Today, we learn how to live our lives -- in 1836. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering presents
this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
The nineteenth century gave us any
number of books on how to live our lives -- precursors of
today's self-help literature, I suppose. Here's a fine
example: Dr. Caleb Ticknor's book, The Philosophy of
Living. Ticknor's recurring focus is on diet. He
begins with eating practices around the world. He
concludes that we're a truly omnivorous species; we do
equally well as carnivores or as vegetarians. At length,
when he gets around to giving advice, his prejudices
about food emerge.
He deplores European food as undercooked and
over-seasoned. Good digestible food should be thoroughly
boiled and bland. He has very harsh words for his
contemporary Sylvester Graham --
the man who invented the Graham cracker and promoted
brown grain. Bran, Ticknor says, can't possibly contain
nutrients. Not until a century later did we learn that
bran is what gives us our Vitamin B-1.
Ticknor tries to bolster his claims about diet by quoting
a few ideas from the work of William
Beaumont. Beaumont was a fine surgeon with a patient
who'd been gut-shot in a shotgun accident. When the wound
failed to heal completely, Beaumont hired him as an
experimental subject and spent several years doing the
seminal study of digestion through the hole in the
Ticknor does better in a section with the deceptive
title, "On the Great Pleasure and Benefit of Using Tobacco."
What he does is to
systematically show that tobacco is a powerful poison. He
points out that nicotine can be used as a muscle
relaxant, but a slight overdose will cause paralysis and
death. He goes on to talk about child-rearing, education,
the role of climate, and marriage. In a section entitled
Sex he explains the roles of males and females:
Each [sex], he says, has its proper station. ... Woman
is designed to lead a quiet, domestic life ... to watch
over helpless, infant innocence: man ... is made to lead
an outdoor life, ... to bear the heat and burden of the
That was simply common doctrine. It could hardly be
called chauvinism. It was a view that almost no one
Ticknor's Preface explains why he's writing
this book. The world has grown degenerate. He's
surrounded by fanaticism on one side and moral decay on
the other. America needs a voice of sanity in a sea of
extremism. That, of course, is what writers have said
ever since Socrates. Each generation launders its own
childhood as it grows increasingly aware of wrongs
that've always been there.
Ticknor talks about improper entertainment, about the
threat of the imagination and the ailment of
idiosyncrasy. He wants us all to live temperate,
moderated lives (like his own, I suppose).
All around him, America was exploding in a creative
revolution unlike any before it. We were an immoderate,
boisterous, brash, and unfettered people in 1836. Our
America was built on exactly the attributes that drove
the sedate Dr. Ticknor to write this self-help manual on
how to escape our own excesses.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.