posted August 23, 2022
For many people, history is a boring subject, as dry as a laundry list and as dead and dusty as the people who inhabit it. That perspective would benefit from change, especially in today’s burgeoning Vegan movement.
Someone said recently that Veganism is relatively new—only 78 years old—and hardly anyone knows about it. To be sure, the word “Vegan” was created in 1944, but it’s not true that Veganism is unknown. It’s been part of a many cultures for millennia. In this post, I’ll look at Vegan history from the point of view of Western civilization.
So why is it important for present day Vegans to know about the centuries-long Vegan (and vegetarian) traditions?
We Can Understand the Process of Change Better
In a basic sense, history is the study of change. In the last few decades, animal activists and the Vegan movement have been effecting change at many levels of our modern society. But without understanding how our culture was once different and how society interacted to shape new ethics and behaviors, it’s hardly possible to see the complete picture of what’s happening now.
Studying the history of Veganism and vegetarianism gives us a clearer picture on why people changed their diets, what drove that change, the difference those changes made to others, and how those changes affected future society.
For instance, when we look at the relationship between organizations to protect animals and organizations centered around diet, we almost always find that anti-cruelty organizations precede diet societies. In Britain, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was created in 1824 and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) began in 1840, with the Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom following soon after in 1847. America followed the same path—the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) was established in 1866 and the American Vegetarian Society came about in 1886.
In this sense, the history of pro-animal organizations shows that compassion for some animals can effect compassion for animals used as food.
We Can Understand Today’s Problems Better
To solve a problem, we must understand the root of it—where it came from, what fed it, how it survived. That’s what history does. It explains how the active forces of ethics, culture, government, and society shaped the events of the past that make up the foundation of our present-day dilemmas. For example, it’s difficult to shine a revealing light on the current global warming crisis without mentioning how animal agriculture has contributed to it.
Consider today’s accepted fact that global warming is directly related to livestock production. How was that conclusion reached? Along with other indicators, scientists tracked the increase in global temperature since the 1960s as well as the rapid increase in the industrialized beef industry during the same period. The cause and effect soon became evident. To help solve the problem of global warming, we need to know and cite its history.
We Can Understand Ourselves Better
History helps us understand our own lives and difficulties, and that is especially true in the Vegan world. Although history is the collective story of everyone, it’s sometimes only the most notable personalities who are remarkable enough to have their lives recorded.
To Vegans and vegetarians, Pythagoras is one of our most famous forefathers. Known more today for his contributions to math, he was nonetheless an influencer for our modern Vegan life, and he reportedly suffered some of the same wounds that Vegans and vegetarians experience today.
His choice to not eat animals was based on his belief in the transmutation of souls, and this avoidance of meat was ridiculed in Greek society much like many modern-day Vegans are ridiculed. He also believed that a compassionate diet was a crucial part of existing peacefully as human, because he thought that killing animals caused depravity in the human soul. His dedication to his principles eventually caused both he and his followers to be vilified and attacked by his contemporaries.
Hearing the stories of others helps us understand our personal motives and identities. And knowing our own place in history provides a context for our Vegan culture and the world as we know it today.
To paraphrase the writer of Deuteronomy, we all drink from wells we did not dig and warm ourselves by fires we did not light. And perhaps that’s the important thing to remember about people and animals from the past. Their stories are not only theirs—their stories are ours as well.
- Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans: A Brief History by Charles H. Kahn (Hackett 2001)
Elaine Hutchison is a ghostwriter, author, Main Street Vegan Academy Vegan Lifestyle Coach and Educator, historian, and lover of the old ways. She lives on a small farm in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains where she serves as staff to her beloved animal family. You can find more of her writing at Unicorn Ghostwriting and at Vegan History (launching September 1, 2023).