Cornaro's Discourses on a Sober and Temperate Life


"The maintenance of health is such an easy matter that it seems almost odd that anyone should become ill!"

This famous work, by Louis Cornaro, The Temperate Life, (sometimes titled, How to Live 100 Years), has been translated into many different languages. Yet it is hardly known to anyone today. But it is one of the greatest books on Hygiene ever written, and Health Research is certainly to be congratulated in having made this reprint of it, thereby bringing it before the reading public.

Cornaro was a Venetian nobleman, four of his ancestors having been Doges of the "Serene Republic." He was born in 1464, and lived to the age of 102, dying in 1566. Like the majority of young gallants of his day, Louis Cornaro lived a reckless and dissipated life, the result being that he completely broke-down, at the age of forty, and was given-up by his physicians to die. He was indeed a physical wreck!

Taking matters into his own hands, however, Cornaro decided to reform his life, and see what the results would be. He simplified his diet and cut down on the quantity of food to the barest minimum. Within a few days he began to see the difference, and at the end of a year found himself completely restored to health. Seeing this, he continued this simple and abstemious life for the rest of his life. He limited himself to twelve ounces of solid food daily and fourteen ounces of wine. (If the modern Hygienist should raise his eyebrows at this, he should remember that wine, in the Latin countries, is very light, and is drunk by them at meals, just as we drink water. It is taken as a matter-of-course. Fourteen ounces is a comparatively small amount.)

Cornaro's book, "La Vita Sobria," consists of four "Discourses," the first being written at the age of eighty-three, the second at eighty-six, the third at ninety-one, and the fourth at ninety-five. To the end of his life Cornaro continued to lead an active and useful existence, devoting much of his time and energy to the spreading of these doctrines and in attempts to spread the knowledge of dietetic reform. It is safe to say that, since his work was published, many thousands have regained health and prolonged their lives by reason of his teachings.

While these are fully set forth in the treatise which follows, I cannot refrain from quoting a few brief passages, which illustrate how "modern" many of his views were, and how true a "Hygienist" he really was. Take the following sentences, for example:". . . . And there is no doubt that if the one so advised were to act accordingly, he would avoid all sickness in the future; because a well-regulated life removes the causes of disease. Thus, for the remainder of his days, he would have no further need either of doctors or of medicines."
"Should he, when ill, continue to eat the same amount as when in health, he would surely die; while, were he to eat more, he would die all the sooner. For his natural powers, already oppressed with sickness, would thereby be burdened beyond endurance, having had forced upon them a quantity of food greater than they could support under the circumstances. A reduced quantity, is, in my opinion, all that is required to sustain the individual."

And again:
". . . . I accustomed myself to the habit of never fully satisfying my appetite, either with eating or drinking always leaving the table when able to take more. In this I acted according to the Proverb: Not to satiate one's self with food is the science of health."
How in accordance with our modern teachings!

Various editions of Cornaro's work have appeared in English translations. One of the earliest of these, editions, it seems, was issued in 1842, under the editorial supervision of Dr. John Burdell: another edition, undated, was published by the Crowell Company, and still another by the Health Culture Co., of New York in 1916. Meanwhile a little-known edition was issued in 1903, by William F. Butler, of Milwaukee. The latest to see the light of day is an English version, published in 1951, by the "Health for All Publishing Company."

Addison, writing in "The Spectator," (October 13, 1711), paid a glowing tribute to Cornaro; and so did Lord Bacon, in his "History of Life and Death." and Sir William Temple, in his "Health and Long Life," (16th cent.), while on August 10, 1817, Bartholomeo Gamba, a noted author in his day, delivered an address before the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Venice, which consisted of a Eulogy of Louis Cornaro. Cornaro's sumptuous palace still stands in Padua, and may be visited by any tourist who is sufficiently interested to do so. Cornaro was the Administrator of the Bishopric of Padua for many years, under Cardinal Pisani. It is said that, in Italy, his work is still considered one of the ''classics."

It is evident, therefore, that Cornaro's influence has been long and enduring, and it is high time that modern health reformers should realize this and estimate him at his true worth. No one in the Middle Ages exerted so great an influence.

Cornaro emphasizes several points in his Treatise which are perhaps too often overlooked by the modern health enthusiast. He points out, first of all, that mere prolongation of life is in itself useless unless that life is healthy and contented. A long life full of disease and misery is worse than no life at all. The object of health should be, rather, to enable us to forget the body, and to carry on our interests and life-activities without impediment or interference, because of sickness or debility, thus permitting the free and full use of our faculties and talents. In short, we should DO something with our lives, besides merely living them; and the object of health is to insure this possibility, making a useful and constructive life possible. Health, then, is merely a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. (But, of course, until health is attained, it must be our primary object to attain it!)

