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The Ethics of Diet - A Catena
by Howard Williams M.A., 1883

Ancient bronze bust, the so-called Pseudo-Seneca, now conjectured to be an imaginative portrait of Hesiod

Hesiod - extracts

(text from the 2nd edition, 1896, scanned by ) - in the 1st edition Hesiod was Article I in the main text, with and an extra article I in the Appendix - giving the Greek version of the extract quoted below.

To what period exactly, and to what person or persons, in particular, is to be assigned, in the Western World, the pre-eminent merit of the first attempt to reclaim the human species from the "foul diet (to use the expression of the Latin satirist) of slaughter and cruelty," (1) is a highly interesting but, necessarily, uncertain inquiry. That, like the Buddhistic religious and social reformation in the East, it originated in a revolt from Sacerdotal pretensions and practices, seems to be the most probable hypothesis. It is possible that the Orphic Societies, originating about the eighth or seventh century, B.C., in certain parts of the Hellenic Peninsula, which taught and practised ascetic rules of living—and to some extent at least, abstinence from flesh-foods—and which claimed the semi-legendary Orpheus as their founder, may claim the honour of having inaugurated in the West this most important of social revolutions. In the number of the traditionary civilisers and reformers of the earlier peoples, the name of Orpheus has always held a foremost place. In early Christian times Orpheus, and the literature with which his name is connected, occupy a very prominent position, and some celebrated forged prophecies passed current as the utterances of that prophet-poet. (2)

That the preference for the purer diet, evidently displayed in the Hesiodic poems, derived its origin in part from these Orphic sacred or semi-sacred writings, though an uncertain, is a reasonable, conjecture. Hesiod, who, like his yet more celebrated (epic) successor, has given his name to a collection of world-famous poems, may be regarded as the poetic representative of Agriculture and peaceful Industry, as "Homer" is of War and the heroic virtues. (3) He represents himself as a native of Bœotia, a part of Hellas which, notwithstanding its proverbial beef-eating and stupidity, produced the very exceptional intellects, Korinna and Pindar, Epaminondas, and last, not least, Plutarch, the most amiable moralist of Antiquity.

All that is known of Hesiod is derived from his Works and Days. From this celebrated poem, the earliest extant literary product of the western world—not wholly genuine, and of composite authorship—we learn that his brother, Perses, in collusion with the judges, had deprived him of his just inheritance; and his indignation at this gross injustice inspires some of his finest verses. He is, also, the reputed author, among other productions, of an equally famous poem, the Theogony. Of the Theogony (the genuineness of which has been questioned) the subject, as the title implies, is the history of the generation, and successive dynasties of the Olympian divinities—the objects of the national religious worship. It may be styled, in some sort, the Hellenic Bible; and, with the Homeric epics, it formed the principal theology of the old Greeks, and through them, of the Latins. The exordium, in which the Muses appear to their votary, and consecrate him to the work of revealing the divine mysteries by the gift of a laurel branch; and the following verses describing their return to the celestial mansions, where they hymn the Omnipotent Father, charm by their beauty. To the long description of the tremendous struggle of the warring deities and Titans, fighting for possession of heaven, Milton was largely indebted for his famous commemoration of a similar conflict.

Of the Works and Days—the earliest didactic poem extant—amidst many traces of the barbarous and semi-barbarous beliefs of the young world, the special charm lies in its apparent earnestness of purpose and its simplicity of style. The author's frequent references to, and rebukes of, legal injustices, his sense of which had been quickened by iniquitous sentences of the judges, with their naïveté and pathos, lend additional interest to this Ecclesiastes of the Hellenic Scriptures. In striking contrast with the military spirit of the Homeric epics the Works and Days deals with matters ethical, economic and political. In the ethical part appears strong feeling of horror at the triumph of Violence and Wrong. The well-known verses, in which is figured the gradual declension of men from the Golden to the present Iron race, may be taken as the remote original of all later poetic fictions of Golden Ages and Times of Innocence. According to Hesiod, there exist two everlastingly antagonistic influences at work on the Earth—the evil spirit of War and Violence and the beneficent spirit of Peace and Industry. In the apostrophe, in which he bitterly reproaches his unjust judges:—

"O fools, they know not, in their selfish soul,
How far the Half is better than the Whole :
The good which Asphodel and Mallows (4) yield
The feast of herbs, the dainties of the field!"

he seems to have a profound conviction of the truth taught by Vegetarian philosophy, that unnaturally luxurious living becomes the fruitful parent of Selfishness and Injustice, in their protean, ever varying shapes.

