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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces one of the two essays
De esu carnium


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

 p541  On the Eating of Flesh: I

993 1 1   [link to original Greek text] Can you really ask what reason Pythagoras​1 had for abstaining from flesh? For my part I rather wonder both by what accident and in what state of soul or mind Bthe first man​2 who did so, touched his mouth to gore and brought his lips to the flesh of a dead creature, he who set forth tables of dead, stale​3 bodies and ventured to call food and nourishment the parts that had a little before bellowed and cried, moved and lived. How could his eyes endure the slaughter when throats were slit and hides flayed and limbs torn from limb? How could his nose endure the stench? How was it that the pollution did not turn away his taste, which made contact with the sores of others and sucked juices and serums from mortal wounds?

CThe skins shivered; and upon the spits the flesh bellowed,

Both cooked and raw; the voice of kine was heard.​4

Though this is an invention and a myth, yet that sort of dinner is really portentous — when a man craves the  p543 meat that is still bellowing, giving instructions which tell us on what animals we are to feed while they are still alive uttering their cries, and organizing various methods of seasoning and roasting and serving. It is the man​5 who first began these practices that one should seek out, not him who all too late desisted.6

2 1   [link to original Greek text] Or would everyone declare that the reason for those who first instituted flesh-eating was the necessity of their poverty? It was not while they passed their time in lawful desires Dnor when they had necessaries in abundance that after indulgence in unnatural and antisocial pleasures they resorted to such a practice. If, at this moment, they could recover feelings and voice, they might, indeed, remark: "Oh blessed and beloved of the gods, you who live now, what an age has fallen to your lot wherein you enjoy and assimilate a heritage abounding in good things! How many plants grow for you! What vintages you gather! What wealth you may draw from the plains and what pleasant sustenance from trees! Why, you may even live luxuriously without the stain of blood. But as for us, it was a most dismal and fearful portion of the world's history​7 that confronted us, falling as we did into great and unbearable poverty brought on by our first appearance among the living. As yet the heavens and the stars were concealed Eby dense air that was contaminated with turbid moisture, not easily to be penetrated, and fire and furious wind. Not yet was  p545 the sun established undeviating

In his firm course,

Dividing day and night; he brought them back

Again and crowned them with the fruitful hours

All wreathed with bloom, while violence

had been done to earth by rivers pouring forth their floods at random and most parts were deformed by pools.​8 Earth was made a wilderness by deep quagmires and the unfruitful growth of thickets and forests; nor was there as yet any agricultural production or professional tool or any resource of skill. Our hunger gave us no respite nor was there any seed at that time awaiting the annual season of sowing. What wonder if, contrary to nature, we made use of the flesh of beasts when even mud was eaten and the bark of trees devoured, Fand to light on sprouting grass or the root of a rush was a piece of luck? When we had tasted and eaten acorns we danced for joy around some oak,​9 calling it "life-giving"​10 and "mother" and "nurse." 994This was the only festival that those times had discovered; all else was a medley of anguish and gloom. But you who live now, what madness, what frenzy drives you to the pollution of shedding blood, you who have such a superfluity of necessities? Why slander the earth by implying that she cannot support you? Why impiously offend law-giving Demeter​11 and  p547 bring shame upon Dionysus, lord of the cultivated vine,​12 the gracious one, as if you did not receive enough from their hands? Are you not ashamed to mingle domestic crops with blood and gore? You call serpents and panthers and lions savage, but you yourselves, by your own foul slaughters, leave them no room to outdo you in cruelty; Bfor their slaughter is their living, yours is a mere appetizer."13

3 1   [link to original Greek text] It is certainly not lions and wolves that we eat out of self-defence; on the contrary, we ignore these and slaughter harmless, tame creatures without stings or teeth to harm us, creatures that, I swear, Nature appears to have produced for the sake of their beauty and grace. . . .14

[image ALT: A very young lamb in a field, staring straight at the photographer.]

A young lamb I met near Barattano (Umbria, central Italy), April 2004.

