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Nutrition, disease, biodiversity: do we need a new relationship with animals?

Man and animals: lessons from the Ancients

Jean Zeid, Journalist
On December 15th, 2021 |
4 mins reading time
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Man and animals: lessons from the Ancients
Angelo Giavatto
Angelo Giavatto
Lecturer in ancient philosophy at Université de Nantes
Key takeaways
  • Questions regarding our relationship with animals is far from new; ancient philosophers have pondered on moral aspects of eating animals for millennia.
  • Becoming a vegetarian was considered as a solution even in ancient times, with philosophers generally justifying this choice as an ethical one.
  • Moreover, in Plato’s Republic, the first Greek city model imagined by Socrates was meant to eat only plant-based food. Socrates described it as an “authentic” and “healthy” society.
  • Because of cognitive dissonance, many processes have naturally been set in motion to treat animal meat as an inanimate object. In particular, there is a need to elevate the human to a higher status than the animal.

Ancient philoso­phers were known to har­bour hard crit­i­cism towards our rela­tion­ship with ani­mals. In my opin­ion, this is per­fect­ly illus­trat­ed by the fun­da­men­tal philo­soph­i­cal move­ment devel­oped by Aris­to­tle (384–322 BC). At the begin­ning of Meta­physics, he wrote that our thirst for knowl­edge is a part of human nature. There are two ele­ments of that, which we will focus on here. The first, which was a pri­or­i­ty for our ances­tors, rais­es the ques­tion “what is an ani­mal?”. The sec­ond, which seems more urgent today, involves our inter­ac­tion with ani­mals. The sec­ond ques­tion stems from the first so we need to begin by clear­ly defin­ing what ani­mals are, to know how we must inter­act with them.

Physical sacrifice or moral elevation?

In the con­tem­po­rary world, when peo­ple opt not to eat ani­mals, this choice is seen as a sac­ri­fice in the name of ani­mal well-being. For veg­e­tar­i­ans and veg­ans, what is usu­al­ly being sac­ri­ficed is the plea­sure of taste. But also, the health ben­e­fits sup­pos­ed­ly asso­ci­at­ed with eat­ing ani­mal prod­ucts – an assump­tion which I do not share. These rea­sons dif­fer from the motives behind veg­e­tar­i­an­ism in antiq­ui­ty because, in most cas­es, ancient eth­i­cal val­ues include a util­i­tar­i­an dimen­sion which is incon­sis­tent with this notion of sacrifice.

When a philoso­pher in Gre­co-Roman antiq­ui­ty declared him­self a veg­e­tar­i­an, what he was demon­strat­ing above all was an eth­i­cal choice, par­tic­u­lar­ly tied to per­son­al puri­ty. Indeed, the act of slaugh­ter­ing ani­mals was thought to, among oth­er things, poi­son the soul. There­fore, ancient philoso­phers who were the most sen­si­tive to ani­mal issues, like Plutarch (approx. 46–125 AD) and Por­phyry (approx. 233–305 AD), con­sid­ered the per­son­al dimen­sion. By respect­ing ani­mals, they con­sid­ered that they were act­ing in a way that allowed them to uphold moral val­ues. They recog­nised the per­son­al ben­e­fits (espe­cial­ly for human health), but also col­lec­tive impli­ca­tions, mean­ing the impacts for human­i­ty as a whole and its rela­tion­ship with oth­er species.

The ques­tion of our rela­tion­ship with ani­mals appeared ear­ly on in the works of the very first Greek philoso­phers. In the Pythagore­an tra­di­tion, which is very ancient, some foods were pro­hib­it­ed. As for Her­a­cli­tus (535–475 BC), he left a frag­ment in which he wrote that purifi­ca­tion rit­u­als using ani­mal sac­ri­fice and blood result in poi­son of the souls of those who per­form them (fr. 5 Diels-Kranz). It is sure­ly not a veg­an pre­cept in the strict sense; how­ev­er it already shows a grow­ing aware­ness that was lat­er devel­oped upon by Plato.

Are humans a distinct animal species?

