Far from a millennial fad, vegetarianism as a philosophy and practice has existed in some form since ancient human history. In fact, there is significant anthropological evidence to suggest that our Neanderthal ancestors subsisted off plant and fungi-based diets. We were not always the pinnacle of the food chain – for this lauded status we relied on the leap that technology and weaponry facilitated. Early scavenging humans could count on vegetation to support their dietary needs when hunting was not possible or animals were not plentiful.
Beyond scientific conjecture, classical texts from the Mediterranean basin and Mauryan dynasty suggest a legacy of meatless diets. Philosophers, kings, and emperors alike espoused notions of ahimsa, or non-violence, as they applied religious and social ideas towards animals. The Buddhist and Jain philosophical awakenings promoted vegetarianism as an ethical, practical, and healthy lifestyle. Pythagoras was the main proponent of vegetarianism in Ancient Greece. He presented the idea of kinship between animals and humans, with the rationale that human benevolence depended on mercy towards other creatures. In fact, before the 19th century, those who practiced what we now consider a vegetarian diet were known as “Pythagoreans”, so influential were the considerations of Pythagoras.
On a holistic level, monotheistic religions and their respective societies have been less likely to advocate vegetarian diets. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (the dominant monotheistic religions of Western society) have subjected certain limitations on diet, but generally have encouraged the reign of men over animals as a guiding principle. These faiths guide humans on a moral path governed by interpersonal relationships and responsibility towards ‘God’ or ‘Allah’, disregarding our connection to animals and nature. Larger, organized religions obscured the pagan values and folk religions of cultures they colonized, bringing humans away from our natural habitat and under the control of the power-hungry elite.
By the start of the Renaissance, a resurgence of vegetarianism as an ideal occurred, as some artists and intellectuals revisited the classical values of ancient Europe. Leonardo Da Vinci, Thomas More, Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and Rene Descartes all were known to practice or advocate cruelty-free lifestyles to lessen harm towards animals. The philosophic, scientific, and political awakening of that era naturally connected with an expanded consideration of sympathetic behaviour.
Within Europe, the dawn of the Enlightenment spurred new perspectives on animals and humanity’s moral obligations to fellow creatures. Social and political organization evolved rapidly during this era as new ideas flourished. Darwin’s incredibly impactful Theory of Evolution encouraged the widespread adoption of the ideology that animals and humans are interconnected, which was extrapolated upon by philosophers such as John Locke, who believed animals could communicate, feel pain, and express emotion, thus they were deserving of empathy and consideration. In the United States, the abolitionist (aim to end slavery) movement was largely supported by Quakers, who were also likely to discourage meat consumption.
Between the 18th and 19th centuries, the age of Enlightenment ushered in the “Romantic” art movement. This era featured a renewed sense of connection to the natural world, as the prominent artists and thinkers called for an “aesthetic experience” linked with compassion and communion with nature. Eating meat was largely associated with indulgence and elitism. While the poor subsisted off of potatoes, vegetables, milk and porridge, the wealthy could afford to regularly consume meat. Vegetarians, therefore, were almost exclusively middle class intellectuals who hoped to emulate their values through their consumption choices while affording their own livelihoods. In their viewpoint, a simple vegetarian diet would be the keystone feature of an egalitarian society, as it would increase food supply, decrease land competition, and theoretically discourage class conflicts over these resources. Romantics were likely to denounce the class-ism, consumerism, and moral hypocrisy that animal agriculture produced. By establishing this connection, this artistic movement was grounded in harsh political and economic realities that influenced many subsequent thinkers and leaders.
A parallel development in England produced the Vegetarian Society in 1847. A utopian spiritual community known as the Concordium, the Christian Bible Church, and readers of a popular journal at the time, the “Truth-Seeker”, were the founding members of the charity. They believed the movement was popular and influential enough to merit a formal organization. Gandhi was one of the society’s most popular members, as his philosophies of nonviolent resistance and compassion for animals influenced many around the world. The Vegetarian Society has operated consistently since its inception, advocating for cruelty-free policy and social movements through documentaries, publications, and celebrity endorsements.
Still mostly a niche lifestyle movement, vegetarianism was brought into the spotlight in 1971 with the publication of Francis Lappe Moore’s highly influential Diet for a Small Planet. Moore advocated a simpler lifestyle that excluded meat due to its taxing effect on the environment. Her groundbreaking argument was that world hunger resulted from ineffective food policy, and the solution to food insecurity is the worldwide adoption of a vegetarian diet. Peter Singer introduced the animal welfare viewpoint into the discussion with his 1975 work, Animal Liberation. Singer popularized the concept of “speciesism”, a discriminating practice that involves treating animals from one species as superior to another for arbitrary reasons.
A remarkable uptick in vegetarianism has occurred throughout the 2010s as the Internet and social media have made sharing information about climate change, animal treatment, and health effortless and incentivized through social approval. For the first time in history, vegetarianism is flooding mainstream culture as more people wake up to the harsh realities of these global issues. With an abundance of foods available year-round in all climates, fast food restaurants and grocery stores constantly broadening their offerings for plant-based customers, and parallel developments across consumer industries, there are fewer excuses than ever to ditch meat.