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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Francis Bacon

By Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682)

WHEN Sir Thomas Browne, in the last decade of his life, was asked to furnish data for the writing of his memoirs in Wood’s ‘Athenæ Oxonienses,’ he gave in a letter to his friend Mr. Aubrey in the fewest words his birthplace and the places of his education, his admission as “Socius Honorarius of the College of Physitians in London,” the date of his being knighted, and the titles of the four books or tracts which he had printed; and ended with “Have some miscellaneous tracts which may be published.”

This account of himself, curter than many an epitaph, and scantier in details than the requirements of a census-taker’s blank, may serve, with many other signs that one finds scattered among the pages of this author, to show his rare modesty and effacement of his physical self. He seems, like some other thoughtful and sensitive natures before and since, averse or at least indifferent to being put on record as an eating, digesting, sleeping, and clothes-wearing animal, of that species of which his contemporary Sir Samuel Pepys stands as the classical instance, and which the newspaper interviewer of our own day—that “fellow who would vulgarize the Day of Judgment”—has trained to the most noxious degree of offensiveness.

Sir Thomas felt, undoubtedly, that having admitted that select company—“fit audience though few”—who are students of the ‘Religio Medici’ to a close intimacy with his highest mental processes and conditions, his “separable accidents,” affairs of assimilation and secretion as one may say, were business between himself and his grocer and tailor, his cook and his laundress.

The industrious research of Mr. Simon Wilkin, who in 1836 produced the completest edition (William Pickering, London) of the literary remains of Sir Thomas Browne, has gathered from all sources—his own note-books, domestic and friendly correspondence, allusions of contemporary writers and the works of subsequent biographers—all that we are likely, this side of Paradise, to know of this great scholar and admirable man.

The main facts of his life are as follows. He was born in the Parish of St. Michael’s Cheap, in London, on the 19th of October, 1605 (the year of the Gunpowder Plot). His father, as is apologetically admitted by a granddaughter, Mrs. Littleton, “was a tradesman, a mercer, though a gentleman of a good family in Cheshire” (generosa familia, says Sir Thomas’s own epitaph). That he was the parent of his son’s temperament, a devout man with a leaning toward mysticism in religion, is shown by the charming story Mrs. Littleton tells of him, exhibiting traits worthy of the best ages of faith, and more to be expected in the father of a mediæval saint than in a prosperous Cheapside mercer, whose son was to be one of the most learned and philosophical physicians of the age of Harvey and Sydenham:—“His father used to open his breast when he was asleep and kiss it in prayers over him, as ’tis said of Origen’s father, that the Holy Ghost would take possession there.” Clearly, it was with reverent memory of this good man that Sir Thomas, near the close of his own long life, wrote:—“Among thy multiplied acknowledgments, lift up one hand unto heaven that thou wert born of honest parents; that modesty, humility, patience, and veracity lay in the same egg and came into the world with thee.”

This loving father, of whom one would fain know more, died in the early childhood of his son Thomas. He left a handsome estate of £9,000, and a widow not wholly inconsolable with her third portion and a not unduly deferred second marriage to a titled gentleman, Sir Thomas Button,—a knight so scantily and at the same time so variously described, as “a worthy person who had great places,” and “a bad member” of “mutinous and unworthy carriage,” that one is content to leave him as a problematical character.

The boy Thomas Browne being left to the care of guardians, his estate was despoiled, though to what extent does not appear; nor can it be considered greatly deplorable, since it did not prevent his early schooling at that ancient and noble foundation of Winchester, nor in 1623 his entrance into Pembroke College, Oxford, and in due course his graduation in 1626 as bachelor of arts. With what special assistance or direction he began his studies in medical science, cannot now be ascertained; but after taking his degree of master of arts in 1629, he practiced physic for about two years in some uncertain place in Oxfordshire. He then began a course of travel, unusually extensive for that day. His stepfather upon occasion of his official duties under the government “shewed him all Ireland in some visitation of the forts and castles.” It is improbable that Ireland at that time long detained a traveler essentially literary in his tastes. Browne betook himself to France and Italy, where he appears to have spent about two years, residing at Montpellier and Padua, then great centers of medical learning, with students drawn from most parts of Christendom. Returning homeward through Holland, he received the degree of doctor of medicine from the University of Leyden in 1633, and settled in practice at Halifax, England.

