03 February 2006

The Vegetarian City

The transition in Republic II from the healthy city, the 'city of pigs', to the luxurious city, struck me in a new way, now that I've owned and raised a pig. Consider:

  1. When I first got a pig, I was told never to feed him meat: he'd become spoiled and would come to want only that.
  2. In any case, when we acquired a dog, what few meat scraps we had went to the dog, and vegetable matter went to the pig.
  3. The few times we had something to give to him that was originally from the ground--some old potatoes or turnips--it was clear that that was what he really liked. After all, a pig is a rooting animal. He once ate 15 pounds of old yams in under 5 minutes.
So when I read Plato's descriptions of the diet of the citizens of the first, healthy city:
They will live on barley-meal and wheat flour. ...
And for dessert we can offer them figs and chickpeas and beans; and they will roast myrtle berries and acorns in front of the fire (372b-d)
Even before I got to Glaucon's line about a 'city of pigs'--and not thinking of it, as if independently--I was thinking to myself, "That's just the food that my pig would really like."

Scholars debate as to why Plato sketches first a 'healthy' city and then has to change, almost artificially, to talking about a luxurious city. Reeve, following Nettleship, says that the healthy city is meant to isolate one important human motive only, the 'love of money', before another motive, the 'love of pleasure', is added on. White says, unhelpfully, that justice and injustice are not so clear in the healthy city, and thus, in order to display them clearly, Plato had to advance to a luxurious city. (Fine: but then why introduce the healthy city at all?)

But this time reading Plato's account it was clear to me that one important motive, at least, for Plato's first describing the healthy city, is that he wanted to describe a city of vegetarianism.

First the evidence, and then, in a subsequent post, the reason why.

The evidence that the distinction, vegetarian/meat-eating, is an important distinction in the transition between the two cities:

  1. As explained, Plato's description of the diet of the healthy city is meant to be provocative: it mentions foods that his audience would recognize as especially suited to herbivorous animals.
  2. At 370e, when Plato talks about the healthy city's need for people to specialize in herding animals, he is careful to mention only work-related functions of animals: "... so that farmers can have oxen for ploughing, and so that builders as well as the farmers will be able to use animals for carrying materials, as so that weavers and shoemakers can have hides and wool." It's conspicuous that animals are not raised in order to be eaten.
  3. Glaucon, of course, criticizes the healthy city because of its diet. (Griffith has a note: "Pigs were considered slow and stupid...as well as dirty and greedy--the emblem of all that was uncouth." Perhaps so, but that is not to the point in the context. Bloom is correct in saying that Glaucon's main objection to the city pertains to the palate.)
  4. The first new sort of worker Plato mentions in his new city are hunters, who of course cater to exotic tastes: "we must have hunters of all kinds"(373b). (I think of the famous Hunt Mosaic from Antioch in the Worcester Art Museum.) And then Plato concludes his initial description of the luxurious city by emphasizing this point about diet: "And besides those, we shall need people to keep pigs as well. We didn't have them in our earlier city, since there was no need for them. But in this city there will be a need for them, as also for all sorts of other livestock, in case anyone wants them to eat" (373c).
  5. Finally, as Griffith's translation makes clear, Plato carries on this allusion to meat-eating in his account of the expansionist tendencies of the luxurious city:
Do we need, then, to care ourselves a slice (apotmēteon) of our neighbour's territory, if we are going to have enough for pasturage and ploughing? And do they in turn need a slice of land, if they too give themselves up to the pursuit of unlimited wealth, not confining themselves to necessities? (373d).