Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 21/September 1882/Longevity

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 21‎ | September 1882


DURING his last expedition to Central Asia, Professor Vambéry managed to interview the Emir of Samarcand—a sort of Mohammedan prince-cardinal and primate of the Eastern Sunnites. As Imam of the local lyceum the Emir appeared to take a natural interest in the progress of European science, but, when his guest expatiated on the material prosperity of the Western Giaours, he interrupted him with a less expected question.

"The happiest people on earth, you call them? What age do they generally attain to?" Vambéry seems to have returned an evasive reply, though he admits that the query was not altogether irrelevant, at least from the stand-point of an Oriental who values existence for its own sake. But, even in the less unpretending West, longevity is not a bad criterion of happiness. Misfortune kills; Nature takes care to shorten a life of misery—for reasons of her own, too, for, in a somewhat recondite (but here essential) sense, the survival of the happiest is also the survival of the fittest. The progress of knowledge tends to circumscribe the realm of accident, and with it the belief in the existence of unmerited evils. In spite of prenatal influences and unprecalculable mishaps, the management of the individual is the most important factor in the sum total of weal or woe, If we could see ourselves as Omniscience sees us, we would probably recognize our worst troubles as the work of our own hands, and we thus recognize them now with sufficient clearness to be half ashamed of them. Most men nowadays dislike to confess their bad luck. We have ceased to ascribe diseases to the malice of capricious demons, and even in Spain the commander of a beaten army would hesitate to plead astrological excuses. Polycrates held that a plucky man can bias the stars, and the popular worship of success may be founded on an instinctive perception of a similar truth. Sultan Achmed went too far in his habit of strangling his defeated pashas, but the world in general agrees with him that there must be something wrong about a generally unsuccessful man. After two or three decided defeats the partisans of a popular leader will give him up for lost, and after a series of disasters the damaged man himself generally begins to share their opinion and loses heart, or, as the ancients expressed it, admits the decree of fate—i. e., his own inability to prevail in the struggle for existence; and it is curious how swiftly a physical collapse often follows upon such a giving way of the moral supports. The storms of every political, social, and financial crisis extinguish hundreds of life-flames; lost hope is a fatal (though a silent and sometimes an unconfessed and unsuspected) disease. Good luck, on the other hand, tends to prolong life; the longevity of pensioners and sinecurists is almost proverbial, and there are men who continue to live in defiance of all biological probabilities, merely because existence somehow or other has become desirable, as a liberal supply of external oxygen will nourish a lamp in default of the inner oil. At the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War, King William and his chancellor and staff-officers were already gray-headed veterans, and it is no accident that they are all alive yet; while nearly all the ministers and marshals of the exploded empire have followed their leader—"weary of life and tired of buttoning and unbuttoning," as a captain of H. M. S. explained his suicide.

The votes that killed Cavour and Disraeli probably revived La Marmora and Gladstone. Success is a panacea; a series of long-lived rulers will generally be found to coincide with an era of national triumphs, and a general increase of longevity with a period of material progress, industrial development, good crops, etc., for, when "living" is cheap, one man's success does not necessarily imply the short-coming of his neighbor.

But, as Ludwig Börne says, "to be happy is one of the cardinal virtues"—there is such a thing as a gift of supporting vitality on an accident-proof fund of good humor, a Mark-Tapley-like disposition to exult in the disregard, or, at least, in the defiance, of bad-luck. In stress of circumstances, Hamlet's alternative may often depend upon the possession of this accomplishment, for I believe that it is one of the talents which can be cultivated. Not all men can attain to the philosophical eminence of Francis Fenélon, who valued gloomy days as a foil to brighter ones; but a step in the right direction is a resolute contempt of trifling adversities, which leads to the habit of distinguishing life from its incidents, the pilgrimage from the way-side vicissitudes, and can be most easily acquired by keeping an ultimate goal in view not a supra mundane one necessarily, but something elevated enough to aid us in overlooking the base annoyances which beset all but the loneliest by-ways of modern life. This devotion to a nobler and enduring, or even a permanently interesting, object—a mere hobby, in fact—serves to enhance the value of life, and explains the success of many survivors under apparently hopeless difficulties, the victory of competitors handicapped with disease, poverty, and deficient education; they support a cause which supports them in return; they live upon as well as for a principle. Hence the apparent paradox of the longevity of busybodies, of men who seem to burn the fuel of life at an extravagant rate. Xenophon, Cardinal Richelieu, Ximenes, Benjamin Franklin, and Frederick the Great, were probably the busiest men of their respective nations, gallop-riders on a road where others kept the even tenor of their way, but they bestrode their hobbies and managed both to outride and outlive their competitors.

