Moral Status of Animals in The Ancient World - 6th–3rd Century BCE Greece

6th–3rd Century BCE Greece

Further information: Greek philosophy

Psychologist Richard Ryder, former Mellon Professor at Tulane University and chairman of the RSPCA in 1977, writes that it is in 6th century BCE Greek philosophy that we first find concern for the treatment of animals.

Four schools of thought were influential in Ancient Greece: animism, vitalism, mechanism, and anthropocentrism. The philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras ( c. 580–c. 500 BCE) was the central figure within animism. He urged respect for animals, because he believed that humans and non-humans had the same kind of soul, one spirit that pervades the universe and makes us one with animals. The souls were indestructible, made of fire and air, and were reincarnated from human to animal, or vice versa, the so-called transmigration of the soul. He was a vegetarian, and was reportedly the first animal "liberationist," buying animals from the market in order to set them free.

Against these ideas, Aristotle (384–322 BCE) argued that non-human animals had no interests of their own, ranking far below humans in the Great Chain of Being, or scala naturae, because of their alleged irrationality. He was the first to attempt the creation of a taxonomical categorization and hierarchy of animals. Aristotle perceived some similarities between humans and other species and developed a sort of "psychological continuum", recognising that human and non-human animals differ only by degree in possessing certain temperaments. Nevertheless, he denied animals rationality and moral equality. "Plants are created for the sake of animals," he wrote, "and animals for the sake of men." Aristotle argued that humans were the “masters” in his created hierarchical structure based upon their rational powers.

One of Aristotle's pupils, Theophrastus, argued against eating meat on the grounds that it robbed animals of life and was therefore unjust. He argued that non-human animals can reason, sense, and feel just as human beings do. Theophrastus did not prevail, and it was Aristotle's position—that human and non-human animals exist in different moral realms because one is rational and the other not—that persisted largely unchallenged in the West for nearly two thousand years.

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