress the benefits of a vegetarian diet to human health and longevity. This
point was emphasized by Ellen White, and continues to be key for the Seventh Day
Adventists and George Malkmus. It may indicate that the post-modern obsession
with health, longevity and the reduction of visible ageing makes the pursuit of
vegetarianism for health reasons a particularly attractive option. However, other
groups, both mainstream and sectarian, stress the importance of animal welfare
and compassion, rather than benefits to human healththough benefits to human
health and longevity might be cited in support of a compassionate diet. Examples
of such groups today include the Quakers and the Order of the Cross. Christian
vegetarian groups today rarely claim that vegetarianism will subdue the passions.
This idea seems to have been lost to contemporary Christian vegetarians, who are
more likely to claim that a vegetarian diet enhances health and vitality rather than
quells desire. Ideas of abstinence and purity are not generally prized by postmodern society.
The most persuasive ideas among Christian vegetarian groups since the nineteenth century have been humanitarianism, and a desire for a return to Eden or
the Golden Age. Genesis 1.29 has been read by many Christian vegetarian groups
as providing biblical justification for vegetarianism. As already discussed, most
Christian vegetarian groups have a concern for animal welfare or animal rights.
Almost all groups also express a desire for Eden or the Golden Age, which they
believe can partly be expressed by the return of Christians to Gods original diet
for humankind. Reincarnation is, in contrast, a marginal theme in Christian vegetarianism, being generally associated with mystic sects with greater Eastern or
Theosophical influences who tend to reinterpret or rewrite the Gospels.
Where vegetarianism has been promoted by mainstream Christian groups, this
is for a range of reasons which usually grow out of the existing concerns of that
group. These include the pacifism and reverence for all life of the Quakers, the
belief that vegetarianism reduces the desire for alcohol in the case of the Salvation
Army (until the early twentieth century), and the concern for human health of
Seventh Day Adventism.
It might be supposed that the idea of the Edenic diet would require a literal reading of Genesis of a type that was becoming increasingly unpopular in the nineteenth
century. In fact, many of the Christian vegetarian groups discussed here were, and
in some cases still are, anything but fundamentalist. Allegorical readings of the
Gospels are often the order of the day for these groups for explaining references to
meat consumption in the Bible. Reinterpretation of the Gospels is commonplace
among them, and the wholesale rewriting of some or all of the Bible is not unknown.
The revelations or illuminations of modern-day prophets on matters of diet are
often afforded at least as great an authority as the Bible itself. Accepting that
Genesis is allegorical still allows Christian vegetarian groups to draw attention to
the essential message that Gods original plan for humankind was a frugivorous
diet. What many Christian vegetarian groups have in common is the desire to
bring humanity closer to God through what the Bible Christian hymn writer
W. E. A. Axon called the food that Eden knew, Ere our first parents fell.31

Themes of Modern Christian Vegetarians










For more information, see Colin Spencer, Vegetarianism: A History (London:

Grub Street, 2000), pp. 10912, on the Essenes; 13139, on Manichaeism;
14653, on the Bogomils; and 15362, on Catharism.
For detailed discussion of religious affiliation in the vegetarian movement in
Victorian England, see James Gregorys chapter in this collection.
Peter Lineham, The English Swedenborigans, 17701840: A Study of the
Social Dimensions of Sectarianism (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Sussex, 1978), p. 306.
John Todd Ferrier, The Master: His Life and Teachings (London: Order of the
Cross, 1980), p. 44.
For assessment of the feasibility of these themes, see Christopher Southgates
contribution to this collection.
George H. Malkmus, Why Christians Get Sick (Eidson, TN: Hallelujah Acres,
1989); idem with Michael Dye, Gods Way to Ultimate Health (Shelby, NC:
Hallelujah Acres, 2005).
Malkmus with Dye, Gods Way to Ultimate Health, p. 81.
The Order was later re-established by Sydney H. Beard, who was its Provost
and journal editor for most of its existence.
Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet: A Catena of Authorities Deprecatory of
the Practice of Flesh-Eating (London: Pitman, 1883; Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003).
Rynn Berry, Food for the Gods, Vegetarianism and the Worlds Religions
(New York: Pythagorean, 1988), p. 304.
Julia Twigg, The Vegetarian Movement in England: A Study in the Structure
of its Ideology (unpublished doctoral dissertation, London School of Economics, 1981), p. 88.
Gabriele Wittek, Das ist mein Wort (Marktheidenfeld: Das Wort, 1996),
p. 155.
Julia Twigg, Food for Thought: Purity and Vegetarianism, Religion 9 (1979),
pp. 1335 (2223).
Twigg, Vegetarian Movement, p. 88.
Lineham, English Swedenborigans, pp. 298, 309.
Lineham, English Swedenborgians, p. 299.
Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 2 (1868) (Oakland, CA: Pacific,
1901), p. 70; cited in Gods Nutritionist: Pearls of Wisdom from Ellen G. White
(ed. Robert Cohen; New York: Square One, 2004), p. 14.
Twigg, Vegetarian Movement, p. 88.
Local Officer, April 1900, p. 348; cited in Pamela J. Walker, Pulling the Devils
Kingdom Down: The Salvation Army in Victorian Britain (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 2001), p. 185.
Twigg, Vegetarian Movement, p. 121.
H. Rider Haggard, Regeneration, Being an Account of the Social Work of the
Salvation Army in Great Britain (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1910),
pp. 99100.


Samantha Jane Calvert

22 Haggard, Regeneration, p. 113.

23 Ellen G. White, Education (Oakland, CA: Pacific, 1903), p. 203.
24 Grahams Lecture to Young Men, The Graham Journal of Health and Longevity
2, 7 July 1838, pp. 23738; cited in Karen Iacobbo and Michael Iacobbo, Vegetarian America (Westport, CN; London: Praeger, 2004), p. 65.
25 Twigg, Food for Thought, p. 19.
26 Spencer, Vegetarianism, p. 287.
27 Edward Maitland, The Story of Anna Kingsford and Edward Maitland and the
New Gospel of Interpretation (Birmingham: Ruskin, 1905), p. 29.
28 White, Testimonies, vol. 2 (1868), p. 71; cited in Gods Nutritionist, p. 14.
29 John Michael, Veg4Lent: Introduction and Study Guide (Christian Vegetarian
Association), p. 2, at www.veg4lent.org [accessed 14/09/2004].
30 www.all-creatures.org/ca/art-xmaswocruelty.html [accessed 3/12/2007].
31 William Cowherd, with additions, in Select Hymns for Christian Worship
(Salford: Bible Christian Church, 8th edn, 1898).

9 A Lutheranism of the Table:

Religion and the Victorian
James R. T. E. Gregory

Connections between vegetarian diet and religion are extensive and ancient.
In Christianity, medieval and later theologians debated the transition from a
vegetarian Golden Age to a post-lapsarian or post-diluvian age of meat-eating.
Medieval ascetics and Protestant sectarians rejected worldly and carnal pleasures
through their diet. New Age religions and new forms of Christian spirituality, then
as now, often involve vegetarianism or even veganism.1 In this chapter, the specific
conjuncture between Christianity and vegetarianism will be examined in the
formative period for the modern Western vegetarian movement, Victorian Britain.
My approach will focus on religious associations, both institutional and personal,
rather than on theology. The title of this chapter derives from William Thackerays
Fitz-Boodles declared ambition to be a dietetic reformer (though not a vegetarian).2
The image of Luther bravely nailing up his thesis and proclaiming the truth would
no doubt have been understood by isolated vegetarian pioneers, although the response of Victorian dietetic orthodoxy was less cataclysmic. I will first consider
vegetarianism as a specifically religious tendency, before outlining religious affiliation, and then studying spiritualist, esoteric and occult associations.
The religious implications of animal-centred vegetarianism involved partly mercy and compassion, and partly the avoidance of the corrupting influence of animal
slaughter, as well as occasionally the separation of perfectible or potentially godlike humanity from the lower nature of beasts.3 The problem of animal suffering
was part of the larger problem of pain in a Godly universe.4 But religious and
spiritual concerns were prominent too, in health-centred forms of vegetarianism,
even while the corporeal remained the focus and even if there was an ostensibly
materialist emphasis on reforming diet, and material gains.5
This is not a bold or novel claim. In examining grassroots beliefs in the medical
reform movements, Mark Clement has concluded that emphasis on the primacy of
material benefits as an explanation for their popularity is inaccurate and that their
spiritual dimension should be acknowledged. Janet Oppenheim argues too that


James R. T. E. Gregory

medical heterodoxy could enhance a deep-seated repudiation of materialism.6

One can also detect religious sentiment common, to be sure, within Victorian
philanthropic movementsin the sense of conversion evident in testimony published by the vegetarian press. When the Welsh Presbyterian Edmund Baillie
denied that vegetarianism was a fad, and asserted there are some of us with whom
it has become a link in the chain of our faith, he was articulating what many felt.7
For most, this faith was Christian, as asserted by one of the founding figures in the
Vegetarian Society, James Simpson: Our system has well been based upon Christian
Such Christian grounds included a rejection of sensuality and the extolling of
moderation, if not asceticism. The Unitarian Francis Newman, brother of the cardinal and a President of the Vegetarian Society, stressed opposition to fixed habit and
luxury.9 For Newman and many others (including critics, such as H. G. Wells in the
autobiographical novel Love and Mr Lewisham), vegetarianism was a puritanical
creed.10 Indeed, the chemist Samuel Brown had concentrated on vegetarianism in
an anonymous essay in the Westminster Review in 1852, in which he had examined
the phenomenon of medical unorthodoxy and labelled it physical puritanism.11
This is not to say, however, that the pursuit of personal purity and rejection of the
sensual could not be configured as a positive endeavour, as W. B. Withers wrote,
diffusing a life-full impetus and vigor wherever its influence ranges.12
Of course, other justifications and motivations for vegetarianism, including the
sanative and economic dimensions, could be analytically separated from the religious or moral in vegetarian polemics.13 But early Victorian vegetarians were uncomfortable about grounding their reform in a selfish appeal to health, and argued
that individual health had wider significance as the necessary basis for moral,
social and political reform. In sympathy with this reasoning, the Christian Record
could describe one of the early vegetarian periodicals as an interesting and important publication because of the intimate connexion of its principles with the health
and morals of the whole community.14 The Vegetarian Advocate stated that it
desired the advancement of physical truths for moral and religious ends.15 Philosophers and priests, it argued, were wrong to ignore the physical person since it was
within that person that the moral person was concealed. Bodily and mental health
were as intimately connected as body and mind, and flowed from the same source.
When physical habits were bad, morality could not be good.16 Physical puritans
believed that moral and physical laws harmonized, and as Julia Twigg observed in
her groundbreaking sociological study of vegetarianism, this holistic approach
was associated with transcendentalism and theosophy.17
The early movement had links with American health reformers, and while the
British vegetarian journal The Healthian distinguished between the relative emphases on religion and healtharguing that there was probably more perseverance
from English vegetarians because religion was more important than it was for
American vegetariansreligion was important in the American William Alcotts
physiology and in Grahamite vegetarianism.18 Robert Abzugs study of American
antebellum temperance, abolitionism, phrenology and vegetarianism, similarly stresses religious motivation rather than materialist. Deploying the Weberian concept

Religion and the Victorian Vegetarians


of the religious virtuoso (seen as a recurring type, regardless of class or period) to

characterize the eras thoroughgoing reformers, Abzug sees them as equivalent to
monastic visionaries, reforming the world because retreat was no longer possible.19
Virtuosity had moved from religious reform in the late eighteenth century, to
reform of daily life, politics and work in programmes of resacralization by the
mid-nineteenth century. Highly personal relationships and situations were now
targeted, whether mindbody, gender or masterslave relations. These fundamental targets naturally generated fundamental and large-scale opposition which
made such campaigns all the more fervent. The concept of virtuosity has its uses
in a British context in its emphasis on an expansive, activist and this-worldly
religious viewpoint, but obscures the synchronous nature of such interests in proposing a general chronology beginning with religion and ending with the body
and daily life. I detect no waning of religion in the vegetarian movement in this
The religious dimension to the vegetarian movement was thus often cast broadly
in terms of Puritanism. Something now needs to be said about personal religious
affiliation in the movement. Many vegetarians were nonconformists, whose places
of worship or associated institutions provided venues for many vegetarian lectures.
The first membership list for the Vegetarian Society (1848) included 265 members.
Of these, Cowherdites totalled just over half, with 136 members. These were members of the breakaway Swedenborgian church based in Manchester and Salford, as
well as Philadelphia. The sects wider prominence derived from its vegetarianism
and teetotalism. Its diet attracted the favourable attention of the Annual Register in
1824, and its exclusion from the beef-steak club and parish feast was referred to
by Robert Southey when opposing Catholic emancipation in 1828. Through the
adherence of the prominent liberal Member of Parliament, Joseph Brotherton, the
sect had some publicity: indeed, his entry in Grants British Senate (1838) reprinted
a chunk of his wifes Vegetable Cookery.20 Cowherdites justified their diet on the
basis of divine command, and argued that Christian practice in its first two centuries had been vegetarian.21 No other sect endorsed vegetarianism, but denominations
associated with reform, such as the Society of Friends and Unitarians, contributed
recruits throughout and beyond the Victorian periodunsurprisingly, given their
status as social and cultural progressives.22
In a database of 1,470 vegetarians in the period 18371901, I identified some
435 religious affiliates. Of these, forty were Quakers, but this probably underrepresents the Quaker contribution. Certainly contemporaries confused the pacific
Quakers and early vegetarians, hence the broad-brimmed hat sported by the vegetarian in one musical.23 The utopian community called the Concordium made
vegetarian overtures to the Quaker-dominated Peace Society, and although these
were rebuffed, vegetarianism as an extension of non-violence and plaining found
a home in the schismatic White Quaker sect in Ireland.24 Scattered references
throughout the vegetarian periodicals hint at connections. The family of the
London Quaker, William Bennett, who published a vegetarian tract in 1849, gave
private support; leading Friends in York investigated vegetarianism in about 1847;
and the Vegetarian Societys public banquet and meeting in London in 1851


James R. T. E. Gregory

attracted Quakers, identifiable in the audience by their distinctive costume.

Quaker Meeting Houses provided venues for a few vegetarian meetings. In 1880,
the vegetarians formally addressed the Society of Friends, and a Quaker vegetarian
society was eventually established.25
The fourth largest identifiable denominational group of vegetarians was the
Unitarians, whose ministers received an appeal from twelve Unitarian vegetarians
in 1898.26 Other religious organizations and groupings targeted included missionaries and the Congregationalist Union.27 In addition, leading figures in the
Salvation Army had vegetarian sympathiesa reminder of the practical Christian
philanthropic dimension of vegetarianism, and its links with teetotalism.28 Methodists of various sorts followed Unitarians in numerical contribution. Eager to recruit
Methodists, early vegetarians publicized John Wesleys vegetarian experience.29
In Marmion Savages popular novel Reuben Medlicott; Or The Coming Man, the
early nineteenth-century hero becomes vegetarian, and attempts to convert his
grandfather the Bishop of Chichester, horrifying the bishops clerical acquaintances. Proto-Anglo-Catholics seem to have been particularly shocked, with the
narrator opining that the very divines whose gorge rose upon this occasion at the
idea of digesting a cauliflower, have since been known to swallow crucifixes and
candlesticks, things the hardest, one would suppose, to be stomached by a clergyman of the Church of England.30 The vegetarian movement was long frustrated by
the rarity of sympathetic Anglican clerics: so rare, one such cleric joked, that he felt
he should be exhibited in a glass case. One clergyman introduced food reform into
a diocesan calendar in 1880, while a couple more advocated it in sermons.31 The
original vegetarian Order of the Golden Age, on which more shortly, in fact had
a strong Anglican component, and cumulatively, the number of Anglican clerics
compares well with that of other Protestant denominations.
Significantly, the vegetarian movement attracted few Catholics. This is in keeping with their minor representation in wider temperance and zoophilia movements. Modern sociologists have linked temperance cultures to predominantly
Protestant societies, and related them to the Protestant emphasis on individual
moral responsibility for personal behaviour.32 Catholicism was obviously concerned with self-control, and also had fasts and dietary asceticism.33 But the
Catholic Church opposed morally grounded vegetarianism. With the exception of
monastic diets, vegetarianism was therefore associated with Protestantism and
with sects like the Cowherdites, White Quakers and the jumpers, who followed
George Merediths Jump-to-Glory Jane.34
Infinite Wisdom said to the Apostle, Peter, kill and eat; words which, we apprehend, said the English Review in response to the Vegetarian Messenger, must outweigh all vegetarian newspapers, even in the days of religious fanaticism. We
recommend the proprietors of this magazine to remove their press to Nauvoo or
California. This was not a unique association of vegetarians with Mormonism
as a sign of the fanaticism of the early Victorian age. A running joke, echoing
actual misunderstandings, was that the public thought vegetarians were peddling
a new religion. Since vegetarians, like teetotallers, offered controversial readings of
scripturewhere many would first have encountered vegetarian figuresin

Religion and the Victorian Vegetarians


support of their cause, this was unsurprising. 35 Samuel Brown had written in his
essay: At school one reads of Cyrus, reared on brown bread and cresses; at church
and at home of Daniel, fed on pulse, and of both as nothing less than heroes in
manly beauty, as well as in valour and wisdom.36
Scriptural support was certainly felt to be necessary by the pioneers, who had to
reinterpret such references as the sanction in Genesis 9.3 that every moving thing
that liveth shall be meat for you, even as the green herb have I given you all things;
and the warning in 1 Timothy 4.1-3 that in the latter times some shall depart from
the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils . . . commanding
to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving.
Not surprisingly, pithy propaganda such as Sandemans Twenty Four Reasons
for a Vegetarian Diet privileged scriptural injunction or permission. For many
otherwise convinced individuals, scripture remained the problem, with a mixed
diet apparently endorsed throughout the Bible.37 Early-Victorian opponents,
often unaware of the Cowherdites, associated vegetarianism with the mad King
Nebuchadnezzar, with heresy, and the latter times.38 The fall of the human race,
according to Richard Govett, began with a question of food. The fall from
Christianity is to begin from the same quarter. And if vegetarianism was not portrayed as Christian apostasy, it was likely to be presented as pagan: a member of the
Glaswegian fleshers trade associated the diet, reasonably, with heathen countries.39
Yet the objections of the orthodox were hardly overwhelming: only one minister
apparently countered vegetarian propaganda by organizing a public lecture.40
Morality and religionas opposed to selfish economic or hygienic motives
remained important components of vegetarian arguments. Indeed, one leading
vegetarian activist, Charles Forward, oddly thought in 1896 that vegetarianism
could not have been run on moral lines earlier but had now reached that stage.
One prominent, principled critic of a purely hygienic argument was Arnold Frank
Hills, a millionaire warship builder who bankrolled the vegetarian movement in
the late Victorian era. Repelled by endless discussion of dietetics, his journal The
Vegetarian introduced other concerns and promoted a higher vegetarianism. The
leading metropolitan spiritualist, James Burnsa vegetarian, but no Christian
was also concerned about the movement falling into the very narrow groove of a
conventional dietetic regimen and that alone. German vegetarian debate around
the same time involved similar arguments about the need to develop a religious
dimension to ensure growth; in contrast, French vegetarianism was reputed to be
shorn of religion.41
Although in 1888 the London Vegetarian Society could not decide whether to
begin committee meetings with prayers or hymns, there were plans to create a
book of hymns and songs for meetings, and it was still preferable to have religious
ministers as chairmen at local meetings.42 The Vegetarian Messenger was thrilled to
report Vegetarianism in the Pulpitsuitably, during harvest festivalsclaiming
that pulpit references were increasing.43 Julia Twigg has identified a decline in
biblical arguments in vegetarian propaganda from the 1870s, and a non-sectarian
character when the Bible was employed.44 Yet scripture had not been used in
a sectarian sense prior to this. Moreover, the formation of the Order of the Golden


James R. T. E. Gregory

Age and Danielite vegetarian societies, as well as the Christianism of the London
and Manchester journals in this period, strongly suggest that her interpretation is
incorrect. Her characterization of the Danielites as essentially a social group similar to the artistic circles of Bedford Park, and their magazine as having a light tone,
is wrong: they resembled, rather, the Christian temperance Good Templar movement. The Danielite Order required a declared belief in the existence and power of
God and based itself on the Bible, even though beyond this personal religious
views were not to be interfered with. The vegetarian movement, then, despite new
religious influences, and despite its acceptance that lessons on vegetarianism could
be drawn from non-Biblical authorities, continued to have a Christian tone and to
seek denominational association.45 But vegetarian lecturers in places like Belfast
and Birmingham were advised to be careful about handling scripture: little wonder that the Vegetarian Messenger could in 1907 hail William Harrisons compilation
of scriptural testimony to vegetarianism as absolutely invaluable to our speakers
and writers.46
Could the glorious gospel of human dietetics challenge organized religion?47
The inspirer of the Concordium in the late 1830s, the sacred socialist James
Pierrepont Greaves, felt that hygienic reform was more beneficial to man, than any
national doctrinal creeds, or any churches, chapels or cathedrals.48 Samuel Brown
believed that cleanliness and temperance were the very religion of the materialist,
and that atheistic artisans were all in favour of physical puritanism. Isaac Taylor,
in a study of whims and fancies of 1860, observed the tendency for dietary whims
to lead their exponents towards infidelity, and thence on to Atheism.49 There
existed atheistic vegetarians, yet several of these freethinkers and agnostics
worried about the tone or direction of vegetarian debate. One insulted freethinker
threatened resignation in 1890 if the Dietetic Reformer persisted in being onesided in advocating Christianism, more than materialism or any other ism. 50
Sections of the vegetarian world certainly disliked the emphasis on a higher vegetarianism to be found in the Dietetic Reformer, Vegetarian or The Herald of the
Golden Age, all of which emphasized Christianity and duty rather than expediency or health. One reason for support for the vegetarian Natural Living Society,
established by the promoter of brown bread, T. R. Allinson, was distaste for Arnold
Hills theology and idealism or Neo-Vegetarian gospel of diluted Christianity.51
Even in 1907, the Freethinker commented of the Vegetarian Messenger that piety
was scattered all over this curious Magazine. We suppose its conductors are looking for a snug place in heaven.52
Thematic and personal relationships between vegetarianism and various latenineteenth-century religious currentsliberal Christianity, American transcendentalism, quasi-Indian religion, the religion of nature and socialismhave
already been noted.53 Leading theosophists or esoterics such as Annie Besant, Anna
Kingsford and Edward Maitland, were vegetarians, as is well known. The relationship between medical unorthodoxy and the surrogate faith of spiritualism has
been explored by several writers.54 But the spiritualist and generally esoteric interest in food reform as demonstrating the interplay between self-styled progressive
interests merits further attention. Vegetarians, spiritualists and occultists saw

Religion and the Victorian Vegetarians


themselves as truth seekers, creating their own identities and philosophies instead
of passively receiving accepted wisdom. Ideological and personal connections
meant that these movements overlapped.
An early link between the two isms was through William Horsell. As well as
publishing a couple of spiritualist papers and several spiritualist books, he reserved
a place for spiritualism in his family newspaper of 185859, The Two Worlds, which
enthusiastically discussed it as part of a mission to enquire into everything relating
to human life. Horsell saw spiritualism as an aid to religious faith: We are one of
those who believe,and the arguments of our secularist friends have never yet
been able to shake the belief,that man cannot be happy, no matter what improvement he may be able to make in his circumstances, until he recognises his divine
origin and the inner purpose of his creation.55 Horsell was not alone, for as Oppenheim points out, spiritualism was a widespread effort . . . to believe in something
during a period of religious crisis and squarely amidst the cultural, intellectual,
and emotional moods of the era.56 Spiritualism and vegetarianism both shared a
soi-disant progressive stance and a critical attitude to gross habits. Popular
spiritualism drew significantly, despite Horsells comments, on former socialists
followers of Robert Owenand on freethinkers, who ensured the progressive
flavour to provincial spiritualist activity.
Spiritualist involvement in vegetarianism, temperance, antivivisection and other
movements, reflects, as Oppenheim argues, beliefs about the sanctity of life, the
worth and dignity of the physical frame enclosing an immortal soul.57 Concern
with the correct diet for spiritualistic activity was also a factor.58 Bertram Theobalds
1907 essay on the occult and vegetarianism expresses some of the key ideas: that
ingestion of flesh foods both coarsened the material body and the ethereal body
constituting the higher part of our being, and that animal slaughter was not only
morally degrading but a psychic pollution and an assault on the community of
Vegetarianism was certainly advocated by spiritualists such as the Cardiff
Circle of Light in the 1880s, although prior vegetarianism possibly influenced
such support.60 There was a strongly unorthodox physiological dimension to
spiritualism.61 At one sance in Nottingham, the deceased phrenologist Dr Franz
Gall recommended Turkish baths. A medium attending a spiritualist conference in
1872 reported his guides recommendation of hydropathy, vegetarianism, teetotalism and abstinence from coffee and other stimulants.62 Vegetarianism was discussed
in the working-class spiritualists Progressive Lyceums, and debated in spiritualist
journals and works of spiritualist fiction.
The most important spiritualist contribution to the vegetarian cause came from
James Burns, a major figure in the movement through his lecturing and editorship
of two journals, Human Nature and Medium and Daybreak. The former journal
advocated a range of physical puritan and radical causes, and boasted a large provincial readership; the latter was an expansive publication, but more clearly
spiritualist. Burns saw activity in spiritualism and vegetarianism as a healthy
fostering of Dissent against professionals and cliquetarians. He was personally
repelled by atheism and materialism, but spiritualism provided him with a religion


James R. T. E. Gregory

outside the confines of a professional church. Burns was the son of a poor Ayrshire
smallholder-craftsman, and, so he said, constitutionally a heretic. His father,
a hydropath and teetotal vegetarian, was a man of progressive thought and philanthropy who carried a copy of Queen Mab, studied mesmerism, and read George
Combe. Not surprisingly, the Presbyterian church expelled him. His son reacted
similarly against drink, animal foods and orthodoxy. Travelling south for work,
James Burns became a gardener at Hampton Court Palace and befriended an associate of the Concordists. He then worked in Liverpool in temperance publishing.
Converted to principled vegetarianism by James Simpson, he joined the Vegetarian Society, and during the 1860s was a peripatetic lecturer on vegetarianism and
allied matters. Graham Crackers and vegetarian publications were sold at his
Progressive Library, attached to his Spiritual Institution in Camberwell. Work on
the journal Human Nature inaugurated his long editorial career.63
Burns was a vice-president of the London Food Reform Society and member of
the Vegetarian Rambling Society. Medium and Daybreak prominently covered the
activity of these two organizations. In 1878, the paper carried a prospectus for his
Industrial and Patriotic Good Wine and Fruit Food Guild which aimed to establish colonies, reform land, monetary and property arrangements, and spread
temperance and vegetarianism.64 He published free vegetarian tracts as well as a
Vegetarian Advocate (quoted in the Medium) directed partly against the Americanborn Dr Emmet Densmores anti-vegetarian quackery system. In 1888, Burns
attempted to take spiritualism in a new direction, with vegetarianism providing
the physical food in a Threefold Food programme, along with mental and spiritual sustenance. He established a Progressive Food and Cooking Society, and
announced Cooking Stations to provide (either free or cheap) well-prepared
Deathless Food, as well as lessons in cookery, economy and hygiene for schoolchildren and the needy of poor districts. Home visiting for aid and advice in case
of illness was planned. The project was to encourage fraternity, co-operation,
domesticity and neighbourism, and to combat the beershop and gambling
pastimes of Christian communities. Cultural Colonies were envisaged to provide
urban and rural dwellers with the opportunity to grow their own food and spend
some time each year in another environment. Food was best produced as near as
possible to the consumer.65 A vegetarian publishing house and restaurant was
established in Clerkenwell, in a neighbourhood where extreme poverty made vegetarianism unattractive and access to utensils difficult. It gave free breakfasts to
poor schoolchildren and meals for a watchmakers firm, established a club room
and held Sunday services and evening meetings.
Burns felt that Arnold Frank Hills was, through his financial generosity, moving
London vegetarianism in the right directiontowards interest in the Inner Life
and welcomed his work for human progress.66 In a letter to the Vegetarian Society,
Burns expressed his concerns about the hygienic narrowness by which life was
seen in merely material terms, rather than acknowledgingas pioneers such as
Sylvester Graham had doneits spiritual dimension, and aspiring to the reception

Religion and the Victorian Vegetarians


of all truth without fear of those reproaches which are the only arguments of
I dwell on Burns because he is an important spiritualist figure. But his involvement in both movements was not unusual. Other important vegetarianspiritualists included the Vegetarian Societys London secretary George Dornbusch,
who had been connected with the Concordium community and supported true
spiritualismwithout any dross of superstitionas the best means of establishing firm faith in God.68 The suburb of Dalston in Hackney, where he lived,
possessed an active plebeian spiritualist circle, and in 1872 Dornbusch provided a
venue for the Dalston Association of Inquirers into Spiritualism, as well as vegetarian food. One prominent late Victorian spiritualist, Chandos Leigh Hunt Wallace,
was a leading figure in late-nineteenth-century vegetarianism, and had met her
future husband at Burnss phrenological meetings.69 Her colleague in London vegetarianism, William Theobald (president of the Northern Heights Vegetarian
Society), came from a prominent spiritualist family.70 Outside London, the spiritualist movement provided important locations for late-nineteenth-century vegetarianism. These included Cardiff, where a spiritualist-vegetarian Good Templar
arranged the distribution of literature on these three noble causes in 1877,71 and a
Circle of Light, whose mediumistic offshoots settled in Australia and had strict
regulations on clothing, diet and bathing.72 In Sunderland in 1892, the president of
the local vegetarian society was a journalist who published in Medium and Daybreak. The shareholders of the late Victorian progressive spiritualist journal Two
Worlds held their annual meeting at a vegetarian restaurant.73 This vegetarianspiritualism encompassed the plebeians previously explored by Logie Barrow, such
as David Richmond, a self-educated wool sorter who had been a sort of utopian tourist in England and America.74 At the other end of the social spectrum were Sir Charles
Isham, who introduced garden gnomes into Britain, supported homeopathy and
mesmerism and published a vegetarian tract; and Lady Mount Temple, who tried to
interest her friend John Ruskin in spiritualism and was a noted animal lover.75
Spiritualism was not the only alternative spiritual movement, with vegetarianism
having long been associated with esotericism or mysticism. James Pierrepont
Greavess sacred socialism was a Christian mystical endeavour.76 A later example of
a vegetarian esoteric was the barrister and fruitarian Josiah Oldfield, swayed while
studying theology at Oxford by the esoteric teaching which I found in every religion worthy of being classed as a divine faith.77 Theosophy and physical puritanism
were closely connected. Joy Dixon has identified an occult body politics representing an immanentist turn (i.e. God dwelling in the world), in which various campaigns
for moral, social and political reform were combined with theosophy or similar
spirituality in a single struggle. While theosophical beliefs surfaced in articles and
letters in the Vegetarian and in instruction given to the Womens Vegetarian Union,
theosophical journals discussed the diet and endorsed it for spiritual and psychic
reasons, if not on ethical grounds.78 Well-known vegetarian-theosophists included
Annie Besant, Madame Blavatskys successor as the leader of the Theosophical
Society; Countess Wachtmeister, a friend of Blavatsky and author of a Practical


James R. T. E. Gregory

Vegetarian Cookery; and the homeopath Dr Leopold Salzer, president of the Punjab
Vegetarian Society and author of The Psychic Aspect of Vegetarianism. But Anna
Kingsford, who left the Theosophical Society, was perhaps the most important
vegetarian-theosophist. Kingsford delivered numerous vegetarian lectures at home
and abroad,79 and was most at ease on the vegetarian platform, for vegetarianism
was central to her life. She averred: I must say that I think the vegetarian movement
is the great movement of the age, and I think so because I see in it the beginning
of real civilization.80 Her followers included the shadowy Gideon Ouseley, who
journeyed through Anglicanism and the Catholic Apostolic Church to Roman
Catholicism. Ouseley discovered a vegetarian Gospel, The Gospel of the Holy Twelve,
which is still disseminated, and through the guidance of the same spirit which
inspired all Scriptures of God issued a vegetarian version of Genesis in which the
occupations of Cain and Abel were switched to make the acceptable sacrifice
vegetarian, and various other striking changes effected.81
Just as some vegetarians emulated the teetotal Good Templars in creating the
Danielites, so those vegetarians interested in the hermetic and esoteric also created
their own societies. The first Order of the Golden Age, founded in 1882 by the
Anglican clergyman Henry Williams, younger brother of the zoophilist Howard
Williams who inspired the Humanitarian League, does not seem to have been
esoteric, but its successors were.82 Ouseley created an Order of At-One-ment
(a name which deliberately played on the doctrine of Atonement) to investigate
Kingsfords work and purify liturgy in a humanitarian direction.83 Sidney Beard,
sometime stockbroker and honorary member of the Psychical Research Society
who, in 1881, had travelled astrally to see a female acquaintance, according
to Edmund Gurneys Phantasms of the Livingre-established the Order of the
Golden Age. Ostensibly not an occult outfit, its journal in fact contained articles
on the dawn of spiritualism, the increasing cultivation of the psychic senses, mental healing and the decline of materialism and animalism.84 The ornate council
room at the Orders headquarters in Paignton was decorated with a frieze representing the unity of West and East, and past and modern Golden Ages.85
Being vegetarian did not necessarily lead one into spiritualism or any other ism,
nor did spiritualists always sympathize with vegetarianism. The Dietetic Reformers
review of Human Nature would have nothing to say concerning spiritualism.86
Not all spirit advice was supportive: the journalist and moral crusader W. T. Stead
received a spirit message that vegetarianism, which he approved of , was not for
him.87 Yet close connections were frequent, and stemmed from shared attitudes
and aspirations. The links between vegetarianism and new religions or esoteric
Christianity in the late nineteenth centurythat period which Edward Carpenter
recalled as the coming of a great reaction from the sinning commercialism and
materialism of the mid-Victorian epoch88continued the connection between
dietetic and religious heresy apparent in such sects as the Cowherdites and White
With the dominant religious ethos of Victorian society and culture being
Christian, it is hardly surprising that the vegetarian movement was coloured by
Christianity, both in order to obtain a hearing and sympathy, and because its

Religion and the Victorian Vegetarians


adherents and promoters were religious. Even if they rejected official religion,
vegetarians were in pursuit of some ultimate concern, to use John Wolffes phrase.89
The movement was thus cast in terms of a new gospel and its campaigns as
crusades.90 Many vegetarians certainly remained convinced that pressing merely
scientific or hygienic claims would retard their movement. The continued importance of religion in these occult, esoteric and vegetarian guises, demonstrates that
it would be a mistake to view the period as one in which religion declined as a
result of secularization and modernization.91


Tristram Stuart, Bloodless Revolution: Radical Vegetarians and the Discovery of

India (London: HarperCollins, 2006), pp. 3130; Keith Thomas, Man and the
Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England, 15001800 (London: Allen
Lane, 1983), pp. 28997; Alan Rudrum, Ethical Vegetarianism in Seventeenth
Century Britain: Its Roots in Sixteenth Century European Theological Debate,
Seventeenth Century 18, 1 (2003), pp. 7692; Malcolm Hamilton, Eating
Ethically: Spiritual and Quasi-Religious Aspects of Vegetarianism, Journal
of Contemporary Religion 15, 1 (2000), pp. 6583.
To be the destroyer of a barbarous system wallowing in abusive prodigality
to become a dietetic reformerthe Luther of the table. William Thackeray,
from Fitz-Boodles Professions (1842), reprinted in The Confessions of Fitzboodle and Some Passages in the Life of Major Gahagan (New York: Appleton,
1852), p. 78.
See Julia Twigg, Food for Thought: Purity and Vegetarianism, Religion 9,
1 (1979), pp. 1335 (19), on the eating of animals as an ingestion of animal
James Turner, Reckoning with the Beast: Animals, Pain and Humanity in the
Victorian Mind (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980); Lucy
Bending, The Representation of Bodily Pain in Late Nineteenth-Century Culture
(Oxford: Clarendon, 2000).
Vegetarian Advocate (subsequently VA), 15 December 1848, p. 68: Moral transmutation from physical change may not always unconsciously ensue; but it is
generally found that one whose habits of diet have been elevated from flesh
and its accompaniments to garden and orchard productions, soon falls into the
custom of requiring from himself a co-ordinate elevation in every sphere of
being . . . The element of the body being changed, a new body, a new birth, is in
effect obtained. Twigg, Food for Thought, pp. 2426, describes vegetarianism
as involving a this-worldly form of salvation in terms of the body, but one
which, in seeing the body as spiritual, denies Cartesian dualism.
Mark Clement, Physical Puritanism and Religious Dissent: The Case of John
Young (18201904), Sunderland Chemist and Druggist and Methodist Lay
Preacher, Social History of Medicine 11, 2 (1998), pp. 197212; Janet Oppenheim, The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England,
18501914 (Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 231.


