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The Ethics of Diet - A Catena
by Howard Williams M.A., 1883

Luigi di Cornaro 1465-1566
(text from the 1st edition, 1883 )

After the extinction of Greek and Latin philosophy in the fifth century, a mental torpor seized upon and, during some thousand years, with rare exceptions. dominated the whole Western world. When this torpor was dispelled by the influence of returning knowledge and reason evoked by the various simultaneous discoveries in science and literature - in particular by the achievements of Gutenberg, Vasco da Gama, Christopher Colon, and, above all, Copernik - the moral sense then first, too, began to show signs of life. The renascence of the sixteenth century, however, with all the vigour of thought and action which accompanied it, proved to be rather a revival of mere verbal learning than of the higher moral feeling of the best minds of old Greece and Italy. Men, fettered as they were in the trammels of theological controversy and metaphysical subtleties, for the most part expended their energies and their intellect in the vain pursuit of phantoms. With the very few splendid exceptions of the more enlightened and earnest thinkers, Ethics, in the real and comprehensive meaning of the word, was an unknown science; and a long period of time was yet to pass away before a perception of the universal obligations of Justice and Right dawned upon the minds of men. In truth, it could not have been otherwise. Before the moral instincts can be developed, reason and knowledge must have sufficiently prepared the way. When attention to the importance of the neglected science of Dietetics had been in some degree aroused, the interest evoked was little connected with the higher sentiments of humanity.

Of all dietary reformers who have treated the subject from an exclusively sanitarian point of view, the most widely known and most popular name, perhaps, has been that of Luigi Cornaro; and it is as a vehement protester against the follies, rather than against the barbarism, of the prevailing dietetic habits that he claims a place in this work. He belonged to one of the leading families of Venice, then at the height of its political power. Even in an age and in a city noted for luxuriousness and grossness of living of the rich and dominant classes, he had in his youth distinguished himself by his licentious habits in eating and drinking, as well as by other excesses. His constitution had been so impaired, and he had brought upon himself so many disorders by this course of living, that existence became a burden to him. He informs us that from his thirty-fifth to his fortieth year he passed his nights and days in continuous suffering. Every sort of known remedy was exhausted before his new medical adviser, superior to the prejudices of the profession and of the public, had the courage and the good sense to prescribe a total change of diet. At first Cornaro found his enforced regimen almost intolerable, and, as he tells us, he occasionally relapsed.

These relapses brought back his old sufferings, and, to save his life, he was driven at length to practise entire and uniform abstinence, the yolk of an egg often furnishing him the whole of his meal. In this way he assures us that he came to relish dry bread more than formerly he had enjoyed the most exquisite dishes of the ordinary table. At end of the first year he found himself entirely freed from all his multi-form maladies. In his eighty-third year he wrote and published his first exhortation to a radical change of diet under the title of A Treatise on a Sober Life, (1) in which he eloquently narrates his own case, and exhorts all who value health and immunity from physical or mental sufferings to follow his example. And his exordium, in which he takes occasion to denounce the waste and gluttony of the dinners of the rich, might be applied with little, or without any, modification of its language to the public and private tables of the present day :-

"It is very certain," he begins, "that custom, with time, becomes a second nature, forcing men to use that, whether good or bad, to which they have been habituated; and we see custom or habit get the better of reason in many things . . . Though all are agreed that intemperance (la crapula) is the offspring of gluttony, and sober living of abstemiousness ; the former nevertheless is considered a virtue, and a mark of distinction, and the latter as dishonourable and the badge of avarice. Such mistaken notions are entirely owing to the power of Custom, established by our senses and irregular appetites. These have blinded and besotted men to such a degree that, leaving the paths of virtue, they have followed those of vice, which lead them imperceptibly to an old age burdened with strange and mortal diseases. . . . .

"O wretched and unhappy Italy! [thus he apostrophises his own country] can you not see that gluttony murders every year more of your inhabitants than you could lose by the most cruel plague or by fire and sword in many battles? Those truly shameful feasts (i tuoi veramente disonesti banchetti), now so much in fashion, and so intolerably profuse that no tables are large enough to hold the infinite number of dishes - those feasts, I say, are so many battles. (2) And how is it possible to live amongst such a multitude of jarring foods and disorders? Put an end to this abuse, in heaven's name, for there is not, I am certain of it - a vice more abominable than this in the eyes of His Divine Majesty. Drive away this plague, the worst you were ever afflicted with - this new [?] kind of death - as you have banished that disease which, though it formerly used to make such havoc, now does little or no mischief, owing to the laudable practice of attending more to the goodness of the provisions brought to our markets. Consider that there are means still left to banish intemperance, and such means, too, that every man may have recourse to them without any external assistance.

