Vegetarianism and its Origins – Part 2: From the Pythagoreans to Today

Pythagoras took up the vegetarianism of the Orphics and developed it into an ethical vegetarianism. For many centuries, people who did not eat meat were not called vegetarians, but ‘Pythagoreans’. Among the early Christians until the 4th century, alcoholic beverages and meat were also largely rejected.

Vegetarianism and its Origins – Part 2: From the Pythagoreans to Today

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The Pythagoreans were known for their particular, strictly observed way of life, the characteristics of which included dietary rules and ethical principles in particular. Plato testifies that they also had Orphic rules of life; he mentions a past in which these rules were universally followed.

The norms included – at least among those who belonged to the narrower circle of the Pythagoreans – an ethically motivated vegetarianism, which was related to the doctrine of transmigration of souls and a consequent higher estimation of the value of life, including animal life.

Many arguments for a meatless diet, which are still valid today, already existed at that time. Initially, however, the vegetarian diet had primarily religious reasons. Pythagoras took up the vegetarianism of the Orphics and developed it into an ethical vegetarianism.

For many centuries, people who did not eat meat were not called vegetarians, but ‘Pythagoreans’. They were regarded as suspect, persecuted and even killed, right into the Middle Ages.

More about the Pythagoreans

Pythagoreans (Ancient Greek Πυθαγόρειοι Pythagóreioi or Πυθαγορικοί Pythagorikoí) refers to the members of a religious-philosophical, also politically active school, which Pythagoras of Samos founded in southern Italy in the 6th century BC and which continued for several decades after his death. In a broader sense, this refers to all those who have since taken up ideas of Pythagoras or ideas attributed to him and made them an essential part of their world view.

It is certain that in a number of Greek cities in southern Italy there were communities of Pythagoreans who regarded themselves as a social and political reform movement and intervened massively in politics with reference to the teachings of the school’s founder. This led to serious, violent conflicts, which were fought out in the 6th century BC with varying degrees of success and finally ended with defeats for the Pythagoreans. In most cities they were killed or driven out.

The cosmos forms a harmonious unity

What is characteristic of the Pythagoreans is the conviction that the cosmos forms a harmonious unity, structured according to certain numerical ratios, whose individual components are also harmoniously structured or, as far as human living conditions are concerned, can be harmoniously structured. They assumed that in all areas – in nature, in the state, in the family and in the individual human being – the same numerically expressible laws apply, that balance and harmony are to be striven for everywhere and that knowledge of the relevant numerical relationships enables a wise, natural way of life. They did not limit the striving for harmony to human society, but extended it to the totality of living beings, which was shown in the demand for consideration for the animal world.

The soul is immortal

The doctrine of the immortality of the soul belongs to the oldest stock of early Pythagorean philosophy. It is one of the most important common features of Pythagoreanism and Platonism, which influenced each other in the course of their development and merged with each other in the case of some philosophers. The Pythagoreans, like the Platonists, were convinced of the transmigration of souls. They did not assume any difference in essence between human and animal souls.

Like many other philosophical movements, the Pythagoreans advocated the control of desires and thus also a simple way of life and a frugal diet. The fact that they rejected every luxury – especially the luxury of clothing – resulted from their general demand to maintain the right measure and thus to realise harmony.

Vegetarianism was one of the core components of the original Pythagoreanism. It was called ‘abstinence from the animate’.

The ‘Pythagorean diet’ consisted of bread, honey, cereals, fruits and vegetables. The aim was physical exercise, whereby musical activities also played a major role.

Vegetarianism among the early Christians

Early historiography shows that many of the early Christians lived a meatless life. Until the 4th century, alcoholic beverages and meat were largely rejected. Tertullian, the oldest Latin church writer, declared around the year 200 that the ‘true Christians’ lived vegetarian. Paul, on the other hand, liked to eat meat and addressed the issue in his letters. A momentous change occurred when the Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion in the Roman Empire in the 4th century. He himself did not want to do without meat and wine. In 325, he convened the Council of Nicaea and instructed the scholars to ‘sort’ and ‘correct’ the many early Christian documents about the life and teachings of Jesus. In addition to many statements, those that were directed against eating meat also fell victim to this. In further development, the great church teacher Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) declared that the killing of animals was permitted by providence, since animals had no souls.

A renaissance in the 19th century

In the 19th century, the alternative and meatless diet experienced a kind of renaissance and the term ‘Pythagorean’ changed to ‘vegetarian’. August Bebel (author and co-founder of German Social Democracy) declared: ‘Apparently, as culture elevates, plant food takes the place of meat food.’

The vegetarian way of life was able to establish itself in Europe via the so-called ‘Lebensreform’ (life reform) movement. Increasing prosperity and the negative effects on health and the environment that arose with growing industrialisation brought about a new awareness that has led many people in our time to prefer even a completely animal-free (vegan) diet.

The meat-free eating and lifestyle that has become fashionable and is associated with healthy eating often also means actively setting a sign against factory farming, climate change, environmental scandals or even against pollutants in animal feed. Our crisis can contribute to a new recognition of the value of life and perhaps even the unity of all life.


Famous followers or supporters of vegetarianism from ancient times to the present day have included:

Zarathustra / Zoroaster, Pythagoras, Buddha Shakyamuni / Siddhartha Gautama, Socrates, Diogenes of Sinope, Ashoka, Horace, the Christian apostles Peter, John and Matthew, Seneca the Younger / Lucius Annaeus, Plutarch, the Prophet Mohammed, Leonardo da Vinci, Sir Isaac Newton, Francois de Voltaire, Alexander von Humboldt, George Sand, Wilhelm Busch, Max Oskar Bircher-Benner, MD, Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein (towards the end of his life), Yehudi Menuhin, the Dalai Lama.

Professional athletes such as Carl Lewis, Edwin Moses, Martina Navratilova, Bill Pearl (bodybuilder), Carlso Roa (goalkeeper Argentina), Dennis Rodman (professional basketball player), Sean Yates (cyclist), Abele Ridgely (winner karate world championship), Andreas Cahling (Swedish bodybuilder), Roy Hinnen (triathlete), Nurmo Paavo (22 world records long-distance running and 9 Olympic medals).

Actors such as Richard Gere, Jean-Claude Van Damme,

ex-Beatles Sir Paul McCartney and Sir Ringo Starr



Armin Risi and Ronald Zürrer, Vegetarisch leben, Zürich, 10. Auflage 2012, S. 134 ff.

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Date: March 17, 2021
Author: Graziella Pinna (Germany)
Photo: Photo Marzena P. Pixabay CCO

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