The Pleasures of Life
By Sir John Lubbock

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    “Health is best for mortal man; next beauty; thirdly, well gotten
    wealth; fourthly, the pleasures of youth among friends.”


But if there has been some difference of opinion as to the advantage of wealth, with reference to health all are agreed.

“Health,” said Simonides long ago, “is best for mortal man; next beauty; thirdly, well gotten wealth; fourthly, the pleasure of youth among friends.” “Life,” says Longfellow, “without health is a burden, with health is a joy and gladness.” Empedocles delivered the people of Selinus from a pestilence by draining a marsh, and was hailed as a Demigod. We are told that a coin was struck in his honor, representing the Philosopher in the act of staying the hand of Phoebus.

We scarcely realize, I think, how much we owe to Doctors. Our system of Medicine seems so natural and obvious that it hardly occurs to us as somewhat new and exceptional. When we are ill we send for a Physician; he prescribes some medicine; we take it, and pay his fee. But among the lower races of men pain and illness are often attributed to the presence of evil spirits. The Medicine Man is a Priest, or rather a Sorcerer, more than a true Doctor, and his effort is to exorcise the evil spirit.

In other countries where some advance has been made, a charm is written on a board, washed off, and drunk. In some cases the medicine is taken, not by the patient, but by the Doctor. Such a system, however, is generally transient; it is naturally discouraged by the Profession, and is indeed incompatible with a large practice. Even as regards the payment we find very different systems. The Chinese pay their medical man as long as they are well, and stop his salary as soon as they are ill. In ancient Egypt we are told that the patient feed the Doctor for the first few days, after which the Doctor paid the patient until he made him well. This is a fascinating system, but might afford too much temptation to heroic remedies.

On the whole our plan seems the best, though it does not offer adequate encouragement to discovery and research. We do not appreciate how much we owe to the discoveries of such men as Hunter and Jenner, Simpson and Lister. And yet in the matter of health we can generally do more for ourselves than the greatest Doctors can for us.

But if all are agreed as to the blessing of health, there are many who will not take the little trouble, or submit to the slight sacrifices, necessary to maintain it. Many, indeed, deliberately ruin their own health, and incur the certainty of an early grave, or an old age of suffering.

No doubt some inherit a constitution which renders health almost unattainable. Pope spoke of that long disease, his life. Many indeed may say, “I suffer, therefore I am.” But happily these cases are exceptional. Most of us might be well, if we would. It is very much our own fault that we are ill. We do those things which we ought not to do, and we leave undone those things which we ought to have done, and then we wonder there is no health in us.

We all know that we can make ourselves ill, but few perhaps realize how much we can do to keep ourselves well. Much of our suffering is self-inflicted. It has been observed that among the ancient Egyptians the chief aim of life seemed to be to be well buried. Many, however, live even now as if this were the principal object of their existence.

Like Naaman, we expect our health to be the subject of some miraculous interference, and neglect the homely precautions by which it might be secured.

I am inclined to doubt whether the study of health is sufficiently impressed on the minds of those entering life. Not that it is desirable to potter over minor ailments, to con over books on illnesses, or experiment on ourselves with medicine. Far from it. The less we fancy ourselves ill, or bother about little bodily discomforts, the more likely perhaps we are to preserve our health.

It is, however, a different matter to study the general conditions of health. A well-known proverb tells us that every one is a fool or a physician at forty. Unfortunately, however, many persons are invalids at forty as well as physicians.

Ill-health, however, is no excuse for moroseness. If we have one disease we may at least congratulate ourselves that we are escaping all the rest. Sydney Smith, ever ready to look on the bright side of things, once, when borne down by suffering, wrote to a friend that he had gout, asthma, and seven other maladies, but was “otherwise very well;” and many of the greatest invalids have borne their sufferings with cheerfulness and good spirits.

It is said that the celebrated physiognomist, Campanella, could so abstract his attention from any sufferings of his body, that he was even able to endure the rack without much pain; and whoever has the power of concentrating his attention and controlling his will, can emancipate himself from most of the minor miseries of life. He may have much cause for anxiety, his body may be the seat of severe suffering, and yet his mind will remain serene and unaffected; he may triumph over care and pain.

But many have undergone much unnecessary suffering, and valuable lives have often been lost, through ignorance or carelessness. We cannot but fancy that the lives of many great men might have been much prolonged by the exercise of a little ordinary care.

If we take musicians only, what a grievous loss to the world it is that Pergolesi should have died at twenty-six, Schubert at thirty-one, Mozart at thirty-five, Purcell at thirty-seven, and Mendelssohn at thirty-eight.

In the old Greek myth the life of Meleager was indissolubly connected by fate with the existence of a particular log of wood. As long as this was kept safe by Althaea, his mother, Meleager bore a charmed life. It seems wonderful that we do not watch with equal care over our body, on the state of which happiness so much depends.

