Ancient Roots of the Consistent Life Ethic: Greece
by Mary Krane Derr
The ancient Greek mathematician, musician, vegetarian, and spiritual teacher Pythagoras (580? BCE-??) taught a nonviolence ethic rooted in the kinship of all living beings. Pythagoras’ ethic did not exclude or denigrate women. Most unconventionally, Pythagoras defined only sexual misconduct, not intercourse itself, as polluting. He accepted women equally as his students.
Women originally created the Eleusinian Mysteries, and today these rituals deeply fascinate feminist goddess spirituality devotees. According to local custom, celebrants did not sacrifice a victim to the goddess, but offered her grapes, other cultivated fruits, honeycombs, and wool. The women had a special feast of grains, with perhaps a little fish. Although today’s vegetarians or vegans may find fault here, these rituals were certainly more peaceful and life-affirming than those added on following the Athenian occupation. The Mysteries were changed to begin in Athens with pig and other animal sacrifices.
These changes suited Athens’ ruling elite, who regularly devoured multi-course flesh meals, considering sow’s womb after (induced?) miscarriage to be a delicacy. They ranked women as little better than animals.
Although his legacy has literally come down to us in fragments, one direct contribution of the Pythagorean ethic does remain a cultural presence: the Hippocratic Oath. Some life-respecting provisions of the Oath are still widely held up as integral values of medical practice. For example, the commitments to “do no harm;” to observe confidentiality; and to refrain from sexual abuse of patients, even one’s social “inferiors.”
A single provision, however, has in recent decades occasioned fierce controversy: “I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.”
The controversy refers little or not at all to the expansively life-revering ethic in which this provision originated. Some right-to-lifers treat it as an ahistorical mandate requiring instant, uncritical obedience. Thus they do not apply it to physician-assisted state-sponsored execution.
Some pro-choicers seem similarly unaware of the Pythagorean source ethic’s character, let alone its resonance with present-day values and norms they may aspire to themselves. Thus they find this provision at best irrelevant today, and at worst hostile to sick or disabled persons, and women.
In his Roe v. Wade ruling, Harry Blackmun states that Pythagoreans, in a “spirit of uncompromising austerity,” “frowned upon” suicide and opposed abortion as “a matter of dogma,” the “dogma” that “the embryo was animate from the moment of conception, and abortion meant destruction of a living being.” He notes the commonplace practice and advocacy of abortion and suicide in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Thus the Oath’s Pythagorean values represent not “an absolute standard for medical conduct,” but a minority, sectarian, largely unpersuasive view that survived only because Christians adopted it. Blackmun staunchly defended Roe for the rest of his life, despite his famous announcement in a capital punishment case that he was done “tinkering with the machinery of death.”
“Frowned upon,” “dogma,” “uncompromising austerity”: might not Blackmun be projecting a late 20th century stereotype of grim, rigid moralizers with peculiar opinions onto people it probably does not fit? And even if a position is in the minority – why and how should that in and of itself invalidate it?
Large numbers of Americans have looked with disfavor on death penalty abolitionists like the later Blackmun – yet that by no means invalidates his decision to take up their cause.
But what makes Blackmun’s concern for life on death row qualitatively different from Pythagorean or present-day concern for fetal life? What if he had known that Pythagoreans – and other abortion opponents from antiquity to the present – aspired to respect for all lives, including women’s?
Curiously, Blackmun then concludes “ancient religion did not bar abortion.” Did he mean the state religions of Greece and Rome? These also did not bar – and even outright approved – many practices that today’s pro-life and pro-choice persons alike would likely agree were oppressive and undesirable of repetition.
For example, the Roman paterfamilias, or oldest male in the household, legally claimed not only all its property, but vitae necisque potestas, the power of life and death over its members, “free” and slave. He could force a woman to undergo an abortion, or her baby to undergo infanticide.
Disability, female gender, or non-marital birth usually doomed newborns. He could sell displeasing older children into slavery or have them executed. The state made regular public entertainment spectacles of violent mass human and animal killings.
Small wonder that Martin Luther King, Jr. offered early Christian resistance to officially sanctioned violence in ancient Rome as a model for the African-American civil rights movement.
Editor’s Note: Mary Krane Derr was a leading scholar on pro-life feminism and related nonviolence advocacy of yesteryear. She co-edited the book ProLife Feminism: Yesterday and Today. The above is an excerpt of a section from “Activism Throughout the Centuries,” Chapter 13 of Consistently Opposing Killing: From Abortion to Assisted Suicide, the Death Penalty, and War.
For more blog posts on the history of the consistent life ethic, see: