Animal Rights:

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Porphyry

The Deeper Minds Of All Ages Have Had Pity For Animals
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This page is part of the section: Animal Rights:A History

Porphyry

He who abstains from anything animate ... will be much more careful not to injure those of his own species. For he who loves the genus will not hate any species of animals.
On Abstinence from Animal Food

Porphyry's, On Abstinence from Animal Food, is along with Plutarch's, On Eating Flesh, a major work from ancient Greece specifically dedicated to ethical vegetarianism. 

Porphyry (original name, Malchus) lived from A.D. 234–to about 305, the exact date of his death is unknown. He was a  philosopher and a scholar with an insatiable appetite for knowledge, he was however best known for his contributions to philosophy. Originally from Tyre, a city in Lebanon, Porphyry studied grammar and rhetoric in Athens under Cassius Longinus. After meeting  Plotinus in Rome in 262 he converted to Neo-Platonism a philosophy founded by Plotinus based upon the teachings of Plato. Plotinus was a celibate, Vegetarian who lived a frugal life consuming  little food or drink and taking little sleep. It is quite likely that others belonging to the group of philosophers who studied with Plotinus were also followers of a vegetarian  life style. Plotinus


Porphyry

 

 

 

rescued Porphyry from a suicidal depression and upon his advice Porphyry went to live in Sicily for five years to recover his health.

 

Porphyry  was a prolific writer on the subjects of philosophy, religion, philology, science, astrology, and musical theory. He edited and published the Enneads, the only collection of edited lectures of his teacher Plotinus and a short biography. He also wrote commentaries upon Plato and Aristotle and the lives of Pythagoras and of Plotinus. Porphyry was also important in the history of mathematics; he wrote a commentary on Euclid's Elements, a treatise on geometry, which was used by Pappus when he wrote his own commentary. Porphyry also wrote against Christianity, but not against Christ or his teachings but rather against the Christians and their sacred books,  saying "The Gods have proclaimed Christ to have been most pious, but the Christians are a confused and vicious sect."  He criticised the Christians for having abandoned the vegetarianism that had been practiced by Jesus Christ.  Both this work and commentaries upon it were condemned and subsequently banned by the church in 448 and destroyed. There are however significant amounts remaining of Porphyry's Against the Christians, a work of 15 volumes, included as quotations in the works of Augustine and others. Porphyry's most influential work is the Isagoge, or "Introduction" to Aristotle's "Categories", an introduction to the logic of Aristotle, which became a standard medieval textbook on logic.

 

Porphyry's Vegetarianism

Most importantly for the cause of animal rights Porphyry was an advocate of vegetarianism on both spiritual and ethical grounds.  Porphyry believed in the worth of other animals and endeavoured to live the kind of life whereby he did the least harm to other creatures.

Porphyry believed that animals had rational souls, albeit perhaps less rational than humans. He considered that animals were sentient, possessed wisdom, have memory and are aware in a number of capacities; they were for instance capable of comprehending and assessing their situation and had the ability to make future plans and were able to communicate with one another and with humans. Porphyry believed that animals should not be killed except in the circumstances of self defence against ferocious animals who could kill those who came near. He compared the killing of harmless animals as akin to the murder of a human being.

"But with respect to other animals who do not at all act unjustly, and are not naturally impelled to injure us, it is certainly unjust to destroy and murder them, no otherwise than it would be to slay men who are not iniquitous. And this seems to evince that the justice between us and other animals does not arise from some of them being naturally noxious and malefic, but others not, as is also the case with respect to men" .

On abstinence from animal Food Book two 28

Moreover Porphyry believed that killing animals was also a detriment to spiritual progress. Indeed not only the spiritual aspect of a person's life was effected by the eating of meat, Porphyry thought that the eating of meat was unhealthy for the body and considered that, compared to vegetables, meat was not assimilated as quickly and not as light on the digestion and far more likely to lead to obesity.

Porphyry's On Abstinence from Killing Animals, was a book written in the form of a letter appealing to his friend Firmus Castricius, who had abandoned his vegetarian diet and had left the Plotinian school to become a Christian, return to his former ways and to reconsider the merits of a meat free diet.

Porphyry uses four arguments in an attempt to persuade Castricius to return to a vegetarian diet.

In book one Porphyry argues that meat was unhealthy for both the body and the soul, that a carnivorous diet is intemperate and as a consequence unsuitable for a philosophical life.

In Book Two Porphyry argues that animal sacrifices are impious

In Book three Porphyry argues that animals deserved just treatment

In Book four Porphyry cites a distinguished sages who condemned animal flesh

Much of the points Porphyry uses to dissuade Castricius from his course of action are just as appropriate today as they were in ancient times, and Porphyry is often cited by modern day advocates of a vegetarian or vegan diet. Porphyry though was not vegan; he did not advocate against the consumption of milk or honey for the following reasons which were in those days more reasonable than would be the case to day with
Factory Farmed cows and the mass exploitation of bees when more than the surplus honey is taken. Porphyry considered that humans and certain animals benefited from a mutual service to one another: while the bees made honey, man looked after the bees.  He considered it was ethical to share the produce of animals as long as it caused them no harm:

 
'As for taking what bees produce, it comes from our efforts, so it is proper that the profit should also be shared: the bees collect honey from the plants, but we look after the bees. So we must share it out in such a way that they suffer no harm, and what they cannot use, but we can, is in a way their payment to us' (2.13.2).

