Once upon a time I was a vegetarian. I wasn’t a very good one, and I never thought very hard about my motives for adopting the lifestyle or its label. But I recently became interested in what it means to be a “good” vegetarian, and why some people (who have the option of choosing) decide to give up animal food products. Most self-identified vegetarians have given up meat and/or fish and/or eggs primarily for health or ethical concerns; the Vegetarian Journal reports that “about 82% [of respondents to its 1997 survey] are interested in vegetarianism because of health, 75% because of ethics, the environment, and animal rights, 31% because of taste, and 26% because of economics,” to give a rough (if somewhat dated) picture.

The historian in me couldn’t help but ask whether these motives were the same in past centuries. Why might someone in, say, seventeenth-century England have sworn off meat? To complicate matters further, the term “vegetarian” only appeared in 1839, and didn’t become popular in the English-speaking world until after 1847. Can I even use a modern category-label to talk about premodern subjects? The ideas, behaviors, and ethics interwoven to form today’s conception of “vegetarianism” don’t necessarily extend backwards in time. So allowing the unqualified label “vegetarian”—with all the assumptions and expectations we in the twenty-first century attach to that term—to piggyback on the simple criterion of “not eating meat” requires either historical blinders or some especially creative logic.


The goal of this meatless diet: to end war and slavery.


Allow me to introduce you to Thomas Tryon—or, as I like to call him, the “mystic vegetarian” of seventeenth-century England. Born in Glouchestershire in 1634, he taught himself to read and write in between spinning wool and herding sheep, before running away to London at the age of eighteen. In his early twenties, he became an Anabaptist, and flirted with various ascetic and meatless diets after experiencing a divine vision in which “the Voice of Wisdom continually and most powerfully called upon me for Separation and Self-denial.”[1] Twice he “fell to eat Flesh, and to drink strong Drink again” for about six months before returning to “an abstemious innocent way of living” (which included eating eggs, butter, and cheese, although he later came to renounce these).[2] He married, but shortly thereafter moved to Barbados for reasons related to his hat-making business. Upon returning to England, he published a number of abolitionist and self-help treatises—including many where he developed his thoughts on vegetarianism and its benefits.

Tryon structured his vegetarianism around concerns and motivations we would not recognize as “vegetarian” today. First, it reflected the practice of using an “other” to critique Western civilization’s shortcomings. Second, it was informed by Neoplatonic teachings on the interconnectedness of the universe, but Tryon gave these teachings a distinctly Christian gloss. And his end goal in promoting a meatless diet? To end war and slavery.

One of the most obvious influences on Tryon’s dietary writings was the European fascination with India, specifically with the philosophy of ahimsa, or non-violence, of the Brahmin caste. Rather than reject all things Hindu as unredeemably heathen (as some of his peers did), Tryon believed that the Brahmins espoused Christian principles so refined that Europeans should follow their example, being “some of the strictest Observers of Gods Law, (viz.) doing unto those of their own kind, and to all inferior Animals and Creatures as they would be done unto.”[3]

Holding up an exemplary other, like a Brahmin “noble savage,” was a direct criticism of the evils perceived in European “civilization.” Tryon especially had cause to critique the fruits of English society, having not only lived through the English Civil War, but also witnessed firsthand the decimation of Barbados and the enslavement of its people. In pointing to Brahmin vegetarian practices as a critique of European immorality, Tryon was drawing on well-established precedent but infusing it with a fervor drawn from his own experiences.

An equally obvious influence on Tryon’s vegetarianism was the Neoplatonic notion that man was a universe-in-miniature, or microcosm. According to this teaching, everything—man, the earth, its inhabitants, and the heavens—had a sympathetic “affinity” with everything else because all were created by God. For Tryon, who understood Christianity in black and white terms, these “affinities” or “similar parts” derived from either a fountain of goodness or a fountain of evil (actual places shown to him in dream at the age of six). Goodness was the result of “unity” with a divinely Ordered system, whereas evil resulted from “discord” with it.[4]


Abstaining from meat would lead to reunion with God’s Order.


From this basic Christian-Neoplatonic premise, Tryon focused specifically on how consuming foodstuffs encouraged particular affinities, thereby harnessing the theory of sympathies directly to conversations about vegetarianism. He starts by explaining that a man will take on whatever characteristics are in his food because the food acts as a magnet to draw out certain sympathies from the body. So, the qualities of the food—whether “good” ones that encourage unity with God’s system, or “bad” ones that encourage discord—become the qualities of the consumer.

Now it gets a little tricky. Given that humans and animals share an affinity—since both were created by God—the destruction of an animal life by a human disrupts the entire system. Actually, it perpetuates a discord that already exists: the source of this discord is Eve, whose Original Sin forced mankind out of sync with the rest of God’s perfectly aligned Order. Thus, in killing and ingesting an animal, man creates violence (against both the animal and God’s Order), which infuses the animal meat he then consumes, and so he ingests qualities that draw out the violent and discordant inclinations already in him. (Interestingly, according to this system, you could also “infect” yourself with bad humors simply by proximity to a butcher.)

In Tryon’s eyes, killing led directly to all sorts of mass violence from wars to slavery, and he firmly believed that man would be able to recalibrate to the rest of God’s system if only he could break out of the cycle of violence initiated by Eve and perpetuated by such killing. Abstaining from meat—among other ways of avoiding violence—would lead to reunion with God’s Order. Once realigned with this Order, Edenic harmony would return.

So we see that Tryon’s message promoting a meat-free diet probably wouldn’t resonate with the average modern vegetarian: stop eating meat because killing animals infects your flesh with violent humors, and ingesting them increases your propensity for violence begun in Eden, which collectively makes mankind discordant with God’s system. The concept of health is present, but more religiously than physically. Non-violence towards animals is present, too, but less because of animal rights and more because of reestablishing divine Order. At first glance, vegetarian behaviors are nearly identical, but scratching just below the surface reveals that the motives for adopting a meatless lifestyle vary not just within our society today, but also historically according to issues and values privileged in other societies.

Allyssa Metzger is a doctoral student in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. Her research focuses on the transmission of Arabic mathematics to Europe, particularly through Spain, in the late medieval and early modern period. She also teaches piano and freelances as a photographer.


[1] Tryon, Thomas. Some memoirs of the life of Mr. Tho. Tryon, late of London, merchant: Written by himself: together with some rules, and orders, proper to be observed by all such as would train up and govern, either familes, or societies, in cleanness, temperance, and innocency. London,  1705, p. 28-29. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. Harvard Library. 16 June 2014.

[2] Ibid, p. 27, 29.

[3] Tryon, Thomas. Tryon’s letters, domestick and foreign, to several persons of quality: occasionally distributed in subjects, viz. philosophical, theological, and moral. London, 1700, p. 146. The Making Of The Modern World. Web. 16 June 2014.

[4] Ibid., p. 85-86.

Image from Flickr via Jim Forest


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