It is, indeed, a mistake to suppose that the tranquillity, per se, of a man's life tends to prolong its duration; and the longevity of stagnant villages and country parsons proves only how infinitely health outweighs all other means of happiness. The peasants of Southern Russia live almost as frugally as the Hebrew patriarchs, on milk, bread, and honey, with a bit of cheese now and then, or a drop of hydromel (half-fermented honey-water); their climate is dry and favorable to perennial out-door life, and in spite of official tyranny, war, and rumors of war, feudalism, and outrageous over-taxation, they outlive the freeborn British yeoman, with his strong ales and daily beefsteaks. But the coincidence of dietetic and administrative abuses cuts the thread of life with a two-edged knife, and in Northern Russia the average duration of life is ten years less than among the equally intemperate but less misgoverned natives of Northern Germany, and almost twenty years less than in the equally despotic but less poison-cursed territories of the Shah.

Historically, too, the lowest ebb of human happiness coincides with that of human longevity. The ancient Greeks outlived us by about thirty years, but even our northern Russians would outlive the nations of the Christian middle ages, when common sense was a capital crime, the suppression of all natural instincts the chief aim of education, and the invention of new instruments of torture the only flourishing branch of industry. The Western pessimists dislike to confess the main object of their religion; but their first exemplar, Buddha Nepaulensis, did not hesitate to define it as the mortification of all earthly desires—in other words, the shortening of life by all possible means, excepting the resort to the summary and, therefore, more desirable methods of direct suicide.

The depreciation of Nature, which formed the constant theme of the orthodox preachers, may have had something to do with the unparalleled destructiveness of mediæval epidemics; if life was a curse and death the highest gain, the converts of such dogmas must have yielded to Siva with Hindoo-like apathy, while, on the other hand, it is a well-established fact that the mere determination to live has often turned the scales in the crisis of an apparently hopeless disease. During the Grecian Revolution of 1821, Edward Trelawney survived a load of buckshot because he "felt that he had no right to die," and mothers with a houseful of sick children have frequently resisted the virus of a contagious fever. Mahmed Kasim, the first Arabian conqueror of Hindostan, was infected with the pest by the messenger of a rajah who had adopted that method of freeing his country from the invaders, and, in spite of all remedies, a number of Mahmed's companions died before the end of the week. But Mahmed himself "conquered the disease as he had conquered the rajahs"—recovered by sheer will force, and continued the campaign on the seventh day after the arrival of the plague-bearer.

In the century of Trajan, the Thessalian mountaineers were the macrobiotes, the long-livers, par excellence, of the Roman Empire; the natives of Asia Minor, with her over-populated islands and luxurious cities, the most short-lived. Time has since wrought strange changes in the land of the Ephesians; the wealthy cities have disappeared, and, with the single exception of her North-Persian neighbors, the Levanters are now the longest-lived race on earth. Next come the Turks, Greeks, Arabs, Hindoos, and southern Russians; next to these, and long before any West Europeans, the present inhabitants of the United States, for the advantages of a golden age like ours more than counteract such things as pork-fritters and strawberry-shortcakes. Among the separate States, North Carolina and Vermont hold the highest rank; Louisiana and New Jersey the lowest, topographically as well as biologically. As a rule, highlanders outlive their lowland neighbors, country people the city folks, and among the cities of the Caucasian nations sea-port towns without swamps are the most salubrious. New York is the healthiest large city in America; St. Petersburg, in spite of her high latitude, the unhealthiest of all cities whatever, taking the longevity of the natives as a criterion, for the inclusion of foreign residents would give the highest death-rate to Singapore or Vera Cruz. The Neva swamps breed fever and rheumatism, diphtheria and consumption, turn about, and in co-operation with the marasmus of bureaucracy and political espionage. But what makes Munich such a peculiarly unhealthy place? It must be lager-beer, or else the tedium of Bavarian orthodoxy and Wagner's operas the mania of the past combined with the "music of the future"—for under the same latitude merry Paris reconciles fast-living with long living enough to yield to no first-class city except New York. The burghers of Vienna shorten their lives with greasy made-dishes, and the Berliners with fell schnapps and a still fiercer struggle for existence—twelve hundred thousand eupeptic bipeds, surrounded by sand hills, and living on their wits and on each other.

London holds about the medium between New York and St. Petersburg, but should not be mentioned in the same class with other towns, since her populace has expanded into a nation, distributed over fifteen or sixteen towns and half a hundred villages. The business part of the great brick wilderness, divested of its oases and outlying garden regions, would probably prove to be the richest harvest-field of Death, for coal-smoke and red-hot competition are unfavorable to longevity, and the mens æqua in arduis has ceased to be an Anglo-Saxon characteristic.

