On Wednesday I wrote about the poet Percy Shelley’s enthusiastic diatribe in favour of “a reform in diet” towards vegetarianism. Shelley would let his vegetable diet lapse a little as he travelled across Europe with new wife Mary and friends like Byron and Keats. He was, however, far from the first celebrity vegetarian (even if such terms were not used at the time), nor was he the last. But who is the greatest celebrity vegetarian in history? And were their veggie tastes what made them great?
The earliest recorded individual to endorse a meat free diet was the Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras, he of the study of triangles. Pythagoras was a believer in metempsychosis, essentially a form of reincarnation in which the soul could be born again in humans or animals, something that made him reluctant to eat any other living creature. Just what extent Pythagoras abstained from all meat is debatable, but his influence was such that an ascetic meat-free diet and attitude of temperance became known as part of the Pythagorean way of life.
Plato was a great admirer of the Pythagorean ethos and many of the later Platonists endorsed a vegetarian diet to a greater or lesser extent. Plutarch lived briefly from a vegetable diet, while Porphyry was more committed. His On Abstinence from Animal Food is the most significant vegetarian tract in the ancient world. Given how much the vegetable diet played a part in Pythagoras’ influence and how influential he continued to be, Pythagoras can be considered amongst the greatest vegetarians.
Away from Europe, it was the Buddhists that were responsible for the spread of vegetarian diet. Like Pythagoreans, this was a direct extension of the religion’s beliefs in non-violence and a cycle of reincarnation. However, the extent of the vegetarian diet of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha himself, is the subject of some debate and, as a result so is the extent to which his followers should commit themselves to total vegetarianism. For some Buddhists, the consumption of any kind of meat runs contrary to the Buddha’s teachings, while others feel that a Buddhist monk should accept any food given in his begging bowl, making the assumption that food given as alms was not specifically slaughtered for that person.
Back in Europe, vegetarian diets didn’t really come back into popularity until the rediscovery and re-emergence of classical ideals in the Renaissance. There has been a common claim that the ultimate Renaissance man, artist, inventor, writer, mutant ninja turtle namesake Leonardo da Vinci was a vegetarian, having said: “the day will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men“. Only he never actually said that, it was a quote from a novel about da Vinci. That is not to say that da Vinci definitely did not have a vegetarian diet, there is some circumstantial evidence of such, just that his vegetarianism is as uncertain and incomplete as these others.
The first great American vegetarian was the man widely regarded as the greatest American of them all, politician, writer, scientist and all round polymath Benjamin Franklin. After reading the works of Thomas Tryon, discussed on Wednesday, Franklin decided to adopt the vegetable diet, although in the long run he seems to have been more of a pescatarian, as he went back to eating fish in later life. In diet, as in many other things, Franklin was a pioneer. Amongst other things, he was the first recorded American to enjoy tofu (or Tau-Fu as he calls it). In this sense Franklin is probably the greatest American vegetarian.
Perhaps the most noted 20th century vegetarian was Mahatma Gandhi. The great politician and peace campaigner knew the power of food, using hunger strikes to make significant points in his non-violent protests. Away from the hunger striking, Gandhi made sure to keep a strict control on his diet as part of his spiritual existence, pushing vegetarianism as a moral choice saying that: “Man was not born a carnivorous animal, but born to live on the fruits and herbs that the earth grows. I know we must all err I would give up milk if I could, but I cannot. I have made that experiment times without number. I could not, after a serious illness, regain my strength, unless I went back to milk. That has been the tragedy of my life. But the basis of my vegetarianism is not physical, but moral. If anybody said that I should die if I did not take beef tea or mutton, even on medical advice, I would prefer death. That is the basis of my vegetarianism“.
Gandhi said these words in a speech to the Vegetarian Society in London and his own vegetarianism was a mix of the Indian and British vegetarian traditions, his main influence initially being Henry Salt’s Plea for Vegetarianism. Unlike the various people mentioned above there can be little doubt that Gandhi remained committed to his vegetarian ideals, as to many of his others. His influence on the politics of today is obvious and, thus, he can easily lay a claim to being the greatest and most significant vegetarian of them all.
One of the people that Gandhi most admired, and indeed corresponded with in the early 20th century, was Anna Karenina author Leo Tolstoy, whom Gandhi described as: “the greatest apostle of non-violence that the present age has produced“. Tolstoy’s enduring fascination with farming and country life saw him develop a great aversion to the slaughter of animals having witnessed it first hand. He would prefigure Gandhi’s moral objections, saying that if a man should: “be really and seriously seeking to live a good life, the first thing from which he will abstain will always be the use of animal food, because, to say nothing of the excitation of the passions caused by such food, its use is simply immoral, as it involves the performance of an act which is contrary to moral feeling – killing“. If Gandhi can be considered the greatest vegetarian of the last century, then surely the same feelings should be extended to someone who had such an influence on him.
Finally, then, we move to the present day. Vegetarians are more common now than ever before and there are plenty of vegetarians in the public eye. Few have provided such quality work to the world or are as outspoken about their veggie beliefs than Morrissey. He may have produced some of the most genius music of all time, but his Meat is Murder schtick can sometimes be so strong it obscures all of that. Vegetarianism, as it goes, is not offensive at all compared with some of the grumpy old Mozfather’s other opinions (although sometimes there is a link, such as his comment that: “You can’t help but feel that the Chinese people are a subspecies” in reference to their food production methods), but when seeing him live it is the point in which an otherwise enjoyable set takes a significant downturn.
When it comes right down to it, though, you’ve kind of got to admire Moz’s rabid commitment when compared to the half-assed vegetarianism of previous ages!