Vegetarian Week (1/4): A Brief History of Animal Rights

Vegetarian Week (1/4): A Brief History of Animal Rights

Vegetarian Week Series Part 1: A Brief History of Animal Rights

From fringe movement to front-and-centre food trend, vegetarianism has never been more popular. It is an issue that straddles several issues close to our hearts, from climate change to animal rights, the core of human compassion, environmentalism, personal health, public health, cultural culinary traditions, food affordability, farmer livelihoods….the list just keeps going. Naturally, this makes it a topic of conversation that just about everyone seems to have an opinion on, and the centre of several ethical, economic, and cultural debates.

Nevertheless, there is no debating the figures; vegetarianism has absolutely exploded in the last two years, with demand for meat-free food options skyrocketing by 987% in the UK in 2017.

From May 14-20, we are celebrating National Vegetarian Week. The Vegetarian Society invites us all to discover, savour, and delight in exciting veggie food. To celebrate, we will be running a 4-part vegetarian series on our blog, with the aim of educating and raising awareness about what it means to live compassionately and sustainably, and how this might vary across space and time.


The series will cover:

Part 1: A Brief History of Animal Rights

Part 2: 5 Tips to Integrate Veggie Principles into Your Life

Part 3: The Role of Livestock in Agricultural and Environmental Sustainability and Farmer Livelihoods

Part 4: Top 8 Veggie Restaurants to Try This Weekend


Part 1: A Brief History of Animal Rights

There are several different reasons an individual might choose to go veggie, but one of the most visceral and commonly cited reasons an individual might decide to go veggie is compassion to animals (in addition to qualms over the brutal factory farming practices, contribution to climate change, which we’ll explore in Part 3). The view goes something like this: animals have rights, specifically, a right to life, and man has no business playing god, orchestrating the birth and death of these creatures to appease a bodily desire for a meat-rich diet (which we could, frankly, massively reduce anyway, it isn’t doing anyone any good!). Moreover, the notion that we can care for dogs and cats and sometimes even horses as though they are family members, while regularly rearing and slaughtering and consuming their pig and cow cousins (in the billions per year in the UK alone!) can be seen as far from rational and highly hypocritical.

Animal rights groups seem to be at the forefront of the discussion around whether vegetarianism, or even veganism, is the ‘right’ way to eat. But the idea that animals have rights hasn’t always been as self-evident as it appears today. In fact, throughout most of history, vegetarians lived in the shadows of society, hiding from ostracism, persecution, and even execution. The morality of slaughtering animals has been questioned for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that animal rights started making their way into law. Here, we take a brief look at the history of man’s relationship with animals, from ancient Egypt to the present day.


Animals in the Ancient World

The idea that killing animals was wrong dates as far back as 3200 BCE, if not earlier. At this time, certain ancient Egyptian religious groups abstained from killing and eating meat for fear of karmic reincarnation. However, the first documented ‘vegetarian’ was probably Pythagoras (yes, the triangle guy that made you hate math, that Pythagoras), around 580 BCE. His decision came from the belief that all animals ought to be treated with compassion, and the associated health benefits he observed. Although not widespread, his philosophy did garner some attention from a minority within his sphere of influence, who adopted the lifestyle themselves. In fact, vegetarians were called ‘Pythagoreans’ until the Vegetarian Society was founded in Britain in 1847.


Several Ancient Egyptian gods took animal form. This mirrored the civilisation’s respect for non-human creatures.


Pythagorean vegetarianism remained obscure and unpopular, an idea which was only reinforced when Aristotle proclaimed animals’ purpose to be nothing more than to serve humans. He therefore saw them as equivalent to slaves, with no rights. This ideology went on to inform ancient Roman views, a civilisation who were particularly brutal towards animals, who’s frequent and violent murder at the hands of gladiators was looked forward to and celebrated. In ancient Rome, vegetarians who remained loyal to Pythagorean ideologies were not met with sympathy, and as a result, most kept their beliefs to themselves for fear of punishment or execution.


Pythagoras is deemed the first vegetarian. Veggies were called ‘Pythagoreans’ before the term was coined in the 19th century, and were not popular in ancient Rome


Ancient Rome went on to form the catholic church, and these ideas that animals are here to serve humans persisted through the centuries, ultimately trickling down into present-day western society. This is to the contrary of eastern practices, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, where the abstinence from the killing and eating of animals forms a core pillar of the religion. In 675 AD, Emperor Tenmu of Japan, a devout Buddhist, bans eating meat (with the exception of fish) across the nation. The Rig Veda, the most sacred of Hindu texts, explicitly speaks out against harming other life-forms. To this day, a great number of Hindus are vegetarian as a result.


