Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Forbidden Viands, Dangerous Viands. — A short Examination of Jewish and Christian Precepts, and of those of the Ancient Philosophers.

Viand” comes no doubt from “victus” — that which nourishes and sustains life: from victus was formed viventia; from viventa, “viand.” This word should be applied to all that is eaten, but by the caprice of all languages, the custom has prevailed of refusing this denomination to bread, milk, rice, pulses, fruits, and fish, and of giving it only to terrestrial animals. This seems contrary to reason, but it is the fancy of all languages, and of those who formed them.

Some of the first Christians made a scruple of eating that which had been offered to the gods, of whatever nature it might be. St. Paul approved not of this scruple. He writes to the Corinthians: “Meat commendeth us not to God: for neither if we eat are we the better; neither if we eat not, are we the worse.” He merely exhorts them not to eat viands immolated to the gods, before those brothers who might be scandalized at it. We see not, after that, why he so ill-treats St. Peter, and reproaches him with having eaten forbidden viands with the Gentiles. We see elsewhere, in the Acts of the Apostles, that Simon Peter was authorized to eat of all indifferently; for he one day saw the firmament open, and a great sheet descending by the four corners from heaven to earth; it was covered with all kinds of four-footed beasts, with all kinds of birds and reptiles — or animals which swim — and a voice cried to him: “Kill and eat.”

You will remark, that Lent and fast-days were not then instituted. Nothing is ever done, except by degrees. We can here say, for the consolation of the weak, that the quarrel of St. Peter and St. Paul should not alarm us: saints are men. Paul commenced by being the jailer, and even the executioner, of the disciples of Jesus; Peter had denied Jesus; and we have seen that the dawning, suffering, militant, triumphant church has always been divided, from the Ebionites to the Jesuits.

I think that the Brahmins, so anterior to the Jews, might well have been divided also; but they were the first who imposed on themselves the law of not eating any animal. As they believed that souls passed and repassed from human bodies to those of beasts, they would not eat their relatives. Perhaps their best reason was the fear of accustoming men to carnage, and inspiring them with ferocious manners.

We know that Pythagoras, who studied geometry and morals among them, embraced this humane doctrine, and brought it into Italy. His disciples followed it a very long time: the celebrated philosophers, Plotinus, Jamblicus, and Porphyry, recommended and even practised it — though it is very rare to practise what is preached. The work of Porphyry on abstinence from meat, written in the middle of our third century, and very well translated into our language by M. de Burigni, is very much esteemed by the learned; but it has not made more disciples among us than the book of the physician Héquet. It is in vain that Porphyry proposes, as models, the Brahmins and Persian magi of the first class, who had a horror of the custom of burying the entrails of other creatures in our own; he is not now followed by the fathers of La Trappe. The work of Porphyry is addressed to one of his ancient disciples, named Firmus, who, it is said, turned Christian, to have the liberty of eating meat and drinking wine.

He shows Firmus, that in abstaining from meat and strong liquors, we preserve the health of the soul and body; that we live longer, and more innocently. All his reflections are those of a scrupulous theologian, of a rigid philosopher, and of a mild and sensible mind. We might think, in reading his work, that this great enemy of the church was one of its fathers.

He speaks not of metempsychosis, but he regards animals as our brethren, because they are animated like ourselves; they have the same principles of life; they have, as well as ourselves, ideas, sentiment, memory, and industry. They want but speech; if they had it, should we dare to kill and eat them; should we dare to commit these fratricides? Where is the barbarian who would roast a lamb, if it conjured him by an affecting speech not to become at once an assassin, an anthropophagus?

This book proves, at least, that among the Gentiles there were philosophers of the most austere virtue; but they could not prevail against butchers and gluttons. It is to be remarked, that Porphyry makes a very fine eulogium on the Essenians: he is filled with veneration for them, although they sometimes eat meat. He was for whoever was the most virtuous, whether Essenians, Pythagoreans, Stoics, or Christians. When sects are formed of a small number, their manners are pure; and they degenerate in proportion as they become powerful. Lust, gaming, and luxury then prevail, and all the virtues fly away:

La gola, il dado e l’otiose piume

Hanno dal’ mondo ogni virtù sbandita.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01