Animal Rights Theory in Ancient Greece: Plutarch and Empedocles

bustos-756620_640“It was the greatest defilement among men, to deprive animals of life and to eat their goodly bodies.”  Empodecles c. 490 – c. 430 BC)

Whilst the the majority of famous ancient Greek philosophers had firmly anthropocentric views of other animals, there were notable exceptions. They may not stick out as prominently as Aristotle or Plato, however their contribution to the animal-human discourse is one deserving of merit.

It may come as a surprise that some of the most compelling arguments for animal rights come from the earliest times in our species’ history of social commentary. Wisdom is timeless; great arguments do not diminish over time.

Arguably some of the greatest thinkers who ever lived did so during the Ancient period, musing on ethics and the nature of life. Many had not only begun to study animals in detail, but had seen the inherent beauty of life and many realised that animals were not ours to use.

Many ancient philosophers were repulsed by the eating of flesh and several religions encouraged abstention from meat-eating. Orphism, Pythagoreanism and Isis-Osiris worship expected their priests to avoid eating the flesh of animals (1).

There is a beautiful charm in the concise, graceful arguments proffered by these wise individuals, elegantly capturing some of the key arguments for animal rights. One of the most beautiful pieces of thinking concerning the use of animals is that of Plutarch’s. He argues with great eloquence and power:

“But for the sake of some little mouthful of flesh, we deprive a soul of the sun and light, and of that proportion of life and time it had been born into the world to enjoy. And then we fancy that the voices it utters and screams forth to us are nothing else but uncertain inarticulate sounds and noises, and not the several deprecations, entreaties, and pleadings of each of them.” (Plutarch, “Of Eating of Flesh,” in Plutarch’s Morals, translated from the Greek)Plutarch

Plutarch raises several crucial points. By ending the life of a living creature unnecessarily and prematurely, we take away its most fundamental right to life, including missing out on its future experiences. Also, he brilliantly expresses our denial over what we see and hear from a poor animal who is being utilised for our own ends. We manage to deny and excuse the pain and suffering we see and hear, rationalising the obvious wrong by believing that the animal doesn’t feel – that a scream is not an emotive sign of suffering, but is merely a machine exuding harmless noise, akin to the creak of a door.

(1) “A View to a Death in the Morning: hunting and nature through history”, Matt Cartmill

4 thoughts on “Animal Rights Theory in Ancient Greece: Plutarch and Empedocles

  1. Pingback: Animal Rights Theory in Ancient Greece: Plutarch and Empedocles | The Metal Hare's Mix

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