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   Chapter 9 EXCESSES

Religion And Health By James J. Walsh Characters: 28401

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

The most important rule of conduct for health is the avoidance of excesses of any and every kind. Men have recognized this fact for as long as the memory of the race runs. The instruction of Ptah Hotep, the letter of advice from a father to his son, written by the vizier of King Itosi in the fifth dynasty in Egypt, something over five thousand years ago, which is often called the oldest book in the world, emphasizes particularly the necessity for the avoidance of excess in all things. Self-control and self-denial are held up as the highest attributes of man. One of the seven wise men of Greece adopted as his contribution to the wisdom of mankind "avoid excess." A favorite maxim of the Romans was ne quid nimis, "let there be nothing too much"; and another favorite expression of theirs was in medio tutissimus ibis, "you will go most safely if you follow the mean" (and not either extreme).

The most powerful factor for securing the avoidance of excess among men has always been religion. The four cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, and the last is considered by no means the least. Almost needless to say, by temperance was meant not only abstinence from excessive drinking and eating, but that moderation and self-control in all things which the ancients recognized as the most important factor in human life, and which religion, trying to perfect {169} nature by grace, set forth as one of the cardinal or "hinge" qualities on which the whole of a good life swings. When reason and not impulse, when virtue and not passion, when strength of character and not weakness rule a man's life, the motives which impel him or, as we would rather say in our modern knowledge of psychology, stimulate him to action and enable him to accomplish what he desires in so important a matter are drawn much oftener from religion than from any other source.

Religion has done more than anything else to make people rational in their lives and not merely the sport of their impulses and instincts. Men are animals, but possessed of reason, though reason can be obscured to a great extent or even almost completely eclipsed by the impulses that arise from the lower nature of man. Religion has above all helped to make men think of others who are so often hurt by their unreason rather than themselves, and has helped to keep them from self-indulgence.

Abernethy, the distinguished surgeon who impressed himself so deeply on the history of medicine in London at the beginning of the nineteenth century, was accustomed to say that the two great killing powers in the world are stuff and fret,-in a word, eating too much and worrying about things, most of which will never happen. Satisfying the desires of mankind and fostering their dreads will do more to wear out life before its time than anything else. Religion represents the ever present signpost pointing away from travel in either of these directions. Men do not heed her warnings very often until they have gone so far on the road of life that some of their powers have been lost because of their neglect, but at least they can recognize then that the signposts are {170} always in place, and that they saw them, and that it was their own fault if they did not follow them.

Homer, three thousand years ago, told the poetic story of the men who had been turned into swine by Circe and who, though swine, knew that they were men, but could not get back to the use of their reason. The similitude lies so close that it is perfectly clear that the idea behind the old myth of the goddess who invited men to share swinish pleasures and secured such control over them that they could not get back their reason again was the goddess of lubricity. Ulysses himself had to abstain from the indulgence that had captivated his men, and then he had to come to their assistance with the herb moly? which, revealed to him by one of the gods, enabled him to turn Circe's victims back to men again. The old Fathers of the Church used to emphasize the fact that this herb moly?represented grace, for without divine assistance it is almost impossible for men who have given themselves over to the pleasures of the body to win back self-control again. Men may recognize their unfortunate state yet be unable to set themselves right. No wonder the Church Fathers proclaimed the story as told by Homer to be one of the prefigurements of Christian symbol which showed that the old poet was, in a certain way at least, a messenger from celestial powers carrying on the tradition of Providence in the world.

It is a commonplace among physicians that the so-called pleasures of life indulged in to excess are much more prone to be followed by ill health than is the hard work of existence, no matter how apparently trying the work may be. We hear much of hard work shortening life and of bringing on states of exhaustion in which health is at a low ebb, but physicians find it very difficult to collect {171} cases that illustrate any such effects of hard work. Some of our hardest workers, men who have devoted themselves to half a dozen different difficult tasks with an ardor that made other men wonder how they could possibly stand it, have lived to even advanced old age. I have personally known about a dozen physicians who lived to eighty-five or beyond, and all of them without exception had been very hard workers when they were young. Distinguished generals often live to a good old age; though not infrequently they have been shot to pieces when they were young, wounded a number of times during life, yet, like Lord Roberts, Sir Evelyn Wood and Von Moltke, they have lived well beyond eighty years of age, active and capable until the very end.

