Bacon's Essays: Of Regiment of Health

When Francis Bacon gives advice about regimens for preserving health, we should listen. He lived to be 65, which was pretty good in the early seventeenth century. He was a well-to-do gentleman of moderate habits and an exceptionally active mind — two components known to be important to good health in our century as well.

Take your own temperature

Epiphaniae medicorum

The Wheel of Urine

“A man’s own observation, what he finds good of, and what he finds hurt of, is the best physic to preserve health.” Rules, guidelines, and recommendations are worth considering, but there’s no substitute for paying attention to how things affect you, individually, over time.

“For strength of nature in youth, passeth over many excesses, which are owing a man till his age. Discern of the coming on of years, and think not to do the same things still; for age will not be defied.”

Pay attention to the changes in how you react to things as you get older. I would add, especially after you turn 50, when things really start to change!

This whole essay is full of practical, if fairlycommonplace advice, nowadays. Here’s another piece: “Examine thy customs of diet, sleep, exercise, apparel, and the like; and try, in any thing thou shalt judge hurtful, to discontinue it, by little and little; but so, as if thou dost find any inconvenience by the change, thou come back to it again: for it is hard to distinguish that which is generally held good and wholesome, from that which is good particularly, and fit for thine own body.”

He does NOT mean, if you find it uncomfortable to quit smoking, give up and smoke. People smoked tobacco in his day, but he never did (as far as we know.) In that quote, he’s talking about things like eating spicy foods late in the day.

(The illustration is from the Wellcome Society. Charts like this were used from ancient times into the early modern period to analyze urine samples for all manner of ailments. Bacon would never suggest that you do this yourself! You piss in a bottle and send it to your physician or cunning man or woman to analyze for you.)

Avoid anger fretting inwards

An_ill_man_next_to_his_empty_hearth_tormented_by_the_miserie_Wellcome_V0011143.jpgWe would call this psychological or emotional health, but Bacon is spot on with his advice.

Here’s his list of don’ts: “As for the passions, and studies of the mind; avoid envy, anxious fears; anger fretting inwards; subtle and knotty inquisitions; joys and exhilarations in excess; sadness not communicated.”

By “passions and studies of the mind,” I understand ‘obsessions.’ Don’t dwell, is what he’s saying. Don’t build up resentments and grudges. These things are very destructive of health and happiness.

And here are the Dos: “Entertain hopes; mirth rather than joy; variety of delights, rather than surfeit of them; wonder and admiration, and therefore novelties; studies that fill the mind with splendid and illustrious objects, as histories, fables, and contemplations of nature.”

So he’s not keen on joy, which our society advocates. It’s too much for Bacon, who believes it’s best to trend toward the middle in all things. Remember his family motto: Mediocria firma, moderate things are surest.

But I like the part about fables. I’m cheerfully going to include all kinds of fiction under that heading.

“I commend rather some diet for certain seasons, than frequent use of physic, except it be grown into a custom. For those diets alter the body more, and trouble it less.”

Physic is medicine. Don’t overuse it. Try moderating your diet first. And to think, Bacon didn’t even know about cholesterol!

“Despise no new accident in your body, but ask opinion of it.” Don’t ignore the weird-looking mole-thing growing on your back. Ask opinion of it!

A wise man withal


Celsus, the physician, gave it as “one of the great precepts of health and lasting, that a man do vary, and interchange contraries, but with an inclination to the more benign extreme: use fasting and full eating, but rather full eating; watching and sleep, but rather sleep; sitting andAulus_Cornelius_Celsus exercise, but rather exercise; and the like.”

‘Watching’ just means staying up late. Vigils go with fasting, which is actually not very good for you. But all writers know they need to train themselves to get up and dance for ten minutes out of each hour. Nobody’s watching!

Also take pains to choose the right doctor. “Physicians are, some of them, so pleasing and conformable to the humor of the patient, as they press not the true cure of the disease; and some other are so regular, in proceeding according to art for the disease, as they respect not sufficiently the condition of the patient. Take one of a middle temper; or if it may not be found in one man, combine two of either sort; and forget not to call as well, the best acquainted with your body, as the best reputed of for his faculty.”


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