Saint Augustine the Anti-Vegan on "Thou Shalt not Kill". By Dr. Chapman Chen
Abstract: In City of Gold Volume 1, Saint Augustine (Note 1), while admitting that animals are able to feel pain, argues that the sixth commandment "Thou shalt not kill" applies only to humans but not to animals for the latter do not have reason and are hence designed by God for humans to use and kill. Like so many modern-day anti-vegans, Augustine satirically questions, "If you will not kill animals, then you should not kill plants either."
I, however, submit that Augustine's interpretation of the commandment is inaccurate and anthropocentric, that humans' "dominion" over other animals as given by God in Genesis 1:28 just means caretakership, and that the key issue is not whether animals have reason but the fact that they are God's beloved creatures able to feel acute pain.
1. Animals are Subjected to us to Use and Kill?
"Must we therefore reckon it a breaking of this commandment, 'Thou shalt not kill,' to pull a flower? Are we thus insanely to countenance the foolish error of the Manichæans (Note 2)?" (Augustine 2014: 1.20). Augustine rhetorically asks. In reply to him, Augustine remarks that the commandment should be applied to neither for plants do not have feelings. As regards animals, he invokes the Stoic doctrine, and insists that lacking reason, animals are not members of our community and are thus assigned by God for exploitation by human beings.
Putting aside, then, these ravings, if, when we say, Thou shalt not kill, we do not understand this of the plants, since they have no sensation, nor of the irrational animals that fly, swim, walk, or creep, since they are dissociated from us by their want of reason, and are therefore by the just appointment of the Creator subjected to us to kill or keep alive for our own uses; if so, then it remains that we understand that commandment simply of man. (Augustine 2014: 1.20)
2. Alcalay's Interpretation of Lo tirtzakh לֹא תִּרְצָח (Thou shalt not kill)
As put by Reuben Alcalay (1962), one of the greatest contemporary linguists cum author of The Complete Hebrew-English Dictionary, the 6th Commandment "Thou shalt not kill" (Exodus 20:13 KJV; Matthew 19:18 KJV) means "any kind of killing whatsoever." The original Hebrew, he points out, is לֹא תִּרְצָח Lo tirtzakh, which requires us to stop ourselves from killing any sentient beings altogether. However, most mainstream churches, following Saint Augustine's example, interpret it as "Thou shalt not commit homicide."
2.1. Is to Kill Really Different from to Murder?
Admittedly, the Hebrew word for "murder" is רָצַח ratzakh, whereas the word for "kill" is הָרַג haroq. The commandment, in the original Hebrew, indeed states: "Lo tirtzakh" (a form of ratzahh), not "Lo Taharoq." But still we submit that Reuben Alcalay is justified in asserting that tirtzakh means "any kind of killing whatsoever" on two grounds (Chen 2022).
Firstly, Luke (18:20), Mark (10:19), and Matthew (5:21-22) all urge adherents to transcend conventional understandings of this prohibition. For instance, Jesus expands on the formal definitions of "Thou shalt not kill" as follows:- “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment;" (Matthew 5:21-22 ESV)
Secondly, the primary definitions of "murder" and "kill" are given by human linguists, mostly meat-eating, and animals who do not enjoy equal rights as humans are naturally omitted from the formal definitions so that it will not be unlawful for humans to take innocent animals' lives. However, provided that we consider murder in a practical manner and look at what it in reality is, beyond just legalistic principles, we are met head-on with the secondary designations of "murder" abovementioned, both of which are for sure applicable to animals (cf. Rosen 2019). As a matter of fact, "He that killeth an ox is as if he slew a man" (Isaiah 66:3 KJV) puts forwards a closer connection betwixt "kill" and "murder".
2.2. An Anthropocentric Misinterpretation of the Commandment
The (mis)interpretation of "Thou shalt not kill" as "Thou shalt not commit homicide", such that non-human animals are excluded, reveals anthropocentrism according to Revd Prof. Andrew Linzey (1995:33-34) and Prof. David Clough (2011:88), or speciesism according to Peter Singer (1975:6), in other words, megalomania, self-aggrandizement, self-worship, and self-deification, on the part of homo sapiens.
2.3. "Dominion" Misinterpreted
The anthropocentric statement "Animals... are... by the just appointment of the Creator subjected to us to kill or keep alive for our own uses" probably comes straight from a humanocentric interpretation of the word "dominion" in Genesis 1:28 (KJV): "And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." According to Prof. Andrew Linzey (1995:22, 34), "dominion" in this context means stewardship or caretakership rather than domination or despotism, for it is immediately followed by a vegan diet prescribed by God to humanity. We are supposed by God to be caretakers of the earth rather than a brutal dictator ruling over the planet! (cf. Chen 2021b).
3. Why should Compassionate Vegans Eat and Kill Plants?
In the same passage, The City of Gold 1.20, St. Augustine touches upon one of the most common queries faced by animal-loving vegans nowadays is: Plants also have lives and feelings. If you vegans do not want to cause pain and death to animals, why do you kill and eat plants?
4. Plants do NOT have a Central Nervous System
To be fair to St. Augustine, he's right in pointing out that plants do not have feelings. In modern terms, plants, unlike animals, do not have a central nervous system. They may have some sort of response to dangers, but it is not pain that can be acutely felt. Meanwhile, fruits are for spreading seeds and therefore expected by the mother plant herself to be eaten by animals. And if you pluck the leaves of a plant, it normally won't kill it. Contrariwise, if you tear away the limbs of an animal, she will either die or at least suffer immensely (cf. Dekic n.d.).