Early Christianity

As early Christianity spread throughout Europe from the 3rd to 10th centuries AD, the idea of human supremacy over life forms birthed by Aristotle was only propagated and reinforced. A small group of non-violent ascetics existed at the time, the Manichaenists, who were led by the philosophy that all animal slaughter was wrong. Painted as fanatical deviants by the church, several of them were burned at the stake for heresy, while others went into hiding.


Early Christian mural depicting animal sacrifice.


The trend that animals were nothing more than a means to a human end perpetuated into the Renaissance, where openly vegetarian ideologies were rarely seen. One notable exception was Leonardo da Vinci, who was very openly against eating meat, and abstained from it himself. Several crop failures led to years of famine. Meanwhile, meat was very much an expensive luxury good, available only to the rich. There was a rediscovery of classical literature at the time, including writings on Pythagorean vegetarianism. This led to the belief that animals were sensitive to pain and so ought to be treated with a degree of compassion.


Thinkers of the Enlightenment and Romantic Eras

With the turn to the scientific method and slew of scientific discoveries that ensued during the Enlightenment, man got arrogant. This sense of mastery over the material and biological worlds led to a renewed sense of dominance over the animal kingdom. Prominent thinkers such as Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, and Descartes extrapolated the popular view at the time that the universe could be reduced to mechanistic processes and is devoid of subjective experience, to include animal consciousness. Descartes argued in his Meditations (1641) that animals are nothing more than machines, and thus do not have feeling or sensitivity, and famously performed several experiments on living animals. This paved the way for the practice of vivisection, which became widespread over the following century.

Descartes saw animals as machines, devoid of feeling and sensitivity


Opposition was raised by Descartes’s contemporary John Locke, and later thinkers Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant. Locke writes in this Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) that animals do indeed have feeling, and that unnecessary cruelty to them is morally wrong. Kant also rejected cruelty to animals, but he also held the view that humans didn’t have any duty towards non-humans. Rather, his reasoning was that being cruel to animals is bad for humanity, as it “is contrary to man’s duty to himself, because it deadens in him the feeling of sympathy for their sufferings, and thus a natural tendency that is very useful to morality in relation to other human beings is weakened.”


Martin’s Act improved treatment conditions of horses and cattles significantly in the early 19th century.


The 1800s saw an explosion of interest in animal rights, particularly in Britain. Several animal rights acts were passed in the 19th century, including the Martin’s Act (1822), the Cruelty to Animals Act (1835) which outlawed cockfighting, baiting, and dog fighting. The Society for the Protection of Animals formed in 1824, with the aim to go in and inspect slaughterhouses, and In 1847, the Vegetarian Society was founded. Writings by Charles Darwin On the Origin of Species (1859) revolutionised the way people saw their relationship with other non-human species, and by the 1880s, veggie restaurants were popular and had popped up all over London.


20th Century to Modern Day

In the 20th century, food shortages following World War II encouraged people to “dig for gold” and grow their own crops. Individuals could receive extra rations for eggs and cheese, in exchange for forgoing meat, which massively promoted vegetarianism in the population.


Factory farmed chickens live in abhorrent conditions, often without enough space to spread their wings, living among feces, diseased, and deceased chickens, and overfed to the point of collapse as their legs break beneath them.


A few years later, the 1950s and 1960s saw an increase in resistance to eating meat, as the truth behind the intensive factory farming processes came to light. This turned the vegetarian narrative from animal rights and compassion to include a wider environmental angle; an ethical and moral duty to protect and preserve the planet. These ideologies gained popularity with several counter-cultural groups, especially hippies and punks in the 1970s, with violent protests being common by the 1980s. A decade later, there was a huge backlash at importing meats from abroad in the UK, following the Mad Cow disease outbreak and scandal in 1996.

Since then, the demand in Britain for a healthy lifestyle, and meat-free food has only been on the up, partially aided by social media influencers promoting vegetarian and vegan diets, which we’ll be covering in Part 4 of our vegetarian week series. This combination of factors has culminated with a near-tenfold surge in demand for meat-free food options in 2017, and 2018 predicted to be the year of veganism by most food trend industry leaders.

Vegetarianism is on the up. Never has it been easier to adopt this lifestyle, nor has it ever been more popular. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a restaurant without a veggie option on the menu these days, and veggie-only cafes and restaurants are booming. Check back in tomorrow, for 5 tips from our spectacular vendors on how to integrate some veggie principals into your lifestyle!

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