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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 29/October 1886/The Philosophy of Diet

By a Layman.

IN the years to come it will be debated whether the great minds of the later Victorian era were most concerned with their souls or with their stomachs. Politics we may put by; they are always with us; but politics apart, between these two interests, the spiritual and the peptical, the question of precedence must surely lie. What other claimant can there be? Not literature, thrust away into corners, or tricked out in a newspaper like some May-day mummer; not art, divorced, in Carlyle's phrase, from sense and the reality of things; not music, crushed Tarpeia-wise under foreign gewgaws, or brayed in a chemist's mortar; not the drama, leveled to a tawdry platform for the individual's vanity. Not these, nor any one of these things; but the soul and the stomach, irreligion and indigestion, doubt and dyspepsia—call them what you will—these are the cardinal notes of our great inquiring age.

The former I will not touch. Sir Henry Thompson, indeed, asserts a wise and orderly method of eating to be a religious duty, and, though the phrase might not quite pass muster in Exeter Hall, in some sense it assuredly is so. In this wise, then, I may profess to be in touch with religion, but in no other. Questions of faith and unfaith (as the fashionable jargon has it) I have neither the ability nor the wish to discuss. It were perhaps no bad thing for the happiness of the future if the wish were as generally wanting to-day as the ability. But on the interior economy of the human frame every man has a right to his opinion. Like faith this, too, it may be said, must take its stand mainly on the evidence of things not seen; but the evidence, at least, in this case, is of a more certain and palpable nature. By what measure and system of nourishment the bodily and mental powers may best be encouraged and preserved, it is every man's duty to discover for himself. If he has any word to say thereon it is, if not his duty, at least his privilege to say it. This is one of the few points of human interest on which every man has a right to say what he thinks, and no man has a right to knock him down for saying it—provided always, of course, that what he says is based strictly on his own experience and limited strictly to his own concerns. In this one instance only, no man has the right to do unto his neighbor as he would do unto himself.

Sir Henry Thompson thinks that our forefathers did not sufficiently consider this great subject. Like Mr. Squeers, they have been, he admits, very particular of our morals. He sees a wise and lofty purpose in the laws they have framed for the regulation of human conduct and the satisfaction of the natural cravings of religious emotions. But those other cravings equally common to human nature, those grosser emotions, cravings of the physical body, they have disregarded. "No doubt," he says, "there has long been some practical acknowledgment, on the part of a few educated persons, of the simple fact that a man's temper, and consequently most of his actions, depend upon such an alternative as whether he habitually digests well or ill; whether the meals which he eats are properly converted into healthy material, suitable for the ceaseless work of building up both muscle and brain; or whether unhealthy products constantly pollute the course of nutritive supply. But the truth of that fact has never been generally admitted to an extent at all comparable with its exceeding importance." Herein were our ancestors unwise. The relation between food and virtue Sir Henry maintains (as did Pythagoras before him) to be a very close relation. His view of this relationship is not the view of Pythagoras, who, as Malvolio knew, bade man not to kill so much as a woodcock lest haply he might dispossess the soul of his grandam. Plutarch also was averse to a too solid diet, for the reason that it does "very much oppress" those who indulge therein, and is apt to leave behind "malignant relics." Sir Henry, in his turn, would not have men to be great eaters of beef, though he holds with Plutarch rather than with Pythagoras, being (so far as I can judge) no believer in the doctrine of metempsychosis. But on the influence man's diet has on his conduct no less than his constitution he is very sure: "It is certain that an adequate practical recognition of the value of proper food to the individual in maintaining a high standard of health, in prolonging healthy life (the prolongation of unhealthy life being small gain either to the individual or to the community), and thus largely promoting cheerful temper, prevalent good-nature, and improved moral tone, would achieve almost a revolution in the habits of a large part of the community."[1]

Sir Henry is, perhaps, a little hard upon our forefathers. They thought more on these things, and had a clearer view of them, than he allows. A glance at the voluminous pages of Burton (author of "The Anatomy of Melancholy," not the gentleman who has done his best to spoil the "Arabian Nights" for us); a glance at this book, I say, might have shown Sir Henry how much the ancients thought and wrote—and how wisely too—on the stomachic influence. And always through the years wise men who studied the character and conduct of their kind have commended moderation in gratifying the appetite, and lashed indulgence. Milton, for instance, in a famous passage, has chanted in his solemn music the praises of a sleep which

"Was aery light from pure digestion bred";

and Pope, in coarser strains, but with equal truth, reminded his fellows

"On morning wings how active springs the mind
That leaves the load of yesterday behind!"

