One of the more fascinating tales of Homer in the Odyssey is that of the bewitching of Odysseus’s men by the witch Circe. Odysseus and his men have arrived at an unknown wooded island. Odysseus sends a detachment of men to find food on the island. Soon one of his men comes running in haste, terrified, lamenting the sad fate of the others. When Odysseus goes in search and arrives at Circe’s cottage, he discovers that she has transformed his men into swine. In the world of Odysseus, swine are the most disgusting of creatures fit only to be slaughtered and eaten. One can hardly sink lower than a pig in a pig-pen eating swill!
A thousand years after Homer penned the Odyssey, the philosopher and essayist Plutarch provided an unexpected and humorous twist to Homer’s story. In the essay, On the Use of Reason by ‘Irrational’ Animals, Plutarch imagines that Odysseus is rhetorically challenged by one of his men-turned-swine, whom Plutarch calls Grunter. In response to Odysseus’s goal to force Circe to free his men from their pig-pens and return them to human form, Grunter tells Odysseus that he would prefer to stay as a pig. The reason for this astonishing request is that Grunter has found that he has never felt so content than during his brief stint as a pig. Indeed, he engages the most wise and witty man of his time, Odysseus, in a philosophical argument in which he proves to Odysseus that the fate of humans is discontent and despair. Swine, on the other hand, are happy.
Grunter’s argument is that swine possess a natural, instinctual intelligence unencumbered by human societal norms. Humans, Grunter argues from experience, are constantly worried in every moment by what the next moment will bring. Anticipating the future, humans fear time and its consequences: old age, ugliness, poverty, humiliation. Swine, lacking the niceties of human civilization, live content in the moment, unafraid of what the future will bring. Pigs anticipate only one future occurrence, death, which is the lot of all living things. And since each moment in a pig’s life is the same, unconcerned with wealth, status, and power, they live happily, day by day.
Plutarch was a philosopher influenced by Plato and his forebears, such as Pythagoras. Although Plutarch was unwilling to accept the Pythagorean philosophy of the transmigration of souls, he did agree with Pythagoras that the vegetarian lifestyle is best. Pythagoras feared that in killing and eating an animal he might be ingesting a former acquaintance. Plutarch’s reasons for vegetarianism were more common-sensical.
For one, Plutarch argued that meat is difficult to digest, and by filling the stomach slows down the mind. He believed, as many do today, that meat is not part of a healthy lifestyle. He was clearly disgusted by the idea of taking a living creature and in the wink of an eye, bashing its brains out, skinning, it, cooking it, and gorging oneself over something that just a short while before was enjoying life just like any other creature.
There is no good reason to eat meat, Plutarch argued. Nature is so plentiful with all sorts of vegetables and fruits, which are better tasting, more healthy, and less apt to dull the mind. If humans are starving, and there is nothing else to eat, then meat might be the only choice. But in Plutarch’s time of first century Rome, just like in our time, he believed that meat-eating was little more that sheer gluttony.
Plutarch also argued for the sanctity of all life. To take a living creature, inherently equal to all other living beings, and to kill it only to satisfy a carnal appetite, is to disrespect the Author of all Life.
Grunter’s ultimate argument, that pigs are intelligent, happy creatures, who deserve to live, found Odysseus at a loss for words–as might be the case for many of us today.