James R. T. E. Gregory

7 Vegetarian Messenger (subsequently VM), December 1893, p. 439.

8 VA, 15 September 1848, p. 23.
9 Francis W. Newman, Essays on Diet (London: Kegan Paul & Co., 1883) p. 13.
Dean Farrar also characterized vegetarianism as opposed to mammon and
luxury; see C. W. Forward, Fifty Years of Food Reform: A History of the Vegetarian Movement in England (London: Ideal Publishing Union, 1898), p. 117.
10 H. G. Wells, Love and Mrs Lewisham (London and New York: Harper and
Brothers, 1900 [1899]), p. 196. On Puritanism, see The discovery of Puritanism, 18201914: a preliminary sketch, in Raphael Samuel, Island Stories:
Unravelling Britain, vol. 2: Theatres of Memory (posthumously ed. by Alison
Light with Sally Alexander and Gareth Stedman Jones; London, and New York:
Verso, 1998), pp. 276322; and Twigg, Food for Thought, p. 20.
11 Anon. [Samuel Brown], Physical Puritanism, The Westminster Review 57
(April 1852), pp. 40542.
12 The Christianism of Vegetarianism, VA, July 1849, p. 134.
13 See M. Brotherton, Vegetable Cookery; with an Introduction Recommending
Abstinence from Animal Food and Intoxicating Liquor. By a member of the Bible
Christian Church (London: Effingham Wilson, 1829 [1825]), pp. viiixiii,
where religious justification followed the hygienic and humanitarian.
14 VA, 18 August 1848, advertisement for Advocate.
15 VA, May 1850, p. 112.
16 VA, 15 January 1849, p. 72.
17 See Twigg, Food for Thought, p. 21, on vegetarianisms positive conception of
bodily health imbued with religious awe.
18 The Healthian, 1 January 1843, p. 103.
19 J. C. Whorton, Christian Physiology: William Alcotts Prescription for the
Millennium, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 49 (1975), pp. 46681; Robert
H. Abzug, Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
20 J. Grant, The British Senate, or, a second series of random recollections of the
Lords and Commons (2 vols; Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1838), vol. 2,
pp. 99105; Annual Register, August 1824, p. 105; Robert Southey, The Roman
Catholic Question, Quarterly Review 38 (October 1828), p. 556. See Peter
J. Lineham, Restoring mans creative power: the theosophy of the Bible Christians of Salford, in The Church and Healing, ed. W. J. Sheils (Oxford: Blackwell,
1982), pp. 20723; Derek Antrobus, A Guiltless Feast: The Salford BibleChristian Church and the Rise of the Modern Vegetarian Movement (Salford
City Council, 1997); Paul A. Pickering and Alex Tyrrell, In the Thickest of
the Fight: the Reverend James Scholefield (17901855) and the Bible Christians of Salford, Albion 26, 3 (1994), pp. 46182; and Samantha Jane Calvert,
A Taste of Eden: Modern Christianity and Vegetarianism, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 58, 3 (2007), pp. 46181.
21 See Brotherton, Vegetable Cookery, p. xiii.
22 For parallels with temperance, see Brian Harrison, Drink and the Victorians:
The Temperance Question in England, 18151872 (London: Faber and Faber,

Religion and the Victorian Vegetarians









1971), pp. 16473, 17995; and Lilian Lewis Shiman, The Crusade against
Drink in Victorian England (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988), pp. 5368.
Sheet music cover for H. Walker, The Vegetarian, Serio-Comico-SemiSentimental Song written and composed by H. Walker (London, 1859).
James R. T. E. Gregory, Some Account of the Progress of the Truth as it is in
Jesus: the White Quakers of Ireland, Quaker Studies, 9, 1 (2004), pp. 6894.
Peter Collins, Quaker Plaining as Critical Aesthetic, Quaker Studies 5,
2 (2001), pp. 12139, discusses plainness as a religious ideal and symbol
of spirituality.
[W. Bennett], A Letter to a Friend, in reply to the question, What is vegetarianism? (London: Horsell, 1849); on York Quakers, Truth-Tester, n.s., vol. 1, 1847,
p. 83; on the 1851 banquet, International Magazine of Literature, Art and
Science 4, 3 (New York, October 1851), pp. 40203; on Meeting Houses:
Dietetic Reformer (hereafter DR), October 1862, p. 94; DR, March 1877, p. 44;
VM, June 1898, p. 283; on addressing Friends, and the Quaker Vegetarian
Society, see Vegetarian Society to the Society of Friends (1880); and
A. N. Brayshaw, Herald of the Golden Age (hereafter HGA), 15 June 1900.
HGA, September 1898, p. 103.
DR, July 1887, p. 222; DR, February 1889, p. 47; Vegetarian, 19 January
1889, p. 39.
Forward, History, pp. 11719. General Booth latterly became vegetarian; his
son William Bramwell Booth and daughter-in-law were also vegetarian.
VA, 15 October 1848 p. 37, p. 41; 15 April 1849, p. 110. On Wesleys vegetarianism, see Hilda Kean, Animal Rights: Political and Social Change in Britain
since 1800 (London: Reaktion, 1998), pp. 1821. See VM, December 1850,
p. 154, on propaganda among Bible Christians in Cornwall.
Marmion W. Savage, Reuben Medlicott; Or The Coming Man (3 vols; London:
Chapman and Hall, 1852), vol. 1, p. 265.
Forward, History, p. 116; HGA, December 1898, p. 142, for the Reverend
A. M. Mitchells comment on exhibition. Mitchells annual parish letter was
vegetarian, and he presented Christianity in terms of the fashionable Simple
Life, in VM, December 1905, p. 327. See DR, May 1879, p. 105 on the Reverend
H. J. Williamss projected vegetarian Lenten discourses; DR, November 1880,
p. ix, for the Reverend J. S. Jones paragraph in Winchester Diocesan Kalendar.
E. E. Kelly mentioned vegetarianism in sermons, VM, August 1898, p. 37.
Harry G. Levine, Temperance cultures: alcohol as a problem in Nordic
and English-speaking cultures, in The Nature of Alcohol and Drug-related
Problems, eds Malcolm Lader, Griffith Edwards and D. Colin Drummond
(Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 1636.
Indeed, of the few sects noted as forbidding or limiting the use of animal
food, in J. Eadies The Ecclesiastical Cyclopaedia (London: Griffin, Bohn and
Co., 1862), most were Catholic monastic orders.
George Meredith, Jump-to-Glory Jane, reprinted in Poems of George Meredith
(2 vols; London: Constable, 1902), vol. 2, pp. 20415. Orthodox Catholic
response to heretical vegetarianism in the early modern period is discussed











James R. T. E. Gregory
in Stuart, Bloodless Revolution, pp. 15054. Protestants perceived Catholic
fasts as taking to an extreme the Christian need to curb human nature, for
example, J. B. Brown, Daniel and Nebuchadnezzars Court (Aids to the
Development of the Divine Life, 12; London: Tresidder, 1861), pp. 1213, yet
this work favoured the body being put under the mastery of temperance and
chastity through occasional pulse and water. See Ceri Crossley, Consumable
Metaphors: Attitudes towards Animals and Vegetarianism in NineteenthCentury France (Oxford, Bern: Lang, 2005), pp. 29, 12132, on the tension
between mainstream Catholicism and the individual moral autonomy
expressed in the French animal protection movement.
English Review, 13, 25 (March 1850), p. 225; see Punch for vegetarianism
as a religion, 22 May 1886, p. 250. On the dissolvent role of teetotalism, see
Harrison, Drink and the Victorians, pp. 18586. On the permissions of the
Mosaic Law, VA, 15 March 1849, pp. 9495; and G.W.W., British Controversialist, 1850, p. 389, stressed mistranslation, the historical formation of
scripture, and the non-scientific nature of scriptural knowledge.
S. Brown, Physical Puritanism, reprinted in Lectures on the Atomic Theory,
and Essays Scientific and Literary (2 vols; Edinburgh: Constable, 1858), vol. 2,
p. 196.
For example, B.W.P., British Controversialist, 1850, p. 309; R. Griffiths, VA, July
1849, p. 138; see Medium and Daybreak (hereafter abbreviated to MD),
24 January 1890, p. 59, on the fatted calf argument. See VA, May 1849,
pp. 10102, for the first of series of dialogues on Harmony of Vegetarianism
and Scripture, by S.C..
Anon. (R. Govett), The Future Apostacy (London: Nisbet, 1848), p. 38. See the
review in Truth-Tester, n.s., vol. 2, 1848, p. 122. Simpson refers to this view in
VM, July 1853, p. 31. On Nebuchadnezzar, see VM, October 1894, p. 369.
[R. Govett], Vegetarianism: A Dialogue (Norwich: Fletcher, 1883 [1849]),
p. 13; Vegetarianism attacked and defended: Being a reprint of a controversy
from the columns of the Glasgow Newspaper Press (Glasgow, n.d.), p. 4.
The Reverend Thomas Clarke of Ashford, VA, 15 April 1849, p. 110. Other
references to such controversy include DR, January 1867, p. 19, where a Primitive Methodist preacher recalled his ministers opinion that vegetarianism
was contrary to the New Testament and inconsistent with being a preacher.
Forward, HGA, February 1896, p. 27; on Hills, Vegetarian, 1889, p. 106, 39495;
on Burns, VM, January 1893, p. 19. For German vegetarianism, see reports by
Mathilde Hompes in Foreign Notes in the VM, of debates in Vegetarische
Warte, see VM, July 1899, p. 231. On French vegetarianism, see VM, October
1907, p. 293.
Greater Manchester County Records Office, Vegetarian Society Records,
G24/1/2/1 (Minute book of London Vegetarian Society), minutes for 3
August, 24 September and 9 November 1888.
VM, November 1899, p. 369: reporting the Reverend Jackson of Gravesend and
the United Methodist Free Church minister, the Reverend William Bailey.

Religion and the Victorian Vegetarians









Julia Twigg, The Vegetarian Movement in England from 18471981: A Study

of the Structure of its Ideology (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, London School of
Economics, 1982), pp. 114, 293, 123. See also Colin Spencer, The Heretics
Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (London: Fourth Estate, 1993), p. 293. See
Danielite Star, 16 May 1887 (no. 1), p. 1, for the required declaration.
Thus The Telegraph, reporting a vegetarian calendar where vegetable dishes
replaced saints, noted the vegetarian sermons at 25 different metropolitan
churches, picked up in Fairplay Flume (Colorado), 10 November 1889, p. 4.
For the acceptance of other sources for vegetarianism, see the review of H. S.
Clubbs Is Edenic Life Practical?, VM, May 1900, p. 158, as appealing to all
those who like to draw lessons on vegetarianism from the Bible, implying that
it was justifiable to seek non-scriptural support.
Vegetarian, 19 November 1898, p. 745; W. Harrison, Bible Testimony against
Flesh Eating (Manchester: Vegetarian Society, 1907). VM, September 1907,
p. 227; December 1907, p. 364.
The phrase appears in Vegetarian, 4 January 1890, p. 13; the idea of a Gospel
of Health was repeated elsewhere, for example, Vegetarian, 2 May 1890,
pp. 26364.
New Age, 13 May 1843, p. 15.
Isaac Taylor, Ultimate Civilization, and Other Essays (London, 1860), p. 284.
DR, August 1890, p. 243.
T. R. Allinson, Vegetarian, 27 July 1889, p. 474, asserted he was as much an
agnostic as a vegetarian. See Weekly Times and Echo (which published
Allinsons medical column) 16 December 1888, p. 6 excluding theology and
idealism; S. Soddy, in Vegetarian, 1888, p. 620 (Neo-Vegetarian . . . is his
phrase); Francis Newman, DR, February 1889, p. 46; and L. Large, Vegetarian,
9 February 1889, p. 91.
VM, February 1908, p. 30.
Twigg, Vegetarian Movement, pp. 190209; and Twigg, Food for Thought.
Oppenheim, Other World, from whom the phrase surrogate faith is derived;
Logie Barrow, Independent Spirits: Spiritualism and English Plebeians, 1850
1910 (London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986); Alex Owen,
The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian
England (London: Virago, 1989); Brian J. Gibbons, Spirituality and the Occult:
From the Renaissance to the Modern Age (London: Routledge, 2001).
Two Worlds (1858), p. 1.
Oppenheim, The Other World, pp. 4, 59198, on the relationship between
spiritualism, Christianity and freethought.
Oppenheim, The Other World, pp. 4344.
Dietetics in relationship to mediumship, MD, 20 January 1871.
Vegetarianism from an Occult Standpoint, VM, December 1907, pp. 33338.
See D.J.N, The Mediumship of George Spriggs, Ark Review (Noahs Ark
Society for Physical Mediumship), 6, 91, February 1998.
Oppenheim, The Other World, pp. 21736; and Barrow, Independent Spirits,
pp. 16194, 21328.


James R. T. E. Gregory

62 MD, 6 September 1872, p. 349.

63 This paragraph draws on references in MD, 22 August 1890, p. 536; MD, 12
October 1883, p. 641; MD, 4 November 1892, p. 706; MD, 13 June 1890, p. 370;
FRM, AprilJune 1884, p. 101; DR, October 1866, pp. 12122.
64 MD, 20 March 1891 [25 April 1879], p. 183.
65 MD, 20 June 1888, front page, in large type; MD, 17 July 1888, p. 450.
66 MD, 20 June 1890, p. 386.
67 DR, January 1893, p. 19.
68 MD, 18 August 1871, p. 271.
69 Her career is discussed in Owen, The Darkened Room; and Barrow, Independent Spirits, pp. 22224.
70 See Owen, The Darkened Room, pp. 74106.
71 MD, 11 May 1877, p. 295
72 MD, 11 October 1878, p. 645.
73 Oppenheim, Other World, p. 47.
74 Barrow, Independent Spirits, pp. 20612.
75 Charles Isham, The Food That We Live On (Northampton, n.d.); Van Akin
Burd, Ruskin, Lady Mount Temple and the Spiritualists: An Episode in Broadlands History (London: Brentham, 1982).
76 Joscelyn Godwin, The Theosophical Enlightenment (Albany: State University
of New York Press, 1994), pp. 22830; Jackie E. M. Latham, A Forgotten
Theosopher: James Pierrepont Greaves, Theosophical History 8, 8 (2001),
pp. 22130.
77 Josiah Oldfield, Vegetarian Still, Nineteenth Century, August 1898, p. 246.
78 Joy Dixon, Divine Feminine: Theosophy and Feminism in England (Baltimore,
MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), pp. 13234.
79 H. Williams, FRM, October 1881, p. 62.
80 Food Reform Magazine (hereafter FRM), July 1881, p. 21.
81 The Gospel of the Holy Twelve known also as the Gospel of the Perfect Life.
Edited by a Disciple of the Master from Eastern and Western sources (1892;
Paris: Order of At-One-ment, 1901), rewrites the Gospel on humanitarian
lines, with Jesus teaching natural health reform and carnivorism blamed on
Satan. See the review by F.H. in VM, January 1905, pp. 2526. On Ouseleys
The Book of Genesis . . . translated out of original tongues . . . by a minister of
the New Dispensation, see VM, May 1900, p. 158.
82 See DR, October 1881, p. 202, p. 218; DR, May 1883, p. 132; DR, December
1883, p. 340.
83 VM, April 1896, p. 132; Vegetarian, 8 February 1896, pp. 6970; HGA, February
1896, p. 23. The Order and Ouseleys ideas were reported in the Theosophical
84 HGA, December 1899, pp. 13436. The Order claimed no new morality or
religion (Vegetarian Review, February 1896, p. 96). Beard was Supreme Grand
Master of Fraternitas Rosae Crucis, and attempted to create a confederation
of Initiate Orders.
85 HGA, December 1900, p. 150.

Religion and the Victorian Vegetarians


86 DR, October 1869, p. 126.

87 Henry S. Salt, Seventy Years Among the Savages (London: Allen & Unwin,
1921), p. 173.
88 Edward Carpenter, My Days and Dreams, p. 240; and, for the late Victorian
revolt generally, see pp. 22540; and Samuel Hynes, The Edwardian Turn of
Mind (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968), p. 135.
89 John Wolffe, God and Greater Britain: Religion and National Life in Britain
and Ireland, 18431945 (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 173.
90 For instance, Leon Hymans, VM, June 1907, p. 155, preaching the gospel of
the Perfect Way in Diet and exhorting a great Crusade.
91 See Mark Bevir, The Labour Church Movement, 18911902, Journal of British
Studies 38, 2 (1999), pp. 21745.

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Part 4
The Theory of Vegetarianism

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10 The Argument from Marginal

Cases: A Philosophical and
Theological Defense
Daniel Dombrowski

There has recently been an explosion of interest, in theology and religious studies,
regarding our current environmental crisis in general, and the moral status of nonhuman animals (hereafter: animals) in particular. This interest often interpenetrates with philosophical arguments in favor of animal rights. The purpose of this
chapter is to present one such argumentindeed, one of the most important philosophical arguments in favor of animal rightsand to argue not only for its
philosophical soundness, but for its theological strengths as well.
This line of reasoning is usually, and controversially, called the argument from
marginal cases. It is a bit more complicated than another philosophical argument
in favor of animal rights, the more familiar argument from sentiency. This simpler
argument has implications for diet and looks something like this:
A. Any being that can experience pain or suffer has, at the very least, the right not
to be forced to experience pain or suffer (or be killed) unnecessarily or
B. It is not necessary that we inflict pain or suffering (or death) on sentient animals in order for us to have a healthy diet.
C. Therefore, eating sentient animals is an example of unnecessary infliction of
pain or suffering (or death) and ought to be avoided.
Although this general line of reasoning is often associated with utilitarianism,
I think that it is a mistake for those who believe in an omnibenevolent God who
cares even for the fall of a sparrow (Mt. 10.28), and who also subscribe to the
principle of imitatio Dei, to fail to embrace it.1

The argument from marginal cases: an initial statement

The intuitive appeal of the argument from sentiency is enough to convince
many philosophical and theological vegetarians. However, the realization that it is


Daniel Dombrowski

not necessarily rationality that is the criterion that must be met in order to deserve
moral respect leads to further considerations that are treated in the argument that
will be the focus of this article: the argument from marginal cases (hereafter: AMC).
Defenders of this argument agree with almost everyone else regarding the criterion that must be met in order to be a moral agentthat is, someone who can
perform moral or immoral actions and who can be held morally responsible for
his/her actions: rationality. At times it might be difficult to apply this criterion if
the alleged moral agent is not obviously rational, but almost everyone agrees that
rationality is the property that would be required in order to hold someone morally accountable for his/her actions.
The key question, however, is the following: what property needs to be possessed
in order to be a moral patient or a moral beneficiarythat is, someone who can
receive immoral treatment from others, or who can have his/her rights violated, or
who can be treated cruelly? Here the issue is quite complicated and contentious.2
The most parsimonious response to this question also leads to a type of symmetry that some find attractive: make rationality do double-duty by serving as the
criterion for moral patiency status as well as for moral agency. But this response
leads to disastrous consequences in that on its basis many human beings (the marginal cases of humanity) would not be moral patients and hence would not deserve
moral respect.
An understandable reaction to the difficulties involved in demanding a very
high criterion for moral patiency status like rationality is to lower it significantly.
For example, some religious believers, such as Albert Schweitzer and other pro-life
proponents in Christianity, and the Jain sect in Hinduism, wish to make life the
criterion for moral patiency status. All life, we are told, deserves moral respect. But
this response also leads to disastrous consequences in that on its basis we would
not be morally permitted to mow, or even walk on, grass in that living insects
would be killed; cut out cancerous tumors in that cancer cells are (unfortunately)
quite alive and well; or even breathe if perchance we would suck in living organisms that would be killed. What would we be able to eat on a consistent pro-life
basis? Schweitzers own writings indicate what some of the absurd consequences
would be.3 And Jain purity is purchased at the expense of the Dalit caste because
these untouchables must cook for, and sweep the paths of, those Jains who refuse
to take the life of a living thing.
Defenders of AMC work their way, both theoretically and practically, to a place
in between these two extremes in order to find a defensible criterion for moral
patiency status in sentiency. On this basis all human beings deserve respect
even the most marginal of marginal cases still have a functioning central nervous
system and hence are sentientbut animals with central nervous systems, and
hence sentiency, are also protected.
In the subsequent sections of the present article, I will examine different types of
defense of AMC such that each type will reinforce the others, much like mutually
reinforcing strands in a cable that make it stronger than it would be otherwise.
Each individual strand, even a theological one, is insufficient to deal with the

The Argument from Marginal Cases


complexities of the difficult issues surrounding moral patiency status. That is, my
method is that of seeking reflective equilibrium among many factors relevant to
the subject matter in question.
Before moving to these different approaches to AMC, however, an ordinary
language statement of the argument might be helpful:
A. It is undeniable that members of many species other than our own have
interestsat least in the minimal sense that they feel and try to avoid pain, and
feel and seek various sorts of pleasure and satisfaction.
B. It is equally undeniable that human infants and some of the profoundly
mentally deficient have interests in only the sense that members of these other
species have themand not in the sense that normal adult humans have them.
That is, human infants and some of the profoundly mentally deficient (i.e. the
marginal cases of humanity) lack the normal adult qualities of purposiveness, selfconsciousness, memory, imagination, and anticipation to the same extent that
members of some other species of animals lack those qualities.
C. Thus, in terms of the morally relevant characteristic of having interests, some
humans must be equated with members of other species rather than with normal
adult human beings.
D. Yet the predominant moral judgments about conduct toward these humans
are dramatically different from judgments about conduct toward the comparable
animals. It is customary to raise the animals for food, to subject them to lethal
scientific experiments, to treat them as chattels, and so forth. It is not customary
indeed, it is abhorrent to most people even to considerthe same practices for
human infants and the mentally deficient.
E. But in the absence of some morally relevant characteristic (other than having
interests) that distinguishes these humans and animals, we must conclude that
the predominant moral judgments about them are inconsistent. To be consistent,
and to that extent rational, we must either treat the humans in the same way as
we now treat the animals, or treat the animals in the same way as we now treat
the humans.
F. And there does not seem to be a morally relevant characteristic that distinguishes all humans from all other animals. Sentience, rationality, and so forth, all
fail. The assertion that the difference lies in the potential to develop interests analogous to those of normal adult humans should also be dismissed. After all, it is easily
shown that some humanswhom we nonetheless refuse to treat as animalslack
the relevant potential interests. In short, the standard candidates for a morally
relevant differentiating characteristic can be rejected.
G. The conclusion is, therefore, that we cannot give a reasoned justification for
the differences in ordinary conduct toward some humans against some animals.4
To claim, as many philosophers and theologians do, that all humans deserve
moral respect because they are human is clearly to beg the question. Exactly what
morally relevant property is it that all humans, but only humans, possess that
animals do not possess?


Daniel Dombrowski

Deontological considerations
There is at least one scholar, R.G. Frey who opts for the former alternative in
premise E above,5 but as far as I know, no one, thankfully, has followed him on this
path. Rather, most people now have a very strong intuition that the marginal cases
of humanity are persons who deserve respect. Contrary to a common misconception, the imago Dei hypothesis defended by many religious believers is not
necessarily opposed to the case for animal rights. In fact, such a hypothesis helps
to establish the soundness of AMC.
Consider the following transcendental version of AMC, which serves to highlight the importance of human beings as conceived by most religious believers:
A. All humans, including those who are marginal, have rights and therefore
belong in the class of rights-holders.
B. However, given the most reasonable criterion of the possession of rights, one
that enables us to include marginal humans in the class of rights-holders, this
same criterion will require us to include sentient animals in this class.
C. Therefore, if we include these marginal humans in the class of rightsholders, we must, in order to be consistent, also include sentient animals in this
It has been a mistake on the part of animal rightists, I think, to speak sometimes
as if they are challenging the sacredness of human beings when they legitimately
challenge anthropocentrism. As I see things, it makes sense for theists, in particular, to challenge anthropocentrism in that religious belief points us instead toward
a theocentric view of the cosmos. But there is no need to throw away the baby with
the anthropocentric bath water, as it were. The question is whether in valuing
babies we need to denigrate animals who exhibit cognitive and affective traits that
are on a par with, or surpass, those of babies.
What makes this argument transcendental is that it starts with the assumption
or the intuition, religious or otherwise, that all humans have rights, even mentally
deficient humans. It then tries to account for this assumption or intuition and
explores its implications. In this regard, AMC follows the pattern of many contemporary arguments in applied philosophy: start with considered opinion among
reflective people, including religious believers, then move on to unconsidered consequences. Thus it makes sense to think that AMC could stand for either the
argument from marginal cases or the argument for moral consistency. Our considered opinion has not been consistently applied. Or more precisely, one starts
with the intuition that all humans, even mentally deficient humans, are in some
way special; then one posits inherent (rather than merely instrumental) value and
hence basic rights because of this special character; then an account is offered for
this inherent value in terms of a family of traits that includes sentience, experiential welfare, having interests, and being a subject-of-a-life that can go well or ill for
the human in question. But animals are also members of this family.
By inherent value I here mean a type of value that is logically independent of
anothers valuing italthough there may be a need for a valuer to make this value

The Argument from Marginal Cases


explicit. A babys and a beasts sufferings are his/her own sufferings and not ours;
hence the value of these experiences ought not to be seen as strictly instrumental.
Further, by interests I do not mean something that is in a certain beings interests,
as in proper spark plugs being in the interest of a particular automobile; rather,
I refer to taking an interest in something, as when babies and beasts give us evidence
of valuing, mattering, preferring, desiring, and connotatively grabbing for things.
The upshot of these considerations is that sentiencewhen seen as a shorthand
for this family of traits that includes not only the ability to experience pleasure and
pain, but also taking an interest in things, especially ones own experiential
welfareis a necessary and sufficient condition for moral patiency status. However,
this threshold of moral patiency is not its epitome, such that paradigmatic human
beings with rationality may very well possess more rights than either the marginal
cases of humanity or animals, as in the right to worship as one pleases or not to
worship at all. That is, although rationality is not a defensible criterion for moral
patiency status in general, it is a defensible criterion to have in mind when making
certain sorts of decision. When deciding who is to be admitted to medical school,
it makes sense to consider the rational capacities of the applicant, but not when
considering who is immune from the infliction of intense pain and slaughter for
the purpose of eating. Or again, if an animal has characteristics a, b, c, . . . n, but
lacks reason (or autonomy or language), and a human has characteristics a, b,
c, . . . n, but lacks reason (or autonomy or language), then we have as much reason
to believe that the animal has basic rights as the human.7
These deontological considerations as they relate to AMC make clear why the
indirect duty view defended by the Stoics, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and Kant is
defective. This is the view that we have duties regarding animals but not to them;
our direct duties, it is alleged, are to other humans who are rational. This view is
defective because, even though animals may, at least for the sake of argument, lack
rationality, they nonetheless have lives that can go well or ill for them.
Consider the young man in the well-known play Equus, who slashes with a knife
the eyes of a horse. Everyone agrees that this case is harrowing, but is our concern
exclusively, or even primarily, with the humans who live near this boy who might
be harmed in the future? Or is it with the horse whose eyes are slashed? The latter,
I assume. That is, the indirect duty view violates one of our strongest moral intuitions: that the infliction of gratuitous violence is wrong. Indeed, some think that
this is the strongest moral intuition of all. Further, these deontological considerations alert us to the dangers of a runaway Platonism often found in anthropocentrists, whether religious or nonreligious: it is not Cowhood or Horsiness that
suffers and dies, but particular cows and horses.

Utilitarian considerations
There is much to commend the utilitarian contribution to a defensible version of
AMC. First, it is through the utilitarian calculus that we can more easily see that
there are problems with the widely held view that there is no real equality of
suffering between humans and animals in that the former, because of their rationality, suffer more than the latter. The issue is quite complicated, however. In some


Daniel Dombrowski

instances, the marginal cases of humanity and sentient animals suffer more than
rational humans, such as when we painfully inject marginal humans or animals
with medicine, yet we cannot convince them that it is for their own good that we
do so and that the pain will be temporary.
Second, utilitarian defenders of AMC are like deontological defenders of the
argument in clarifying the use of the terms only and all, which typically are confused in popular and some scholarly defenses of anthropocentrism. Many defenders of the imago Dei hypothesis also need to be clearer regarding the differences
between the terms only and all. The search for a morally relevant characteristic
that can act as a threshold of moral patiency status involves, in the words of Peter
a kind of lowest common denominator, pitched so low that no human being lacks it. The
catch is that any such characteristic that is possessed by all human beings will not be possessed only by human beings. For example, all human beings, but not only human beings,
are capable of feeling pain, and while only human beings are capable of solving complex
mathematical problems, not all humans can do this. So it turns out that in the only sense
in which we can truly say, as an assertion of fact, that all humans are equal, at least some
members of other species are also equalequal, that is, to some humans.8

Nonetheless, I think that we should be wary of utilitarian approaches to moral

patiency status. On utilitarian grounds, AMC, interpreted as the argument for
moral consistency, could mean that we should now treat marginal human beings
the way we have traditionally treated animals, rather than upgrade our treatment
of animals to the level that we now treat, and in the recent past have treated,
marginal human beings. We have seen that R. G. Frey, in partial contrast to Peter
Singer, does precisely this. That is, utilitarians are not bound to accept the first
premise of the transcendental version of AMC mentioned above, whereas deontologists like Tom Regan and religious believers with their imago Dei hypothesis
are bound to accept the idea that all humans, even those who are marginal, have
basic rights.
At least three different options (not two) can be imagined. (i) While retaining
our present attitudes to mentally defective humans, including the religious view of
humans as imago Dei, we change our attitudes toward animals so as to bring them
in line with our attitudes to mentally defective humans at the same cognitive and
affective levels. This involves holding that animals have a right to life, and therefore
should not be killed for food or for the purposes of scientific experimentation.
This is the deontological view astutely defended by Tom Regan and which I am
endorsing in this chapter. It is this version of AMC that is both consistent with, and
enhanced by, religious belief in the sacredness of all humans.
(ii) There is also the view that, while retaining our present attitudes toward
animals, we change our attitudes toward mentally defective humans, so as to bring
them in line with our attitudes toward animals at comparable cognitive and affective levels. This involves the idea that mentally defective humans do not have a
right to life, and therefore might be killed for foodif we were to develop a taste
for human fleshor (and this might really appeal to some people) for the purpose

The Argument from Marginal Cases


of painful or lethal scientific experimentation. We have seen this to be R. G. Freys

understandably unpopular view.
(iii) Finally, there is the view of Peter Singer that we change our attitudes to both
mentally defective humans and animals, so as to bring them together somewhere
in between our present attitudes. This involves holding that both mentally defective humans and animals have some kind of serious claim to lifeperhaps not a
right to lifein virtue of which, although we ought not to take their lives except for
weighty reasons, they do not deserve as much respect as rational beings.
If there are problems with (ii) and (iii), as I think there are, this is because there
are problems with the aggregative logic of utilitarianism, not with AMC. That is,
the utilitarian use of AMC by Frey and Singer is problematic because they are utilitarians, not because they are defenders of AMC. Before leaving utilitarianism,
however, I would like to mention that the predecessors to utilitarianism, those who
originally talked about the greatest good for the greatest number before Bentham,
were English divines of the eighteenth century.9 That is, despite the fact that the
aggregative logic of utilitarianism can lead to disastrous consequences, theists
should nonetheless engage with utilitarians more than they have historically done
so because of the real progress utilitarians have brought about with respect to the
amelioration of needless suffering in the world. Such a result cannot be a matter of
indifference to anyone committed to agapic love.10

Social contract considerations

I would say the same regarding social contract theory. Granted, the Hobbesian
version of the theory (or other egoistic versions) rests on a philosophical anthropology that is foreign to Abrahamic theists, despite Hobbess own efforts in the
second half of Leviathan to Christianize his view. But the covenant tradition in
theism can be seen as at least compatible with, or more strongly, resonant with,
social contract theory as articulated by John Rawls.11
It might seem initially that a social contract theorist would be opposed to AMC.
This is because only free and rational beings can be contractors, hence the reciprocity requirement in social contract theory would seem to eliminate both marginal
cases of humanity and animals from direct moral concern. But the issue is more
complicated than it first appears. Several animal rightists have argued for a revised
Rawlsian original position, not necessarily defended by Rawls himself, wherein the
contractors would be ignorant not only of their sex and race and intellectual level,
but also of their species, so as to approximate more closely to (Godlike) objectivity.
Imagine the following thought experiment. Rational human beings with a concept of the good and a sense of justice attempt to reach agreement regarding the
abstract principles that would govern a truly just society. In order to be fair, they
agree to legislate behind a veil of ignorance so that they do not tendentiously
tailor the principles to fit their own cases. Each contractor asks: What would I want
in a just society if I were a member of a different sex, or a different race, or if
I turned out, once the veil of ignorance was lifted, to be the least advantaged human
intellectually speaking? The hitch is this: the least advantaged humans (the marginal


Daniel Dombrowski

cases of humanity) would exist at cognitive and affective levels inferior to those of
many sentient animals, hence in order to be consistent, we would have to imagine
ourselves in this decision-making procedure to be animals, or put better, nonhuman sentient animals.
In order to participate in the social contract, one must be rational. But in order
to be a beneficiary of the social contract, one only need have an experiential welfare that can go well or ill depending on the level of justice in the society in question.
Rational contractors would agree that the infliction of unnecessary suffering and
death would not characterize the just society.
In Daniel Keyess classic novel Flowers for Algernon, a mentally deficient human
temporarily becomes rational, indeed a genius, due to a wonder drug.12 While he is
rational, we can imagine him telling us how he would like to be treated when the
drug wears off, in that he remembers his previously mentally deficient state. It is
also easy for us to imagine what an animal would request of us in an analogous
thought experiment. Contrary to the widely held view that we should remain
agnostic regarding the animal other, knowing what a sentient yet nonrational
being wants is actually easier than knowing what a sentient and rational being
wants: animals and marginal cases want to be spared suffering, they want room to
move, food to eat, and other really basic goods.

Virtue ethics considerations

As a consequence of Stephen R. L. Clarks work we have a strong sense of the connection between AMC and the virtue ethics approach.13 In addition to the moral
patiency status of marginal human beings and animals, there are also agentcentered considerations that ought not be ignored. For example, what sort of character would be willing to inflict unnecessary suffering and death on a sentient being?
Admittedly to put the question this way is to already answer it, but the question
itself is a legitimate one if agent-centered considerations are important parts of
moral theory.
There is a long history here. Many of the ancient Greek philosophers can be read
as suggesting that the life of virtue involves nonviolence toward animals: Pythagoras, Empedocles, Theophrastus, Plutarch, Plotinus, Porphyry, and perhaps even
Plato. The presence of Theophrastus (Aristotles greatest student) on this list indicates that perhaps Aristotle should have had, on the basis of his own philosophy, a
different view of what the virtuous life entails for humans treatment of animals.
Porphyry, in his book length defense of philosophical vegetarianism, De abstinentia, defends the first explicit version of AMC, a version that deserves attention
even today:
To compare plants, however, with animals, is doing violence to the order of things. For the
latter are naturally sensitive (aisthanesthai), and adapted to feel pain, to be terrified and
hurt (kai algein kai phobeisthai kai blaptesthai); on which account also they may be injured
(adikeisthai). But the former are entirely destitute of sensation, and in consequence of
this, nothing foreign, or evil (kakon), or hurtful (blabe), or injurious (adikia), can befall

The Argument from Marginal Cases


them. For sensation is the principle of all alliance (Kai gar oikeioseos pases kai allotrioseos
arche to aisthanesthai) . . . And is it not absurd (alogon), since we see that many of our
own species (anthropon) live from sense alone (aisthesei monon), but do not possess intellect (noun) and reason (logon) . . . but that no justice is shown from us to the ox that
ploughs, the dog that is fed with us, and the animals that nourish us with their milk, and
adorn our bodies with their wool? Is not such an opinion most irrational and absurd?14

Indeed. The Stoics are the ones who held such an opinion, but the continued
popularity of meat-eating indicates that Porphyrys followers still have their work
cut out for them.
The Stoics assert that alliance or intimacy (oikeioseos) is the principle to be used
in determining which beings deserve justice, but for Porphyry this begs the
question. What is needed is some criterion for alliance, some way of determining
how we will group nature into the various households of edible and inedible beings.
For all those who think that unnecessary suffering and death ought to be avoided
(i.e. for at least all rational human beings), sensation (aisthanesthai) is a principle
of alliance that must be taken seriously. Porphyrys comparison of plants and animals on this criterion is instructive. If we suggest that sentiency is an insufficient
condition for being treated justly, we eliminate many of our own species that live
from sense alone, without reason (alogon). And if we lower our standard so as to
include all human beings, we must therefore be willing to include animals capable
of sensation. (These would include cows, pigs, chickens, fish, and others all the way
down the scale of sentiency until we reach mollusks or crustaceans, which constitute something of a grey area.) At this point, the defender of the Stoics would
either have to admit inconsistency, or give up opposition to infanticide, experimentation on the mentally enfeebled, and other similar practices.15
There is also a long history regarding the connection between virtue and eating
through the Middle Ages in particular, and the history of religion in general. Other
contributors to this collection treat this history, which in several important respects
builds on the virtue ethics approach of the ancient Greeks. In a Christian context,
for example, there is the command to Be perfect (e.g. Mt. 5.48), with perfection
involving a cognate of the ancient Greek word for virtuous fulfillment: telos.
Among contemporary virtue ethicians it is important to note that, although
Stephen Clark in effect defends AMC, he hates the label. Mentally deficient humans
are not at all marginal, he thinks. Rather, they are central to human morality. They
are central because they, along with at least domesticated animals, are utterly
dependent on us, hence they provide a gauge for determining the degree to which
we really are virtuous. Mentally deficient humans are marginal, on this line of reasoning, only when rationality is (mistakenly) assumed to be the criterion not only
for moral agency but for moral patiency as well.
Clark is not alone in finding the language of marginal cases offensive if it
implies that certain cognitively impaired individuals are on the margins of humanity in the sense that they do not require moral consideration from us.16 But this
runs completely contrary to the spirit of the argument as I defend it. Because the
language of marginal cases offends some scholars, however, I would be willing to


Daniel Dombrowski

change it were it not the lingua franca of much of the contemporary philosophical
literature on animal rights. This has been the case since Jan Narveson coined the
phrase argument from marginal cases.17 Perhaps a better label would be argument
from species overlap, but it is unlikely that, at this late date, this improved label
would replace the one currently in use.
In any event, virtuous people (including virtuous meat-eaters) cringe when they
imagine cows being cut down in the abattoir. This cringe is due to the fact that we
all agree that the unnecessary infliction of pain is morally relevant if anything is
morally relevant. However, I admit that once the minimal rights that AMC affords
to marginal cases of humanity and animals are acknowledged, it is still permissible
to put in place additional protections regarding marginal cases of humanity, such
as a marginal human beings right to have its hygiene needs met. That is, partial
affections are legitimate in morality as long as they are ancillary to, rather than
replacements for, impartial ascription of basic rights.

Theological considerations
I have indicated indirectly the theological strengths of AMC. The purpose of this
section is to be explicit in this regard. I assume that belief in divine omnibenevolence is an essential feature of theistic belief, but it is not always noticed that such
belief includes the idea that an entirely good God cares even for the fall of a
sparrow. Hamlet, at least, noticed this implication (V.2). Further, if it is true, as
David Griffin urges, that the desire to imitate God is primary religious impulse,
then we ought not to be ashamed if we condescend to care for the fall of a pig.18
I have also indicated why life is not a defensible criterion for moral patiency
status. More promising than either rationality or life as a criterion for moral
patiency status is the transcendental, deontological version of AMC wherein all
human beings are assumed to be worthy of moral respect. This assumption is
aided by both firmly entrenched moral intuition and the hypothesis that human
beings are images of the divine. In a related way, agapic love leads one to defend
belief in a theocentric universe, rather than the anthropocentric one that normally
lies behind criticisms of the claim that animals have basic rights. Once again, there
is no need to throw out babies with the anthropocentric bath water. But the water
should be thrown out.
It should also be clear that I think that social contract theory can be enlisted in
the effort to resuscitate the covenant tradition in religion. Specifically, a revised
(Rawlsian) original position enables us to approximate, albeit through a glass
darkly, Godlike objectivity in the effort to create a just society bereft of racism,
sexism, and speciesism. This effort goes hand-in-glove with the virtue ethics
imperative to perfect ourselves to the greatest extent possible.
I would also like to gesture toward a concept of God that would be compatible
with AMC. This concept would have to be congenial both to current theories of
biological evolution and to the preeminent ability of God to respond to creaturely
sufferingin contrast to the Boethian indesponses of an eternal God outside of
time and evolutionary history. Perhaps trinitarian theology could supply such a

The Argument from Marginal Cases


concept of God. My suspicion, however, is that trinitarian thinkers would be greatly

aided in the project of trying to construct an adequate animal theology and animal
theodicy by the painstaking efforts made over the past century by process philosophers of religion and process theologians in the tradition of Alfred North
Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne.19

Reflective equilibrium
A defense of AMC does not have to be based on the idea that there are independently existing facts in the world that dictate our morality, as in some versions of
natural law theory popular in religious ethics. Rather, our values and obligations
can legitimately be derived from facts if the facts to which they refer are the relevant
ones and if the values derived from these facts are defensible. Or again, a defender
of AMC need not commit to the nave view that facts wear their relevance on their
face and that values can be derived from them immediately. That is, AMC is an
argument that gives reasons for the defensibility of the claims that animals have
basic rights due to their sentiency and that species membership is irrelevant when
considering moral patiency status itself.
By way of contrast, critics of AMC seem to move illegitimately from the claim
that human decision-making is a necessary condition for there being rights to the
claim that it constitutes a sufficient condition for there being rights. Another way
to put the point is to say that the critics views are overly nominalistic when they
hold that beings acquire status as moral patients (entirely?) because we say that they
deserve such status. Human beings on this view possess the Orpheus-like and
Wittgensteinian-inspired ability to bring moral patiency status to life merely by saying that it should be so. The remedy for such an approach does not run to the other
extreme, where it is assumed that moral patiency status is a fact in the world waiting
to be discovered. Rather, human beings are measurers of nature, but not necessarily
the measure; they are the primary beholders of value in nature, but not necessarily
the only holders of such value, to use Holmes Rolstons helpful language.20
It is quite understandable why some people are sensitive to the possibility that
others might exhibit insensitivity regarding marginal cases of humanity. This is
because marginal cases of humanity have been treated deplorably in the past and
because, for example, a UN statement declaring the rights of intellectually disabled
beings did not occur until the 1970s, with other historically marginalized groups
receiving attention years before.
But as philosophers and theologians, we must be on the alert to continue the
Aristotelian project of treating like cases alike and different cases differently in
proportion to the differences. James Rachels is on the mark regarding AMC (he
calls it moral individualism), stating:
Aristotle knew that like cases should be treated alike, and different cases should be treated
differently; so when he defended slavery he felt it necessary to explain why slaves are
different. Therefore, if the doctrine of [anthropocentrism] was to be maintained, it was
necessary to identify the differences between humans and other animals that justified the


Daniel Dombrowski

difference in moral status . . . Moral individualism is . . . nothing but the consistent

application of the principle of equality to decisions about what should be done . . . about
our relation to the other creatures that inhabit the earth.21

In short, the critics of AMC do not adequately enough tell us how animals are
different in morally relevant ways from some members of our own species.
I would like to end on a conciliatory note. It seems to me that my own defense of
AMC and the criticisms of this argument made by Cora Diamond and Elizabeth
Anderson are both compatible with the method of reflective equilibrium made
famous by Rawlss theory of justice, but which is useful in ethics generally.22 The
idea is that we should first carefully examine all of the relevant intuitions that we
have and the judgments that we make, including religious intuitions and judgments,
asking which are the most basic intuitions or considered judgments. Then we should
investigate different theories that claim to organize these intuitions and judgments.
Nothing is held to be fixed. The goal is to seek consistency and fit among both intuitions/judgments and theory when all are taken together as a whole.
It is crucial in this method that we be able to revise our considered judgments,
and even our intuitions, if such revision is required by a powerful theory. It is also
possible that we might revise, or even reject, a theory in the face of considered
judgments or intuitions. Neither component is fixed in advance. It is my hope that
some small yet real contribution to ethics can be made by AMC. As a result of this
theoretical argument, which has as its aim the familiar goal of logical consistency,
closer attention should be paid to our common sympathetic intuitions in the face
of the suffering of animals and the marginal cases of humanity, the basic rights of
all human beings, as well as the special moral patiency status of rational beings.
Critics of AMC should be seen by animal rightists as dialectical partners rather
than antagonists. That is, animal rightists can deliberate together with them, from
the Latin deliberare: to weigh in mind, to ponder, to consider thoroughly.

