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This webpage reproduces one of the two essays
De esu carnium

by
Plutarch

as published in Vol. XII
of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1957

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

(Vol. XII) Plutarch, Moralia

p563 On the Eating of Flesh: II

996d 1 1   [link to original Greek text] Reason urges us with fresh ideas and fresh zeal to attack again our yesterday's discourse1 on the eating of flesh. It is indeed difficult, as Cato2 remarked, to talk to bellies which have no ears. And the potion of familiarity has been drunk, like that of Circe3

ECommingling pains and pangs, tricks and tears;4

nor is it easy to extract the hook of flesh-eating, entangled as it is and embedded in the love of pleasure. And, like the Egyptians5 who extract the viscera of the dead and cut them open in view of the sun, then throw them away as being the cause of every single sin that the man had committed, it would be well for us to excise our own gluttony and lust to kill and become pure for the remainder of our lives, since it is not so much our belly that drives us to the pollution p565of slaughter; it is itself polluted by our incontinence. Yet if, for heavens sake, it is really impossible for us to be far from error Fbecause we are on such terms of familiarity with it, let us at least be ashamed of our ill doing and resort to it only in reason. We shall eat flesh, but from hunger, not as a luxury. We shall kill an animal, but in pity and sorrow, not degrading or torturing it — which is the current practice in many cases, some thrusting red-hot spits into the throats of swine 997so that by the plunging in of the iron the blood may be emulsified and, as it circulates through the body, may make the flesh tender and delicate. Others jump upon the udders of sows6 about to give birth and kick them so that, when they have blended together blood and milk and gore (Zeus the Purifier!) and the unborn young have at the same time been destroyed at the moment of birth, they may eat the most inflamed part of the creature. Still others sew up the eyes of cranes7 and swans,8 shut them up in darkness and fatten them, making flesh appetizing with strange compounds and spicy mixtures.

2 1   [link to original Greek text] From these practices it is perfectly evident that it is not for nourishment or need or necessity, Bbut out of satiety and insolence and luxury that they have turned this lawless custom into a pleasure. Then, just as with women who are insatiable in seeking pleasure, their lust tries everything, goes astray, and explores the gamut of profligacy until at last it ends in unspeakable practices; so intemperance in eating passes beyond the necessary ends of nature and resorts to cruelty and lawlessness to give p567variety to appetite. For it is in their own company that organs of sense are infected and won over and become licentious when they do not keep to natural standards. Just so the art of hearing has fallen sick, corrupting musical taste. From this our luxury and debauchery conceives a desire for shameful caresses and effeminate titillations. CThese taught the sight not to take pleasure in warlike exercises9 or gesticulations or refined dances or statues and paintings, but to regard the slaughter and death of men, their wounds and combats, as the most precious sort of spectacle.10 Just so intemperate intercourse follows a lawless meal, inharmonious music follows a shameful debauch, barbarous spectacles follow shameless songs and sounds, insensitivity and cruelty toward human kind follow savage exhibitions in the theatre. It was for this reason that the godlike Lycurgus11 gave directions in certain rhetrae12 that the doors and roofs of houses should be fashioned by saw and axe alone Dand no other tool should be used — not of course because he had a quarrel with gimlets and adzes and other instruments for delicate work. It was because he knew that through such rough-hewn work you will not be introducing a gilded couch, nor will you be so rash as to bring silver tables and purple rugs and precious stones into a simple house. The corollary p569of such a house and couch and table and cup is a dinner which is unpretentious and a lunch which is truly democratic; but all manner of luxury and extravagance follow the lead of an evil way of life

As new-weaned foal beside his mother runs.13

3 1   [link to original Greek text] For what sort of dinner is not costly for which a living creature loses its life? Do we hold a life cheap? EI do not yet go so far as to say that it may well be the life14 of your mother or father or some friend or child, as Empedocles15 declared. Yet it does, at least, possess some perception, hearing, seeing, imagination, intelligence, which last every creature receives from Nature to enable it to acquire what is proper for it and to evade what is not. Do but consider which are the philosophers who serve the better to humanize us: those16 who bid us eat our children and friends and fathers and wives after their death,17 or Pythagoras18 and Empedocles who try to accustom us to act justly towards other creatures also? You ridicule a man who abstains from eating mutton. But are we, they19 will say, to refrain from laughter when we see you slicing off portions from a dead father or mother Fand sending them to absent friends and inviting those who are at hand, heaping their p571plates with flesh? But as it is, perhaps we commit a sin when we touch these books of theirs without cleansing our hands and faces, our feet and ears — unless, by Heaven, it is a purification of those members to speak on such a subject as this, "washing," as Plato20 says, 998"the brine from one's ears with the fresh water of discourse." If one should compare these two sets of books and doctrines,21 the former may serve as philosophy for the Scyths and Sogdians and the Black Cloaks, whose story as told by Herodotus22 gains no credit;23 but the precepts of Pythagoras24 and Empedocles were the laws for the ancient Greeks, along with their diet of wheat. . . .25 [Because there is no question of justice between us and the irrational animals.]

