Week 6: Lucretius and Plutarch’s Vegetarianism

Please comment on the readings.  Please read the comments of your fellow students and comment on their comments.  Please post you comments by Tuesday night.

Here are a couple of questions to get you started… How is Lucretius different from Aristotle and Ibn Tufayl?  What are the ramifications of Lucretius’ theory?  How do the senses work?  What are the senses sensing?  How does vision work?  Can you make an apologist-style argument for Lucretius’ theory of vision?  How to determine gender of child?  Contraception?  Beer-goggles?  Oh my!


How do Plutarch’s reasons for not eating meat differ from modern arguments?  Is he convincing?  Notice his description of the early world… notice the terms he uses to describe the sky, stars, sun, etc.  How does his early world differ from your image of an early world?  Notice the preparations he describes!  Notice his comparison to other lusty desires.  Notice his pseudo-Occupy-W.S.-style argument.

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13 thoughts on “Week 6: Lucretius and Plutarch’s Vegetarianism

  1. Plutarch’s opinion on vegetarianism is similar to most modern vegetarians’ reasons for not eating meat. One difference I noticed was his emphasis on how eating meat interferes with thinking and slows mental processes. Most people choose not to eat meat today do so more for the ethical reasons he mentions rather than to prevent intellectual stagnation. He focuses more on the necessity of eating meat and the gluttony and irresponsibility humans have shown by killing animals and tampering with their natural state before eating it. The gluttonous nature he describes of eating meat when there are plenty of other options and often having to dispose of leftovers brought to mind the mass production of meat in factory farms and our overindulged society. This concept of respecting the animal and knowing and understanding the animal’s life is reminiscent of the current trend of organic farming and being able to trace the life of the animal back to the farm where it was raised. Plutarch harps on the issue of respecting the animal and the judicious aspect of consuming flesh. Would other philosophers we read agree with his reasoning? Why does Plutarch bring into question the animal’s intellect and rights while other philosophers place animals lower on the totem pole? Is his argument against eating meat because of his respect for animals and their intellect or because of his disapproval of how eating meat impacts his intellect?

  2. Plutarchs main argument for defending vegetarianism is to say that humans are not naturally carnivorous. If this is different from modern arguments or not I am unsure but it definitely challenges non-vegetarians justification for meat eating by saying that humans are in fact naturally carnivorous. Plutarch talks about equal rights for animals which brings about ethical issues that are still the basis of arguments today for vegetarianism. Plutarch says that animals have souls just as humans and do not deserve to be tortured/killed for human satisfaction. I agree with Plutarchs stance saying that humans are not originally carnivorous (I maybe be biased being a lifelong vegetarian) however he brings up a good point saying that if we were naturally meat eaters we would not have to do ‘manipulate’ meat so much to make it edible. However i do think his argument loses some credibility when he goes into talking about human gluttony and desires. Plutarch says that the desire to eat meat is similar to other human indulgence, gluttony, sensual desire, etc. Although the concept is in line because we can live without meat and therefore it could be considered gluttonous I think that those who do not eat meat can also be gluttonous. I also liked Amy’s question wondering whether his argument was based on his respect for animals and their intellect or its actual impact on his own intellect as I was thinking about something similar. I think two go hand in hand and that by being aware of the intellect of animals and respecting them it also makes him a better/more intellectual human being. Therefore by abstaining from eating meat he is more aware and intelligent.

    • I also noticed the difference between abstaining from eating flesh because of ethical reasons and because of Plutarch’s idea that it hinders mental capacity. It made me think back to his first idea about eating meat though: He says that the only plausible reason that people consumed meat in the first place was scarcity of other foods. It seems a bit ironic that, having eaten that which is natural and good, man would still perceived to eat that which would slow his mental abilities, making himself vulnerable to the possibility of perpetuating in that which is unnatural and “manipulative,” like eating meat.

  3. In Book I, Lucretius explains how something can’t come from nothing because you can keep halving things forever; it will never become nothing either. The bare substance, or building block, he calls the atom, which is indestructible. When you break something up, its parts don’t just disappear into thin air but are broken up into its atoms. In this way, there are only two things present: matter and the space that the matter takes up. Atoms even make up thin films to provide an imagine of a thing. He seems to distinguish between physical atoms and mind atoms, parts that make up the images in one’s mind. He explains that every object emits a layer of particles that the senses pick up on, depending on the images made up in the mind first. He gives the example of a something that tastes sweet to one person but sour to another; it has to do with the particles in each person’s tongue and in each person’s mind.

    As for sex, Lucretius seemed to valorize woman’s sexuality and to deride man’s as futile and dangerous, as it is often rooted in lust fed by images. It was difficult to tell if he was saying throughout the first part of Book IV that the senses are untrustworthy, or if it’s images that he is wary of, but his opinion on sexual love seems like an outcry against a man’s passion for a woman, rooted in senses/images. He seems to encourage men to just ejaculate ASAP, into whomever or nothing at all, but for women, he acknowledges the good and need for them to be sexual for reproduction. After his vehement warning against Venus’s seed, I was surprised by his very descriptive directions on how to conceive successfully.