That the prophet poet regarded the diet which depends mainly, or wholly, upon agriculture and on fruit-culture as the higher mode of living sufficiently appears from the following verses, descriptive of the "Golden Age" life:—

"Like gods, they lived with calm, untroubled mind,
Free from the toil and anguish of our kind,
Nor did decrepid age mis-shape their frame.
*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  
Pleased with earth's unbought feasts : all ills removed,
Wealthy in flocks, (5) and of the Blest beloved,
Death, as a slumber, pressed their eyelids down:
All Nature's common blessings were their own.
The life-bestowing tilth its fruitage bore,
A full, spontaneous, and ungrudging store.
They with abundant goods, 'midst quiet lands,
All willing, shared the gatherings of their hands.
When Earth's dark breast had closed this race around,
Great Zeus, as demons, (6) raised them from the ground;
Earth-hovering spirits, they their charge began—
The ministers of good, and guards of man.
Mantled with mist of darkling air they glide,
And compass Earth, and pass on every side;
And mark with earnest vigilance of eyes,
Where just deeds live, or crooked ways arise,
And shower the wealth of seasons from above." (7)

Inferior to the first and wholly innocent people, the second race—the Age of Silver—were, nevertheless, guiltless of bloodshed in the preparation of their food, nor did they imbue their hands in the blood of propitiatory sacrifices (a horrible world-practice, from the earliest ages of human life on the globe, surviving, with anthropophagy, among the savages of the African continent; which the poet—infected with something of the priestly prejudice—strangely seems to approve). For the third—the Brazen Age—it was reserved to inaugurate the feast of blood:—

"Strong with the ashen spear, and fierce and bold,
Their thoughts were bent on violence alone,
The deed of battle, and the dying groan.
Bloody their feasts, with wheaten food unblessed."

As for the "Immortals inhabiting Olympian mansions," they are represented as feasting ever on the pure and bloodless food, ambrosia—the immortal food—and their drink is nectar, "the water of life"; an innocent celestial diet incongruous with the hideous, sanguinary offerings of their human devotees, with which the literatures of almost all sacred books are infected. The divine Muses of Helicon, who inspire his song, Hesiod represents as reproaching the shepherds, his neighbours, "who tend the flocks," with their more fleshly appetites.

Ovidius, among the Latins, is the most charming painter of the innocence of the "Golden Age." Among modern poets, Milton, Thomson, Lamartine, Shelley—the last as a prophet of the future, and actual, rather than the I of a past and fictitious age of Innocence—have contributed to embellish the fable of the Past and the hope of the Future, (8)



  1. This significant word, it is instructive to note, is connected in its origin with blood-shedding,derived as it is from the Latin cruor and crudus, "gore," ""gory"." It is, therefore, especially applicable to the slaughter-house.
  2. The general belief that Orpheus introduced, or enforced, the radical dietetic reformation among his countrymen, has been adopted by Horatius, the Latin satirist poet :
    . . . . Silvestres homines sacer, interpresque deorum,
    . . . . Cœdibus et fœdo victu deterruit Orpheus.—.—Ars Poet.
    Virgilius assigns to him a place in the first rank of the Just in the Elysian paradise.—Æneis vi.
  3. The poet of the Odyssey, it is to be noted, amid all the barbarisms of the social and religious Life described by him, exhibits some traces of a consciousness of the higher life, as far as food is concerned. Bread or wheat (or barley) he terms "the marrow of man"—[Greek Omitted] (Od. ii. 290, xx,69, 108.) In another place he stigmatises the shamelessness of human gluttony—"no single thing-is more shameless than the loathsome stomach"—[Greek Ommitted]. The innocence of the Hippomolgians (of Pope's version) unhappily is, at least, doubtful.
    The poet gives to them the epithets of "mare milk-feeders" (what their name imports) ; poor (the original [Greek Ommitted] may either mean this, or be a proper name), and most just of men. But, as they were Tartar by race, they hardly can be classed as non-flesh eaters. (II. xiii., 5, 6). See also Od. xii, 394-6, etc, (of the impious butchery of the Oxen)
  4. These unsubstantial vegetables must be taken merely as poetic representatives of the more practical and substantial grains, pulse, and fruits.
  5. The same apparent contradiction—the co-existence of "flocks and herds" with the prevalence of the non-flesh diet—appears in the Jewish theology, in Genesis. It is obvious, however, that in both cases the "flocks and herds" might be existing for other purposes than for slaughter.
  6. Diamones. The dœmon in Greek theology was simply a lesser divinity—an angel.
  7. Compare Spenser's charming verses (Faery Queen, Book ii., canto 8) : "And is there care in heaven," etc.
  8. Among the more pleasing fictions of the Hellenic and, following them, of the Latin poets and poetic historians, the famed Hyperboreans—the fortunate people living beyond the reach of cold and storms—appear as innocent of butchering. They are fabled to have lived to the more than ante-diluvian age of one thousand years
  • Hesiod's Works and Days (c.800 BC) (PDF 6mb) contained in Homer's Batrachomyomachia, hymns and epigrams; Hesiod's Works and days; Musæus' Hero and Leander, trans. George Chapman, London,1858


Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index