Popular Science Monthly/Volume 20/December 1881/Physical Education XII




"A national superstition is a national misfortune. No pious fraud has ever advantaged the world, for every popular delusion becomes the mother of a noxious and numerous progeny."—Helvetius.

LOGICIANS distinguish between inferential and presumptive fallacies, the first being founded upon illogical conclusions from correct premises, the second upon logical conclusions from incorrect premises. With few exceptions the most mischievous popular delusions of all ages have arisen from the latter—the "presumptive" fallacies. Where their own interests are involved, men seem gifted with an instinctive faculty for looking through the tricks by which a word-juggler appears to support his sophisms with axioms known to be true, but, where that knowledge itself has been falsified (by repeating fictions till they assume the semblance of truisms), all thus biased will accept as sound whatever logical superstructure dupes or impostors may choose to erect upon such sham facts. If a man had been persuaded that cold is a panacea, he would naturally conclude that Siberia must be the healthiest country in the world. In Hindostan, where the sanctity of horned cattle is an established dogma, no true believer would hesitate to indict an irreverent bull-driver for blasphemy, or to preserve a beefsteak as a sacred relic. As long as the Bible passed for infallible, it seemed perfectly logical to ascribe diseases to witchcraft and their cure to prayer, to regard a man's natural instincts as his natural foes, to deny the difference between one and three, and treat mathematicians as enemies of the human race. The systematic application of spurious principles has led to strange results, and latterly to still stranger disputes concerning the propriety of acknowledging the failure, and the best way of compromising the consequences; but such controversies could often be simplified by tracing the effects to their causes. Ill-founded buildings are naturally shaky. Still, people dislike to be lectured on the chronic dilapidation of their parlor-walls. But he who succeeds in exposing the rottenness of the foundation-timbers will need no specious arguments to demonstrate the expediency of removing the household goods to a safer place.

For many centuries the training of the young was almost monopolized by the propagandists of that most terrible of all delusions, the natural-depravity dogma, and our whole system of practical education is-still interwoven with the following fallacies, all more or less deeply-rooted upshots of that dogma:

1. The Leading-Strings Fallacy.—From the moment a child is born, he is treated on the principle that all his instincts are essentially wrong, that Nature must be thwarted and counteracted in every possible way. He is strapped up in a contrivance that he would be glad to exchange for a strait-jacket, kept for hours in a position that prevents him from moving any limb of his body. His first attempts at locomotion are checked; he is put in leading-strings, he is carefully guarded from the out-door world, from the air that would invigorate his lungs, from the sports that would develop his muscles. Hence, the peevishness, awkwardness, and sickliness of our young aristocrats. Poor people have no time to imitate the absurdities of their wealthy neighbors, and their children profit by what the model nurse would undoubtedly call neglect. Indian babies are still better off. They are fed on bull-beef, and kicked around like young dogs; but they are not swaddled, they are not cradled, and not dosed with paregoric; they crawl around naked, and soon learn to keep out of the way; they are happy, they never cry. If we would treat our youngsters in the same way, only substituting kisses and bread for kicks and beef, they would be as happy as kids in a clover-field, and moreover they would afterward be hardier and stronger. Every week the newspapers tell us about ladies tumbling down-stairs and breaking both arms; boys falling from a fence and fracturing their collar-bones. From what height would a young Comanche have to fall to break such bones—not to mention South-Sea Island children and young monkeys? The bones of an infant are plastic: letting it tumble and roll about would harden the bony tissue; guarding it like a piece of brittle crockery makes its limbs as fragile as glass. Christian mothers reproach themselves with neglecting their duty to their children if they do not constantly interfere with their movements, but they forget that in points of physical education Nature herself is such an excellent teacher that the apparent neglect is really a transfer of the pupil to a more efficient school. 2. The Nostrum Fallacy.—When a child complains of headache, lassitude, or want of appetite, the nurse concludes that he must "take something." If the complexion of a young lady grows every day paler and pastier, her mother will insist that she must "get something" to purify her blood. If the baby squeals day and night, a doctor is sent for, and is expected to "prescribe something." What that something should be, the parents would be unable to define, but they have a vague idea that it should come from the drug-store, and that it can not be good for much unless it is bitter or nauseous. Traced to its principles their theory would be about this: "Sickness and depravity are the normal condition of our nature; salvation can come only through abnormal agencies; and a remedy, in order to be effective, should be as anti-natural as possible." Perfectly logical from a Scriptural point of view. But Nature still persists in following her own laws. Her physiological laws she announces by means of the instincts which man shares with the humblest of his fellow-creatures, and health is her free gift to all who trust themselves to the guidance of those instincts. Health is not lost by accident, nor can it be repurchased at the drug-store. It is lost by physiological sins, and can be regained only by sinning no more. Disease is Nature's protest against a gross violation of her laws. Suppressing the symptoms of a disease with drugs means to silence that protest instead of removing the cause. We might as well try to extinguish a fire by silencing the fire-bells; the alarm will soon be sounded from another quarter, though the first bells may not ring again till the belfry breaks down in a general conflagration. For the laws of health, though liberal enough to be apparently plastic, are in reality as inexorable as time and gravitation. We can not bully Nature, we can not defy her resentment by a fresh provocation. Drugs may change the form of the disease—i. e., modify the terms of the protest—but the law can not be baffled by complicating the offense: before the drugged patient can recover, he has to expiate a double sin—the medicine and the original cause of the disease. But shall parents look on and let a sick child ask in vain for help? By no means. Something is certainly wrong, and has to be righted. The disease itself is a cry for help. But not for drugs. Instead of "taking something," something ought to be done, and oftener something habitually done ought to be omitted. If the baby's stomach has been tormented with ten nursings a day, omit six of them; omit tea and coffee from the young lady's menu; stop the dyspeptic's meat-rations, and the youngster's grammar-lessons after dinner. But open the bedroom-windows, open the door and let your children take a romp in the garden, or on the street, even on a snow-covered street. Let them spend their Sundays with an uncle who has a good orchard; or, send for a barrel of apples. Send for the carpenter, and let him turn the nursery or the wood-shed into a gymnasium. In case you have nothing but your bedroom and kitchen, there will still be room for a grapple-swing; the Boston Hygienic Institute has patented a kind that can be fastened without visible damage to the ceiling. If the baby won't stop crying, something ought to be done about it. Yes, and as soon as possible: remove the strait-jacket apparatus, swaddling-clothes, petticoat, and all, spread a couple of rugs in a comfortable corner, and give the poor little martyr a chance to move his cramped limbs; let him roll, tumble, and kick to his heart's content, and complete his happiness by throwing the paregoric-bottle out of the window.