A little thought will bring a hundred such passages to the memory.

But their way of thinking was not ours. They spoke generally, and left "the mean, peddling details" alone. "Be not unsatiable in any dainty thing, nor too greedy upon meats, for excess of meats bringeth sickness, and surfeiting will turn into choler. By surfeiting have many perished, but he that taketh heed prolongeth life." That was the text and bearing of their sermons. They did not believe in a written law for regulating these things. Tiberius, says Tacitus, held that man a fool who at the age of thirty years needed another to tell him what was best to eat, drink, and avoid ("Ridere solebat eos, qui post tricesimum ætatis annum ad cognoscenda corpori suo noxia vel utilia alicujus consilli indigerent"). It may be remembered, by those who think with Ensign Northerton, that Mr. Sponge (who knew more of Mogg than Tacitus) said pretty much the same thing to Mr. Jogglebury Crowdy, when the latter's unseemly want of that knowledge had helped to spoil a day's hunting. And between Tiberius and Mr. Sponge comes a host of authorities, all harping on the same string. "There is," says Bacon, "a wisdom in this beyond the rules of physic: a man's own observation, what he finds good of, and what he finds hurt of, is the best physic to preserve health." The melancholy Burton concludes that "our own experience is the best physician; that diet which is most propitious to one is often pernicious to another. Such is the variety of palates, humors, and temperatures, let every man observe and be a law unto himself."

Sir Henry has made elsewhere[2] some pertinent quotations from a certain Italian work, of some fame in its day, "Discorsi della Vita Sobria," written by Signor Luigi Cornaro. This amiable old gentleman, a native of Padua, addressed himself at the ripe age of eighty-three to give the world assurance how much a sober life could do. He repeated the assurance at ninety-five, and subsequently passed away, "without any agony, sitting in an elbow-chair, being above a hundred years old." An English translation of his Discourse was published in 1768, and from this Sir Henry has made his extracts. But an earlier translation, the work of George Herbert, was published at Cambridge in 1634, in a curious little volume with a very long title, "Hygiasticon, or the Right Course of preserving Life and Health unto Extreme Old Age, together with Soundness and Integrity of the Senses, Judgment, and Memory." This is really the title of the first essay in the book, originally written in Latin by one Leonard Lessius, a divine who has anticipated Sir Henry in the theory of the religious duty. "The consideration of this business," he says, as an excuse for handling such temporal concerns, "is not altogether physical, but in great part appertains to divinity and moral philosophy." Dr. Lessius holds both with Bacon and Burton in their opinion of the value of personal experience, but he treats the doctors somewhat cavalierly. "Many authors," thus his essay opens, "have written largely and very learnedly touching the preservation of health: but they charge men with so many rules, and exact so much observation and caution about the quality and quantity of meats and drinks, about air, sleep, exercise, seasons of the year, purgations, blood-letting and the like, . . . as bring men into a labyrinth of care in the observation, and unto perfect slavery in the endeavoring to perform what they do in this matter enjoin." Bacon does his spiriting rather more delicately: "Physicians are some of them so pleasing and conformable to the humor of the patient, as they press not the true cure of the disease; and some others are so regular in proceeding according to art for the disease, as they respect not sufficiently the condition of the patient."