The requisites of health are plain enough; regular habits, daily exercise, cleanliness, and moderation in all things–in eating as well as in drinking–would keep most people well.

I need not here dwell on the evils of drinking, but we perhaps scarcely realize how much of the suffering and ill-humor of life is due to over-eating. Dyspepsia, for instance, from which so many suffer, is in nine cases out of ten their own fault, and arises from the combination of too much food with too little exercise. To lengthen your life, says an old proverb, shorten your meals. Plain living and high thinking will secure health for most of us, though it matters, perhaps, comparatively little what a healthy man eats, so long as he does not eat too much.

Mr. Gladstone has told us that the splendid health he enjoys is greatly due to his having early learnt one simple physiological maxim, and laid it down as a rule for himself always to make twenty-five bites at every bit of meat.

  “Go to your banquet then, but use delight,
  So as to rise still with an appetite.” [1]

No doubt, however, though the rule not to eat or drink too much is simple enough in theory, it is not quite so easy in application. There have been many Esaus who sold their birthright of health for a mess of pottage.

Moreover, it may seem paradoxical, but it is certainly true, that in the long run the moderate man will derive more enjoyment even from eating and drinking, than the glutton or the drunkard will ever obtain. They know not what it is to enjoy “the exquisite taste of common dry bread.” [2]

And yet even if we were to consider merely the pleasure to be derived from eating and drinking, the same rule would hold good. A lunch of bread and cheese after a good walk is more enjoyable than a Lord Mayor’s feast. Without wishing, like Apicius, for the neck of a stork, so that he might enjoy his dinner longer, we must not be ungrateful for the enjoyment we derive from eating and drinking, even though they be amongst the least aesthetic of our pleasures. They are homely, no doubt, but they come morning, noon, and night, and are not the less real because they have reference to the body rather than the soul.

We speak truly of a healthy appetite, for it is a good test of our bodily condition; and indeed in some cases of our mental state also. That

    “There cometh no good thing
  Apart from toil to mortals,”

is especially true with reference to appetite; to sit down to a dinner, however simple, after a walk with a friend among the mountains or along the shore, is no insignificant pleasure.

Cheerfulness and good humor, moreover, during meals are not only pleasant in themselves, but conduce greatly to health.

It has been said that hunger is the best sauce, but most would prefer some good stories at a feast even to a good appetite; and who would not like to have it said of him, as of Biron by Rosaline–

                      “A merrier man
  Within the limit of becoming mirth
  I never spent an hour’s talk withal.”

In the three great “Banquets” of Plato, Xenophon, and Plutarch, the food is not even mentioned.

In the words of the old Lambeth adage–

  “What is a merry man?
  Let him do what he can
  To entertain his guests
  With wine and pleasant jests,
  Yet if his wife do frown
  All merryment goes down.”

What salt is to food, wit and humor are to conversation and literature. “You do not,” an amusing writer in the Cornhill has said, “expect humor in Thomas a Kempis or Hebrew Prophets;” but we have Solomon’s authority that there is a time to laugh, as well as to weep.

“To read a good comedy is to keep the best company in the world, when the best things are said, and the most amusing things happen.” [3]

It is not without reason that every one resents the imputation of being unable to see a joke.

Laughter appears to be the special prerogative of man. The higher animals present us with proof of evident, if not highly developed reasoning power, but it is more than doubtful whether they are capable of appreciating a joke.

Wit, moreover, has solved many difficulties and decided many controversies.

  “Ridicule shall frequently prevail,
  And cut the knot when graver reasons fail.” [4]

A careless song, says Walpole, with a little nonsense in it now and then, does not misbecome a monarch, but it is difficult now to realize that James I. should have regarded skill in punning in his selections of bishops and privy councillors.

The most wasted of all days, says Chamfort, is that on which one has not laughed.

It is, moreover, no small merit of laughter that it is quite spontaneous. “You cannot force people to laugh; you cannot give a reason why they should laugh; they must laugh of themselves or not at all.... If we think we must not laugh, this makes our temptation to laugh the greater.” [5] Humor is, moreover, contagious. A witty man may say, as Falstaff does of himself, “I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men.”

But one may paraphrase the well-known remark about port wine and say that some jokes may be better than others, but anything which makes one laugh is good. “After all,” says Dryden, “it is a good thing to laugh at any rate; and if a straw can tickle a man, it is an instrument of happiness," and I may add, of health.

I have been told that in omitting any mention of smoking I was overlooking one of the real pleasures of life. Not being a smoker myself I cannot perhaps judge; much must depend on the individual temperament; to some nervous natures it certainly appears to be a great comfort; but I have my doubts whether smoking, as a general rule, does add to the pleasures of life. It must, moreover, detract somewhat from the sensitiveness of taste and of smell.