This point-of-view was endorsed and indeed emphasized by both Bacon and Temple, the latter writing:
"The two great blessings of life are, in my opinion, health and good humor; and none contribute more to one another. Without health, all will allow life to be but a burden; and the several conditions of fortune to be all wearisome, dull, or disagreeable, without good humor . . . The vigor of the mind decays with that of the body, and not only humor and invention, but even judgment and resolution, change and languish with ill-constitution of body and of health. . . "

"That which I call temperance is a regular and simple diet, limited by every man's experience of his own easy digestion, and thereby proportioning, as near as well as can be, the daily repairs to the daily decays of our wasting bodies
"In the course of common life, a man must either often exercise, or rest, or take physic, or be sick; and the choice seems left to everyone as he likes. The first two are the best methods and means of preserving health . . . 'Tis true, physicians must be in danger of losing their credit with the vulgar if they should often tell a patient he has no need of physic, and prescribe only rules of diet or common use; most people would think they had lost their fee. But the first excellence of a physician's skill and care is discovered by resolving whether it be best in the case to administer any physic or none to trust to nature or to art; and the next, to give such prescriptions as, if they do no good, may be sure to do no harm."

Bacon, again, writes in much the same strain. He says:
"To preserve long life, the body of man must be considered . . . . Age is nothing of itself, being only the measure of time . . . . A pythagorian diet according to strict rules, and always exactly equal as that of Cornaro seemeth to be very effectual for long life. If there were anything eminent in the Spartans, that was to be imputed to the parsimony of their diet. . . . Certainly this is without all question: diet, well ordered, bears the greatest part in the prolongation of life. . . ."

"Hope is the most beneficial of all the affections, and cloth much for the prolongation of life, if it be not too often frustrated, but entertaineth the fancy with an expectation of good; therefore they which fix and propound to themselves some end as the mark and scope of their life and continually and by degrees go forward in the same, are, for the most part, long-lived."

Yet there are some who contend that "psychosomatic medicine" and the teachings of "new thought" and "applied psychology" are really new!

Cornaro was indeed a pioneer, and if there are some today who may think that there is nothing essentially novel in what he said, we must remember that, in his day, science, as we understand it, was almost an unknown factor; physiology had hardly been born and psychology undreamed of. Our knowledge of fasting, dietetics, food combinations, organic foods, etc., all came into being almost within the memory of men yet living - though many of the essentials were propounded by the great health reformers of the last century. (See The Fasting Story and The History of Natural Hygiene, both published by Health Research). Today we have a wealth of material to draw upon, as well as vast experience and the means of disseminating this knowledge. But when Cornaro wrote, none of this was in being. It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that he was enabled to write as he did, for the whys and hows of this method were not discovered until centuries later!

Cornaro himself, it seems, never actually fasted - merely reducing the quantity of food which he ate to an absolute minimum. The consequence was that it took him nearly a year to regain full health, whereas he could probably have achieved the same result within a month, had he taken more drastic measures. However, he did ultimately attain a state of excellent health, and for the ensuing sixty-odd years he maintained it by reason of his abstemious life. There is no reason why anyone could not do likewise!

Indeed, there is every reason why a man today should not do even better, for the things which constituted the basis of Cornaro's diet would be spurned by the modern Hygienist. Bread, eggs and the lighter meats were his staple foods, and practically no mention is made anywhere of fruits, salads, etc., which play so important a role in the reformed diet of today. Many of these were doubtless unknown and unprocurable when he lived, so that we should profit by the quality of the food we eat no less than by the quantity. But the mere fact that Cornaro regained and maintained his health, on his diet, shows us how important a factor the restriction of quantity is, and indicates that this is, in all probability, the most important single factor in the preservation of health and longevity . .

Cornaro's book was one of the first I read when I began my reading on Natural Hygiene, and the fact that I am writing this introduction to the book now is something of a thrill. I presume that Health Research asked me to write this prefactory material because they know that I am now long past seventy myself, and am one of the few surviving early health reformers . . . I suppose I am one of the few people living today who can truthfully say that he has never had a serious illness in his life, and never been inside a hospital, save as a visitor! But there is no reason why practically everyone could not say the same thing; the maintenance of health is such an easy matter that it seems almost odd that anyone should become ill! And if anyone asks how this desirable condition is to be brought about, one cannot do better than refer him to Cornaro's book, supplementing this by up-to-date advice and information on dietetics and general hygiene. There can be no doubt that a vital, healthy human race would result in consequence, - instead of the miserable and disease-ridden humanity that we see everywhere about us! Cornaro's great work should prove an important factor in achieving this desirable result. It is with this hope that the book is sent-forth on its mission!