It is clear that with the wise men of old quantity rather than quality was the ruling law; not what a man ate, but how much he ate was the capital thing for him to consider. A tolerably simple diet is advised, though the wise Lessius holds that the quality of the food matters little, so that the man be healthy; but whatever it be, let there be moderation; measure is the one thing needful. The difficulty of finding this measure is confessed: "Lust knows not," says St. Augustine, "where necessity ends." By the time he had reached his thirty-sixth year Cornaro had accustomed himself to a daily measure of twelve ounces of food and fourteen of drink—which does not, I own, convey a very exact notion to me, though I take it we Gargantuans should find the measure small. He does not seem to have been particular what he ate, and he did not shun wine. "I chose that wine," he says, "which fitted my stomach and in such measure as easily might be digested." He found it no labor to write immediately after meals. On the contrary, his spirits were then so brisk that he had to sing a song to get rid of his superfluous energies before sitting down to his desk. Lessius is loath to commit himself to any certain scale: "If thou dost usually take so much food at meals as thou art thereby made unfit for the duties and offices belonging to the mind, . . . it is then evident that thou dost exceed the measure which thou oughtest to hold." He tells, on ancient authority, some marvelous tales of the little men have found enough to keep body and soul together: how one throve through a long life on milk alone, how another lived for twenty years on cheese. In monasteries and in the universities this desired measure is, he says, more easily to be found, for there either the statutes of the societies, or the "discreet orders of the superiors" have ordained the quantities of wine and beer that are fit to be drunk. Of monasteries I have no experience, but in the universities I have been given to understand that it is (or was, for the old order changes now so fast that it is hard to say what a day may not bring forth) the custom to leave such matters mainly to the discreetness of the students—which, it may be, is like Goethe's poetry, not always inevitable enough. On the whole, Lessius seems to incline to Cornaro's allowance as sufficient, and perhaps as good an average as it is possible to strike. But he insists, as do all these antique sages, that the measure must vary with the age, condition, and business of the man. No hard and fast rule can there be. The golden mean must vary in all sorts of people, "according to the diversity of complexions in sundry persons, and of youth and strength in the selfsame body." And again: "A greater measure is requisite to him that is occupied in bodily labor and continually exercising the faculties of the body than to him that is altogether in studies." On this point all are agreed; on this and, I am sorry to say, on one other: qui medice vivit, misere vivit, "it is a miserable life to live after the physician's forescript."

It will, then, be seen that our forefathers were by no means so negligent of this thing as Sir Henry Thompson fancies. If they were not so minute and curious as we now are, they took at least a broad and liberal view, and surely a most wise one. It is, indeed, his general acceptance of this view which gives Sir Henry's utterances more value than those some of his brethren have put forth. "In matters of diet," run his wise words, "many persons have individual peculiarities; and while certain fixed principles exist as absolutely cardinal in the detail of their application to each man's wants, an infinity of stomach eccentricities is to be reckoned on. The old proverb expresses the fact strongly but truly, 'What is one man's meat is another man's poison.' Yet nothing is more common—and one rarely leaves a social dinner table without observing it—than to hear some good-natured person recommending to his neighbor, with a confidence rarely found except in alliance with profound ignorance of the matter in hand, some special form of food, or drink, or system of diet, solely because the adviser happens to have found it useful to himself." It is not only the good-natured companion of the dinner-table who errs this way. He were an ungrateful churl who would willingly say a harsh word about our ministers of the interior, so sympathetic, so patient, so courteous, so generous! Yet it must be owned that they are, some of them, a little apt to leave out of sight the varieties of the human constitution, to take all human stomachs as framed on one fixed primordial pattern; above all are they, as old Lessius complained, too likely to "bring men into a labyrinth of care in the observation, and unto perfect slavery in the endeavoring to perform what they do in this matter enjoin." Sometimes I think they do but flatter the weakness of humanity, and when they meet salute each other as the old augurs used. There are folk who will not so much as take a pill at their own venture, and never fulfill an invitation to dinner without a visit to the doctor next morning. He can not afford to drive such inquisitive fools from his door; and so it may be that the healing hand, like the dyer's, becomes subdued to what it works in. The answer given by his physician to Falstaff, on his page's authority, is one it were hardly wise to risk to-day.

I have tried to show that our old forefathers were not so careless of their peptics as has been thought. Yet there was a later time when they were sadly reckless in such matters, and possibly the chronic dyspepsia from which our race seems to suffer to-day may be the heritage of that recklessness. "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge." Certainly our stomachs are more bounded than was Wolsey's. To read the domestic annals of the close of the last and the early years of this century brings back the Homeric tales of the strength and prowess of the heroes who warred on the plains of Troy. No man of these degenerate days could do the work our fathers did, who "gloried and drank deep" like those lusty Jamschyds. They had, to be sure, some few points in their favor that we lack. They did not need—at least they did not use—those intermittent aids to the agreeableness of life that we seem to find so necessary. There were no brandies-and-soclas, no sherries-and-bitters, no five-o'clock teas; they were content with one solid meal in the day, and they did not put that off till it was growing time to begin to think about bed. And, I suspect, the most important point of all, they took life less hastily—not less seriously, but less hastily. Their brains were not always at high pressure; they did not fritter away their minds and tempers on an infinity of pursuits, pursuits of business and pursuits of pleasure. If they did not all attain Wordsworth's "sweet calm" or the "wide and luminous view" of Goethe, at least they did not insist on barring the way to those blessed goals. This hasty life of ours, these successive shocks of change and alarm, this want of rest and leisure, all act or tend to act injuriously on the stomach, and thence on the brain. It is not only our unwise diet which afflicts the race with those "dolorous pains in the epigastrium," which one very learned lecturer on the philosophy of food asserts to be the note of this age—and which I take to be a glorified form of the homely stomach-ache.