1 See Daniel Dombrowski, Rethinking the Ontological Argument: A Neoclassical
Theistic Response (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
2 See Daniel Dombrowski, Babies and Beasts: The Argument from Marginal Cases
(Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997).
3 See Albert Schweitzer, Reverence for Life, tr. Reginald Fuller (Cooper Station,
NY: Irvington, 1992).
4 This version of AMC is loosely based on Lawrence Becker, The priority of
human interests, in Ethics and Animals, ed. Harlan Miller (Clifton, NJ:
Humana, 1983), pp. 22549.
5 R. G. Frey, Rights, Killing, and Suffering (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983).
6 Tom Regan, An Examination and Defense of One Argument Concerning
Animal Rights, Inquiry 22 (1979), pp. 189219 (196).
7 Tom Regan, Foxs Critique of Animal Liberation, Ethics 88 (1978), pp. 12633;
also The Case for Animal Rights (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

The Argument from Marginal Cases


8 Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), p. 237.

9 See Alexander Forbes, Ultimate Reality and Ethical Meaning: Theological
Utilitarianism in Eighteenth Century England, Ultimate Reality and Meaning
18 (1995), pp. 11938.
10 See Daniel Dombrowski, Not Even a Sparrow Falls: The Philosophy of Stephen
R.L. Clark (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2000).
11 See Daniel Dombrowski, Rawls and Religion: The Case for Political Liberalism
(Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001). Also see John Rawls,
A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971).
12 Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon (London: Gollancz, 2004).
13 Stephen R. L. Clark, The Moral Status of Animals (Oxford: Clarendon, 1977);
and Animals and Their Moral Standing (London: Routledge, 1997).
14 Porphyry, On Abstinence from Animal Food, III.19 (trans. Thomas Taylor;
London: Centaur, 1965); On Abstinence from Killing Animals (trans. Gillian
Clark; Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000); also Porphyre, De
abstinentia (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1977).
15 See Daniel Dombrowski, The Philosophy of Vegetarianism (Amherst:
University of Massachusetts Press, 1984); Vegetarianism and the Argument
from Marginal Cases in Porphyry, Journal of the History of Ideas 45 (1984),
pp. 14143; and Two Vegetarian Puns at Republic 372, Ancient Philosophy
9 (1990), pp. 16771. Also see Richard Sorabji, Animal Minds and Human
Morals (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993).
16 See Steve Sapontzis, Morals, Reason, and Animals (Philadelphia, PA: Temple
University Press, 1987); also Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals
(Chicago, IL: Open Court, 1999).
17 Jan Narveson, Animal Rights, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 7 (1977),
pp. 16178.
18 David Ray Griffin, Reenchantment without Supernaturalism: A Process Philosophy of Religion (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001), p. 310.
19 See Daniel Dombrowski, Hartshorne and the Metaphysics of Animal Rights
(Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988); Divine Beauty: The Aesthetics of Charles Hartshorne (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press,
2004); and A Platonic Philosophy of Religion: A Process Perspective (Albany:
State University of New York Press, 2005).
20 Holmes Rolston, Environmental Ethics (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University
Press, 1988).
21 James Rachels, Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).
22 See Cora Diamond, Eating meat and eating people, and Elizabeth Anderson,
Animal rights and the values of nonhuman life, in Animal Rights: Current
Debates and New Directions, eds Cass Sunstein and Martha Nussbaum
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 93107, 27798; also Daniel
Dombrowski, Is the Argument from Marginal Cases Obtuse?, Journal of
Applied Philosophy 23 (2006), pp. 22332.


Seeing and Believing: Gender

and Species Hierarchy in
Contemporary Cultures
of Animal Food
Erika Cudworth

Introduction: framing animals as food

Linda Vance suggests that animals communicate with us in many ways: through
relationships as companions, in their place as agricultural units of production, and
by their fate, when we see their remains in the supermarket meat section.1 Animals
are constitutive of human societies, and there are different formations of human
animal relationships involving different species groups. Drawing on Ted Bentons
useful categorization,2 I have suggested elsewhere that animals can be: construed
as wild (in conditions of limited incorporation with humans); used as a labour
force; used for entertainment (e.g. recreational fishing) or edification (e.g. wildlife
documentaries); installed as household companions; employed as symbols (often
representing certain human qualities); and consumed as food.3 In the wealthy
regions of the globe, most people eat meat, drink cows milk and wear leather and
wool. Food and footwear probably provide the main everyday encounters people
have with animals, and animal farming is the most significant social formation of
humananimal relations.
My approach to questions of eating and belief is rather different from that of most
other contributors to this collection, being sociological. What I am particularly
interested in is the social context of food choices and practices, and the ways that
ideas and beliefs about food manifest themselves in popular culture. The latter part
of this chapter draws on an empirical study of the representation of animals as food
products. Within the sociology of food and eating, the possibility that the widespread production and consumption of meat, milk and eggs, tells us something
about humananimal relations is generally ignored.4 Adrian Franklins sociology of
humananimal relations presents contemporary food culture as postmodernized,
with meat no longer seen as an important part of the everyday Western diet, but as
an indulgence food, and one that no longer has gender or status associations.5

Seeing and Believing


I have found no evidence to substantiate such assertions, and will argue that
distinctions of gender and species continue to make their presence strongly felt in
contemporary food culture. It will be clear by now that I do not separate social
relationsincluding those of humans and other animalsfrom the beliefs expressed in food culture. I consider that the popular culture of food and eating can
be understood as a discursive regime. By this, I infer interrelated sets of ideas and
beliefs, which concretize themselves in specific practices, processes and institutional formations. They are part of the architecture of relations of domination, or
for Michel Foucault, technologies of power. I understand these discursive regimes
of food and eating as constitutive of the multiplicities of social difference (based
on gender, nature, race and so on), and as constructing and reconstructing systemic patterns of domination. This chapter is based on the premise that the images
and texts constitutive of the popular culture of food carry narratives which place
certain objects and subjects. What I am concerned with here is the ways in which
these images and texts situate certain species of animal in relation to humans, and
the ways in which diet is regulated by narratives of gender and sexuality.
In his essay Why look at animals?, John Berger suggests that many animals have
disappeared from our cultural imagery due to commercial exploitation and the
mechanization of agriculture and transportation. Most animals that we see are marginalized, for example, as co-opted family members in the forms of pets, or as part of
a spectacle in zoos.6 There is, of course, a sharp inconsistency between zoo animals,
and animals categorized as expendable resourcessuch as agricultural meat animals, or vermin7and the boundaries between humans and animals. Furthermore,
the different species of nonhuman animal is a key problematic in Western thought,
as discussed by David Clough elsewhere in this collection. Berger is right to suggest
that companion species have histories intertwined with humans, but mistaken to
assert that domestic animals are increasingly invisible in visual culture.
Relative invisibility is more a matter of how animals are presented, and this is
framed by the material condition of many domestic species as what I call becomingmeats. From conception until death, food animals are framed by their becomingmeat. This notion is explicitly not Deleuzian. In humananimal studies, the concept
of becoming-animal developed by Gilles Deleuze and Flix Guattari has been
popular, implying that humans have fluid and shifting relational affinities with
various species they might favour. However, the phantasmagorical meanderings of
Deleuze and Guattari fail to catch any sense of domestic animals as caught in relations of human dominion. Humans can develop affinities with other animals, but
for some of those species, becoming does actually produce something other than
it is.8 Billions of animals are transformed into a multiplicity of meat products each
year. This chapter suggests that contemporary food practices and the symbolic
regimes which inform and reflect them are filled with dead animals, and that the
imagery which places animals as food inscribes an ontology of species.
The first part of this chapter will consider some theoretical questions around
diet and salient ideologies of food consumption, locating these in a broader context of ecological feminism. Such feminism has been deeply critical of a JudaeoChristian world view and of mechanistic science, both of which are seen as belief


Erika Cudworth

systems carrying gendered and natured values which continue to inform culture
in the West. The second part of the chapter will deploy some of the understandings
of ecological feminism in examining beliefs which place certain species of nonhuman animals, and some humans, in specific relations. I will use examples from
popular cultures of food in order to substantiate the framing of nature and gender
in what I call the symbolic regimes of animal food.

Women, nature and nonhuman animalsfrom patriarchal

cosmology to enchanted feminism
The feminist literature on animal rights, animal welfare and humananimal relationships, emerged as part of a broader concern with human treatment of environment and nature and attitudes towards them. From the early 1970s, some feminists
were suggesting that environmental degradation was a matter for feminist theory,
and feminist involvement in a plethora of environmental issues indicated that activists were already engaging with these matters in feminist ways. Ecofeminism has
followed Simone de Beauvoirs suggestion that women have a particular affinity
with the natural world due to their common exploitation by men,9 but this notion
has led to different kinds of theorizing. Chris Cuomo distinguishes ecofeminism,
which is primarily concerned with the similarities among the objects of oppressive
thought and action (such as women or animals), and ecological feminism, which
focuses on the links between forms and instances of oppression.10 Cuomo overstates this difference, however, and in the work of individual theorists both
perspectives are usually attended to. Mary Mellor describes the difference in terms
of social and affinity explanations of womens relationship to nature, and these
are the terms I tend to use.11 Social ecofeminists are interested in the ways in which
relations of complex social inequalities (around gender, class, ethnicities, etc.)
relate to understandings of nature and human treatment of the environment.
Affinity ecofeminism has been associated with the promotion of a particular kind
of spirituality, and an emphasis on the physical bodily experiences of women,
which encourage identification with nature.12
Many ecofeminists have suggested that patriarchal discourses carry gender
dichotomous normalizations which, for example, feminize the environment and
animalize women, constructing a dichotomy between women and nature, and
male-dominated human culture. The normalizing processes of patriarchal society,
some argue, leads to a gendering of the respect for life.13 For Ynestra King, ecofeminism is concerned with the integrity of living things, whereas patriarchy enshrines
a hatred of women and nature, and this masculinist mentality is responsible for
environmental devastation.14 Rosemary Radford Ruether was one of the first theorists to argue that a male ideology of transcendent dualism is the basis of the
oppression of women and the exploitation of nature, including animals.15
This is the basis on which some theorists have posited a gendered concern with
the treatment of animals. Connie Salamone has claimed that womens social practices of care for others make them more likely than men to oppose practices of

Seeing and Believing


harm against nonhuman animals.16 Josephine Donovan and Carol Adams have
further argued that women have a sense of responsibility towards animals deriving
from their praxis of caring, a social formation with ethical implications.17 Norma
Benny contends that many women can empathize with the sufferings of animals,
as they have some common experiences. For example, female domestic animals
are most likely to be oppressed via control of their sexuality and reproductive
powers, involving varying degrees of physical violence and emotional deprivation.18 Carol Adams argues that meat-eating is a masculinized practice predicated
on the oppression of meat animals, and that human culture is saturated with interpolations of gendered nature, and natured gender.19 Thus some theorists consider
that gendered and natured normalization may place women in a position of possible contestation regarding the treatment of animals and eating of meat.
In some cases, theorizations of the interrelations of species and gender draw
upon a particular understanding of the history of ideas and beliefs. For example,
Susan Griffin juxtaposes two sets of dominant Western narratives on women and
nature, exemplified by the teachings of Judaeo-Christianity, and the understandings of mechanistic science. The examples Griffin uses illustrate a conceptualization
of the natural world as transient matter, and an association of women with nature,
due to their reproductive capacity and assumed sensuality. Patriarchal discourse,
whether sacred or secular, is gendered, normalizing rationality for men and intuition for women, and associating women with nature as distinct from culture20.
While Griffin might be seen as making feminist side swipes against a composite
Judaeo-Christian traditionas does Rachel Muers in the next contribution to this
collectionthere are others who have levelled a more direct attack. The postChristian theologian Mary Daly considers that myths of male dominance are
oppressive for both women and nature.21 Furthermore, Daly suggests that women
and nature inhabit the same space, a Background arena of embodied existence, in
contradistinction to the foreground of public patriarchy, of which the maledominated institutions of Church and state are key formations.22 Womens placing
in the social hierarchy enables them to empathize with trees, stars, animals of all
kinds, and feminist thinking is ecological (gyn/ecological).23
Some consider Daly and Griffin to be endorsing goddess spirituality, but
although they play on religious iconography, their use is often heavily ironic, and
their ideas do not sit easily within theism.24 Others, however, clearly advocate
a particular spirituality in challenging the norms and ideologies of patriarchal
religion (usually understood as Christian and Jewish religion), and propose an
enchanted feminism. Rianne Eisler sees ecofeminism as reaffirming an earthoriented religion of goddess-worship, which for Carol Christ legitimates female
power and authority, and for Starhawk celebrates womens sexuality and embodied condition as human animals embedded in nature.25 Some have further
speculated a pre-historical transition from gynocentric society26 in which women,
animals and sexuality were seen as sacred,27 and gender stratification was absent.28
A thesis of a religious fall has often been often advanced, involving, for example,
cultural disruption from invasion and migration which leads to the establishment


Erika Cudworth

of societies structured on hierarchical gender relations and a gender dichotomous

theism.29 Some have also advanced a belief in political efficacy in which profound
social changes are linked to shifts in religious symbolism,30 while others see such
mythologies as indirectly efficacious in inspiring political action.31 Magical
ecofeminism has been deemed essentialist in assuming a notion of a true self
corrupted by patriarchal and other oppressions,32 and has been criticized for
denying the empowering experiences of Christian ecofeminists.33 Like Rosemary
Radford Ruether and Jone Salomonsen, however, I am not convinced that JudaeoChristian and pagan are dichotomous categories, and consider that there is room
for a more pluralist reading of these magical ecofeminists.34 Others have argued
that adopting different myths will not change the reality of social institutions and
practices.35 I would agree with Mary Mellor, however, that critical perspectives on
social formations can coincide with, and might be enhanced by, spiritual awareness of human immanence.36
For others, the development of secular belief systems has been of greater significance, and the transition to modernity in Europe, and spread of modernist beliefs
and practices through networks of capitalist and colonialist relations, is a key focus.
Carolyn Merchant provides a critique of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, arguing that women and nature were characterized as possessing
similar subordinate inherent qualities, as a prerequisite for the social exclusion
of women and the commercial exploitation of natural resources.37 Vandana Shiva
links the historical development of social, political and economic structures
of colonialism to these kinds of belief and practice, contending that the West has
imposed its model of modernity on the rest of the globe.38 Val Plumwood
argues that reason was, and still remains, the master narrative of Western culture,
and is key to the construction and maintenance of an interrelated network of
dualistic concepts placing peoples and species: culture/nature, male/female, mind/
body, master/slave, civilized/primitive, production/reproduction, public/private,
Collectively, these ecofeminist thinkers suggest that the history of Western
thought whether historical or contemporary, clearly religious or stalwartly
secularcontains a range of beliefs which interrelate in placing both women and
animals (and others) in subordinate roles. Critics such as John Passmore argue
that, while there is a strong Western tradition responsible for humanitys predatory treatment of nature, this is inaccurately attributed wholly to a JudaeanChristian legacy.40 Passmores own account is partial, however, and his implacable
hostility to mystical rubbish leads him to be insufficiently critical of the legacies of
Western belief systems which overwhelmingly privilege humans above other
species.41 Ecofeminists have trawled the history of Western ideas and identified
plausible roots of the place of women and nature, and the ideas interrelating these
two categories. To my mind, these links are sometimes expressed a little too carelessly or strongly, yet there is a pattern of beliefs that cast women in a different
relationship to men in relation to embodiment, animality and the eating of animal
and vegetable foods.

Seeing and Believing


The gendering and sexualization of dietary practices

The connections already made between meat-eating and the social constructions
of masculinities are fairly well known. Pierre Bourdieu argued, in his analysis of
cultural taste, that in French popular culture there is the belief that fish, fruit and
vegetables will not prove sufficiently filling for men, who require the energygiving properties of red meat.42 Nicky Charles and Marion Kerrs study of meateating in British families revealed a strong belief among both men and women that
men should consume the most meat, and Julia Twigg has suggested that the cultural symbolism of meat is associated with masculine strength and sexual potency.43
The eating of certain animals by certain groups of people can be seen as both an
expression of social hierarchy and of social difference, or, for Bourdieu, as a means
of registering distinction and thereby constructing and reconstructing power. It is
also an expression of social relations between humans and animals.
Carol Adams has developed the concept of the absent referent in discussing the
gendering of meat in cultural texts. It is the difference between human and animal
species that enables the production and consumption of meat, and if humans are
to eat meat, animals must be slaughtered and butchered. The live animal is the
absent referent in the concept of meat, literally absent by being dead.44 Animals
become symbolically absent through linguistic dissonance. Thus, for example, we
use the word(s) pork rather than pig meat, or roast chicken rather than partially
cremated hen. Adams developed these ideas largely with reference to linguistic
conventions and literary texts. I concur with her that contemporary narratives of
meat preparation and consumption are patriarchal texts. They carry gendered and
natured narratives of meat as appropriately male food, while fish and feminized
proteineggs and dairy products, that is, food derived from the reproductive
processes of female animalsare designated female foodstuffs.
The representation of food in magazine recipes is designed to whet the palate
and encourage culinary activity. In describing such imagery as food pornography,
Rosalind Coward suggests that this is a regime of pleasurable images which . . .
indulges a pleasure which is linked to servitude.45 However, while the representation of food and eating might continue to include the absent referent of womens
domestic labour, this is not what makes such imagery pornographic. What enables
the definition of some food imagery as a form of pornography is the arousal of
physical desirein this case, appetite for food. The erotic narratives in some food
images, and their accompanying texts, suggest a sexualized form of consumption.
The presentation of animal flesh as meat recalls the presentation of female flesh in
heterosexual pornography. Adams has recently developed her work further in this
direction, stressing the extent to which animal flesh is represented in pornographically themed advertising.46 The North American examples Adams selects are very
convincing, but I consider that the sexualization of animal flesh is part of both its
gendered presentation and the eroticization of species domination, and is to be
found in very ordinary textsof British cookery magazines and articles, and food
advertising.47 I shall now consider some examples of the cultural texts of meat in


Erika Cudworth

Britain, and argue that these can be read as constitutive of discursive formations
which place people according to gender, sex and species.

Gender and nature in British food culture

1. The celebration of meat
Meat is the most highly prized food in the cultural food hierarchy, and in discussions of British cuisine by chefs and cookery writers, meat cookery tends to be
emphasized. Celebrity cook Delia Smith argues that Britain is geographically
geared to raising good meat, thus through the centuries, all our cookery books
contain lashings of meat recipes, and chef Anton Mosimann points out that the
British were the first nation to breed animals commercially and rear them for
meat.48 Other European cookery, such as French cuisine, is historically characterized by braising meat from working animals in order to tenderize it, with roasted
meat rarely available until the late eighteenth century.49 In Britain, roasted meat
became, and remains, the key feature of cookery, and from medieval times British
recipes have been largely meat-based.50 Historically, wealthy households ate roast
meat whenever possible, while the lower classes ate less meat but consumed it regularly in lower-status forms (limited amounts, or fat, or blood) in pies and
puddings.51 This still applies to contemporary processed meat products. In the
plain cooking of British meat lies the celebration of meat as a powerful cultural
symbol, which is cooked in a manner that associates it with the kill. As Mosimann
comments: Meat tends to be considered not as an ingredient for a dish but as
something to be appreciated for itself.52

2. The gendering of animal food

Meat advertising has had a tendency to target male consumers. There are two
forms of gendered discourse through which it has presented masculinity. First,
there is a discourse of heterosexualism that associates masculinity with the receipt
of female domestic service, in which meat is symbolized as something a woman
buys and cooks for her family, but primarily her male partner. A second discourse
is machismo, in which masculinity is associated with virility, physical strength and
potency, and advertisements deploying such narratives tend to target young single
men as meat consumers.
An illustrative example of the latter is the advertising campaign of the Meat
and Livestock Commission (MLC) in the early 1990s, the slogan for which was
Meat to Live. In each advert of the campaign, a Meat to Live caption was superimposed on a photograph of young white men pushing each other into swimming
pools, playing football or volleyball on the beach, performing cartwheels or
jogging. In all the images, the M of Meat was separated out. First we might have
seen eat to Live, then Meat to Live; with the accompanying text contending that
meat constitutes one of the right foods in a healthy diet. The image of an active
young man epitomizing healthfulness confirmed the message of the text: if men

Seeing and Believing


eat meat, they will have vitality for life, indeed . . . you dont have to go to any great
lengths to rediscover your youthful energy. You just need to drop into your local
butchers or supermarket meat department.53 This is a story linked to some very
old tales indeedmythologies of masculine strength and virility deriving from
animal blood.54 Men are seen to possess specific and valued qualities, from which
women, by their absence from such images, are excluded.
Gendered discourses of food and eating also involve the feminization of certain
animal foods. Milk, cheese and eggs, produced by the reproductive manipulation of
female animals, can be seen as feminized protein,55 and narratives around these
foods tend to constitute them as appropriate for consumption by women. Dairy
products are sometimes also established as female food through gendered discourses of sexualized consumption. In the early 1980s, British women were encouraged to consume cream cakes, which were, according to the advertising
campaign, Naughty but Nice. There are similar advertisements at the time of writing that link female consumption with dairy products such as Philadelphia cream
cheese, in which young women are depicted as being in a sultry heaven when eating
this product. Chicken is also often presented as a female food. Recipes for roasting
whole birds tend to focus on the family or entertaining, while those targeted at specifically female consumption usually involve boiled parts of birds in casseroles,
soups and stews.56 Anthropological work on food symbolism famously asserted
that boiled meat is female food and roasted meat is male food, and gendered discourses of food and eating seem to bear this out.57 Bloodless chicken, boiled or
steamed, is appropriate for women, as it imbues none of the gendered qualities of
sexualized consumption symbolically attributed to red meat.

3. Sexualization: the pornography of animal flesh

Certain foods are constructed as being sexually appealing to look at, or are
presented in a sexualized context. Animal flesh itself is sometimes depicted in a
sense that can be read as pornographiccertain images may recall sexual pornography in which women are displayed for male viewers. For example, in an advertisement for supermarket brand beef captioned something really juicy, the meat
can be read as a feminized object. In British slang, vaginal lips may be described as
beef curtainsslices of meatwith this image entirely focused on the bloody
centre of a joint of beef, being sliced with a large knife. According to the accompanying text, the juiciest bits are in the Sunday roast, not the Sunday papers. If you
want something really juicy this Sunday . . . Youll find that our Traditional Beef is
deliciously succulent and tender . . . But then, Sunday has always been a day for
getting the knives out.58 The gender of the consumer is established by references
to certain tabloid newspapers providing men with sexual stimulation via soft-core
pornographic photographs and titillating stories. It is insinuated that men may
gain sexual stimulation from eating roasted flesh, and the image draws on a
mythology of masculine virility in which male potency and the eating of red meat
are linked. Domestic strife, extending even to violence, is implied by the comment
about knives.


Erika Cudworth

There are cultural associations between womens sexuality, fish and seafood,
with fish recipes often targeted at women, whether singly or in groups. It is perhaps
no coincidence that an open crotch shot in a soft/stills pornographic magazine is
sometimes referred to as fooda salmon sandwich. On occasion, the images of
animals may be sexualized by the caption that accompanies them, for example, a
prawn and coconut curry is captioned prawn star. Any other star apart from this
one would fail to work, because the absent referent of the caption is obviously the
porn star.59 In addition, the context of the preparation and consumption of food
may be sexualized: prawn and coconut curry is something spicy for two, with the
sexualization of the prawns presented as a means to enhance heterosex.
While the Meat and Livestock Commissions Meat to Live campaign in the
early 1990s targeted young men and deployed discourses of masculine virility, the
Recipe for Love campaign of the mid to late 1990s focused directly on the sexualized context of meat consumption. A series of television advertisements promoted
meat by deploying gendered discourses that implied that eating meat enhances
heterosexual relationships. The working title of the campaign was Meat and Sex.
These advertisements portrayed couples whose relationships were cemented by
eating meat. The first in the series depicted an older woman cooking steak for her
husband on their anniversary. Gratified by this act of care and affection, the
husband put on a slow record to which they danced, then cue the caption: Meat:
the recipe for love. A second advert involved a sketch with three young women
exercising in the gym, then eating pork chops, while discussing that consuming
this low fat food means they will have no trouble finding a man. The final few
advertisements depicted a series of dinner parties designed to partner inconveniently single friends. In each case, a joint was brought to the table and carvedthe
singles bit the meat as they looked into each others eyes.
The context for such narratives lay in the research conducted by both the Vegetarian Society and the Meat and Livestock Commission in Britain in the mid-1990s,
which found that young single women comprised the social group most likely to be
vegetarian. The Vegetarian Society saw this as a reflection of concern for animal welfare, while the MLC assumed that it was due to womens concern with their weight.
The MLC contended that abstinence from meat was temporary, and that meat-eating
was re-established when women settle down with a male partner.60 These advertisements deployed sexualized narratives of femininity, which they presumed would
exert more influence upon young women than narratives of domesticity. Within
such discourse, women are expected to desire and seek a male partner, and feeding
meat to men, or eating meat with men, may enhance a mans desire for them.
The cooking of seafood sometimes places women in a relatively rare position
that of slaughterer and butcher. Cookery books often recommend that lobster
be boiled aliveimmerse it for two minutes in boiling salted water or court
bouillon.61 The language of killing is banal, and one is left to wonder, for example,
for whom a death will be more gentle when a recipe recommends leav(ing) the
beast (a crab) in lukewarm water for about five minutes, where it will expire in a
gentler manner.62 Food magazines periodically show female hands pulling apart
crabs and lobsters with accompanying dismemberment instructions.63 The recipes

Seeing and Believing


requiring the killing of crustacea have a marked tendency to form part of menus
regarded as somehow special due to the imputation of aphrodisiac properties to
the flesh of such animals.64

4. The domestic goddess

The preparation of food is an important aspect of the persistent discourses of
domesticated femininity. Within texts on food preparation, women are represented
as the key providers of familial service in cookinga gendered discourse which
denies domestic labour through narratives of romantic love and maternal affection. However, the specific narratives relating to different types of meat food differ
according to whether the meat is boiled or roasted.
Many traditional British recipes reflect their origins as peasant cookery designed
to tenderize poor meat, and are often described as comfort food. Casseroles, stews
and pies are made from hard working parts of animals: muscle from the neck,
shoulder and front legs. Animals are the absent referents in these narratives. Tissue,
blood, bone and sinew are recipe ingredients: for example, a marbling of fat between the meat fibres, seems happily to be tailor made for slow cooking,65 because
such cooking breaks down connective tissue in a mature animal.66 My survey of
recipes has indicated that boiled meat is also a means by which women routinely
nourish the whole family. Narratives in these texts form part of a gendered discourse within which women derive pleasure from serving others, and are
encouraged to see intensive labour as minimal. For example, Delia Smith informs
her readers that braised dishes place no great demands on (their) time, no pressure.67 Yet effortless braised lamb forms part of a menu involving preparation
forty-eight hours in advance, two-and-a-half hours work the day before, and five
hours work on the day of the dinner. Magazines provide timed and tested menus
so the final result appears effortless. We know that the domestic is a goddess. Delia
Smiths menus include timeslots for bathing (in bubbles) and putting on make-up,
in addition to clearing the evidence of ones labour from the kitchen.
There are gendered, natured and hetero/sexualized discourses to be seen in
the representation of roasted meat. Birds are popular roasted and served as whole
carcases, and images are abundant. Roasted hen, goose, pigeon and duck retain
much of the form the animals had when alive. Indeed, chickens for roasting are
bred to keep their shape,68 and the overwhelming majority of chicken meat comes
from female birds. The bodies of larger animals are rarely roasted whole, but
divided into a range of species-specific cuts,69 of which the most expensive is usually the fillet, part of the pelvic region, followed by the upper back leg (thigh) and
rump, and on birds, the breast.70 This fragmentation of animals and valuation of
those body parts can be read as a sexualized and gendered process. The narratives
of human flesh in heterosexual soft-core pornographic stills photography involve
a fetishism of legs, bottom and breasts, and women are sometimes referred to as
animals, or pieces of flesh or meat. Animal bodies are divided and ranked in ways
that arguably reflect the symbolic fragmentation of the pornographic body, and
the fetishization of certain body parts.


Erika Cudworth

5. Changing cultural texts?

There have been some changes in British food culture and practice, but the extent
to which these challenge dominant discursive constructions of animal food is
debatable. For example, there has been increased consumption of meat in reconstituted processed form, such as mince or burgers. Although such products are not
themselves sexualized or gendered, they tend to be presented in recipes, menus
and some advertising, within gendered discourses as appropriate for consumption
by particular groups, such as single men, or a womans children within the context
of the family.
The increase in vegetarianism and public concern around food risks seems to
have encouraged food companies and supermarkets to employ environmentalist
or animal welfarist narratives in the presentation of meat. This was the basis for
the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Freedom Food
campaign, which approved meat from producers who guaranteed the provision of
basic freedoms to farm animals.71 The campaign involved major supermarkets
who consequently advertised their approved meat in terms of both taste and animal welfare, with statements like: Farming was so intensive that pigs were leading
an utterly miserable life, the meat had no flavour; You can pig out with a clear
conscience on the free-range, oak-smoked sweetcure bacon.72 Natures Choice
branded pork based its initial advertising largely on the lifestyle of the pigs, proclaiming: We insist that pigs live like pigs.73 All three of these advertisements
featured photographs of pigs living outdoors. At the time of writing, the image
used by a small company to promote their quickly cooking,free range pork Speedy
Sausages is of cartoon pigs wearing leathers and helmets and riding motorbikes,
accompanied by the phrase from British pigs who live life on the wild side, and the
trade mark Suitable for carnivores. This brings animals back into the presentation
of meat, but does not eliminate the absent referent. Welfarist narratives challenge
excessive cruelty in animal farming and animal food production, but are still
located within a wider discourse that presents meat-eating as benign. The assumption that the key function performed by certain species of animal is to become
human food is ontologically anthropocentric. The increased consumption of
organic and free-range meat, and the greening of some narratives of meat presentation, is but marginally disruptive to the cultural and economic formations of
humananimal relations.

Animal-derived foods are natured goods and are presented through gendered
narratives that constitute different food products as appropriate for different types
of consumer. Moreover, there remains a marked tendency to assume that meat will
be consumed by men but prepared by women. In the sociology of consumption, it
has been suggested both that the order of goods reflects social categories and
hierarchies, and that goods are also creators of the culturally constituted world.74
In this chapter, I hope to have given some credence to such claims in the case of

Seeing and Believing


meat as a cultural good that reflects and constructs an anthropocentric and

gendered society. A discourse of sexualized consumption may also be apparent in
the presentation of meat. Meat consumption is closely associated with male virility,
and fish consumption with female sexuality in particular. Meat can also be presented as a form of food pornography, and images and texts of meat eating may be
Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard have each suggested in different ways that
commodities form part of mythologies favouring the interests of those groups with
social power, and that consumption of goods cannot be considered outside of the
social and economic order which produces them.75 The formations of domination
which circumscribe the lives of meat animals, and those animals which breed, lay
and lactate for humans, are economic and physical, and seen in the farm and the
slaughterhouse. These institutions of animal food are deeply grounded in, and profit
from, racist, sexist and classist traditions and practices, among others.76 Yet these
formations are not part of visual culture in affluent societies, usually being shrouded
from public view or presented in a pastoral of rurality. Feminists such as Carol
Adams,77 and in the next chapter in this collection, Rachel Muers, have noted that
vegetarianism has been cast as an ethics of asceticism and dietary privation. This is
certainly true in the context of a culture in which meat-eating remains a symbol
of affluence and sensuality, and is very much part of the order of things presently
established by the aesthetics of gender relations. An ethics of compassion for
animals,78 or sympathy for animals,79 means that the ontology of animals as food
forming the cornerstone of contemporary Western food practices can be rejected.
By not eating meat, humans call into question not only the ontology of species, but
ontologies of gender, sexuality and other complex social differences as well.

1 Linda Vance, Beyond just-so stories: narratives, animals and ethics, in Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical Explorations, eds Carol J. Adams and
Josephine Donovan (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), pp. 16391
2 Ted Benton, Natural Relations: Ecology, Animal Rights and Social Justice
(London: Verso, 1993), pp. 6268.
3 Erika Cudworth, Environment and Society (London: Routledge, 2003),
pp. 16566.
4 For example, see Stephen Mennell, All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in
England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present (Oxford: Blackwell,
1993); Deborah Lupton, Food, the Body and the Self (London: Sage, 1996); and
Alan Warde, Consumption, Food and Taste: Culinary Antinomies and Commodity Culture (London: Sage, 1997).
5 Adrian Franklin, Animals and Modern Cultures: A Sociology of HumanAnimal Relations in Modernity (London: Sage, 1999), p. 174.
6 John Berger, Why look at animals?, in The Animals Reader, eds Linda Kalof
and Amy Fitzgerald (Oxford: Berg, 2007 [1980]), pp. 25161.


Erika Cudworth

7 Jonathan Burt, The Illumination of the Animal Kingdom: The Role of Light
and Electricity in Animal Representation, Society and Animals 9, 3 (2001),
pp. 20328 (204).
8 They consider that becomings only produce themselves; see Gilles Deleuze
and Flix Guttari, 1730: becoming-intense, becoming-animal, becomingimperceptible . . ., in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia
(trans. Brian Massumi; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987),
pp. 232309.
9 Mary Mellor, Feminism and Ecology (Cambridge: Polity, 1997), p. 51.
10 Chris J. Cuomo, Feminism and Ecological Communities: An Ethic of Flourishing (London: Routledge, 1998), pp. 6667.
11 Mary Mellor, Breaking the Boundaries: Towards a Feminist Green Socialism
(London: Virago, 1992), pp. 5152.
12 See Erika Cudworth, Developing Ecofeminist Theory: The Complexity of
Difference (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2005), pp. 10127.
13 See for example, J. B. Elshtain, Women and War (Brighton: Harvester, 1987);
Jean Freer, Gaea: the Earth as our spiritual heritage, in Reclaim the Earth, eds
Lonie Caldecott and Stephanie Leland (London: Womens Press, 1983),
pp. 13135; Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking (London: Womens Press, 1990).
14 Ynestra King, The eco-feminist imperative in Reclaim the Earth, pp. 914
15 Rosemary Radford Ruether, New Heaven/New Earth: Sexist Ideologies and
Human Liberation (New York: Seabury, 1975), p. 195.
16 Constantia Salamone, The prevalence of natural law within women: women
and animal rights, in Reweaving the Web of Life: Feminism and Non-violence,
ed. Pam McAllister (San Francisco: New Society, 1982), pp. 36475.
17 Beyond Animal Rights: A Feminist Ethic for the Treatment of Animals, eds
Josephine Donovan and Carol J. Adams (New York: Continuum, 1996).
18 Norma Benny, All of one flesh: the rights of animals, in Reclaim the Earth,
pp. 14151 (142).
19 Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical
Theory (Cambridge: Polity, 1990).
20 Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (London: Womens
Press, 1984).
21 Mary Daly, new introduction to Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (London: Womens Press, 1991), p. xvi; her Quintessence: Realizing the
Archaic Future (Boston, MA: Beacon, 2000), for a more detailed autobiographical account; and her Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy (London:
Womens Press, 1984), p. 74.
22 Daly, Gyn/Ecology, p. 26.
23 Mary Daly with Jane Caputi, Websters Intergalactic Wickedary of the English
Language (London: Womens Press, 1988), p. 90; Daly, Gyn/Ecology, p. 21.
24 There are various critics, including for example, Carol Stabile, A Garden
Enclosed is My Sister: Ecofeminism and Eco-Valences, Cultural Studies 8,
1 (1994), pp. 5373. For some fun-poking, see Daly Gyn/Ecology, pp. 41822.

Seeing and Believing


25 Raine Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade (London: Unwin, 1990), p. 33; Carol
P. Christ, Why women need the goddess: phenomenological, psychological,
and political reflections, in Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion,
eds Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow (New York: HarperCollins, 1992),
pp. 27387 (277); Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics
(London: Unwin, 1990; Boston, MA: Beacon, 1982). A clear, early and influential account of potential links between feminism and paganism can be
found in Starhawk The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Religion of the Great
Goddess (New York: Harper and Row, 1989 [1979]).
26 Starhawk, Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority and Mystery (San
Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990).
27 Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (Oxford University Press, 1986),
pp. 14850.
28 Merlin Stone, The Paradise Papers: The Suppression of Womens Rites (London:
Virago, 1977), pp. 2829.
29 Marija Gimbutas, The First Wave of Northern Steppe Pastoralists into Copper
Age Europe, Journal of Indo-European Studies 5 (1977), pp. 277305 (293).
30 See for example, Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark, p. 72; and Freer, Gaea,
p. 131.
31 Charlene Spretnak, Eco-feminism: our roots and flowering, in Reweaving the
World, eds Irene Diamond and Gloria Orenstein (San Francisco: Sierra, 1990),
pp. 314; see also her States of Grace: Spiritual Grounding in the Postmodern
Age (New York: HarperCollins, 1991).
32 Susan Greenwood, Feminist witchcraft: a transformatory politics, in Practising
Feminism: Identity, Difference, Power, eds Nickie Charles and Felicia HughesFreeland (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 10934 (111).
33 Doceta E. Taylor, Women of color, environmental justice and ecofeminism, in
Ecofeminism: Woman, Nature, Culture, ed. Karen J. Warren (Philadelphia,
PA: New Society, 1997), pp. 3881.
34 See Rosemary Radford Ruether, Feminism and Jewish-Christian dialogue:
particularism and universalism in the search for religious truth, in The Myth
of Christian Uniqueness, eds John Hick and Paul Kitter (Maryknoll,
NY: Orbis, 1987), pp. 13749; and, in particular, her Gaia and God (San
Francisco: HarperCollins, 1992); and Jone Salomonsen, Enchanted Feminism:
The Reclaiming Witches of San Francisco (London: Routledge, 2002).
35 Janet Biehl, Rethinking Ecofeminist Politics (Boston, MA: South End, 1991).
36 Mellor, Feminism and Ecology, pp. 14647.
37 Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific
Revolution (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983).
38 Vandana Shiva has written widely here. Her important and indicative works
include Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development (London: Zed, 1988);
and Monocultures of the Mind: Perspectives on Biodiversity and Biotechnology
(London: Zed, 1993).
39 Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (London: Routledge,
1993), pp. 196, 43.


