Wednesday, January 31, 2007



Ben Jonson, Volpone, or The Fox, Act 2, Scene 1:
You that would last long, list to my song,
Make no more coil, but buy of this oil.
Would you be ever fair and young?
Stout of teeth, and strong of tongue?
Tart of palate? quick of ear?
Sharp of sight? of nostril clear?
Moist of hand? and light of foot?
Or, I will come nearer to't,
Would you live free from all diseases?
Do the act your mistress pleases;
Yet fright all aches from your bones?
Here's a med'cine, for the nones.
A panacea is a "cure-all." Nowadays, instead of the "oil" in Volpone, you'd need a whole pharmacopeia, including:In part I, chapter X of Cervantes' Don Quixote, the knight of the woeful countenance is suffering from a wound to his ear, and his squire offers some lint and ointment to dress the wound:
"All that might be well dispensed with," said Don Quixote, "if I had remembered to make a vial of the balm of Fierabras, for time and medicine are saved by one single drop."

"What vial and what balm is that?" said Sancho Panza.

"It is a balm," answered Don Quixote, "the receipt of which I have in my memory, with which one need have no fear of death, or dread dying of any wound."
British scientists recently proposed their own version of the balm of Fierabras, called the Polypill, a combination of six different drugs, for people over 55. The scientists claim that the PolyPill would reduce the number of deaths by heart attack and stroke by eighty percent, thereby saving 200,000 lives each year in the United Kingdom alone.

Charles Asbury Stephens (1844-1931), from my native state of Maine, was a prolific writer of children's stories for The Youth's Companion. He was also a doctor, and his medical writings include Long Life: The Occasional Review of an Investigation of the Intimate Causes of Old Age and Organic Death, with a Design to Their Alleviation and Removal (1896), Natural Salvation: The Message of Science, Outlining the First Principles of Immortal Life on the Earth (1906), and Immortal Life: How It Will Be Achieved (1920), based on research conducted at his laboratory in Norway, Maine. Stephens lived a long life, but ultimately was unable to cure himself of the disease of mortality.

The research goes on apace. Biochemist Cynthia Kenyon studies worms in hopes of discovering genes that regulate aging. She hopes that she'll still be alive at age 150. The Methusaleh Foundation sponsors the Methusaleh Mouse Prize, "designed to further the development of truly effective anti-aging interventions." The first winner, a mouse named GHR-KO 11C, lived 1819 days (the average life span of a mouse is about two years).

Far be it from me to belittle the heroic efforts of these scientists to prolong human life. Were it not for them, some people near and dear to me wouldn't be alive today. But the quest for some human invention to achieve everlasting life is a will-o'-the-wisp. The ancient Greeks thought the attempt was not only foolish and doomed to failure, but also ill-advised. Euripides, in his play The Suppliants (lines 1109-1111, tr. E.P. Coleridge), almost seems to be prophesying about the scientists of our day when he says:
Them too I hate, whoso desire to lengthen out the span of life, seeking to turn the tide of death aside by philtres, drugs, and magic spells.
The elegaic poet Callinus (tr. J.M. Edmonds) writes:
By no means may a man escape death, nay not if he come of immortal lineage. Oftentime, it may be, he returneth safe from the conflict of battle and the thud of spears, and the doom of death cometh upon him at home.
The Greeks doubted whether everlasting life would be an unmixed blessing even if it were possible, and expressed these doubts in the myth of Tithonus, who had eternal life but not eternal youth. The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite (lines 218-238, tr. Hugh G. Evelyn White) describes his fate:
So also golden-throned Eos rapt away Tithonus who was of your race and like the deathless gods. So she went to ask the dark-clouded Son of Cronos that he should be deathless and live eternally; and Zeus bowed his head to her prayer and fulfilled her desire. Too simple was queenly Eos; she thought not in her heart to ask youth for him and to strip him of the slough of deadly age. So while he enjoyed the sweet flower of life he lived rapturously with golden-throned Eos, the early-born, by the streams of Ocean, at the ends of the earth; but when the first grey hairs began to ripple from his comely head and noble chin, queenly Eos kept away from his bed, though she cherished him in her house and gave him rich clothing. But when loathsome old age pressed full upon him, and he could not move nor lift his limbs, this seemed to her in her heart the best counsel: she laid him in a room and put to the shining doors. There he babbles endlessly, and no more has strength at all, such as once he had in his supple limbs.
Christians have their own panacea, their own balm of Fierabras. In the words of Ignatius (Epistle to the Ephesians 20.2, tr. J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, rev. Michael W. Holmes), they find it by
breaking one bread, which is the medicine of immortality, the antidote we take in order not to die but to live forever in Jesus Christ.

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