I suspect, too, tobacco may have something to say to it. Not that I would say a word against that "plant divine of rarest virtue" for those who can use it, being indeed myself a feeble unit of the society of "blest tobacco-boys." An ingenious seeker after truth not long ago published the result of his research into the effect of tobacco and strong drink on the studious brain. It was a curious book, extremely amusing, and not all so foolish as might be supposed. But some random utterances there were, and none so random as those of one abstemious student (nameless, if I remember right, but the style was much the later style of Mr. Ruskin) who violently denounced tobacco as a general curse, and refused it all virtues, on the ground that the great men of old did very well without it. "Homer sang his deathless song," so wrote this fearful man; "Raphael painted his glorious Madonnas, Luther preached, Guttenberg printed, Columbus discovered a new world, before tobacco was heard of. No rations of tobacco were served out to the heroes of Thermopylæ; no cigar strung up the nerves of Socrates." Why, truly; and Agamemnon I speak, of course, under correction of Doctor Schliemann—Agamemnon, I say, knew not the name of Cockle, and Ulysses had never heard of the lively and refreshing invention of the ingenious Mr. Eno; yet who will reason from that old-world ignorance that we might grow wise as Ulysses and brave as Agamemnon if we put away these artificial stimulants? Nay, if it comes to that, have not some fine things too been done since tobacco was introduced? But we need not take this modern counter-blast too seriously. Probably men of sedentary habits who smoke much are very moderate drinkers. He who takes tobacco because he likes the flavor, and finds the use refreshing and soothing, is not likely to take wine or other strong drinks in any quantity. I do not mean that he will not consume them together; that no man capable of appreciating either will ever do. How sad soever be the errors we have fallen into, at least we no longer share Madame Purganti's confusion of mistaking tobacco for a "concomitant of claret." But the virtue of each—I am not thinking of those who use them merely from habit, or because others do, or for a purely sensual pleasure—the virtue of each is, I fancy, a little marred by an adherence to both. And where the question is not one of virtue, but of sheer fancy or gratification of the appetite, even he who can afford to indulge those delights will be wise to make a choice. At the time I speak of there was not much smoking. Cigars were not much in fashion; the pestilent heresy of the cigarette was not yet dreamed of; the sober pipe was mostly used, generally in that form known as a "long clay," and taken sedately after work was over, as a wholesome aid to reflection. No doubt there were exceptions, men who fuddled themselves over pipes and spirits, or beer; but broadly speaking the use of tobacco then was the exception rather than the rule, certainly among the upper classes of society, and both stomach and brain were thus better able to support the tax laid upon them.

The whole duty of man in this matter lies, as the wise Greeks saw it lay in all matters, in moderation. It is hard to believe that if a man be in a healthy state he need seriously vex his soul on the quantity of starch in his potato, or the relative proportions of hydro-carbons or carbo-hydrates necessary to a perfect diet. If he finds boiled meat more to his taste than roast, white more than brown, if whisky suit him better than brandy, or wine better than either, I can not think it necessary that he should go about very painfully to divorce himself from his liking. And if he finds water most palatable of all beverages, in Pindar's name let him gratify his taste, if he can do so in safety from those numerous and nameless diseases that we are told lurk in the pure element. Let him only be moderate in all things—in water as in the rest, for I take it, to swallow inordinate quantities of water, cold, or after the latest fashion, hot, can be no more wholesome to the human stomach than excessive doses of a stronger drink.

