Animal Aid


Brief biographies of the nominees for the veggie greats poll appear below. While some choices were obvious, the final 12 were selected to demonstrate the different areas of life in which vegetarians have excelled - and also the different eras.

Plutarch (c. AD. 46 - c. 120)

Several notable Ancient Greek writers had vegetarian sympathies, but none wrote with such force and passion as the biographer whose Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans provided the stories for several of Shakespeare's plays. His views still appear remarkably modern. In his moral essay, Of Eating of Flesh, he gives his reasons for not eating meat by challenging those who do: 'I, for my part, am astonished that you can put in your mouth the corpse of a dead animal, astonished that you do not find it nasty to chew hacked flesh and swallow the juices of death-wounds.' Elsewhere he wrote that 'for the sake of some little mouthful of flesh we deprive a soul of the sun and light, and of that proportion of life and time it had been born into the world to enjoy'.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

The unrivalled genius of Leonardo is legendary, combining the skill and vision of a great artist with the brilliance of an innovative scientist and inventor. Probably no human being has excelled in so many fields - painter, physicist, ecologist, draughtsman, designer, biologist and musician. He devised what might well have been the first flying machine from studying the flight of insects and birds. Yet the man who visualised a world where humans would use such machines routinely also foretold a more compassionate future. From the notes published after his death, it is clear that his studies also led him to question human exploitation of animals. He was a committed vegetarian. 'I have from an early age abjured the use of meat', he wrote, 'and the time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men'.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

During his short life, Shelley used his poetic gifts to campaign passionately for social reform - most notably women's emancipation and socialism. He was an atheist who hated war and exploitation of the poor. He saw an important link between violence to animals and violence to people and it was this connection that was at the centre of his plea for vegetarianism. In his essay On the Vegetable System of Diet, Shelley wrote that 'the butchering of harmless animals cannot fail to produce much of that spirit of insane and hideous exultation in which news of a victory is related altho' purchased by the massacre of a hundred thousand men'. That the views he expressed are much more widely accepted today (Shelley was 'ostracised and insulted') is a testament to his pioneering views. He was a great influence on both the vegetarian and the early socialist movements.

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

Universally accepted as one of the greatest ever novelists, the Russian author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina came later in his life to regard vegetarianism as an essential step towards the human goal of striving for 'moral perfection'. Becoming a vegetarian was also part of an attempt to abandon the life of wealth and privilege to which he was accustomed, in favour of a more simple existence. He abandoned 'intolerable luxury' and devoted himself to village education, famine relief and writing about vegetarianism and theology. In his essay on Civil Disobedience, he wrote that 'a man can be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite. And to act so is immoral.'

Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

Discoverer of the theory of relativity and one of the most influential scientists ever, Einstein was another who viewed vegetarianism as central to the creation of a less violent future. Although it seems that the famous physicist only became a practising vegetarian towards the end of his life, he was convinced of the spiritual advantages of a plant-based diet long before. 'The vegetarian manner of living', he wrote, 'by its purely physical effect on the human temperament would most beneficially influence the lot of mankind'. He believed that humans should see themselves as part of the universe rather than separate or superior. 'Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.'

Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948)

Non-violence was at the core of the Gandhi philosophy that achieved independence for India, with vegetarianism a crucial element. 'The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated', he wrote. He believed that 'the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man'. Gandhi's unique peaceful methods of protest proved an inspiration for many subsequent struggles for justice - notably the 1960s US civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King. Of the many tributes paid to him after his assassination, the words of George Marshall, US Secretary of State, summarise his standing in twentieth century history. 'Mahatma Gandhi was the spokesman for the conscience of all mankind', said Marshall.

Dr Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965)

'Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace', Schweitzer famously wrote. This was a core belief of one of the twentieth century's most outstanding humanitarians - an esteemed philosopher, theologian, musician and medical doctor. While his greatest achievement was probably as a medical missionary who established and devoted much of his time to the Dr Schweitzer Hospital in Equatorial Africa, he also left volumes of influential writings. He championed a philosophy which he called 'Reverence for Life'. A constant theme was the need 'to avoid injuring any living thing', whether human or other animal. 'Ethics in our Western world has hitherto been largely limited to the relations of man to man', wrote Schweitzer. 'But that is a limited ethics. We need a boundless ethics which will include the animals also.'