"Nothing is more requisite for this purpose than to live up to the simplicity dictated by nature, which teaches us to be content with little, to pursue the practice of holy abstemiousness and divine reason, and to accustom ourselves to eat no more than is absolutely necessary to support life; considering that what exceeds this is disease and death, and done merely to give the palate, a satisfaction which, though but momentary, brings on the body a long and lasting train of disagreeable disease, and at length kills it along with the soul. How many friends of mine - men of the finest understanding and amiable disposition - have I seen carried off by this plague in the flower of their youth! who, were they now living, would be an ornament to the public, and whose company I should enjoy with as much pleasure as I am now deprived of it with concern."

He tells us that he had undertaken his arduous task of proselytising with more anxiety and zeal that he had been encourage to it by many of his friends, men of "the finest intellect" (di bellissimo intelletto), who lamented the premature deaths of parents and relatives, and who observed so manifest a proof of the advantages of abstinence in the robust and vigorous frame of the dietetic missionary at the age of eighty. Cornaro was a thorough-going hygeist, and he followed a reformed diet in the widest meaning of the term, attending to the various requirements of a healthy condition of mind and body :-

"I likewise," he says with much candour, "did all that lay in my power to avoid those evils which we do not find it so easy to remove - melancholy, hatred, and other violent passions, which appear to have the greatest influence on our bodies. However, I have not been able to guard so well against either one or the other kind of these disorders [passions] as not to suffer myself now and then to be hurried away by many, not to say, all of them; but I reaped one great benefit from my weakness - that of knowing by experience that these passions have, in the main, no great influence over bodies governed by the two foregoing rules of eating and drinking, and therefore can do them but very little harm, so that it may, with great truth, be affirmed that whoever observes these two capital rules is liable to very little inconvenience from any other excess. This Galen, who was an eminent physician, observed before me. He affirms that so long as he followed these two rules relative to eating and drinking (perchè si guardava da quelli due della bocca) he suffered but little from other disorders - so little, that they never gave him above a day's uneasiness. That what he says is true, I am a living witness, and so are many others who know me, and have seen how often I have been exposed to heats and colds, and such other disagreeable changes of weather, and have likewise seen me (owing to various misfortunes which have more than once befallen me) greatly disturbed in mind. For not only can they say of me that such mental disturbance has affected me little, but they can aver of many others who did not lead a frugal and regular life that such failure proved very prejudicial to them, among whom was a brother of my own and others of my family who, trusting to the goodness of their constitution, did not follow my way of living."

At the age of seventy a serious accident befell him, which to the vast majority of men so far advanced in life would probably have been fatal. His coach overturned, and he was dragged a considerable distance along the road before the horses could be stopped. He was taken up insensible, covered with severe wounds and bruises and with an arm and leg dislocated, and altogether he was in so dangerous a state that his physicians gave him only three days to live. As a matter of course they prescribed bleeding and purging as the only proper and effectual remedies :-

"But I, on the contrary, who knew that the sober life I had led for many years past had so well united, harmonised, and dispersed my humours as not to leave it in their power to ferment to such a degree [ as to induce the expected high fever], refused to be either bled or purged. I simply caused my arm and leg to be set, and suffered myself to be rubbed with some oils, which they said were proper on the occasion. Thus, without using any other kind of remedy, I recovered, as I thought I should, without feeling the least alteration in myself, or any bad effects from the accident, a thing which appeared no less than miraculous in the eyes of the physicians."

It is, perhaps, hardly to be expected that "The Faculty" will endorse the opinions of Cornaro, that any person by attending to his regimen "could never be sick again, as it removes every cause of illness; and so, for the future, would never want either physician or physic" :-

"Nay, by attending duly to what I have said, he would become his own physician, and indeed, the best he could have, since, in fact, no man can be a perfect physician to anyone but himself. The reason of which is that any man may, by repeated trials, acquire a perfect knowledge of his own constitution, and the most hidden qualities of his body, and what food best agrees with his stomach. Now, it is so far from being an easy matter to know what these things perfectly of another that we cannot, without much trouble, discover them in ourselves, since a great deal of time and repeated trials are required for that purpose."