I am thinking of those whose habits must be chiefly sedentary, of those who have to work for their livelihood, to earn it by the perpetual exercise of their brain. And in our time, when once the golden term of youth is passed, these men form by far the most part of the community; men to whom the power of work is life itself—happy are they if it mean only their own life—and who must watch that power as jealously as ever fabled miser watched his gold. What they should eat and drink, and whether they should smoke, sure am I that they, and only they, can decide. Probably they will find that a fixed, unswerving rule is not the best, but that, as Bacon says, "The great precept of health and lasting is that a man do vary and interchange contraries." For myself I find that when living—existing rather, I would say—in London, a stimulating diet is more necessary than when I work in the fresh air and quiet of the country. A moderate amount of wine seems to me needful to balance the impure atmosphere of our great Babylon, to keep body and mind to the mark, jaded as they are by the unending din and bustle of human life. But the fresh breezes, the spacious air, the sunlight, all the beauty and the rest of the country, fill both body and brain with a strength that needs no artificial spur, and that can be used without tiring. I speak, of course, only for myself; many hard workers, wise workers, think otherwise; to many, very many, life must be lived in London, that wonderful wilderness of crowded humanity, and what it, and it only, can give is a necessity of existence that neither prudence nor fancy may interfere with. There are others, too, who profess themselves to be, and no doubt are, never so well, so attuned for hard work, as when cabined mid the bricks and mortar of London. Here, again, as in the other case, let each man be a law unto himself.

One other word I should like to say on the point of exercise. "You do not take enough exercise" is the common reproach made to the complaining patient; and forthwith off he rushes, to bring into sudden play muscles long disused and limbs that have forgot their cunning, till he finds to his angry astonishment that tired, not refreshed, and aching in every joint and bone, he has but made himself more incapable of work than he was before. No doubt the longer a man can keep up youth's standard of violent delights the better for him; but few men can do that with impunity, still fewer can go back to it when once the touch has been lost; the attempt is generally as dangerous as it is ridiculous. For myself I frankly own that I do not believe that hard exercise of the body is compatible with hard exercise of the brain. Nothing, I am firmly persuaded, brings a man to the end of his tether so soon. The exercise the brain-worker needs is the exercise that rests, not that fatigues. He needs to lull, to soothe his brain; and this he will do best in the fresh air, by quiet, and the gentle employment of the limbs and muscles that have been idle while he worked. It is this need, as it seems to me, that tells most strongly against London. What rest and refreshment is there for him who after a hard spell of work at his desk or in his studio, when

"All things that love the sun are out-of-doors,"

goes out into the noisy, crowded, reeking street? No rest comes to him from any beautiful sight, no rest from any beautiful sound; the air is no fresher than that he has left. Everywhere is a distracting sense of hurry, of the fever and the fret of existence. Like the weary Titan "with labor-dimmed eyes" and ears, alas! not deaf, he goes staggering on to a goal that daily grows more certain and more near. But here, again, I speak only of my own experience, which I would not for the world essay to make the wisdom of others.

In all these things, then, I believe a man must be his best physician. And, beyond the reasons mentioned, he must be so because only he can know what system it is possible for him to follow. Go abroad, says one doctor; get a horse and ride, says another; put your work away and take a thorough holiday, preaches a third. Golden counsel! but, alas, wind-dispersed and vain to so many of us! How shall those obey it to whom the daily bread comes only with the daily toil, and how many of these there are among it the rich, idle world never dreams!

"... The fear that kills;
And hope that is unwilling to be fed;
Cold, pain, and labor, and all fleshly ills
And mighty poets in their misery dead."

That is the life's experience of many and many a man who bears a cheerful front enough to his fellows. While he has health and strength, while the sun is still in the heavens, he can bear the burden, uncomplaining if unresting. But as the day wears on, and the shadows grow, the question of the future grows with them, What shall be his fate when hand and brain can work no more? Happy as he may be in his work now, contented, prosperous, never can he wholly put by the thought,

"But there may come another day to me—
Solitude, pain of heart, distress, and poverty."

Such a one can put off that hour by no holiday pastimes which to the idle man of pleasure are a mere weariness of the flesh. But he can, so far as human will avails, put it off by hoarding his strength and health; and this he will most surely do by the observance of one simple rule, framed for man's conduct thousands of years before our wisdom discovered that the pancreatic juice converts starch into sugar, and that levulose is isomeric with glucose—the simple rule of moderation.—Macmillan’s Magazine.


  1. "Food and Feeding," by Sir Henry Thompson, F. R. C. S., etc., third edition, 1884.
  2. "Diet in Relation to Age and Activity," London, 1886.