The cities of Italy, Spain, and Portugal have become parasites upon the starving country population; strongholds of pampered priests and titled sinecurists; but, with all his freedom from worldly cares, the gordo sanducho, the clerical glutton, is outlived by the rustic pariah, as a proof that the favor of Nature is better than the favor of princes:

"How small the part that laws can cause or cure,
Of all the ills that human hearts endure!"

—and human bodies, too; the tax-collector, with his thumb-screws, calls around once a year, but the gout every week, and dyspepsia once or twice a day. Turks and Italians inhabit the same latitude, and nearly the same kind of mountains and semitropical plains, and the remarkable physical inferiority of the Trinitarians must be ascribed to their stimulating diet and greater sensuality, for somehow or other the rustic Mussulman is a truer monogamist than his Western neighbor. In the time of Strabo the Island of Cos was noted for the general health of its inhabitants and their longevity, which some Grecian physicians attributed to the excellence of the drinking-water, and others to the genius of Hippocrates, who had taken the islanders under his special protection. That genius must have settled in the Turkish town of Janina, where drug-stores are unknown, and indeed superfluous, as a sick person is at once suspected of wine-drinking, and takes care to conceal his condition. The town is situated at the head of a clear mountain-lake, and the longevity of the abstinent inhabitants might tempt an undertaker to indulge in the remark of Frederick the Great, at the battle of Kolin, when his grenadiers finally refused to advance: "Ihr Hunde, wollt Ihr ewig leben?"—(Ye hounds, are ye going to live for ever?)

Frugality, in the sense of vegetarianism, is the sometimes involuntary virtue of most Orientals, and may help neutralize their narcotics; the flesh-abhorring Hindoos attain to a surprising age, considering their penchant for betel-poison and their ultra-Arabian poverty. Our carnivorous red-skins are the most short-lived of all outdoor dwellers, and clearly in consequence of their diet, for in South America, too, even the inhabitants of the malarious sea-port towns survive the gauchos, whose menu is limited to three courses and one entremet—dried beef, fresh beef, salted beef, and beef-tallow.

Professor Schrodt, who includes horse-riding among the sedentary occupations, recommends pedestrianism as a cure for all possible diseases, since the German Land-boten—mail-carriers afoot—generally attain to an extreme old age, and appeals to several Grecian writers who make a similar remark in regard to the Spartan hemerodromes. In Prussia all government employes are pensioned after a certain term of service, and a Land-bote enjoys, therefore, the advantage of an insured income in conjunction with the necessity of physical exercise—bodily motion combined with ease of mind—the health-secret of the gymnosophists and the children of the wilderness.

"Woe to them that are at ease!" says Carlyle, but his anathema does not prevent the English village parson from outliving every other class of his countrymen, not excepting the British farmer, whose peace of mind can not always be reconciled with high rents and the low price of American wheat. Where agriculture is what it should be—a contract between man and Nature, in the United States, in Australia, and in some parts of Switzerland—the plow-furrow is the straightest road to longevity; in Canada, where Nature is rather a hard task-master, the probabilities are in favor of such half-indoor trades as carpentering and certain branches of horticulture—summer farming, as the Germans call it. Cold is an antiseptic, and the best febrifuge, but by no means a panacea, and the warmest climate on earth is out and out preferable even to the border-lands of the polar zone. The average Arab outlives the average Esquimau by twenty-five years.

The hygienic benefit of sea-voyages, too, has been amazingly exaggerated. Seafaring is not conducive to longevity; the advantage of the exercise in the rigging is more than outweighed by the effluvia of the cockpit, by the pickle-diet, the unnatural motion, and the foul-weather misery; and, from a sanitary stand-point, the sea-air itself is hardly preferable to mountain and woodland air. The eozoon may have been a marine product, but our Pliocene ancestor was probably a forest creature.