Cornaro's second publication appeared three years later than his first, under the title of A Compendium of a Sober Life and the third, An Earnest Exhortation to a Sober and Regular Life, (3) in the ninety-third year of his age. In these little treatises he repeats and enforces in the most earnest manner his previous exhortations and warnings. He also takes the opportunity of exposing some of the plausible sophisms in defence of luxurious living :-

"Some allege that many, without leading such a life, have lived to a hundred, and that in constant health, although they ate a great deal, and used indiscriminately every kind of viands and wine, and therefore flatter themselves that they shall be equally fortunate. But in this they are guilty of two mistakes. The first is, that it is not one one hundred thousand that ever attains that happiness; the other mistake is, that such persons, in the end, most assuredly contract some illness, which carries them off, nor can they ever be sure of ending their days otherwise; so that the safest way to obtain a long and healthy life is, at least after forty, to embrace
abstinence. This is no difficult matter, since history informs us of many who, in former times, lived in the greatest temperance, and I know that the present Age furnishes us with many such instances, reckoning myself one of the number. Now let us remember that we are human beings, and that man, being a rational animal, is himself master of his actions."

Amongst others :-

"There are old gluttons (attempati) who say that it is necessary they should eat and drink a great deal to keep up their natural heat, which is constantly diminishing as they advance in years, and that it is therefore necessary for them to eat heartily and of such things as please their palates, and that were they to lead a frugal life it would be a short one. To this I answer, that our kind mother, Nature, in order that old men may live to a still greater age, has contrived matters so that they should be able to subsist on little, as I do, for large quantities of food cannot be digested by old and feeble stomachs. Nor should such persons be afraid of shortening their lives by eating too little, since when they are indisposed they recover by eating the smallest quantities. Now if by reducing themselves to a very small quantity of food they recover from the jaws of death, how can they doubt but that, with an increase of diet, still consistent, however, with sobriety, they
will be able to support nature, when in perfect health.

"Others say, that it is better for a man to suffer every year three or four returns of his usual disorders, such as gout, sciatica, and the like than be tormented the whole year by not indulging his appetite, and eating everything his palate likes best, since by a good regimen alone he is sure to get the better of such attacks. To this I answer that, our natural heat growing less and less as we advance in years, no regimen can retain virtue enough to conquer the malignity with which disorders of repletion are ever attended, so that he must die at last of these periodical disorders, because they abridge life as health prolongs it. Others pretend that it is much better to live ten years less than not indulge one's appetite. My reply is that longevity ought to be highly valued by men of genius and intellect; as to others it is of no great matter if it is not duly prized by them, since it is they who brutalise the world (perchè questi fanno brutto il mondo), so that their death is rather of service to mankind."

Cornaro frequently interrupts his discourse with apostrophes to the genius of Temperance, in which he seems to be at a loss for words to express his feeling of gratitude and thankfulness for the marvellous change effected in his constitution, by which he had been delivered from the terrible load of sufferings of his earlier life, and by which moreover he could fully appreciate, as he had never dreamed before, the beauties and charms of nature of the external word, as well as develop the mental faculties with which he had been endowed :-

"O thrice holy sobriety, so useful to man by the services thou renderest him ! Thou prolongest his days, by which means he may greatly improve his understanding. Thou, moreover, freest him from the dreadful thoughts of death. How greatly is thy faithful disciple indebted to thee, since by thy assistance he enjoys this beautiful expanse of the visible world, which is really beautiful to such as know how to view it with a philosophic eye, as thou enabled me to do! . . . O truly happy life, which, besides these favours conferred on an old man, hast so improved and perfected him, that now he has now a better relish for his dry bread, than he had formerly for the most exquisite dainties. And all this thou hast effected by acting rationally, knowing that bread is, above all things, man's proper food when seasoned by a good appetite. . . . It is for this reason that dry bread now has such relish for me; and I know from experience, and can with truth affirm, that I find such sweetness in it that I should be afraid of sinning against temperance, were it not for my being convinced of the absolute necessity of eating it, and that we cannot make use of a more natural food."