Further commenting upon taking only that which is necessary and which results in no harm in return for caring for animals Porphyry says this about milk

But the more excellent nature in the universe is entirely innoxious, and, through possessing a power which preserves and benefits all things, is itself not in want of any thing. We, however, through justice
[when we exercise it],
are innoxious towards all things, but, through being connected with mortality, are indigent of things of a necessary nature. But the assumption of what is necessary, does not injure even plants, when we take what they cast off; nor fruits, when we use such of them as are dead; nor sheep, when through shearing we rather benefit than injure them, and by partaking of their milk, we in return afford them every proper attention.
Porphyry: On Abstinence from Animal Food Book three

Porphyry, and indeed other philosophers such as Pythagoras and Plutarch, were not vegan in the sense of its meaning in modern times. However in the sense that they considered it was unethical to injure or kill other beings and  endeavoured to live a life that caused the least harm, we could safely say that had any of these philosophers been alive to day they would most certainly refrain from the use of milk, honey or wool taken from creatures who suffer so terribly in the modern factory farming system.

Below are further extractions from Porphyry's On Abstinence from Animal Food

In book one Porphyry argues that meat was unhealthy for both the body and the soul and as such unsuitable for a philosophical life.

For, let any man show us who endeavours as much as possible to live according to intellect, and not to be attracted by the passions of the body, that animal food is more easily procured than the food from fruits and herbs; or that the preparation of the former is more simple than that of the latter, and, in short, that it does not require cooks, but, when compared with inanimate nutriment, is unattended by pleasure, is lighter in concoction, and is more rapidly digested, excites in a less degree the desires, and contributes less to the strength of the body than a vegetable diet.
Porphyry's On Abstinence from Animal Food Book one 46

 

Why should we not, at the same time, liberate ourselves from many inconveniences by abandoning a fleshly diet? For we should not be liberated from one only, but from myriads of evils, by accustoming ourselves to be satisfied with things of the smallest nature; viz. we should be freed from a superabundance of riches, from numerous servants, a multitude of utensils, a somnolent condition, from many and vehement diseases, from medical assistance, incentives to venery, more gross exhalations, an abundance of excrements, the crassitude of the corporeal bond, from the strength which excites to [base] actions, and, in short, from an Iliad of evils. But from all these, inanimate and slender food, and which is easily obtained, will liberate us, and will procure for us peace, by imparting salvation to our reasoning power. For, as Diogenes says, thieves and enemies are not found among those that feed on maize 20, but sycophants and tyrants are produced from those who feed on flesh.
Porphyry's On Abstinence from Animal Food Book one 47
 

Porphyry, and the neo platonic school of Plotinus to which he belonged, considered that justice consists of two principles: in not harming any sentient being and in the rational faculty ruling over irrational passions:
"...justice consists in not injuring any thing, it must be extended as far as to every animated nature. On this account, also, the essence of justice consists in the rational ruling over the irrational, and in the irrational being obedient to the rational part. For when reason governs, and the irrational part is obedient to its mandates, it follows, by the greatest necessity, that man will be innoxious towards every thing. For the passions being restrained, and desire and anger wasting away, but reason possessing its proper empire, a similitude to a more excellent nature immediately follows. But the more excellent nature in the universe is entirely innoxious, and, through possessing a power which preserves and benefits all things, is itself not in want of any thing. . . .

Do you therefore ask, O man, what we should do? We should imitate those that lived in the golden age, we should imitate those of that period who were free. For with them modesty, Nemesis, and Justice associated, because they were satisfied with the fruits of the earth.


Porphyry On Abstinence from Animal Food book three

Porphyry believed that animals were rational, possessed memory, were able to recognise and assess their situation, were capable of making future plans and in their own way were capable of communicating and responding not only to  one another but to humans also.

It must be demonstrated, therefore, that there is a rational power in animals, and that they are not deprived of prudence. And in the first place, indeed, each of them knows whether it is imbecile or strong, and, in consequence of this, it defends some parts of itself, but attacks with others. Thus the panther uses its teeth, the lion its nails and teeth, the horse its hoofs, the ox its horns, the cock its spurs, and the scorpion its sting; but the serpents in Egypt use their spittle (whence also they are called ptuades, i.e. spitters,) and with this they blind the eyes of those that approach them: and thus a different animal uses a different part of itself for attack, in order to save itself. Again, some animals, viz. such as are robust, feed [and live] remote from men; but others, who are of an ignoble nature, live remote from stronger animals, and, on the contrary, dwell nearer men. And of these, some dwell at a greater distance from more robust animals, as sparrows and swallows, who build their nests in the roofs of houses; but others associate with men, as, for instance, dogs. They likewise change their places of abode at certain times, and know every thing which contributes to their advantage. In a similar manner, in fishes and in birds, a reasoning energy of this kind may be perceived; all which particulars are abundantly collected by the ancients, in their writings concerning the prudence of animals; and they are copiously discussed by Aristotle, who says, that by all animals an habitation subservient to their subsistence and their safety, is most exquisitely contrived.
 