So much the more, animal farming is a grossly inefficient way of produce food for humans. According to Vaclav Smil (2014), Distinguished Emeritus Professor from the University of Manitoba, it takes 25 kg of feed (mostly corn and soy) to produce 1 kg of beef, 9.4 kg for 1 kg of pork, and 3.3 kg for 1 kg of chicken meat. So if we really want to save plants from unnecessary destruction, we should go vegan all the more.
5. Animals have no Reason and therefore no Rights?
Also, to his credit, in On the Manichaean Way of Life, Augustine does acknowledge that animals feel pain, whereas many other theologians, for example, Descartes, simply regard animals as insensitive machines. But, again, Augustine claims that being irrational creatures, they are not entitled to protection under the community law, and to support his view, he even appeals to Jesus Christ:-
And first Christ shows your abstention from killing animals and tearing plants to be the greatest superstition. He judged that we had no community in justice (societas iuris) with beasts and trees, and sent the devils into a flock of swine, and withered a tree by his curse, when he had found no fruit in it. ... For we see and appreciate from their cries that animals die with pain. But man disregards this in a beast, with which, as having no rational soul, he is linked by no community of law (societas legis). (Augustine 1966: 2.17, 59).
Below, I will first deal with the story of Jesus "driving a group of demons into 2000 pigs", and then the sentience and reason issue of animals and plants.
6. Jesus did NOT Drive 2000 Pigs to Death
It is said in Mark 5:1-20 that Jesus drove a group of demons, who as a single entity told Jesus "My name is Legion", from a man possessed by them, into 2000 pigs nearby, which then stampeded down a hillside and got drowned in a lake (n. I). Vegan-haters often cite this story to question vegan Christians. But it is probably a metaphoric allegory rather than a factual account. For there's no factory farming 2000 years ago. And "legion" insinuates the Roman army, whom the colonized Jews secretly loathed and deemed demonic (Chen 2021a).
7. Central Nervous System and IQ
Concerning animals' sentience and rationality, we have two questions:-
Number one, if God really created animals for human use, why should He design an extremely sensitive central nervous system for them to be able to feel acute pain when hurt and/or killed? Isn't that the work of the sadistic, bloodthirsty Satan instead of the all benevolent God??!
Number two, the IQ of a pig, according to many scientific studies, is higher than a human toddler and many a mentally retarded human. Does it follow that we are entitled to kill and eat human babies and mentally retarded humans in the same way that we slaughter and consume a pig?
8. Bing's Reply
According to the A.I. Bing's 7 Oct. 2023 reply to me, St Augustine would say no to question number two, as his argument does not depend on the degree of intelligence or emotion that an individual possesses, but on the capacity for reason and moral agency that an individual has or potentially has. St. Augustine would argue that human toddlers and mentally retarded humans are still members of the human species, which is endowed with reason and moral agency by God. Therefore, they belong to the same rational community as other humans, and killing them would violate the commandment "Thou shalt not kill". He would also argue that animals, regardless of their intelligence or emotion, are not members of the human species, and do not have reason or moral agency. Therefore, they do not belong to the same rational community as humans, and killing them does not violate the commandment "Thou shalt not kill."
9. The Ultimate Humanocentrism
This is, of course, unconvincing. It suggests the ultimate humanocentricism:- No matter how smart and kind a non-human animal is, he/she is still discriminated against by God and not entitled to the right of survival, happiness and freedom.
To put it in a nutshell, whether animals are sentient beings is more pivotal than whether they are less intelligent than humans, because God is love (1 John 4:7 NIV); God loves the world (John 3:16), including ALL His creation (Psalm 145:9); and Christ is compassion (Matthew 12:6-7). As conceded by St. Augustine himself, plants have no sensation while animals are pain-sensitive. We have no right to torture and kill these beloved creatures of God. "Thou shalt not kill" therefore applies to not only humans but also other animals. Our "dominion" over other animals just means that we are their caretakers, who are supposed to serve them rather to abuse them.
Indeed, an anti-vegan, humanocentric, Augustino reading of the Sixth Commandment is misleading, speciesist, blasphemous, and destructive to our relationship with God, and with nature.
1. Augustine of Hippo (Latin: Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis; 354 – 430), also known as Saint Augustine, was a theologian and philosopher of Berber origin and the bishop of Hippo Regius in Numidia, Roman North Africa. His writings influenced the development of Western philosophy and Western Christianity, and he is viewed as one of the most important Church Fathers of the Latin Church in the Patristic Period. His many important works include The City of God, On Christian Doctrine, and Confessions.
2. While living in Carthage, Augustine was involved as a young hearer of the Manichaean sect for nine years. Subsequently he rebelled against the faith and strongly criticized it. The Manichaeans viewed the universe as the scene of a cosmic battle between Good (Light) and Evil (Darkness). Particles of this Light got trapped in matter, like human or animal bodies, or even plants, until their eventual release through the separation of Light from matter. In the ManichaeanChurch, followers fell into one of two categories, the Elect or the Hearers. Both had to avoid harming Light particles as imprisoned in matter. The Elect in particular abstained from not only killing and eating animals but also plucking and killing plants. Agricultural duties then became the responsibility of the Hearers, who gained forgiveness for their sins since they did so to maintain the health of the Elect.)
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