  4. Some of Plutarch’s defenses of vegetarianism are consistent with modern defenses of vegetarianism, but his first defense is one that I haven’t yet come across. On his view, the only possible explanation for why humans started eating animals was that the demand for food was greater than what vegetables alone could supply, in other words: “the vegetable world had entirely failed.” He goes on to say that, while that may have been the case when humans being eating animals, it is not in his time, and thus there is no excuse to continue eating animals.

    Is this the case in our time? Is it possible to grow enough vegetables to meet the world’s food demand? Certainly, our technologies and agricultural practices have advanced, but farmland and some resources are also decreasing. What about the world nutrient demand, not just the food demand? I am of the opinion that it is more than possible to survive without eating animals, but one loses the nutrients found only in animals. Are these nutrients necessary to health and vitality? Many would say yes, some would say no, but almost all would say that it is *possible* to get those nutrients from elsewhere, if you have a mind to. Plutarch doesn’t touch on the nutrient benefits of eating animals, does not address the potential nutritional necessity of consuming animals.

    Another defense I hadn’t ever seen was the hypothesis that animals may contain the souls of deceased people: fathers; sons; daughters; friends. This was such a wild idea, but I loved it.

    A defense I have heard before was that pertaining to the effect of consuming animals on the mind. Just last night I was reading “Eyeless in Gaza” by Aldous Huxley and came across a passage near the end of the book that speaks directly to this point. I don’t believe in coincidence, so I feel compelled to share (it’s kind of a lot, but very good):

    “I’ve always found that [prayer] tends to make one egotistical, preoccupied with one’s own ridiculous self-important little personality. When you pray in the normal way, you’re merely rubbing into yourself. You return to your own vomit, if you see what I mean. Whereas what we’re all looking for is some way of getting beyond our own vomit. [...]
    But if you’re not careful, prayer just confirms you in the bad habit of being personal. I tell you, I’ve observed it clinically, and it seems to have much the same effect on people as butcher’s meat. Prayer makes you more yourself, more separate. Just as a rump-steak does. Look at the correlation between religion and diet. Christians eat meat, drink alcohol, smoke tobacco; and Christianity exalts personality, insists on the value of petitionary prayer. teaches that G-d feels anger and approves the persecution of heretics. It’s the same with the Jews and the Moslems. Kosher and an indignant Jehova. Mutton and beef–and personal survival among the houris, avenging Allah and holy wars. Now look at the Buddhists. Vegetables and water. And what’s their philosophy? They don’t exalt personality; they try to transcend it. [...]
    What are you, Anthony Beavis? A clever man–that’s obvious. But it’s equally obvious you’ve got an unconscious body. An efficient thinking apparatus and a hopelessly stupid set of muscles and bones and viscera. Of course you’re a dualist. You live your dualism. And one of the reasons you live it is because you poison yourself with too much animal protein. Like millions of other people, of course! What’s the greatest enemy of Christianity to-day? Frozen meat.”

    It is a long monologue by a doctor/anthropologist, all of which is splendid. He explains that eating animals leads one into skepticism, despair, and the negative, and that the only activities animal-eaters can rouse themselves to engage in is diabolic–namely, war. “Believe me, Anthony Beavis,” he says, addressing the main character, “your intestines are ripe for fascism and nationalism.”

    Plutarch, I imagine, would agree.

  5. It’s interesting to read Plutarch’s argument about vegetarianism because I had no concept of when this idea of vegetarianism had taken form. I agree with my classmates that there are faults in his argument when he starts implying the gluttony of eating meat, but then again, that fits with the concept of animal cruelty – both are simply moral judgements, whereas the other argument, pertaining to the physical changes we have to impose upon meat to make it edible, is more scientific.