3. The Stimulant Fallacy.—Eight hours of healthy sleep are sufficient to restore the energy expended in an ordinary day's work. Extraordinary efforts, emotional excitement, sensual excesses, or malnutrition (either by insufficient food or dyspeptic habits), induce a general lassitude—a warning that the organism is being overtasked. Repose and a healthier or more liberal diet will soon restore the functional vigor of the system. But during such periods of their diminished activity the vital powers can be rallied by drastic drugs or tonic beverages—in other words, by poisons. The prostrate vitality rises against a deadly foe, as a weary sleeper would start at the touch of a serpent; and, as danger will momentarily overcome the feeling of fatigue, the organism labors with restless energy till the poison is expelled. This feverish reaction, dram-drinkers (patent dram-drinkers especially) mistake for a sign of returning vigor, persistently ignoring the circumstance that the excitement is every time followed by a prostration worse than that preceding it. Feeling the approach of a relapse the stimulator then resorts to his old remedy, thus inducing another sham revival, followed by an increased prostration, and so on; but before long the dose of the stimulant, too, has to be increased, the stimulator becomes a slave to his poison, and passes his life in a round of morbid excitements and morbid exhaustions—the former at last nothing but a feeble flickering-up of the vital flame, the latter soon aggravated by sick-headaches, "vapors," and hypochondria.

The stimulant habit in all its forms—"exhilarating beverages," "tonic medicines," "prophylactic bitters," etc.—is a dire delusion. A healthy man needs no artificial excitants; the vital principle in its normal vigor is an all-sufficient stimulus; the inspiration bought at the rum-shop is but a poor substitute for the spontaneous exaltations of a healthy mind in a healthy body. Playing with poisons is a losing game; the sweetness of the excitement is not worth the bitter reaction. In sickness stimulants can not further the actual recovery by a single hour. There is a strong progressive tendency in our physical constitution; Nature needs no prompter: as soon as the remedial process is finished, the normal functions of the organism will resume their work as spontaneously as the current of a stream resumes its course after the removal of an obstruction. A "prophylactic" brandy is Old Scratch in the rôle of an exorcist. Fevers can be prevented by other means; and at any rate the possible danger of a climatic disease is preferable to the sure evils of the poison-drug. But how can noxious stimulants be distinguished from wholesome drinks? Tonic medicines, stimulating beverages, and poisons, are synonymous terms. Every known poison can become a lusted-after stimulant by forcing it repeatedly upon the (at first) reluctant stomach. It is true that the hankering of an old habitué after his tipple resembles the craving of a hungry man for food, but that constitutes no reproach against Nature, for the taste of the first drink betrayed the poison. To the palate of a child narcotic stimulants are bitter, alcohol is burning-acrid, tobacco nauseous, mineral poisons either bitter or insipid. By a liberal admixture of sugar and milk the repulsiveness of various narcotic decoctions can be diminished, but in no disguise could they be possibly mistaken for nourishing substances if the natural-depravity dogma had not weakened our confidence in the testimony of our instincts.

