When did vegetarianism begin, why and where

Has everything been there before?

Pioneers of the animal rights idea and the history of vegetarianism

For a long time, the majority of people ate predominantly vegetarian food due to the available food. The idea of ​​animal welfare and ethical vegetarianism is by no means an invention of the 20th century: The foundation stone for a vegetarian way of life for ethical reasons was laid in antiquity, especially in ancient Greece. After the word vegan was first coined in the 20th century, it is difficult to differentiate between a purely plant-based or ovo-lacto-vegetarian diet - both of which were called vegetarian - today.

Meat in ancient times: great importance despite low consumption

While meat was mostly only consumed by wealthy people, the Greek and Roman people lived mainly on plant-based food: cereals, vegetables, fruit. However, this does not mean that animal suffering was minimized. Animal fights and hunts were highly regarded by the Romans, while animal sacrifices played a major role for the Greeks[1]. The killing of animals or the consumption of meat itself was important, primarily in connection with customs that were of great social importance. Those who refused to eat meat closed themselves off from the highlights of festive life and at the same time consciously stood out from the rest of society as an outsider.

It is not only here that certain parallels to the situation of vegetarian and vegan people may force themselves: Most of today's arguments for vegetarianism also existed in antiquity. Initially, however, the vegetarian diet had exclusively religious roots.

The first vegetarians

The first reports of ancient vegetarianism come from a religious community in the 6th century BC, the Orphics.[2] With their desire to “liberate the soul”, they advocated asceticism and abstinence - and avoided meat, eggs and wool.[3]

Many Pythagoreans - the followers of Pythagoras (philosopher and mathematician approx. 570 - 500 BC) - found a meat-free diet through religious motives. The historical evidence as to whether Pythagoras himself consistently lived vegetarian, however, is contradictory.[4] Named after the great Greek philosopher, the vegetarian way of life was still known as Pythagoreanism until the end of the 19th century. The thought of wandering souls and reincarnation (rebirth) are the most important reasons for vegetarianism for Pythagoras and his followers.[5] (The thought of migrating souls is almost universally valid in other cultures such as the Indians. In Hinduism, vegetarianism has - as in parts of Buddhism[6] - a much longer and deeper religious tradition than in Europe, India has the largest number of vegetarians in the world. Some of the followers of Jainism, which is native to India, are even vegan.[7])

Plato's Academy

The Greek philosopher Plato (approx. 428 - 348 BC) had close ties to the Pythagoreans, but at most himself sympathized with vegetarianism without practicing it consistently. The Platonic Academy - the first philosophy school founded by Plato in Athens - is generally characterized by its positive attitude towards animals and vegetarianism and trained a number of vegetarians.[8] Several centuries after its founding, Plutarch (45 - 125 AD) also studied at the academy. Especially as a young man, he wrote enthusiastic pamphlets against meat nutrition. What is new about his conception of vegetarianism is that the love of animals per se - comparable to ethically motivated vegetarianism and veganism - is at the center of his argument and no longer the thought of migrating souls or health arguments.[9]

Anti-vegetarianism - not a fad today

Wherever people advocate vegetarianism, there are probably always others who speak out against it, as was the case in antiquity: Peripatetics, Stoics and Epicureans in particular were declared anti-vegetarians. They justified meat consumption by stating that animals were senseless and that humans could kill them for their own benefit. [10]

Although vegetarianism in antiquity had the reputation of a frugal, ascetic way of life - after all, the common people lived almost exclusively on plant-based food - the ancient anti-vegetarians, in contrast to today, never invoked the unfounded argument that meat was necessary for health. Epicurus, for example, lived mostly vegetarian for health reasons.[11 ]However, the justifications that are well-known today were common, according to which plants should not be consumed or the animals that were spared would prevail in the world. [12]

Even the official church has had little interest in vegetarianism at all times, but non-church circles advocated it more often, for example Manichaeism.[13] In the Old Testament, however, the idea emerges that people and animals lived a vegetarian life in Paradise before the Fall (after the Flood, however, meat is explicitly allowed in the Old Testament.[14]) - a similar idea of ​​primeval vegetarianism also existed in ancient Greece.

Growing vegetarianism in modern times

Vegetarianism did not play a significant role in the Christian Middle Ages - in the transition from the late Middle Ages to Renaissance and humanism, however, ancient heritage was revived, and with it the thoughts of Pythagoras and Plutarch[15]. The painter Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519), among others, was vegetarian. In the context of the Enlightenment and enlightened reason, secular motives are increasingly being added to the already known reasons for vegetarianism: The question arises, for example, of what kind of rational obligations humans have towards animals.

Despite isolated evidence of vegetarianism in the 15th and 16th centuries, it did not begin to take root again until the 17th century - after a long shadowy existence in German-speaking countries. In the course of the 19th century, with new impulses, it finally found a first heyday in the broader public, during which animal welfare associations and vegetarian associations were brought into being for the first time[16]: The Vienna Animal Welfare Association was founded in 1846[17], 1892 the German Vegetarian Association[18].

