Correcting an Infirm Constitution
An essay by Louis Cornaro
My treatise on a sober life has begun to answer my desire, in being of service to many persons born of a weak constitution, or who, by reason of free living, have become infirm, who, when they commit the least excess, find themselves greatly indisposed.
I should also be glad to be of service to those, who, born with a good constitution, yet, by reason of a disorderly life, find themselves at the age of fifty or sixty attacked with various pains and diseases, such as gout, sciatica, liver and stomach complaints, to which they would not be subject, were they to live a strictly temperate life, and by so doing would moreover greatly increase the term of their existence, and live with much greater comfort; they would find themselves less irritable, and less disposed to be upset by inconvenience and annoyance. I was myself of a most irritable disposition, insomuch that at times there was no living with me. Now, for a very long time it has been otherwise, and I can see that a person swayed by his passions is little or no better than a madman at such times.
The man, also, who is of a bad constitution, may, by dint of reason, and a regular and sober life, live to a great age and in good health, as I have done, who had naturally one of the worst, so that it appeared impossible I should live above forty years, whereas, I now find myself sound and hearty at the age of eighty-six; forty-six years beyond the time I had expected; and during this long respite all my senses have continued perfect; and even my teeth, my voice, my memory, and my heart. But what is still more, my brain is clearer now than it ever was. Nor do any of my powers abate as I advance in life; and this because, as I grow older, I lessen the quantity of my solid food. This retrenchment is necessary, since it is impossible for man to live forever; and, as he draws near his end, he is brought so low as to be able to take but little nourishment, and at such times, the yolk of an egg, and a few spoonfuls of milk with bread, is quite sufficient during the twenty-four hours; a greater quantity would most likely cause pain, and shorten life. In my own case, I expect to die without any pain or sickness, and this is a blessing of great importance; yet may be expected by those who shall lead a sober life, whether they be rich or poor. And, since a long and healthy life ought to be greatly coveted by every man, then I conclude that all men are in duty bound to exert themselves to that effect; nevertheless such a blessing cannot be obtained without strict temperance and sobriety. But some allege that many, without leading such a life, have lived to a hundred, and that in good health, though they ate a great deal, and used indiscriminately every kind of viands and wine, and therefore they flatter themselves that they shall be equally fortunate. But in this they are guilty of two mistakes: the first is, that it is not one in fifty thousand that ever attains that happiness; the other mistake is, that such, in the end, most certainly contract some illness, which carries them off: nor can they be sure of ending their days otherwise; so that the safest way to attain a long and healthful life, is to embrace sobriety, and to diet oneself strictly as to quantity. And this is no very difficult affair. History informs us of many who lived in the greatest temperance; and this present age furnishes us with many such, reckoning myself one of the number: we are all human beings, endowed with reason, and consequently we ought to be master of all our actions.
This sobriety is reduced to two things, quality and quantity. The first consists in avoiding food or drinks, which are found to disagree with the stomach. The second, to avoid taking more than the stomach can easily digest; and every man at the age of forty ought to be a perfect judge in these matters; and whoever observes these two rules, may be said to live a regular and sober life. And the virtue and efficacy of this life is such, that the humors in a man’s blood become harmonious and perfect, and are no longer liable to be disturbed or corrupted by any disorders, such as suffering from excessive heat or cold, too much fatigue, or want of rest, and the like. A man who lives as I have described, may pass through all these changes without harm. Wherefore, since the humors of persons who observe these two rules relative to eating and drinking, cannot possibly be corrupted and engender acute diseases (the cause of untimely death), every man is bound to comply with them, for whoever acts otherwise, living a disorderly life, instead of a regular one, is constantly exposed to disease and death.
It is, indeed, true that even those who observe these two rules, relating to diet, the observance of which constitutes a regular life, may, by committing any one of the other irregularities, such as excessive heat, cold, fatigue, etc., find himself slightly indisposed for a day or two, but he need fear nothing worse.
But as there are some persons who, though well stricken in years, are, nevertheless, very free in their living, and allege that neither the quantity nor the quality of their diet makes any impression upon them, and therefore eat a great deal of everything without distinction, and indulge themselves equally in point of drinking; such men are ignorant of the requirements of their nature, or they are gluttonous; and I do affirm, that such do not enjoy good health, but as a rule are infirm, irritable, and full of maladies. There are others, who say that it is necessary that they should eat and drink freely to keep up their natural heat, which is constantly diminishing, as they advance in years; and that it is therefore their duty to eat heartily of such things as please their palate, and that strict moderation, in their case, would tend to shorten life. Now, this is the reason, or excuse, of thousands. But to all this, I answer, that all such are deceiving themselves, and I speak from experience, as well as observation. The fact is, large quantities of food cannot be digested by old stomachs; as man gets weaker as he grows older, and the waste in his system is slower, the natural heat certainly is less. Nor will all the food in the world increase it, except to bring on fever and distressing disorders; therefore, let none be afraid of shortening their days by eating too little. I am strong and hearty, and full of good spirits, neither have I ache or pain, and yet I am very old, and subsist upon very little; and, in this respect, that which would suit one man, is good for another. When men are taken ill they discontinue, or nearly so, their food. Now, if by reducing themselves to a small quantity, they recover from the jaws of death, how can they doubt, but that, with a slight increase of diet consistent with reason, they will be able to support nature, when in health. Let a fair, honest trial of some few weeks be given, and the result would, in all cases, be most pleasing.