Spike Milligan (1918-2002)

Despite his success as a comedy writer and performer, Spike Milligan was a passionate, fundamentally serious man whose experience of the carnage of the Second World War helped inform his views about how we should engage, not just with each other, but with all sentient creatures. He was a vegetarian and committed to extending the circle of compassion to all living beings. He was particularly outraged by the treatment of animals in factory farms and in vivisection labs. Outspoken and unpredictable, he was once thrown out of Harrods when he tried to stuff 28lb of spaghetti down the mouth of the food hall manager. 'I told him it might give him some idea of how a goose feels being force-fed maize to make pâté de foie gras. Everyone looked stunned and their faces fell. I support all the causes that are trying to increase the sensitivity of the human race to the odious things that they do. We're a pretty horrendous crowd.'

Linda McCartney (1941-1998)

Linda and Paul McCartney became vegetarians after eating a lunch of roast lamb while watching lambs at play outside the kitchen of their Sussex farmhouse. 'We suddenly realised that we were eating the leg of an animal that had until recently been happy gambolling', Linda explained. 'We thought, we love these sheep, so why are we eating them?' Although both Paul and Linda campaigned passionately for vegetarianism, we have selected Linda ahead of her husband because of the unique contribution she made in bringing non-meat convenience foods to millions with her range of frozen foods. These popularised veggie meals based upon traditional meat-based recipes. In one year alone, 17 million dishes were sold, while her book, Home Cooking is the biggest selling vegetarian cookbook of all time.

Martina Navratilova (1956-)

Martina is the most successful woman tennis player ever. She has won more Grand Slam titles than anybody else, including a record nine Wimbledon singles victories. She has continued to win doubles championships regularly even though she is now in her late forties. She became a vegetarian in 1993 and has since campaigned regularly both for an animal-free diet and against the fur trade - donating some of her earnings to finance an anti-fur poster. Describing her conversion to vegetarianism, Martina said that 'it was a philosophical choice. I feel better as a human. I was more limber, didn't need as much sleep and my skin was better. You don't need to be eating meat. There is a choice. Becoming a vegetarian is a healthy choice for you and the planet.'

Benjamin Zephaniah (1958-)

Benjamin Zephaniah's inspirational life has seen him emerge from borstal as a teenager to become a popular poet, peace activist and spokesman for veganism. His growing popularity has involved no compromise - he remains an outspoken critic of animal abuse, racism and other forms of violence and injustice. He publicly refused to accept an OBE on the grounds that it glorified the oppression of native populations by the British Empire. He has used humour in his poetry to highlight animal suffering, most notably in his poem Talking Turkey - voted one of the nation's favourite poems in a BBC poll.

"Be nice to yu turkey dis christmas,
Invite dem indoors fe sum greens
Let dem eat cake an let dem partake
In a plate of organic grown beans,
Be nice to yu turkey dis christmas
An spare dem de cut of de knife,
Join Turkeys United an dey'll be delighted
An yu will mek new friends 'FOR LIFE' "

Moby (1965-)

More than any other modern rock star (except perhaps for The Smiths, whose 1984 album, Meat is Murder, topped the charts), Moby has been outspoken and unflinching in his advocacy of vegetarianism. One of his early CDs was entitled Animal Rights, and the sleeve notes to his best selling CD, Play, include a short essay describing why he is a vegan. He argues that veganism not only eliminates suffering to animals, but is also better for health, the environment, and in the fight against human hunger. On the latter issue he writes that 'you can feed more people with grain directly than by feeding that grain to a cow and then killing the cow. In a world where people are starving it seems criminal to fatten up cows with grain that could be keeping people alive.'

Among those reluctantly omitted from the top 12 were Pythagoras, Ovid, Rousseau, George Bernard Shaw, Paul McCartney, Mary Wollstonecraft, Franz Kafka, Alice Walker, Joanna Lumley, J.M. Coetzee, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Yehudi Menuhin.

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