Erika Cudworth

40 John Passmore, Mans Responsibility for Nature: Ecological Problems and

Western Traditions (London: Duckworth, 2nd edn, 1980), pp. 2739.
41 Passmore, Mans Responsibility for Nature, pp. 17375.
42 Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste
(London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), pp. 19092.
43 Nicky Charles and Marion Kerr, Women, Food and Families (Manchester University Press, 1988); Julia Twigg, Vegetarianism and the meanings of meat, in
The Sociology of Food and Eating, ed. Anne Murcott (Aldershot: Gower, 1983),
pp. 1830.
44 Adams, Sexual Politics, p. 40.
45 Rosalind Coward, Female Desire: Womens Sexuality Today (London: Granada,
1984), p. 40.
46 Carol J. Adams, The Pornography of Meat (London: Continuum, 2003); and
my review in Feminist Theory 6, 1 (2005), pp. 99101.
47 I used the two bestselling food magazines in the United Kingdom, Good Food,
published monthly by the BBC, and Sainsburys Magazine, published monthly
by New Crane.
48 Delia Smith, Sainsburys Guide to Meat Cookery (London: New Crane, 1994);
Anton Mosimann, The cooking of Great Britain and Ireland, in The Sunday
Times Cooks Companion (London: Ebury, 1993), p. 50; also Jeremy Rifkin,
Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of Cattle Culture (London: Thorsons, 1994).
49 Elisabeth Luard, European Peasant Cookery (London: Grafton, 1986).
50 Michael Barry, Michael Barrys Great House Cookery (London: Merehurst,
51 Gary Rhodes, More Rhodes Around Britain (London: BBC, 1995); also Simon
Hopkinson, Roast Chicken and Other Stories (London: Cassell, 1995).
52 Mosimann, Cooking of Great Britain and Ireland, p. 55.
53 BBC Good Food, December 1990, p. 65.
54 Claude Levi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked (London: Cape, 1970).
55 Karen Davis, Thinking like a chicken: farm animals and the feminine
connection, in Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical Explorations, eds
Carol J. Adams and Josephine Donovan (Durham, NC: Duke University Press,
1995), pp. 192212.
56 For example, see Good Housekeeping, March 1994, p. 71.
57 Levi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked.
58 Good Housekeeping, March 1994, pp. 4142.
59 Sainsburys Magazine, November 2002, p. 91.
60 From interviews with marketing representatives from the Vegetarian Society
and the Meat and Livestock Commission, 1995 and 1996.
61 Sunday Times Cooks Companion, p. 232.
62 Sainsburys Magazine, June 1994, p. 82.
63 See for example, BBC Good Food, October 1990, pp. 14; August 1994, p. 80.
64 For example, Hot buttered lobster with garlic, basil and ginger, Sainsburys
Magazine, December 2002, p. 88.
65 Smith, Sainsburys Guide to Meat Cookery, p. 14.

Seeing and Believing






Sunday Times Cooks Companion, p. 67.

Smith, Sainsburys Guide to Meat Cookery, p. 80.
BBC Good Food, September 1999, p. 22.
Sunday Times Cooks Companion, pp. 21018.
Interview, butcher and instructor at Smithfield market, January 1992.
Interview with RSPCA farm animal welfare officer, The Royal Smithfield
Show, November 1994.
BBC Good Food, March 1993, p. 28; April 1992, p. 11.
BBC Good Food, January 1993, p. 35.
Grant McCracken, Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic
Character of Consumer Goods and Activities (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), p. 77.
Roland Barthes, Mythologies (London: Paladin, 1973); and his Towards a
psychosociology of contemporary food, in Food and Drink in History, eds
Robert Forster and Orest Ranum (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press,
1979), pp. 16673; Jean Baudrillard, Consumer society, reprinted in Selected
Writings, ed. Mark Poster (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988 [1970]), pp. 3259.
David Nibert, The promotion of meat and its consequences, in Animals
Reader, pp. 18389.
Adams, Sexual Politics of Meat.
Matthew D. D. Cole, Vegatopia: the future of convenience and compassion in
a post-speciesist world, paper presented to the Food and History: Health,
Culture, Tourism and Identity conference, University of Central Lancashire,
Preston, 29 June1 July 2006.
Josephine Donovan, Feminism and the Treatment of Animals: From Care to
Dialogue, Signs 31, 2 (2006), pp. 30529 (305).

12 Seeing, Choosing and Eating:

Theology and the
Feminist-Vegetarian Debate
Rachel Muers

Meat abstention and other dietary practices are gendered, and any study of historical
or contemporary diet must pay attention to questions of gender. Indeed, work on
womens religious fasting practices already constitutes one of the more developed
and better-known bodies of literature on theology and food.1 My focus in this chapter is on the contemporary context, and on a set of arguments within recent feminist
ethics about vegetarianism. These arguments are not, as such, theologicalbut they
have involved, on all sides, what can best be described as side-swipes at Christianity,
and in particular at the Christian ascetic tradition. My intention here is not to defend
Christian theology against these side-swipes, but rather to use these arguments as a
way of raising some deeper questions about food practices. Specifically, I am interested in how looking at food practices through the lens of these feminist debates
might inform theological thinking around materiality, freedom and human nature.
Accounts of food practices, like accounts of sexual difference, have something
to do with accounts of the bodily given and necessarywith biology or with what
biology narrates, and with what is necessary or inevitable for the survival of human
bodies, and of a human species. At the same time, the reduction of food practices or
gender to accounts of the necessary or the natural is both theoretically inadequate,
and ethically and politically dubious. Although the debates around feminism and
vegetarianism have important implications for the theoretical construction of sex
and gender, this chapter focuses instead on the implications of this feminist work
for how we understand the relationship between theology, practice and choice, in
relation to dietary questions. In particular, there are important links, to which feminist vegetarian theory draws particular attention but which are also brought out in
Christopher Southgates chapter in this collection, between shared dietary practices
and ways of seeingincluding, especially, ways of seeing nonhuman nature.

The feminist-vegetarian connection

Recent decades have seen the development of a body of work in feminist ethics,
associated in particular with Carol J. Adams and Josephine Donovan and drawing

Seeing, Choosing and Eating


on an earlier tradition in feminist thought, that puts forward specifically feminist

arguments for vegetarianism and other changes in human attitudes to the use and
treatment of nonhuman animals.2 Many key feminist advocates of vegetarianism
incorporate into their positions a critique, albeit sympathetic, of both utilitarian
and rights-based approaches to animal welfare as epitomized respectively by the
work of Peter Singer and Tom Regan, on the grounds that such approaches preserve
patriarchal or masculinist ethics. Josephine Donovan and Brian Luke are among
those who are especially clear in their critical analysis of the repudiation in both of
these thinkers of emotion or sentiment as grounds for ethical action.3 The rejection of emotion is read, with considerable justification in relation to the specific
passages cited by Donovan and Luke, as a rejection of the feminine. What feminist
critics see in some advocates of vegetarianism is a reaffirmation of the gendered
binary of reason and emotion, with the aim of assigning animal ethics decisively to
the rational/masculine side of the lineof countering charges of sentimentality
with a demonstration of unemotional objectivity. The task these feminist critics
undertake, beginning from what has become known as the feminist ethics of care4
but developing significantly beyond this, is to rehabilitate emotion, in relation to
animals, not merely as an ethical force but also as a political force. To draw on the
feminist theologian and philosopher of religion Pamela Sue Anderson, they are
articulating rational passion.5
These feminist rehabilitations of emotion in the ethical advocacy of vegetarianism draw on an established line of reflection in ecofeminist thought that traces the
links within Western philosophical and theological tradition between sexism, the
domination of nature, and negative views of embodiment and emotion. Within
this narrative, Christianity, and Christian asceticism in particular, emerges as a villain of the piece. Adams and other ecofeminist thinkers have traced a web of
connections between patriarchy, the domination of nature and the denigration of
the body in theology, and have used this in their analyses of Western attitudes to
animals.6 These critiques of Christian tradition set the scene for any theological
engagement with feminist arguments for vegetarianism. In this chapter, I am not
particularly interested in proving these writers wrong, but rather in confronting
the questions they raise for theological ethics and meta-ethics.
In what follows, I shall draw attention to two dimensions of the advocacy of the
feminist-vegetarian connection that have particular relevance for theology. The
first is that vegetarianism is presented as an oppositional political practice that
enacts an alternative ontology, and that therefore gains its full significance when
viewed and undertaken as a communal practice rather than an individual choice.
The second dimension is that vegetarianism is linked to a set of arguments about
what is humanly natural or necessary.

Feminist vegetarianism and the politics of human nature

Carol J. Adams is one of the best-known theorists of the political and philosophical
aspects of feminist advocacy of vegetarianism. Together with numerous ecofeminist thinkers, and supported in a rather different context by Nick Fiddes, she argues
that women and animals are objects for consumption under patriarchy.7 Both


Rachel Muers

women and animals are victims of a system of domination-by-violence, in which

power is constructed as violent power-over, the power to control or objectify the
other. Both women and animals are denied subjectivity and voice, as the violence
done to their bodies is duplicated at the symbolic level. For Adams, then, the
oppression of animals is systemic, and linked to the systemic oppression of women;
to overcome it will require a deep and far-reaching transformation of cultural
assumptions and perceptions.
In The Feminist Traffic in Animals, Adams takes the question Should feminist
conferences serve only vegetarian food? as a way into exploring the connection
between feminism and vegetarianism.8 It is an appropriate question because it
allows her to place the questions of choice, autonomy and plurality at the forefront.
Should feminist conferences represent or permit vegetarianism as individual choice?
Adams argues that to do so is to promulgate the dominant ontology of animals as
objects for consumption, the idea of meat as an undifferentiated mass noun
(obscuring the processes by which individual animals are made into meat), and the
illusion of a neutral space within which dietary choices are made. Her concern is to
destabilize what is claimed to be neutral and comprehensivenamely, the regime
of food consumption within which animal flesh exists as meat. Feminist concerns
for plurality would in this case, she says, be maintained through concealing another
deeply significant pluralitythe plurality of animals who become meat.9 Feminist
concerns for autonomy might also be brought to bear on the debate, but this particular form of human autonomy (the power to choose to eat animals) would more
accurately be redescribed, Adams argues, as a privilege founded on oppression.10
What Adams is calling for here is a denaturalization of meat-eating through
communal action. Her concern in this article is mainly with the understanding of
nonhuman animals that is implied in current food regimes, but there is also a
critique of the anthropology that goes along with that understanding of animals
an anthropology that sets the human over against the nonhuman other, and that
hence preserves at least some of the dualistic oppositions that feminist philosophy
has sought to challenge.
Brian Lukes article Taming Ourselves or Going Feral?, besides extending the
critique of existing animal rights theory already noted, makes a comparable argument for the denaturalization of meat-eating, and links it explicitly to the ethical
argument from sentiment, that is, from emotion. In line with his critical work on
justifications for hunting,11 he directs his argument against both the explicit and
the implicit naturalization of meat-eatingboth the argument that killing animals
is a natural instinct in humanity, and the fact that the processes by which animals
are turned into meat are ordinarily concealed and mystified. He puts forward the
alternative proposal that the natural human response to animals is compassion,
and that maintaining current uses of animals (for food, experimentation, sport and
so forth) requires the learned suppression of this natural response: Suppose . . . that
compassion for animals is a natural, normal and healthy part of human life . . . We
would then expect institutions of animal exploitation to protect themselves from
compassionate human opposition through an array of unnatural, abnormal and
unhealthy mechanisms. This is exactly what we find.12

Seeing, Choosing and Eating


One of Lukes most interesting claimswhich is far from unique to him among
feminist animal ethicists, but is a particular focus of his workis that animal liberation can be seen, metaethically, as a process of human moral development, an
extension (often a reclamation) of our capacities as agents.13 For Luke, Donovan,
and other proponents of an ethic of care for nonhuman animals, an objectifying
relationship to animalsa relationship that treats animals primarily as objects
of (at least possible) consumption and useis a relationship that deprives humans
of something proper to them. To change that relationship is not primarily to lose
somethingthe power to make certain uses of other animalsbut rather to gain
somethingthe capacity to care about other animals. The question posed in the
title of his article, Taming Ourselves or Going Feral?, while incidentally emphasizing human kinship with nonhuman animals, directs us to a basic contrast in the
conceptualization of animal ethics, to which he wishes to draw attention. He takes
earlier animal ethicists to task, not merely for reinforcing the gendered reason/
emotion binary, but for constructing animal ethics as an exercise in taming what
are assumed to be violent and bloodthirsty human instincts. On the contrary, Luke
argues, we are already tamedour natural feelings of compassion are suppressed
and deniedand the point of animal ethics is to go feral, to reclaim the possibilities of which we have been deprived.
Both Adams and Luke, it should be noted, call into question in important ways
the whole idea of a focus on dietary restriction in ethicsor theology. Adams
would say that understanding vegetarianism as a restriction, particularly in the
context of also calling it a choice, leaves in place the systems (ideological and
cultural, as well as social and economic) that make meat part of the normal, full
and complete human diet. To call vegetarianism a restriction, or an individual
choice, is, she might say, to reinforce the definition of the human being as a meateater and the nonhuman animal as meat, and to suggest that not to eat meat is to
be less than fully human. Luke could develop this argument by suggesting that the
first and most important restriction with which we have to deal here is the restriction of the capacity to understand, and react against, the animal suffering on which
the eating of meat relies. In other words, the diet that includes meat is a diet that
restricts people; the freedom to choose to eat meat is obtained at the cost of continued taming and imprisonment within an array of unnatural, abnormal and
unhealthy mechanisms.

Theology going feral?

Where does this leave theology? In non-theological work on vegetarianism,
particularly feminist and ecofeminist, Christian asceticism tends to be presented
as the extreme case of taming ourselves. Like the work of Peter Singer or Tom
Regan, it may have, in certain cases and in certain respects, a desired effect (people
stop eating meat); but at the level of meta-ethics (to use Lukes term) it retains and
reinforces the patriarchal dualisms that serve to alienate humanity from nature
and from nonhuman animals. I, however, am interested in the possibility of reading certain aspects of the Christian tradition of embodied practice and reflection


Rachel Muers

on that practice as, in Lukes terms, going feral rather than as taming ourselves,
and as having noteworthy resonances with Adamss call for collective denaturalization of an existing food regime. None of this is to deny the emphasis within the
ascetic tradition on the control of the passions, and the obvious contrasts between
this approach and the efforts of feminist vegetarian writers to rehabilitate the
emotions within ethical thinking. If we shift the focus from emotion to embodied
perception, howeverto the questions of how animals are seen, and what they are
seen asmore possible connections appear.
Turning first to Lukes discussion, I note first that his rethinking of animal metaethics recalls the Augustinian account of evil as the privation of good. It is easy to
caricature this account as failing to do justice to the enormity of one or another
undoubted evilsurely the Shoah/Holocaust wasnt just the absence of good?
but recent reappropriations of this tradition, including those that relate it
specifically to the Shoah, remind us that it is an attempt to take evil seriously.14
It can take unnatural, abnormal and unhealthy mechanisms, which have their
own complicated rationalities and logics, to sustain the privation of good on a
large scaleto stop people being fully humanbut what is found to underlie these
mechanisms is nonetheless a privation, a denial and a lie. With specific reference
to the question of the connections between emotional or sensible perception and
the human good, there is a strong tradition of representing sin in terms of the loss
of capacities, particularly of the loss of capacities for perception; blindness, deafness and so forth15closely linked to images of imprisonment, enslavement and
bondage. The scriptural locus classicus for all this is, of course, Luke 4.1619,
where Jesus proclaims release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.
Positively, on the other hand, transformed or sanctified life can be understood
in terms of the restoration of ones proper capacities. Thus, for example, Sarah
Coakley gives an account of the premodern doctrine of the spiritual senses that
emphasizes the continuity between these and ordinary, physical ways of knowing,
and also the close connections between the affective, the ethical and the cognitive
in this tradition of thought.16 Commenting on Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, for
example, she describes an initial turning-around morally, then practice in seeing
the world differently, then only finally the full intimacy of spiritual/sensual
knowledge of Christ.17 The point made here, as frequently elsewhere in Coakleys
work, is that there exists within Christian tradition an understanding of human
sanctificationperhaps, a meta-ethicsthat has little to do with the separation of
mind from body, or reason from emotion, and in fact everything to do with the
reintegration of all these aspects of human existence in the formation of a holy life.
Working within a different set of conversations, Mark Wynn in his recent work on
religion and the emotions argues, inter alia, for a place in theological ethics for the
close link between felt response and moral understanding. For Wynn, emotionally
inflected perception, developed through religious practice, is key to understanding
the life and actions of the saint. The saint does not transcend or suppress emotion
as she makes moral judgements about the world; her capacity to judge and act is
bound up with her emotions, which in turn are educated through her practices.18
There are, of course, important caveats here. It is possible to read the spiritual
sensesin ancient and modern traditionsas negating or being in competition

Seeing, Choosing and Eating


with the ordinary senses.19 This does not, however, obscure the basic idea that
there are ways of perceiving the world that are proper to human being, which are
lost through sin (personal and collective), and regained through the deliberate
undoing of certain bondsa process that will require different and countercultural ways of living. Developing the conversation with Luke further, it is not a
claim foreign to Christian theology that the most basic incapacity is an inability to
love the neighbour, and perhaps an inability even to see the neighbour as a proper
object of love.
So far, perhaps, so goodbut Lukes article takes us into the centre of a debate
about human nature and its necessities and possibilities, and hence back into the
set of theological arguments presented in Christopher Southgates chapter in terms
of protology and eschatology. Do people have within themselves, already given, the
capacity to relate better to nonhuman animals? Is vegetarianism a return to how
we were made, a return to Eden? Is compassion for animals normal and natural,
and how would we know? After all, demonstrating that the particular form of
wrongness that we have is not necessary, natural or automatic, is not the same as
demonstrating that its converse is necessary, natural or automatic. In fact, Luke
seems in his account to leave open the possibility that going feral is not in fact
a return to a former state but a journey into the unknown. This possibility is
more clearly evident in the work of Adams, who emphasizes less the naturalness
of care for animals, and more the possibility of political and communal action that
enacts and establishes an alternative to the dominant ontology. From a theological
perspective, the idea of returning to a prelapsarian state merely by rejecting the
unnatural mechanisms of a particular culture misses the point and fails to recognize the gravity of human sina loss of capacity and an imprisonment in unnatural
mechanisms so profound that we cannot even know, from within it, what freedom
or the restoration of the lost capacity would be like.
With this concern about the idea of returning to a previous or original state in
mind, is there scope to describe any practices of Christian asceticism as going
feral, and how might this contribute to a reading of Lukes and Adamss work
within theological ethics? One approach to a theological dialogue with these feminist debates on vegetarianism would begin from the recognition of asceticism as
countercultural. People writing on ethics in a context in which Christianity can, at
least historically, be associated with the dominant culture have no particular incentive to examine the very different cultural contexts in which the Christian practices
and emphases they denigrate were developed. But, of course, in contexts where
Christianity was not regarded as tame, the practice of Christian asceticism could
look rather more like going feral.20
Arthur Vbus draws on a wide range of early sources to build up a description
of the earliest Syrian monks as displaying hatred of anything and everything that
smacked of civilisation.21 A significant dimension of this description for our purposes is the theme of the kinship of the ascetics with animalsboth their own
animal-like behaviour, and their companionship with animals. The earliest Syrian
monks are described by later writers as eating grass like animals and as companions of wild animals; a letter of Mar Aphrem to the mountaineers (i.e. mountaindwelling ascetics) describes a group who have lost all fear of wild animals and have


Rachel Muers

animals as companions.22 It might be possible to read these texts as representing

early monasticism as a kind of going feral that had, as one of its significant components, a transformation of the understanding of animalsfrom food sources
and objects of domination, to others with whom dialogical encounter was possible,
and with whom some sort of kinship was recognized. These texts do not, however,
provide a straightforward connection with Lukes accounts of going feraland not
just because the dialogical encounter seems, if we trust these sources at all, to have
resulted, in some cases, in the animals eating the monk!23 More significantly, this
ascetic going feral, at least as Vbus describes it, is linked to the mortification of
the body; it is not a fleeing from restrictions but the imposition of restrictions.
Similarly, Andrew McGowans central argument about the interpretation of very
early Christian ascetic eucharists is that asceticism needs to be understood as an
oppositional practice, and that to understand specific instances of asceticism one
therefore has to understand the cuisines and food cultures to which they are
opposed.24 In the case of the earliest eucharists, McGowan argues that the cuisine
in question is the cuisine of sacrifice, and that the variation in Christian meal
practices (mainly but not exclusively in the practice of eucharistic meals) represents varied negotiations with or relationships to this cuisine. Abstention from
meat and from winesymbolically focused in the use of bread and water in the
eucharistic mealwas, on McGowans reading, an enacted withdrawal from sacrificial culture and sacrificial cuisine, linked to a strong ethic of group purity. Even
if any particular piece of meat might not have come from a sacrificed animal, meat
meant sacrifice, as did wine. Although focusing mainly on the religious meanings
of food, McGowan also discusses as a secondary theme the economic and social
meanings of meatthe status of meat as a luxury food, and of bread as the food of
the poor. He explicitly rejects any connection except the most superficial between
Christian asceticism and the Cynics refusal of meat and espousal of a natural
(simple and vegetable-based) diet. The grounds on which he does so are of interest
to us. Christian asceticism, unlike Cynic practice, he says, was not presented
in terms of freedom from cultural constraints, but rather as the acceptance of
additional restrictions.25
At this point, McGowan seems decisively to separate Christian ascetics from
the arguably feral Cynicsas does Vbus, when he moves from an account of
the earliest monks desire to escape or reject everything connected with civilization, to an account of their passion for the mortification of the body, including the
imposition on it of multiple carefully constructed restrictions.26 Early, and indeed
later, asceticism may, for these writers, have something to do with going feral
in Lukes termsliberating oneself from a culture and a cuisine, with the relationships to other human beings and to nonhuman nature that culture and cuisine
embodiesbut it does this through an even more severe taming of the self. Luke
might read Christian countercultural asceticism as he reads the work of Singer and
Regan, as a practice that, while proposing a new and in some respects welcome
ethic, inscribes an oppressive or counter-natural meta-ethic.
However, the question McGowan does not addressbecause it does not fall
within the scope of his discussionis whether and to what extent opposition to

Seeing, Choosing and Eating


the cuisine of sacrifice could itself be construed as liberation rather than

constraintentry into the way of life for which you were meant. Reading Adams
alongside Luke helps, in a contemporary context, to call into question the image of
the lone renegade going feral, enacting individual protests against civilization,27
and to suggest that there could be an important or necessary communal dimension to the (re)discovery of different moral and perceptual capacities. A further
development of the conversation around McGowans work might, in a parallel
move, ask whether and how a communal refusal of the dominant cuisine was
linked, by those involved, to a changed perception of the social and moral world
a change that could itself be interpreted theologically.
If there is any potential in this, there is probably also scope for a conversation
with feminist proponents of the ethic of careparticularly in relation to nonhuman animalsabout the education of the emotions, and the place of both religious
communities and doctrines in that education. Adams, as I have noted, makes close
links between the capacity to perceive the needs and suffering of animals, different
ontologies and theologies of the animal and communal contexts of oppositional
practice.28 Thinking about these links makes it possible to see further links with
Christian practices of denaturalizing, and theological reflection on them. At the
same time, it opens up a space for mutual critique between feminists and Christian
The key critical questions ecofeminist vegetarian thought puts to Christian accounts of vegetarianism and dietary restriction will include: Do and can Christian
practices of dietary restriction ever enact an ontology that is genuinely different
from that of the prevailing contemporary cuisine? Is suspicion of the body and the
emotions built in to Christian thought, to the point where the significance of bodily practices will always be undervalued? On the other hand, theological analyses
of ecofeminist arguments for vegetarianism might ask critical questions about the
construction of vegetarianism as natural or obvious, and the anthropological
implications of such an appeal to a (presumably reliable) pre-given source within
human life of truthful moral reasoning.

Penultimate vegetarianism: Kathryn Paxton George

The connection between vegetarianism and feminist thought can by no means be
taken for granted. Having put forward some possibilities for a dialogue with ecofeminist vegetarians, I shall now comment on the relationship between their work
and that of a recent critic of the feminist-vegetarian connection, Kathryn Paxton
George. A key area of shared concern for theology and feminist thought is the
desire to be serious about the realities of differentiated historical embodiment,
while being very critical of what is supposed to be natural or inevitableand/or
ideal or destinedabout bodies, and of what it is supposed that bodies and embodied practices signify. Both sides of the feminist/vegetarian debate are saying
something important for theological work in this area.
Georges article Should Feminists be Vegetarians? and her subsequent book,
both of which put forward a case against vegetarianism on feminist grounds, focus


Rachel Muers

on the issue of universal vegetarianism, and in particular on the work of Tom

Regan.29 George suggests that Regan and some other animal rights advocates
incorporate into their arguments claims about the normal human body and its
requirementswhere the assumed normal human body is a healthy adult male
body, and, moreover, the body of a man living in the industrialized West where
alternatives to meat consumption are readily available. Georges argument is that
the specificities of bodiesthe facts, for example, that menstruating and pregnant
women need more iron than men, or than women at other stages of their lives; that
breastfeeding women and young children need more calcium; or that people who
are ill have various specific nutritional requirements, several of which are fulfilled
much more easily through animal productsare ignored in a universal prescription of vegetarianism. Hence, she interprets calls for universal vegetarianism highly
critically, as instances of the male body masquerading as the neutral bodyhence
also, paradoxically, of human embodiment being ignored or denied at the very
point at which human diet is in question. The problem from a feminist ethical perspective is that a way of life is being advocated that is differentially difficult for
women, or harmful to them.
It is beyond the scope of this chapter to consider in detail Georges nutritional
claims, most of which have been disputed. She acknowledges that the argument for
vegetarianism and/or veganism is not made on health grounds, and that it is perfectly possible for women and children to live on a vegan diet. The argument is that
universal vegetarianism would have negative effects on womens lives and womens
health, and that this is sufficient grounds for feminists to reject it. Even if it is proposed, George says, that exceptions can be made for those who need to eat meat or
animal products, this remains problematic from a feminist perspective because it
still sets up the male as the ideal; female embodiment only enters the discussion as
a problem, an anomaly, and an exception to the human rule.
George compares the advocate of universal vegetarianism with the Christian
male ascetic seeking power through self-dominion, and draws a line of descent, to
which those of us who work in this area are by now fairly accustomed, from the
longstanding association of the male with the soul/reason, to the Cartesian subject.30 She describes a masculinist ascetic ideal based on the control of the body,
the suppression of appetites and desires, and the flight from temporality and particularity, transmitted into Western ethical thought from Christianity. She makes a
direct link between Christian and vegetarian self-taming, and sets this over against
a contextualized ethic of caring. In this she follows a line that is obviously very
similar to that of Luke (and for that matter, numerous feminist advocates of vegetarianism). Of course, Georges conclusions are very different from Lukes; this is
partly because she seeks her suppressed truth, the truth that has been tamed out
of us, not mainly in the emotions, but in analyses (scientific and otherwise) of the
needs of particular temporally located bodies. She does, however, define her
dietary practice (of semi-vegetarianism) as aesthetic, both to distinguish it from
ethics understood as universal prescription and to express the link to emotional
judgements, judgements of taste and so forth.
In the responses to Georges work, the key critiques, from Adams and others,
are perhaps those that challenge her whole framing of the debate, and specifically

Seeing, Choosing and Eating


her assumption that the starting-point is a menu that includes meatthat

vegetarianism is to be understood as taking something away from a normal diet.
In theological terms, if some of the feminist advocates of vegetarianism risk claiming to enact a return to unfallen nature, George might be thought to risk naturalizing fallenness.
What theological evaluation should be made of this feminist critique of vegetarianism? Georges work seems to point towards what I would call, drawing on an
idea of Dietrich Bonhoeffers, penultimate31 vegetarianismthat is, thinking
about diet in ways that focus on the better or worse choices that can be made in an
imperfect world, and that explicitly avoid making claims about the ultimate or
unfallen condition of humanity. In Christopher Southgates terms, this vision of
diet will be cautious about both protological and eschatological vision. George
does not reduce food practices to triviality; her work does, I think, leave space for
questions about sustainability, as well as questions about systemic injustice or
violence. It leaves openand this is one place where she and Adams could find
common groundthe chance to make critical interventions in unjust systems,
while recognizing ones own embeddedness in compromise. George is, after all,
also calling for food to be a locus of ethical reflection and actionshe is very interested in the politics, including the gender politics, of food distribution. Like Adams
(on one reading), she is opposing what she takes to be an individualized-universal
or universalized-individual model of food choices and food action. The individual
is responsible for making herself live up to the ideal that applies to everyone.
The project that has given rise to this collection is deliberately framed around
questions of vegetarianism and dietary restriction, not around attitudes to nonhuman animals. Part of the reason for this focus was that we wanted not just to look
at the why of dietary prescriptions but the how, the where and the whohow
dietary regimes were and are negotiated and implemented, and what these negotiations do to people. In relation to nonhuman animals especially, these other
considerations prove impossible to separate from the why. There has, of course,
been extensive attention in recent years to communal practice as a basis for Christian ethical reflection. I suggest, however, that two of the questions raised by a focus
on dietary issues are: What, if anything, is lost by a restriction of this attention to
core and obviously distinctive Christian practices, either as they appear in the contemporary world, or as they are taken to be consistent over time?32 What needs to
be learned, not only from other disciplines attention to the relationships between
food practices and beliefs, but from a wider range of communal practicessuch as,
for example, the numerous contexts, feminist and otherwise, in which meat is
deliberately removed from the menuand from the reflections they engender?

1 Of which probably the best known is Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and
Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1987). See also Elizabeth Clark, Ascetic renunciation and feminine advancement: a paradox of late ancient Christianity,
in Ascetic Piety and Womens Faith: Essays on Late Ancient Christianity



Rachel Muers
(Lewiston, ME: Mellon, 1986), pp. 175208; Teresa M. Shaw, Fasting and the
female body, in The Burden of the Flesh: Fasting and Sexuality in Early
Christianity (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1998), pp. 22053.
An overview is provided by the two collections edited by Carol Adams and
Josephine Donovan: Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical Explorations
(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995); and Beyond Animal Rights:
A Feminist Caring Ethic for the Treatment of Animals (New York: Continuum,
1996). An earlier and very important collection is Ecofeminism: Women,
Animals, Nature, ed. Greta Gaard (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press,
1993). A recent review of the debate is Sheri Lucas, A Defense of the
Feminist-Vegetarian Connection, Hypatia 20, 1 (2005), pp. 15077. Donovan
draws particular attention to the prominence of concern for animals in the
work of such first-wave feminists as Frances Power Cobbe and Charlotte
Perkins Gilman.
Josephine Donovan, Animal Rights and Feminist Theory, first published in
1990 and reprinted in Beyond Animal Rights, pp. 3459; Brian Luke Taming
Ourselves or Going Feral? Towards a Nonpatriarchal Metaethic of Animal
Liberation, reprinted in Animals and Women, pp. 290319.
Key texts include Nel Noddings, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and
Moral Education (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984); Virginia
Held, Feminine Morality: Transforming Culture, Society and Politics (Chicago,
IL: University of Chicago Press, 1993); Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice:
Psychological Theory and Womens Development (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1982).
Pamela Sue Anderson, A Feminist Philosophy of Religion: The Rationality and
Myths of Religious Belief (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998).
The classic text is Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (London: Routledge, 1993). See also Marti Kheel, From heroic to holistic ethics:
the ecofeminist challenge, in Ecofeminism, pp. 24371 (24647).
Nick Fiddes, Meat: A Natural Symbol (London: Routledge, 1992), argues that
meat is a natural symbol of human domination over nonhuman nature and
hence also of the dividing line between the human and the nonhumanand
that this explains our particular set of social and cultural investments in meat.
Carol J. Adams, The Feminist Traffic in Animals, first published in 1992 and
reprinted in Ecofeminism, pp. 195218. The article was written following the
formation of the Ecofeminist Task Force at the National Womens Studies
Association and the debates over their proposal that a strictly vegetarian
menu be adopted at future conferences. On this, see also Marti Kheel, Toppling Patriarchy with a Fork: The Feminist Debate over Eating Meat, reprinted
in Food for Thought: The Debate over Eating Meat, ed. Steve Sapontzis
(Amherst, MA: Prometheus, 2004), pp. 32743. Note that this argument about
menus is partly an argument about the feminist labelwho is included in the
feminist community, who is a real feministand whether food can be used
to negotiate or define feminist identity.
Adams, Feminist Traffic, pp. 20810.

Seeing, Choosing and Eating


10 Adams, Feminist Traffic, pp. 21011.

11 Brian Luke, Brutal: Manhood and the Exploitation of Animals (Champaign:
University of Illinois Press, 2007).
12 Luke, Taming Ourselves or Going Feral?, p. 302. A recent newspaper article
by an ex-vivisectionist gave indirect support to Lukes claims: I [became]
someone who thought it was normal to kill animals on a daily basis and not
be affected by it . . . I consider myself rehabilitated now. Ive killed two animals
since those days . . . Both times Ive vomited afterwards with the sheer horror
of it all. But thats a natural reaction, and Im glad. (I was a vivisectionist, The
Guardian, 31 March 2007.) As Christopher Southgate notes in his chapter,
citing Michael Pollan, the meat industry is a relatively new, evitable and local
13 Luke, Taming ourselves or going feral?, p. 313, emphasis mine.
14 Take, for example, Hannah Arendts account of Eichmann as exhibiting the
banality of evil, in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
(London: Penguin, 2nd edn, 1994). Various theological appropriations of this
account include Charles Mathewes, A Tale of Two Judgments: Bonhoeffer
and Arendt on Evil, Understanding and Limits, and the Limits of Understanding Evil, Journal of Religion 80, 3 (2000), pp. 375404; David Grumett,
Arendt, Augustine and Evil, The Heythrop Journal 41, 2 (2000), pp. 15469.
15 This visual metaphor of course has its own historical and contemporary
problems in relation to theological understandings of disability. I do not wish
to minimize these problems; in using this stock set of metaphors, little or no
attention has been paid to the experience or agency of those who are metaphorized. For my argument to work, Christian theology needs to be able to
retain loss or lack of ones proper capacities as a way of talking about sin;
there is then a real question as to how this can be done in the light of critiques
from theologies of disability. See John Hull, On Sight and Insight: A Journey
into the World of Blindness (London: Oneworld, 1997). I am grateful to Susannah Cornwall for discussions of this topic.
16 Sarah Coakley, The Resurrection and the spiritual senses: on Wittgenstein,
epistemology and the risen Christ, in Powers and Submissions: Spirituality,
Philosophy and Gender (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), pp. 13052.
17 Coakley, Resurrection, p. 140.
18 Mark Wynn, Emotional Experience and Religious Understanding: Integrating
Perception, Conception and Feeling (Cambridge University Press, 2005),
pp. 3058. In his account of the saint, he draws extensively on Raymond Gaita,
A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice (Melbourne:
The Text, 2000). Wynn also provides, on pp. 17994, especially 19194, an
important set of caveats for theological appropriations of emotion as a guide
to understanding.
19 Such as in the work of John Wesley, especially in light of his vegetarianism.
20 The assumptions I make, in discussing the examples below, about theology
and ideology are perhaps worth highlighting. I assume that there are resources
within Christian theological tradition (and other religious traditions) to







Rachel Muers
recognize and critique the ideological function of religion itself. One way to
speak about this is through an exposition of the connection between idolatry
and ideology. Religion, and not least Christianity, can be part of a system of
(self-)deception; it can lead people to take things as ultimately true or good
that are nothing of the kind, and it can make them less capable of relating to
the world. Insofar as religion does this, it is the worship of false gods. However, I also assume that Christian thought and practice is supposed to be, and
sometimes succeeds in being, anti-idolatrous. There is at least some chance
that religious thought and practice can make people more, rather than less,
able to see through various forms of deception, and that is at least part of what
at least some Christian teachings and ways of life have been about. I have been
particularly influenced in this thinking by Peter Scott, Theology, Ideology and
Liberation: Towards a Liberative Theology (Cambridge University Press,
Arthur Vbus, History of Asceticism in the Syrian Orient: A Contribution to
the History of Culture in the Near East (3 vols; Louvain: Corpus scriptorum
Christianorum Orientalium, 195888), vol. 2, p. 22.
Vbus, History of Asceticism, vol. 2, pp. 25, 27.
Vbus, History of Asceticism, vol. 2, p. 31.
Andrew McGowan, Ascetic Eucharists: Food and Drink in Early Christian
Ritual Meals (Oxford: Clarendon, 1999).
McGowan, Ascetic Eucharists, p. 264.
Sometimes literal restrictions, such as the wearing of chains.
Not that this is what Luke is advocatingfar from italthough the conclusion
to his essay focuses very much on individual authentic action rooted in an
emotional response understood over against any form of social conditioning.
Carol Adams, Neither Man nor Beast: Feminism and the Defense of Animals
(London: Continuum, 1994), explores how, in relation to animals, epistemology constructs ontologyhow what can be seen or known shapes what
animals can be thought to be. Josephine Donovans recent work is particularly
interesting on the links between feelings of sympathy, education and the
reconceptualization of animals as subjects. See her Feminism and the
Treatment of Animals: From Care to Dialogue, Signs: Journal of Women in
Culture and Society 31, 2 (2006), pp. 30529.
Kathryn Paxton George, Should Feminists be Vegetarians?, Signs: Journal of
Women in Culture and Society 19, 2 (1994), pp. 40534; and Animal, Vegetable,
or Woman? A Feminist Critique of Ethical Vegetarianism (Albany: State
University of New York Press, 2000). The responses to George by Adams,
Gruen and Gaard, and Donovan, in the same issue of Signs drew attention to
the feminist vegetarian critiques of Regan and Singer, to which George had, it
was argued, paid too little attention. See, for example, Carol J. Adams,
Comment on Georges Should Feminists be Vegetarians?, Signs 21, 1 (1995),
pp. 22125 (221).
George, Should Feminists be Vegetarians?, pp. 42829.
See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2005), p. 151.

Seeing, Choosing and Eating


32 Note, for example, that in a key recent collection exemplifying the contemporary focus on practice in theological ethics, questions about everyday
diet appear only parenthetically even in an article on food. See Robert Song,
Sharing communion: hunger, food and genetically modified foods, in The
Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, eds Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel
Wells (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), pp. 388400 (394). In the same volume,
questions about meat-eating feature only in the course of developing an
analogy with questions of sexuality. See Joel James Shuman, Eating together:
friendship and homosexuality, pp. 40113 (412).

