Health Is Not A Goal

Light ’em up, boys!
Regular readers will know these words from Mark Twain by heart: even so, they bear repeating:

There are people who strictly deprive themselves of each and every eatable, drinkable and smokable which has in any way acquired a shady reputation. They pay this price for health. And health is all they get for it. How strange it is. It is like paying out your whole fortune for a cow that has gone dry.

Like an obedient little citizen you have eschewed (not chewed) donuts, you never drink soda pop in measures greater than 15.9 ounces, and have you assiduously avoided even secondhand smoke. Congratulations. You almost certainly have clearer arteries, a less peccant pancreas, and pinker lungs than your disobedient neighbor who indulges. You are healthier than he.

Now what?

What will you do with your extra store of health? How will you spend it? What are you saving it for? Or aren’t you being rather self-indulgent by avoiding “every eatable, drinkable and smokable which has in any way acquired a shady reputation”?

That was the argument Socrates gave in the Phaedo (quotes either from Tredennick translation [T]; or Jowett [J]). He said the temperate are “temperate because they are intemperate [J]”. And “What about temperate people? Is it not…a sort of self-indulgence that makes them self-controlled? [T]” The temperate, or self-controlled

are afraid of losing other pleasures which they desire, so they refrain from one kind because they cannot resist the other. Although they define self-indulgence as the condition of being ruled by pleasure, it is really because they cannot resist some pleasures that they succeed in resisting others; which amounts to what I said just now—that they control themselves, in a sense, by self-indulgence. [T]

Jowett’s translation of the same passage is also helpful:

For there are pleasures which they are afraid of losing; and in their desire to keep them, they abstain from some pleasures, because they are overcome by others; and although to be conquered by pleasure is called by men intemperance, to them the conquest of pleasure consists in being conquered by pleasure. And that is what I mean by saying that, in a sense, they are made temperate through intemperance.

Now unless your desire is to pose for a health magazine, or to make a tour showing off your healthiness, or to bore your workmates with tales of your pulse rate and cholesterol number, health is not a goal. You cannot bask in health: your body is either in optimal working order directed towards some behavior, or it is in less than perfect condition. But either way, your body is meant to do something, even if the something is as simple as sitting quietly and thinking.

This is what the food police (coincidentally, a new book with same name) and folks like Nanny Bloomberg cannot understand. They have failed to recognize that not everybody is directed towards the same activities as they, or that not all want to spend their health in the same fashion.

As Socrates showed us, your temperance for smoking must be because you are saving your lungs for some other self-indulgent activity. Maybe it’s in making a spectacle of yourself wearing ugly shorts and garish tennis shoes as you “jog” down a path. Or perhaps it’s because you want to join a bubble-blowing contest. Whatever. And your avoidance of trans-fats is only because you choose to be intemperate in some other aspect. Maybe it’s fitting into a pair of skinny-legged hipster jeans. Who knows.

But these are differences in choice, and that’s all. You cannot convince a man not to smoke or to eat excessively just because it is “healthy”, for that is like trying to sell him a dry cow. If you want him to change his behavior, you must convince him that the behaviors he is forgoing outweigh those which he has embraced.


  1. Yawrate

    I think many people see a longer and more interesting life for themselves. The desire to know your grandchildren, to travel well in retirement make people forego pleasure now for future rewards.

    Quality of retirement life motivates me for instance. We’ve all seen long term ex-smokers lugging O2 cylinders or people confined to wheel chairs because of medical problems associated with being overweight or diabetic. I’m not up for that stuff.

    We don’t know what the future holds for us but we can put ourselves in a position to take advantage of good fortune should it come our way.

  2. To some degree we can influence our future health, though an honest physician will tell you that you can eat healthy, exercise and still die of a heart attack at 50. Medical science is not even close to understanding the complexities of a long life. We can choose to avoid some things, like smoking, with a fair amount of certainty that our life will be longer and better. Weight and diabetes are not so clear cut. Some very obese people live way into their 80’s and some very careful eaters become diabetic, follow all the rules and still end up in a wheel chair. We are actually playing the odds in all of this–hoping our choices yield the desired outcome.
    I had a doctor tell me once that everyone has their vices and makes their choices. He was okay with this, so long as the patient understood what they were doing. He saw no point to continually nagging patients in an effort to get them to give up all things unhealthy. He knew the limits.

  3. Ray

    I saw a study in the 1980s about longevity. The author had studied census data and life insurance data from the late 1700s and determined that if you managed to survive to age 60, you life expectancy was bout the same as a person 60 years old in the 1980s. In other words modern medicine was not causing people to live longer. Better sanitation and medicine resulted in more people reaching 60 years, but it was not increasing human longevity markedly. Dr. Olshansky has an interesting paper on the subject here.