At this time—favored probably by the leisure which largely attends the beginning of a medical career, but which is rarely so laudably or productively employed,—he wrote the treatise ‘Religio Medici,’ which more than any other of his works has established his fame and won the affectionate admiration of thoughtful readers. This production was not printed until seven years later, although some unauthorized manuscript copies, more or less faulty, were in circulation. When in 1642 “it arrived in a most depraved copy at the press,” Browne felt it necessary to vindicate himself by publishing a correct edition, although, he protests, its original “intention was not publick: and being a private exercise directed to myself, what is delivered therein was rather a memorial unto me than an example or rule unto any other.”

In 1636 he removed to Norwich and permanently established himself there in the practice of physic. There in 1641 he married Dorothy Mileham, a lady of good family in Norfolk; thereby not only improving his social connections, but securing a wife “of such symmetrical proportion to her worthy husband both in the graces of her body and mind, that they seemed to come together by a kind of natural magnetism.” Such at least was the view of an intimate friend of more than forty years, Rev. John Whitefoot, in the ‘Minutes’ which, at the request of the widow, he drew up after Sir Thomas’s death, and which contain the most that is known of his personal appearance and manners. Evidently the marriage was a happy one for forty-one years, when the Lady Dorothy was left mæstissima conjux, as her husband’s stately epitaph, rich with many an issimus, declares. Twelve children were born of it; and though only four of them survived their parents, such mortality in carefully tended and well-circumstanced families was less remarkable than it would be now, when two centuries more of progress in medical science have added security and length to human life.

The good mother—had she not endeared herself to the modern reader by the affectionate gentleness and the quaint glimpses of domestic life that her family letters reveal—would be irresistible by the ingeniously bad spelling in which she reveled, transgressing even the wide limits then allowed to feminine heterography.

It is noteworthy that Dr. Browne’s professional prosperity was not impaired by the suspicion which early attached to him, and soon deepened into conviction, that he was addicted to literary pursuits. He was in high repute as a physician. His practice was extensive, and he was diligent in it, as also in those works of literature and scientific investigation which occupied all “snatches of time,” he says, “as medical vacations and the fruitless importunity of uroscopy would permit.” His large family was liberally reared; his hospitality and his charities were ample.

In 1646 he printed his second book, the largest and most operose of all his productions: the ‘Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or Inquiries into Vulgar and Common Errors,’ the work evidently of the horæ subsecivæ of many years. In 1658 he gave to the public two smaller but important and most characteristic works, ‘Hydriotaphia’ and ‘The Garden of Cyrus.’ Beside these publications he left many manuscripts which appeared posthumously; the most important of them, for its size and general interest, being ‘Christian Morals.’

When Sir Thomas’s long life drew to its close, it was with all the blessings “which should accompany old age.” His domestic life had been one of felicity. His eldest and only surviving son, Edward Browne, had become a scholar after his father’s own heart; and though not inheriting his genius, was already renowned in London, one of the physicians to the King, and in a way to become, as afterward he did, President of the College of Physicians. All his daughters who had attained womanhood had been well married. He lived in the society of the honorable and learned, and had received from the King the honor of knighthood.

Mr. John Evelyn, carrying out a long and cherished plan of seeing one whom he had known and admired by his writings, visited him at Norwich in 1671. He found Sir Thomas among fit surroundings, “his whole house and garden being a paradise and cabinet of rarities, and that of the best collections, especially medails, books, plants, and natural things.” Here we have the right background and accessories for Whitefoot’s portrait of the central figure:—

  • “His complexion and hair … answerable to his name, his stature moderate, and habit of body neither fat nor lean but [Greek];… never seen to be transported with mirth or dejected with sadness; always cheerful, but rarely merry at any sensible rate; seldom heard to break a jest, and when he did,… apt to blush at the levity of it: his gravity was natural without affectation. His modesty … visible in a natural habitual blush, which was increased upon the least occasion, and oft discovered without any observable cause…. So free from loquacity or much talkativeness, that he was something difficult to be engaged in any discourse; though when he was so, it was always singular and never trite or vulgar.”
  • A man of character so lofty and self-contained might be expected to leave a life so long, honorable, and beneficent with becoming dignity. Sir Thomas’s last sickness, a brief but very painful one, was “endured with exemplary patience founded upon the Christian philosophy,” and “with a meek, rational, and religious courage,” much to the edification of his friend Whitefoot. One may see even a kind of felicity in his death, falling exactly on the completion of his seventy-seventh year.