    Moving on to Lucretius.
    He talks about a LOT of radical ideas. I loved reading, in the preface, that St. Jerome suggested that Lucretius was “not well,” insane, when he wrote this collection of work. Mentioning early in the passage a voyage “in the mind” through infinity, does sound a bit like a drug trip.
    Much of what Lucretius assumes is, surprisingly, very correct. Again, it comes back to that debate we were having: are most modern ideas simply built from past ones? Are we, as humans, unable to create new ideas? We talked about this when we were comparing Plotinus’ theories to those of quantum physics.
    Lucretius explains his entire theory using very poetic language and acts as if he is addressing a goddess (I think? Memmius? that was confusing). This, he explains, is so that we, as readers, can more easily grasp his wild concepts. He compares it to a doctor giving a child medicine by coating the rim of the cup with honey.
    Lucretius completely denies religion, calling it superstition, saying that it is silly to be bent by it. He goes into great detail to deny the existence of a “creator” by explaining that things cannot simply come into existence spontaneously. Nothing can be created or destroyed… sounds quite a BIT like a law of physics to me. It’s great to see he has acknowledged that air is not empty space, and goes into great detail to support it based solely on things we experience in nature. I noticed a slight discrepancy in his use of the word vacuum – he explains it perfectly until he assumes that objects with more “vacuum” are lighter (talking about the same diameter ball of wool and ball of lead).
    From what I could tell, Lucretius assumes all senses are able to experience other forms of matter – sound is physical, as is smell and heat. he also assumes nothing is really actually solid if all of these things can be experienced through other things: for example, sound can be heard through a “solid” wall. Heat, through fingers. Lucretius also states that time does not exist which is fascinating.
    It’s funny that Lucretius admits that he is well aware that what is about to follow is due to “high hope of fame [that has] struck [his] heart with its holy staff” (32), and yet I had not heard his name until reading these chapters. He goes on to say that what he is about to explain, is basically ridiculous. He explains the universe as infinite. It took me about three paragraphs to realize that was the point, because he stated it and it’s so common a thought, now, that I quickly assumed it to be a non-issue. This was his whole point! Atoms can either continue forever or be stopped by some force along the way in the universe, and either proves it to be truly infinite. Atoms are not intelligently constructed, but simply have had time to bounce around enough to, at some point, arrange themselves in a manner of different ways. He explains that is HAS to be infinite based on the lack of something outside it.
    I think that the ramifications of this statement include that he was deemed unwell when having written this piece. It has also set up a perfect platform for, not only future philosophy, but future science.

  6. The most striking line in the Plutarch reading, to me, was the following: “But, (as it seems), we are more sensible of what is done against custom than against Nature.” Essentially he brings up an argument for social constructionism, and it’s poignant.

    The extraneous consumption of flesh, as he argues it, is a conditioned behavior derived from the necessary consumption of flesh for nutrients. Once the behavior began, it was mimicked, and spread, (I’d assume he believed…) and continued until it became habit, even during times when meat wasn’t needed for nutrients. The trouble, as he sees it, lies in the human attachment to what is familiar vs. what is ultimately natural. If everyone around you is eating chicken for dinner, and your mother is sticking it in your mouth with a fork, you’re going to think that eating chicken for dinner is fine, and that it’s normal. To reach the conclusion that eating chicken is wrong (based on natural laws) takes a certain degree of autonomy, sense of connection to animal-kind apart from humanity, and certainly dedication.

    Keeping a vegetarian diet is perhaps one of the most accessible issues which can be used to discuss social constructionism (the keystone of which, essentially, is the identification of ‘function’ for things, and staying attached to them. Vegetarianism in itself identifies function–vegetables are for eating, animals are for living–but vegetarian motivation seems more “humane” than the “food chain” argument made my meat-eaters. (Notice that both arguments want to stick with “what’s natural.”) But nonetheless, anxiety remains, and social constructions exist, around pin-pointing and attaching to the functionality of “things” in the world.

    Heterosexuality, for example, is argued by some to be a patriarchal societal compulsion as opposed to a natural occurrence. Even Lucretias makes the argument, as Amy states, that what women are “for,” in nature, is reproduction. That “for-ness” evolved into their societal role, which evolved into their staying at home and raising the children, which evolved into women needing proximity/marriage to men in order to gain social and economic advantages. Meat evolved from the meeting of a need into an entire industry and a worldwide lifestyle. To be a vegetarian is to be a minority, like to identify as a lesbian or a gay man is to be a minority.

  7. I found the Lucretius reading to be really interesting. I definitely noticed the theme of ancient scientists describing the truths of modern science with different language. He basically states the law of conservation of mass. Much like Ibn Tufayl, Lucretius seems to be preaching for the use of senses to make empirical observations. He then uses his observations to deduce truths in the unobservable. As he works through the idea of the conservation of mass, and describing wind as matter in itself, I found his next claim about vacuity to be bizarre. Some of his reasonings for why vacuity is present seemed believable. I thought the water seeping through rock is a good example of why it seems there is space between things. But when he gave the counter argument of fish swimming through water, I thought he lost it. Or I lost him. To me displacement of matter seems to be a logical outcome of matter never being created or destroyed. He observes that when moist things dry out the moisture is not destroyed, but it moves and transforms. When I move my hand through air or water I do not destroy everything in front of my hand and create everything behind it. Water displacement is a visible occurrence. I don’t know why he felt the need to describe this vacuity. There was also a part in Book 1 where Lucretius mentions a droplet of water at the cusp of becoming a droplet. I am not sure if this is right but it reminded me of how even today we cannot time when water will separate from itself and drop. Through his use of the metaphor of giving honey with medicine to children he seems to be echoing Plato’s metaphor. Ibn Tufayl even echoes this a little. Some people know and understand things through deep search, and others simply try to understand things more shallowly through others. Just like Ibn Tufayl and Plato, Lucretius uses these accessible metaphors to make his ideas more digestible for his audience.

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