The fourth and last of his appearances in print was a "Letter to Barbaro, Patriarch of Aquileia," written at the age of ninety-five. It descries in a very lively manner the health, vigour, and use of all his faculties of mind and body, of which he had the perfect enjoyment. He was far advanced in mind and body, of which he had the perfect enjoyment. He was far advanced in life when his daughter, his only child, was born, and he lived to see her and old woman. He informs us, at the age of ninety-one, with much eloquence and enthusiasm of the active interest and pleasure he experienced in all that concerned the prosperity of his native city : of his plans for improving its port; for draining, recovering, and fertilizing the extensive marshes and barren sands in its neighbourhood. He died, having passed his one hundredth year, calmly and easily in his arm chair at Padua in the year 1566. (4) His treatises forming a small volume, have been "very frequently published in Italy, both in the vernacular Italian and in latin. It has been translated into all the civilised languages of Europe, and was once a most popular book. There are several English translations of it, the best being the one that bears the date 1779. Cornaro's system," says the writer in the English Cyclopœdia whom we are quoting, "has had many followers." Recounting his many dignities and honours, and the distinguished part he took in the improvement of his native city, by which he acquired a great reputation amongst his fellow-citizens, the Italian editor of his writings justly adds :-

"But all these fine prerogatives of Luigi Cornaro would not have been sufficient to render his name famous in Europe if he had not left behind him the short treatises upon Temperance, composed at various times at the advanced ages of 85, 86, 91, and 95. The candour which breathes through their simplicity, the importance of the argument, and the fervour with which he urges their simplicity, the importance of the argument, and the fervour with which he urges upon all to study the means of prolonging our life, have obtained for them so great good fortune as to be praised to the skies by men of the best understanding. The many editions which have been published in Italy, and the translations which, together with an array of physiological and philological notes, have appeared out of Italy, at one time in Latin, at another in French, again in German, and again in English, prove their importance. These discourses, in fact, enjoyed all the reputation of a classical book, and, although occasionally somewhat unpolished, as "Poca favilla gran flamma seconda," they have suffered to inspire (risaldare) a Lessio, a Bartolini, a Ramazzini, a Cheyne, a Hufeland, and so many others who have written works of greater weight upon the same subject."

Addison (Spectator 195 [October 13, 1711]) thus refers to him :-

"The most remarkable instance of the efficacy of temperance toward the procuring of long life, is what we meet with in a little book published by Lewis Cornaro,
the Venetian, which I the rather mention, because it is of undoubted credit, as the late Venetian ambassador, who was of the same family, attested more than once in conversation, when he resided in England. . . . After having passed his hundredth year, died without pain or agony, and like one who falls asleep. The
treatise I mention has been taken notice of by several eminent authors, and is written with such a spirit of cheerfulness, religion, and good sense, as are the natural concomitants of temperance and sobriety. The mixture of the old man in it is rather a recommendation than a discredit to it."

In fact he has exposed himself, it must be confessed, to the taunts of the "devotees of the Table"often cast at the abstinents, that they are too much given to parading their health and vigour, and certainly if any one can be justly obnoxious to them it is Luigi Cornaro.

 

Footnotes

    1. Tratto della Vit Sobria, 1548
    2. Sœvior armis Luxuria. We may be tempted to ask ourselves whether we are reading denunciations of the gluttony and profusion of the sixteenth century or contemporary reports of public dinners in our own country, e.g., of the Lord Mayor's annual dinner. The vast amount of slaughter of all kinds of victims to supply the various dishes of one of these exhibitions of national gluttony can be adequately described only by the use of the Homeric word hecatomb - slaughter of hundreds.
    3. Amorevole Esortazione a Seguire La Vita Ordinata e Sobria.
    4. Cornaro's heterodoxy in dietetics was not allowed, as may well be supposed, to pass unchallenged by his contemporaries. One of his countrymen, a person of some note, Sperone Speroni, published a reply under the title of "Contra la Sobrietà;" but soon afterwards recanting his errors (rimettendosi spontaneamente nel buon sentiero) he wrote a Discourse in favour of Temperance. About the same time there appeared in Paris an "Anti-Cornaro," written "against all the rules of good taste," and which the editors of the Biographie Universelle characterise as full of remarks "tout à fait oiseuses."

 

Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index