The ill effect of hard work is a fetish created by people who are themselves afraid of hard work. Hard play has killed many more men than hard work. Concentrated efforts to compress into life all the possible pleasure that one can secure will break a man down sooner than anything else in the world. Such a breakdown is usually thorough and seldom is followed by complete and enduring recovery. Hard physical work, on the contrary, performed under any reasonably favorable circumstances, is a factor conducive to health and strength and long life, and this is particularly true if it is accomplished in the open. The devotee of pleasure is notably shortlived. Work, according to the Scriptural expression, was imposed as a curse on man, but it has been very well said, "if when the Lord curses they turn to blessings this way, what must it not be when He blesses?" No wonder that we say, "Blessed is the man who has found his work." The more experience a man has had, the more he recognizes this truth. Work is one of the most precious {172} resources for men in the world, while pleasure, unless carefully guarded from excess, can be the worst of curses. Though so costly, so much sought after and so often even looked forward to as the reward for work, pleasure is but seldom satisfying and is often followed by remorse which proves disturbing to both mind and body. The deterioration of constitution brought about by the physical consequences of pleasures indulged in to excess must be counted among the most serious factors for ill health to which humanity is subject.

Doctor Carroll, in his "Mastery of Nervousness", says very well, "the danger of overwork is far less common than that of underwork.... Close observation brings the conviction that the great majority claiming overwork as the reason for their nervous deficiency are the victims not of earnest productive work itself but of defective methods of work discounted by haste, stress and strain, by impatience, worry and fear." In a word nervous breakdown, when it comes to a busy man or woman, is due ever so much more to the irritable state of mind into which they get in the midst of their press of work than to the work itself. The feeling of haste is ever so much more dangerous than the actual hurry. The mistakes that are made under these circumstances are great wasters of time and of energy and disturbers of morale, until a feeling of impotence grows on one and then becomes inveterate. As a matter of fact a great many people who break down do so not during the stress of work but afterwards, when they have the leisure to look back on it and think about it and wonder why they did not break down, and while their friends keep sympathizing with them and they have the chance to let their self-pity cause the crumpling of their character.


Premature old age, that is, the precocious hardening of the arteries, for "a man is as old as his arteries", came particularly, the older physicians used to say, to the devotees of the three pagan deities, Venus, Bacchus and Vulcan. That is, senility came before it was due in the order of nature to those who indulged in venery or in wine and its almost inevitable accompaniment, overeating, and then to the man who did such hard physical work as the blacksmith does, for Vulcan, it may be recalled, was the blacksmith among the gods. In this enumeration two out of three of the factors unfavorable for health come from the pleasures of life; but I think there is no doubt in the minds of physicians that if a comparison in the number of patients whose ailments were the consequences of the worship of the deities named were to be made, there would be found ten times as many men who became prematurely old or suffered from the development of organic affections because of wine and venereal disease as from hard physical labor.

Aneurysm is the one form of arterial degeneration to which the hard worker is particularly liable, and the more we have learned of that the more we have come to realize very clearly that while the hard work was the immediate occasion, the real underlying cause of the degeneration of arteries that led to the development of the aneurysm was to be found in some overindulgence. The French physicians sometimes said satirically that overwork of the heart much more than of the head or the hands laid the foundation on which aneurysm developed, for it occurs oftenest on a luetic basis.

Practically all the degenerative diseases affecting heart, arteries, kidneys and brain are due to excesses. The excesses of life are counted by religion among the deadly {174} sins. Pride, anger, covetousness, lust, gluttony, envy and sloth,-all these represent indulgence in evil passions that very readily affect the body. Religion has constantly used all its influence to overcome them and has succeeded better than any other single factor in life. It is perfectly possible to have a veneer of religion and be a miser or a glutton or a very devil of pride, but real religion of the heart, while it does not eradicate the tendency that exists in human nature toward these unfortunate qualities, helps the possessor of them materially to control them and to keep his passions in subjection.

