5 Historical and Inspirational Vegetarians

5 Historical and Inspirational Vegetarians

Mahatma Gandhi

Today’s post is written by our guest blogger, Maria Rainier.

When you think of vegetarians and vegans, you think of Hayden Penettiere or Alicia Silverstone.  These ladies are following in the footsteps of bigger, more inspirational names.

Pythagoras, 570 – 470 B.C.

Most people know Pythagoras from math class and his mathematical theories.  Less well-known is his religious brotherhood, the Pythagoreans, who lived a life of strict asceticism and even vegetarianism.  They held the idea of metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls into other animals’ bodies.  Eating a cow, therefore, may have meant eating Grandma for some of these guys.  “Pythagorean diet” therefore meant eating no meat or fish and was used until about the 19th century, when the word “vegetarian” came into use.

According to Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Pythagoras bemoaned:

Alas, what wickedness to swallow flesh into our own flesh, to fatten our greedy bodies by cramming in other bodies, to have one living creature fed by the death of another!

Pythagoras also prohibited the consumption of beans, since it was his belief that beans symbolized the potential for life.  Beans play a role in the legend of his murder; he was said to have run from his enemies after they set fire to his house until he came upon a bean field.  He stopped in his tracks and refused to enter the field, which was convenient for his murderers, who killed him on the spot.

Leonardo da Vinci, 1452-1519

Although best known for his inventions, the Mona Lisa, and (admittedly) his recent depiction in popular video game Assassin’s Creed, Leonardo is known among vegetarian advocates today for his love of animals.  Translator Edward MacCurdy studied Leonardo’s notes and writes:

The mere idea of permitting the existence of unnecessary suffering, still more that of taking life, was abhorrent to him.  Vasari tells, as an instance of his love of animals, how when in Florence he passed places where birds were sold he would frequently take them from their cages with his own hand, and having paid the sellers the price that was asked would let them fly away in the air, thus giving them back their liberty.

Mohandas Gandhi, 1869-1948

Although Gandhi’s vegetarian habits are fairly well-known, it should be taken into consideration that native Indian diets generally focus on vegetables, legumes, and rice.  Still, Gandhi wasn’t just adhering to cultural normalcy; he makes clear in his Autobiography that although he ate meat in his youth, he gave it up to please his mother.  As a student later in his life in England, Gandhi read Henry Salt’s pamphlet, “A plea for Vegetarianism.”  “From that day forward,” Gandhi writes,

I may claim to have become a vegetarian by choice.

He took his choice to heart.  His ethos of nonviolence—ahimsa—extended to animals.  Although he consumed goat’s milk, he shunned meat and said to the Vegetarian Society in England in 1931,

If anybody said that I should die if I did not take beef-tea or mutton, even under medical advice, I would prefer death.

Vegetarianism to him was also an economical stance.

If we are to be nonviolent, we must then not wish for anything on this earth which even the meanest or the lowest of human beings cannot have.

Few people in the developed world today can claim adherence to such a stringent lifestyle; Gandhi died with very few possessions.

Albert Einstein, 1879-1955

Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.

Since Einstein is so often associated with other geniuses like Sir Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking, few have heard this quote.  Yet, Einstein ate meat throughout his life, “always . . . with a somewhat guilty conscience.”  He lived most of his life as a omnivore but spent his last year fulfilling his ethical leanings.  He wrote Hans Muehsam on March 30, 1954, about a year before his death:

So, I am living without fats, without meat, without fish, but am feeling quite well this way.  It always seems to me that man was not born to be a carnivore.

Jane Goodall, 1934-

Like Gandhi, Jane didn’t grow up a vegetarian.  Her inspiration came from Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation in the 1970s, when she decided,

I would not be able to keep from thinking about the images conjured up by the pages I had just read.  When I saw meat on my plate, from that moment on, I should think of pain-fear-death.  How horrible.

