We have come to believe that the will can readily establish its power over mental states, regulate moods, and make contentment the fruit of a personal decision.

This belief in our ability to will ourselves happy also lies behind the contemporary obsession with health. What is health, correctly understood, but a kind of permission we receive to live in peace with our bodies and to let ourselves be carefree? These days, though, we are required to resist our mortality as far as possible. …

Duration—holding on as long as possible—becomes an authoritative value, even if it must be achieved at the cost of terrible restrictions, depriving oneself of some of the best the world has to offer.

From this point of view, the hunting down of smokers, now expelled from almost all public places, looks something like a collective exorcism, as if a whole society wished to absolve itself of having once found pleasure in cigarettes. In France, photos of Jean-Paul Sartre and the young Jacques Chirac holding cigarettes have been retouched to eliminate the offending objects—just as the Soviet empire used to do with banished leaders.

Yet by trying to remove every anomaly, every failing, we end up denying what is in fact the main benefit of health: indifference to oneself, what a great surgeon once called “the silence of the organs.”

Everyone must today be saved from something—from hypertension, from imperfect digestion, from a tendency to gain weight. One is never thin enough, fit enough, strong enough. Health has its martyrs, its pioneers, its heroes and saints. Sickness and health become harder to distinguish, to the point that we risk creating a society of hypochondriacs. …

However well behaved we are, our bodies continue to betray us. Age leaves its mark, illness finds us one way or another, and pleasures have their way with us, following a rhythm that has nothing to do with our vigilance or our resolution.