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Return to Learn from Luigi Cornaro
"How to Live One Hundred Years"
by Dr. Herbert M. Shelton
to Cornaro's Discourses on a Sober and Temperate Life
In 1833 an edition of Cornaro's Discourses on a Sober and Temperate Life was published in New York with introduction and notes by Sylvester Graham. Mr. Graham edited and corrected the edition and it was presented to the reading public of that day in the hope, a not vain one, that it would result in the people becoming more sober and temperate in their ways of life. Many read the book with understanding and followed its precepts with profit. A number of editions of this renowned book have been published since that time and I believe it safe to say that few books of its kind have ever exerted a wide and more wholesome influence.
In his introduction Graham demolished the opinion then held and still held by the great majority of people who give thought to the subject at all, that, "every man can ascertain, by his own experience, what is best for him, and how he ought to live; and that no general rule can be laid down, which will be equally suitable to all mankind." It should be obvious, after but a moment's reflection, that if this statement were true, our knowledge of how best to live could come only after an extensive personal experience, hence at the end of a life, largely, perhaps, misspent. It would come too late to do us any good. If there are no principles of physiology and biology that are applicable to all of us, if there are no hygienic practices that are equally good for every man, if every man is a law unto himself, so that what is one man's boon is another man's bane, then there can be no science of health, no possibility of ever learning how to live, except at the end of a long and costly period of personal experience. We would, then, be most likely to kill ourselves in trying to learn to live.
The theory as expressed in Graham's day, and as held today, is that, because there are differences in constitution, temperament, predisposition, etc., a way of life that is good for one man may prove harmful to another. If this contention is true, then are we indeed living in a reign of chaos rather than one of law and order. Graham quotes the contention of some of the people of his time that, "Some, with great regularity of habits, and temperance in diet, enjoy good health and live to great age, while others pursuing the same course, are always sickly, and die young; and, on the other hand, some, with great irregularity and intemperance, enjoy health and live to become very old. Therefore what is best for one man, may not be for another; consequently it would be impossible to prescribe any mode of living, which would be suitable to all constitutions and circumstances."
A very hasty and superficial view of the subject lends to this view the appearance of plausibility, but superficial views are never trustworthy. An honest, candid and full investigation of the subject of life and living in their relations to health, disease and length of life, will lead to a different view and to very different conclusions. For, if we go beneath the surface we shall discover the reign of law and order in the realm of life.
Graham's reply to this popular belief was that the person of good constitution who lived a temperate and sober life would enjoy good health to a ripe old age; whereas the person of feeble constitution would be less healthy and live less long. On the other hand the person with strong constitution whose life contains much that is conducive to good health, will live to advanced age despite irregularities, while the person of poor constitution who lives an irregular and decidedly unwholesome life will die young. There would seem to be no contradiction in this. As nobody's life is all bad, there being different degrees of good and bad in the mixture, length of life must be measured by the rapidity with which the life breaks down and destroys the original constitutional endowment, be it sound and vigorous or unsound and feeble. But the feeble constitution and the vigorous constitution are governed by the same laws of life. There is no logical reason why two constitutions of the same excellence shall endure to the same length of life and in the same condition of health, if one of them is treated kindly and the other abused unmercifully.
The example of Cornaro is an interesting lesson for us in that it reveals to us in dramatic fashion the fact that, even after a life of dissipation and abuse has greatly broken an originally good constitution and brought its possessor within sight of the grim reaper, a complete reversal of the ways of life, a revolution in habits, may result in such restoration of health as to prolong life in usefulness, happiness and strength for many more years. Whatever may be our view of life, we certainly cannot contend that had Cornaro continued on in his dissolute way of life, he would have regained his health and lived to the age he did. There is no reason to doubt that the prognosis of his physicians would have proved reasonably accurate had he not revolutionized his way of life. Drink, gluttony, a dissolute life these never restored health nor repaired an already greatly impaired constitution. Even small improvements in the way of life are often enough to account for improved health. Certainly no increase in the drinking, gluttony, dissolution, etc., can produce other than harm.
Unfortunately, when we offer such examples as that of Cornaro (there is the other famous one of Jenkins), people generally conclude that, where the examples are so rare, they must be accounted for upon the basis of some accidental or adventitious influence, such as parentage or fortunate circumstances. They are not yet ready to understand that what we know to be true of one man is an example in the strictest sense of the controlling power of the mode of life (Cornaro's life gives us an example of the results of two ways of life) in determining the quality and length of each individual life. Their incredulity, when such matters are presented to them, is the outgrowth of their ignorance and of the fact that they have not yet learned an abiding faith in great principles.
But the examples are not so rare as may at first thought be assumed. That Cornaro's example has received more publicity than that of any other man is, perhaps, true. Thousands of such example, however, have existed and do exist, that have never been publicized. The fact, then, that the average man is possessed of nothing more than the vaguest and generally incorrect views of the modus operandi of causes operating in the lives of people, is not ground for accepting his erroneous conclusions about the relative merits of opposites mode of living the two modes being variously blended in the lives of most people. Viewed as cause and effect, opposite modes of life cannot produce identical results and only first-class habits of living can logically be expected to produce superior results.
Certainly the thousands of examples of the saving potency of a hygienic life should be sufficient to awaken men and women to an understanding of the importance of a correct mode of living and arouse in them a desire to be freed, as much as possible, from the uncertainties of a mode of life that is based on no correct principle, the practices of which are irregular and haphazard, and is so plainly unsuccessful. If the presentation of a new edition of Cornaro's famous treatise will help in achieving this desirable awakening, it will have served a very useful purpose. Although at the time he wrote, Cornaro could have had nothing but the crudest notions of physiology and pathology, his example of the influences of the two modes of living is not crude and it should be emphasized that thousands who have read his discourses have adopted his mode of temperance and abstinence and have been greatly improved in health.
Continue to Introduction by Hereward Carrington
Return to Learn from Luigi Cornaro "How to Live One Hundred Years"
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