With the industrial revolution, a great process of social change began, and eating habits also changed in the direction of a form of nutrition dominated by animal products.[19] As a countercurrent to industrialization, the life reform movement emerged, which demanded a new relationship to nature. Important vegetarian representatives were Gustav Struve (1805 - 1870) and Eduard Baltzer (1814 - 1887).[20]

The foundation stone for animal rights is laid

In the 19th century, the arguments for vegetarianism slowly changed towards an original animal-ethical justification: the animal for its own sake is the focus. The argument is increasingly based on the capacity for sensation, pain and suffering, reasonable insight, compassion or love for animals. [21] The English movement for animal rights started earlier and is more deeply rooted than the German.[22] Lewis Gomperz (1779 - 1861), who was involved in the London animal welfare association, rejected meat and milk and eggs - so he was vegan. Henry S. Salt with his book "Animals’ Rights "from 1892 formulated animal rights for the first time as they are essentially understood today.[23]

The engagement of women

Women are rarely mentioned in the history of vegetarianism, although historically they have always eaten less meat than men. Where women are first given greater public importance in connection with commitment to animals, is activism against animal testing. Many early active feminists also spoke out against animal testing[24], but not all of them agreed with the women's rights activist and writer Charlotte Despard[25] (1844-1939) or the doctor Anna Kingsford[26] (1846 - 1888) who lived vegetarian.

Veganism and the animal rights movement in the 20th century

After the two world wars brought about an almost complete freeze on the development of animal rights[27], Donald Watson coined the word "vegan" and founded the first Vegan Society in England in 1944. Following his example, vegan societies are now making their contribution to the spread of veganism in many countries - including Austria. The publications "Animal Liberation" in 1975 by Peter Singer and "The Case for Animal Rights" in 1983 by Tom Regan initiated a special upswing for the animal rights movement - and, as a result, the founding of many new associations.[28] In 1988 Helmut Kaplan published "Philosophy of Vegetarianism", the first Austrian contribution to the modern philosophy of animal rights.

In addition to ethical, religious or health reasons, the environmental argument has become more and more established as one of the main motives for plant-based diets. The ideas of veganism and animal rights are known to more people than ever before, representatives from various areas of society are actively committed to animals. What began over two thousand years ago in small steps is continued all the more intensely and consistently today: The story of vegetarianism is definitely a successful one!


[1] cf. Dierauer pp. 31-32

[2] cf. Dierauer p. 12.

[3] cf. Leitzmann p. 30.

[4] cf. Duration pp. 13-16.

[5] cf. Leitzmann p. 31.

[6] cf. Schmithausen p. 145ff.

[7] cf. Spencer p. 69ff.

[8] cf. Dierauer pp. 21-22.

[9] ibid. P. 38.

[10] ibid. P. 27ff.

[11] ibid. P. 28.

[12] On the main arguments against vegetarianism: Dierauer pp. 29-31.

[13] cf. Dierauer, p. 52.

[14] ibid. P. 50.

[15] ibid. P. 74.

[16] cf. Ingensiep p. 73.

[17] On the Vienna Animal Welfare Association: http://www.wr-tierschutzverein.org

[18] On the Vegetarian Association: http://www.vebu.de

[19] cf. Leitzmann pp. 32-33. and see Baumgartner p. 108ff

[20] cf. Barlösius pp. 24-25.

[21] cf. Ingensiep pp. 75-76.

[22] ibid. P. 77.

[23] cf. Baumgartner pp. 118-119.

[24] on vegetarianism and ecofeminism: Gaard, Greta: Vegetarian Ecofeminism. A review essay. At: http://gretagaard.efoliomn2.com

[25] cf. Baumgartner p. 120.

[26] de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Kingsford [09/20/09]

[27] cf. Baumgartner p. 120.

[28] cf. ibid. p. 121.

Collected Directory:

Barlösius, Eva (1997): Natural lifestyle. On the history of life reform and the turn of the century. Frankfurt / Main, New York: Campus p. 24-25. (see Bonn, Univ.-Habil. 1996)

Baumgartner, Judith (2001): Vegetarian in the 20th century - a modern and sustainable diet. In: Vegetarianism. On the history and future of a way of life. Ed. Linnemann, Manuela and Schorcht, Claudia. Erlangen: Fischer pp. 107 - 126 (Animal Rights-Human Duties, Vol. 4)

Dierauer, Urs (2001): Vegetarianism and Animal Protection in Greco-Roman Antiquity. In: Vegetarianism. On the history and future of a way of life. Ed. Linnemann, Manuela and Schorcht, Claudia. Erlangen: Fischer S. 9 - 72. (Animal rights-human obligations, Vol. 4)

Gaard, Greta: Vegetarian Ecofeminism. A review essay. Retrieved from: http://gretagaard.efoliomn2.com

Ingensiep, Hans Werner (2001): Vegetarianism and animal ethics in the 18th and 19th centuries - change in the motives and arguments of the pioneers. In: Vegetarianism. On the history and future of a way of life. Ed. Linnemann, Manuela and Schorcht, Claudia. Erlangen: Fischer pp. 73 - 106. (Animal rights-human obligations, vol. 4)

Leitzmann, Claus (2007): Vegetarism. Basics, advantages, risks. 2nd act. Edition Munich: Beck.

Schmithausen, Lambert (2000): Eating without killing. On the question of meat consumption and vegetarianism in Buddhism. In: The religions and the food. Ed. Perry Schmidt-Leukel. Kreuzlingen: Heinrich Hugendubel pp. 145-202.

Spencer, Colin (1994): The heretic’s feast: A history of vegetarianism. Fourth Estate Ltd.

Online sources:




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