13 Structure and Agency

in the Antislavery and
Animal Liberation Movements
Nigel Pleasants

The use made of slaves and of tame animals is not very different; for both with their
bodies minister to the needs of life.1
To those, of course, who are convinced that flesh-food is a necessity of human welfare, it
is vain to suggest that it will form no part in the future dietary; that is a matter which time
alone can decide.2

I, like many other people in the modern Western world, am a vegetarian, on the
grounds chiefly of moral objection to the suffering and killing of animals that meat
production involves. Vegetarianism is, for me, a core moral belief, from which
commitment to certain kinds of action and inaction straightforwardly follows.
When I reflect on the horrors perpetrated by the animal-exploiting industries, and
the non-necessity of their products for health and well-being, I vividly experience
the moral imperative that drives my vegetarianism. And yet, at moments of metareflection, I realize that the condition of my holding the beliefs and commitments
that I do is the existence of vegetarianism as an established social practice with
many other adherents. I did not discover the empirical facts of animal exploitation
through first-hand inquiry, and I did not work out the moral issues through independent analysis and reasoning. Without the exhortation and example set by
others, I would have had no reason even to consider whether I should become a
vegetarian. If I am honest with myself, I will acknowledge that, had I been born
one hundred years earlierwhen vegetarians were tiny in number and considered
to be freakish aberrationsit is highly unlikely that I would have become one. The
(practically) necessary preconditions of my choosing vegetarianism are the existence of sets of ideas and practices, and empirical knowledge, that have been
pioneered, worked out, discovered and made respectable, by others before and
independently of me. Vegetarianism is a movementa social movementthe
beliefs, attitudes, aims and practices of which provide me with reasons, arguments,
evidence and resources for thinking about and being vegetarian. Independent
moral reflection on the justness of our societys practices and institutions is, of

Structure and Agency


course, important, but as Durkheim said, most of our ideas and tendencies are not
developed by ourselves, but come to us from outside.3
On the one hand, then, vegetarianism is a paradigm case of exercising the powers
of moral agency in critical reflection, moral choice, decision and will. It is such a
clear paradigm because in most instances it involves a diametrical change of
perception of practices that one had been brought up to regard as unexceptionably
in order, and which are enthusiastically endorsed by the vast majority of ones
co-citizens, including moral, religious, scientific, medical, legal and educational
authorities. But, on the other hand, the availability of vegetarianism as a viable set
of practices (including ideas about animals moral status, mental and emotional
capacities and the empirical conditions of their exploitation) cannot itself be conjured up through an individuals moral agency. The possibility of becoming a
vegetarian depends on the pre-existence, in social and cultural space, of a set of
ideas, attitudes, aims and practices, that one might come to embrace and choose to
The point that I am trying to make about the intersection and interdependence
of moral agency and social structure can be illustrated via the master example
drawn upon by Anthony Giddens in his theory of structuration.4 Language exists
prior to, and outside of, the consciousness of each, and arguably all, of its users.
The form of this existence is a structure, or set of structures, of rules that constitute
the semantics, grammar and syntax of language. Through our speech-acts we, as
individuals, exercise our linguistic agency. We endeavour to say what we want to
say, availing ourselves of the infinity of possible meanings that language provides
for us through its rules for the use of its words and combinations of those words
into sentences, statements and propositions. Thus the condition of us being able to
exercise our individual linguistic agency is that there be structures of rules (which
are themselves sustained by ongoing social practice) on which we can draw for the
medium of our meaning-productions and interpretations. I am suggesting that
what holds for linguistic agency holds also for moral agency. In order for us to be
able to make meaningful moral choices and decisions, and to seek to live in accordance with those choices and decisions, there have to be socially established and
sustained moral practices, such as vegetarianism, that we can choose to adopt.
Reflecting on the moral practice of vegetarianism, an obvious question to be
considered is: What are the reasons, grounds and arguments for being or becoming a vegetarian? Unsurprisingly, this is the question that preoccupies most of the
philosophical and theological literature on the treatment of animals in modern
society. It is, if you like, addressed to, and considered by, people in their capacity as
moral agents. In this chapter, I shall attempt to address some questions that lie on
the structural side of the structure-agency dichotomy, or dialectic. The main
question to be asked is: Under what social and historical conditions did the movement for vegetarianism and animal liberation arise, and what are the conditions
for its success? I am also going to engage in some speculation on the future prospects of vegetarianism and animal liberation. What I am seeking is a kind of
philosophical history, or historical-materialist (in the Marxian sense) analysis, of
the conditions and developmental trends of vegetarianism and animal liberation.
To help me in this quest, I will be looking at the explanatory perspectives of some


Nigel Pleasants

leading historians of the antislavery movement. If the institutionalized exploitation of animals bears any comparison with the institutionalized enslavement and
exploitation of human beings, as I, along with Aristotle, believe it does, then there
may be some lessons to draw from the antislavery movement that will be of relevance to animal liberation. I want to emphasize that I shall not be making any
normative comparisons between slavery and animal exploitation; my focus will be
on explanation of the origins and efficaciousness of ideas, and the social agency
that takes up the ideas and acts on them.

Vegetarianism, animal rights and social progress

Throughout the ages the occasional philosopher, theologian or other public figure
has objected to the killing of animals for food. There were critics in Ancient Rome
and Greece.5 Schopenhauer was a notable, though irresolute, critic, and so, more
forcefully, but still irresolutely, were the classical Utilitarians, Bentham and Mill.6
In many cases, the critiques were an aspect of religious or aesthetic beliefs and
practices, and were often part of a more general non-conformist lifestyle. The word
vegetarian came into being only in the mid-nineteenth century; prior to that, people who abstained from meat-eating went by the epithet Pythagorean, and their
dietary practice was known as a vegetable regimen.7 These linguistic practices
reflect the status accorded to those who practised and advocated vegetarianism
they were perceived as effete sentimentalists, eccentric cranks, or just plain mad,
and were ostracized, ridiculed and marginalized.8 Their practice and counsel was
regarded as obviously unworthy of serious consideration. We (including most vegetarians!) would no doubt respond in much the same way to advocates of
fruitarianism in our own society. Disregard and disdain was also the fate of Henry
Salt and his Animals Rights (1894), which was perhaps the first sustained attempt
to consider animals as full moral patients in and of themselves.9 Although not
written by an academic philosopher, Salts little book is surprisingly philosophically literate, carefully reasoned, empirically well-informed and comprehensive,
covering agricultural, sporting and experimental uses of farm, domestic and wild
animals. Yet what little attention it did receive from professional philosophers was
dismissive and condescending. J. S. Mackenzie, for example, opined in philosophys
premier ethics journal that if Mr. Salts view is to be pressed to its logical conclusion, we ought to speak of the rights of nettles, sponges and oysters, as well as dogs
and horses.10 Salt himself acknowledges that many of my contentions will appear
very ridiculous to those who view the subject from a contrary standpoint.11
The long history of indifference to the appeals of the sharpest critics of animal
exploitation, and the irresolute complaints of otherwise progressive social critics,
was revolutionized in the 1970s with the publication of Peter Singers Animal
Liberation (widely acclaimed as the foundational text for the animal liberation
movement), closely followed by Stephen Clarks The Moral Status of Animals, and
Tom Regans The Case for Animal Rights.12 Although these works added nothing
fundamentally new to what was achieved in Salts much earlier work, they
did bring modern philosophical sophistication in argument and analysis, and

Structure and Agency


extensive empirical expos, to the cause.13 In the wake of these studies, the philosophical literature on human attitudes towards, and treatment of, animals has
become an established sub-field of philosophy and a respectable topic in philosophical ethics. Moreover, in the (Western) world outside academia, vegetarianism and
anti-vivisection are now mainstream, albeit minority, causes, and questions on animal rights and welfare are visibly disputed in the public sphere and political arena.
The foregoing potted history of the formation of vegetarianism and animalrights-consciousness reveals three noteworthy features. First, that vegetarianism
and criticism of animal exploitation has a very long history. But second, until
roughly the last quarter of the twentieth century, vegetarianism was practiced only
by exceptional or unusual individuals (often the intellectual, the artist, the philosopher, the visionary) and was a stance which accentuated and dramatized that
individuals distinctiveness.14 And third, until very recently, much of what criticism
of animal exploitation there was, was partial, limited and irresolute. Only in a very
few exceptional cases did criticism take the form of attributing inherent moral
status to the subjects of the institutionalized practices. This is a pattern that will be
seen also to characterize the history of opposition to slavery.
The 1970s marked a watershed in the history of concern for the plight of
animals. The modern animal liberation movement is a social movement for abolition, and it is only since its onset that vegetarianism has attained mass appeal and
respectability.15 But why did it take so long for such thoroughgoing moral
criticism, and a social movement to carry it, to emerge? And why did it take so long
for criticism of animal exploitation to be taken seriously, as moral argument and
objection worthy of serious consideration? Why and how did that transformation
occur at the time it did?
Few philosophers have sought answers to these questions. Singer, along with
most other philosophers who have addressed the topic, paints a picture of moral
progress, encapsulated by the metaphor of the expanding circle, which he takes
from the nineteenth-century historian W. E. H. Lecky. The idea is of a circle demarcating the community of morally considerable beings, the boundary of which has
over time expanded to encompass ever greater sections of humanity, eliminating
the exploitative and disrespectful treatment of individuals that was based solely on
their birthplace, religion, skin colour, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. Singer looks
forward to further expansion of the circle so that an individuals species will come
to be seen to be as arbitrary for morally discriminatory treatment as we now
recognize race, gender, etc., to be. According to this picture, then, the reason that
liberationist criticism of animal exploitation did not arrive until the late twentieth
century is that earlier people either lacked essential moral concepts (rights,
justice, equality, personhood, etc.), or failed to understand the full range of application inherent in their meaning.16 Earlier people are thereby depicted as morally
primitive in their ability to comprehend the true demands of morality, or as lacking specific moral knowledge. Realist moral philosophers maintain that members
of slaveholding societies failed to see the moral awfulness of what was there to be
seen, and conversely, that abolitionists opposition to slavery came from their coming to see the evil of that institution.17 Bernard Williams labels such developmental


Nigel Pleasants

pictures, which he regards as beguiling but nave, progressivist.18 The progressivist

belief that we moderns are morally superior (more averse to cruelty and arbitrary
discrimination, and more acute in its perception) is deeply embedded in popular,
as well as academic, consciousness, and is hard to resist.
The progressivism embraced explicitly or implicitly by most animal liberationist
philosophers tends to bestow on ideas and arguments a belief in their inherent
power of persuasion as a function of their truth value. This attitude conveys the
belief that, once the ideas and arguments have been developed and refined to a
sufficiently potent degree of persuasiveness, they will become efficacious unless
thwarted by prejudice, closed-mindedness or conservatism. Thus Singer talks of
prejudice, habit and self-interest, as the chief obstacles that sound argument must
overcome.19 In much of the literature on animal rights and welfare, liberationists
and their critics operate in an ahistorical context, wherein they place their intellectual faith in what Jrgen Habermas reverentially calls the unforced force of the
better argument.20 And, it must be said, the very best liberationist philosophers,
such as Clark, Singer, Regan and Salt, tend to present past philosophical and
religious thinkers as somewhat mendacious, callous or hypocritical, with regard to
their views on the ontological and moral status of animals. It is common to see a
presentation of epistemic authorities, from Aristotle, through Aquinas, up to
Descartes (especially!) and Kant, combined with the Judaeo-Christian religious
tradition, depicted as a history of error and duplicity against which the liberationist arguments of the author will shine forth. In terms of the structure-agency
dualism, then, liberationists operate mainly on the agency side, that is, they more
or less tacitly attribute to ideas and arguments an autonomous power of persuasion that is essentially transcendent of the social, cultural and material conditions
of their production and reception.
But whatever the merits of progressivism as a rhetorical or polemical strategy, it
is out of keeping with the prevailing acceptance of a broadly structurationist
stance in contemporary social and political theory, and compatibilism in modern
philosophy. Guided by this structurationist/compatibilist ethos, one would look
for the causes, conditions and context of emancipatory ideas and arguments in
order to account for the historicity of their emergence and effectiveness, while
acknowledging that they are not merely determined effects of their environment,
but are causally efficacious too. This is precisely what the aforementioned historians of the antislavery movement have done in attempting to explain how and why
serious opposition to slavery arose when and where it did, and the conditions of its
eventual success.21 I shall endeavour to show both that the history and culture of
attitudes to slavery, and historians strategies for explaining its eventual abolition,
might shed light on the origins of, and prospects for, the animal liberation

The emergence of the antislavery and animal liberation movements

Richard Sorabji avers that the modern debate on the treatment of animals has, in
fact, reached the same point as the ancient debate on slavery.22 I think this is not

Structure and Agency


quite right, and suggest instead that the modern (post-1970s) debate on the
treatment of animals is far more advanced than the ancient debate on slavery, such
as it was, was. The proper point of comparison for the modern debate on animals
is with mid-eighteenth-century Britain and America. It was there and then that a
serious, organized, body of opposition to American and British colonial slavery,
and the Atlantic slave trade, emerged. With the arrival of that movement came not
just critical ideas, but a wider social movement with the agency to ensure that
those ideas would be taken seriously, debated and, eventually, put into action. Some
prominent historians of slavery regard this development as a momentous turning
point in the evolution of mans moral perception and the inception of a new
humanitarian sensibility.23 Prior to this, the institution of slavery had simply been
taken for granted as an inevitable and natural feature of the social world. The
received view was that slavery was technologically, economically and socially,
necessary for the maintenance of the societys way of life, and its abolition had
always been almost literally unthinkable.24 Members of slave-owning societies
could no more imagine a tolerably decent way of life without the institution of
slavery than people today can imagine life without the institution of money.
Notwithstanding the perceived necessity of slavery, qua institution, the fact that
slaves, qua individuals, endured pain, suffering and misfortune had not gone unnoticed: In every slave regime some people were morally perceptive enough to
recognize that slaves suffered; prior to the eighteenth century . . . humanitarians
expressed compassion for the misfortune of individual slaves; free people in the
Greek world were able to see what an arbitrary calamity it was for someone to
become a slave.25 Even so, for two millennia after Aristotle, the suffering of slaves
continued to be perceived as nothing worse than a regrettable but necessary evil.26
The majority of people, though, either did not consider the question of slaverys
justness, or thought the institution positively virtuous (both for the slaves and the
whole community).
Exactly the same pattern can be seen in the case of animal exploitation. Until the
1970s, the idea that institutionalized practices utilizing animals for food might be
abolished was also almost literally unthinkable. For most of the history of animal
exploitation, the use of animals for food, clothing and experimentation has been
assumed to be necessary for a decent way of life. The majority of people have not
thought, and still do not think, even of there being a question to be considered
over the justness of using animals for food, experimentation, etc. (though nowadays everyone knows that such questions are raised). Most of those that have
considered this question have concluded that the practices are entirely justified. As
with slavery, there is a deep-rooted cultural assumption that our use of animals is
simply the utilization of their design function (making food out of them is what
theyre for)27 and that this is good for them (they are given life that they wouldnt
otherwise have, and fare better than they would in the wild).28 But there is considerable sentimental concern over cruelty and unkindness towards animals, exemplified
by a tradition of well-supported campaigns, originating in the Victorian era, to
ban cruel sports. There is instinctive sympathy and empathy from many nonvegetarians for the plight of some particular animals, such as, for example, the


Nigel Pleasants

vivisection or live export of cute and cuddly animals (calves), brutally killed seals
or whales, hunted foxes or abused pet-animals. It is also widely recognized that
factory farm animals and laboratory animals endure severe pain, distress and
unnatural confinement.29 However, as with slavery, most of the concern is directed
at abuse of practice, not the practice itself, hence these pangs of sympathy and
empathy sit side-by-side with securely entrenched belief in the necessity and justness of the practices.30
There are, then, remarkably common themes running through the history of
attitudes towards the acceptability and justification of slavery until its abolition,
and animal exploitation to the current day. First, in both cases the institutions have
been perceived as necessary, natural and inevitable features of the societies hosting
them, and the possibility of doing without them has been almost literally unthinkable. Second, notwithstanding this certainty on the necessity of the institutions, the
fact that the individuals utilized by the institutionalized practices endure suffering
of various kinds has always been noticed and articulated by some radical critics.
And third, until the formation of the liberation movements, these critics have been
regarded as deviants, and ridiculed and marginalized by their peers.
By the nineteenth century, the antislavery movement had become an abolitionist
movement, increasingly attracting wide popular and respectable support, and
thereby shedding its image as the plaything of dangerous subversives, utopian
dreamers, eccentrics and mavericks. And now that prominent philosophers, scientists, novelists and other celebrities speak for animal liberation (or just particular
causes such as vegetarianism or anti-vivisection) there is evidence that the animal
liberation movement has begun to move in the same direction.
Given that there have been critics (albeit marginalized deviants) of the institutions of slavery and animal exploitation for some two millennia before the emergence of social movements with the organization and commitment to campaign
effectively for reform and abolition, questions that demand answer are: Why did it
take so long for that development, and why did it occur where and when it did?
What was it about the social conditions of these movements that proved conducive
to their emergence? Slavery was, of course, formally abolished, at least in the Western world, around the middle of the nineteenth century, that is, about a century
after the emergence of the first thoroughgoing institutional criticism of it. The
antislavery/abolition movement is, therefore, a paradigm example of a successful
movement for radical societal transformation. That being so, if we can find out
how it worked, we may thereby gain insight into the emergence, and future prospects, of the animal liberation movement.

Capitalism and the transformation of slavery from necessary to

intolerable evil
How is the mid-eighteenth century turning point in the evolution of mans moral
perception regarding slavery to be explained? What was it that transformed the
centuries-old attitude of regarding slavery as being, at worst, a necessary evil,
intofor antislavery criticsan intolerable evil? Although slavery had been a

Structure and Agency


feature of very many societies throughout the ancient, medieval and modern
worlds, the British, other Europeans and their colonists took it to an unprecedented
level of intensification and productivity by commercializing the supply of slave
labour and industrializing its organization in production. Some eleven million
captured and enslaved people were transported from Africa across the Atlantic to
the Americas between the mid-sixteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, and most
of this traffic occurred in the last two centuries of the trade, which was then dominated by Britain and America.31 The whole enterprise, including capture, transport,
seasoning (disciplining for the local conditions of labour), and brutal treatment,
produced an almost unimaginable death toll and incalculable suffering. The slave
economies of the New World were self-reproducing, expansive systems that thrived
on virgin lands where the environment was especially hostile to Europeans. Plantation agriculture, Davis tells us, resembled factories in the field and, with its
carefully structured gang labour, anticipated in many ways the assembly lines and
agribusiness of the future.32 In sum, those New World economies rank among the
most thoroughgoing capitalist societies of which we have record.33
The modern slave economies were thus built, organized and sustained through
thoroughgoing implementation of the principles of industrialization and freemarket commercialism. Conversely, industrialization and commercialization
outside the New World were driven and funded by the slave trade and slave production: Profits from the New World slave system made a significant contribution
to British economic growth and investment in manufacturing.34 In a word, the
origin, success and longevity of New World slavery was causally entwined with the
emergence and consolidation of capitalism as the dominant worldwide social,
economic and political system. Yet it was bourgeois members of the modern
capitalist state that instituted the antislavery movement, and their politicians who
eventually translated its aims and will into legislative and political action, enforcing
the abolition first of the slave trade and then of slavery itself. The antislavery movement was formed and led by people with strong religiously motivated objections to
slavery, especially Quakers. Indeed, according to Davis, it would be difficult to
exaggerate the central role Quakers played in initiating and sustaining the first
antislavery movements.35 They brought decision, commitment, and most important, organization to the hitherto rather diffuse, abstract and irresolute antislavery
sentiment. However, these Quakers were also leading members of the bourgeoisie
(in industry, shipping, banking and commerce), and at the vanguard of the capitalist mode of production. In case one should think that there is something intrinsic
to Quaker thought and practice that is incompatible with supporting or tolerating
slavery, it should be noted that Quakers had previously been actively involved in
slave holding and slave trading.
Some old-school Marxist historians argued that slavery was simply put to the
sword by the imperial capitalist powers at the point at which it had become unprofitable, costly to maintain, and a hindrance to economic progress. But this
proposition is almost universally rejected by historians nowadays, as the above
quotations indicate. There is even a respected view that slavery was dismantled in
an act of econocide while at the zenith of its profitability.36 Thus it appears at first


Nigel Pleasants

sight that the motivation of antislavery campaigners was purely moral, and that in
agitating for an end to slavery they were acting against self-interest and the economic interests of their class. The notion that antislavery protest was purely
morally motivated is certainly the popular view, fuelled by official representation
(witness media reporting on the bicentenary of the British Parliaments abolition
of the slave trade). On this view, the critical impetus came from the religiously
inspired moral acuity of a select band of altruistic, saintly individuals, and the
implementation of their critical vision was, in the words of W. E. H. Lecky, among
the three or four perfectly virtuous acts recorded in the history of nations.37 Such a
view is a prime example of progressivism and the expanding circle, where critical
ideas promulgated by moral entrepreneurs38 drive out moral backwardness, prejudice and entrenched interest. More importantly, to think of critical ideas in this
wayas independent, transcendent forces floating above the social, economic and
material conditions of their bearersmakes the relation between developing
capitalism and the antislavery movement seem contingent, fortuitous and accidental. A structurationist orientation will have us look for a more substantial, causally
efficacious, connection.
The key observation which may help explain the connection between capitalism
and the Quaker-led antislavery movement is that campaigners were in fact rather
questionably selective in the forms of economic oppression against which they
railed. What they did not object to was the awful conditions that many formally
free labourers in their own society, including very young children, were effectively
forced to endure in the newly industrializing factories, mines and mills, and in
domestic and agricultural service. Davis states the point starkly, averring that it
was by no means clear that the British working class were less victimized than
West Indian slaves.39 Thus the (genuinely) benevolent abolitionists empathized
with, and found morally intolerable, the plight of slaves in distant places, and yet
saw nothing morally problematic in the rapacious industrial and market operations in which they themselves were directly implicated. On the contrary, in
response to the objections of pro-slavery conservatives who gleefully pointed to
the apparent inconsistency, many abolitionists drew a sharp distinction between
the evils of enslaved bondage in the New World, and the virtues of free labour in
capitalist states and societies. Slavery, the abolitionists maintained, entailed the
buying and selling, and property ownership, of human souls, and forcing the slaves
body to work through direct physical violence; whereas under capitalism, the
worker was free to choose where, when and for whom he worked.40 Abolitionists
were thus able to uphold the contractual relation between worker and employer as
the natural and ordained condition of production. With the aid of this contrast,
slavery was depicted as an unnatural imposition of violence and confinement on
beings who were, by their God-given nature, essentially free and rational.
Davis maintains that the abolitionists rationalization and valorization of free
labour relations was duplicitous, though not (generally) consciously so. He contends
that antislavery protest served a number of positive functions for the protesters and their social and economic class: it enabled them to develop a sense of
virtue and moral consciousness, and it helped to legitimate and valorize the

Structure and Agency


conditions of production and trade that their class was endeavouring to establish
in circumstances of anxiety over social disorder and revolution. Davis acknowledges that the ideational origins of antislavery thought emanated from religious
convictions and a certain amount of Enlightenment philosophy, but points out
that for these ideals to be actualized, antislavery arguments had to win acceptance
from political and social elites otherwise obsessed with the fear that social reform
would open the gates to revolution.41 Upholding the dichotomous distinction
between the iniquitous barbarity of slavery, in contrast to the natural virtue of free
labour, had the effect of managing these fears and of establishing and consolidating the newly developing capitalist relations of production.
Haskell also identifies capitalist relations of production as the crucial vehicle by
which antislavery action was mediated. The mechanism postulated by his explanation differs from that of Daviss explanation. For Haskell, the activating factor was
not class interest, but the experience that the leading members of the antislavery
movement underwent in virtue of their participation in the capitalist mode of
production. The driving force of this mode of production and distribution was the
creation and extension of markets in goods and services, with the legal guarantee
for all citizens to participate as free and equal contractors. From their experience
of playing the rules of this economic game, the leaders of the antislavery movement acquired new modes of social discipline, and learnt to plan for the effects of
their actions over extended expanses of time and space. Haskell conjectures that
experience of participation in market relations had a crossover effect on their perception of remediable social evils. In learning that their actions could have
long-range and long-term consequences in the domain of economic activity, antislavery leaders thereby acquired a social technology for intervening in the course
of human affairs. This experience changed their perception of slavery. Previously
it had been seen as a natural and inevitable institution; now, the abolitionists had
learnt to see it as a socially constructed system of artificial bondage and arbitrary
brutality. And because they saw it as a socially constructed system, antislavery
leaders could also see it conversely, as an institution amenable to social deconstruction. For the morally scrupulous abolitionists, slavery had become not just an
unpleasant condition that some unfortunate people suffered in faraway places, but
an intolerable social evil for which they and their co-citizens bore responsibility.
For Haskell, what distinguished the antislavery campaigners from the preceding
normative consensus over the rightness or acceptability of slavery was not more
advanced moral sensibility, moral knowledge or moral understanding. Haskell
maintains, in line with Williamss anti-progressivism, that modern peoples moral
capacities do not differ significantly from those of the ancient Greeks: People
who lived before the eighteenth century were about as insightful and capable of
moral choice as people are today.42 Davis concurs with Haskell, remarking that
presumably men of the mid-eighteenth century were no more virtuous than men
of earlier times.43
What did set the antislavery campaigners apart from their predecessors, in
Haskells view, was the cognitive change that they had undergone as an effect of
their participation in capitalist relations of production. This cognitive change


Nigel Pleasants

affected not the ethical content of the moral rules that campaigners embraced, but
their understanding of the scope of application of the moral rules accepted by
virtually everyone, that is, their understanding of to whom societys moral rules
should be applied, and in what circumstances. Haskell argues that the scope of
application of moral rules is a function of social convention, and it is this that sets
the parameters of peoples sense of moral responsibility, that is, the forms of suffering for which people hold themselves responsible, and in which they recognize
themselves as causally implicated. Unlike moral sensibility itself, the conventions
of moral responsibility do change. They change according to peoples understanding of their practical ability to make a difference to forms of suffering.
In undeveloped societies, responsibility stretches no further than to other closely
related and connected people. Although the parameters of responsibility have
shifted considerably in the modern world, there are, and always will be, limitations
to what people can reasonably be expected to feel responsible for: the limits of
moral responsibility have to be drawn somewhere and . . . the somewhere will
always fall far short of much pain and suffering that we could do something to
alleviate.44 Extreme poverty in underdeveloped countries, for example, generates
vast quantities of pain, suffering and untimely death for wholly innocent victims.
Everyone knows this, and every morally decent person regrets that it is so, and has
what Haskell calls passive sympathy for the victims.45 Even so, most people perceive themselves as having no responsibility for intervening, believing that relief of
this suffering is simply beyond their capacity. Thus, as with the ancients and early
moderns vis--vis slavery, recognition of, and sympathy with, the suffering of individual victims coexists with an inability to perceive any personal responsibility for
them being and remaining in that sorry condition.
In summary, although Daviss and Haskells explanations differ with regard to
the particular mechanisms cited, of more relevance for my purposes is the extent
of their agreement. First, they agree that the condition of possibility that enabled
the emergence of a serious abolitionist movement was generated by the simultaneously developing capitalist mode of production. And second, while both acknowledge the authenticity and effective moral agency of those that propelled the
antislavery movement, they agree that it was the social and economic conditions
in which that movement functioned that enabled its leaders to do what they did,
not any advance in moral thinking or refinement of moral sensibility.

Vegetarianism and animal liberation: future prospects

Around the turn of the nineteenth century, the use of animals began to be transformed through their incorporation into an industrial process of food production
and experimental data-gathering.46 Since then, capitalist factory food production
(agribusiness)47 and laboratory science consume the lives of billions of animals
annually. And yet, as with slavery, the very economic system that intensified their
utilization to an industrial level of exploitation has also, I shall argue, generated the
enabling conditions of morally driven institutional criticism and a concomitant
liberationist movement.

Structure and Agency


It is no coincidence, in my view, that the antislavery and animal liberation

movements emerged shortly after the use of slaves and animals underwent intensive processes of industrialization. Although the holding and trading of slaves, and
the keeping and killing of animals for food, has been practised since the beginning
of historical time, the industrialization of these practices in the eighteenth and
twentieth centuries represented a profound qualitative transformation of their history. In the case of slavery, this is not, as such, to say that industrialization made the
practices more inhumane and oppressivealthough, mindful of Daviss warning
not thereby to romanticize preindustrial versions, there is surely some warrant for
this evaluation.48 Many victims of preindustrial slavery undoubtedly did suffer
grievously, but there is something about the intensification of the methods of transport (in particular, the horrors of the middle passage crossing), and the plantation
system of labour discipline and organization, that displays the evil of slavery at its
starkest.49 In the case of animal utilization, being made more inhumane and oppressive probably does appositely evaluate the consequence of its industrialization.
While I do not say that the sheer scale and intensity of slave and animal exploitation under capitalist forces of production is by itself sufficient for the practices to
become perceived as intolerably unjust (it obviously wasnt, and isnt), I do suggest
that it comes close to constituting a necessary condition for that perception.
Nevertheless, despite the scale and intensity of industrialized slavery and animal
exploitation, the compulsion of the perception, for those who had or have it, that
these are natural, necessary and inevitable practices that are integral to personal
and social well-being, and constitutive of the societys way of life, cannot be overemphasized. In both cases, critics were or are faced with the commonsense view
that an attack on the legitimacy of these institutions is also an attack on the central
values of individual freedom and the rights of property ownership, and that moves
towards abolition would fatally undermine social, cultural and economic order. As
Davis observes, defenders of slavery accuse[d] antislavery writers of undermining
the foundations of all authority, and Salt points out that the numberless animal
products on which our civilisation depends, is so interwoven with the whole
system of society that it seems to nearly everyone that this utilization can never be
discontinued until society itself comes to an end.50 We have seen how antislavery
protesters set about subverting the received perception that slavery was natural,
necessary and inevitable. Animal liberationists have, non-coincidentally, deployed
very similar strategies.
The whole history of slavery and animal exploitation, and every other form of
society-wide exploitation, shows that appealing to moral principles and obligations alone simply does not work, and cannot reasonably be expected to work.
What animal liberationists have to dothe sine qua non of successis to persuade people that the major animal-utilizing practices and their products are
neither natural, nor necessary, nor inevitable. As noted above, the use of animals
for food production and knowledge accumulation is deeply embedded in the
culture and institutional structure of modern society, and it is widely assumed that
this usage is essential for the sustenance of human life, health and well-being.
Animal liberationists maintain that this is not a natural necessity, but a socially


Nigel Pleasants

constructed need. The vast quantities of meat and other animal products
consumed in modern-day society are not, they insist, required at all for the maintenance of human health and well-being, and are, moreover, positively detrimental
to it. Unlike the pre-1970s criticism that emanated from maverick, socially marginal
critics, the animal liberation movement, just as the antislavery movement was, is
led by respectable bourgeois citizens (philosophers, scientists, physicians and
celebrities). Liberationists are thus able to invoke an impressive array of scientific,
medical and other empirical findings and authorities to support their claims about
the non-necessity of animal products, and the healthful, and wider environmental,
benefits of alternatives.
We saw previously that a key feature of antislavery strategy was to uphold and
celebrate the naturalness of wage-labour, in contrast to the perversion and socialconstructedness of slavery. This is also a key feature of animal liberationist strategy,
where the adverted naturalness of vegetarianism, and its moral, spiritual and
bodily virtues, play the contrastive role that wage-labour did in antislavery argument. There is much emphasis in animal liberationist campaigning (and also in
that of moderate reformist, non-vegetarian, organizations such as the Compassion
in World Farming Trust) on the repression and distortion of animals natural
species-characteristics in modern factory farming systems, and on the extreme
suffering that these inflict. Images of animals being kept and transported in artificially lit environments, where they are so confined and restricted that they can
barely move at all, are somewhat reminiscent of the awful conditions on slave
ships. Antislavery activists condemned slavery for its imposition of social and
environmental conditions that frustrated and stunted the natural, essential speciescharacteristics of human beings; animal liberationists condemn modern food
production for the same reason. But at the same time as condemning the cruelty,
oppression and inhumanity of factory farming, animal liberationists commend
valorise and legitimize, to use Daviss conceptsan alternative way of life
(vegetarianism) that is both emancipatory for animals, and more conducive to the
overall well-being of humans. They are aided in this quest by the productive and
distributional prowess of the capitalist mode of production.
The fact that vegetarianism is mainstream in much of the Western world51 owes
much to the capitalist-fostered production, marketing and distribution of the
goods and services that make it such a viable option. Nowadays there is hardly any
animal-derived food product that cannot successfully be simulated from nonanimal sources, such as, for example: soya or wheat-based milk, cream, yoghurt,
cheese or meat (steaks, burgers, sausages, bacon, etc.). These products not only
look and taste like the animal-derived original, but are much lower in saturated
fats, while being nearly as high in protein, and no more expensive. There are also
synthetic alternatives to fur and leather that are virtually indistinguishable from
the animal-derived equivalent. Consumer choice is greatly enhanced by producers
who increasingly label a wide range of manufactured goods as suitable for vegetarians.52 Thus the technological capacity, and the commercialism, of the capitalist
mode of production makes widely available a vegetarian way of life that is accessible, healthy, affordable and not unfashionable.

Structure and Agency


The current state of animal liberation is perhaps at a comparable stage to that of

the early antislavery movementthe ideas and arguments are discussed in the
public sphere, but many criticisms and objections are partial; there are heavyweight supporters, but also a lot of ridicule from equally heavyweight, establishment
quarters. In terms of personal action for the cause, abstention from meat consumption is somewhat reminiscent of antislavery protesters abstaining from sugar
consumption. The structurationist orientation that I have been illustrating through
my discussion of leading historians explanatory accounts acknowledges the
important role played by moral entrepreneurs in forming and leading abolitionist
antislavery movements, both in gaining popular support (in mass petitions), and
ruling class acceptance (in the British Parliament). Considering the depth and
extent of its institutionalization, if animal exploitation is to go the same way as
slavery, it will also require the three interlocking forces of moral entrepreneurialism, popular support through consumption practice, and eventually, governmental
decree and enforcement. But state action will only happen if there is mass popular
support for vegetarianism and liberation, and if, in its transcendent role of pursuing the public good over sectional interest, the state deems it to be in the wider
public and environmental interest.
The argument of this essay has been that what rendered slavery abolishable was
not moral insight into the fundamental rights of human beings, nor recognition of
the equal worth of all human creatures made in Gods image, nor empirical revelation of slave suffering, nor discovery of the sameness of mind, emotion and
sentience shared by slave and non-slave alike. It was, rather, change in social and
economic practice that enabled some especially critical people to see that slavery
could be dismantled and replaced with something bettersomething more natural, namely, self-ownership and freedom of contract. They would not have been
able to see this were it not for the economic opportunities afforded by the capitalist
mode of production. The idea of intrinsic human right and equality is not a necessary cause for the abolition of slavery, but one of its consequences. On reading the
philosophical animal liberation literature, one might think that its quest is just to
establish the correct moral concepts and to argue soundly and validly for their
proper, unbiased application. The crux of my claim in this chapter is that the ideas
and injunctions of liberationists have been effective, to the extent that they have,
only because they have been able to claim the non-necessity of animal utilization
and its replaceability by plausible alternatives that the capitalist mode of production has made possible and developed. Counterfactually, if it were not possible, or
were very costly, to lead a vegetarian life, the idea of animal rights and liberation
would never have taken hold (it would have been the sentimental path of an
impossible humanitarianism),53 and would have remained, as before, the ineffectual utterance of eccentrics. If my analysis is correct, the future prospects for an
end to animal exploitation comparable to the end of slavery in the Western world
will depend on further persuading the majority of people that there are better, viable alternatives to the utilization of animals for food and knowledge accumulation.
The historical irony is that the very social system that has turned animals into a
massively exploited resource has also generated feasible, plausible and attractive


Nigel Pleasants

alternatives to that exploitation. A widely accepted moral principle is that ought

implies can. If people are convincingly shown that, and how, they can, the ought
has a chance of following.54

1 Aristotle, The Politics (Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 17.
2 Henry S. Salt, The Rights of Animals, International Journal of Ethics 10 (1900),
pp. 20622 (220).
3 mile Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method (New York: Free Press,
1982), p. 51.
4 Anthony Giddens, The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of
Structuration (Cambridge: Polity, 1984).
5 See Richard Sorabji, Animal Minds and Human Morals: The Origins of the
Western Debate (London: Duckworth, 1993); and Daniel Dombrowski in this
6 See Henry S. Salt, Animals Rights: Considered in Relation to Social Progress,
http://www.animal-rights-library.com/texts-c/salt01.htm (originally New York:
Macmillan, 1894), p. 17, on the irresoluteness of Schopenhauer and Bentham,
for example: We deprive animals of life, says Bentham, in a delightfully
nave application of the utilitarian philosophy, and this is justifiable; their
pains do not equal our enjoyments. Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (London:
Cape, rev. edn, 1995), p. 207, notes that towards the end of the eighteenth
century, the right of animals to some degree of consideration was beginning
to be accepted, but that even the best of those leading the way stop short of
the point at which their arguments would lead them to face the choice
between breaking the deeply ingrained habit of eating the flesh of other
animals or admitting that they do not live up to the conclusions of their own
moral arguments. This, he laments, is an often-repeated pattern.
7 Alan Beardsworth and Teresa Keil, Sociology on the Menu: An Invitation to the
Study of Food and Society (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 222.
8 Tom Regan, Defending Animal Rights (Champaign: University of Illinois Press,
2000), pp. 1, 133, observes that, at the beginning of the nineteenth century,
the distinguished American neurologist Charles Loomis Dana argued that
animal advocates suffer from a mental illness; zoophil-psychosis (love of
animal psychosis), and that a 1909 Science article averred that antagonism to
vivisection is a form of incurable insanity. See James Gregory, in this collection, for popular representations of Victorian vegetarians.
9 Salt, Animals Rights.
10 J. S. Mackenzie, review of Henry S. Salt, Animal Rights, Considered in Relation
to Social Progress, International Journal of Ethics 26 (1916), pp. 56768 (567).
11 Salt, Animals Rights, p. 1.
12 Stephen Clark, The Moral Status of Animals (Oxford University Press, 1977);
Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1983).