4. The Cold-Air Fallacy.—The influence of anti-naturalism is most strikingly illustrated in our superstitious dread of fresh air. The air of the out-door world, of the woods and hills, is, par excellence, a product of Nature—of wild, free, and untamable Nature—and therefore the presumptive source of innumerable evils. Cold air is the general scapegoat of all sinners against Nature. When the knee-joints of the young debauchee begin to weaken, he suspects that he has "taken cold." If an old glutton has a cramp in the stomach, he ascribes it to an incautious exposure on coming home from a late supper. Toothache is supposed to result from "draughts"; croup, neuralgia, mumps, etc., from the "raw March wind." When children have been forced to sleep in unventilated bedrooms till their lungs putrefy with their own exhalations, the materfamilias reproaches herself with the most sensible thing she has been doing for the last hundred nights—"opening the windows last August when the air was so stiflingly hot." The old dyspeptic, with his cupboards full of patent nostrums, can honestly acquit himself of having yielded to any natural impulse; after sweltering all summer behind hermetically closed windows, wearing flannel in the dog-days, abstaining from cold water when his stomach craved it, swallowing drugs till his appetite has given way to chronic nausea, his conscience bears witness that he has done what he could to suppress the original depravity of Nature; only once the enemy got a chance at him: in rummaging his garret for a warming-pan he stood half a minute before a broken window—to that half-minute, accordingly, he attributes his rheumatism. For catarrh there is a stereotyped explanation: "Catched cold." That settles it. The invalid is quite sure that her cough came on an hour after returning from that sleigh-ride. She felt a pain in the chest the moment her brother opened that window. There is no doubt of it—it's all the night-air's fault.

The truth is, that cold air often reveals the existence of a disease. It initiates the reconstructive process, and thus apparently the disease itself, but there is a wide difference between a proximate and an original cause. A man can be too tired to sleep and too weak to be Kick. Bleeding, for the time being, may "break up" an inflammatory disease; the system must regain some little strength before it can resume the work of reconstruction. The vital energy of a person breathing the stagnant air of an unventilated stove-room is often inadequate to the task of undertaking a restorative process—though the respiratory organs, clogged with phlegm and all kinds of impurities, may be sadly in need of relief. But, during a sleigh-ride, or a few hours' sleep before a window left open by accident, the bracing influence of the fresh air revives the drooping vitality, and Nature avails herself of the chance to begin repairs, the lungs reveal their diseased condition, i. e., they proceed to rid themselves of the accumulated impurities. Persistent in-door life would have aggravated the evil by postponing the crisis, or by turning a temporary affection into a chronic disease. But in a plurality of cases Nature will seize even upon a transient improvement of the external circumstances: a cold night that disinfects the atmosphere of the bedroom in spite of closed windows, a draught of cool air from an adjoining room, or one of those accidental exposures to wind and weather which the veriest slave of the cold-air superstition can not always avoid. For, rightly understood, the external symptoms of a disease constitute a restorative process that can not be brought to a satisfactory issue till the cause of the evil is removed. So that, in fact, the air-hater confounds the cause of his recovery with the cause of his disease. Among nations who pass their lives outdoors, catarrh and scrofula are almost unknown; not fresh air, but the want of it, is the cause of countless diseases, of fatal diseases where people are in the habit of nailing down their windows every winter to keep their children from opening them. "In one such den," says Dr. Bock, "I was so overcome with nausea that I could not speak till I had knocked out a pane of glass. That is about the best thing one could do in most sick-rooms"—except knocking out the whole window. The only objection to a "draught" through a defective window is, that the draught is generally not strong enough. An influx of fresh air into a fusty sick-room is a ray of light into darkness, a messenger of Vishnu visiting an abode of the damned. Cold is a disinfectant, and under the pressure of a high wind a modicum of oxygen will penetrate a house in spite of closed windows. This circumstance alone has preserved the lives of thousands whom no cough-sirup or cod-liver oil could have saved.