    He was buried in the church of St. Peter Mancroft, where his monument still claims regard as chief among the memorabilia of that noble sanctuary.

    At the first appearance of Browne’s several publications, they attracted that attention from the learned and thoughtful which they have ever since retained. The ‘Religio Medici’ was soon translated into several modern languages as well as into Latin, and became the subject of curiously diverse criticism. The book received the distinction of a place in the Roman ‘Index Expurgatorius,’ while from various points of view its author was regarded as a Romanist, an atheist, a deist, a pantheist, and as bearing the number 666 somewhere about him.

    A worthy Quaker, a fellow-townsman, was so impressed by his tone of quietistic mysticism that he felt sure the philosophic doctor was guided by “the inward light,” and wrote, sending a godly book, and proposing to clinch his conversion in a personal interview. Such are the perils that environ the man who not only repeats a creed in sincerity, but ventures to do and to utter his own thinking about it.

    From Browne’s own day to the present time his critics and commentators have been numerous and distinguished; one of the most renowned among them being Dr. Johnson, whose life of the author, prefixed to an edition of the ‘Christian Morals’ in 1756, is a fine specimen of that facile and effective hack-work of which Johnson was master. In that characteristic way of his, half of patronage, half of reproof, and wholly pedagogical, he summons his subject to the bar of his dialectics, and according to his lights administers justice. He admits that Browne has “great excellencies” and “uncommon sentiments,” and that his scholarship and science are admirable, but strongly condemns his style: “It is vigorous, but rugged; it is learned, but pedantic; it is deep, but obscure; it strikes, but does not please; it commands, but does not allure; his tropes are harsh and his combinations uncouth.”

    Behemoth prescribing rules of locomotion to the swan! By how much would English letters have been the poorer if Browne had learned his art of Johnson!

    Notwithstanding such objurgations, some have supposed that the style of Johnson, perhaps without conscious intent, was founded upon that of Browne. A tone of oracular authority, an academic Latinism sometimes disregarding the limitations of the unlearned reader, an elaborate balancing of antitheses in the same period,—these are qualities which the two writers have in common. But the resemblance, such as it is, is skin-deep. Johnson is a polemic by nature, and at his best cogent and triumphant in argument. His thought is carefully kept level with the apprehension of the ordinary reader, while arrayed in a verbal pomp simulating the expression of something weighty and profound. Browne is intuitive and ever averse to controversy, feeling, as he exquisitely says, that “many have too rashly charged the troops of error and remain as trophies unto the enemies of truth. A man may be in as just possession of the truth as of a city, and yet be forced to surrender.” Calmly philosophic, he writes for kindred minds, and his concepts satisfying his own intellect, he delivers them with as little passion as an Æolian harp answering the wind, and lingers not for applause or explanation. His being

  • “Those thoughts that wander through eternity,”
  • he means that we too shall “have a glimpse of incomprehensibles, and thoughts of things which thoughts but tenderly touch.”

    How grandly he rounds his pregnant paragraphs with phrases which for stately and compulsive rhythm, sonorous harmony, and sweetly solemn cadences, are almost matchless in English prose, and lack only the mechanism of metre to give them the highest rank as verse.

    “Man is a noble animal, splendid in ashes and pompous in the grave, solemnizing nativities and deaths with equal lustre, nor omitting ceremonies of bravery in the infancy of his nature;” “When personations shall cease, and histrionism of happiness be over; when reality shall rule, and all shall be as they shall be forever:”—such passages as these, and the whole of the ‘Fragment on Mummies,’ one can scarcely recite without falling into something of that chant which the blank verse of Milton and Tennyson seems to enforce.