Structure and Agency


13 An innovative feature of Singers empirical methodology is that much of his

documentation is derived from publications produced by the animal-utilizing
industries themselves, for their own purposes. See Singer, Animal Liberation.
14 Beardsworth and Keil, Sociology, p. 223. Consider the words of the brilliant
sociologist Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000),
p. 102, written in the early 1930s: There are even . . . [people]. . . to whom the
sight of butchers shops with the bodies of dead animals is distasteful, and
others who from more or less rationally disguised feelings of disgust refuse to
eat meat altogether. But these are forward thrusts in the threshold of repugnance that go beyond the standard of civilized society in the twentieth
century, and are therefore considered abnormal.
15 I use the term animal liberation quite widely, to cover a range of positions,
from the advocacy of radical reform, to the advocacy of abolitionprimarily,
the abolition of practices that utilize animals for food and vivisection.
I mainly use vegetarianism for the ethically motivated refusal to consume
meat, including those (vegans) who refuse to consume any animal-derived
product. However, vegetarianism is also widely practised for a variety of other,
non-moral, reasons (reasons not based on the idea of moral duties owed
directly to animals). The reality is complex, for it is suggested that about 37
percent of animal rights activists are not vegetarian and 85 percent . . . of vegetarians are not motivated by animal rights. Brian Klocke, review of Donna
Maurer, Vegetarianism: Movement or Moment?, Contemporary Sociology 32
(2003), pp. 34041 (340), citing Maurer. David Brion Davis, The Problem of
Slavery in the Age of Revolution (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975),
pp. 2122, explains that similar complexity and cross-cutting degrees of radicalism and particularism beset use of the terms antislavery and abolitionism.
16 Richard Kraut, review of Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity, Ethics 105
(1994), pp. 17881 (180), argues that the modern rejection of slavery depends
on having the concept of human rights.
17 Nicholas Sturgeon, Nonmoral Explanations, Philosophical Perspectives 6
(1992), pp. 97117 (98).
18 Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1993).
19 Singer, Animal Liberation, pp. xiiixiv.
20 Jrgen Habermas, Justification and Application: Remarks on Discourse Ethics
(Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1993), p. 163.
21 See The Antislavery Debate: Capitalism and Abolitionism as a Problem in
Historical Interpretation, ed. Thomas Bender (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1992), which brings together a series of critical articles, originally published in The American Historical Review, that constituted what has become
known as the antislavery debate.
22 Sorabji, Animal Minds, p. 219.
23 Davis, Problem of Slavery, p. 42; Thomas Haskell, Capitalism and the Origins
of the Humanitarian Sensibility, Part 1 The American Historical Review 90
(1985), pp. 33961.


Nigel Pleasants

24 Thomas Haskell, Responsibility, convention, and the role of ideas in history,

in Objectivity is not Neutrality: Explanatory Schemes in History (Baltimore,
MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), pp. 280306 (294).
25 Thomas Haskell, Convention and Hegemonic Interest in the Debate over
Antislavery: A Reply to Davis and Ashworth, The American Historical Review
92 (1987), pp. 82978 (849); Davis, Problem of Slavery, p. 82; Williams, Shame,
p. 112.
26 Haskell, Responsibility, p. 302, original italics.
27 Note that this belief survives perfectly happily in secular form, long after its
explicit theological formulation has disappeared.
28 See Wilbert Moore, American Negro Slavery and Abolition: A Sociological
Study (New York: Third Press, 1971), for strikingly similar common defences
of New World slavery, and Aristotle, Politics, for their classical formulation.
29 In the case of slavery, Haskell calls this passive sympathy (Responsibility,
p. 300)one has sympathy for the unfortunate victims, but their plight is
perceived to be beyond possible remedy.
30 Much of the humanitarian sympathy for slaves came when their masters
violated local standards of decency. Haskell, Convention, p. 849.
31 Between 11 and 12 million Africans (plus or minus 20 percent) were imported
to the New World. Of these, a staggering 9.9 million were transported in the
years 17011870. Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative
Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), pp. 160, 162.
32 David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New
World (Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 6.
33 Howard Temperley, Capitalism, Slavery and Ideology, Past and Present 75
(1977), pp. 94118 (98).
34 David Brion Davis, A Big Business, The New York Review of Books, 11 June
1998, pp. 5053 (51).
35 Davis, Problem of Slavery, p. 215.
36 Seymour Drescher, Econocide: British Slavery in the Age of Abolition
(Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977).
37 Quoted in Davis, Problem of Slavery, p. 453.
38 Howard Becker, Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance (New York:
Free Press, 1973), pp. 14763.
39 David Brion Davis, Reflections on Abolitionism and Ideological Hegemony,
The American Historical Review 92 (1987), pp. 797812 (801).
40 The contrast was to be made much more perspicuously by Karl Marx, who
depicted slavery as a condition under which the human person is bought,
sold and owned, in contrast to capitalism, under which all individuals are
legally guaranteed ownership of themselves and the freedom to sell only their
labour-power for a contracted period of hire.
41 Davis, Reflections, p. 798.
42 Haskell, Convention, p. 858.
43 Davis, Problem of Slavery, pp. 4142.
44 Haskell, Capitalism, p. 355.

Structure and Agency


45 Haskell, Responsibility, p. 300.

46 It is interesting to note that the idea for the assembly-line manufacturing
technique pioneered by Henry Ford for the motor industry came in a general
way from the overhead trolley that the Chicago packers used in dressing beef .
Henry Ford, My Life and Work (London: Heinemann, 1924), p. 81. By the end
of the eighteenth century, the Union Stockyards of Chicago were slaughtering and processing some 200,000 hogs a day. Daniel Pick, War Machine: The
Rationalisation of Slaughter in the Modern Age (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 1993), p. 180. Pick describes the nineteenth-century slaughterhouse as
a perfectly engineered, centralised, hygienic meat location, catering to the
needs of millions (p. 180). Marx proclaimed with rhetorical flourish in a
letter to Engels of 7 July 1866: Is there anywhere where our theory that the
organisation of labour is determined by the means of production is more
brilliantly confirmed than in the human slaughter industry? Karl Marx and
Frederick Engels, Selected Correspondence, 18461895 (London: Lawrence &
Wishart, 1936), p. 209.
47 Davis describes plantation slavery as factories in the field (see earlier quotation) Modern industrial agriculture, especially in the form of the notorious
factory farm, sucks the field and its denizens into the factory. An indication
of the scale of factory farming can be seen from such figures as the following:
the current livestock population [in the US] consumes more than seven
times as much grain as is consumed directly by the entire US human population. Carol Morris and James Kirwan, Vegetarians: Uninvited, Uncomfortable
or Special Guests at the Table of the Alternative Food Economy?, Sociologia
Ruralis 46 (2006), pp. 192213 (209, n. 3). A recent UN report states that the
livestock sector is . . . responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions
measured in CO2 equivalent. This is a higher share than transport. Livestocks
Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, prepared by Henning
Steinfeld et al. (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United
Nations, 2006), p. xxi.
48 Davis, Big Business.
49 Just as Auschwitz has synecdochically come to represent, and to concentrate
the mind on, the Holocaust as a whole, so the Atlantic slave-ships have come to
stand in a similar part-whole relation to slavery as an institution. There is much
controversy over the putative uniqueness of the Holocaust. Some of the most
compelling reasons for the uniqueness thesis reside in the Holocausts fusion of
modernity, civility, rationality and technology, with incomprehensible barbarity, viciousness and irrationality. It is, arguably, this mix that makes the
Holocaust peculiarly our problem, and motivates its categorization as a unique
event, that is, the Holocaust, an event that transcends all the many mere genocides that pepper the history of our species. And it is this mix, I suggest, that
also marks out industrial slavery (and industrial animal exploitation, for some)
as something categorically different in the history of the institution.
50 Davis, Problem of Slavery, p. 266; Salt, Animals Rights, p. 25. For an illustration
of the extent of contemporary societal embeddedness of animal exploitation,




Nigel Pleasants
consider the impact of Foot-and-Mouth disease in Britain. Although not a
serious ailment as such (it usually lasts for two to three weeks before the
animal recovers naturally, BBC News, 14 September 2007, http://news.bbc.
co.uk/1/hi/uk/6930899.stm), its economic ramifications are catastrophic,
imperiling not just the livelihood of those working in the industries directly
affected, but the whole economy. During the last major British crisis in 2001,
management of the disease required the combined efforts of the Government, media, science, medicine, the police and even the armed forces. Some
of the more immediately observable effects included: the postponement of a
national government election; constitutional crisis; strained international
relations; restrictions on trade, movement and travel; and public access to
large areas of the countryside being revoked. Further outbreaks of the disease
in 2007 were deemed sufficiently threatening to warrant management by the
Civil Contingencies Committee (COBRA), which is the Governments highest level decision-making council that deals with threats to national security
from war, terrorism, civil disorder, etc.
Actually, vegetarianism is much more widely practiced in Britain and the
United States (to a lesser extent) than other countries. Interestingly, this too is
mirrored in the antislavery movement, which was led by campaigners in
Britain and the northern United States. Britain, of course, dictatorially imposed
the abolition of the slave trade internationally, and then led the way with
emancipation in its colonies.
Morris and Kirwan, Vegetarians, p. 202.
Salt, Animals Rights, p. 25.
Thanks to Francesco Guala, Michael Hauskeller and Katharine Tyler for their
helpful comments and discussion.

Part 5
Theological Views on Current Food

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14 Symbol, Community
and Vegetarianism
David Brown

In our contemporary context, discussion of vegetarianism is overwhelmingly conducted in terms of the intrinsic rights of animals and the potential harm done to
them by modern methods of food production.1 Although such considerations could
result in legislation, the primary focus thus remains moral and individualistic: what
one being or animal (the human) may or may not do to another. Accordingly, it is
very easy to assume that exactly the same considerations have been dominant
throughout history. The result is that the past is interpreted simply in terms of the
present. While this may sometimes be correct, what I want to suggest in this chapter
is a more complex and, I believe, ultimately more interesting scenario. Food once
carried much stronger resonances of social symbolism, and so eating spoke of
particular models of society and social interrelations. Vegetarianism was once,
therefore, never just an individual decision, but the assertion of an alternative
society, either implicitly, or, more commonly, through membership of an alternative group. Before exploring how this worked in practice, I want to sketch the wider
context within which older forms of vegetarianism need to be set, and the attitudes
to food more generally that once prevailed. Finally, I shall conclude with some
observations on how perceptions of the Eucharist might be affected, given that
Christianitys central sacrament revolves around flesh and blood.

Eating as a communal experience

Social surveys inform us that a high percentage of families now seldom eat together.
Each member chooses their own time and form of meal, with the TV screen the
only form of companionship. An early indication of the direction in which society
was moving was the haunting image Jack Lennon offered of just such a practice in
the 1960s film The Apartment.2 Not that eating alone need have such a vocal
accompaniment. It might just be a quick lunch, while work continues. It is even
possible under that scenario to make such isolation appear laudable. For example,
Pope Leo XIII (in office 18781903) insisted upon a simple lunch served privately
on a folding table and tray, while supper consisted of the leftovers from lunch


David Brown

earlier that day.3 The result was valuable extra hours gained for his reforming zeal.
Yet, through most of human history, the Popes behaviour would have been seen as
profoundly shocking. Eating had to be done communally, because it spoke of a
world of interdependence, and of individuals as interrelated social beings.
In popular cinema presentations, dinners in the great medieval halls are often
portrayed as rather rowdy affairs, with food being thrown, wine spilled and so on.
In actual fact, a careful ritual would more commonly have been observed that
reflected this interdependence within society. Each person had their proper place,
and so the dinner spoke of how the lord needed his vassals and servants no less
than the other way round. That is why it was seen as legitimate ground for complaint when the local lord withdrew from such a social setting. In the fourteenth
century, the poet William Langland makes just such a criticism in Piers Plowman.4
Even as late as the nineteenth century, it was still thought important that the French
monarch should be seen dining by his subjects. Charles X (reigned 182430)
allowed members of the public to walk past as he ate, flanked on either side by his
wife and the dauphin.5 The thought was not that they might thereby witness his
extravagance but rather find him thus endorsed as part of the fabric of their own
lives. Hierarchy thus worked both ways in requiring the exposure of dependence
as well as by legitimating privilege.
Were such hierarchy the only aspect to older notions of communal identity, it
might well now be seen as a rather sorry affair. In actual fact, however, such expressions of communal bonds were as much lateral as vertical, for food and drink were
shared with ones neighbour at table in a much more literal sense than is ever the
case today. Forks are a relatively modern invention, dating in Western Europe only
from the fourteenth century.6 Before then, the use of fingers was the norm, and
such implements as existed were shared, with a common cup and common platter
in use.7 So manners at table mattered in a fairly basic way. Dirty hands or slovenly
drinking affected not just oneself but also all those sitting nearby. So the decision
of someone like Erasmus to write a book on etiquette at table tells us less about a
new Renaissance refinement in conduct and more about Erasmus as continuing a
longstanding Christian concern to secure care for the neighbour in just such a
context.8 The way in which it is so easy to misread the past is well illustrated by
how most viewers now interpret older paintings of the Last Supper.9 Seeing very
few implements, and certainly not the presumed thirteen, the deduction is quickly
made that the artist has economized, in order to produce an uncluttered frame.
The truth is quite otherwise. What appears on wall, wood or canvas, is quite likely
to have been all that was deemed necessary at the time, with different pairs of
hands stretching out towards the same trencher and drinking from the same goblet. Indeed, one explanation sometimes given for the traditional gift of a silver
spoon at baptism is that it was seen as the helpful acquisition of at least one implement that could be called ones own.10 Again, the common chalice at the Eucharist
reflects what would once have been characteristic of social drinking more generally. How far such attitudes take us from the modern world is well illustrated by
what could happen after the meal, in the use of totally communal toilets. Seats for
a hundred or more were available in some Roman cities, while paired facilities
were common in medieval castles.

Symbol, Community and Vegetarianism


The impact of religion on such a perspective ran far more deeply, however, than
silver spoons and shared chalices. Nowadays, even in Christian homes, grace is
seldom said before meals. That contrasts markedly with a world in which such a
practice was seen as being far from an optional extra. Intriguingly, for the kind of
reasons indicated above, in a late medieval version of an Aesop fable, mice are
assumed to wash their paws before a meal. However, they are dispensed from
saying grace precisely because they lack the reason to see its necessity:
Eftir when they disposit were to dine,
Withoutin grace they wesh and went to meat,
With all coursis that cukis culd devine.11

Grace spoke of an appreciation of the fact that nothing in oneself guarantees the
next meal. All depends on divine providence, on Gods good favour, which is the
literal meaning of the relevant Greek and Latin words.12 In the ancient and medieval worlds, bread shortages were common. By the time of Christ, perhaps a quarter
of Romes population of a million was on the dole, dependent on the largess of the
Emperor who used grain imports not only from Egypt to feed them, but also from
Judaea, required by law to send one quarter of its produce to the capital. And that
pattern continued into subsequent history. For instance, both the Jacquerie riots in
the fourteenth century, and the Peasants War in the sixteenth century, were instigated by food shortages. So, even provision of that most basic of foods could not
be taken for granted. Indeed, in this context it is worth noting that in medieval
Europe the quality of agriculture so declined that white wheat bread became rare
and was replaced by black bread made from rye, which the Romans had regarded
as a form of weed. Notoriously, Scots were even worse off, being reduced to oatcakes; hence Dr Johnsons famous Dictionary entry: Oats, a grain which in England
is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.13 The white
eucharistic wafer was thus an exception, an honour given to God which at least
one order (the Carthusians) denied themselves as a penitential act of identification
with the poor.14
In such a world, meat-eating would of course also have been exceptional, but for
that very reason all the more important in cementing social cohesion.15 It would
have provided a time for special celebration in which participants would have been
even more conscious than usual of their good fortune, and of their need to be grateful to one another and to God for such provision. But how was such gratitude to be
expressed? Animal sacrifice has been by no means altogether absent from the history of Christianity. It was sometimes practised in the Byzantine Empire, and
continues even today in Armenia and Bolivia, among other places.16 Although it is
possible to attribute such behaviour entirely to primitive propitiatory instincts (and
that may well sometimes have been the actual motivation), more commonly, it seems
to me, it reflects the desire to give some concrete expression to that sense of gratitude. God has given the meal, and so God is offered some of the meal in return.
In the ancient world, sacrifice was used in a great variety of contexts. In attempting to comprehend its full significance, it is important that these varieties be noted.
Nonetheless, it is sad how often in discussion of pagan and Jewish practice alike


David Brown

what must after all have been the most common use of sacrifice in the context of
meals is either neglected or altogether ignored. As a play like Menanders BadTempered Man reveals, every occasion of meat-eating would have been accompanied
by a sacrificial offering.17 In a similar way, every drink consumed had to be preceded by a libation, with some of the liquid poured out on the ground in thankoffering to the gods. Cereal offerings could, of course, also be made. Even so,
Christians and vegetarians must have been seen as profoundly shocking to the
population at large in their refusal to participate in such obvious corporate acts of
thanksgiving. Grace eventually became the favoured Christian substitute, whereas
vegetarians had to struggle, throughout both classical history and subsequent
Christian history, to find an acceptable alternative rationale for their abstinence.
Vegetarians seemed not to have offered an alternative way of maintaining the social
fabric, as Christianity eventually did, but to have opted-out of society altogether.
How those tensions worked in practice is the topic to which I shall now turn.18

Vegetarianism and community

Although the evidence is not always easy to interpret, what I wish to explore in this
section is how, both in the ancient classical world and in the history of Christianity,
vegetarianism has been seen as more than a personal ethical choice about how to
treat animals. Indeed, animal welfare as such may not even always have been the
primary concern.
Let me take the classical world first, and Pythagoras and the various traditions
that were believed to originate with him. Earlier still was placed the purely mythological Orpheus, significant largely because of the corpus of hymns attributed to
him.19 A number of vases and paintings survive from the ancient world in which
he is pictured in the midst of animals reconciled with one another, and it is that
image that also recurs in some works from the Christian era.20 Orpheus was later
treated as an important influence on Pythagoras. But unlike Orpheus, Pythagoras
was definitely a historical figure. Although born on the island of Samos, he eventually settled at Croton in southern Italy in about 530 BCE in his attempt to escape
the local tyrant, Polycrates. He there founded the sect that bore his name. In later
accounts, major discoveries in mathematics and in musical theory were attributed
to him.21 Now, however, it is commonly thought that much of the scientific material really derives from Plato and subsequent figures, and that the core of his
original contribution was actually religious rather than analytic.22 At root, his basic
intention appears to have been the creation of an alternative community with its
own secret doctrines and passwords.23 Within this scheme, vegetarianism would
then have been a very effective means of separating off his own community from
the rest of the social order, since, as already noted in the previous section, animal
sacrifice was absolutely integral to daily living in the ancient world.
What other reasons might have played their part is not altogether clear. Certainly,
in Pythagorass own lifetime a rationale in terms of metempsychosis (the migration of human souls into animal bodies) was already offered as one element in his
thinking.24 But significantly, in attributing the influence of Orphic thinking, Plato

Symbol, Community and Vegetarianism


finds a more important motivation in re-orientating human actions and thinking

towards virtue and the afterlife. Desire for food, drink and sex all need to be brought
under proper control.25 Although Plato attributes the pun on the body as a tomb
(soma/sema) that occurs several times in his own writings to the Orphics, it would
be misleading to suggest that within Pythagoreanism the result was hostility to this
world.26 Instead, in the principal Lives of Pythagoras that survive, the focus in very
much on reconciliation and harmony between all things.27 His vegetarianism is
accordingly portrayed as being less about denial and more about moderation.
Indeed, in consequence even some forms of vegetable were excluded, as in the
famous story of Pythagorass wooing of an ox away from the eating of beans.28 At
any rate, the tendency of beans to produce flatulence is an easier explanation to
credit than recourse to the sort of sexual transformations that Iamblichus alleges,
which have generated a hornets nest among scholars.29 But whatever the source of
the objection to beans, clearly it was not just meat to which exception was taken.
Nor was meat uniformly prohibited. Some of Pythagorass biographers even suggest (admittedly infrequent) violations of that rule, in order to maintain harmony
with others, including occasional acceptance of blood sacrifices, the use of meat in
training an athlete and the offering of meat in hospitality to others.30 So, to judge
from some of the sources at least, it looks as though the narrower communal identity was sometimes jettisoned, precisely in order to secure some wider harmony.
While Jews were seldom vegetarian, their food rules did help to maintain a
distinctive identity, as with the Orphic and Pythagorean communitiesa matter
of no small importance once these communities began to be distributed throughout the ancient world. Groups within Judaism, however, could sometimes use
additional food rules to further accentuate their own distinctiveness. The community associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls is a particular case in point. Although
archaeological evidence suggests that its members were not, after all, vegetarians,
as was once believed, they did take great exception to the animal sacrifices still
being offered at the Jerusalem Temple.31 Objections seem to have been based on
what they saw as an absence of proper order and ritual. Such thinking was also
reflected in the rigorous rules imposed on anyone who wished to join in the community meals. A years preparation was required, and solemn ritual bathing before
each meal.32
In some ways, the Jewish lack of interest in vegetarianism is surprising, not least
because Genesis assumes that meat-eating was only introduced into the world
with Noah. Moreover, there are occasional passages elsewhere that dream of a
return to harmony between the various species.33 But, as the history of Christian
exegesis illustrates, such passages could be subject to a remarkably wide range of
interpretations. The exception was in fact the modern literal reading of Isaiah, now
so familiar even to the unchurched thanks to Edward Hicks adaptation in his
famous series of paintings The Peaceable Kingdom (182249).34 More commonly,
the prophet Isaiah was taken to be referring to reconciliation between various
types of human nature (typified by the different animals), at last made possible in
Christ.35 The attractiveness of such an approach was due in large part to the diminished status accorded to animals within the Christian tradition under the decisive


David Brown

influence of Augustine. Not only did he follow Aristotle in rejecting the idea that
rationality was present in animals, but went further, following a pattern set by the
Stoics, in questioning whether humans shared anything morally significant in
common with animals, and so denied that issues of justice could be applied to
them.36 While Origen and Lactantius had been more sympathetic, it was only really
among pagans, especially those influenced by Pythagoreans, that any extensive
discussion of the question of animal rationality is to be found. Plutarchs Moralia
contains three treatises on the subject, discussed in Michael Beers contribution to
this collection. In Porphyrys On Abstinence from Killing Animals, the first two
books argue essentially from issues of human character formation, but with the
third comes a more direct appeal to rationality in animals, and justice for them.37
Such a background is important in comprehending what happens subsequently
within the Christian tradition. For example, nowadays the numerous stories about
closeness between saints and particular animals are usually interpreted romantically in terms of a real valuing of the animals as such.38 While such attitudes are not
impossible, a more likely explanation would seem to lie in the demonstration such
tales offered of mediated supernatural power. Although there may have been some
notion that such actions demonstrated the saints power to reverse the Fall, probably more commonly, all that was seen as significant was the obvious proof they
afforded of divine power at work through them. Equally, the frequent abandonment of meat-eating among such individuals speaks more of human-orientated
motives for asceticism than of any implicit recognition of animal rights.
Nonetheless, even with all these qualifications, vegetarianism did sometimes
occupy a more significant platform. This was especially so within coenobitic or
communal monasticism. In the double standard that characterized so much medieval thinking, monasticism laid claim to a superior form of existence to that
enjoyed by the ordinary laity and even the secular clergy. Although meat-eating
eventually also invaded the cloister, Benedict had decreed that such a privilege was
to be restricted only to the sick and infirm. While the resulting vegetarian practice
was sometimes interpreted simply as a suitable form of ascetic discipline in preparation for heaven, such an explanation coexisted with what is, from my perspective,
a much more interesting account. Monks were seen as already living the ordered
form of social existence that God demanded of humanity, but which had broken
down at the Fall. Although pride was seen as the ultimate root of all sin, and so
pre-eminently of the first sin (through self-reliance replacing trust in God), the
more immediate cause was identified as gula, or appetite, usually somewhat misleadingly translated into English as gluttony. The objection to such a fault lay not
in quantity but in quality, and in creating needs where none really existed. God
had already provided for all the primeval pairs basic needs, so there was no pressing necessity for them to stretch out to take the forbidden fruit. The potential the
Vulgate provided in Genesis 3 for punning on malum as both apple and evil was
thus seen as no accident.39 Sexual shame followed the first pairs succumbing to
temptation, rather than precipitating it, and thus reflected not the nature of the
original act as such but rather the ability of other vices to mock or imitate that
basic vice in wrongly ordered eating. Such a food-orientated account of sin is a
central theme not only in much, if not most, medieval theological writing, but also

Symbol, Community and Vegetarianism


in the general literature of the period. Chaucers Pardoners Tale, for example,
opens by making the connection between gluttony and the Fall:
Gluttony has corrupted the earth.
Adam, our father, and his wife as well,
From Paradise to labour and to Hell
Were driven for that vice, they were indeed.

Thereafter, the reader is gradually drawn by disgust at excess consumption to see

how eating and lust are closely allied:
A man who swills down vintages in fact
Makes a mere privy of his throat, a sink
For cursed superfluities of drink!40

Monasteries could thus be seen as engaged in a form of living that set them firmly
apart as alternative communities where the basic shared human activities of eating
and drinking were returned once more to an ordered state. This was a perspective
that also connected neatly with the central act of worship in the monastery each
day, the noon Eucharist. Wrong eating was what had broken the harmony between
Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Right relationships were now restored in the
monastic community: partly through the food now being used for ordinary everyday sustenance, but also, more importantly, in this central symbolic act of
consumption around which monastic life revolved. This act was intended to restore
harmony not just between one individual and his or her God, but also among all
communal members who participated in the same mass.
Yet, however much that was the ideal, in actual practice over the course of the
Middle Ages there is to be observed a gradual decline in abstinence from meat.
Dom David Knowles portrays general observation of the rule in England gradually declining, first at the abbots table in entertaining visitors, then for obedientaries
offering similar hospitality, and finally for all members of the community.41
Although decidedly casuistical, rooms attached to the infirmary allowed the semblance of the rule seemingly still being kept.42 Meat could be eaten in these rooms
without the basic rule that meat could not be consumed in the refectory being
broken. But the eventual acceptance of times of recreation, either at special holiday sites (as at Finchale in Durham) or back at the individuals home, effectively
undermined even that pretence.43 As Knowles observes, such practices permanently broke the unity of the common life in an important respect.44 What monks
ate had by then ceased to define the monastic community, and with that lapse went
also a key element in their ability to conceive of themselves as offering a rival or
alternative model for society to ordinary secular life.

The Eucharist and vegetarianism

Given the way in which the symbolism of Christianitys central sacrament seems
to fly so obviously in the face of vegetarian practice, I would like to conclude this


David Brown

chapter with a few observations about possible relations between the Eucharist
and abstinence from meat. Many contemporary Christians assume, in their desire
to advocate vegetarianism, that this will also commit them to a reinterpretation of
the early history of Christianity.45 Jesus himself, it is supposed, must have been
vegetarian, and so New Testament accounts of the Last Supper must preclude any
crude literalism, especially with respect to the Gospel imagery of eating the
Saviours flesh.46 In support of such a revisionist account, it certainly must be conceded that we are now much more aware of early Christian communities who were
indeed vegetarian. In their eyes, there appears to have been nothing wrong with
either the absence of meat from the accompanying meal, or the various substitutes
being allowed to take the place of the traditional elements, such as water, milk,
cheese, honey and fish.47 Cheese may have been intended to allude to the vegetarian paradise at the worlds origins.48 However, even if we confine ourselves to bread
and wine, it is now almost universally accepted that within the New Testament
itself the direct equation of blood and wine was a later development, with Mark
and John, for whatever reason, abandoning the more allusive or indirect phraseology to be found in Paul and Luke.49 Again, if Johns chronology is followed rather
than the Synoptics, it turns out that the Last Supper was not a Passover meal at all,
and so might well not have included meat.50
Facts such as these might be used to bolster a serious challenge to traditional
views of the Eucharist. However, rather than face such objections directly, what
I would like to do here is suggest that the whole approach of associating the
Eucharist with vegetarianism is misconceived for quite different reasons: in the
main because it projects modern concerns back into a quite different world. It is not
the case that Jews in the ancient world were unconcerned with animal welfare, but
that the issue of meat-eating was conceived very differently: as a matter of common
identity, rather than individual day-to-day decision-making.51 That is to say, in the
modern Western world, meat-eating is normal and for most people quotidian.
Because of the generally much lower standard of living, by contrast, in the ancient
world, meat was associated with communal feasting. It thus had a different symbolic resonance, and that is no doubt one reason why, for Jews, was necessitated the
involvement of the divine in some animal parts being offered back in sacrifice, as in
wider pagan culture. For Jesus to have stepped outside such a practice would have
been not just a matter of personal decision-making but an assault on the entire
culture and thus on his own identity as a Jew. This is not to say that he could not
have done so, but it is to observe that, if he had done so, he could scarcely have continued to attend the annual feasts, be present in the Temple and so on. Yet his
continued participation in these institutions is precisely what the Gospels record.52
If it is objected that such a scenario results in Jesus acting in ways that might
seem immoral to the modern vegetarian, the note of caution that needs to be
sounded at this point is that all morality is necessarily context-dependent. For
example, in the absence of any knowledge of the genetic and social determinants
that make homosexual inclinations inevitable for some people, it seems highly
likely that Jesus would have shared his contemporaries hostility towards homosexuality. The relevant Pauline verses might, therefore, have equally been Jesus

Symbol, Community and Vegetarianism


own.53 That does not, however, obviate us in the modern world from possibly
considering matters differently, just as modern conditions in animal factoryfarming raise for us many moral dilemmas quite unknown to Jesus.54
Equally, though, we must beware of assuming a breadth of understanding for
our own culture that was absent in an earlier age. Dialogue between the two different worlds is essential if we are to benefit fully from the past. The practices of that
earlier age gave a power to Jesus metaphors that it is very easy to lose in our highly
individualistic culture. To talk of eating Jesus body and of drinking his blood is
not merely to encourage reflection by one individual on what happened to anothers body and blood. It is to invite participation in a new community that is defined
by eating the flesh of its founder, as even pagan observers quickly realized.55 Such
imagery must be approached with maximum seriousness, although I do not want
to advocate crude literalism. It is about transcending individuality through a common identity, and through an encounter between two bodies or persons in which
one is gradually shaped into the form or pattern of the other. It is thus no accident
that such imagery was forged during a communal festival such as Passover, when
meat was eaten.56 With the process of fermentation not understood in the ancient
world, bread was seen as curiously and mysteriously alive.57 But that was as nothing, of course, compared to the life of an animal such as a lamb. Its body reinvigorated
those at table, just as contact with the reality of the risen Jesus would sustain the
life of the new community that now constituted his Body. It is hard, therefore, not
to see meat-eating as the source of the image that night, and integral to grasping its
full meaning.
Yet once again, to make this claim is one thing, but to insist on that basis that vegetarianism
be rejected is quite another. To suppose as much would be to confuse image and reality.58
In poetic writing, images are often used that the writer would never dream of endorsing in
a more literal context. Think, for example, of how frequently the metaphor of being drunk
with the love of God occurs, even in Muslim poetry.59 Although Islam forbids alcohol, a
real fascination with the parallel developed, a fascination that is already present within the
Quran itself in its depiction of life for the blessed in Paradise. They are promised wine that
will neither pain their heads nor take away their reason.60 In a similar way, even Protestant
poets do not hesitate to play upon the cannibalistic potential of Christs words:
Come ye hither, whom wine
Doth define,
Naming you not to your good:
Weep what ye have drunk amiss,
And drink this,
Which before ye drink is blood.61

It is, of course, absurd to suppose that Protestant poets were really secret advocates
of literalism or even of transubstantiation. Rather, what they grasped was something of vital importance inherent in the metaphor that would be lost unless its full
implications were forcibly drawn to the readers attention, and that is a communal
identity too deep for any other words. So, following Herbert and many others, even


David Brown

the vegetarian may use those meat-eating words without supposing that his or her
own vision of the world is thereby compromised.
My aim in this essay has been strictly limited. I have not sought to argue for or
against vegetarianism as such. Rather, what I have sought to demonstrate is the
way in which dietary considerations that once weighed heavily can be so easily
marginalized or even wholly ignored in the contemporary world. Modern preoccupations are then merely projected back onto past reflection. But the ancient and
medieval world thought rather differently. There was once an intrinsic social
dimension to eating. So even where animal welfare or ascetical disciplines were at
issue, the type of society that was being proclaimed by such conduct was no less
relevant. Vegetarianism thus constituted an opting into an alternative set of
symbols. Even so, this should not, in my view, lead to a rethinking of the symbolism of the Last Supper. The dynamic of the relation between image and reality
remains inherently richer than any simple one-to-one correspondence.

1 For a recent powerful presentation of the case for dolphins as persons, see
Thomas J. White, In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier (Oxford:
Blackwell, 2007). Especially interesting is his discussion of their self-awareness
and social self on pp. 5758 and 17680.
2 A 1960 Billy Wilder film that won five Oscars. Added poignancy is given to
the scene by the fact that the dinner is eaten straight from the foil wrapping.
3 Mariangela Rinaldi and Mariangela Vicini, Buon Appetito, Your Holiness
(London: Macmillan, 2000), p. 316.
4 Piers Plowman, text B, Passus 10, 94-95 (ed. A. V. C. Schmidt; London:
Longman, 1995).
5 Roy Strong, Feast: A History of Grand Eating (London: Cape, 2002), p. 277. For
the elaborate ritual at the court of Louis XIV, see pp. 24956. In England the
practice was finally abandoned under George III (256).
6 When they came from Byzantium to Florence.
7 The latter often occurred when trenchers (thick bread functioning as plates)
were used.
8 Erasmuss work was entitled De civilitate morum puerilium.
9 For one such example, Duccios Last Supper (where there are only three bowls,
three knives and four glasses), see Cecilia Jannella, Duccio di Buoninsegna
(Milan: Scala, 1991), p. 47.
10 Alison Sim, Food and Feast in Tudor England (Stroud: Sutton, 1997), p. 3.
11 Robert Henrysoun, The Tale of the Uponlandis Mouse and the Burgess
Mouse, stanza 16, in The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse (ed. Tom Scott;
Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), p. 119. For commentary and parallels, see
Bridget Ann Henisch, Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society (University
Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976), p. 166.
12 Which is why charis can be used of athletic skill and gratia of female beauty,
as in the Graces.
13 The point is that oats cannot be used to produce raised bread.

Symbol, Community and Vegetarianism


14 Their daily ration of rye bread was intended to remind them that they were
Christs beggars. See E. Margaret Thompson, The Carthusian Order in
England (London: SPCK, 1930), p. 38.
15 Lentils, barley and wheat were, for example, the staple Greek diet: Andrew
Dalby, Siren Feasts: A History of Food and Gastronomy in Greece (London:
Routledge, 1996), pp. 2223. For meat as mainly the prerogative of the rich in
the ancient Middle East, see Piotr Bienkowski and Alan Millard, Dictionary of
the Ancient Near East (London: British Museum, 2000), pp. 12021.
16 In the former case, with the official sanction of the Church; in the latter, with
the endorsement of the great majority of the native Indian population.
17 Used to good effect in Dalby, Siren Feasts, pp. 15.
18 For the argument of this section pursued in more detail, see my God and
Grace of Body: Sacrament in Ordinary (Oxford University Press, 2007),
pp. 12084, especially 14554.
19 The Orphic Poems (ed. M. L. West; Oxford: Clarendon, 1983).
20 For an example from the ancient world of the calming effect of Orpheuss lyre,
see The Oxford History of Classical Art (ed. John Boardman; Oxford University
Press, 1993), p. 316; for an example from the circle of Brueghel, Gods and
Heroes in Art (ed. Stefano Zuffi; Los Angeles: Getty Museum, 2002), p. 190.
21 In Platos Timaeus, apart from the famous geometric theorem and the discovery of the basic musical ratios (2:1, 3:2; 4:3), much of the understanding of the
cosmos found was once seen as deriving ultimately from Pythagoras.
22 Influentially argued in Walter Burkert, Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism (Cambridge: MA: Harvard University Press, 1972 [German original,
23 Known as akousmata and symbola.
24 As in a fragment of Xenophanes: Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (eds H. Diels
and W. Kranz; Berlin: Weidmann, 6th edn, 1952), 21 B 7.
25 Plato, Laws, book 6, 782-83.
26 Plato, Cratylus 400B; cf. Gorgias 493A, Phaedo 62B.
27 Helpfully collected in The Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library (ed. K. S.
Guthrie; Grand Rapids, MI: Phanes, 1987).
28 Iamblicus, 13, in Pythagorean Sourcebook, pp. 7071. Another strange story
about beans is Iamblichus, 31, p. 104.
29 For Porphyrys explanation for Pythagorass attitude, see Porphyry, 44, in
Pythagorean Sourcebook, p. 132. For the views of Detienne and others, see
Colin Spencer, The Heretics Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (Hanover:
University Press of New England, 1995), pp. 4446.
30 For acceptance of blood sacrifices, see Iamblichus, 18, 21, in Pythagorean
Sourcebook, pp. 78, 82; but for continuing suspicion of the practice, 11, 24,
pp. 69, 84. For training an athlete, see Porphyry, 15, p. 126; and on offering
meat to others, Diogenes Laertius, 23, p. 153.
31 Animal bones discovered at Qumran imply at least some meat-eating, see
James C. VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today (Grand Rapids, MI:
Eerdmans, 1994), p. 116. In the Temple Scroll meat-eating is assumed








David Brown
Manual of Discipline 6.16-17; 5.13-14. For ritual bathing, cf. also Josephus,
Jewish War 2.129-31.
For the introduction of meat-eating after Noah, see Gen. 9.2-5. For the return
to harmony, see for example Is. 11.6-9.
For a discussion of Hicks intentions, Carolyn J. Weekley, The Kingdoms of
Edward Hicks (New York: Abrams, 1999), esp. pp. 90155.
For examples from Athanasius and Theodoret of Cyrus among others, commenting on Isaiah 11, Isaiah Through the Ages (ed. Johanna Manley; Menlo
Park, CA: Monastery, 1995), 21013; and from Cyril of Alexandria, see The
Churchs Bible: Isaiah (ed. Robert L. Wilken; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,
2007), pp. 15153. Irenaeus is a rare exception in offering a literal interpretation, in Wilken, Isaiah, pp. 15051 (Adversus Haereses 5.33.4).
Animal actions are seen as being governed entirely by impulse, with neither
rationality nor any kind of emotional component.
Porphyry, On Abstinence from Killing Animals (trans. Gillian Clark; London:
Cornell University Press, 1999). Book 1 rejects meat on ascetic grounds, and
book 2 rejects animal sacrifice.
As with the Desert Fathers in Helen Waddell, Beasts and Saints (London:
Constable, 1934); or with later saints in David N. Bell, Wholly Animals:
A Book of Beastly Tales (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1992).
Since apples were not common in biblical lands, the Hebrew original
(tappuah) is more likely to have been some form of citrus fruit.
Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (trans. Nevill Coghill: Harmondsworth:
Penguin, 1975), pp. 26364.
David Knowles, The Monastic Order in England: A History of its Development
from the Times of St Dunstan to the Fourth Lateran Council, 9401216
(Cambridge University Press, 2nd edn, 1963), pp. 45862.
Usually known as the misericord, and officially accepted by Benedict XII in
1316: David Knowles, The Religious Orders in England (3 vols; Cambridge
University Press, 194859), vol. I, pp. 28183.
Knowles, Religious Orders, vol. II, pp. 24546.
Knowles, Religious Orders, vol. II, p. 359.
As, for example, in Carl Anders Skriver, The Forgotten Beginnings of Creation
and Christianity (Denver: Vegetarian, 1990), in which even Jesus association
with Nazareth is reinterpreted as coming originally from the term netzer
(greening shoot) and so as virtually equivalent, in Skrivers view, to vegetarian (p. 123). My discussion here also implies disagreement with Michael
Northcotts strategy in the next chapter of this collection.
The Synoptic and more neutral sounding body becomes flesh in John 6,
especially 52-59.
For details, see Andrew McGowan, Ascetic Eucharists (Oxford: Clarendon,
1999), especially pp. 89142.
McGowan, Ascetic Eucharists, p. 97.
In Paul, we find This cup is the new covenant in my blood (1 Cor. 11.25;
cf. Lk 22.20). Mark (14.24), like John, is more direct: This is my blood of the

Symbol, Community and Vegetarianism






new covenant. For my own attempt at any explanation for the change, see
God and Grace of Body, pp. 16470.
In Johns Gospel, the lambs for the Passover meal are still being sacrificed as
Jesus dies (19.14).
The interplay of structure and agency in the modern period is explored
philosophically by Nigel Pleasants in the previous chapter of this collection.
For example, Mk 14.49. So also the apostles (Lk 24.53). Both verses attest a
daily association with the Temple.
Rom. 1.26-27.
As discussed by Michael Northcott and Christopher Southgate in the following chapters.
Although Pliny accepts, in his famous letter (X, 96), that the food consumed
was of an ordinary and harmless kind (promiscuum tamen et innoxium), the
frequency of early accusations of cannibalism demonstrates the wide
dissemination of such powerful metaphors among Christians themselves, for
example Justin, Dialogue with Trypho, 10; Tatian, Oration, 25; available in
Ante-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI:
Eerdmans, 1993).
Even if Johns dating is correct, Passover was still in prospect.
In the absence of any understanding of how bacteria helped in the process,
the Romans even assigned a specific god (Fornax) to watch over the oven and
produce the mysterious result.
For a more extended discussion of metaphor, see my God and Mystery in
Words: Experience through Metaphor and Drama (Oxford University Press,
2008), especially pp. 4472.
Common in The Divan (Teheran: Gooya Art House, 2003), of Hafiz, Persias
greatest lyric poet (d. 1390), for example pp. 15, 19.
The Koran (trans. N. J. Dawood; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966), 108
(sura LVI).
The Invitation, in Herbert, Complete Poems, pp. 16970. If in doubt of
Herberts Protestant credentials, the reader might consider some of his other
poems where similar metaphors are presented as dangerous temptations: for
example, Jordan (2), and The Forerunner, in George Herbert, The Complete
Poems (ed. John Tobin; London: Penguin, 1991), pp. 9495, 16667.

