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Photo: Rainer Ebert
Photo: Rainer Ebert

Many know Leonardo da Vinci as the Italian Renaissance genius who painted the Mona Lisa. Few are familiar with Leonardo’s moral views. Not only was he a generous humanitarian, but he also cared deeply about animals. One of his earliest biographers, Giorgio Vasari, assures us that Leonardo was “fond of all animals, ever treating them with infinite kindness and consideration.” As proof, Vasari recounts stories of encounters Leonardo had with bird traders in the market. On such occasions, Leonardo would often buy birds, and then release them into the sky. He could not bear to see an animal of the air confined to a small cage. Leonardo’s compassion was not restricted to birds though. It is said that he abhorred violence toward any animal. The Italian explorer Andrea Corsali, in a letter to his patron, reported that the members of a people he came across on a trip to pre-colonial South Asia “are so gentle that they do not feed on anything which has blood, nor will they allow anyone to hurt any living thing, like our Leonardo da Vinci.” Leonardo himself wrote that, rather than being the king of all animals, man is the king of all beasts, as he has made his gullet “a tomb for all animals.” From this, and other historical evidence, we may conclude that Leonardo was an ethical vegetarian. He refused to be a party to the unnecessary killing of animals, repulsed by the thought of other sentient beings having to surrender their precious and unique lives for his palate. This view was radical in Renaissance Italy, probably even more radical than it is in most societies today.

Not without a certain pride, I observe the same compassion that was present in Leonardo in my three-year-old niece. For Christmas, I gave her an illustrated book that tells the story of Perfect, the pig. At one point in the story, Perfect falls into the hands of a vicious man. The man mistreats and exploits Perfect. My niece instantly grasped that part of the story when she first flipped through the book. Before I could actually read the story to her, she took the book and hid it in the darkest corner of her room. “It’s too sad,” she said. I explained to her that Perfect will be saved by his friend, Olivia, and that they will live happily ever after. But my niece would have none of it. “It’s too sad.” Children want everybody to be happy, regardless of species. They consider squirrels their friends, and dogs, and polar bears, and goats, and goldfish. Children naturally empathize with animals, and they can easily imagine how they would feel if put into a cage or beaten. If my niece understood how meat is produced, she would say, like I imagine Leonardo did, “no, thanks, I’ll have vegetables instead” (to be honest, it is more likely that her preferred meat-alternative would be chocolate cookies).

As we grow up, we lose much of the natural empathy children have. We are taught that eating meat is “natural”. But what is natural is not always good (e.g., war and disease), just as what is unnatural is not always bad (e.g., cell phones and modern medicine). We are taught that eating meat is “necessary”. But we can live healthy and long lives without meat (I myself became a vegetarian 17 years ago, and a vegan about eight years ago, and I’ve never felt better). We are taught that we should look after humans first. But why can’t we care for both? We are taught that the serious concern for animals that comes naturally to children is sentimental or radical when displayed by adults, and that the appropriate response is ridicule or bewilderment. But what if what appears to be mere sentimentality is really a sense of justice? What if Leonardo was right? The animals we eat have lives that matter to them. They have a unique psychological presence in the world and they are capable of experiencing pain and pleasure. They have beliefs and desires, and some of them are self-aware and can use certain forms of language. In important respects, they are very much like us. Yet, we are so preoccupied with our own lives, and with the human suffering in the world, that we do not see or hear them. We do not want to see or hear them either, and we comfortably hide their suffering behind the walls of slaughterhouses. None of us would want to be kept in filthy conditions, and endure serious health problems that come with these conditions, just to be killed at a young age. So why do we impose that kind of life on others, just so we can derive a fleeting pleasure? If you are still looking for a New Year’s resolution, you might want to think about that question.

You care about peace and justice, you are compassionate, and you abhor violence and suffering. You know, if you are candid with yourself, that your fridge is, but should not be, a morgue, and that your body is, but should not be, a graveyard. Have the courage to ignore the cynics and follow your heart. Be a catalyst for positive change, say “no, thank you” to meat, and go vegan. — Be radically kind.

I wish all readers a happy, prosperous, and peaceful new year 2014!

Rainer Ebert is a graduate student of philosophy at Rice University, and an Associate Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics.

