The North American Meat Institute is going to battle this week over new federal guidelines that suggest that “a healthy dietary pattern is…lower in red and processed meat,” just the latest installment in an ongoing debate over the health effects of meat. Is meat essential for children’s health, a terrible toxin, or a great tool for eliminating fat? Is it the highway to heart disease, or the key to unlocking your ideal preindustrial self?
If you’re confused, you’re in good company. People have been debating the merits of meat for centuries. Dig back to one of the earliest of those arguments, and you’ll find surprising prescience—as well as a reminder that our perceptions of food are always entangled with our larger views of the world.
Your meat is full of demons
It was the 3rd century CE, and Porphyry of Tyre had a problem: his good friend Firmius Castricius had abandoned vegetarianism and returned to a meat-based diet. You can’t really blame Castricius for his carnivory. Ritual meals of sacrificed animal meat were central to ancient Greco-Roman religious practice, and avoiding meat involved foregoing some widely accepted cultural customs. But Porphyry, a renowned Platonic philosopher, viewed vegetarianism as essential to the life of an intellectual. So he penned a five-part treatise, On Abstinence from Killing Animals, in order to convince his wayward friend to resume a vegetarian diet.
On Abstinence is the earliest surviving vegetarian treatise of the Western world, and it anticipates several contemporary pro-vegetarianism arguments, including the immorality of unnecessarily killing sentient animals, and the detrimental health effects of carnivorous diets.
One of Porphyry’s arguments, however, is unlikely to appear in contemporary vegetarian manifestos. The philosopher believed that animal meat is infested with evil demons that use sacrificial meals as a conduit to corrupt the human body.
Once inside the body, Porphyry asserts, these demons use the human digestive system to glut their appetites, emitting harmful gasses as they digest the meat. The telltale sign of demonic infection is uncomfortable bloating, flatulence, and belching. For Porphyry, then, burps at the dinner table weren’t just violations of good table etiquette. They were indicative of demonic possession.
No, really, your meat is full of demons
Porphyry wasn’t alone; many writers in antiquity asserted that their world was populated with demons. Still, it’s easy to wonder: what kind of right-minded person could possibly believe that tiny demons use meat to corrupt the human body?
In April 2013, however, Porphyry’s description of demonized meat gained an unlikely ally: the Cleveland Clinic medical center. Researchers there suggested that certain gut bacteria may help explain the link between red meat and heart disease. These bacteria produce a chemical called trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) whenever they digest lecithin, a major component of animal fat. The TMAO then makes it into the bloodstream and contributes to the clogging of arteries and cardiovascular disease.
As The New York Times put it, “The real culprit [in heart disease]…was a little-studied chemical that is burped out by bacteria in intestines after people eat red meat.” In other words, meat-eaters have small organisms living in their digestive systems, which consume red meat and “burp out” harmful chemicals in the process. Porphyry’s demons live!
What can we make of this strange confluence between ancient superstition and modern medicine? Porphyry’s demonology reminds us of something that ancient philosophers knew all too well, and that modern humans have been slow to appreciate: our bodies are caught up in complex ecological systems, surrounded by, and interacting with, a wide range of cosmic agents and organisms.
As inheritors of Enlightenment humanism, we too often see the human body as an entity sealed off from its surrounding environment. Taken together, Porphyry and the Cleveland Clinic remind us that we’re all entangled with the world around us, for good or for ill. That’s a health lesson we’d all do well to remember, even if, technically speaking, our meals aren’t demonically possessed.