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Pythagoras' Other Theorem: A Short History of Vegetarianism

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By Sari Kamin
HRN Staffer

Recently, on her weekly Heritage Radio Network program, "A Taste of the Past," Linda Pellacio interviewed Rynn Berry, an author and historical advisor to the North American Vegetarian Society.

Berry has been a vegetarian since learning, as a teenager, that animals experience anxiety before slaughter. His vegetarianism has since evolved into a vegan lifestyle, which means he excludes all animal products, including honey, not just from his diet but also from his clothing.

With Pellacio, Berry discussed the trajectory of vegetarianism, which has been a documented part of history since the sixth century B.C. According to Berry, the first vegetarian society was founded by the ancient Greek mathematician, Pythagoras (a key player in ninth grade geometry). Not only did Pythagoras demystify triangles, he also spread the gospel of the Buddha, a contemporary of Pythagoras who inspired him personally to practice non-violent vegetarianism. For Pythagoras, abstaining from meat was rooted in his spiritual values; nutrition would not become a factor in the diet until much later in history. In fact, a diet void of any animal products was actually called a "Pythagorean" diet until 1944, when Donald Watson, founder of the Vegan Society, coined the word vegan. Vegetarianism was first documented in 1848, most likely by an Oxford Scholar.

Berry has written several books on vegetarianism, including Famous Vegetarians. Notable meat-abstainers include Benjamin Franklin, whom Berry described as "the only founding father to have a fling with vegetarianism," as well as George Bernard Shaw, who was famously told by a team of doctors that he needed to eat meat or starve. Not only did he not starve, he lived until the age of 94.

Other vegetarians of the 19th century have had the legacy of their names enter the industrial food lexicon of today. John Harvey Kellogg, a Seventh-Day Adventist and the inventor of corn flakes, created the cereal as an alternative meatless breakfast option. Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian minister who preached for temperance, whole grains, and vegetarian diets, created a cracker he believed was a nutritionally superior product. S'mores enthusiasts can rest assured that the modern version of the beloved campfire treat, the graham cracker, bears little resemblance to the original prototype.

The trajectory of vegetarianism is particularly interesting, especially in America, where history has recorded its renaissance on several occasions. The early vegetarians who I have named in this article were all inspired by their respective religions to cling to a meat-free diet. Their goals may have varied, but the common impetus was a spiritual sense of clarity that was thought to be achieved by eating a diet void of flesh. It wasn't until the 20th century that America embraced vegetarianism in a secular fashion. The baby-boomer generation, spurred by the violence of the 1960's and disparaged by threats of imminent ecological disasters, largely embraced a diet inspired by ecology and a desire to get closer to the Earth. By the time Frances Moore Lappé's iconic book, Diet for a Small Planet (1971), was published, vegetarianism had found its way into mainstream America's collective consciousness.

Today we are seeing a vegetarian redux. On one hand, nutrition is worshipped in society and a meat-free diet has become an acceptable entry point into a healthy lifestyle. Even extreme versions of vegetarianism, such as veganism and raw-food diets, have begun to shed their stigma. William Jefferson Clinton, who was not a founding father but is a beloved former president, has been outspoken about his drastic transition from a fast-food fueled diet to a strict vegan one. Rynn Berry would refer to Clinton as a "coronary vegetarian," someone who moves to a plant-based diet on the recommendation of their doctor after having a heart attack or a major procedure. Possibly inspired by their former president, or perhaps just riding the current trend wave, the American people have listened to a litany of testaments from celebrities who swear by their new meat-free diets. Rarely are ethics the impetus, and the nutrition-focused impulse has created a cross section of players on the corner of "I want my meat" and "I want to feel good about it too." This new business of wanting to stay healthy without sacrificing taste cravings has inspired movements such as "Meatless Mondays," which encourages a commitment to eating lower on the food chain without having to go cold turkey. Or cold tofurkey, as the case may be.

The ethical devotion to a cruelty-free diet, we can see, has been tempered and popularized by a re-shift of focus. Yes, we still care about animals, but now that we know that we can consume creatures that have lived healthy and happy lives, we no longer have to stress about their blood staying on our hands. It is important to note that only five percent of Americans identify themselves as vegetarians and for the majority of the population who are meat eaters, there are other ways to impact the environment and one's own health in a powerful and positive way. Pushing for breed diversity in our meat supply and purchasing only sustainably raised livestock are effective and important choices that meat-eaters should consider. Vegetarianism in itself is inherently complicated; the deep relationships between the livestock and dairy industries make for considerable debate when choosing to exclude meat from a diet but not cheese and milk. Regardless of the choices you make in your diet, the more the dots are connected between health, compassion and ecology, the more nourishing your diet will become for your mind and your body.

Listen to the original interview between Linda Pellacio and Rynn Berry here.

To learn more about Rynn Berry and his books on vegetarianism, click here.