6 Responses to “A New Year’s resolution: Dare to be kind”

  1. Judy Croome

    Thank you for an inspiring article. I’ve been vegetarian for nearly 5 years now, and one day I hope to have the inner strength to go vegan. What often amazes me is the emotive reaction against my personal choice of vegetarianism, so it’s great to have a powerful intellectual article like this to tweet and share on facebook.

  2. Cathrine

    Unfortunately, the quote you cite from Leonardo is not true: it was written by a novelist, Dmitry Sergeyevich Merezhkovsky (1865-1941) in a historical fiction, “The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci”. He did not put them directly in Leonardo’s mouth, but had an apprentice record them in a diary.

    There is no evidence for the popular myth that Leonardo was a vegetarian. Vasari was 7 years old when Leonardo died, and wrote his biographies by picking up whatever positive stories were around — he has been shown to have been way off on several things he wrote about the ‘Excellent Painters” he covered. Corsali, while being more contemporary, was not an acquaintance, either.

    But, then, even if one credits them, they are not claiming Leonardo did not eat meat — only that he was kind to living things. Further, none of the contemporary chroniclers Suggest Leonardo was vegetarian, and, had that been the case, it would likely have been mentioned, as something completely out of the norm. Given the menus recorded for the banquets his patrons gave, some of which he most likely attended, he would have drawn *a lot* of comment has he turned away the larks’ tongues and haunch of venison.

    It is quite possible to be kind to living things and still eat dead ones. We know from his notebooks that Leonardo dissected cows, birds, monkeys and frogs, as well as human corpses. However kind he was to the living, the dead were more important to him as a source of information, at least.

    Merezhkovsky, it seems, wrote quite a convincing novel: it has been mistaken for history ever since.

    • Rainer Ebert

      Thank you for your comment, Cathrine.

      There is in fact a quote from Merezhkovsky’s “The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci” that is often falsely attributed to Leonardo. If you search for the word “murder” in the electronic copy of that novel on Google Books, you will find the following lines: “[T]he time shall come when all men […] will be content with a vegetable diet, and will think on the murder of animals as now they think on the murder of men” (http://tinyurl.com/mbn7otw/). I am well aware that the novel is historical fiction and hence I consciously avoided using it as evidence for my admittedly speculative claim that Leonardo was a vegetarian.

      The only quote from Leonardo I use in my article is contained in this sentence: “Leonardo himself wrote that, rather than being the king of all animals, man is the king of all beasts, as he has made his gullet ‘a tomb for all animals.'” It is taken from the book “Thoughts on Art and Life,” a collection of writings from Leonardo, not from Merezhkovsky’s novel. It can also be found in Tom Regan’s book, “Empty Cages,” on page 22.

      It is true that the evidence from Vasari and Corsali is not conclusive, but it is evidence nevertheless. The evidence available does not warrant your bold declaration that Leonardo’s being a vegetarian is a “myth”. We will probably never know for sure whether or not Leonardo was a vegetarian, but that should not stop us from drawing inspiration from his compassion towards all animals, both human and non-human.

  3. Tibor R. Machan

    Some Serious Doubts about “Animal Rights”

    Tibor R. Machan

    This topic can be treated by those in various disciplines and has indeed been discussed by legal scholars, philosophers, biologists and so forth. There is no need to be a specialist about it, though. Viewers of television programs about animals, including the Discovery Channel’s series on life in the deep oceans and elsewhere, can grasp what the issues are. And they can also get a clear enough idea as to whether ascribing rights such as human beings are said to have to other animals is warranted.

    Consider that the oceans of the globe are teeming with billions of animals of immense variety. Looked at close up these are often very beautiful, indeed; their agility is fantastic, to say the least. Not that people cannot match what these animals can do, although some of their feats are not within human reach except with extensive technological assistance. But it is undeniable that the wales, octopuses, herrings, crabs, seals, and sharks have amazing abilities which are put on display on these programs by photographers of great skill. At times what they do, both the animals and the photographers, takes one’s breath away!

