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The Ethics of Diet - A Catena
by Howard Williams M.A., 1883

A millennium-old Byzantine mosaic of Saint John Chrysostom, Hagia Sophia

Chrysotom - extracts

(text from the 1st edition, 1883 )

The most eloquent, and one of the most estimable, of the "Fathers" was born at Antioch, the Christian city par exellence. His family held a distinguished position, and his father was in high command in the Syrian division of the imperial army. He studied for the law, and was instructed in oratory by the famous rhetorician Libanius (the intimate friend and counsellor to the young Emperor Julian), who pronounced his pupil worthy to succeed to his chair, if he had not adopted the Christian faith. He soon gave up the law for theology, and retired to a monastery, near Antioch, where he passed four years, rigidly abstaining from flesh-meat and, like the Essenes, abandoning the rights of private property and living a life of the strictest asceticism. Having submitted himself in solitude to the severest austerities during a considerable length of time, he entered the Church, and soon gained the highest reputation for his extraordinary eloquence and zeal. On the death of the Archbishop of Constantinople, he was unanimously elected to fill the vacant Primacy. The nolo me episcopari seems, in his case, to have been no unmeaning formula. His beneficence and charity in the new position attracted general admiration. From the revenues of his See he founded a hospital for the sick - one of the very first of those rather modern institutions. The fame of the "Golden-mouthed" drew to his cathedral immense crowds of people, who before had frequented the theatre and the circus rather than the churches, and the building constantly resounded with their enthusiastic plaudits. He was, however, no mere popular preacher; he fearlessly exposed the corrupt and selfish life of the large body of the clergy. At one time he deposed, it is said, no less than thirteen bishops, in Lesser Asia, from their Sees; and in one of his Homilies he does not hesitate to charge "the whole ecclesiastical body with avarice and licentiousness, asserting that the number of bishops who could be saved bore a very small proportion to those who would be damned." (1)

At length, his repeated denunciations of the too notorious scandals of the Court and the Church excited the bitter enmity of his brother-prelates, and, by their intrigues at the Imperial Court of Constantinople, he was deposed from his See and exiled to the wildest parts of the Euxine coasts, where, exposed to every sort of privation, he caught a violent fever and died. So far did the hostility of the Episcopacy extent, that one of his rivals, a bishop, named Theophilus, in a book expressly written against him, amongst other vituperative epithets had proceeded to the length of styling him "a filthy demon," and of solemnly consigning his soul to Satan. With the poor, however, Chrysostom enjoyed unbounded popularity and esteem. His greatest fault was his theological intolerance - a fault, it is just to add, of the age rather than of the man.

The writings of Chrysostom are exceedingly voluminous - 700 homilies, orations, doctrinal treatises, and 42 epistles. Their "chief value consists in the illustrations they furnish of the manners of the fourth and fifth centuries - of the moral and social state of the period. The circus, spectacles, theatres, baths, houses, domestic economy, banquets, dresses, fashions, pictures, processions, tight-rope dancing, funerals - in fine, everything has a place in the picture of licentious luxury which it is the object of Chrysostom to denounce." Next to his profession of faith in the efficacy of a non-flesh diet, amongst the most interesting of his productions is his Golden Book on the education of the young. He recommends that children should be inured to habits of temperance, by abstaining, at least, twice a week from the ordinary grosser food with which they are supplied. As might be expected from the age, and from his order, the practice of Chrysostom, and of the numerous other ecclesiastical abstinents from the gross diet of the richer part of the community, reposed upon ascetic and traditionary principles, rather than on the more secular and modern motives of justice, humanity, and general social improvement. So, in fact, Origen, one of the most learned of the Fathers, expressly says (Contra Celsum, v.) : "We [the Christian leaders] practise abstinence from the flesh of animals to buffet our bodies and treat them as slaves (Greek), and we wish to mortify our members upon the earth," &c.

Accordingly, the Apostolical Canons distinguished, as Bingham (Antiquities of the Christian Church) reports them, between abstinents, (Greek), i.e., between those who abstained to exercise self-control, and those who did so from disgust and abhorrence of what, in ordinary and orthodox language, are too complacently and confidently termed "the good creatures of God." This distinction, it must be added, holds only of the prevailing sentiment of the Orthodox Church as finally established. During several centuries - even so late as the Paulicians in the seventh, or even the Albigeois of the thirteenth, century - Manicheism, as it is called, or a belief in the inherent evil of all matter, was widely spread in large and influential sections of the Christian Church - nor, indeed, were some of its most famous Fathers without suspicion of this heretical taint. According to the Clementine Homilies, "the unnatural eating of flesh-meat is of demoniacal origin, and was introduced by those giants who, from their bastard nature, took no pleasure in pure nourishment, and only lusted after blood. Therefore the eating of flesh is as polluting as the heathen worship of demons, with its sacrifices and its impure feasts; through participation in which, a man becomes a fellow-dietist (Greek) with demons." (2) That superstition was often, in the minds of the followers both of Plato and St. Paul, mixed up with, and, indeed, usually dominated over, the reasonable motives of the more philosophic advocates of the higher life, there can be no sort of doubt; nor can we claim a monopoly of rational motives for the mass of the adherents of either Christian or Pythagorean abstinence. Yet an impartial judgment must allow almost equal credit to the earnestness of mind and purity of motive which, mingled though they undoubtedly were with (in the pre-scientific ages) a necessary infusion of superstition, urged the followers of the better way - Christian and non-Christian - to discard the "social lies" of the dead world around them. At all events, it is not for the selfish egoists to sneer at the sublime - if error-infected - efforts of the earlier pioneers of moral progress for their own and the world's redemption from the bonds of the prevailing vile materialism in life and dietary habits.