"For what length of time would you undertake to warrant the health of a seaman?" Varnhagen asked a Dutch marine doctor. "That depends on the length of his furlough," replied the frank Hollander, and it will require centuries of reform to redeem our cities from the odium of a similar reproach. In victuals and vitality towns consume the hoarded stores of the country, and only the garden-suburbs of a few North American cities are hygienically self-supporting. Permanent in-door work is slow suicide, and between the various shop-trades and sedentary occupations the difference in this respect is only one of degree. Factories stand at the bottom of the scale, and the dust and vapor generating ones below zero; the weaver's chances to reach the average age of his species have to be expressed by a negative quantity. In France, where the tabulation of comparative statistics is carried further than anywhere else, the healthfulness of the principal town trades has been ascertained to decrease in the following order: House-building, huckstering, hot-bed gardening (florists), carpenter and brick-mason trades, street-paving, street-cleaning, sewer-cleaning, blacksmiths, artisan-smiths (silver, copper, and tin concerns), shoemaking, paper-making, glass-blowing, tailor, butcher, house-painter, baker, cook, stone-masons and lapidaries, operatives of paint and lead factories, weavers, steel-grinders—the wide difference between brick and stone masons being due to the lung-infesting dust of lapidary work, which, though an out-door occupation, is nearly as unhealthy as steel-grinding. Lead-paint makers have to alternate their work with jobs in the tin-shop, and, after all, can rarely stand it for more than fifteen years; needle-grinders generally succumb after twelve or fourteen years. The human lungs seem able to eliminate the impurities breathed by street and sewer cleaners, for, in London as well as in Paris and Marseilles, the followers of both trades rank high among the long-lived classes. Hucksters somehow manage to outlive city gardeners as well as shopkeepers; among the Hecubas of the Paris market-hall, not less than two hundred and eighteen had passed their threescore and tenth year.

Preaching, and, strange to say, pettifogging, are the healthiest of all the learned professions; their lung-exercise may have something to do with it, for lecturing-teachers outlive the "silent" teachers (dancing-masters, etc.). Physicians die early; Nature revenges herself upon her leagued adversaries, for druggists and barbers (in many parts of Europe synonymous with village quacks) are likewise short-lived; but sextons reach a good old age: there must be a mistake about the supposed danger of grave-yard effluvia.

Art still increases the value of human life, but not its length; the greatest modern masters of tune and color died in their prime, like the greatest poets; inspiration, in all its forms, would seem to be a flame that consumes the human clay more quickly than the fire of affliction—if the extreme longevity of so many of the ancient masters did not suggest a different explanation, namely, that the revelations of Nature and the tendencies of established dogmas have ceased to harmonize, and that the lovers of truth have nowadays to cross a Pontus where they must prevail against a whole sea of adverse currents, or Leander-like perish.

In the course of the last sixty or seventy years the average duration of human life has undoubtedly increased in all civilized countries, but it is not less certain that the gain of a few decades does not yet begin to offset the loss of centuries; we have saved ourselves from the abyss of medieval unnaturalism, but we are still far from having recovered the ancient heights of vitality; the after-effects of the Buddha-poison still cramp our limbs and sadly retard our upward progress; but the tide has turned, and the main currents of the age have ceased to set deathward.

According to the demonstrations of the naturalist Camper, the normal average of our life-term should be at least ninety years. His arguments are both biological and historical, and would agree with the scriptural records, if, as Schleiermacher suggests, the Genesis-years were seasons, of about ninety days. The "years" of the patriarchs were certainly not months, for men who saw their children and children's children must have lived longer than thirty years. The biological argument that in a state of nature the life of a mammal relates to the period of its growth as 6-8 to 1, would give us an average of 90-160; the southern Arab is full-grown with sixteen years, the northern Caucasian hardly before twenty. Hundreds of ancient statesmen and philosophers outlived their threescore and ten by a full decade, though we need not doubt that then, as now, metaphysics and politics were not specially conducive to longevity, nor that even by that time vices had shortened the natural average by several decades.

But there is another a priori argument which, from all but an ultra-pessimistic stand-point, seems almost self-sufficient in its conclusiveness. The whereabouts of new planets have been discovered by an inductive process based upon the observation of otherwise unaccountable disturbances in the orbits of other stars, and Camper's theory alone would account for an otherwise inexplicable contradiction in the economy of human life. Man's life is too short for the attainment of its highest purposes. Our season ends before its seed has time to yield a harvest; before a brave day's work is half done we are overtaken by the night, when no man can work. As the world is constituted, it takes a certain number of years for a new industry to take root and yield its first fruits; it requires a certain period for a new opinion to penetrate the crust of society and reach the fertile subsoil of the lower strata. Before the end of that period the planter of the tree has to fertilize the soil with his own bones; the weary tiller has to yield his plow to other hands. And the noblest plants are of such slow growth that the master of the vineyard appears to discriminate against his worthiest laborers; nothing seems wanting to aggravate the injustice and incongruity of the existing arrangement.

But a minimum life-term of ninety years would reconcile all contradictions: two thirds of it would be enough for the adjudication of every claim, and the remaining third could be devoted to rewards or retributions. The second generation, which now can only reverse and regret the short-sighted judgment of the first, would have a chance to make amends for the injustice. Such men as Kepler, Spinoza, Dante, Milton, Bayle, Rousseau, Mirabeau, Burns, Beethoven, Paine, and Byron, would have survived the influence of their detractors, and Time, the avenger, could have answered their appeal with something better than a monument.