    But there is an element to the lives of all these animals that makes it very clear that although there is much that we humans share with them–as with other animals across the globe–there is one area where humans really are distinctive which is in having a moral dimension in their lives–namely, being subject to criticism as to their conduct. The widespread and unrestrained carnage that is routine in the seas and wilds is something that is found seriously objectionable when evident among people, at least for the last several thousand years.

    Not that human beings always conduct themselves peacefully, properly and in a civilized fashion. But when they do not, it is naturally and properly found to be ethically wrong, morally objectionable, meaning that they might well have and ought to have refrained from such conduct. It is no excuse to say, well that’s just how human beings are–carnivorous beasts, through and through. Many other animals, however, are mostly just that. And their advocates among us testify to this when they direct their moral ire at us, humans, not at the aggressors and killers in the wilds.

    Here it’s worth considering that those who object to our use of animals, as well as to our using them for nourishment, have for a long time insisted that animals have rights like we do, to their lives, liberty, etc. Vegans want everyone to act as they chose to do, namely, refrain from killing and otherwise using animals. (Exactly why it’s OK to kill fruits and vegetables is a complicated story told by them.)

    Clearly, however, all those murderous animals of the seas, prairies and forests are acting just as they must–there is nothing of “should or should not” about any of it. Right and wrong do not pertain to how nonhuman animals carry on, mainly because they have no choice about it, at least none that is evident.

    In contrast, people have identifiable standards that guide them to do what is right and avoid what is wrong. And when these are violated, the violators can reasonably be criticized, chided, condemned and even prosecuted. In short, people have a moral nature which other animals do not.

    It can be wished for, of course, that the carnage in the wilds diminish, that wild animals behave nicer toward one another but that is all it is, a wish. That’s what some call the Bamby syndrome, the extrapolation from the human animal to the rest, a bit in the fashion of Disney animations.

    But there is no justification for this, seriously! Any careful observation of the rest of nature will make it evident that applying moral criteria to how animals live is in error–what philosophers have called a “category mistake.” And at the same time and for similar reasons, ascribing rights to animals is also misguided, just as would be to ascribe guilt to them when they carry out their killings and maiming in the wilds.

    I am not about to speculate on the motivation behind the way some animal lovers want us to relate to animals and why they insist on confusing them with us in certain important respects. These may vary a great deal. Certainly empathy appears to play a role–we do share a great deal with the rest of the animals, including the capacity for feeling pain and even loss. But none of these translate well into the moral, let alone political, point of view and making the attempt can lead to unnecessary hostilities among human beings and even worse, to public policies that are very intrusive.

    Whatever may be wrong with how some animals are treated by many human beings, it cannot be accounted for by reference to the rights of animals.

    • Rainer Ebert

      Thank you for your interesting and detailed comment, Tibor. Here are a few thoughts on what you have written:

      1) There are at least two important differences between us and non-human predators such as lions: We can think about our actions in terms of morality, they can’t. We can easily survive without eating meat, they can’t. Nevertheless, I do believe that the existence of predators is a problem for certain theories of animal rights. But I also believe that animal advocates can solve this problem. I would like to refer interested readers to our joint paper, “Innocent Threats and the Moral Problem of Carnivorous Animals,” in the Journal of Applied Philosophy: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-5930.2012.00561.x/abstract

      2) Why it is “okay to kill fruits and vegetables” is not as complicated a story as you suggest. In fact, the story is quite simple. Consciousness, according to our best scientific knowledge, occurs only when a nervous system is present. Plants do not have a nervous system. Therefore, plants are not conscious and hence cannot feel pain. There is nobody “at home” in a plant, and hence nobody to consider morally when interacting with a plant. Destroying or damaging a plant does not involve harm in any morally significant sense of the word “harm”. In contrast, the harm beating a dog does to that dog is very really, and morally important.

      3) You admit that other animals too have the “capacity for feeling pain.” If so, why cause pain to them if we don’t need to? There is plenty of delicious plant-based food and a well-balanced vegan diet is healthy and often said to decrease the chances of suffering from diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some cancers. It’s also better for the environment. Going vegan is likely the single most effective step you can take toward protecting the planet. A vegan diet requires only a fraction of the land and water needed to produce a typical non-vegan diet, and a vegan diet produces only a fraction of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with a typical non-vegan diet.

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