Others say, that it is better for a man to suffer three or four times every year, from gout, sciatica, or whatever disorder to which he may be subject, than be tormented the whole year by not indulging his appetite, and eating and drinking just as he pleases, since he can always by a few days of self-denial recover from all such attacks. To this I answer, that, our natural heat growing less and less as we advance in years, no abstinence for a short time can have virtue sufficient to conquer the malady to which the man is subject, and which is generally brought on by repletion, so that he must die at last of one of these periodical disorders; for they abridge life in the same proportion as temperance and health prolong it.
Others pretend that it is better to live a short and self-indulgent life, than a long and self-denying one; but surely, longevity ought to be valued, and is, by men of good understanding; and those who do not truly prize this great gift of God, are surely a disgrace to mankind, and their death is a service to the public rather than not. And again, there are some, who, though they are conscious that they become weaker as they advance in years, yet cannot be brought to retrench the quantity of their food, but rather increase it, and, because they find themselves unable to digest the great quantity of food, with which they load their stomachs twice or thrice a day, they resolve to eat but once, heartily, in the twenty-four hours. But this course is useless; for the stomach is still overburdened, and the food is not digested, but turns into bad humors, by which the blood becomes poisoned, and thus a man kills himself long before his time. I never met with an aged person who enjoyed health, and lived that manner of life. Now, all these men whose manner of life I have named, would live long and happily, if, as they advanced in years, they lessened the quantity of their food, and ate oftener, and but little at a time, for old stomachs cannot digest large quantities; men at this age becoming children again, who eat little and often during the twenty-four hours.
O thrice holy sobriety, so useful to man, by reason of the service thou dost render him! Thou prolongest his days, by which means he greatly improves his understanding and, by such knowledge, he can avoid the bitter fruits of sensuality, which is an enemy to man’s reason. Thou, moreover, freest him from the dreadful thoughts of death. How greatly ought we to be indebted to thee, since by thee we enjoy this beautiful world, which is really beautiful to all whose sensibilities have not been deadened by repletion, and whose minds have not been blighted by sensuality! I really never knew till I grew old, that the world was so beautiful; for, in my younger years I was debauched by irregularities, and therefore could not perceive and enjoy, as I do now, its beauties. O truly happy life, which, over and above all these favors conferred on me, hast so improved and perfected my body, that now I have a better relish for plain bread, than formerly I had for the most exquisite dainties! In fact I find such sweetness in it, because of the good appetite I always have, that I should be afraid of sinning against temperance, were I not convinced of the absolute necessity for it, and knowing that pure bread is, above all things, man’s best food, and while he leads a sober life, he may be sure of never wanting that natural sauce, —a good appetite—and moreover, I find that, whereas I used to eat twice a day, now that I am much older, it is better for me to eat four times, and still to lessen the quantity as the years increase. And this is what I do, guided by my experience; therefore, my spirits being never oppressed by too much food, are always brisk; especially after eating, so that I enjoy much the singing of a song, before I sit down to my writing.
Nor do I ever find myself the worse for writing directly after meals; my understanding is never clearer; and I am never drowsy; the food I take being too small a quantity to send up any fumes to the brain. O, how advantageous it is to an old man to eat but little; therefore I take but just enough to keep body and soul together, and the things I eat are as follows: bread, panado, eggs (the yolk), and soups. Of flesh meat, I eat kid and mutton. I eat poultry of every kind; also of sea and river fish. Some men are too poor to allow themselves food of this kind, but they may do well on bread (made from wheat meal, which contains far more nutriment than bread made from fine flour), panado, eggs, milk, and vegetables. But though a man should eat nothing but these, he may not eat more than his stomach can with ease digest, never forgetting that it is the over-quantity which injures, even more than the eating of unsuitable food. And again I say, that whoever does not transgress, in point of either quantity or quality, cannot die, but by mere dissolution, except in cases where there is some inherited disease to combat; but such cases are comparatively rare, and even here a strict and sober diet will be of the greatest service.
O, what a difference between a regular and temperate life, and an irregular and intemperate life! One gives health and longevity, the other produces disease and untimely death. How many of my dearest relations and friends have I lost by their free living, whereas, had they listened to me, they might have been full of life and health. I am thus more than ever determined to use my utmost endeavors to make known the benefit of my kind of life. Here I am, an old man, yet full of life and joy, happier than at any previous period of my life, surrounded by many comforts; not the least to mention are my eleven grandchildren, all of fine understanding and amiable disposition, beautiful in their persons, and well disposed to learning; and these, I hope so to teach, that they shall take pattern after me, and follow my kind of life.
Now, I am often at a loss to understand why men of fine parts and understanding, who have attained middle age, do not, when they find themselves attacked by disorders and sickness, betake themselves to a regular life, and that constantly. Is it because they are in ignorance as to the importance of this subject? Surely, it cannot be that they are enslaved by their appetites to such an extent that they find themselves unable to adopt a strict and regular diet? As to young men, I am in no way surprised at their refusal to live such a life, for their passions are strong and usually their guide. Neither have they much experience; but, when a man has arrived at the age of forty or fifty, surely he should in all things be governed by reason. And this would teach men that gratifying the appetite and palate, is not, as many affirm, natural and right, but is the cause of disease and premature death. Were this pleasure of the palate lasting, it would be some excuse; but it is momentary, compared with the duration of the disease which its excess engenders. But it is a great comfort to a man of sober life to reflect, that what he eats will keep him in good health, and be productive of no disease or infirmity.