Was Pythagoras a vegan? Vegans often like to claim that all sorts of historical individuals were vegans, most often providing little to no evidence of such a claim, forcing their ‘opponents’ to go research the claim for themselves to find out if it’s true or not. As a result, I thought that I’d do the research myself, so I can just easily link to it instead of having to give the source material and explanations over and over again.
NOTE: This page is now very long because the page was much more abbreviated, but needed to be lengthened into a full blown master’s thesis because vegans insisted, after much evidence shown to the contrary, that Pythagoras was, indeed, a vegan because in his own words, he said he respected all animals. How do they know this? They gave a MEME! How can I question the legitimacy of that over the source material!
Pythagoras was a famous Greek philospher and mathematician who lived most probably sometime between 570-490 BCE. He is credited with having founded a ‘school’ to study his concepts that we now call “Pythagoreanism”. In reality, we could call this a ‘cult’ and not a ‘school’, but more on that later.
It’s important to note that there is little to no actual source material from Pythagoras or from his contemporaries that wrote directly about him, so all historians can do is to gather the written information from later followers and stories passed down by contemporaries. So, to be clear, we do not have ‘his words’ as he left no writings. We only start beginning to get some details of his life from writings that begin about 150 years later. ANY claims that he was a vegan are heresay. To be fair, the stories that contradict this will be hearsay too.
One of the main sources of his dietary beliefs comes from a paper entitled, The Pythagorean Diet of Vegetables Only Conducive to the preservation of Health and the Cure of Diseases A discourse delivered at Florence in the month of August 1743. Translated from the Italian. The author claims to have looked at the oldest source material possible in order to write his discourse and often gives his sources.
At first glance, it sounds as though Pythagoras would have been a vegan. The title “Diet of Vegetables Only’ sounds fairly conclusive. Vegetables only = vegan. But not so fast! Like most vegan claims, if you look at the details, they aren’t so cut and dried. In the case of the discourse, it definitely doesn’t advocate vegetables only.
Let’s look into the paper a bit deeper.
There is quite a bit of information on his view of milk in the paper. Unfortunately for vegans, it doesn’t hold up to show that he was a vegan. Milk is mentioned 17 times in the paper, almost always positively. Here’s a few of the mentions, with it starting out that “Milk and honey made up part of this
Diet: Eggs, on the contrary, were excluded”.
Going on to the more flowery prose of the paper, “Milk… has not, nevertheless, lost all the Qualities of Vegetables. Being besides agreeable to all our Senses… in the Judgment of the most excellent Physicians of all Ages, it is thought to be a most good, and simple Aliment… by reason of its middle Temperament between vegetable and animal Food.”
Well, that certainly doesn’t malign dairy in any way. The paper goes on with more positive exultations of dairy with even a few simple recipes. Milk and wine anyone?
Holy cow! 5-6 pounds of fluid whey per day! That’s hardly vegan. We aren’t even done yet though. He actually even prescibed more dairy than that on occasion.
The paper even mentions that Pythagoras supposedly even recommended, for unspecified lentghs of time, an all milk diet. Since dairy is part of a Carnivore diet, we could say that he recommended a carnivore diet medicinally, like vegans might recommend a juice fast. The paper says, “In ‘the Pythagorean’ is included a Milk Diet also, that is, living entirely upon Milk, as all young Animals do, and as it is said some whole Nations did anciently, and still do even in our own Times. This Milk Diet was introduced throughout all Europe, for the Cure of some Diseases, and especially of the Gout and Rheumatism.”
So, here we have a man whom vegans claim to have been vegan, recommending to abstain entirely from plants, for periods of time, and consuming nothing but animal foods. So we know he was not a vegan. But what about meat? Was Pythagorus a vegetarian, maybe? This is where it gets controversial because the sources are somewhat contradictory.
While it does seem that Pythagoras, for the most part, recommended eating all vegetables most of the time, with the paper saying his diet recommended, generally, “Abstinence from every Thing that is animal, whether it be fresh or dried, Bird, Beast, or Fish.”
However, he seems to also understand that we require animal foods. The paper goes on to basically advocate for being a ‘cheagan’, whevever necessary. It says, “The Exactness of the Diet might, indeed, sometimes, as Occasion required, be departed from, by mingling some very moderate Portion of animal Food, provided it were of young and tender Meat… and that of the muscular Parts rather than the Entrails.”
And another recipe for healing would be what we’d essentially, today, call a meat broth for medicinal purposes after long periods of time on an all-vegetable diet, “[I]f by [an all vegetable diet] alone, constantly used for some Length of Time and tempered at the Discretion of a wise Philosopher, when there may be Occasion, by a Mixture of some few and those chosen Kinds of flesh, and especially flesh boiled with tender and fresh Herbs…we may remove, with Ease, many Infirmities.”
Yes, it does seem as though Pythagoras did believe in some vegan principles, however, like vegans today who fail at an astonishing rate to maintain a vegan diet, he saw that we needed to consume, at the very least, some animal foods to maintain good health when on a vegan diet long term.
Above, I mentioned that Pythagorus led a school, that could also have been labled a cult. They had strange practices including being “taboo to write Pythagoras’ teachings down or tell non-followers about them.” upon, allegedly, even penalty of death, making it a bit hard to know exactly what the teachings were.
However, if it was a cult, or bordering on one, we know that cult leaders are generally not the most morally consistent people in the world and often use Diet to Control their followers. So, even if we had word-for-word transcriptions of his teachings, that does not mean he, himself, followed the teachings. And the evidence we have shows he most likely did not.
The first line of evidence that Pythagoras ate meat himself is the discourse above, where it states, “[M]any old Writers, who assert, as may be seen particularly in Laertius, Gellius, and Athenians, that Pythagoras ate, himfelf, and advised ethers to eat, from Time to Time, without Scruple, Chickens, Kids, tender Pigs, suckling Calves, and Fish.”
As if we needed even more lines of evidence, expanding on that, Stanford has researched this issue and found that, “Aristoxenus is emphatic that Pythagoras was not a strict vegetarian and ate a number of types of meat (Diogenes Laertius VIII. 20)”
They go on to report that the famous philospher, “Aristotle, reported that ‘the Pythagoreans refrain from eating the womb and the heart, the sea anemone and some other such things but use all other animal food’. (Aulus Gellius IV. 11. 11–12). This makes it sound as if Pythagoras forbade the eating of just certain parts of animals and certain species of animals rather than all animals”. But these were only the followers of his philosophy much later. Often religious or cult ideologies become bastardized from the original intention, however, considering that vegans say he was a complete animal abstainer on moral grounds, it seems unlikely that a value of such primary importance would have been lost to later followers.
Again, on lines of evidence of what his followers did, some have said that Pythagoras did not do animal sacrifice and that he even worshiped at a temple that forbade animal sacrifice, however,in Plutarch’s Questiones Conviviales, he states the “Pythagoreans, that when they sacrificed unto the gods, they would especially tasts of the primices or parcels of flesh which they had killed: but never was there any fish that they sacrificed or offered unto the gods.”
Again, not Pythagoras himself, but then again, we have no writings or direct quotes from him. So, these later writings are the best we can do. We can’t ever know if Pythagoras ate meat, but from the evidence, we know with certainty he was not a vegan, and it’s very likely that he also ate meat. But eggs definitely seemed to be off the menu.