In this control of excesses religion has been an extremely important factor for health. It is true that many other factors, human respect, worldly consideration, preservation of one's own dignity and similar non-religious factors have had a like influence. Occasionally indeed it would seem as though mere respectability had more to do with preventing men and women from making exhibitions of themselves by the public commission of sin than even religion itself. This would appear to be surely true if different strata of society were compared with each other. If, for instance, the working classes who practice their religion and the better-to-do classes who perhaps neglect it were to be compared in these regards, the contrast would favor the latter as a rule, but any such comparison would be eminently odious. There is no doubt that mere human motives can be effective, but the value of religion should be gauged from its effect on people who are living in the same circumstance. The vast majority of the very poor have found religion a sheet anchor of veritable salvation under circumstances where sin would have been not only not a disadvantage but actually have proved of material benefit to them. While, on the other hand, many {175} a well-to-do person lacking religion has fallen into sin in spite of the fact that every human motive spoke emphatically against their commission of it.

Religion has been particularly helpful in the neutralization of temptations to excess in the matter of alcoholic liquor. Father Matthew's great crusade in Ireland, England and this country enlisted millions of people under the banner of temperance and helped marvelously in enabling the world to understand that the serious evils connected with the liquor traffic were by no means inevitable, but could be repressed to a great extent by simple personal appeals which called to the manhood of men and made them understand their own power to throw off the shackles of what to them seemed an unconquerable habit by a serious act of the will. The immense amount of suffering that was thus saved to the women and children of men who had been accustomed to drink a considerable portion or sometimes practically all of their wages and leave their families to get on as best they might is almost incalculable.

A still more important result of Father Matthew's work was the demonstration that men who are the victims of even such a habit and craving as that which is produced by indulgence in liquor may break it completely by a single powerful act of the will, when to that is added the strong suggestion that they will surely be helped by divine favor to accomplish what they have purposed. Literally hundreds of thousands of men under Father Matthew's inspiration, and touched by the example of others around them, broke off once and for all from liquor habits to which they had been enslaved sometimes for years.

Professor William James in his essay on the "Energies of Men" first published in the American Magazine under {176} the title of "Powers of Men" (October, 1907)-it was originally the presidential address delivered before the American Philosophical Association and therefore written not for popular reading, but as a

serious contribution to science-has on this, as on many other subjects, a paragraph that is valuable in this regard. It is not only interesting but is eminently suggestive with regard to the effect that can be produced on a man by deep emotion, and when that emotion is based on profound religious feeling it can be not only immediate but extremely enduring in its effect. This is what proved to be the case for the vast majority of those who took the pledge from Father Matthew.

Professor James said: "The normal opener of deeper and deeper levels of energy is the will. The difficulty is to use it, to make the effort which the word volition implies. But if we do make it (or if a god, though he were only the god Chance, makes it through us), it will act dynamogenically on us for a month. It is notorious that a single successful effort of moral volition, such as saying 'no' to some habitual temptation, or performing some courageous act will launch a man on a higher level of energy for days and weeks, will give him a new range of power. 'In the act of uncorking the whiskey bottle which I had brought home to get drunk upon,' said a man to me, 'I suddenly found myself running out into the garden, where I smashed it on the ground. I felt so happy and uplifted after this act, that for two months I wasn't tempted to touch a drop.'"

Nothing is so capable of giving a fillip to a sluggish will, arousing it to efforts that even its possessor never dreamt it capable of, as religion. The change of life known as conversion has not infrequently revolutionized an existence that seemed hopelessly and helplessly committed {177} to the baser aims of living. Instances are in every one's experience, and the veriest self-missioned exhorter has many of them to his credit.

Religion has listed temperance among the four cardinal virtues, and though it is usually named the last-prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance-it is considered by no means the least in importance, and the cardinal virtues, as the etymology of their descriptive epithet signifies, are literally the "hinge virtues" on which the religious life depends. Religion has not, however, ever favored that complete prohibition of the use of the milder alcoholic beverages which have such a definite place in life. Life is, as a rule, too hard a thing for most people without the opportunity for escape from the tension of existence represented by mild alcoholic stimulation. At the very beginning of Christianity Paul advised his disciple Timothy to take a little wine for the stomach's sake, and in this religion is only helping nature, provided there is no abuse, for natural digestion is accompanied by the production of a certain amount of dilute alcohol. Absolute prohibition of very natural indulgences that are not in themselves wrong is so likely to be followed by a reaction in the opposite direction that abuses are almost sure to occur. Temperance and not prohibition represents the true religious aspect of this question.