4 1   [link to original Greek text] Who, then, were they who later decreed this?

The first to forge the highway's murderous sword,

And first to eat the flesh of ploughing ox.26

This is the way, you may be sure, in which tyrants begin their course of bloody slaughters. BJust as, for instance, at Athens27 they put to death initially the worst of the sycophants, and likewise in the second and third instances; but next, having become accustomed to bloodshed they allowed Niceratus,28 the p573son of Nicias, to be killed and the general Theramenes29 and the philosopher Polemarchus.30 Just so, at the beginning it was some wild and harmful animal that was eaten, then a bird or fish that had its flesh torn. And so when our murderous instincts had tasted blood and grew practised on wild animals, they advanced to the labouring ox and the well-behaved sheep and the housewarding cock; thus, little by little giving a hard edge to our insatiable appetite, Cwe have advanced to wars and the slaughter and murder of human beings. Yet if someone once demonstrates that souls in their rebirths make use of common bodies and that what is now rational reverts to the irrational, and again what is now wild becomes tame, and that Nature changes everything and assigns new dwellings

Clothing souls with unfamiliar coat of flesh;31

will not this deter the unruly element in those who have adopted the doctrine from implanting disease and indigestion32 in our bodies and perverting our souls to an ever more cruel lawlessness, as soon as we are broken of the habit of not entertaining a guest or celebrating a marriage or consorting with our friends without bloodshed and murder?

p575 5 1   [link to original Greek text] DYet even if the argument of the migration of souls from body to body is not demonstrated to the point of complete belief, there is enough doubt to make us quite cautious and fearful. It is as though in a clash of armies by night33 you had drawn your sword and were rushing at a man whose fallen body was hidden by his armour and should hear someone remarking that he wasn't quite sure, but that he thought and believed that the prostrate figure was that of your son or brother or father or tent-mate — which would be the better course: to approve a false suspicion and spare your enemy as your friend, or to disregard an uncertain authority and kill your friend as your foe? The latter course you will declare to be shocking. EConsider also Merope34 in the play raising her axe against her son himself because she believes him to be that son's murderer and saying

This blow I give you is more costly yet —

what a stir she rouses in the theatre as she brings them to their feet in terror lest she wound the youth before the old man can stop her! Now suppose one old man stood beside her saying, "Hit him! He's your enemy," and another who said, "Don't strike! He is your son": which would be the greater misdeed, to omit the punishment of an enemy because of the son, or to slay a child under the impulse of p577anger against an enemy? In a case, then, where it is not hate or anger or self-defence or fear for ourselves that induces us to murder, Fbut the motive of pleasure, and the victim stands there under our power with its head bent back and one of our philosophers says, "Kill it! It's only a brute beast"; but the other says, "Stop! What if the soul of some relative or friend has found its way into this body?" — Good God! Of course the risk is equal or much the same in the two cases — if I refuse to eat flesh, or if I, disbelieving, kill my child or some other relative!

999 6 1   [link to original Greek text] There remains yet another contention with the Stoics35 about flesh-eating, and this is not "equal," either. For what is this great "tension"36 on the belly and the kitchen? Why, when they count pleasure effeminate and denounce it as being neither a good nor an "advanced principle "37a nor "commensurate with Nature,"37b are they so concerned with these pleasures? It would certainly be consistent for them, since they banish perfume and cakes from their banquets, to be more squeamish about blood and flesh. But as it is, confining as it were their philosophy to their ledgers, they economize on their dinners in trivial and needless details while they do not deprecate this inhuman and murderous item of expense. "Of course," they say, "we human beings have no compact of justice with irrational animals."38 BNor, one might reply, have you with perfume or exotic sweetmeats either. Refrain from animals also, if you p579are expelling the useless and unnecessary element in pleasure from all its lurking-places.