She herself eats eggs, milk, cheese, and even organic animal products.  Her aim is to empower individuals today so they may learn about and take power over their food.  Her advice goes as follows (courtesy of Vegetarians in Paradise http://www.vegparadise.com/vegreading84.html):

1.     Buy organic to discourage pesticide use.

2.     Buy locally grown produce to reduce pollution caused by shipping, packaging, processing, and fast foods.

3.     Shop at farmers’ markets or join a CSA (Community Sponsored Agriculture, which allow customers to receive regular deliveries of local fresh farm items).

4.     Buy organic and fair-trade imports to ensure ethical treatment of both the earth and workers.

5.     Eat with the family without the distraction of electronic media stimulation (i.e. the TV).  Families who eat together generally get more nutrition from their meals as well as wholesome lifestyle habits (i.e. less likely to do drugs, smoke, or undergo depression or eating disorders).

6.     Advocate healthy school lunches, like the Edible Schoolyard in Berkley California.

Don’t waste water.  Less than 1% of the world’s fresh water is accessible for direct human use.  In fact, 884 million people today—about one in eight of us—do not have access to clean water.  Water-related disease kill about 3.6 million people every year.

With agricultural and industrial water pollution on the rise (it takes 32 liters of water to make just one microchip), our fresh water supply is dwindling and ending up in oceans.  Although desalinization is an option, it takes tremendous amounts of fossil fuels—of which we’re in short supply.  Buy a filter for your tap water, shun bottled varieties, and protest against conglomerates who want to control your water supply.

Image credit:  Flickr

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About the Author

Maria Rainier is a freelance writer and blog junkie. She is currently a resident blogger at First in Education where she's been researching the best paying jobs with a bachelor’s degree along with what are some of the lowest paying jobs on the market. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop.

14 Enlightened Replies

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  1. faireni says:

    This is interesting. Is it Ok for you when i translate it into german and use it for my own blog? I would link your post as source.

  2. Maria Pavel says:

    Hello Evelyn,

    I haven’t knew all these interesting important facts about those big personalities. I haven’t thought never ever in my life that Albert Einstein would be a vegetarian, that’s strange but also confirms a lot of things about him. He managed to keep his life healthy by eating natural food and ‘green food’, that’s a good thing but it is very hard to become a vegetarian since you have been a ‘carnivore’ person all your life. Being a vegetarian also is a little anormal, it causes some minuses in your body but with time they will tend to equilibrate and you will feel healthier than never before. Thank you for sharing this excellent article with those excellent facts I didn’t knew, quality content and interesting material. Keep up the good work !

    Best regards,


  3. Bryan Thompson says:

    Maria, I am speechless. I had no idea about Da Vinci or Einstein. Could have guessed on Jane Goodall’s part and Gandhi. 🙂 Thanks for sharing.

  4. TrafficColeman says:

    I’m the biggest fan of eating right these days because I understand the element and importance of being around for a long time..

    “Black Seo Guy “Signing Off”

  5. Hi Maria,

    Thank you for your post!

    I learned a lot about these historical figures, that I didn’t know. Actually this was news to me. I’m glad to have this information at my finger tips. 🙂

    I’ve read about Jane Goodall in the past, but now I know more.

    Take care,


    • Hi Evelyn!

      My pleasure. Thanks for having me around. 🙂 Many people are familiar with Ghandi’s famous vegetarianism, but certainly Einstein’s solidarity with vegetarianism is less well known, similar to DaVinci. Goodall has done so much for animals in her lifetime, she’s truly an awesome woman.

      – Maria

  6. Uttoran Sen says:

    Nice article, great to include Mahatma Gandhi on the list. Milk and milk products are ok for an Indian vegetarian, and so is honey and i guess a few more such things.

    There are a few good points in the Jane, paragraph. I have pretty much followed all the points like, save water, buy/eat organic, etc. however, am guilty of the Tv. I do watch TV while eating, something i want to give up(not whole-heartedly). Will try to work it out some day for sure.

    • Hi Uttoran Sen!

      Thanks for reading & I’m glad you enjoyed my piece on famous vegetarians. And hey, don’t be too hard on yourself for occasionally enjoying your favorite dinner as well as your favorite TV show at the same time. 😉

      – Maria