Unfortunately very serious abuses had followed the interesting developments of modern human ingenuity in the making of strong liquors. Natural processes only make liquors of various kinds that do no harm unless taken in great excess and that have a very special place in the human economy. From the abuses no argument holds against the use, but it was the very reaction produced in religious minds against the serious associations of {178} the drink traffic that led to the enactment of laws against it. In themselves they represent a great benefit for humanity, for it is perfectly sure that we shall never want the saloon back again, nor the free consumption of strong alcoholic liquors which are not stimulants but narcotics and have done not so much physical harm as moral harm. They have caused the workman to neglect his family and bring them very often to the point of starvation; they have filled our jails, have made the need for charity greater than it would otherwise be; have fomented passion and only too often encouraged vice, and we must never have them back. Even the exaggerated religious reaction has done great positive good, and when it settles down to moderation in prohibitive laws we will set a magnificent example for the rest of the world, the first hints of which are already manifest.

What is true for the alcoholic craving can be just as true for addictions of all kinds and particularly for drug addictions. In our day a great crusade is needed for the relief of this evil, for in spite of efforts at repression, drug addictions are growing in frequency rather than decreasing. We have tried to use material repressive measures and have failed. It is time for us to realize that there remain moral and religious motives, appeal to which can produce almost incredibly strong effects. These can prove effective against many of the most unfortunate habits of mankind which are likely to turn out extremely deleterious to health if persisted in. Religion can thus be a source of power-virtue is the word the Romans used for this and its full form is not translated by our English word virtue any more-to help in the neutralization of human tendencies more prone than any others to shorten life or be the origin of serious disease.


It would be too bad to reduce religion to the r?le of merely a scavenger of bad habits, a sweeper up of the unconsidered trifles which if allowed to act tend to the deterioration of physical existence, but what happens when religion does bring about improvement in the victims of these unfortunate habits is that a great new incentive is given to life, and men, realizing what they have been rescued from, may now turn the new energies they have found to great purposes. Some of these at least have learned to devote themselves unstintedly to work for others which proves a source of the greatest possible good. How many a rescued drunkard has, after reform, given himself whole-heartedly to helping others out of various unfortunate conditions in which both body and soul were being pulled down to the very lowest that was in them. Some of these "rescued" ones for twenty or more years devoted themselves, in the midst of what might have seemed almost inevitably compelling temptations to their former habits, to the care for others until their names became household words in the great cities of their time because of the good they were accomplishing. Jerry Macaulay was an example of this that New York will not soon forget, but we have had many humbler fellow workers of his.

The human will, stimulated by religious motives, can change the whole course of man's life when his character would seem to have made it inevitable that this could not be changed for the better. How true the maxim of conduct in life is: "plant an act and reap a habit; plant a habit and reap a character; plant a character and reap a destiny." What seemed the almost unescapable destiny of many men has been changed by the influence of religion over habits, so that a natural disposition which by habit {180} had become a personality fraught with evil for self and others has been changed into an individual that proves an asset instead of a liability to the community.

Not only in the matter of substances harmful in themselves, but in those which though good and even necessary when taken in moderation, yet are greatly harmful when consumed in excess, the regulations of religion have been particularly helpful to mankind. Fasting has been encouraged and indeed set down as an absolute obligation for all those who are in health. Mortification, that is, self-denial with regard to things that people like very much, was counseled and the counsels so often repeated that people were almost sure to practice some of them and many were taken quite seriously to heart. Moderation in eating was advised at all times, and any serious excess set down as gluttony, one of the seven deadly sins. How much the religious counsels against excess may be needed nowadays even with regard to things quite harmless or even valuable for mankind will perhaps be best appreciated from the present status of sugar consumption in the world. One hundred and twenty-five years ago a few thousand tons of sugar supplied all the needs of mankind. Now nearly twenty-five million of tons are scarcely sufficient to maintain prices for the commodity at a level low enough so that people may continue to buy it in the quantities they desire.