7 1   [link to original Greek text] Let us, however, now examine the point whether we really have no compact of justice with animals; and let us do so in no artificial or sophistical manner, but fixing our attention on our own emotions and conversing like human beings with ourselves and weighing . . .39


The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 Cf. Plutarch's introduction to the second essay on the Fortune of Alexander (Mor. 333D).

2 Cf. Mor. 131D, 198D; Life of Cato Major, 8 (340A).

3 Odyssey, X.236.

4 Perhaps a verse of Empedocles: Diels-Kranz, Frag. der Vorsok. I, p372, frag. 154a; cf. Wilamowitz, Hermes, XL, p165. (Andrews prefers to adopt the reading κυκεών, "potion," assuming a verbal form, "dulls" or "blunts," in the preceding or following line.)

5 Cf. Herodotus, II.86; Diodorus, I.91; Mor. 159B; Porphyry, De Abstinentia, IV.10 (244, ed. Nauck).

6 Pliny, Nat. Hist. XI.210‑211 is not quite so gruesome.

7 Pliny, Nat. Hist. X.60.

8 Wyttenbach reasonably suggested "geese," but see Athenaeus, 131F; 393C‑D.

9 See Plato, Laws, 816B.

10 Referring to the gladiatorial combats which came to be substituted for the more refined exhibitions of an earlier age. Plutarch urges the expulsion of such practices from the State in Mor. 822C; for further examples of this kind of opposition to Roman policy see H. Fuchs, Der geistige Widerstand gegen Rom, p49, n60.

11 Life of Lycurgus, XIII.5‑6 (47B‑C); Mor. 189E, 227C, 285C; Comment. on Hesiod, 42 (Bernardakis, VII, p72).

12 Or "unwritten laws"; the MSS. here say "in the three rhetrae."

13 Semonides, frag. 5; see Mor. 446E and the note.

14 That is, "the reincarnated life."

15 As in frag. B 137 (Diels-Kranz, Frag. der Vorsok. I, p275).

16 Cf. von Arnim, S. V. F. III, p186.

17 That is, they tell us to eat meat without compunction, because human beings are only mortal, and their souls are not reincarnated in animals.

18 Cf. 993A supra. The argument is somewhat weakened by the fact (certainly well known to Plutarch, e.g. Mor. 286D‑E) that Pythagoras placed an even more stringent taboo on beans than he did on meat.

19 Pythagoras and Empedocles.

20 Phaedrus, 243D; cf. Mor. 627F, 706E, 711D.

21 That is, of the two schools of philosophy mentioned above in 997E.

22 Plutarch seems to have confused the Black Cloaks (Herodotus, IV.20, but cf. IV.107) with the Issedones (IV.26); and perhaps the Sogdians (III.93) with the Padaei (III.99); cf. also I.216 and III.38.

23 But this clause looks like a semi-learned addition.

24 Cf. 964E‑F supra.

25 There seems to be a lacuna here followed by an interpolation from chapter 6 or 7.

26 Aratus, Phaenomena, 131 f.; cf. Lucilius parody in the Palatine Anthology, XI.136.

27 Cf. 959D supra and the note.

28 Cf. Xenophon, Hellenica, II.3.39.

29 Cf. Xenophon, Hellenica, II.3.56.

30 The son of Cephalus and brother-in‑law of Lysias; a prominent character in Plato, RepublicI. For the circumstances of his death see Lysias' oration Against Eratosthenes. It is, however, somewhat unlikely that Plutarch should call Polemarchus "the philosopher" even though he appeared in the Republic and his philosophic bent was mentioned in the Phaedrus (257B); so that, once again, we may be faced with interpolation.

31 Diels-Kranz, Frag. der Vorsok. I, p362; Empedocles, frag. 126.

32 Cf. Mor. 128B‑E.

33 Cf. Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach:

"And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night."

34 Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag. p500, frag. 456 from the Cresphontes. Aristotle, Poetics, XIV.19 (1454 A5) tells us that all turns out well: Merope recognizes her son before she can kill him; but it was a close thing, a Plutarch implies.

35 Cf. von Arnim, S. V. F. III, pp91, 374.

36 A technical term of Stoic philosophy.

37a 37b Further Stoic technical terms.

38 Cf. 970B supra.

39 The rest is lacking.


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