5. The Fever Fallacy.—Fever-and-ague, being eminently a summer disease, could not very well be ascribed to cold air; but the antinaturalists, still resolved to find an extraneous cause, have selected as their scapegoat the only kind of natural food and drink most Christians ever touch in summer-time—fruits and cold water. The police of fever-stricken towns prohibit the sale of fresh fruit; fever-patients are kept in sweat-boxes, asking in vain for water and fresh air; illustrated almanacs implore us to fortify our constitutions with patent brandy—"a reliable febrifuge, and in malarious districts the only safe beverage."

Considering the problem from a purely inductive standpoint, we shall find that fruits and fevers are not necessarily concomitant. Some two hundred millions of our fellow-men stick to a frugal diet in the swampiest districts of the intertropical regions, and yet enjoy a greater immunity from periodical fevers than the inhabitants of our Northern seaport towns. Siam, the Punjaub, the Brazilian forest-province of Entre-Rios, and the swampy peninsula of Yucatan, would be the healthiest regions of this planet if the absence of what we call malarial diseases could be accepted as a safe criterion; but the accounts of former travelers show that the same diseases were entirely unknown in regions which are now justly dreaded—by visitors from the North. In the valley of the Amazon, and on the larger islands of the West Indian archipelago, fevers made their first appearance with the advent of European colonists. The natives of Sierra Leone, Dr. Schweinfurth tells us, call swamp-fever the "English sickness"—a disease confined to foreigners. The Portuguese and Italians, people with a natural predilection for a frugal diet, survive where beef-eaters die by hundreds. In Mexico, where several coast-towns have become international seaports, vegetarians are almost the only permanent foreign residents; native domestics, who share the flesh-pots of their foreign employers, die by scores every summer. But the necessity of such a result might have been inferred from an a priori axiom which seems to have been no secret to the ancient inhabitants of Southern Europe, viz., that in a warm climate calorific food is incompatible with the constitution of the human body. The word fever (Latin febris) and its equivalents in several other languages (Greek πύρεξις, Spanish and Italian calentura) are derived from adjectives meaning fervid—hot or heated thus indicating the chief characteristic, and, according to the ancient Greek and modern Spanish theory, also the chief cause, of all pyrexial disorders. Man is a native of the tropics, and like our next relatives, the anthropoid four-handers, our primogenitor subsisted probably on fruits and water—i. e., on a refrigerating diet. In subsequent ages several tribes of the human race emigrated to regions whose climate requires calorific food and warm clothing. On returning to the birth-land of their race these wanderers often persist in habits compatible only with a low temperature: the combined influence of a warm climate, warm clothing, and calorific food overcomes the vital power of resistance; the inability of the system to preserve its due mean temperature induces the blood-changes which characterize the symptoms of climatic fevers—the overheated blood ferments. Humid heat accelerates the disintegrating process; but that humidity is only an adjuvant and not even a necessary adjuvant cause, is proved by the immunity of fruit-eaters in the swampiest regions of the equatorial coast-lands, as well as by the frequency of yellow-fever epidemics in such places as Vera Cruz and Pernambuco, whose neighborhood rivals that of Persepolis in sandy aridity. In other words, fevers are caused by the folly of aggravating the influence of the summer heat by superfluous clothing and calorific food (meat, greasy-made dishes, and ardent spirits), and not by fruit or cold water.

6. The Spa Fallacy.—According to the theory of the anti-naturalists, a man's instincts conspire for his ruin; whatever is pleasant to our senses must be injurious; repulsiveness and healthfulness are synonymous terms. To every poison known to chemistry or botany they attribute remedial virtues; to sweetmeats, fruits, fresh air, and cold spring-water all possible morbific qualities. But, for consistency's sake, they make an exception in favor of mineral springs. Spas, impregnated with a sufficient quantity of iron or sulphur to be shockingly nauseous, must therefore be highly salubrious. Solitary mountain regions afflicted with such spas become the favorite resort of invalids; dyspeptics travel thousands of miles to reach a spring that tastes like a mixture of rotten eggs and turpentine. Faith does wonders, but the cure of a large proportion of the many thousands who annually visit such watering-places as Ems, Carlsbad, and White Sulphur Springs, need not be ascribed to the effects of imagination alone. The motion and the excitement of traveling exert a beneficial influence on many disorders. Mountain-air is almost a panacea. Woodland rambles, changes of diet and of general habits, conversation, and even music, are not unimportant co-agents of materia medica. But the spa itself—in the case of bona fide health-seekers, at least—is a decided drawback upon such advantages. Saline and sulphur springs are purgative; the system hastens to rid itself of an injurious substance. A very small dose might operate as a moderate aperient; but the trouble is that the digestive organs come to rely on such excitants as they would upon alcoholic tonics, hence the chronic constipations that so often follow upon the return from a watering-place trip: the stimulant being withdrawn, the organs become remiss in their functions. From a hygienic standpoint a sanitarium without a spa is therefore by no means a Hamlet-drama minus the Prince; the mountain-air of Meran in the Tyrol or the sweet grapes of a Rhenish Trauben-Kur are worth a million sulphur-springs; and, if people knew half the value of up-hill pedestrian exercise, there would be a "Hygienic Home" wherever a steep mountain overlooks a populous plain.

