Beasts are Rational, part 2: On Eating Flesh

To recap part 1:

The setup:

Odysseus wants Circe to disenchant his men from their animal forms, and Circe argues that they are happier as animals than they were as men.

She allows the hero to talk to an animal, a pig named Gryllus (which is Latin for swine).

Gryllus in turn, argues for the rights of animals, their inherent intelligence, and the virtues of being a vegetarian.

It is this last aspect that the author, Plutarch, makes a break with traditional Roman culture.

So, before we return to Gryllus, the swine, who was Plutarch?


Plutarch (46 – c. 119 CE):

Asides from a being a poet, a philosopher and a politician, Plutarch was also a priest of the God Apollo at the most sacred site for divination in the Mediterranean world, the Oracle of Delphi.

This means he was more than likely initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, the most important secret religious rite of ancient Greece, dedicated to the Goddesses Demeter and Persephone, and thus intimately tied to agriculture.

This connection may have influenced Plutarch’s attitude towards eating flesh…


Gryllus, speaking to Odysseus:

Though men are so vile and incontinent where the desires I have spoken of are concerned, they can be proved to be even more so in the case of essential desires, being here far inferior to animals in temperance.
These are the desires for food and drink, in which we beasts always take our pleasure along with some sort of utility; whereas you, in your pursuit of pleasure rather than natural nourishment, are punished by many serious ailments which, welling up from one single source, the surfeit of your bodies…
In the first place each species of animal has one single food proper to it, grass or some root or fruit. Those that are carnivorous resort to no other kind of nourishment, nor do they deprive those weaker than themselves of sustenance; but the lion lets the deer, and the wolf lets the sheep, feed in its natural pasture.
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 omnivorous.
In the first place his eating of flesh is caused by no lack of means or methods, for he can always in season harvest and garner and gather in such a succession of plants and grains as will all but tire him out with their abundance;
but driven on by luxurious desires and satiety with merely essential nourishment, he pursues illicit food, made unclean by the slaughter of beasts; and he does this in a much more cruel way than the most savage beasts of prey.
Blood and gore and raw flesh are the proper diet of kite and wolf and snake; to man they are an appetizer. Then, too, man makes use of every kind of food and does not, like beasts, abstain from most kinds and consequently makes war on a few only that he must have for food. In a word, nothing that flies or swims or moves on land has escaped your so‑called civilized and hospitable tables.

The Romans in their Decadence (French – Les Romains de la décadence) by French artist Thomas Couture, first exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1847, a year before the 1848 Revolution, now in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.


Finally, the swine Gryllus concludes:

 . . . and since I have entered into this new body of mine, I marvel at those arguments by which the sophists brought me to consider all creatures except man irrational and senseless.


The take-away?

To concede animal consciousness opens up conversations about the ethics of eating meat. Much of Plutarch’s argument, omitted here for brevity, centers on promoting the notions of innate animal intelligence and decency, which buttress his case for vegetarianism.

Regardless of your level of vore-ishness (Hell, given the wrongest circumstances, humans aren’t off my plate (mmm…Soylent Green is People)), you should appreciate the following:

The history of Western Vegetarianism doesn’t start with New Age Hippies borrowing dietary ethics Eastern Spirituality*, but

in the distant past,

when Demeter was still worshiped

and Persephone was still mourned

Demeter,  Triptolemus and Persephone; the Eleusinian Mysteries included the secrets of agriculture, here imparted to the mortal Triptolemus, who Demeter breast fed as an infant.


*Cultural exchanges via the Silk Road notwithstanding…

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