[It is as though one, seeing the Nile overflow its banks, filling the landscape with its fertile and productive stream, should not marvel at this, its nourishing of plants and its fruitfulness in such crops as are most to be cultivated and contribute most to the support of life, but should espy a crocodile swimming there somewhere or an asp being swept along or a thousand other savage creatures Cand should cite them as the reasons for his censure and this compulsion to do as he does.​15 Or, I swear, it is as though one fixed one's gaze on this land and its soil covered with cultivated crops and heavy with ears of wheat, and then, looking beneath these rich harvests, one were to catch sight somewhere of a  p549 growth of darnel or broom-rape and, without more ado, ceasing to reap the benefit and claim the booty of the good crops, burst into a tirade about the weeds. Another example: if one should see an orator making a speech at some trial where he was advocate, a speech in which his eloquence in full flood was advancing to the succour of someone in jeopardy or (so help me) to the conviction or denunciation of rash acts or defaults — Da flood of eloquence not simple or jejune, but charged with many (or rather all kinds of) emotional appeals for the simultaneous influencing of the many different kinds of minds in the audience or jury, which must either be roused and won over or (by heaven!) soothed and made gentle and calm — then if one neglected to observe and take into account this main point and issue of the matter, but merely picked out flaws of style that the flood of oratory, as it moved to its goal, had swept along by the momentum of its current, flaws that came rushing out and slipped by with the rest — and seeing . . . of some popular leader. . . .]16

4 1   [link to original Greek text] But nothing abashed us, not the flower-like tinting of the flesh, Enot the persuasiveness of the harmonious voice, not the cleanliness of their habits or the unusual intelligence that may be found in the poor wretches. No, for the sake of a little flesh we deprive them of sun, of light, of the duration of life to which they are entitled by birth and being. Then we go on to assume that when they utter cries and squeaks their speech is inarticulate, that they do not, begging for mercy, entreating, seeking justice,  p551 each one of them say, "I do not ask to be spared in case of necessity; only spare me your arrogance! Kill me to eat, but not to please your palate!" Oh, the cruelty of it! What a terrible thing it is to look on when the tables of the rich are spread, Fmen who employ cooks and spicers to groom the dead! And it is even more terrible to look on when they are taken away, for more is left than has been eaten. So the beasts died for nothing! There are others who refuse when the dishes are already set before them and will not have them cut into or sliced. Though they bid spare the dead, they did not spare the living.17

5 1   [link to original Greek text] We declare, then, that it is absurd for them to say that the practice of flesh-eating is based on Nature. For that man is not naturally carnivorous is, in the first place, obvious from the structure of his body.​18 A man's frame is in no way similar to those creatures who were made for flesh-eating: he has no hooked beak or sharp nails or jagged teeth, 995no strong stomach or warmth of vital fluids able to digest and assimilate a heavy diet of flesh.​19 It is from this very fact, the evenness of our teeth, the smallness of our mouths, the softness of our tongues, our possession of vital fluids too inert to digest meat that Nature disavows our eating of flesh. If you declare that you are naturally designed for such a diet, then first kill for yourself what you want to eat. Do it, however, only through your own resources,  p553 unaided by cleaver or cudgel orº any kind of axe. Rather, just as wolves and bears and lions themselves slay what they eat, Bso you are to fell an ox with your fangs or a boar with your jaws, or tear a lamb or hare in bits. Fall upon it and eat it still living, as animals do.​20 But if you wait for what you eat to be dead, if you have qualms about enjoying the flesh while life is still present, why do you continue, contrary to nature, to eat what possesses life? Even when it is lifeless and dead, however, no one eats the flesh just as it is; men boil it and roast it, altering it by fire and drugs, recasting and diverting and smothering with countless condiments the taste of gore so that the palate may be deceived and accept what is foreign to it.

It was, indeed, a witty remark of the Spartan​21 who bought a little fish in an inn Cand gave it to the innkeeper to prepare. When the latter asked for cheese and vinegar and oil,​22 the Spartan said, "If I had those, I should not have bought a fish." But we are so refined in our blood-letting that we term flesh a supplementary food;​23 and then we need "supplements" for the flesh itself, mixing oil, wine, honey, fish paste, vinegar, with Syrian and Arabian spices,​24 as though we were really embalming a corpse for  p555 burial. The fact is that meat is so softened and dissolved and, in a way, predigested that it is hard for digestion to cope with it; and if digestion loses the battle, the meats affect us with dreadful pains and malignant forms of indigestion.