In Plato’s Repub­lic (369b-376e, par­tic­u­lar­ly 372b‑d), the first Greek city mod­el imag­ined by Socrates requires that its peo­ple only eat plants. This mod­el was lat­er dis­missed and replaced by a more com­plex project: a city where peo­ple can main­tain a sense of lux­u­ry, even in times of war. Socrates defines this sec­ond city as “oper­at­ed by the inflam­ma­tion of moods” (tr. L. Robin), where­as the first, whose pop­u­la­tion is veg­e­tar­i­an, is “true” and “healthy”. This shows the val­ue placed on the per­son­al, social, and gen­er­al philo­soph­i­cal impli­ca­tions of a veg­e­tar­i­an diet.

Pro­tago­ras, anoth­er text writ­ten by Pla­to, is also piv­otal in the con­text of our dis­cus­sion. The myth of Prometheus pre­sent­ed in this dia­logue exam­ines the ori­gin of liv­ing beings. Epimetheus, Prometheus’ broth­er, over­sees the allo­ca­tion abil­i­ties and traits to liv­ing beings so that they might pro­tect them­selves. He gives great size to some ani­mals, to oth­ers he offers claws or fur. When it is time to attend to humans, he realis­es that he has noth­ing left to give. That is when his broth­er Prometheus steals fire and tech­ni­cal knowl­edge from the gods and bestows them to humans to ensure their sur­vival. There­in lies, in my opin­ion, the fun­da­men­tal approach to ani­mals in Greek phi­los­o­phy: it is at its core found­ed on a gen­uine dialec­tic between homo­gene­ity and alter­i­ty. Homo­gene­ity because we are all mor­tal beings who need abil­i­ties and attrib­ut­es to sur­vive, and alter­i­ty in the sense that humans are endowed with skills and tools that, in their opin­ion, dis­tin­guish them from the ani­mal world.

An outdated basic need

At the end of Antiq­ui­ty, there are two cru­cial moments in the his­to­ry of this debate stem­ming from the thoughts of the two afore­men­tioned authors, Plutarch and Por­phyry. They explic­it­ly addressed the issue of the human-ani­mal rela­tion­ship and spoke out against the slaugh­ter of ani­mals and meat con­sump­tion. In my view their stance is pro­found­ly mod­ern, espe­cial­ly in the work of Plutarch. For the lat­ter, meat con­sump­tion result­ed from a par­tic­u­lar need which arose at a spe­cif­ic moment in the his­to­ry of human­i­ty. Our mis­take was mak­ing this momen­tary need a habit and then believ­ing that it was in our nature to eat meat. In real­i­ty, argues Plutarch, this need deter­mined what can be called a sec­ond nature against nature. Indeed, Plutarch unveils a cru­cial mis­take that we make when eat­ing ani­mals: regard­ing them as food implies an onto­log­i­cal dis­tor­tion, in the sense that we con­sid­er ani­mals, which are liv­ing beings, as inan­i­mate objects. 

In oth­er words, we reify ani­mals. This view is in line with the con­tem­po­rary think­ing on cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance and the fact that ani­mals are unrecog­nis­able when we eat meat, yet it is the flesh of a liv­ing being. Final­ly, Plutarch adds that by eat­ing meat we are not just being vio­lent towards ani­mals, but we are also vio­lent towards our­selves. This idea entails anoth­er, even more dan­ger­ous, onto­log­i­cal dis­tor­tion: by los­ing our abil­i­ty to feel empa­thy for oth­er liv­ing beings, we are no longer tru­ly human. Even if this philoso­pher lived in a time when ani­mals were far more vis­i­ble than today, his thoughts can also speak to our soci­eties, in which we do not observe the life, let alone wit­ness the death, of the ani­mals we eat. 

We have there­fore much to learn from ancient philoso­phers on these sub­jects. Many things are con­cealed in our rela­tion­ship to ani­mals, espe­cial­ly in sys­tems involv­ing a meat diet; both on a prac­ti­cal (unseen slaugh­ter­hous­es) and a psy­cho­log­i­cal (we for­get that meat comes from the flesh of a liv­ing being) lev­el. Ancient philoso­phers deliv­er a les­son in trans­paren­cy, self-con­scious­ness and account­abil­i­ty which might prove use­ful in our rela­tion­ship with ani­mals, and with ourselves.