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This page is part of the section: Animal Rights:A History

Seneca - c 4 BCE-65

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, was born in Spain and lived from 3 BC to 65 AD. He was educated in Rome and became the leading Roman Stoic of his time. 

In the Abstinence and the Philosophical life Seneca recounts his early experiments with diet. He believed that abstaining from meat prepares an individual for the philosophical life by purifying the spirit. He also was influenced by the Pythagorean tradition which believed that all beings are interrelated and that souls transmigrated from one body to another, thus transmigration made humans literally akin to animals. Seneca even created a vegetarian cult in the Court at the time.

So why did Seneca , a staunch a vegetarian

abandon his vegetarianism?  Since the early Christians were vegetarian the emperor may have been suspicious that Seneca was a Christian. This was the beginnings of the persecution of Christians and Seneca was fearful for his life had such suspicions been aroused. Nonetheless this does not detract from the fact that some of the most excellent passages written on this subject have been those written by Seneca.


Abstinence and the Philosophical Life
by Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Excerpted from Lucilium Epistulae Morales

Inasmuch as I have begun to explain to you how much greater was my impulse to approach philosophy in my youth than to continue it in my old age, I shall not be ashamed to tell you what ardent zeal Pythagoras inspired in me. Sotion [a Pythagorean, one of Seneca's tutors] used to tell me why Pythagoras abstained from animal food, and why, in later times, Sextius did also. In each case, the reason was different, but it was in each case a noble reason. Sextius believed that man had enough sustenance without resorting to blood, and that a habit of cruelty is formed whenever butchery is practised for pleasure. Moreover, he thought we should curtail the sources of our luxury; he argued that a varied diet was contrary to the laws of health, and was unsuited to our constitutions. Pythagoras, on the other hand, held that all beings were interrelated, and that there was a system of exchange between souls which transmigrated from one bodily shape into another. If one may believe him, no soul perishes or ceases from its functions at all, except for a tiny interval—when it is being poured from one body into another. We may question at what time and after what seasons of change the soul returns to man, when it has wandered through many a dwelling-place; but meantime, he made men fearful of guilt and parricide, since they might be, without knowing it, attacking the soul of a parent and injuring it with knife or with teeth—if, as is possible, the related spirit be dwelling temporarily in this bit of flesh! When Sotion had set forth this doctrine, supplementing it with his own proofs, he would say: "You do not believe that souls are assigned, first to one body and then to another, and that our so-called death is merely a change of abode? You do not believe that in cattle, or in wild beasts, or in creatures of the deep, the soul of him who was once a man may linger? You do not believe that nothing on this earth is annihilated, but only changes its haunts? And that animals also have cycles of progress and, so to speak, an orbit for their souls, no less than the heavenly bodies, which revolve in fixed circuits? Great men have put faith in this idea; therefore, while holding to your own view, keep the whole question in abeyance in your mind. If the theory is true, it is a mark of purity to refrain from eating flesh; if it be false, it is economy. And what harm does it do to you to give such credence? I am merely depriving you of food which sustains lions and vultures."

I was imbued with this teaching, and began to abstain from animal food; at the end of the year the habit was as pleasant as it was easy. I was beginning to feel that my mind was more active; though I would not today positively state whether it really was or not. Do you ask how I came to abandon the practice? It was this way: the days of my youth coincided with the early part of the reign of Tiberius Caesar. Some foreign rites were at that time being inaugurated, and abstinence from certain kinds of animal food was set down as a proof of interest in the strange cult. So at the request of my father, who did not fear gossip, but who detested philosophy, I returned to my previous habits; and it was no very hard matter to induce me to dine more comfortably.

I have mentioned all this in order to show you how zealous neophytes are with regard to their first impulses towards the highest ideals, provided that some one does his part in exhorting them and in kindling their ardour. There are indeed mistakes made, through the fault of our advisers, who teach us how to debate and not how to live; there are also mistakes made by the pupils, who come to their teachers to develop, not their souls, but their wits. Thus the study of wisdom has become the study of words.

In the simpler times there was no need of so large a supernumerary force of medical men, nor of so many surgical instruments or of so many boxes of drugs. Health was simple for a simple reason. Many dishes have induced many diseases. Note how vast a quantity of lives one stomach absorbs ... Insatiable, unfathomable, gluttony searches every land and every sea. Some animals it persecutes with snares and traps, with hunting nets, with hooks, sparing no sort of toil to obtain them . . . There is no peace allowed to any species of being . . . No wonder that with so discordant diet disease is ever varying. . . Count the cooks you will no longer wonder at the innumerable number of human maladies.
Epistola, xcv

"How long shall we weary heaven with petitions for superfluous luxuries, as though we had not at hand wherewithal to feed ourselves? How long shall we fill our plains with huge cities? How long shall the people slave for us unnecessarily? How long shall countless numbers of ships from every sea bring us provisions for the consumption of a single mouth? An Ox is satisfied with the pasture of an acre or two: one wood suffices for several Elephants. Man alone supports himself by the pillage of the whole earth and sea. What! Has Nature indeed given us so insatiable a stomach, while she has given us so insignificant bodies? No: it is not the hunger of our stomachs, but insatiable covetousness (ambitio) which costs so much. The slaves of the belly (as says Sallust) are to be counted in the number of the lower animals, not of men. Nay, not of them, but rather of the dead. …You might inscribe on their doors, 'These have anticipated death.' " (Ep. lx.)

Concerning simplicity of diet Seneca Writes

"You think it a great matter that you can bring yourself to live without all the apparatus of fashionable dishes; that you do not desire wild boars of a thousand pounds weight, or the tongues of rare birds, and other portents of a luxury which now despises whole carcasses, and chooses only certain parts of each victim. I shall admire you then only when you scorn not plain bread, when you have persuaded yourself that herbs exist not for other animals only, but for man also - if you shall recognize that vegetables are sufficient food for the stomach into which we now stuff valuable lives, as though it were to keep them for ever. For whist matters it what it receives, since it will soon lose all that it has devoured? The apparatus of dishes, containing the spoils of sea and land, gives you pleasure, you say.. .The splendour of all this, heightened by art. gives you pleasure. Ah! those very things so solicitously sought for and served up so variously - no sooner have they entered the belly then one and the same foulness shall take possession of them all. Would you contemn the pleasures of the table? Consider their final destination."

Writings concerning Seneca

...the best vindication of the character of Seneca is found in his writings. It is simply impossible to suppose that the expression of so exceptionally humane, of so lofty, thoughts could have proceeded from other than an essentially  good man in the best sense of the word. For, it can not be too emphatically stated, his was no common place and conventional morality—no common-places of the School, no mere sectarian or religious utterances so easily affected, meaning anything or nothing, and which are always received with approbation and applause. It is not the least exaggeration to assert that the change in the manner of thinking and in the conduct of life, in all its relations, required by his teaching, demanded quite as much of self-abnegation and of separation from the orthodox world, and presented as sublime a standard of self-denial and self-control as that of the first and best of the Christian teachers. Nothing but prejudice and partiality will refuse to admit the truth of this statement. So great, indeed, was his reputation as a moral teacher with the authorities of the newly-established religion, that the most erudite of the doctors of the Latin Church hesitates to include him in his Hagiology (or Catalogue of Saints) only because he is uncertain of the genuineness of his alleged literary correspondence with Paul of Tarsus.

Howard Williams
Ethics of Diet: Seneca

For More quotations and biographical information about Seneca read the complete chapter

Photo Guinea by flickr user PigsMJames

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Photo: Seneca Drawing by Peter Paul Rubens

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