Those who live in cities may almost lay it down as a rule that no time spent out of doors is ever wasted. Fresh air is a cordial of incredible virtue; old families are in all senses county families, not town families; and those who prefer Homer and Plato and Shakespeare to hares and partridges and foxes must beware that they are not tempted to neglect this great requisite of our nature.

Most Englishmen, however, love open air, and it is probably true that most of us enjoy a game at cricket or golf more than looking at any of the old masters. The love of sport is engraven in the English character. As was said of William Rufus, “he loves the tall deer as he had been their father.”

An Oriental traveler is said to have watched a game of cricket and been much astonished at hearing that many of those playing were rich men. He asked why they did not pay some poor people to do it for them.

Wordsworth made it a rule to go out every day, and he used to say that as he never consulted the weather, he never had to consult the physicians.

It always seems to be raining harder than it really is when you look at the weather through the window. Even in winter, though the landscape often seems cheerless and bare enough when you look at it from the fireside, still it is far better to go out, even if you have to brave the storm: when you are once out of doors the touch of earth and the breath of the fresh air gives you fresh life and energy. Men, like trees, live in great part on air.

After a gallop over the downs, a row on the river, a sea voyage, a walk by the seashore or in the woods

  “The blue above, the music in the air,
  The flowers upon the ground,” [6]

one feels as if one could say with Henry IV., “Je me porte comme le Ponte Neuf.”

The Roman proverb that a child should be taught nothing which he cannot learn standing up, went no doubt into an extreme, but surely we fall into another when we act as if games were the only thing which boys could learn upon their feet.

The love of games among boys is certainly a healthy instinct, and though carried too far in some of our great schools, there can be no question that cricket and football, boating and hockey, bathing and birdnesting, are not only the greatest pleasures, but the best medicines for boys.

We cannot always secure sleep. When important decisions have to be taken, the natural anxiety to come to a right decision will often keep us awake. Nothing, however, is more conducive to healthy sleep than plenty of open air. Then indeed we can enjoy the fresh life of the early morning: “the breezy call of incense-bearing morn.” [7]

  “At morn the Blackcock trims his jetty wing,
      ’Tis morning tempts the linnet’s blithest lay,
  All nature’s children feel the matin spring
      Of life reviving with reviving day.”

Epictetus described himself as “a spirit bearing about a corpse.” That seems to me an ungrateful description. Surely we ought to cherish the body, even if it be but a frail and humble companion. Do we not own to the eye our enjoyment of the beauties of this world and the glories of the Heavens; to the ear the voices of friends and all the delights of music; are not the hands most faithful and invaluable instruments, ever ready in case of need, ever willing to do our bidding; and even the feet bear us without a murmur along the roughest and stoniest paths of life.

With reasonable care, then, most of us may hope to enjoy good health. And yet what a marvellous and complex organization we have!

We are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made. It is

  “Strange that a harp of a thousand strings,
  Should keep in tune so long.”

When we consider the marvellous complexity of our bodily organization, it seems a miracle that we should live at all; much more that the innumerable organs and processes should continue day after day and year after year with so much regularity and so little friction that we are sometimes scarcely conscious of having a body at all.

And yet in that body we have more than 200 bones, of complex and varied forms, any irregularity in, or injury to, which would of course grievously interfere with our movements.

We have over 500 muscles; each nourished by almost innumerable blood vessels, and regulated by nerves. One of our muscles, the heart, beats over 30,000,000 times in a year, and if it once stops, all is over.

In the skin are wonderfully varied and complex organs–for instance, over 2,000,000 perspiration glands, which regulate the temperature and communicate with the surface by ducts, which have a total length of some ten miles.

Think of the miles of arteries and veins, of capillaries and nerves; of the blood, with the millions of millions of blood corpuscles, each a microcosm in itself.

Think of the organs of sense,–the eye with its cornea and lens, vitreous humor, aqueous humor, and choroid, culminating in the retina, no thicker than a sheet of paper, and yet consisting of nine distinct layers, the innermost composed of rods and cones, supposed to be the immediate recipients of the undulations of light, and so numerous that in each eye the cones are estimated at over 3,000,000, the rods at over 30,000,000.

Above all, and most wonderful of all, the brain itself. Meinert has calculated that the gray matter of the convolutions alone contains no less than 600,000,000 cells; each cell consists of several thousand visible atoms, and each atom again of many millions of molecules.

And yet with reasonable care we can most of us keep this wonderful organization in health; so that it will work without causing us pain, or even discomfort, for many years; and we may hope that even when old age comes

                 “Time may lay his hand
  Upon your heart gently, not smiting it
  But as a harper lays his open palm
  Upon his harp, to deaden its vibrations.”

[1] Herrick.

[2] Hamerton.

[3] Hazlitt.

[4] Francis.

[5] Hazlitt.

[6] Trench.

[7] Gray.



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