Should Stoics be Vegetarians?

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As Stoics we believe there are but a few hardline truths:

  1. Virtue is the only good
  2. Living in alignment with Nature is virtuous
  3. Human beings are meant to help one another

The reason there are so few edicts in Stoicism is because we Stoics believe that every decision should be carefully reasoned in realtime. Whether or not you should be a vegetarian is not a simple question to answer, nor is it a question with only one correct answer. Let’s try to figure out if you should be a vegetarian.

Commercialized farming disrupts an animal’s ability to live according to its nature.

As Stoics we hold alignment with nature as being virtuous, and we hold that Virtue is the only good. It doesn’t follow, then, that we should be okay with forcing animals to live out of alignment with their nature.

But that only suggests Stoics shouldn’t support commercialized farming, it doesn’t necessarily follow, from this suggestions, that eating meat is anti-Stoic.

Let’s imagine we do away with commercialized farming. Now, if you want to eat meat, you must raise it yourself, and butcher it yourself, or work with a local farming operation that is more sustainable and doesn’t create a life for animals that is unnatural to them.

Are there any concerns left?

The animal is allowed to live according to its nature, so we no longer have that concern. The environmental impact has been considerably reduced, so there’s an easing of concern there as well.

What about the act of killing an animal, in order to eat it, because we like the way it tastes, when we don’t actually have to?

Fruits, vegetables, legumes, eggs, and now even non-meat meats (like Impossible burgers) offer a diet that most people can live on (medical conditions notwithstanding).

Could we live without killing animals? I think the vast majority of us could. If that’s true, is killing animals simply out of palate preference particularly Stoic?

Musonious Rufus and Seneca were both vegetarians (Musonious for life, Seneca when he was young), but the reasons they gave were not necessarily Stoic ones. For example:

On the subject of food he used to speak frequently and very emphatically too, as a question of no small significance, nor leading to unimportant consequences, indeed he believed that the beginning and foundation of temperance lay in self-control in eating and drinking.

[…]

On the other hand he showed that meat was a less civilized kind of food and more appropriate for wild animals. He held that it was a heavy food and an obstacle to thinking and reasoning, since the exhalations rising from it, being turbid, darkened the soul. For this reason also the people who make larger use of it seem slower in intellect.

Musonius Rufus, ‘That One Should Disdain Hardships’

So Musonius wasn’t saying it’s bad to eat meat because it’s against Nature to do so, or that killing animals was bad, he simply viewed it as something animals did… and while humans are animals, we’re “rational animals” and that means we should behave differently than wild and irrational ones.

So is eating meat un-Stoic or not?

I would say there’s a clear case to suggest that eating meat was something the ancient Stoics would have thought of as opulent and unnecessary. The Stoics are, after all, very much about self-control, avoiding indulgence, and temperance, so it makes sense that they wouldn’t have been particularly keen on rich and fancy foods (because they could be, in a way, habit forming).

So eating meat isn’t, I don’t think, un-Stoic.

However, what I do think is un-Stoic is eating a lot of it, and, in addition to that, choosing to eat it within the context of a commercialized farming industry that causes animals to live very much out of alignment with their own nature. It’s important to realize that the ancient Stoics would not have had any reason to think about this because commercialized meat production operations at the scale we have today weren’t a thing in the ancient world.

But they are very much a thing and they are both undeniably cruel and result in (the operation themselves and logistics of transporting their yields) significant negative impact on the environment.

So while eating meat certainly isn’t un-Stoic (at least in my view) it seems very obvious that eating meat from commercialized operations is un-Stoic because of the impact on those animals and the environment; and that we justify these negative impacts out of a palate preference for meat.

So, if you’re a Stoic ,should you be a vegetarian?

I think if you cannot obtain your meat through more sustainable means (less cruel and less environmentally impacting means as well), and if your body doesn’t require meat for medical reasons, then yes, you should be a vegetarian.

For the record, I am, and this is a very recent decision arrived at after reasoning in the way I have above.

I hope this is, at least, food (no pun intended) for thought.

About the author

Tanner Campbell

Hi, I'm Tanner. I spend most of my time writing in the philosophy space and I'm the host of the Practical Stoicism podcast. When I'm not writing, I'm reading or recording. In rare moments when I'm not writing, reading, or recording, I'm spending time with my partner and our dogs.

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