Sunday, January 20, 2013

Ovid on Pythagoras and the abstention of eating the flesh of animals

Previous posts have examined the evidence that an important aspect of the ancient wisdom was a teaching on the abstention from the eating of meat (see for example "The ancients and the 'plant-based diet' debate," "Ancient wisdom and modern raw foodists,"  "Plutarch's 'On the eating of flesh,'" and "Plutarch, Demeter, and genetically-modified food").

One of the reasons this subject is important is that the vegetarian tradition among ancient philosophers such as Plutarch, who had by their own admission been taught by the priests of Egypt, provides another strong piece of evidence for some kind of connection between ancient Egypt and the Buddhist monastic tradition that survives to this day in China, Tibet, and other parts of the globe east of Egypt.

Another reason that this subject is important is that, if the ancient philosophers taught so clearly against the consumption of meat, we may want to carefully consider whether this teaching might have important implications for the larger subject that they were all about, which we might term the "pursuit of consciousness." 

In an interview with Curtis Davis from November 25, 2011, Santos Bonacci discusses another ancient writer whose work conveys to us some very vivid arguments against the consumption of the flesh of animals: the poet Ovid (43 BC -- AD 17 or 18). 

You can hear that interview for yourself for free by going to the "iTunes store" podcast section and searching for Santos Bonacci, and then downloading the podcase dated November 25, 2011 (entitled "Santos Bonacci Returns" -- but look for the date, as there are other interviews from other dates with that same title or a similar title).  The discussion of Ovid and the abstention from the eating of meat begins around the 1:02:00 mark in that interview podcast.

Here is how Santos introduces the subject, including a strong recommendation to get your hands on a copy of Ovid's Metamorphosis as soon as possible (he is reading from the new translation by Charles Martin from 2004, an outstanding edition and the one that I use as well):
Now I'm not reading from here to condemn anyone who is eating meat -- please -- please understand what I'm trying to do: I'm trying to give us the philosopher's perspective. [. . .] He knew who he was, and he was trying to share with us this wisdom and knowledge of knowing who we are.  [. . .]  I would be reading Ovid's Metamorphoses as soon as possible.  And, in particular, I would go to the Fifteenth Book, and I would be reading -- there's some beautiful stuff in there -- and in one portion, at the very start of the book, it's called "The Teachings of Pythagoras."
Ovid begins to tell us of Pythagoras by saying:
There was a man who had been born on Samos,
but fled his native land and its rulers, 
freely choosing to become an exile
out of his hatred for despotism [. . .];
he was the first to censure man for eating
the flesh of animals and was the first
to preach this learned, but not widely held
doctrine, in these words from his own lips.  XV, 89-92 and  108-111.
Ovid then goes on to give us some of the "teachings of Pythagoras" on this subject of not eating flesh, and as Ovid is the past master of vivid imagery and language, the teachings of Pythagoras on this subject are very convincing indeed.  They should really be read in full, as Ovid moves from this subject to the subject of the human spirit which does not die with the human body but remains the same "even though it migrates to various bodies" (XV, 217), and then comes back to the subject of abstaining from the eating of animals once again.  

It must be that Ovid perceived a connection between these two subjects!

In fact, it must be considered somewhat striking that Ovid included this discussion of Pythagoras in the Metamorphoses at all, especially in the Fifteenth Book, which is the crowning conclusion of the work.  This should be considered a strong hint as to the layers of spiritual meaning contained in all the stories that have gone before. 

It is also striking that, of all the things he could have emphasized about the great ancient sage Pythagoras, Ovid chose to emphasize most strongly his teaching on the abstention from eating meat, and the connection of this abstention to the true nature of the human soul and spirit.

To convey a bit of the power of Ovid's recreation of Pythagoras' speech regarding the eating of meat, a few choice portions follow, but this is a speech that should really be read in its glorious entirety, for Ovid's Phythagoras goes on to new heights of philosophy as the speech unfolds, only to conclude with the strongest of all his urgings to cease killing animals for food.

The speech begins with these words, which follow immediately from the portion quoted above (this is now meant to be Pythagoras speaking):
"Mortals, refrain from defiling your bodies with sinful
feasting, for you have the fruits of the earth and of arbors,
whose branches bow with their burden; for you the grapes ripen,
for you the delicious greens are made tender by cooking;
milk is permitted to you too, and thyme-scented honey:
Earth is abundantly wealthy and freely provides you
her gentle sustenance, offered without any bloodshed."  XV, 112-118.
If Pythagoras, of whom Ovid says his chief occupation was to "lecture to improve people's minds" was so adamant about this subject (and the above short sample is just a taste of the powerful arguments that Ovid has Pythagoras deliver during the 434-line discourse), then we might ask ourselves whether the conditioning we receive beginning at a very early age that we simply have to eat meat for optimal health might be doing something other than "improving our minds."

In any case, every individual should of course be allowed to make these choices for himself or herself, free from coercion or from pressure, censure, or condemnation from others on the matter of food.  However, if the ancient philosophers thought that the choice of whether or not to eat animals for food was such a critical matter, and one somehow bound up in the issue of the journey of the spirit, we should probably pay close attention to what they had to say about this question.