Sugar is an artificial product made from starchy substances, not unlike alcohol in certain ways and capable of doing at least as much physical harm as alcohol. There are at the present time half a million people in this country who either have now or will have before they die, diabetes. This is a serious disease; when it occurs under thirty it is practically always fatal. Under forty it may shorten life {181} seriously. It always greatly weakens the individual and makes him subject to certain other serious diseases. We need self-control in the use of sugar; the habit of taking it grows on one.

The use of sugar and milk in tea and coffee is an occidental abuse that the orientals who originally began the drinking of these substances find it extremely difficult to understand. Tea with milk and sugar in it a Chinaman would be likely to think of as sweetened milk soup. The reason for adding milk and sugar was to cover up the defective qualities in poor tea or coffee, or mistakes in their making by which certain bitter astringent principles not meant to be in solution had their taste covered up by the sweet milkiness. The habit of using tea without sugar often formed by the practice of a little mortification would probably result in more good than merely the absence of the sugar.

Every one of the seven deadly sins represents excesses in bodily or mental propensities against which religion set up the attitude of utter disapproval and pointed out their inevitable tendency to part a man from what was best in him. Teaching children from their early years that pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth were serious offenses made for an early realization of the necessity for guarding against them. All of them represent extremely unfavorable factors for health. Pride goes before a fall, and the disappointments which it almost inevitably brings with it represent more occasions for depression and melancholic tendencies than almost anything else. The inordinate desire for money has brought down on many a man serious nervous prostration. With regard to lust and its awful consequences to health nothing need be said here, and not much needs to be said {182} even in the chapter on Purity. We have had its baneful effects dinned into our ears particularly in recent years. Anger is not so serious, and yet many an older man especially has shortened his life quite materially by giving away to ungovernable bursts of temper. Nervous people who do not control their tempers often suffer from serious lack of nerve control as a consequence of their lapses of temper. Gluttony has already been touched on and needs no illustration as to its extremely bad effect on health. Envy often makes most of the functions of the body perform their work incompletely because nothing so disturbs even such apparently purely physical functions as digestion and nutritional metabolism generally as the wearing of a grouch. The grouchy man almost never digests well and quite inevitably his state of mind interferes with other functions. Little need be said about sloth and its effect upon health but the fact that from the very earliest times religion has pointed out that the mere doing of nothing could of itself become a serious, even capital offense, for a healthy person represented an excellent stimulus to that activity of mind and body which is so important for health. It is only lately that we have come to realize how dangerous a remedy rest may be, to be prescribed with great care, for it is a habit-producing remedy nearly as risky as opium and never to be prescribed on any general principles. There has been ten times as much harm done to health by rest as by vigorous exercise or even hard work. The hard workers are nearly all long lived, but the sons and daughters of rest pass away from the scene, not of their labors, but of their languors, rather early, as a rule.

Religion then has been an extremely valuable factor for the control of excesses, or at least for their limitation, {183} and thus has been of great significance for health. Religious counsels and prohibitions have not entirely prevented excesses even in those who were adherents of religion, for man is so constituted that it is not quite possible to have all men follow the wiser course. Even the best of men have to confess, like St. Paul, that sometimes, though they know the better path, they follow the worse. If to do good were as easy as it is to know what it is good to do, life would be a much simpler matter. Not knowledge, but will power is needed, and religious practice builds this up and strengthens the will so that it is able to resist many temptations that would otherwise prove difficult to surmount. The contest between good and evil has gone on in spite of religion, and will go on, but there is no doubt at all that evil would have accomplished much more of harm only for the help that religion has been to mankind, and this has been particularly manifest in the limitation of the excesses which so often prove detrimental to health.

The old saw of English tradition which in some form or other is many centuries old is well worth recalling in this regard.

"Virtue, temperance and repose

Slam the door on the doctor's nose."

We hear much of the vicious circles that are formed by which things go from worse to worse, one unfavorable factor helping on another, but we forget apparently that there are virtuous circles according to which "all things work together for good." This means good not only for the soul and the mind, but also for the body and for health. Religion makes for health and health promotes religion, and the virtuous circle is completed.


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