15 Eucharistic Eating, and

Why Many Early Christians
Preferred Fish
Michael S. Northcott

We were walking along the coast near Tyninghame in East Lothian last summer
when we were forced by a modest river estuary to go inland to continue. As we did
so, we found our way down a track to a bridge which took us around a group of
farm buildings. It was a Saturday afternoon and there were no farm workers
around, but we could hear coming from a large shed the cries and sounds of
animals suffering. It was a small, enclosed pig facility, and the pigs were evidently
on their own for the weekend inside this hot shed with automatic feeders and bars
to restrain them.
The industrialization of meat has opened the most cruel and exploitative chapter
in the history of humanitys relationship with other animals. It began in the 1920s
in North America with the development of indoor chicken rearing facilities. Along
with this grew the cruel practice of transporting chickens over long distances to
provide fresh meat to industrial cities such as Chicago. The new way of keeping
chickens meant they could not hunt or peck for insects or scraps, and had to be
fed on industrially produced feeds enhanced with fish oil, and more recently,
antibioticsthe fish oil to substitute for sunlight, and the antibiotics to promote
In the 1960s, the practices of indoor husbandry, long distance transportation
and industrial feeds were developed for pigs and cows. The standard industrial
setup for rearing pigs indoors restrains the animal, for most of its life, in gestation
crates designed so that it can do nothing more than stand up or lie down. As well
as restraining the animal in a position where it can be conveniently fed and watered
and its excreta removed, these cages prevent the adult pig from trampling on its
piglets in the cramped conditions of the shed. Pigs in these facilities have no
opportunity of rooting for their own food, walking around, rolling on the ground,
or for normal interaction with other pigs except, through their teats, with their
piglets. This also means that they cannot nurture their offspring in natural ways
through affectionate or playful touching. Furthermore, they never see the outdoors,

Eucharistic Eating


grass or soil. And they are routinely artificially inseminated, and thus denied a
normal sex life.
The extent of mass cruelty to animals in industrial society is directly connected
with the dietary turn to meat that has occurred in the last seventy years. Before the
twentieth century, meat was regarded as a luxury in Caucasian societies in Europe
and North America, and was only eaten on a daily basis, and as a main course
(rather than as supplemental to vegetables and cereals), by the very wealthy. Yet
industrial food corporations and advertisers purvey and promote meat, and animal
fat, as core components of the diet of modern consumers. At the same time, farming
and food technologists have persuaded farmers that it is possible to treat animals as
economic units rather than as named individuals. As a result, the price of beef and
edible oils has fallen by three-quarters in real terms in the last seventy years. And so,
individuals are drawn into eating on a regular basis quantities of meat which were
eaten only on feast days and holidays by pre-industrial Caucasian Europeans and
North Americans. Consequently, the average American consumes twice their body
weight in meat in one year, with the average European not far behind.
The cost in terms of cruelty to animals has been immense, and has been well
documented by Peter Singer, Tom Regan and others, in the discourses of the animal
liberation and animal rights movements. The costs to human health and to the
earth system have also been immense. Obesity has become a major health problem
in countries that have adopted a meat-based diet, and is no longer confined to
traditionally affluent countries.2 The meat-based diet is now rapidly growing in
China, India and parts of Africa. And in these regions too, problems of obesity
among middle class people are growing. At the same time, a range of pathogens are
now emerging from factory farms which not only present problems to farmers, but
pose a growing threat to human beings. Among the most widespread is E. coli 157,
which has frequently infected the human food chain in recent years in Britain.
A grass diet restrains the growth of E. coli in a cows stomach, but a grain diet
encourages it.3 One recent outbreak in Lanarkshire led to dozens of people becoming seriously ill, and four deaths. A new virus, the Nipah virus, was discovered
in a Malaysian pig farm in 1997, and led to the deaths of more than one hundred
people from an outbreak of a virulent strain of encephalitis caused by this
pathogen. Avian flu is the latest pathogen to have escaped from factory farms.
It emerged first in a chicken farm in Vietnam, and has cropped up in factory farms
in India, Nigeria, Hungary, Britain and many other countries. Media reports and
industry representatives have suggested that the virus is primarily spread by wild
birds. But, in reality, the virus originated among industrial chickens, and its movements have also frequently followed the vehicular transportation routes used to
move chickens, alive or dead, between regions and countries.4 The paradox in the
case of avian flu is that few people associated this virus with industrial farming
until the discovery at the Bernard Matthews factory in England that the infection
had probably come from a slaughter house in Hungary used by the same company,
and where much of its Norfolk turkey was being reared and slaughtered.
Despite the obvious animal, ecological and health costs of the industrial meat
system, criticism of the iniquities of factory farming has come not from dieticians,


Michael S. Northcott

medics, veterinarians or virologists, but from animal rights protestors. The animal
rights movement has, since the 1970s, witnessed to the deep immorality of the
industrial meat-based diet, reliant as it is on systematic cruelty towards animals
and their complete instrumentalization. Thus Peter Singer argues that it is entirely
wrong for human life to depend upon the use of animals in any way, and that
animal suffering is as morally significant as human suffering for species which
manifest what Singer argues are capacities for pleasure and pain equivalent to
those of human beings. And those who refuse this moral position, Singer argues,
are guilty of speciesism.5
There is, however, a deep irony in Singers stance, since his advocacy of animal
liberation rests upon the self-same utilitarian frame which is so deeply implicated
in the instrumentalization of animals, and of creation more generally.6 As Hannah
Arendt argues, Jeremy Benthams and John Stuart Mills novel attempts to found
human morality on accounts of values was the philosophical handmaiden to the
value theory of classical economics.7 Benthamism, as Charles Dickens also knew,
simply affirmed the original sin of capitalism, which was to transform all that it
touched into exchange value. This included animals, cruelly instrumentalized
precisely because of the modern loss of a sense of the intrinsic worth of the physical cosmos. As Arendt puts it, nothing any longer ever possesses an objective
value independent of the ever-changing estimations of supply and demand which
are inherent in the very concept of value itself .8 So powerful is the economic
conception of value that it becomes hard for modern philosophers to speak
about beauty or goodness or worth without using this word value. But to adopt a
utilitarian perspective, as Singer does, in order to redeem animals from instrumentalization, is just to confound the problem, valorizing rather than healing the
alienation between humans and other animals that the industrial economy has
Another quixotic feature of Singers perspective is that he regards the campaign to
liberate animals from their cruel subjection in factory farms as evidence of the
modern moral progress of the human species. And hence the Christian tradition, for
most of its history, is said to have put non-human animals outside its sphere of
concern.9 Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. It is only in modernity
that humans have systematically instrumentalized animals and turned them into
little more than meat machines in industrial sheds. Christians have, throughout
their history, given extensive moral consideration to their treatment of animals.
It is modern secular reason in the forms of economic rationality and instrumental
utilitarianism which has advanced the loss of respect and care towards other
From the opening creation narratives in Genesis it is clear that for the God of
Israel, the life of warm-blooded animals was understood to be precious. This preciousness is evidenced in the fact that animals are Adams first companions in the
Garden of Eden, and that Adams first task on earth is to name them. No killing of
animals was permitted in the Garden, and a diet which included meat was only
formally permitted after the Flood in the Noachide covenant, where it is presented
as a divine concession to human sinfulness. The preciousness of animals in the

Eucharistic Eating


Old Testament is also connected with the ancient idea that the lifeblood is a
spiritual force in the animal which is indicative of the breath of God, hence the
Hebrew word nephesh, which means both lifeblood and spirit. The shedding
of blood is consequently a dangerous act which threatens society but also carries
grave cosmological and spiritual risks. It is, therefore, only to be undertaken in a
way that sets apart the activity of killing from the rest of human and nonhuman
life, and in a way that shows respect and restraint for each animal and animal
The terms under which the Hebrews could eat meat were carefully circumscribed by the sacrificial system, which preserved the people from the infection of
killing by reserving this dangerous activity to the tribe of the Levites, the priestly
group, who were set apart from the other tribes to perform animal slaughter and
to lead the worship of the people.11 Careful slaughter was most clearly manifested
in the ordinance that the blood had to be drained from the animal and returned to
the earth, and due regard given to the life force, before the meat was consumed.
Dietary and hygiene laws also specifically excluded wild animals, including reptiles
and certain birds, from being eaten. The sacrificial system also restrained the
number of animals that could be killed. It thus enjoined a sacred respect for the
lives of animals, which might otherwise have been regarded as the property of
Israelites to dispose of at will, while at the same time ensuring that wild animals
were preserved from being hunted.
As Mary Douglas argues, the way in which dietary lawswhat it was permitted
to eat and not eatmap on to the rules and procedures for Temple sacrifice indicates a degree of restraint in the killing and eating of animals, and hence respect
for animals, that was closer to religious asceticism than to the disregard for the
intrinsic moral significance of animals found in modern attitudes to animal husbandry and slaughter.12 Douglas suggests that the turn of the prophets and
psalmists against ritual sacrifice was indicative of the growing influence in the
ancient world of ideas of animal rights, and of Buddhist ideals imported from the
East into Babylon and other urban centres where the Israelites lived in the exilic
period. Douglas also argues that this turn is already anticipated in the central place
given to cereal offerings in the Book of Leviticus. The cereal offering is not merely
an offering given by those who could not afford sacrifice, but actually replaces
animal sacrifice on most occasions, and is said to be the most holy portion out of
the offerings by fire to the Lord (Lev. 24.9).13
Douglas also suggests that there is a significant connection between the cereal
offering in Leviticus and the paradigmatic Eucharistic practice of breaking bread.
When Christ breaks the bread at the Last Supper, he tells his disciples this is my
body, and hence turns the cereal offering from a Temple-based vegetarian sacrifice
into a Messianic meal and foretaste of the Kingdom. Significantly, none of the
Gospels records that the disciples ate lamb at this final meal. It is possible that
Christ and the disciples were adopting the practice of other Rabbis, and the Essenes, in using unleavened bread in place of the lamb in the Passover meal.14 It is
certainly the case that, in the theology of the evangelists and St Paul, the sacrifice
of Christ and the shedding of his blood are represented as the final and most


Michael S. Northcott

perfect form of the Passover lamb. And as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews
makes explicit, Christs sacrifice ends all animal sacrifice once and for all.
The Christian rejection of the Temple-based sacrificial system may also be said
to emanate more directly from the teachings and actions of Jesus. Not only is there
no evidence that Christ ever made a sacrifice, but his interactions with the Temple
are consistently critical. The Temple treasury was the place where the hated tribute
and taxes on the product of the land were all paid, alongside the tithes required
under Jewish law. Because of these taxes, many of the smallholders in Israels agrarian economy fell into debt and went hungry. Palestine was a marginal province in
the Roman Empire whose function in its economy of extraction was the provision
of agricultural surplus. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of this role in the
imperial economy in the remains of large wine and olive presses, and of bunk
houses suitable for large groups of farm workers to sleep in, to the south of the Sea
of Galilee. They have also identified the remains of drying and bottling facilities
for fish near Tyre, the deep Mediterranean seaport, where products such as fish
paste, olive oil and wine, would have been exported to Rome.15
The parables of Christ concerning the growing and harvesting of food take on
new significance when set in the context of the threats to Israelite smallholder
agrarianism from the combined effects of the imperial taxation system, and an
imperial food economy which relied on the extraction of surplus food from its
colonial holdings to maintain Romes growing armies and cities. Christs parable of
the rich landowner, who had acquired so much land that he needed to build bigger
barns to store all his surplus, is indicative of the way in which wealthy Jewish landowners were cleaning up as small farmers went to the wall in first-century Palestine
(Lk 12.13-22). Christ characterizes the landowner as a rather self-satisfied and
self-concerned individual who plans, having stored his surplus, to rest from his
labours, secure in the knowledge that, while others fall into debt bondage and lose
their lands, he has a large surplus laid up. But, as the parable indicates, his life will
be required of him before he gets to build his barns. He is quite literally storing up
judgement for himself in his plans for his unjustly gotten surplus.
In Luke, this parable is immediately followed by the paradigmatic story of the
Feeding of the Five Thousand. Landlessness and food poverty are closely related in
agrarian cultures, and as Dominic Crossan points out, many who were drawn to
Christs preaching and ministry were ill from sickness and diseases associated with
malnutrition.16 The food economy Jesus inaugurates challenges the economy of
want and scarcity which international and imperial trade had brought to Palestine.
It is therefore described by Luke as a redemptive meal, analogous to the meal of
manna that the Israelites ate in the wilderness after their delivery from Egypt. The
disciples wanted to solve the problem of food shortage through the market: Send
the crowd away, to go into the villages and country round about, to lodge and get
provisions; for we are here in a lonely place (Lk 9.12). Jesus teaches them to resolve
the problem through a community of production and sharing, however, and commands the disciples to share what they have with them by sitting the people down
in community groups of about fifty. He then blesses and breaks the loaves and the
fish that are available, and there is more than enough for all to eat. The divine

Eucharistic Eating


blessing and breaking create the miracle of sharing, and at the same time this
miracle of plenitude breaks the distorted money economy of hoarding and possession, enacting a new reality of relational giftedness and redeemed abundance.
In the setting of the impoverishing extractive economy of Roman imperial
occupation, an act of blessing, breaking and sharing on this scale, created a meal
which turned eating itself into an act of resistance to empire.
Christ also challenges the power relations implicit in imperial meals. At dinner
in the house of a ruling Pharisee, he observes how the guests chose the places of
honour. He counsels his own disciples to take the lowest place in the event that
they may be invited higher, for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and
he who humbles himself will be exalted (Lk 14.11). During the courses of the
meal, Christ heals a man with dropsy, a diet-related illness, and because it is the
Sabbath, his Pharisee host takes offence. But for Christ, the moral economy of food
also involves a challenge to the poor diet and disease to which the landless and
poor were consigned by the imperial economy, and hence the politics of eating
challenges and offends religious and imperial authority.
The meals in which Christ regularly participates in the Gospels, and which take
centre stage in the Gospel of Luke, represent paradigmatic acts of resistance to the
Roman imperial economy, with its deleterious effects on subsistence farmers and
labourers, and to the central role of the Jewish Temple in the organization of this
economy in Palestine. Christs practice of the banquet, and his association of the
Kingdom of God with the messianic banquets, enacted a subversive recovery of
the traditional moral economy of people and land. These meals also recalled the
egalitarian moral economy of the ancient Israelites because they refused the distinctions between righteous and sinner, and clean and unclean, sustained by
Second Temple Judaism. Just as Christ announces, in a pivotal saying, that many
will come from East and West and will eat with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the
Kingdom of Heaven (Lk 13.28-29), so in his own acts of eating he chooses to eat
with those who were considered far from grace, including not only tax collectors
and sinners but prostitutes, Samaritans and the sick. In these meals, the proclamation of the Kingdom of God becomes a lived reality; those who are outside the
orbit of grace are invited in, and through their participation in table fellowship
with Christ are offered forgiveness and redemption.17
Christs choice to eat with those whom debt, poverty, prejudice, illness or association with the Romans, had placed outside the sphere of the righteous, causes
embarrassment to his own disciples and outrage among the Pharisees and other
rabbis. This outrage is more deeply provoked by Christs final challenge to the
sacrificial system in his cleansing of the Temple. When he overturns the tables of
the moneychangers and declares my house shall be a house of prayer, he definitively and publicly denounces the sacrificial system which the moneychangers
were there to service. While Tissa Balasuriya and N. T. Wright suggest that the
main target of Christs actions in the Temple on this Passover day was the imperial
economy, in which the Temple and the money changers were implicated, Stephen
Webb suggests that we do better to focus our attention on the animals to be
sacrificed.18 The business of the Temple was intricately tied up with the business of


Michael S. Northcott

killing animals, and so by attacking the means of businessthe moneychangers

Christ challenged the core business. For the Temple was not only a Treasury and
imperial tax collection centre: it was the principal slaughterhouse of Israel. Since
the reforms of Josiah, animals were only supposed to be slaughtered in the Temple,
and in Second Temple Judaism this centralized system of ritual slaughter was
reconstructed. The prayers of Israel were therefore constantly accompanied by the
sounds and smells of animal suffering and slaughter.
That the Temple cleansing constituted a paradigmatic challenge to the sacrificial
system is affirmed by its setting in the Synoptic Gospels immediately before the
Passover meal. At this meal, Christ announces a new covenantal system in which
his body stands in place of all the sacrifices of the Temple and enacts a more perfect form of atonement and forgiveness. Dennis Smith, in a significant revisionist
study, argues that the Eucharist as practised by Christians in the first century was
the regularization of the many meals that Jesus shared with tax collectors, sinners,
Pharisees and disciples throughout his ministry.19 Seeing the Eucharist through
the lens of the missionary and messianic meals of Christ, as well as in relation to
the Last Supper narrative, significantly shifts the focus away from the medieval
emphasis on penance and sacrifice in Eucharistic theology and towards the Eucharist as a microcosmic meal in which the Church is constituted as the new creation
inaugurated by Christs resurrection.20 It also suggests that the Eucharist in the
early church was intricately associated with redressing the wrongs committed
against the poor, animals and the land, that were implicit in the social conditions
of food production of the kind sustained by imperial Rome.21 Just as the table
fellowship of Christ was the means to redemption for sinners, so Christian eating
becomes an acted parable of a moral economy which recalls the idealized moral
economy of the Mosaic covenant and which was enacted in the community of the
Kingdom that Christ in his earthly life established around him. In the Kingdom,
and hence at the Eucharist, the poor no longer have their land expropriated from
them for the benefit of the tables of the wealthy, but instead are welcomed to the
messianic banquet alongside the rich, where they find not only a place, but a voice
in the gathering around the breaking of bread.22 And in the Eucharist, animals are
no longer sacrificed or eaten, since sacrificial slaughter has come to an end on the
cross of Christ.
In this perspective, it makes sense to see the early Eucharist as in effect a vegetarian meal. And this is likely how it was practised in Jerusalem, where the prominent
apostle James was very publicly a vegetarian. But it is not how things are presented
in St Pauls foundational discussion of the Gentile Eucharist in 1 Corinthians.
His description of the Eucharistic tradition is preceded by an extensive discussion
of the issue of meat-eating and the problem of meat offered to idols, and as
N. T. Wright suggests, this discussion is not epiphenomenal to his account of the
Eucharist. On the contrary, it provides the crucial context. The economy of eating
was problematic in Corinth because it was a pagan economy in which meat was
butchered at pagan temples.23 How to eat meat without the infection of idolatry
was the pressing moral question that St Paul addressed in this letter, immediately
before his description of the Eucharist itself. Paul was also concerned with the class

Eucharistic Eating


context, because in imperial cities the rich ate meat and drank wine while bread
and water were the staples of the poor. The problem Paul had with the church at
Corinth was that its imperial pattern of eating had also begun to infect Eucharistic
practices, such that the rich enjoyed meat and wine during Eucharistic worship,
while the poor ate only bread and water. The Christians at Corinth had in effect
turned the Eucharist into a pagan Symposium in which the rich ate first and had
their fill of luxury foods, while the servants cleaned up on the crumbs when the
wealthy were done.24 This was not the practice of the common meal as Jesus had
shared it with his disciples before and after his death.
Paul begins his corrective account of a Christian moral economy of food by
recounting the story of manna in the wilderness, a feeding which initially went
wrong because the people of Israel neglected the two rules that God had established for receiving the manna, which were: first, that the people should gather
only sufficient for their needs; and second, that they should not hoard or try to
store up the manna. The Corinthians were doing anything but this in their practice
of the common mealinstead of sharing together equally, some had luxury foods
while others went hungry.
Paul resolves the issue of meat-eating not by an absolute prohibition of the practice, but rather by suggesting that meat should only be eaten at home and not at
worship. Christians were to enact a different polity in their worship from the imperial one of division between rich and poor, slave and free. All were to eat of the one
loaf and the one cup as a sign that they had been made members one of another in
and by the body of Christ which they shared in the Eucharist. This common meal
tradition established a foundational connection in Christian worship between the
moral economy of food, and divine grace, a connection first enacted in the
Messianic meals of Christ.
A key phrase in Pauls account of the Eucharist is the language of discerning the
body. Christian theologians since the Middle Ages have tended to read these words
individualistically. As Tissa Balasuriya argues, the clericalization of the Mass in the
Medieval Church effectively turned the Eucharist from a Church-constituting
shared meal into a priestly performance.25 The laity were largely excluded from
participation in this performance, at best receiving the host once a year at Easter.
The clericalization of the Mass in the Middle Ages consequently trained Christians
to focus their reading of the words of the Eucharist in terms of their participation
in the system of penance, and hence on their own individual states of sin and grace,
since there was no embodied and communal participation in the meal itself. And
hence the words discerning the body, and the threat of judgement which Paul
associates with wrongly discerning the body, come in medieval theology and spirituality to indicate personal sinful desires which, if unconfessed, were said to lead
to the communicant being condemned when she received the sacrament.
The meaning of the words discerning the body to the first readers of Pauls
epistle would have been very different. The body of Christ was an alternative political order to the imperial polity of Rome, and this is why Paul uses the Roman
political metaphor of the body to describe the Church. And so, to discern the body
is to discern the significance of the way of Christ, which was the way of common


Michael S. Northcott

sharing in which the weak are respected alongside the strong, and the rich eat and
drink the same food as the poor; discerning the body refers to the alternative moral
economy inaugurated by Christ. The body of Christ, as Paul goes on to explain in
1 Corinthians 1214, realizes this moral economy on earth in the common meal,
in the acts of love and the sharing of charisms that follow, when the strong give
honour to the weak, and when those with less respect in society are given a voice
in the gathering of the redeemed.
Modern Christians have two economies in mind when they hear or read this
earliest narrative of the Christian Eucharist: the economy of salvation, which is
taken to be the sacrifice of Christ through which sins are said to be forgiven; and
the economy of food, which is subject to secular political and economic arrangements. But for Paul there is no such distinction between politics and religion, nor
indeed between nature and culture. To confess that Christ is Lord is to confess that
Caesar is not: it is a far more profoundly political confession than it is for Christians
after the conversion of Constantine. Similarly, to break bread blessed in the name of
Christ was a profoundly political event. In their first communities, the Christians
modelled a different economy from the imperial pagan economy of Rome.
Pauls narrative of the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians, like other accounts of meals in
the New Testament and the early fathers, indicates that the early Christians did not
make a ritualistic demarcation between the Eucharist and other forms of eating.
It also makes clear that early Christian worship was analogous, in some respects, to
the public symposia which their Gentile neighbours also practised; that it was, in
other words, a real meal, organized around a common table, during which scripture, a homily, testimony, prayers and hymns, were said and sung. Other early
Christian descriptionstextual and visualof these early ritual meals attest to a
great variety of elements consumed, including not only bread and wine, but bread
and water; bread and fish; bread, water and grapes; and vegetables. What these
meals all have in common in material terms is not that they directly mirror all
those kinds of food and drink that were used at the Last Supper. Rather, it is what
they exclude from what was included in the Last Supper that unites them. Early
Christian worship was organized around meals which excluded meat. It was
vegetarian worship. What set Eucharistic meals apart from pagan meals was that
the foods offered and consumed were seen as the fruits of the restored creation
realized in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, whom they also came to
perceive and worship as Creator of the universe. Eucharistic eating enacted a new
society and a new creation in which class division was absent, and the violence and
killing involved in meat-eating were no longer necessary. The meal became a
microcosm for the divine plan to redeem the whole creation from the effects of
sin: physical food became spiritual food as bread and wine became the body and
blood of Christ, and through this transformation the Church was said to be constituted, and the world redeemed from sin and violence.
The freedom that Paul claims for Christians in eating foods that Jewish dietary
law proscribed did not mean that the reverential eating mandated by the old covenant was simply set aside or supplanted. On the contrary, it finds a new and
perfected form, as one of the most extensive treatments of Jewish dietary laws in

Eucharistic Eating


the early fathers, Novatians essay On Jewish Foods, makes clear. Novatian treats the
dietary laws as allegories of the moral and spiritual life, so that for Christians, the
true meaning of the proscription of certain foods as unclean is that they represent
human vices, while restraint from eating such foods represents the virtue of
temperance.26 For Novatian, the consummation of the law which Christ realizes
means that, as Paul says, to all who are pure themselves, everything is pure, and that
every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be rejected that is accepted with
thanksgiving.27 This indicates that all foods can be enjoyed by Christians who
enjoy evangelical liberty as blessings received from creation. But it also indicates
that Christians should avoid eating with an excess of sensuality, and must, in particular, guard against greed and gluttony. Moreover, gluttony is particularly
associated with meat-eating, which therefore needed to be restrained. Hence for
Novatian, the Jewish dietary laws of the Old Testament are a continuing reminder
that food remains a source of temptation, and that human desires are still prone to
corruption even for those who are in Christ. Christian eating is subject to Christian
virtue, and the one who eats and drinks in moderation and with a clean conscience
eats with Christ. Christians must not be drunkards or gluttons, because Christian
eating is subject to the law of frugality and moderation that Paul commends to
Timothy.28 There is one more rule that Christians share with Jews: the prohibition
of eating food offered to idols. Such food, since it has been offered to demons,
nourishes the one who partakes of it for the devil, and not for God, and makes him
a table-companion of an idol, not of Christ, as the Jews also rightly hold.29
We have, then, a picture of diversity in relation to meat-eating in the early church,
and at the same time a clear sense that meat-eating was a matter of particular
moral deliberation for the early Christians. The Eucharist was a vegetarian meal.
Christians were not to eat meat in Church after the Corinthian episode. Some
Gentile Christians, and no doubt some Jewish Christians, continued to eat meat at
home. But even these domestic meals were still within the moral and religious
domain, and hence meat-eating continued to be a source of controversy, particularly between the apostles in Jerusalem and Paul. To resolve the problem, the
Jerusalem Church issued an apostolic ordinance according to which Gentile Christians should adopt the Jewish practice of only eating meat from which the blood
had been drained (Acts 15.29)an ordinance that many Christians followed for
centuries, as David Grumett shows elsewhere in this collection.
Not only was meat eschewed in Eucharistic eating, but wine was avoided in many
cases as well. Wine, like meat, was indicative in imperial Rome of wealth. The meals
of the poor were typically constituted of bread and water. As Andrew McGowan
has shown, the adoption by a significant number of early Christians of more ascetic
Eucharistic practice centred around bread and water is indicative of the sense in
which the meal traditions of the early Christians enacted the radical subordination
and anti-imperialist ethic which Christ also enacted in his ministry.30 It was only
after Constantine, in the fifth century, when Christianity was turning into a religion of empire, that the two traditions were merged, and it became customary to
mix water with the wine. But this merging obscured the ascetic and vegetarian
connotations of earlier Eucharistic traditions, and their anti-imperial associations.


Michael S. Northcott

It also anticipated the medieval turning of theEucharist into a token and clerically
enacted ritual performance, instead of a Church-constituting and world transforming feast.
Susan Power Bratton suggests that further evidence of the avoidance of meateating among early Christians may be found in the artistic images left by the
Christians on the walls of the Catacombs in Rome, in early Christian mosaics, and
in statuary and other artefacts. The Catacombs display an array of nature imagery
analogous to Roman Homeric motifs, including extensive use of vines, songbirds,
sheep and grapes. But they also reveal a distinctive shaping of Roman motifs away
from depictions of heroic hunting and killing towards Christian motifs such as the
Good Shepherd, which is the favoured image of Christ in early Christian art.31 The
Good Shepherd is always dressed in simple peasant clothes, carrying a sheep on
his shoulders, and often accompanied by a dog. If there is a background, it is composed of trees, herbs and birds, rather than the angelic or human servants who
would have accompanied an imperial prince. The Good Shepherd rescues animals
and cares for them, instead of hunting and killing them. As Bratton suggests, the
Good Shepherd is a reversal of the realms of earthly and, particularly, military
power and authority characteristic of imperial Rome.32
Depictions of food in early Christian art are also indicative of this anti-imperial
attitude. Milk from sheep serves as an analogy for Christ feeding his lambs with
spiritual nourishment. Fish, clusters of grapes, sheaves of wheat, fruiting trees and
bread loaves marked with the sign of the cross, are the forms of food evidenced in
early Christian art. Wild animals are depicted, but are not shown being hunted, as
is frequently the case in Roman art. Instead, early Christian art depicts a postresurrection creation in which humans enjoy a new peaceable relationship with
other creatures, and where killing is no more. Peacocks feast on grapes, songbirds
carry twigs or branches, sheep drink from streams, and in fourth-century Basilicas,
deer are often represented drinking from the Rivers of Paradise.33 The emphasis
throughout is on a metaphorical association between the harmony and regeneration of the natural world and the Resurrection of Christ, who is the source of living
water, the true vine and the Good Shepherd.
From the fourth century onwards, nativity scenes are also increasingly depicted,
with an emphasis on companionship between the animals around which the Christ
child is born. Again, the association is anti-imperial, suggesting that instead of the
human courtiers and princes who would attend the birth of an imperial prince,
Christ as King of the Cosmos is attended by the creatures that were also companions of Adam in the Garden of Eden. They welcome the coming of Christ because
he is the one who will re-establish peace between the sons of Adam and the other
Frequent images of fish and fish-eating provide further evidence that many early
Christians avoided meat-eating by preferring fish. The Greek word for fish
ichthyswas an acronym for the first letters of the Greek phrase Jesus Christ Son
of God Saviour. The fish symbol was widely used among early Christians, and
remains a Christian symbol to this day. In early Christian art, fish represented the
souls of believers, while fishermen imaged the apostles as founders of the Church

Eucharistic Eating


and thus fishers of souls.35 But, paradoxically, the saved fish are the ones caught in
the net of the fisherman.36 As Jerome puts it: The apostles have fished for us and
have drawn us out of the sea of this world that, from dead, we might become
alive.37 The analogy here is with the baptismal waters through which pass the
bodies and souls of Christians who therein enact the death of Christ, and are reborn
through the power of the risen Lord. And hence it is fish caught on the hook or in
the net of the fisherman, or on the plate or table, which are the visual metaphors of
salvation, not living fish in the water.38 Hence in the depiction of a heavenly sacramental feast in the Cubiculum of the Velatio, dishes of two or three fish are placed
in front of the diners, along with plentiful supplies of bread.39 Fish, along with
bread, are the creatures with which God provides a sacred feast for the faithful.
The ubiquity of the fish symbol in early Christianity indicates that fish, above all
other creatures, were an allegory for the Gospel in early Christian art.40 As Gabriele
Finaldi suggests: In the fish, the initials of a declaration of faith become a word, the
word a sign, the sign an image that recalls entire texts, giving rise to a host of
allegorical interpretations.41 But whereas it is dead fish out of water that perform
this function, exactly the contrary is true of other animals, and in particular, of the
paradigmatic sacrificial animal, the lamb. After the resurrection, lambs are saved
from slaughter while fish continue to be eaten.
The association of meat-eating with Jewish sacrifice and imperial wealth, and of
fish-eating with Christ and the apostles, indicates a widespread preference among
early Christians for fish over meat. They also make a connection between an
ascetic and holy life, and abstention from meatan association which is deepened
by the Desert Fathers in the third and fourth centuries, and remembered vestigially in the Roman Catholic practice of fasting from meat on Fridays, and then
eating only fish. The Eucharistic meals of the early Christians were not only token
foretastes of the provision of heaven. They were real meals in which the early
Christians were trained to perceive food and farming as identity-shaping interactions with other creatures. Creation care and respectful use in acts of food
consumption are fruits of the life of holiness which the redemptive events of
Christs life, death and resurrection make possible among believers. By contrast,
the Eucharist has become almost exclusively a token meal in Christian practice
since the Middle Ages, which helps to explain the paucity of connection between
the Eucharist and the larger moral economy of food and farming in theology and
ethics in the present day. Moreover, as Nancy Jay argues, the strong distinction
between sacred and profane that the sacerdotal sacrifice of the Mass introduced
into Western Christian culture in the late Middle Ages is also implicated in the
subsequent emergence of secular instrumental reason and its alliance with technological poweran alliance which sustains the modern sacrifices of billions of
animals in the cruel and degrading factories of industrial agronomy.42
In sum, the industrial meat economy is as clear an exemplar of imperial idolatry
as were the pagan sacrifices of imperial Rome. Recovering the anti-imperial asceticism of the early Christians by rediscovering the Eucharist as a real vegetarian
meal, and not just a token meal, will provide opportunities for contemporary Christians, in their worship and homes, to resist and repair the sinful alienation between


Michael S. Northcott

humans and other animals promoted by the modern imperial food economy. And
given that industrial corporations have now turned their destructive powers, and
farming technologies, on fish, it may be that the association of Eucharistic eating
and the eschewal of industrial meat-eating ought now also to include fish.43

1 Danielle Nierenberg, Happier Meals: Rethinking the Global Meat Industry
(Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute, 2005), pp. 1415.
2 B. A. Swinburn, I. Caterson, J. C. Seidell, and W. P. T. James, Diet, Nutrition and
the Prevention of Excess Weight Gain and Obesity, Public Health Nutrition 7
(2004), pp. 12346; and Tim Lang and Geof Rayner, Obesity: A Growing
Issue for European Health Policy?, Journal of European Social Policy 15 (2005),
pp. 30127.
3 Nierenberg, Happier Meals, p. 25.
4 Danielle Nierenberg,A fowl plague, World Watch Magazine, JanuaryFebruary
2007, at http://www.worldwatch.org/node/4779; and Bird flu crisis: small
farms are the solution not the problem, Grain, July 2006, pp. 2428, at http://
5 Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (London: Jonathan Cape, 2nd edn, 1990),
pp. 2024.
6 See further Michael Northcott, The Environment and Christian Ethics
(Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 9397.
7 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago, IL: Chicago University
Press, 1959).
8 Arendt, Human Condition, p. 166.
9 Singer, Animal Liberation, p. 3.
10 Matthew Scully, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and
the Call to Mercy (New York: St Martins Press, 2002).
11 Klaus Eder, The Social Construction of Nature (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage,
1996), pp. 5896.
12 Mary Douglas, The Eucharist: Its Continuity with the Bread Sacrifice of
Leviticus, Modern Theology 15 (1999), pp. 20924.
13 Douglas, Eucharist, p. 213.
14 Stephen Webb, Good Eating (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2001), p. 150.
15 Sean Freyne, Herodian economics in Galilee: searching for a suitable model,
in Modelling Early Christianity: Social Scientific Studies of the New Testament
in its Context, ed. Philip F. Esler (London: Routledge, 1995), pp. 2346.
16 John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean
Jewish Peasant (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), pp. 12226.
17 This is the central claim of John Koenig, The Feast of the Worlds Redemption:
Eucharistic Origins and Christian Mission (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity, 2000). See
also Eugene LaVerdiere, Dining in the Kingdom of God: The Origins of the
Eucharist According to Luke (Collegeville, MN: Liturgy Training, 1994).

Eucharistic Eating


18 Tissa Balasuriya, The Eucharist and Human Liberation (London: SCM, 1977),
pp. 1820; N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis, MN:
Fortress, 1996); Webb, Good Eating, pp. 9597.
19 Dennis E. Smith, From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early
Christian World (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2003), p. 2.
20 Paul McPartlan, The Eucharist Makes the Church: Henri de Lubac and John
Zizioulas in Dialogue (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2003).
21 In addition to Crossan and Smith, Richard Horsley, Marcus Borg, Gerd
Theissen, N. T. Wright and William Herzog offer interpretations of the meals
of Christ which are analogous to this approach.
22 Balasuriya, Eucharist (London: SCM, 1977); and Timothy Gorringe, The Sign
of Love: Reflections on the Eucharist (London: SPCK, 1997).
23 N. T. Wright, One God, One Lord, One People: Incarnational Christology for
a Church in a Pagan Environment, Ex Auditu 7 (1991), pp. 4558.
24 Ched Myers made this insightful comparison in an unpublished expository
address at the Greenbelt Festival in Cheltenham, England, in August 2004.
25 Balasuriya, Eucharist, pp. 2932.
26 Novatian, On Jewish Foods, 3 and 4, in The Trinity. The Spectacles. Jewish foods.
In Praise of Purity. Letters (trans. Russell DeSimone; Washington DC: Catholic
University of America Press, 1974), pp. 14751.
27 Titus 1.15 and 1 Tim. 4.4, cited in Novatian, On Jewish Foods, 5.
28 1 Tim. 6.10, cited in Novatian, Jewish Foods, 6.
29 Novatian, Jewish Foods, 7.
30 Andrew McGowan, Ascetic Eucharists: Food and Drink in Early Christian
Ritual Meals (Oxford: Clarendon, 1998).
31 Robin Margaret Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art (London:
Routledge, 2000), pp. 3233.
32 Susan Power Bratton, Anti-imperial themes and care for living nature in early
Christian art, in Diversity and Dominion: Religion, Science, and the Conservation of Nature, eds Kyle Van Houtan and Michael S. Northcott (Durham, NC:
Duke University Press, forthcoming).
33 Bratton, Anti-imperial themes, forthcoming.
34 Bratton, Anti-imperial themes, forthcoming.
35 James A. Francis, Clement of Alexandria on Signet Rings: Reading an Image
at the Dawn of Christian Art, Classical Philology 98 (2003), pp. 17983.
36 Lois Drewer, Fisherman and Fish Pond: From the Sea of Sin to the Living
Waters, The Art Bulletin 63 (1981), pp. 53347.
37 Jerome, Homily 92, On Psalm 41 (42): To the Neophytes, cited in Drewer,
Fisherman and Fish Pond, p. 535.
38 Drewer, Fisherman and Fish Pond. See also R. M. Grant, Early Christians and
Animals (London: Routledge, 1999), pp. 2930.
39 Antonio Baruffa, The Catacombs of St. Callixtus: History, Archaeology, Faith
(Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 2000), pp. 7984, cited in Bratton, Anti-imperial
40 Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art, pp. 4756.


Michael S. Northcott

41 Gabriele Finaldi, The Image of Christ (London: National Gallery, 2000), p. 10.
42 Nancy Jay, Throughout Your Generations Forever: Sacrifice, Religion, and
Paternity (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
43 See further Michael Northcott, Farmed salmon and the sacramental feast:
how Christian worship resists global capitalism, in Public Theology for the
21st Century: Essays in Honour of Duncan B. Forrester, eds William F. Storrar
and Andrew Morton (London: T&T Clark, 2004), pp. 21330.


