Every day it seems we hear about a new celebrity vegan. It’s very exciting to watch the movement grow and take shape as more and more people partake in the healthiest, most life affirming, and sustainable way to eat! Eating only plants has been with us long before Donald Watson started the Vegan Society in the UK back in 1944. Many extraordinary individuals have eaten only plants since time immemorial. Today the reasons are numerous; while in the past the two main reason were for spiritual purity and compassion for animals. Here are just a few famous examples:
Lao Tzu and the Taoists 5th century BC
Lao Tzu wrote the infamous Tao Te Ching which is a basically manual for leaders to be like water: flexible yet strong, passive yet always flowing downward. Lao Tzu taught the princes of China to look inward and contemplate for true and lasting strength. Most scholars assert the Tao Te Ching was also manual for yoga. Abstaining from animal based food is part of the Taoist tradition primarily for a healthy long (possibly immortal!) life.
Pythagoras: 570 BC – 495 BC
Remember back in geometry class when we learned the Pythagorean Theory? The square of the hypotenuse of a triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. Pythagoras was a brilliant thinker and teacher. So strong was his influence that early vegetarians were called Pythagoreans. Meat eating was considered morally objectionable because it got in the way of contemplation and philosophical thought due to the transmigration of souls. In other words, reincarnation. Meaning the animal you eat today, could have been a human in a previous time, aka cannibalism! Pythagoras was also a great proponent of physical fitness and athleticism and encouraged women to study and learn as equals to men.
Buddha: 563 BC – 483 BC
One of the foundational religious beliefs of Buddhism is to abstain from harming any living creature whether for sacrifice or food. Peace and non-violence are also major beliefs in Buddhism.
Plato, and his Mentor Socrates: 4th Century BC
Both Plato and his teacher Socrates, pillars of Western Philosophy, were students of Pythagoras. Reading Rynn Berry’s wonderful book (see below) I thoroughly enjoyed his descriptions of how robust and strong these early philosophers were! Their physicality and athleticism were notable. Big, strong, handsome, brilliant men who didn’t eat meat! Wow!
Leonardo da Vinci: 1452-1519
Leonardo da Vinci, one of the greatest artists of all time, explored and experimented with almost every branch of knowledge to further his art. We could study his work for a lifetime! Briefly, Leonardo’s sense of respect for animals was so strong he was known to buy caged birds at the market place and take them out to the country side and release them. He abhorred the murder of animals and related it with the murder of men. Even dining with Royalty, he refused to partake in eating animals which was quite an act of confident individualism.
Leo Tolstoy 1828-1910
Russian author of War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and other masterpieces, Tolstoy was born into the aristocracy and lived a life of debauchery and pleasure for many years. He was a successful and brilliant writer yet conflicted by the simple yet exploited life of the serfs that maintained the aristocracy’s massive estates. Tolstoy struggled and wrote about these class issues. Later, he tried to emulate the peasant serfs by cobbling shoes and wearing simple clothes. At age 57 he became a vegetarian. However this caused a great chasm in the Tolstoy household. Rynn Berry sums it up perfectly and writes: “Where Sonya (his wife) was a social climber who worshipped the shrine of the aristocracy, Tolstoy was revolted by his fellow aristocrats, whom he regarded as time wasting, flesh eating boors, and parasites on the labor of the working classes.” (p.90). Tolstoy wrote a scathing eyewitness report of a seemingly humane Russian slaughterhouse called “The First Step” you can read courtesy of the International Vegetarian Union. Like other plant eating individuals, Tolstoy remained physically active, extremely healthy, and vigorous well into old age.
The last person I want to mention is Annie Besant. Who is Annie Besant? Good question!
Annie Besant, 1847 – 1933, was an extraordinarily accomplished and famous British woman, known for her intelligence, her work and dedication for social justice, and not just her amazing beauty. She was a publisher, writer and editor, a laywoman lawyer, outspoken advocate of sex education, family planning, birth control, and ardent trade unionist on behalf of female workers specifically the little match girls. In 1891, she became President of International Theosophical Society located in India where she lived for her last 37 years. There, she worked for India’s independence and spoke against the British colonial rule of India. She was elected to the Indian National Congress, and started the Central Hindu College. She grew to believe that British culture was barbaric compared to Indian. Theosophy teaches that all life is interrelated; Annie stopped eating animals in 1889 when she bobbed her hair and took to wearing cool, comfortable saris and sandals instead of tight, oppressive British dresses and shoes. Annie was a force of nature, what we would consider a thoroughly modern, liberated woman living in the Victorian age.
In closing, consider George Bernard Shaw’s wonderful question: “If a group of beings from another planet were to land on Earth – beings who considered themselves as superior to you as you feel yourself to be to other animals – would you concede them the rights over you that you assume over other animals?”. I doubt anyone would concede the right to have other beings eat us! Why do we do that over other beings? Food for thought.
Rynn Berry describes so many other famous non-animal eaters in his interesting and entertaining book. While there are many more, Berry’s book includes Plutarch, Mahavira, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Gandhi, George Bernard Shaw, Bronson Alcott, Sylvester Graham (as in crackers!), Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, Henry Sat, Esme Wynne-Tyson, Swami Prabhupada, William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, Frances Moore Lappe, Paul and Linda McCartney, George Harrison, Dick Gregory, David Wallechinsky, Dennis Weaver, Killer Kowalski, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Malcolm Muggeridge, and Brigid Brophy. If you are interested do read this book as you continue or begin your life affirming journey into a healthy vegan, whole food, plant based lifestyle.
Berry Jr. Rynn. (2003) Famous Vegetarians and Their Favorite Recipes. Pythagorean Publishers, New York.
Photo of Mona Lisa is part of the public domain and can be found at: Mona Lisa