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Conclusions as to Melancholy

By Robert Burton (1577–1640)

From ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’

GENERALLY thus much we may conclude of melancholy: that it is most pleasant at first, I say, mentis gratissimus error, a most delightsome humor, to be alone, dwell alone, walk alone, meditate, lie in bed whole days, dreaming awake as it were, and frame a thousand phantastical imaginations unto themselves. They are never better pleased than when they are so doing; they are in Paradise for the time, and cannot well endure to be interrupt; with him in the Poet:—
  • “—pol! me occidistis, amici,
  • Non servâstis, ait:”
  • you have undone him, he complains, if you trouble him: tell him what inconvenience will follow, what will be the event, all is one, canis ad vomitum, ’tis so pleasant he cannot refrain. He may thus continue peradventure many years by reason of a strong temperature, or some mixture of business, which may divert his cogitations: but at the last læsa imaginatio, his phantasy is crazed, & now habituated to such toys, cannot but work still like a fate; the Scene alters upon a sudden; Fear and Sorrow supplant those pleasing thoughts, suspicion, discontent, and perpetual anxiety succeed in their places; so little by little, by that shoeing-horn of idleness, and voluntary solitariness, Melancholy this feral fiend is drawn on, et quantum vertice ad auras Æthereas, tantum radice in Tartara tendit; “extending up, by its branches, so far towards Heaven, as, by its roots, it does down towards Tartarus;” it was not so delicious at first, as now it is bitter and harsh: a cankered soul macerated with cares and discontents, tædium vitæ, impatience, agony, inconstancy, irresolution, precipitate them unto unspeakable miseries. They cannot endure company, light, or life itself, some unfit for action, and the like. Their bodies are lean and dried up, withered, ugly; their looks harsh, very dull, and their souls tormented, as they are more or less entangled, as the humor hath been intended, or according to the continuance of time they have been troubled.

    To discern all which symptoms the better, Rhasis the Arabian makes three degrees of them. The first is falsa cogitatio, false conceits and idle thoughts: to misconstrue and amplify, aggravating everything they conceive or fear: the second is falso cogitata loqui, to talk to themselves, or to use inarticulate incondite voices, speeches, obsolete gestures, and plainly to utter their minds and conceits of their hearts, by their words and actions, as to laugh, weep, to be silent, not to sleep, eat their meat, &c.; the third is to put in practice that which they think or speak. Savanarola, Rub. 11, Tract. 8, cap. 1, de ægritudine, confirms as much: when he begins to express that in words, which he conceives in his heart, or talks idly, or goes from one thing to another, which Gordonius calls nec caput habentia nec caudam [having neither head nor tail], he is in the middle way: but when he begins to act it likewise, and to put his fopperies in execution, he is then in the extent of melancholy, or madness itself. This progress of melancholy you shall easily observe in them that have been so affected, they go smiling to themselves at first, at length they laugh out; at first solitary, at last they can endure no company, or if they do, they are now dizzards, past sense and shame, quite moped, they care not what they say or do; all their actions, words, gestures, are furious or ridiculous. At first his mind is troubled, he doth not attend what is said, if you tell him a tale, he cries at last, What said you? but in the end he mutters to himself, as old women do many times, or old men when they sit alone; upon a sudden they laugh, whoop, halloo, or run away, and swear they see or hear Players, Devils, Hobgoblins, Ghosts, strike, or strut, &c., grow humorous in the end: like him in the Poet, sæpe ducentos sæpe decem servos [he often keeps two hundred slaves, often only ten], he will dress himself, and undress, careless at last, grows insensible, stupid or mad. He howls like a wolf, barks like a dog, and raves like Ajax and Orestes, hears Music and outcries which no man else hears….

    Who can sufficiently speak of these symptoms, or prescribe rules to comprehend them? As Echo to the painter in Ausonius, vane, quid affectas, &c.—foolish fellow, what wilt? if you must needs paint me, paint a voice, et similem si vis pingere, pinge sonum; if you will describe melancholy, describe a phantastical conceit, a corrupt imagination, vain thoughts and different, which who can do? The four-and-twenty letters make no more variety of words in divers languages, than melancholy conceits produce diversity of symptoms in several persons. They are irregular, obscure, various, so infinite, Proteus himself is not so diverse; you may as well make the Moon a new coat, as a true character of a melancholy man; as soon find the motion of a bird in the air, as the heart of man, a melancholy man. They are so confused, I say, diverse, intermixt with other diseases. As the species be confounded (which I have shewed) so are the symptoms; sometimes with headache, cachexia, dropsy, stone, (as you may perceive by those several examples and illustrations, collected by Hildesheim, spicel. 2, Mercurialis, consil. 118, cap. 6 et 11), with headache, epilepsy, priapismus (Trincavellius, consil. 12, lib. 1, consil. 49), with gout, caninus appetitus (Montanus, consil. 26, &c., 23, 234, 249), with falling-sickness, headache, vertigo, lycanthropia, &c. (J. Cæsar Claudinus, consult. 4, consult. 89 et 116), with gout, agues, hæmrods, stone, &c. Who can distinguish these melancholy symptoms so intermixt with others, or apply them to their several kinds, confine them into method? ’Tis hard I confess, yet I have disposed of them as I could, and will descend to particularize them according to their species. For hitherto I have expatiated in more general lists or terms, speaking promiscuously of such ordinary signs, which occur amongst writers. Not that they are all to be found in one man, for that were to paint a Monster or Chimæra, not a man; but some in one, some in another, and that successively, or at several times.

    Which I have been the more curious to express and report, not to upbraid any miserable man, or by way of derision (I rather pity them), but the better to discern, to apply remedies unto them; and to shew that the best and soundest of us all is in great danger; how much we ought to fear our own fickle estates, remember our miseries and vanities, examine and humiliate ourselves, seek to God, and call to him for mercy, that needs not look for any rods to scourge ourselves, since we carry them in our bowels; and that our souls are in a miserable captivity, if the light of grace and heavenly truth doth not shine continually upon us; and by our discretion to moderate ourselves, to be more circumspect and wary in the midst of these dangers.