But he who says that these things are naturally present with animals, is ignorant in asserting this, that they are by nature rational; or if this is not admitted, neither does reason subsist in us naturally, nor with the  perfection of it receive an increase, so far as we are naturally adapted to receive it. A divine nature, indeed, does not become rational through learning, for there never was a time in which he was irrational; but rationality is consubsistent with his existence, and he is not prevented from being rational, because he did not receive reason through discipline: though, with respect to other animals, in the same manner as with respect to men, many things are taught them by nature, and some things are imparted by discipline. Brutes, however, learn some things from each other, but are taught others, as we have said, by men. They also have memory, which is a most principal thing in the resumption of reasoning and prudence. They likewise have vices, and are envious; though their bad qualities are not so widely extended as in men: for their vices are of a lighter nature than those of men: This, indeed, is evident; for the builder of a house will never be able to lay the foundation of it, unless he is sober; nor can a shipwright properly place the keel of a ship, unless he is in health; nor a husbandman plant a vine, unless he applies his mind to it; yet nearly all men, when they are intoxicated, can beget children. This, however, is not the case with other animals; for they propagate for the sake of offspring, and for the most part, when the males have made the female pregnant, they no longer attempt to be connected with her; nor, if they should attempt it, would the female permit them. But the magnitude of the lascivious insolence and intemperance of men in these things, is evident. In other animals, however, the male is conscious of the parturient throes of the female, and, for the most part, partakes of the same pains; as is evident in cocks. But others incubate together with the females; as the males of doves. They likewise provide a proper place for the delivery of their offspring; and after they have brought forth their offspring, they both purify them and themselves. And he who properly observes, will see that every thing proceeds with them in an orderly manner; that they fawn on him who nourishes them, and that they know their master, and give indications of him who acts insidiously.

Who likewise is ignorant how much gregarious animals preserve justice towards each other? for this is preserved by ants, by bees, and by other animals of the like kind. And who is ignorant of the chastity of female ringdoves towards the males with whom they associate? for they destroy those who are found by them to have committed adultery. Or who has not heard of the justice of storks towards their parents? For in the several species of animals, a peculiar virtue is eminent, to which each species is naturally adapted; nor because this virtue is natural and stable, is it fit to deny that they are rational? For it might be requisite to deprive them of rationality, if their works were not the proper effects of virtue and rational sagacity; but if we do not understand how these works are effected, because we are unable to penetrate into the reasoning  which they use, we are not on this account to accuse them of irrationality; for neither is any one able to penetrate into the intellect of that divinity the sun, but from his works we assent to those who demonstrate him to be an intellectual and rational essence.

Porphyry On Abstinence from Animal Food book 9,10,11

Through these arguments, therefore, and others which we shall afterwards mention, in narrating the opinions of the ancients, it is demonstrated that brutes are rational animals, reason in most of them being indeed imperfect, of which, nevertheless, they are not entirely deprived. Since, however, justice pertains to rational beings, as our opponents say, how is it possible not to admit, that we should also act justly towards brutes? For we do not extend justice to plants, because there appears to be much in them which is unconnected with reason; though of these, we are accustomed to use the fruits, but not together with the fruits to cut off the trunks. We collect however, corn and leguminous substances, when, being efflorescent, they have fallen on the earth, and are dead. But no one uses for food the flesh of dead animals, that of fish being excepted, unless they have been destroyed by violence. So that in these things there is much injustice.

Porphyry On Abstinence from Animal Food book three 18

To read the entire text of On Abstinence from Animal Food by Porphyry translated by Thomas Taylor. Begin by clicking the link below to the first book from where you will be able to access books 2,3 and 4

Porphyry, On abstinence from animal food (1823) Book 1. pp.11-44

important please note:

I am not an animal expert of any kind just your average person who loves animals, all animals, and feels deeply about the plight of many of our fellow creatures. Neither am I a writer, or any other expert. Therefore please keep in mind that the information included in this website has been researched to the best of my ability and any misinformation is quite by accident but of course possible.

Credits

Photo: Pterois antennata - Pez Leon - Lion Fish

Flickr user havivi2007

Original image and licensing details

flickr.com/photos/lainyoya/4518502512/

creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/deed.en

important please note:

I am not an animal expert of any kind just your average person who loves animals, all animals, and feels deeply about the plight of many of our fellow creatures. Neither am I a writer, or any other expert. Therefore please keep in mind that the information included in this website has been researched to the best of my ability and any misinformation is quite by accident but of course possible.

Copyright, accreditations and other matters, please read