We have already shown that the earliest Jewish-Christian communities, both in Palestine and elsewhere - the immediate disciples of the original Twelve - enjoined abstinence as one of the primary obligations of the New Faith; and that the earliest traditions represent the foremost of them as the strictest sort of Vegetarians. (3) If then we impartially review the history of the practice, the teaching, and the traditions of the first Christian authorities, it cannot but appear surprising that the Orthodox Church, ignoring the practice and highest ideal of the most sacred period of its annals, has, even within its own Order, deemed it consistent with its claim of being representative of the Apostolic period to substitute partial and periodic for total and constant abstinence.

The following passages in the Homilies, or Congregational Discourses, of Chrysostom will serve as specimens of his feeling on the propriety of dietary reform. The eloquent but diffusive style of the Greek Bossuet, it must be noted, is necessarily but feebly represented in the literal English version :-

"No streams of blood are among them [the ascetics]; no butchering and cutting up of flesh; no dainty cookery; no heaviness of head. Nor are there the horrible smells of flesh meats among them, or disagreeable fumes from the kitchen. No tumult and disturbance and wearisome clamours, but bread and water - the latter from a pure fountain, the former from honest labour. If, at any time, however, they wish to feast more sumptuously, the sumptuousness consists in fruits, and their pleasure in these is greater than at royal tables. With this repast [of fruits and vegetables], even angels from Heaven, as they behold it, are delighted and pleased. For if over one sinner who repents they rejoice, over so many men imitating them what will they not do? No master and servant are there. All are servants - all are free men. And think not this is a mere form of speech, for they are servants one of another and masters one of another. Wherein, therefore, are we different from, or superior to, Ants, if we compare ourselves with them? For as they care for the things of the body only, so also do we. And would it were for these alone! But, alas! it is for things far worse. For not for necessary things only do we care, but also for things superfluous. Those animals pursue and innocent life, while we follow after all covetousness. Nay, we do not so much as imitate the ways of Ants. We follow the ways of Wolves, the habits of Tigers; or, rather, we are worse than they. To them Nature has assigned that they should be thus [carnivorously] fed, wile God has honoured us with rational speech and a sense of equity. And yet we are become worse than the wild beasts." (2)

Again he protests :-

"Neither am I leading you to the lofty peak of total renunciation of possessions [Greek]; but for the present I require you to cut off superfluities, and to desire a sufficiency alone. Now the boundary of sufficiency is the using those things which it is impossible to live without. No one debars you from these, nor forbids you your daily food. I say 'food,' not 'luxury,' [Greek] 'raiment,' nor 'ornament.' Rather this frugality, to speak, correctly, is, in the best sense, luxury. For consider who should we say more truly feasted - he whose diet is herbs, and who is in sound health and suffered no uneasiness, or he who has the table of a Sybarite and is full of a thousand disorders. Clearly, the former. Therefore, let us seek nothing more than these, if we would at once live luxuriantly and healthfully. And let him who can be satisfied with pulse, and can keep in good health, seek for nothing more. But let him who is weaker, and needs to be [more richly] dieted with other vegetables and fruits, not be debarred from them. . . . We do not advise this for the harm and injury of men but to lop off what is superfluous - and that is superfluous which is more than we need. When we are able to live without a thing, healthfully and respectably, certainly the addition of that thing is a superfluity." Hom. xix. 2 Cor.

Denouncing the grossness of the ordinary mode of living, he eloquently descants on the evil results, physical as well as mental :-

"A man who lives in pleasure [i.e.,in selfish luxury] is dead whilst he lives, for he lives only to his belly. In his other senses he lives not. He sees not what he ought to see; he hears not what he ought to hear; he speaks not what he ought to speak. . . . Look not at the superficial countenance, but examine the interior, and you will see it full of deep dejection. If it were possible to bring the soul into view, and to behold it with our bodily eyes, that of the luxurious would seem depressed, mournful, miserable, and wasted with leanness, for the more the body grows sleek and gross, the more lean and weakly is the soul. The more the one is pampered, the more is the other hampered [Greek - : the latter meaning literally, buried]. As when the pupil of the eye has the external envelope too thick, it cannot put forth the power of vision and look out, because the light is excluded by the dense covering, and darkness ensues; so when the body is constantly full fed, the soul must be invested with grossness. The dead, say you, corrupt and rot, and a foul pestilential humour distills from them. So in her who lives in pleasure may be seen rheums, and phlegm, and catarrh, hiccough, vomiting, eructations, and the like, which, as too unseemly, I forbear to name. For such is the despotism of luxury, it makes us endure things which we do not think proper even to mention . . . .