6 1   [link to original Greek text] Diogenes​25 ventured to eat a raw octopus Din order to put an end to the inconvenience of preparing cooked food. In the midst of a large throng he veiled his head and, as he brought the flesh to his mouth, said, "It is for you that I am risking my life." Good heavens, a wondrous fine risk! Just like Pelopidas​26 for the liberty of the Thebans or Harmodius and Aristogiton​27 for that of the Athenians, this philosopher risked his life struggling with a raw octopus — in order to brutalize our lives!

Note that the eating of flesh is not only physically against nature, Ebut it also makes us spiritually coarse and gross by reason of satiety and surfeit. "For wine and indulgence in meat make the body strong and vigorous, but the soul weak."​28 And in order that I may not offend athletes, I shall take my own people as examples. It is a fact that the Athenians used to call us Boeotians​29 beef-witted and insensitive and foolish, precisely because we stuffed ourselves.​30 "These  p557 men are swine";​31 . . . and Menander​32 says, "Who have jaws"; and Pindar​33 "And then to learn . . ."; "A dry soul is wisest" according to Heraclitus.​34 Empty jars make a noise when struck, but full ones do not resound to blows.​35 FThin bronze objects will pass the sounds from one to another in a circle until you dampen and deaden the noise with your hand as the beat goes round.​36 The eye​37 when it is flooded by an excess of moisture grows dim and weakened for its proper task. When we examine the sun through dank atmosphere and a fog of gross vapours, we do not see it clear and bright, but submerged and misty, with elusive rays. In just the same way, then, when the body is turbulent and surfeited and burdened with improper food, the lustre and light of the soul inevitably come through it blurred and confused, aberrant and inconstant, since the soul lacks the brilliance and intensity to penetrate to the minute and obscure issues of active life.

7 1   [link to original Greek text] But apart from these considerations, do you not find here a wonderful means of training in social responsibility? Who could wrong a human being 996when he found himself so gently and humanely disposed p559toward other non-human creatures? Two days ago in a discussion I quoted the remark of Xenocrates,​38 that the Athenians punished the man who had flayed a ram while it was still alive; yet, as I think, he who tortures a living creature Bis no worse than he who slaughters it outright. But it seems that we are more observant of acts contrary to convention than of those that are contrary to nature. In that place, then, I made my remarks in a popular vein. I still hesitate, however, to attempt a discussion of the principle underlying my opinion, great as it is, and mysterious and incredible, as Plato​39 says, with merely clever men of mortal opinions, just as a steersman hesitates to shift his course​40 in the midst of a storm, or a playwright to raise his god from the machine in the midst of a play. Yet perhaps it is not unsuitable to set the pitch and announce the theme by quoting some verses of Empedocles.​41 . . . By these lines he means, though he does not say so directly, that human souls are imprisoned in mortal bodies as a punishment for murder, the eating of animal flesh, and cannibalism. CThis doctrine, however, seems to be even older, for the stories told about the sufferings and dismemberment of Dionysus​42 and the outrageous assaults of the Titans upon him, and their punishment and blasting by thunderbolt after they had tasted his blood — all this is a myth which in its inner meaning has to do with rebirth. For to  p561 that faculty in us which is unreasonable and disordered and violent, and does not come from the gods, but from evil spirits, the ancients gave the name Titans,​43 that is to say, those that are punished and subjected to correction. . . .44

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 Cf. 964F supra.

Thayer's Note: not only meat, but the flesh of fish as well: Plutarch, Symposium, VIII.8 (728C‑730F).

2 Cf. 959E supra.

3 Cf. 991D supra, 995C infra.

4 Homer, Odyssey, XII.395‑396.

5 "Hyperbius . . . first killed an animal, Prometheus an ox." (Pliny, Nat. Hist. VII.209.) See also the amusing analysis of Prometheus and the vulture (= disease) in Shelley's A Vindication of Natural Diet.

6 Pythagoras.

7 Cf. Empedocles, frag. B 2.3 (Diels-Kranz, Frag. der Vorsok. I, p309); the whole passage is received as a doubtful fragment (B 154; I, pp371 f.).

