An 18th-century recipe for longevity
My tailor gave me the good news first: My measurements hadn’t changed in more than 20 years. The bad news was that he thought that the suit he was going to make me was of such good cloth that it would see me out. He added that it would be suitable for every occasion, from conferences to funerals (not all that far, in my experience). “Including my own, I suppose,” I said. He did not disagree; and it is best to plan ahead. One cannot be buried, or even cremated, in Prince of Wales check.
Old age comes to us all, and sooner than one thinks, at least when one has already aged. That is why, looking for tips on how to outlive my new suit, I decided to read The Old Man’s Guide to Health and Longer Life with Rules for Diet, Exercise and Physick for Preserving a Good Constitution and Preventing Disorders in a Bad One, by Dr. John Hill. As it was first published in 1750 it might be thought a little out of date, especially as Hill was widely regarded as a quack and a charlatan even at the time; but quackery springs eternal, as a glance at the health section of any bookshop should be enough to convince anyone, and it thrives by the suspicion that quacks might just know something that is undreamt of in doctors’ philosophy.
Hill (1714–75) was an interesting figure; he was an actor and playwright as well as a doctor, botanist, and geologist, and he had a talent for antagonizing most of the people he knew. David Garrick, the actor and friend of Doctor Johnson, wrote of him: “For Physick and Farces, his Equal there scarce is, / His Farces are Physick, his Physick a Farce is.”
But in fact he was a more considerable figure than Garrick allows. Among the more attractive titles of his voluminous botanical works, much respected by Linnaeus, the great founder of modern taxonomy, is The Sleep of Plants, and Cause of Motion in the Sensitive Plant; and the fact that he was possibly the first to associate tobacco with cancer, in his Cautions against the Immoderate Use of Snuff, suggests that he might have been wiser than some of his detractors. Perhaps he really did know the secret of a healthful old age.
Of course, one has to overlook some of his less sensible warnings, such as that concerning the extreme harmfulness to the old of pineapples, the “most pleasant of all fruit” but, alas, “the most dangerous.” (Followed closely by raw pears. Who would take any notice of any medical advice that was altogether without the prohibition of pleasures and natural inclinations?) According to Hill, the “sharpness [of pineapple] flays the mouth” and so it is all too easy to imagine what its acidity does to the stomach and bowels. He had known it to “bring on bloody fluxes [diarrhea], which have been fatal.” And for old people, better “costiveness” (constipation) than “a flux.”
For Hill healthy old age, at least where men are concerned (and for whom, as we shall see, women are a snare and a delusion), “is the most valuable and happy period of human life,” for “experience has render’d the ancient more able than those with less experience to conduct themselves . . . and being freed from the empire of the passions, they enjoy quiet.”
I look forward to liberation from my passions, of course, but it has not happened yet and I suspect that such liberation is now more difficult to achieve than ever; for in an information age, in which everyone lives in an inescapable miasma of news, as it were, it is difficult not to find oneself in a state of constant irritation or even of righteous indignation. He who will attend to the motions of his own mind (as Doctor Johnson put it) will soon acknowledge that, of all the passions, righteous indignation is perhaps the most gratifying, the longest lasting, and the most easily transferable from one object to another, and so the hardest to abandon.
The problem with the passions, said Hill, in his chapter “Of the Regulation of the Temper, and of the Passions,” is that “the motion of the blood in circulation is greatly affected and altered by them, and the nerves suffer more.” The effects of the passions in old men are of the worst: “The whole frame is disordered and I have often seen disease, and sometimes immediate death the consequence of giving full way to them.” So if the news gives rise to passion, Hill might tell us that where ignorance is health, ’tis folly to be informed. And it is true that studies show that those who follow the news tend to be more depressed, that is to say wretched, miserable, discontented, and unhappy (to use just a few of the words that anti-depressants have successfully driven from our lexicon), than those who do not. Old men should therefore avoid newspapers and the electronic media.
Hill then utters a very modern sentiment: “Nothing in this world is worth the distress men bring upon themselves about it. . . . Life is the greatest blessing, and health the next, and these suffer by that fond indulgence [in immoderate passions].” The question arises as to whether anything is worth living for if nothing is worth dying for. Without passion, can life have a meaning? And though I am by no means a gourmet or given to the pleasures of the table, the diet that Hill recommends for old men such as I would certainly suffice to make life seem longer, if not actually last longer.
In the chapter “Of the Diet of Old Men,” Hill tells us, or me, that we — I — should eat little in the evening because old men’s “digestive faculties” are less powerful than those of the young; a “small toast” with “a pint of asses’ milk” taken two hours before bedtime will “sit easy on the stomach.” If an old man should prefer cow’s milk, he should water it down, though if he lives in London this is unnecessary because “those who sell milk do it for him.” And if he grows tired of life on such fare, he may (occasionally) take broth of veal, chicken, or mutton provided they be weak.
The primary purpose of breakfast in Dr. Hill’s regime for old men is to take the edge off the appetite for “dinner” (lunch), so that they do not then overeat. “A thin slice or two of good bread, with a little butter,” is permissible, along with a little tea. For those who cannot digest solids a “broth breakfast” is excellent, but Dr. Hill warns against broth of vipers, England’s only poisonous snake, which is falsely reputed excellent. But if an old man suffers from “a sharp humour,” consisting of various evacuations, he should take every morning “two spoonfuls of syrup of snails,” which is made by “bruising them with sugar and hanging them up in a flannel bag until the juice runs out.”
The habit in Anglo-Saxon countries of treating meals as medical procedures rather than social occasions is obviously an old one: Our journals, medical and lay, are still full of advice about the diet that will secure longevity. The latest dietary panacea, according to a paper in a recent edition of the New England Journal of Medicine, is nuts (I mean “nuts” as a noun, not an adjective).
But the greatest danger for old men is women, for whom they should “avoid a foolish fondness.” This is because “the appetite decays with the power, but if he solicit that which he cannot enjoy, he will disturb his constitution more than by any other means whatever.” Moreover, “while he is shortening his life” thereby, and “robbing the poor remainder he allows of peace, he will be only making himself the ridicule of those who seem to favour his vain and ineffectual desires.”
In short, an old man should be moderate in his appetites, his ambitions, and his habits. But it is easier to give good advice than to take it. Hill himself remained irascible to the end, which was not very long delayed, and his wife inherited his temper, spending her widowhood trying unsuccessfully to extract money from her husband’s patron, the Earl of Bute, and then writing a book to condemn his meanness.
For myself, I have always found equanimity to be an excellent thing in theory but somewhat more difficult to achieve in practice.
– Mr. Daniels is the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of Utopias Elsewhere and other books.