Protological and Eschatological

Christopher Southgate

Appeals to biblical and theological reflection to justify a vegetarian diet will tend
to be either protological, drawing on an inference from Gods intentions as
expressed in the initial created order, or eschatological, deriving from a vision of
what the redeemed creation is intended to become. This paper is written from a
Trinitarian Christian perspective by an inhabitant of north-east Dartmoor, which
is a traditional beef cattle and sheep-farming area. I will explore the formulation
of Richard Alan Young, who reviews protological approaches before advancing
an eschatological ethic.1 I will then outline the eschatological rationale for vegetarianism proposed by Andrew Linzey.2 Finally I will offer my own evaluation of
the proposition that vegetarianism would be an appropriate ethical response to
the Christ-event, and a sign of the freedom of the glory of the children of God
(Rom. 8.21).

Protological arguments
The main line of the protological argument is based on an inference from how
God originally intended that the created order should be. The key biblical text here
is the giving of every plant and tree yielding seed, and every green plant for food
(Gen. 1.29-30), which comes between the granting of dominion to human beings
(1.26, 28) and the affirmation that God saw all that he had made, and behold it was
very good (1.31). This is an approach, then, which could stem as well from Jewish
reflection as from Christian.3 The later permission to eat meat, at Genesis 9.3,
would then be seen as a concession to a fallen world.
Crucial to the dynamics of this protological vegetarianism, then, is the sense that
what God created was a vegetarian world, which was damaged by the fall of the
first humans. The calling of humans is therefore seen as reversing the effect of
the Fall and restoring the initial condition of creation. Christ assumed the fallen
state to heal the fallen state. Young doubts that Jesus ate meat, apart from fish, but
concedes that meat-eating must be regarded as morally neutral in Jesuss day when


Christopher Southgate

done without cruelty, in moderation, and in gratitude to the incomprehensible

grace of God.4 So even someone propounding a case for vegetarianism concedes
that there have been contexts in which meat-eating was morally neutral.
Young then offers a somewhat partial account of Jesus mission, which he sees as
being to give his life as a ransom for many (Mk 10.45), and to call sinners to repentance before a holy God (Lk. 5.32).5 Jesus did not come in Youngs view, to legislate
vegetarianism, animal rights, health reform, or end slavery.6 This surely underrates
the extent to which the proclamation of the kingdom of Godwith all its presumed implications for justice and right relationshipwas central to Jesus agenda
(e.g. Mk 1.14-15). We may concede that Jesus did not come to legislate exactly, and
still believe that if he had seen meat-eating as a violation of kingdom values, he
would have rejected it.7 Youngs understanding of Christs work is very like that of
which the Apostle Paul has often been accused, preoccupied only with atonement
rather than prophecy or example. Insofar as there is interest in Jesus life, it is in
patterns of meaning rather than particulars. Young reduces these patterns of
meaning to Jesus radical devotion and obedience to God and his radical selfless
love for others.8 He concludes that by following the patterns as symbolized in
Jesus death, burial and resurrection, we become cruciform people in giving ourselves to othersand today this may mean abstaining from animal flesh.9 Already,
early in Youngs book, we see the protological argument being replaced by an argument about conforming to the kenotic and redemptive action of Christ. I shall
return to the importance of kenosis later in this chapter.
But if a protological argument is to be mounted, it must be on the basis of a
particular exegesis of Genesis 1.29-30, one which takes these verses to assert that
vegetarian life-patterns were Gods intentions for all creatures, and a conviction
that this ordinance was damaged by an actual historical Fall. Linzey also claims
that an eschatological ethic of vegetarianism must be based on the presumption
that the natural world is not as God intended. He therefore insists on the importance of a sense of the fallenness of nature in formulating our understanding of
our relationship to animals.10

The question of an actual Fall

These key premises about the Fall need to be considered in the light of contemporary science. In accounts based on a historical Fall, the creaturely world was created
free from struggle and violence, but has since been corrupted by the rebellious
action of free human moral agents. Such a scheme clearly has much resonance
with the first three chapters of Genesis. The original dispensation implied in 1.2930, by which creatures were given every green plant for food, is set aside as a result
of human disobedience at 3.6. A different state of the creation arises: Cursed is the
ground because of you (3.17). The primordial history of Genesis 311 offers a
profoundly important insight into the implications of human sin. Once humans
seek to discover the full possibilities of their selfhood through disobedient selfassertion, rather than by drawing closer to the God who made them, their

Protological Vegetarianism


relationship with each other and with their surroundings is necessarily distorted.
The possibility of mutual trust is replaced by blame, envy and violence; what might
be received as gift has to be worked for, and struggled for. In the analysis that
follows, I reject a historical Fall but do not reject fallenness. Humans use of their
moral freedom is brilliantly described by the myths of chapters 311. I agree with
Daryl Domning that it is not in the least surprising that humans should act in this
way, given our evolutionary inheritance.11
The scientific record of the Earths long history before the advent of human
beings calls into profound question any account which regards human sin as the
cause of struggle and suffering in the nonhuman creation in general. Predation,
violence, parasitism, suffering and extinction were integral parts of the natural
order long before Homo sapiens. It was never the case thatas in John Wesleys
charming but inaccurate picturecreatures once had powers much greater than
we see in those creatures now, and lacked depraved or corrupted desires.12 As every
T-Rex-loving six-year-old knows, there is evidence from the age of dinosaurs
(which came to an end some sixty-five million years ago) of the dynamics of predation, disease and indeed extinction. Even the longest estimate of the time for
which creatures that might be recognized as human have existed is no more than
a million years at the very longest. However, despite its complete lack of congruity
with the scientific narrative of the unfolding of the biosphere, a sense remains
widespread that human sin is responsible for factors in the natural world quite
beyond our power to influence.
Britains two leading scientist-theologians of the last thirty years, John Polkinghorne and Arthur Peacocke, both clearly reject human responsibility for predation
and parasitism in nature. Polkinghorne writes: If I were asked what is the major
Christian doctrine that I find most difficult to reconcile with scientific thought,
I would answer: the Fall . . . We detect no sign of a sharp discontinuity in the course
of earthly or cosmic history, no indication of a golden age from which our present
plight descends by degeneration.13 I also do not accept that humans could be
responsible for all the struggle and suffering of the natural world.
Might the Fall be the result of the rebellion of angels, then? No. There is a crucially important point about creation and evolution which Fall-language, and also
the dead-end approach of young-earth creationism, have tended to obscure. The
competition and struggle for resources intrinsic to the evolutionary process, and
which give rise in nature to strategies of predation, suffering and extinction, are
the very processes that refine the characteristics of species and propel them towards
greater sophistication. As Holmes Rolston III so beautifully put it, the cougars
fang has carved the limbs of the fleet-footed deer.14 So far from the universe being
fallen from a perfection initially given it by God, through the rebellion of created
beings, it seems plausible that the sort of universe we have, in which complexity
emerges in a process governed by thermodynamic necessity and Darwinian natural selection, is the only sort of universe that could give rise to the range, beauty,
complexity and diversity of creatures the Earth has produced. On this view, this is
the sort of universe that God originally intended.15


Christopher Southgate

In my recent monograph, I discuss at much greater length why the Fall is clung
to by contemporary theologians.16 Here I merely identify three possible factors:
i) The Fall is used to account for those facets of creation that are felt by theologians to be ugly or inexplicable in the light of belief in a good and benevolent God.
So T. F. Torrance, contemplating the created order in the light of scientific descriptions of decay, decomposition and death as manifestations of thermodynamic
change, thinks there are problems here not easily shrugged off, not least the predator-prey relationship at the heart of the evolutionary process, and the endless waste
of life at all its sentient and organic levels. These, to him, are signs that evil has
infiltrated these functions and features of nature, thereby giving them a malignant
twist which makes them disorderly in an irrational way.17
R. J. Berry in his Gifford Lectures specifically takes to task those Christians who
interpret any facts which they find morally difficult as results of the fall (such as
nature red in tooth and claw, or the enormous number of human foetuses that
spontaneously miscarry).18 I hold that it is much more honest and coherent monotheism to accept that both value and disvalue, enrichment and catastrophe, are
functions of the same creative process. The Indian Ocean tsunami of December
2004, for example, should therefore be seen not as an outrage against the love of
God but a tragedy of this fecund and beautiful world, a tragedy of course made
worse by human imprudence. While investigation of the natural world is hobbled
by an insistence on relying on Fall-language, consideration of the really hard
ambiguities of evolutionary creation can never develop.
ii) A historical Fall may be used to provide theological underpinning for
preformed ethical positions. A belief in an original dispensation lacking predation
or violence is very influential on those advocating vegetarianism. It enables them
to suggest that much human treatment of animals stems not from the character of
creation but from our original sinfulness. Linzey is concerned that without a Fall
there is a danger of a sacralization of nature, too blithe an affirmation that all is as
it should be. Thereby, he claims, the whole possibility of a theological ethic is
eclipsed. He states: Any reading off from the created world to the realm of moral
imperatives must be highly suspect at best. For the laws of nature, operative in this
fallen world, may not be the absolute or initially chosen laws of God.19
iii) Finally there is a fear among many Christians that questioning a doctrine as
central as that of the Fall would destabilize the faith and render it liable to further
depredations from both science and secular culture. There could also be a concern
among some Christian thinkers that without a definite Fall, as implied by Pauls
conviction that by one man came sin (Rom. 5.12), there would be a weakening of
the central conviction that salvation comes through Christ, the second Adam.
Michael Lloyd, writing in a book intended to brief the participants in the 1998
Lambeth Conference, gave his opinion that an actual, cosmic Fall of all creation is
absolutely necessary to a Christian theology. Without it, he claims, there can be no
convincing doctrine of salvation, since creation would then be as God intended.20
There is, however, no need (pace Arthur Peacocke) to abandon a strong doctrine
of the objective work of Christ in redemption.21 As I implied above, a state of
fallenness from which we need to be redeemed, a sense of our predicament as

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beings who cannot by ourselves find our true selves in the image of our Creator,
cannot find our freedom, does not require a historical Fall.22
The above analysis shows that an actual historical Fall is impossible to sustain
alongside the narratives offered by evolutionary science. This in turn makes it very
difficult, in my view, to ground an ethic on a sense that the human calling is to act
as we would have acted in an initial, paradisal state. But I also question whether an
eschatological ethic can be grounded in an effort to return to an Edenic condition.
I am not a biblical specialist, but colleagues working in the area have been unable
to convince me that the biblical vision is of the restoration of creation to its original state. There may be hints of this, for instance in the reappearance of the Tree of
Life in the book of Revelation, but it is not clearly demonstrated and should not be
taken for granted in the formulation of an ethic.23

Other protological arguments

Another type of protological argument is that advanced by John B. Cobb Jr, working from the Johannine Prologue.24 Cobb concedes that divine concern for the
whole of creation, so evident in the Old Testament, is largely absent in the New
Testament. But if all life participates in the divine Word, as certain key Christological passages such as John 1 imply, then all that happens fleetingly in this world, to
any creature, is felt in the eternal Word. The commodification of animals must be
contrary to an incarnational-immanent understanding of Gods creatures.25 For
Cobb, we need this enriched Christology to feed the changes we need to make in
our relationship with animals. The problem with such appeals to immanence is
that we must be agents within the world imbued with the divine nature.26 Our very
existence necessarily costs possibilities for other creatures who are killed for our
food, displaced for our homes and unable to survive the changes we make to our
environment in order that human culture, particularly urban culture, may flourish.
As Wendell Berry puts it: To live we must daily break the body and shed the blood
of creation.27 A sacramental sense of the world will help us treat it with reverence,
but too intense a sense of the holiness of creation, and all life, deprives humans of
their own means of surviving and thriving. Cobbs case is stronger when he alludes
to eschatological considerations in the New Testamentfor Gods kingdom to
come, for His will to be done on earth as in heavenwhich must mean that cruelty
to animals is brought to an end.
Indeed, it is possible to argue that what I have called protological arguments
need not necessarily be what they seem: a conviction that a violence-free creation
once existed. This is a belief which evolutionary science would strongly commend
us to reject. Rather, the creation narratives function as a radical critique of the
actual world of human experience. This is John Rogersons suggestion in his chapter in Animals on the Agenda.28 Also relevant is the view of Scott Ickert in the same
volume: Luther seems to suggest . . . that the significance of the original paradisal
harmony lies in its anticipatory function, pointing forward to the final great and
perfect fulfilment.29 This might accord with Youngs sense that the Bible offers us
narratives which function as guidelines for our journey with and towards God,


Christopher Southgate

rather than a set of absolutely binding principles. So what appears to be a binding

principle derived from a protological understanding of what is the divinely given
order of creationnot eating meatbecomes for Young a virtue ethic informed by
scriptural narratives. He would not, for instance, seek to impose vegetarianism in
extreme circumstances, such as those of the Inuit. Rather, he offers it as a virtuous
element in a journey of mature faith. His appeal, in common with Stanley Hauerwas, is to a genuinely eschatological peace that renews the peace of the beginning,
where humans and animals do not depend on each others destruction for their
own survival.30 I shall return below to vegetarianism as an option for virtue, but for
now reiterate my argument above that there never was peace in the beginning, nor
do the narratives of Scripture prescribe a return to initial conditions.

Linzeys argument for vegetarianism as an eschatological sign

I now turn to a scheme based not on the character of the initial created order but
on a conviction that the creation is unfinished. From this perspective, the creation
is unfinished, and that the ending of meat-eating, or more generally the killing of
animals, would be a sign of human beings aligning themselves with Gods eventual
purposes for the creation. Andrew Linzey appeals in his Animal Theology to
Romans 8.1921creation, having been subjected to bondage, awaits the liberty
of the glory of the children of God. He sees this as the decisive reference to those
who ask What does it mean for humans to exercise a priestly ministry of redemption? Quite simply: it concerns the releasing of creation from futility, from
suffering and pain and worthlessness . . . Such a perspective challenges at root the
notion that human responsibility in the world extends only to serving and protecting our own species. Linzey goes on to say that there can be no liberation theology
without the liberation of the creation itself .31
I noted above that Linzey is compelled to invoke a historical Fall as a way of
affirming that, but for human action, relationships between animals would be
devoid of violence. This ignoring of the scientific evidence clouds unnecessarily his
appeal to vegetarianism as an eschatological sign of our hope and response to the
Gospel. There is no reason to believe that, just because God used a long evolutionary
process to give rise to the biosphere we know, God may not have inaugurated a
redemptive movement that will heal that process.32 Again, Linzeys handling of the
peaceable kingdom vision of Isaiah seems cavalier in its neglect of biology, so determined is he to show that animal life is in bondage to violence and predation.33
Such lacunae apart, how are we to evaluate Linzeys eschatological vegetarianism? Much depends on which way we choose to read the sparse and poetic texts
that inform our eschatological vision of the destiny of the nonhuman creation. At
first sight, the book of Revelation is not very helpful.34 Appeal is often made to
Isaiah 11.6-9 and 65.25, in both of which there is a promise that relationships
between animals will be transformed. As Richard Bauckham points out, the
Isaianic vision in 11.6-9 talks of the reconciliation of the wild, dangerous animals
with the animals that were, for semi-nomadic pastoralists, part of the human community.35 On Linzeys view of predation as an unambiguous evil brought about by
sin, whether human or cosmic, the key element is that redeemed human behaviour

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can be part of this reordering of the relationships of species. Sinless human leading
permits reconciliation between predators and prey. But if predation is more deeply
embedded in the purposes of God than such appeals to a historical Fall concede,
and is not a phenomenon either caused or exacerbated by human activity, then we
may question whether human activity of any sort can be expected to influence the
predator-prey relationship.
As I noted above, the notoriously enigmatic passage Romans 8.19-22 is a key text
for Linzeys eschatological vegetarianism. He believes that it is possible and credible
to believe that by the power of the Spirit new ways of living without violence can be
opened up for us.36 By refusing to eat meat we witness to a higher order of existence, implicit in the Logos, which is struggling to be born in us. By refusing to go
the way of our natural nature or our psychological nature, by standing against the
order of unredeemed nature, we become signs of the order of existence for which
all creatures long.37 N. T. Wright agrees that the glory of our freedom contains
responsibilities.38 Romans 8.18f. is the very text that Karl Barth thought should be
written in letters of fire across every hunting lodge, abbatoir and vivisection chamber. Barth was very aware of the eschatological dimension of human actionhe
thought the killing of animals possible only as a deeply reverential act of repentance, gratitude and praise on the part of the forgiven sinner.39 Like Linzey, he saw
this passage from Romans as central. The creation waits in earnest expectation
for what?for the manifestation of the children of God, and therefore for the liberation
of those who now keep them imprisoned and even dispatch them from life to death. The
creature has become subject to mataiots [futility], not hekousa [of its own will], nor
according to its own destiny, but because of man, its subjugator.40 And it, too, is determined for liberation from the douleia ts phthoras [bondage to decay] together with the
liberation of the children of God, so that for the moment it groans and cries with us in the
birth-pangs of a new aeon. In this whole sphere what is good is obviously what can be
justified in face of these words, and what is bad that which cannot. A good hunter, honourable butcher and conscientious vivisectionist will differ from the bad in the fact that
even as they are engaged in killing animals they hear this groaning and travailing of the
creature, and therefore, in comparison with all others who have to do with animals, they
are summoned to an intensified, sharpened and deepened diffidence, reserve and carefulness. In this matter they act on the extreme limits where respect for life and callous
disregard constantly jostle and may easily pass into one another. On these frontiers, if
anywhere, animal protection, care and friendship are quite indispensable.41

Barth continues that the killing of animals . . . with the permission of God . . . is a
priestly act of eschatalogical character. Linzey rejects, in contrast, all such violence
as flying in the face of our possibility of acting alongside Gods redemption.

Broader biblical and ethical considerations

Faced with two such different conclusions drawn from the same text, it will be
helpful to broaden our reflections to encompass other elements of the vision of the
New Testament writers. I shall work from Youngs own assertion that our ethics
should be informed by the pattern of Christs death, burial and resurrection. An


Christopher Southgate

ethics informed by this pattern rests on four strong themes which emerge in the
New Testament writers reflections on the implications of the Christ-event. These
are: a) Christs teaching as recorded in the Gospels, since his teaching and passion
can surely not be separated from each other; b) Christs own example, in particular
in his self-emptying and the love and desire for others flourishing that it connoted;
c) the possibilities for fullness of community engendered within the new resurrection life in the Spirit; d) consideration of the place of religious obligations, both
those of the Jewish law and of the other religions of the Hellenistic world, on the
freedom of the believer in Christ.
I will now consider each of these four themes in turn. Direct appeal to the
recorded teachings of Jesus does not enable us to read off the answer as to ideal
Christian dietary practice. We have only an argument from absence, the lack of any
explicit indication that Jesus saw meat-eating as incompatible with the Kingdom
of God. What of Christs more general witness, then, in teaching, attitude and
action, to the importance of self-denial?42 The trajectory of the redeemer was
experienced very early in Christian history as one of self-emptying followed by
exaltation (Phil. 2.5-11). Christs kenosis, his taking the form of a servant (2.7),
may therefore be seen as the key to the pattern that is his passion, death and resurrection. I will now analyse in greater detail the implications of this pattern for the
The first element in self-emptying, after the example of Christ, needs to be what
I term kenosis of aspiration. Like Christ, the believer is called not to make of status
a snatching-matter,43 not to aspire to a status beyond that which is most helpful to
other creatures. The essence of a kenosis of aspiration is of not grasping at a role
that is not God-given, and not part of the calling of the individual believer or
community. Thus Simone Weil states that true love means to empty ourselves
of our false divinity, to deny ourselves, to give up being the centre of the world.44
The consequence of grasping at status is at once to fail to respect fully the status
of the other creature, and to fail to receive our situation as a gift from God. This
is the sense in which I believe the Genesis 3 account of the Fall has a profound
wisdom to it. It is an account of the tendency in human nature to grasp at more
than is freely given, to seek to elevate our status beyond what is appropriate
and helpful and even to seek to be as gods (Gen. 3.22). Linzeys telling, if controversial, proposal that we should elect to bear for ourselves whatever ills may flow
from not experimenting on animals, can be seen as a kenosis of the security
we might hope for from having all the drugs we might wanta security which
is, of course, ultimately illusory.45 Our calling is to have the freedom in Christ
to accept what is given by God in the Spirit. And just as the Fall account in Genesis
reflects, in my contention, a general condition rather than a historical chronology,
so the status of believers as being in Christ is a general condition which reverses
our fallenness and makes possible a lifestyle which transcends the narrow
interests of the self.
With kenosis of aspiration, however, must go a kenosis of appetite. It is possible
to think of sin as multiplicative, disordered desire.46 This may be for status over
against Godthe greatest and most pernicious of sins, and therefore the one on

Protological Vegetarianism


which the Genesis 3 account focuses. But it may be for the sake of power over
others, or sex for sexs sake, or an excess of intake of alcohol, drugs, food or
sensation, of whatever kind. All these draw us into idolatrythey make of a
substance or experience a kind of substitute God. All drain away the freedom that
comes from worshipful dependence on God. Particularly evidently in respect of
the ecological crisis, disordered appetite harms our freedom to contemplate appropriately and relate lovingly to the nonhuman creation. It consumes more of the
worlds fullness than is our share.47 The application of this principle of kenosis of
appetite is global as well as individual. It applies to deforestation to expand farmland for excess export crops, but also to the high food-mile demands of the West
which fuel so many other unsustainable practices, and to the stripping-out of mangrove swamps for holiday resorts, which has rendered coastlines so tragically and
devastatingly vulnerable to tsunamis.
A particular aspect of the kenosis of appetite, which links it to the kenosis of
aspiration, is the kenosis of acquisitiveness. Just as we must be willing to order our
ambitions and our experiences in accord with the freedom of the redeemed order,
so we must order our acquisition of the material trappings of life, which again are
often acquired at the expense of the well-being of others, whether through sweated
labour to make trainers or printed circuit boards, or the mining that delivers exotic
metals and other raw materials at great expense to human health and natural
I have stressed here the importance of ethical kenosisof aspiration, appetite
and acquisitiveness being emptied out in self-giving. This is the image in human
life of the self-giving of the trinitarian persons of the Godhead. Supremely we
derive this image from the example of the incarnate Christ. However, kenosis is
only half of the moral imperative that I derive from an understanding of the deep
intratrinitarian self-giving of the triune God.48 The other half is the desire, on the
part of anyone who truly loves, that the other, the beloved, should flourish in his,
her or its otherness. Within Gods life as Trinity, this desire may be imagined as
furnishing the creative impulse that allows other entities to arise within the perfect
self-sufficiency of the divine life. The other is offered existence, form and particularity, and beyond that the opportunity of self-transcendence, but is not coerced
into being other than itself. Love between humans, in different modes depending
on whether it be the love of parents for children, lovers for each other, friends for
each other, or the hard, willed love for stranger or enemy, is in each case noncoercive longing for the other to flourish. All these loves depend on the primacy of
love as the greatest of the theological virtues (1 Cor. 13), and are made possible by
the loving self-communication of God, especially in the example of Christ. So also
the love between humans and the nonhuman creation, which depends, as I have
outlined, on a real desire to know the other and respect the other for itself, and on
a recognition too of the other as creature belonging to God and in relation with
God, selving according to the pattern of itself given by the divine Word.49 Such a
love has to be a tough, discerning love, not mere sentiment but a real outworking
of desire purified by kenosis. It is a love which recognizes that other creatures
may have to be eaten, or suppressed by the action of medication, for the human


Christopher Southgate

goodbut still celebrates the wonder of their existence, and desires coexistence,
indeed, desires that the other might know fullness of selving and flourishing
as itself, and the fullest possible opportunity for self-transcendence. This latter
is important. I am not sketching here a mere rapprochement between humans
and the nonhuman creation, eminently to be desired though that is, but a relationship in which both parties are caught up in the divine redemption, and humans
have their role in furthering this redemption. Humans are to be part, so I infer
from Romans 8.21, of Gods transforming of the world, making it more than it
currently is and starting to heal its ambiguity and travail.
It is fascinating that Barth and Linzey, inspired by this same text, reach such
different conclusions about meat-eating. Where they both agree, however, is that
the great proportion of current killing of animals is not reverent but casual, the
final act in a relationship with confined animals who know no freedom to be
themselves, nor healthy relationship either with each other or their human owners.
And owners is the key word here, because much of this problem stems from the
reduction of animal nature to a mere commodity, which in its rearing and killing
alike must be processed as cheaply as possible into products. I recall again Barths
words: A good hunter, honourable butcher and conscientious vivisectionist will
differ from the bad in the fact that . . . they hear this groaning and travailing of the
creature, and . . . are summoned to an intensified, sharpened and deepened diffidence, reserve and carefulness . . . animal protection, care and friendship are quite
indispensable.50 Those words care and friendship seem to me to be the key. Linzey
thinks that the enhanced quality of care and friendship towards animals characteristic of the freedom of the glory of the children of God is incompatible with killing
them for human purposes. Barth argues that appropriately reverent procedures for
husbandry and killing can be part of a model of care and friendship.
As someone who lives in a hill-farming area, in which the landscape has been
shaped for literally thousands of years by pastoralism, and where a market in
locally grown organic meat is once again coming to the fore, it is hard to resist the
notion that such a place should continue to be formed (while the climate permits)
by community between humans and farm animals. It is natural to call for that
community to be characterized by care and friendship.51 Without that community,
the landscape and ethos of the place would be utterly different. The animals in
question would not have any quality or unquality of life, because they simply would
not exist.52
The outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Britain in 2001, in which areas local
to me were very badly affected, is a telling parable of the best and worst in current
animal husbandry in the developed West. The outbreak was almost certainly
caused, or at least greatly exacerbated, by the transportation of sheep over long
distances in order to gain from marginal price differentials in different parts of the
country. This was due to the cost of fuel still being lower than is suitable given
climate change, and to the commodification of animals merely as units of value to
be traded wherever and however human advantage might be gained from the
trade. As the outbreak developed, the Government refused to vaccinate stock, for
fear of lasting damage to the British livestock industry within the European
Union. Instead, huge numbers of animals were slaughtered on farms and burned

Protological Vegetarianism


in situ. But farmers responses made clear that the relationship between farmers
and their animals in this part of the world is more than a commercial one. The
average age of British farmers is currently in the late fifties. In Devon it is probably
higher. But many farmers, even quite elderly ones for whom this decision could
not possibly make economic sense, used their compensation money to restock
their land with new herds. This points to livestock farming, at least in the context
from which I write, being a vocation as well as a business, and being a matter of a
relation with animals of care and friendship, and even, in its own particular and
idiosyncratic way, of love.53
This, in its turn, presses the question: can one be in I-Thou relationship,54 indeed
in servant relationship, with an animal one ultimately intends to kill? I maintain
that the experience of pastoralists, stemming right back to biblical examples, is that
one can.55 As Rosemary Radford Ruether has indicated, those who do not farm can
be misled here by their experience of relating to domestic pets. This is a valuable
cross-species relationship, but qualitatively different from other types of relations
with animals.56
Another theological consideration is whether there is any form of survival after
death for animals. This has been postulated by thinkers as diverse as John of the
Cross, John Wesley, Keith Ward and Jay McDaniel.57 All mount a strong case, which
I have also taken up, that some form of continued existence for animals must be
postulated.58 For the last three thinkers, this is necessary on grounds of theodicy.
A case could also be made that embodied human life would be gravely impoverished if not lived in community with nonhuman life.59 This issue is important
because, if animal existence is only in this world, then in the case of animals born
because of human breeding who suffer some disease or other and die without any
sort of fulfilment, it might be said that it would have been better if those animals
had never been bred in the first place. No existence, it might be said, is better than
flawed existence. However, if every animal born is loved, cherished and suffered
with by God, and given by God, in this life or the next, full opportunity for flourishing, then human breeding and rearing of animals can be seen in a more definitely
positive light. However, this argument can emphatically not be used to justify the
abusive treatment or cruel slaughter of animals, on the grounds that God will bind
up the wounds of the victims in a subsequent life. Cruelty and exploitation are
always unjust, and the witness of the Hebrew Bible is that the Lord always sets his
face against injustice. Nor, incidentally, could the argument be used to justify the
breeding of animals with a genetic make-up incompatible with flourishing, for
that would also be an exploitative use of our ingenuity.
Linzeys proposal is that there is now the opportunity, in many environments, to
embrace vegetarianism as an eschatological sign. This could indeed be seen as an
outward and visible sign of a kenosis of aspiration, appetite and acquisitiveness.
There would be fewer others with goods to be respected, because fewer animals
would be bred, but at least one could be sure that the levels of distressand, arguably, levels of dehumanization in abattoir-workers involved in the systematic
killing of animals for meatwould be avoided. However, that would not constitute
a healing of the dynamic of predation, since that dynamic has never depended on
human action. Predation will only be healed by Gods final action of transforming


Christopher Southgate

the old creation into the new.60 There would, moreover, be a loss of interspecies
communitywhich, at its best, can involve humility, gratitude and creaturely
flourishing on both sides, and anticipates the interspecies relationships hinted at in
Isaiah 11.
It will be clear from the above argument that I tend towards a position in which
the breeding, rearing and management of animals in the context of healthy methods
of farming (including genuinely humane killing) can be considered a form of care
and friendship between species which is an authentic part of the human vocation
which extends the possibilities of relationship between species, and is therefore not
to be abandoned as part of the pursuit of an eschatological ethic. Young himself
concedes that the Bible leaves diet as a spiritual choice, but claims that vegetarianism may be thought of as the quintessence of the kingdom, as it brings together
humans and animals into a community of peace and harmony.61 The case I am
making here is that certain sorts of community would be lost in a move to strict
vegetarianism, which might therefore be seen as a move away from the Isaianic
vision rather than towards it.
The last theme identified at the beginning of this section (drawing on the key
New Testament bases for ethics) was the relation of Christian freedom to religious
claims. The Council of Jerusalem required that Gentiles observe only two aspects
of the Jewish Lawsexual morality on the one hand, and abstinence from food
sacrificed to idols, strangled animals and blood, on the other (Acts 15.29). The set
of requirements relating to animals is very relevant to our theme. It could be held
that all animals killed within a process which has no care for their well-being, but
regards them only as commodities to be manufactured as cheaply as possible,
transported wherever necessary, and killed only with concern for efficiency and
not the relief of distress, have been sacrificed to the idol of human economic efficiency, whether on a capitalist or collectivist model, and are tainted thereby.62 Not,
as St Paul is at pains to point out, that such food ceases to be food, capable of being
eaten without the eater becoming ritually unclean, but that to eat it may be seen as
collusion (1 Cor. 8, Rom. 14.20-23). Christians might therefore feel called to abstain
from such food in order to avoid misleading others.63 The constraint on eating
blood was, in effect, a requirement for humane killing and careful butchery, as well
as an acknowledgement that all life belongs ultimately to the Lord. Barth, in the
passage previously cited, seems very aware of these constraints, and still concludes
that there can be a good hunter and an honourable butcher, and yet more controversially, a conscientious vivisectionist.64
Barth recognized that vegetarianism may also be guilty at times of inconsistencies, sentimentality and . . . fanaticism. But he was also clear that for all its
weaknesses we must be careful not to put ourselves in the wrong in face of it by our
thoughtlessness and hardness of heart.65 It would be hard to put this better than
Wendell Berry:
To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this
knowingly, lovingly, skilfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly,
greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such a desecration we condemn
ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.66

Protological Vegetarianism


All parties are agreed that ignorance, greed and destructivenessmanifestations, in

their own way, of inappropriate aspiration, unsustainable appetite and unthinking
acquisitivenessare rejections of our calling to grow into God and from there to
discover our true freedom. Nevertheless, I conclude that the keeping of animals for
meat, and in some contexts, certain forms of hunting, may be done knowingly, lovingly, skilfully, reverently, and in a way that forms patterns of community between
humans and the nonhuman creation that would be lost if meat were not eaten.
I therefore hold that vegetarianism is not required of Christians by a protological
appeal to an original divine ordering of creation as suggested by Genesis 1, nor by
an appeal to a transformed relation to animals as an eschatological anticipation of
the harmony described in Isaiah 11, nor even by an appeal to Romans 8.19-22.

Global justice, global warming and the glass abattoir

I have examined protological and eschatological arguments for vegetarianism.
Although they strongly commend an ethic of care, moderation, self-giving love
and service, I do not consider that they make a definitive case for the abandonment of the raising and killing of animals for meat. Scripture and experience
suggest that self-giving love and service can be involved in such a process, as I have
shown, even though this might seem counterintuitive. Vegetarianism has been a
much stronger element in the Christian tradition than is often imagined, but has
never been a general moral imperative of the tradition. That is not to say, however,
that individual Christians may not properly adopt such a lifestyle as an eschatological sign, just as other kenoses of appetite may be adopted in imitation of Christ
and in anticipation of the Kingdom.
The most compelling theological argument against the large-scale keeping of
animals for meat comes not out of the theology of creation, nor out of an appeal to
the eschaton, but out of a sense of Gods justice, and the need for human prudence.67 Where the production of red meat in particular can be shown to be at the
expense of a real possibility of feeding humans who are hungry, and whereas will
more and more frequently be the case as the twenty-first century unfoldsthe
keeping of animals for meat deprives humans and wild animals of supplies of fresh
water, then those activities conflict with the principles of justice that are so strong
in the Hebrew Bible, as in many other religious and secular codes. The calculus that
red meat production consumes many times the energy of the equivalent food value
in cereals is now augmented by calculations about the consumption of water, and
also about the carbon footprint of methanogens such as cattle.68 The first two
points are local in ambitsome areas are suitable for arable crops and some not,
some have water shortages and some not. The issue of methane production is a
global concern. Climate change afflicts the poorest and most vulnerable populations in our world, raising issues of justice, and although its precise unfolding
remains contentious, human prudence requires consideration of a wide range of
actions to restrict it. Alarm over global warming is already leading to research into
breeding and feeding cattle differently to restrict the damage they do to the climate.
This raises religious issues for some cultures, where cattle are sacred, and possibly
concerns over animal welfare if cattle are engineered away from their natures.


Christopher Southgate

Michael Pollan alerts us to further complications. In much current agricultural

practice, especially that which tries to minimize the use of chemical fertilizer, animals have a vital role in recycling nutrients through manure. Moreover, many areas
are not well suited to large-scale cereal production. Abandoning the keeping of
animals on such land would involve far more transport of food, again increasing
the carbon footprint of feeding the world. This intricate calculation about human
oikonomics is vital to our future. It needs to include, as I have implied, concerns
about justice, sustainability, local culture and global mitigation of the greenhouse
effect. At present, the calculation is done much too crudely in terms of the interests
of big capitalhence much of the pressure to commodify animals. Imperative as
it is, the need for a calculation of overall oikonomics falls a long way from an
argument for strict vegetarianism.
Pollans analysis of the ethics of eating animals ends with a telling exhortation.
Drawing on an essay by John Berger, he claims that it is essential that we see what
we are doing. Pollan writes:
The industrializationand brutalizationof animals in America is a relatively new,
evitable and local phenomenon: No other country raises and slaughters its food animals
quite as intensively or as brutally as we do. No other people in history has lived at quite so
great a remove from the animals they eat. Were the walls of our meat industry to become
transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to raise, kill and eat
animals the way we do. Tail docking and sow crates and beak clipping would disappear
overnight, and the days of slaughtering four hundred head of cattle an hour would
promptly come to an endfor who could stand the sight? Yes, meat would get more
expensive. Wed probably eat a lot less of it, too, but maybe when we did eat animals wed
eat them with the consciousness, ceremony, and respect they deserve.69

Ultimately, both protological and eschatological arguments collapse into the

propheticthe argument for justice and shalom in the not-yet-fully-redeemed
worldfull of possibilities for goodness and eloquent also of human failings, to
which both Testaments of the Bible bear witness. Over Pollans glass abattoir, Barth
would blazon the conviction of Romans 8.21 that humans true freedom will be
part of the healing of creation. Both thinkers imply that keeping animals for meat
may need to become a much less usual element in human life than it currently is.
However, the forms of community that the small-scale keeping of animals for meat
can engender remain a positive value, and are excluded neither by the imperatives
of justice or freedom, nor even, yet, by ecological economics.


Richard Alan Young, Is God a Vegetarian? Christianity, Vegetarianism and

Animal Rights (Chicago and La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1999).
2 Andrew Linzey, Animal Theology (London: SCM, 1994).
3 Young cites in particular Richard H. Schwartz, Judaism and Vegetarianism
(Marblehead, MA: Micah, 2nd edn, 1988). See also Andrew Linzey and Dan
Cohn-Sherbok, After Noah: Animals and the Liberation of Theology (London
and Herndon, VA: Mowbray, 1997).

Protological Vegetarianism


4 Young, Is God a Vegetarian?, p. 10.

5 This is only one of a set of curious moves Young makes in biblical interpretationfor example, conceding in his discussion of Genesis 1.29-30 that
creation might have had a few more rough edges than many commonly think
(p. 22), without any comment on the tension this sets up with the affirmation
of creation as very good in Genesis 1.31, and reading Luke 17.27 as referring
to antediluvian violence.
6 Young, Is God a Vegetarian?, p. 11.
7 The same problem dogs Carol J. Adamss efforts to search not for historical
duplication but for the acquisition of an ability to discern justice-making
according to the Christological revelation in Feeding on grace: institutional
values: Christianity and vegetarianism, in Good News for Animals? Christian
Approaches to Animal Well-Being, eds Charles Pinches and Jay B. McDaniel
(Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993), pp. 14259 (156). It seems hard to believe that,
in an area as central to human life as eating, the historical Jesus was not a
8 Young, Is God a Vegetarian?, p11.
9 Young, Is God a Vegetarian?, p. 11.
10 Linzey, Animal Theology, pp. 8485, 9899.
11 Daryl P. Domning and Monika K. Hellwig, Original Selfishness: Original Sin
and Evil in the Light of Evolution (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006).
12 John Wesley, The General Deliverance, in Sermons on Several Occasions,
vol. II (London: Kershaw, 1825), pp. 12132.
13 John Polkinghorne, Reason and Reality: The Relationship between Science and
Theology (London: SPCK, 1991); see also Arthur Peacocke, Theology for a
Scientific Age: Being and BecomingNatural, Divine, and Human (Oxford:
Blackwell, enlarged edn, 1993), pp. 22122. For a more recent analysis
reaching the same conclusion, see John J. Bimson, Reconsidering a Cosmic
Fall, Science and Christian Belief, 18, 1 (2006), pp. 6381.
14 Holmes Rolston III, Science and Religion: A Critical Survey (Philadelphia, PA,
and London: Templeton Foundation, 2006), p. 134.
15 I do not define the goal of evolution solely in terms of freely choosing
self-conscious creatures like ourselves, creatures whom we believe to have a
distinctive ability to respond to God and each other in self-giving love. The
evolution of such creatures was one goal of creation, but not by any means the
only one. For careful analysis of whether the values generated within the
biosphere might plausibly have been generated without violence or suffering,
see Robin Attfield, Creation, Evolution and Meaning (Aldershot, Ashgate,
2006), pp. 10950.
16 Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution and the
Problem of Evil (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2008), pp. 1839.
17 T. F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order (Oxford University Press, 1981),
p. 122. See also Clark Pennock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of Gods
Openness (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2001), pp. 13334.
18 R. J. Berry, Gods Book of Works: The Nature and Theology of Nature (London
and New York: T&T Clark Continuum, 2003), p. 231.