" 'She that lives in pleasure is dead while she lives.' Hear this, ye women (5) who pass your time in revels and intemperance, and who neglect the poor, pining and perishing with hunger, whilst you are destroying yourselves with continual luxury. Thus you are the cause of two deaths - of those who are dying of want and of your own, both through ill-measure. If, out of your fulness, you tempered their want, you would save two lives. Why do you thus gorge your own body with excess, and waste that of the poor with want? Consider what comes of food - into what it is changed. Are you not disgusted at its being named? Why, then, be eager for such accumulations? The increase of luxury is but the multiplication of filth. (6) For Nature has her limits, and what is beyond these is not nourishment, but injury and the increase of ordure.

"Nourish the body, but do not destroy it. Food is called nourishment, to show that its purpose is not to hurt, but to support us. For this reason, perhaps, food passes into excrement that we may not be lovers of luxury. If it were not so - if it were not useless and injurious to the body, we should hardly abstain from devouring one another. If the belly received as much as it pleased, digested it, and conveyed it to the body, we should see battles and wars innumerable. Even as it is, when part of our food passes into ordure, part into blood, part into spurious and useless phlegm, we are, nevertheless, so addicted to luxury that we spend, perhaps, whole estates on a meal. The more richly we live, the more noisome are the odours with which we are filled." Hom. xiii. Tim v. (7)



    1. Article, "Chrysostom," in the Penny Cyclopedia.
    2. Baur's Life and Work of St. Paul. Part ii., chap. 3....
    3. We here take occasion to observe that, while final appeals to our sacred Scriptures to determine any sociological question - whether of slavery, polygamy, war, or of dietetics - cannot be too strongly deprecated, a candid and impartial inquirer, nevertheless, will gladly recognise traces of a consciousness of the unspiritual nature of the sacrificial altar and shambles. He will gladly recognise that if - as might be expected in so various a collection of sacred writings produced by different minds in different ages - frequent sanction of the materialist mode of living may be urged on the one side; on the other hand, the inspiration of the more exalted minds is in accord with the practice of the true spiritual life. Cf. Gen. i., 29, 30; Isaiah i., 11-17, and xi., 9; Ps. 1., 9-14; Ps. 1xxxi., 4; Ps. civ., 14, 15; Prov. xxiii, 2, 3, 20, 21; Prov. xxvii., 25-27 : Prov. xxx., 8, 22; Prov. xxxi., 4; Eccl. vi., 7; Matt. vi., 31; 1 Cor. viii., 13, and ix., 25; Rom. viii., 5-8, 12, 13; Phil. iii., 19, and iv., 8; James ii., 13, 4, and iv., 1-3; 1 Pet. ii, 11. Perhaps, next to the alleged authority of Gen. ix. (noticed and refuted by Tertullian, as already quoted), the trance vision of St. Peter is most often urged by the bibliolaters (or those who revere the letter rather than the true inspiration of the Sacred Books) the true inspiration of the Sacred Books) as a triumphant proof of biblical sanction of materialism. Yet, unless, indeed, literalism is to over-ride the most ordinary rules of common sense, as well as of criticism, all that can be extracted from the "Vision" (in which were presented to the sleeper "all manner of four-footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts and creeping things," which it will hardly be contented he was expected to eat) is the fact of a mental illumination, but which the Jewish Apostle recognises the folly of his countrymen in arrogating to themselves the exclusive privileges of the "Chosen People." Besides, as has already been pointed out, the earliest traditions concur in representing St. Peter as always a strict abstinent, insomuch that he is stated to have celebrated the "Eucharist" with nothing but bread and salt. - Clement Hom., xiv., 1.
    4. Homily, 1xix. on Matt. xxii., 1-14
    5. The male sex, according to our ideas, might have been more properly apostrophised; and St. Chrysostom may seem, in this passage and elsewhere to be somewhat partial in his invective. Candour, indeed, forces us to remark that the "Golden-mouthed," in common with many others of the Fathers, and with the Greek and Eastern world in general, deprecated the qualities, both moral and mental, of the feminine sex. That the weaker are what the stronger choose to make them, is an obvious truth generally ignored in all ages and countries - by modern satirists ad other writers, as well as by a Simonides or Solomon. The partial severity of the Archbishop of Constantinople, it is proper to add, may be justified, in some measure, by the contemporary history of the Court of Byzantium, where the beautiful empress Eudoxia rules supreme.
    6. St. Chrysostom seems to have derived this forcible appeal from Seneca. Compare the remarks of the latter, Ep. cx : "At, mehercule, ista solicita varieque condita, cum subierint ventrem, una atque cadem faeditas occupabit. Vis ciborum vouptatem contemnere? Exitum specta.'
    7. The Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, Translated by Members of the English Church. Parker , Oxford. See Hom. vii. on Phil. ii for a forcible representation of the inferiority, in many points, of our own to other species.


Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index