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Long life

Mark Twain was right: it is our redeeming petty vices that make life worth living

Don’t give up the fags and the booze: longevity for its own sake is the least worthy of human aspirations

23 January 2016

9:00 AM

23 January 2016

9:00 AM

Here I go again. I have stopped smoking. Until recently I had been smoking about 40 cigarettes a day, but it is now two weeks since I last had one. Initially I used e-cigarettes and nicotine lozenges to help me give up, but now I already feel I can manage without them. I think I may have conquered my addiction. I feel I could be free at last. But I hesitate to say so, because it is a feeling I have often had before. Like Mark Twain, I have often stopped smoking, but always after a period of time, even one as long as five years, I have taken it up again.

If one wants to stop smoking, one really should try to avoid reading Mark Twain, because his enthusiasm for it is infectious. In his Sketches, New and Old, published in 1875, he attacked someone he called ‘the moral statistician’ for ‘always ciphering out how much a man’s health is injured and how much his intellect is impaired, and how many pitiful dollars and cents he wastes …in the fatal practice of smoking’, while at the same time being ‘blind to the fact that most old men in America smoke and drink coffee, although according to your theory, they ought to have died young; and that hearty old Englishmen drink wine and survive it, and portly old Dutchmen both drink and smoke freely, and yet grow older and fatter all the time’.

This moral statistician, said Twain, had never tried to find out ‘how much solid comfort, relaxation, and enjoyment a man derives from smoking in the course of a lifetime, nor the appalling aggregate of happiness lost in a lifetime by your kind of people from not smoking’. Of course giving up smoking would save you money, he wrote, but ‘all the use that money can be put to is to purchase comfort and enjoyment in this life; therefore, as you are an enemy of comfort and enjoyment, where is the use of accumulating cash?’ ‘What is the use of your saving money that is so utterly worthless to you?’ he asked. ‘In a word, why don’t you go off somewhere and die?’


Twain nevertheless gave up smoking lots of times, though I’m not quite clear why he bothered. For he said that he had always enjoyed robust health, even when smoking 300 cigars a month, and that abstinence had not improved it ‘because it was not possible to improve health that was already perfect’. Furthermore, he found cigar-smoking ‘the best of all inspirations for the pen’ and crucial to his performance as a writer.

Twain said he hadn’t ‘a particle of confidence in a man who has no redeeming petty vices’, and I tend to agree with him about this. I also share his view that longevity for its own sake is the least worthy of human aspirations. So why, then, am I giving up smoking again? It’s not that I disapprove of it, nor even that I fear it is going to kill me (though I accept that it might). It’s because the ‘comfort, relaxation and enjoyment’ that Twain found in it are becoming unachievable today.

There is almost nowhere outside the home where you are allowed to smoke any more; and now, after many years of working at home, that I have an office job again, I can’t have a cigarette without venturing out of doors at much inconvenience and in all weathers. And even where smoking is still permitted by law it can be challenging. Not long ago I was loudly abused by a woman in a bus queue for smoking a cigarette in the open air. These are dispiriting experiences, inimical to comfort, relaxation or enjoyment.

Then there is the question of cost. Now that you can get a perfectly good bottle of wine for the price of ten cigarettes, it seems much more sensible to make alcohol rather than tobacco your ‘redeeming petty vice’. This is a particularly tempting way to cock a snook at the medical authorities who have just advised, astonishingly, that anyone drinking more than one small glass of wine a day is quite likely to get cancer. So in a way I regard giving up smoking as a defeat at the hands of the nanny state. Will I ever take it up again? I don’t know, but I do now rather hope not.


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