  4. john robertson

    Longevity Stats are rubbish, when we have two world wars in the last 100 years, with tremendous numbers of 18-20 year old kids being wiped out, the numbers are skewed.
    The phoney authority of health stats is on par with Climatology.
    The hysterical antismoking propaganda has left no room for reality, will smoking kill you or reduce your years? It depends.
    I’m with Twain, as life is a sexually transmitted terminal disease, the only sure fact of the health conscious, is that nobody gets out alive.

  5. Jonathan Cook

    Everything in moderation – especially moderation.

  6. MattS

    What is the point of living a few extra years if you have to be miserable to do it?

  7. Briggs


    That, my dear, and as you agree, is the point. Life just to have it is meaningless. So that if all you want to do is live longer, why? What will you do to fill the time your neighbor hasn’t? Again, it is self-indulgence, the desire of a different goal.

  8. hmi

    Others among them imagine—as if in a dream or as if a thing is seen from a distance—that there is a truth…They feel that they themselves have missed it, either because they require a long time, and have to toil and exert themselves, in order to apprehend it, when they no longer have sufficient time or the power to toil and persevere; or because they are occupied by certain pleasures and so forth to which they have been accustomed and from which they find it very difficult to free themselves; or because they feel they cannot apprehend it even if they had access to all the means to it. Consequently, they regret and grieve over what they think others may have attained. …Now, many of these perceive their own ignorance and perplexity; they feel sad and suffer pain because of what they perceive to be their condition, they are overcome with anxiety and it torments them; and they find no way to free themselves of this by means of a science leading them to the truth whose apprehension would give them pleasure. Hence they choose to find rest from all this by turning to the various ends of the ignorant cities and to find their solace in amusements and games until death come to relieve them of their burden.

    Alfarabi: The Political Regime [The Weeds in Virtuous Cities]

  9. Stephen J.

    I’ve never been a big fan of Socrates, but I particularly hate the argument quoted here: that making a serious effort to control self-indulgence is “really” an even subtler form of self-indulgence. It’s not only Bulveristic and unfalsifiable, but it’s counterproductive: some choices *are* healthier than others, but if you can’t ask which without being accused of having hypocritical and self-serving motives for asking, no data we get in answer will ever be trusted.

    Yes, your body is meant to do things other than “be healthy”. But there is almost nothing your body is meant to do — including the satisfaction of its responsibilities to others — that it will not do *better* if it is healthier. I reject the approach of nanny-state food-banning solely and simply because it is not the prerogative or responsibility of anyone else to make those choices for me; I do not tell myself that the temperance motivating that approach is “just another form of self-indulgence”, and thus exonerate myself. Claiming the right to make one’s own bad choices does not include the right to call someone else’s better choices “really” just the same as my bad choices in a different form.

  10. dearieme

    My cardiologist chided me for drinking five or six glasses of wine a week, and said that he’d like me to have a glass with dinner ever day. “You’ll enjoy it and it’ll be kinder to your liver.”

  11. Alexander S. Anderson

    Oh, but they go tell us what greater good will be affected by forcing us all into health: we’ll save on medical costs. More importantly, *the government* will save on medical costs.

  12. Micha Elyi

    Oh dearieme, funny that my cardiologist gave me the same advice; concerned he was about me downing the weekly wine ration all in one sitting. And on an empty stomach.

    Now I’m a bit healthier but a heap sadder; plus I’ve now got 7 times as many wine glasses to wash.

  13. benpal

    “More importantly, *the government* will save on medical costs.” It will not. Health costs increase almost exponentially with age, especially with high-age affections like Alzheimer and Parkinson.

  14. Annemarie

    I simply believe in taking care of what God gave us, and showing respect for His gift of life. I can’t believe someone would ever defend smoking; there is a commandment exhorting us not to kill! We are supposed to avoid behaviors that are bad for us. The catechism even says we should avoid elective surgery because of the risks involved (infection). We all have people depending on us, too, so I think we have a responsibility toward them. And how does this square with the whole attitude of the Church that we should be detached from the pleasures of this world, and the idea that, for example, gluttony is a deadly sin? I would think that almost ANY goal for which one gives up a fleeting, self-indulgent animal pleasure is probably worthier! (Is there something wrong, for example, of trying to be attractive for one’s spouse?) If we have any purpose for being in this world, then we should keep fit for the tasks and the people they benefit. The only time we should ever do anything bad for our health is when it would be selfish not to. For example, I think it is rude to reject hospitality because a meal offered is too high in fat or carbs, or to refuse to celebrate a birthday or wedding by not having a piece of cake or glass of champagne. Obviously it would be wrong not to visit a sick friend or relative because I might be exposed to germs in a hospital, or not to help my child with homework because I want to go for a run. But other than such cases, it’s a slap in God’s face to smoke, overeat or sit around too much. Choose life! (The dry cow analogy just doesn’t work, by the way. The purpose of having a cow IS to have milk, but the purpose of having life is NOT to have pleasure.)

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