Vegetarianism in First century Rome with Sotion and Seneca

My current holiday reading is Emily Wilson’s recent biography of Seneca, the first century AD Roman philosopher, writer and statesman and – in his later years – tutor to the young emperor Nero. Wilson reconstructs a fascinating picture, in particular, of the pressures and family relationships which shaped the young Seneca, as he was growing to maturity. In doing so, she manages to get a lot of interesting traction out of the somewhat patchy surviving source materials.

One area she dwells on at length is the nature of the personal tuition that was provided for Seneca during his teenage years by a succession of tutors. Eminent Roman citizens like Seneca the Elder, Seneca’s father, would rely on these individuals to prepare their sons for public careers at Rome, where the capacity to speak convincingly and hold your own in front of an audience was highly prized.

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Seneca and Nero, by Rubens

A training in rhetoric, which in practice took the form of building competence in declamatory argument, was – in the estimation of Seneca the Elder – of particular value.┬áBut the younger Seneca gravitated more toward the study of philosophy, something he says his father ‘hated’, and his interest in this discipline seems to have been captured particularly by a tutor for whom he had high respect: Sotion.

Sotion was an exponent of the Sextian school of philosophy, a school about which – by comparison with some of the major schools of ancient philosophy whose adherents were active in Rome in the first century – not much is known. In Seneca’s own view, Sotion was a kind of Stoic, but Wilson makes clear that this is not really accurate: unlike the Stoics, the Sextians favoured withdrawal from political life; unlike the Stoics, they did not place any weight on logic or abstract thinking; and they rejected the Stoic view that a perfect wise man can never exist.*

It is of course not uncommon for young people to be influenced in important ways by their teachers and Seneca was no exception in this regard. The clearest evidence of this impact is Seneca’s youthful experiment with vegetarianism, the diet preferred by Sotion as part of his commitment to Sextian philosophy.

Perhaps the best known group to embrace vegetarianism in classical antiquity were the followers of Pythagoras, the Pythagoreans, and there were many such followers present in Rome (and elsewhere) at this very time, several centuries after Pythagoras’ own heyday. Some scholars describe Sotion himself as a neo-Pythagorean. But for the Pythagoreans, the justification for vegetarianism hinged on one very simple notion that was not widely shared, either among philosophers or by the population at large: the doctrine of the transmigration of souls between animals and humans.

Sotion did not reject this line of reasoning, but he combined it with additional arguments to make the case for vegetarianism. Eating meat, he taught the young Seneca, encourages a habit of cruelty, since it trains a person to consider unimportant the suffering and death of other living beings. Avoiding meat therefore allows individuals to cultivate personal purity. Furthermore, eating meat is expensive: the wise man should be frugal and avoid it. The conclusion of Sotion’s argument is that meat is eaten by other (less sophisticated) creatures, vultures and lions: seeing that this is the case, is it really much of a loss to give it up?

These arguments impressed Seneca. Their impact on him can be seen, as Wilson notes, not just over the course of his year-long adolescent experiment with vegetarianism. They mattered also in the context of his adult career as a philosopher, where it was central to his ethics to argue that avoiding cruelty is of fundamental importance for human psychological health.

One of the things I like about Sotion’s arguments, as presented by Seneca, is that they retain some cogency today. Admittedly, for a modern person considering the case for vegetarianism, the ancient Sextian arguments in favour of it might not seem as forceful as some of the arguments that can now be made for it. There is no ancient argument for vegetarianism based on observations about the state of the environment or the harm that is done to it by mass-breeding of cattle, for example; nor are the Sextians able to excoriate specific cruel features of modern-day factory farming, though I’m sure they would have done so.

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A modern factory farm

Despite this, the principle that it is important to avoid causing pain or suffering to other living beings remains a central point of principle for many philosophers in the field of animal ethics (as well as in other areas of philosophy). And the economic argument against meat consumption that was voiced by Sotion still holds for much of the meat that is on the shelves of modern supermarkets.

The ancient arguments of Sotion, in other words, continue to resonate – and this is just one example of where ancient ethical thinkers reached positions that still demand our respect and careful consideration.

*E. Wilson, Seneca: A Life, p.55