8 You could not tell land from water, because invading water made pools that dried up later.

9 "Drys was a term used especially for Quercus robur L.; phegos for Q. aegilops L. Actually the early Greeks ate the acorns mostly of Q. aegilops." (Andrews.)

10 The epithet properly meant "wheat-giving" (as in Homer, Iliad, II.548), but was early misinterpreted.

11 Cf. Mor. 1119E.

12 Cf. Mor. 451C (where the epithet is otherwise interpreted), 663D, 692E.

13 As above in 991D. See the interesting observations in G. Murray, Rise of the Greek Epic3, p64 and the note.

14 The rest of this chapter, though possibly by Plutarch, is probably from another quite different work. Chapter 4 follows quite naturally upon this sentence.

15 These words, plainly out of context as the passage stands, are too vague to be rendered with any certainty.

16 The rest of this perplexing fragment has been lost, so that we do not know what the object of these three comparisons is.

17 Post believes that there is another lacuna after this chapter; and Stephanus posited another one after the first sentence of chapter 5, rightly, if Bernardakis' emendation is not accepted.

18 See 988E supra and the note.

19 Cf. Mor. 87B, 642C.

20 "Let the advocate of animal food force himself to a decisive experiment on its fitness, and, as Plutarch recommends, tear a living lamb with his teeth, and, plunging his into its vitals, slake his thirst with the steaming blood" (Shelley, op. cit.).

21 Cf. Mor. 234E‑F, where it is meat, not fish, that is bought; see also 128C.

22 To make a sauce for the fish. The innkeeper's action was natural enough, in view of Hegesander's comment (Athenaeus, 564A) that apparently everyone liked the seasonings, not the fish, since no one wanted fish plain and unseasoned.

23 See 991D (and the note), 993B, 994Bº supra.

24 See 990B supra.

25 Cf. 956B supra where the context is quite different. See also Athenaeus, 341E; Lucian, Vit. Auctio 10; Julian, Oration, VI.181A, 191C ff.; Diogenes Laertius, VI.76; al.

26 Cf. Life of Pelopidas, chapters 7‑11.

27 Cf. Thucydides, VI.54‑59.

28 A quotation from the medical writer Androcydes; see Mor. 472B and the note.

29 Cf. Rhys Roberts, The Ancient Boeotians, pp1‑5.

30 The passage that follows is badly mutilated; it probably contained other quotations and fuller ones than the MSS. indicate.

31 Cf. the proverbial "sow and Athena" (Life of Demosthenes, xi.5, 851B and Mor. 803D) and the Introduction to the Gryllus.

32 Kock, Com. Att. Frag., III, p238 (frag. 748 Koerte); the words probably mean "Who are greedy fellows."

33 Olympians, VI.89, which continues "whether we are truly arraigned by that ancient gibe, 'Boeotian swine.' " (For this interpretation see G. Norwood, Pindar, pp82 and 237.)

34 Diels-Kranz, Frag. der Vorsok. I, p100, frag. B 118; cf. the note on Mor. 432F.

35 Cf. Mor. 721B‑D.

36 Mor. 721C‑D suggests that Plutarch is talking about a single cauldron with a wave going around it rather than about a circular arrangement of tuning forks. "Sounding brass": cf. L. Parmentier, Recherches sur l'Isis et Osiris (Mém. Acad. Roy. Belg. II, vol. II, 1912/13), pp31 ff.

37 Cf. Mor. 714D.

38 See Heinze, Xenokrates, p151, frag. 99.

39 Phaedrus, 245C.

40 The Greek is both difficult and ambiguous; perhaps "hesitates to set his ship in motion while a storm is raging."

41 The verses have fallen out, but may be, in part, those quoted infra, 998C, or a similar passage.

42 See I. M. Linforth, The Arts of Orpheus, chapter 5, "The Dismemberment of Dionysus," and especially pp334 ff., on this passage. A good illustration is the fragment of Dionysius in D. L. Page, Greek Literary Papyri, I (L. C. L.), pp538‑541.

43 See Hesiod's etymology, Theogony, 209 f. For this "Greek equivalent of original sin" see Shorey on Plato, Laws, 701C (What Plato Said, p629), Mor. 975B supra; and Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational, pp155 and 177.

44 The first discourse breaks off at this point.

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