The Pythagorean Principle
As long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seeds of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love.
Over two thousand years ago in ancient Greece, the need for a positive revolution based on compassion for animals was clearly understood and articulated by Pythagoras. Recognized today as a genius whose discoveries are still of critical importance, Pythagoras remains an enigma, with some of his insights eagerly received and used and others ignored.
His theorems laid essential foundations in mathematics and geometry and made pospossible subsequent progress in architecture, design, construction, cartography, navigation, and astronomy. Pythagoras and his students also discovered and applied the principles of harmonics that underlie vibrational tone intervals, so Pythagoras is credited with establishing the seven-tone scale on which Western music is founded, with its mathematically precise vibrational relationships.
In all these areas our culture has zealously taken and benefited from Pythagoras’ genius, but the underlying principle that he taught and lived by—compassion for all life—has been much harder for us to accept. His unequivocal teaching that our happiness depends on treating animals with kindness inspired Plato, Plutarch, Plotinus, the Gnostics, and the early fathers of the Christian church, and until 1850, when the word “vegetarian” was coined, anyone who refrained from eating animals was called a “Pythagorean.” The principle he proclaimed, that we can never reap joy and love while sowing seeds of pain and death in our treatment of animals, haunts us today.
Two thousand years after Pythagoras came the great Leonardo da Vinci, another genius whose art and discoveries helped usher in the Renaissance. Again our culture ignored his prescient words about the dire consequences of our meals: “I have from an early age abjured the use of meat, and the time will come when men will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men.” With Albert Einstein, who wrote, “Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet,” and Mahatma Gandhi, George Bernard Shaw, Emily Dickinson, Albert Schweitzer, and others, it has been the same—we gladly take their gifts except where they break the “herding culture” taboo and challenge the sacred cow of eating animal foods.
THE VEGAN REVOLUTION
The core values of the old herding culture still define our culture, as does its main ritual, eating commodified animals. Our deep urge to evolve to a more spiritually mature level of understanding and living, and to create a social order that promotes more justice, peace, freedom, health, sanity, prosperity, sustainability, and happiness, absolutely requires us to stop viewing animals as food objects to be consumed and to shift to a plant-based way of eating. This would bless us enormously, liberating us from routinely practicing, denying, and projecting violence, and would help us cultivate equality and loving-kindness in our relationships as well as develop our capacity for inner serenity. By sowing and nurturing seeds of inclusiveness and sensitivity, we can reap an understanding of our interconnectedness and an ability to live in peace. This means doing a lot of inner weeding, because the herding culture into which we have been born has sown in us the seeds of competitiveness, hubris, anxiety, and disconnectedness. By viewing animals and people as Thous rather than as Its, and by cultivating awareness and compassion, we can nurture within us the seeds of cooperation and caring. We are blessed by blessing others; by using or excluding others or seeking to control or dominate them, we become enmeshed in suffering and further enslaved to the illusion of separateness, which is the herding culture’s fundamental orientation.
When we cultivate mindful awareness of the consequences of our food choices and conscientiously adopt a plant-based way of eating, refusing to participate in the domination of animals and the dulling of awareness this requires, we make a profound statement that both flows from and reinforces our ability to make connections. We become a force of sensitivity, healing, and compassion. We become a revolution of one, contributing to the foundation of a new world with every meal we eat. As we share our ideas with others, we promote what may be the most uplifting and healing revolution our culture has ever experienced.
In fact, when we speak of the various revolutions that have supposedly transformed our culture, such as the Industrial Revolution, the Scientific Revolution, and the Information-Communications Revolution, we are missing the bigger picture. None of these are actually revolutions at all, for they’ve all taken place entirely within the context of a culture of commodification, exploitation, and domination. These “revolutions” have not changed these underlying cultural values; if anything, they have further reinforced them! A true revolution must be far more fundamental than these.
The revolution that is demanded by our yearning for peace, freedom, and happiness must provide a new foundation for our culture, moving it away from its herding values of oppression and disconnectedness toward the post-herding values of respect, kindness, equality, sensitivity, and connectedness. Above all, this revolution must change our relationship to our meals—our most practiced rituals— and to our food, our most powerful inner and outer symbol.
There is no action that more profoundly, radically, and positively embraces these revolutionary changes than adopting a plant-based diet for ethical reasons. There is no action more subversive to the established herding order than cultivating awareness in order to transcend the view that animals are mere commodities.
We are waking up from the bad dream of commodifying and preying on animals. The revolution of compassion that is growing in our consciousness and culture requires that we stop eating animals not just for self-oriented health or economic reasons, but also from our hearts, out of caring for the animals, humans, and vast web of interconnected lives that are harmed and destroyed by animal-based meals. The word that sums up this underlying ethic and motivation is vegan, coined in 1944 in England by Donald Watson. Watson was dissatisfied with the word “vegetarian” because it does not account for motivation and refers only to the exclusion of animal flesh from the diet. He took the first three and last two letters of that word, but wanted it pronounced completely differently, “vee-gn,” to emphasize its revolutionary import. Its definition in the Articles of Association of the Vegan Society in England reads,
Veganism denotes a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practical—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals, and the environment.
The word “vegan,” newer and more challenging than “vegetarian” because it includes every sentient being in its circle of concern and addresses all forms of unnecessary cruelty from an essentially ethical perspective, with a motivation of compassion rather than health or purity, points to an ancient idea that has been articulated for many centuries, especially in the world’s spiritual traditions. It indicates a mentality of expansive inclusiveness and is able to embrace science and virtually all religions because it is a manifestation of the yearning for universal peace, justice, wisdom, and freedom.
The contemporary vegan movement is founded on loving-kindness and mindfulness of our effects on others. It is revolutionary because it transcends and renounces the violent core of the herding culture in which we live. It is founded on living the truth of interconnectedness and thereby consciously minimizing the suffering we impose on animals, humans, and biosystems; it frees us all from the slavery of becoming mere commodities. It signifies the birth of a new consciousness, the resurrection of intelligence and compassion, and the basic rejection of cruelty and domination. It is our only real hope for the future of our species because it addresses the cause rather than being concerned merely with effects. From this new consciousness we can accomplish virtually anything; it represents the fundamental positive personal and cultural transformation that we yearn for, and it requires that we change something basic: our eating habits.
It’s funny how we want transformation without having to change! Yet the fundamental transformation called for today requires the most fundamental change—a change in our relationship to food and to animals, which will cause a change in our behavior. To some, simply becoming vegan looks like a superficial step—can something so simple really change us? Yes! Given the power of childhood programming and of our culture’s inertia and insensitivity to violence against animals, authentically becoming a committed vegan can only be the result of a genuine spiritual breakthrough. This breakthrough is the fruit of ripening and effort; however, it is not the end but the beginning of further spiritual and moral development. Veganism is still exceedingly rare even among people who consider themselves spiritual aspirants because the forces of early social conditioning are so difficult to transform. We are called to this, nevertheless; otherwise our culture will accomplish nothing but further devastation and eventual suicide.
Reprinted with permission from The World Peace Diet, ©2005 Lantern Books.