7. The Ascetic Fallacy.—The origin of asceticism is widely different from that of the frugal philosophy which consoles itself with the reflection that the reduction of our wants is equivalent to the enlargement of our means. A man of simple habits may be both happier and healthier than the lover of artificial luxuries, but the anti-naturalists make war upon earthly enjoyments as such; they try to suppress harmless as well as vicious pleasures; their aim is not the reduction hut the destruction of our natural desires. The joy-loving Greeks deified even the aberrations of our natural instincts; the ascetic condemns even their legitimate gratifications. In the world of the mind as well as in the wonders of the visible creation, in streams and passions, in woods and dreams, wherever the children of Nature sought a god, the anti-naturalists feared a devil; to the exponents of asceticism life is a penalty, and earth the devil's vanity-fair, "a fleeting show, for man's illusion given." They make joy a crime, they tell us that God delights in the mortification of his creatures, in the suppression of their natural affections: "If any man hate not his father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yea, and his own life, he can not be my disciple."

But this war against Nature is the pendulum's struggle against the law of gravitation; it is the schoolboy's attempt to obstruct the sources of the Danube. Swinging left, swinging right, the pendulum must return to the middle; the stream will find its way to the valley athwart all dams, in spite of all obstructions. We can not suppress the sources of a natural instinct; all we can achieve by such attempts is to divert the stream from its normal course—to turn a natural into an unnatural passion. Education, i. e., guidance, does not deserve its name where it is nothing but a blind struggle against Nature. Few parents know how much easier it is to guide than to suppress the natural propensities of a child. Obstinate vices are often merely instincts astray, perverted energies that might be made innocuous by guiding them back to their proper sphere—perverted faculties whose abuse might have been prevented by encouraging their right use. The enemies of Nature seem to believe that an instinct can be deadened by stifling its symptoms, but the history of the last eighteen centuries has demonstrated the fallacy of that principle. They tried to stop the stream: they have only succeeded in turning it from its natural course. The attempt to suppress the pursuit of natural sciences led to the pursuit of pseudo-sciences—to supernaturalism, demonism, and all sorts of hideous chimeras. The monastic exiles from human society peopled their solitude with phantoms. The suppression of healthful pastimes begot a passion for vicious pastimes, and made the fancied identity of sin and pleasure a sad reality. The suppression of rational freedom has led to anarchy: the pendulum swings in the opposite direction to re-establish the due equilibrium. The ordinance of celibacy became the mother of secret vices; intolerance is the parent of hypocrisy. Wherever asceticism has trampled the flowers of this earth, the soil has produced a rich crop of weeds. The pent-up well-springs of Nature have found new outlets through dark, underground currents that could not fertilize the fields, and have undermined the foundations of many useful buildings before they could regain the light of day. Whatever liberties we now enjoy had thus to force their way through unnatural obstructions, and the rise of our new civilization is merely the reappearance of a river which once flowed with a less turbulent and less turbid current. Yet it must flow on; all opposition bas proved in vain, for each re-enforcement of the mole has also re-enforced the pressure of the waters.

Shall we persist in a hopeless endeavor? The dam-builders are still at work, but the rising stream surges with ominous eddies, constantly threatening to burst through all obstructions and cover the valley with wreck and ruin. There is only one remedy: We must reopen the natural channel. We must repair and improve its ancient banks—remove the dam that obstructs the stream, and build a dike along the shore.

The religion of the ancients exalted vice as well as Nature. Our present religion suppresses Nature as well as vice. The religion of the future will teach us to distinguish between vice and Nature.