As February trudges patiently along, Bowdoin first years may find themselves doing some serious introspection. At least, that's what happened to me two years ago.

The fall semester was the longest period of time I had ever spent living away from home. When I returned home for vacation, that's exactly what it felt like: a vacation, rather than a homecoming. This was due largely to the fact that Mom had looted my bedroom for furniture, converting it into a guest room by removing all traces of its former inhabitant, including several questionable magazines from my desk drawer that she was nice enough never to mention.

My altered relationship with my home and hometown?places that had been so closely tied to my self-identity?prompted me to experiment by making more changes to who I was. Predictably, this included growing a mop of facial hair that could be fairly described as "wretched."

Most notably, though, I became a vegetarian.

This dietary adjustment was an impulse that most likely grew out of (a) a restless desire to remake myself in light of my newfound quasi-independence, and (b) an urgent need to practically apply what I had learned in my philosophy classes in way of justifying my tuition bill.

In short, I owe my vegetarianism to Aristotle, Kant, and post-adolescent existential angst.

Let me explain my reasoning more specifically. In the fourth century B.C., Aristotle, a Greek, preached virtue ethics: achieving excellence by enhancing character virtue through good habits. Approximately two millennia later, the German Kant wrote, "If [man] is not to stifle his human feelings, he must practice kindness towards animals, for he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals."

This got me to thinking. I had read and heard enough about the meat industry to know that animals are treated cruelly at factory farms?fatally overcrowded quarters, systematic mutilations, force-feeding, et cetera. One especially rich source for this information was an animated Web short called "The Meatrix." In the movie, a pig, "Leo," is informed of the inhumane and environmentally irresponsible practices of industrial farming companies by a bovine wearing a trench coat and sunglasses, whose name is?I swear to God?"Moopheus." So as you can see, I really did my homework.

But back to philosophy: Though Aristotle and Kant generally disagreed with one another on moral theory, I decided to experiment by combining Kant's admonition about the potentially communicative properties of callousness and Aristotle's principles of habituation. That is to say, I would make a habit of refusing to endorse unethical treatment of animals unless I had no other choice, lest I develop a tolerance for cruelty that would make it easier to ignore unethical treatment of humans. Hence, the vegetarianism. Get it?

This might sound pretentious, but I prefer to think of it as ambitious. After all, I was now a college student, and as such I was under a legal obligation to save the world.

Before you give me too much credit, I should say that becoming a vegetarian was not difficult for me. I don't have any food allergies, and my taste in cuisine is about as discriminating as a tiger shark's. So giving up meat was, and continues to be, a relatively small sacrifice (as opposed to, say, my moratorium on caffeine?see 09/27/06 column).

The difficulties I encountered were external. For most people, if you tell them you're a vegetarian, that's exactly what they hear. But to some, saying "I'm a vegetarian" is like saying "I'm a Marxist," or "I have a degenerative epidermal illness that will eventually make my skin turn inside-out." That is to say, they regard it as either sad or downright un-American. After all, what's more patriotic than scarfing down a juicy, 32-ounce T-bone? Those billboards along heartland highways say it succinctly: "Steak: It's What's for Dinner." "Shiitake Mushroom Gluten: It's What's for Dinner" just doesn't sound right.

While it bothers me that disclosing my eating habits can invoke instant judgment, I get the feeling that this tension comes as a result of the antagonistic tactics employed by vegetarianism's more militant factions.

You see, some people are what I call evangelical vegetarians. They see their philosophy not so much as a lifestyle, but a crusade. Declining to eat meat themselves is not enough; they don't want anybody to eat meat, anywhere, ever. Like any evangelical sect, these firebrands frequently rub people the wrong way. I mean let's face it?conversations like this are fun for nobody:

Evangelical Vegetarian: I see you got the steak.

You: Yep.

EV: Is it good?

You: Yeah, it's a little overcooked, but it's pretty good.

EV: I meant is it good that industrial farms have taken over the supply side of America's meat industry, generate as much sewage as some cities, drive family-owned farms out of business, and torture living creatures in ways that would make Pol Pot wretch?

You: Um, well, no, I guess?

EV: You guess what?

You: I mean, no, that doesn't sound good.

EV: Then why are you eating steak?

You: Because I'm hungry.

EV: You know who isn't hungry? The livestock on industrial farms who have grains forced down their throats so they fatten up more quickly. You know what that feels like? You want me to shove that steak down your throat, and keep shoving steaks down your throat until you either choke to death or get fat enough so that I can kill you, cut you up, and sell you to bloodthirsty humans? Would that make you less "hungry"?

You: I...I dunno. I just like steak.

EV: You're going to hell.

There is no doubt in my mind that these fire-and-brimstone types sincerely believe that their cause is just. And they may be right. But from what I have observed, this combative approach rarely results in converted carnivores. Oddly, many of these meatless militants are the same left-wing activists who get indignant when right-wing activists try to force-feed folks their faith. Sadly, this irony is often lost on all parties.

For fear of falling into such hypocrisy, I consciously try to avoid appearing self-righteous. I usually make an effort not to bring up the fact that I'm a vegetarian unless it is necessary. For example, if somebody offers me a meat dish, I politely decline without giving a specific reason. If pressed further, I can usually wriggle out of dropping the v-bomb by explaining that I am currently being ravaged by intestinal parasites.

Mind you, I am not embarrassed to be a vegetarian. It's just that once I tell people, they inevitably ask me why. Sometimes, they ask in a defensive tone?as if my decision to be a vegetarian implicitly scolds their decision not to be. Other times, their tone is merely curious. But everybody asks.

At first, I was glad to oblige them with an answer. It was freshman year, after all, and I was still intellectually insecure enough to derive gratification from showing off my fancy philosophy-speak.

But I underestimated the frequency with which I would receive this inquiry, and the more I repeated my increasingly pompous-sounding refrain, the more I felt like Jude Law in "I Y Huckabees" (the part where he tells the same story over and over until he pukes). I eventually whittled it down to "It's healthier, and I have some ethical qualms with the way most meat is produced." This turned into, "I dunno, I just am," before I finally replaced verbal explanations with an ambiguous shrug.

In certain company, of course, avoiding the issue is moot, because the moment somebody offers me meat, a friend will take it upon himself to explain the situation:

Host: Hey Steve, you didn't get any chicken wings. You want some?

Me: No, thanks, I?

Friend: Don't bother, dude. He's a vagetarian.

Me: Vegetarian.

Friend: I know what I said.

Usually, I am able to dispatch such assaults on my virility by reminding antagonists that I am capable of doing nearly 10 whole push-ups in a row.

In any case, I am sanguine with my current dietary philosophy. Granted, my ability to fulfill the demands of the broader standard implied by such ethical reasoning is dubious, or at least not fully developed. That is to say, I have some ways to go as a conscientious consumer of non-edible goods. But for now, my vegetarianism will do as a first experiment in applying abstract philosophical theory to the practical aspects of my life.

I suppose that the next experiment should involve finding a job. But Mom, you might want to move that furniture back into my room. Just in case.