    That the ‘Religio Medici’ was the work of a gentleman before his thirtieth year, not a recluse nor trained in a cloister, but active in a calling which keeps closest touch with the passions and frailties of humanity, seems to justify his assertion, “I have shaken hands with delight [sc. by way of parting] in my warm blood and canicular days.” So uniformly lofty and dignified is its tone, and so austere its morality, that the book might be taken for the fruit of those later and sadder years that bring the philosophic mind. Its frank confessions and calm analysis of motive and action have been compared with Montaigne’s: if Montaigne had been graduated after a due education in Purgatory, or if his pedigree had been remotely crossed with a St. Anthony and he had lived to see the fluctus decumanus gathering in the tide of Puritanism, the likeness would have been closer.

    “The ‘Religio Medici,’” says Coleridge, “is a fine portrait of a handsome man in his best clothes.” There is truth in the criticism, and if there is no color of a sneer in it, it is entirely true. Who does not feel, when following Browne into his study or his garden, that here is a kind of cloistral retreat from the common places of the outside world, that the handsome man is a true gentleman and a noble friend, and that his best clothes are his everyday wear?

    This aloofness of Browne’s, which holds him apart “in the still air of delightful studies,” is no affectation; it is an innate quality. He thinks his thoughts in his own way, and “the style is the man” never more truly than with him. One of his family letters mentions the execution of Charles I. as a “horrid murther,” and another speaks of Cromwell as a usurper; but nowhere in anything intended for the public eye is there an indication that he lived in the most tumultuous and heroic period of English history. Not a word shows that Shakespeare was of the generation just preceding his, nor that Milton and George Herbert and Henry Vaughan, numerous as are the parallels in their thought and feeling and in his, were his contemporaries. Constant and extensive as are his excursions into ancient literature, it is rare for him to make any reference to writers of his own time.

    Yet with all his delight in antiquity and reverence for the great names of former ages, he is keen in the quest for new discoveries. His commonplace books abound in ingenious queries and minute observations regarding physical facts, conceived in the very spirit of our modern school:—“What is the use of dew-claws in dogs?” He does not instantly answer, as a schoolboy in this Darwinian day would, “To carry out an analogy;” but the mere asking of the question sets him ahead of his age. See too his curious inquiries into the left-footedness of parrots and left-handedness of certain monkeys and squirrels. The epoch-making announcement of his fellow-physician Harvey he quickly appreciates at its true value: “his piece ‘De Circul. Sang.,’ which discovery I prefer to that of Columbus.” And here again a truly surprising suggestion of the great results achieved a century and two centuries later by Jenner and Pasteur—concerning canine madness, “whether it holdeth not better at second than at first hand, so that if a dog bite a horse, and that horse a man, the evil proves less considerable.” He is the first to observe and describe that curious product of the decomposition of flesh known to modern chemists as adipocere.

    He is full of eager anticipation of the future. “Join sense unto reason,” he cries, “and experiment unto speculation, and so give life unto embryon truths and verities yet in their chaos…. What libraries of new volumes after-times will behold, and in what a new world of knowledge the eyes of our posterity may be happy, a few ages may joyfully declare.”

    But acute and active as our author’s perceptions were, they did not prevent his sharing the then prevalent theory which assigned to the devil, and to witches who were his ministers, an important part in the economy of the world. This belief affords so easy a solution of some problems otherwise puzzling, that this degenerate age may look back with envy upon those who held it in serene and comfortable possession.

    It is to be regretted, however, that the eminent Lord Chief Justice Hale in 1664, presiding at the trial for witchcraft of two women, should have called Dr. Browne, apparently as amicus curiæ, to give his view of the fits which were supposed to be the work of the witches. He was clearly of the opinion that the Devil had even more to do with that case than he has with most cases of hysteria; and consequently the witches, it must be said, fared no better in Sir Matthew Hale’s court than many of their kind in various parts of Christendom about the same time. But it would be unreasonable for us to hold the ghost of Sir Thomas deeply culpable because, while he showed in most matters an exceptionally enlightened liberality of opinion and practice, in this one particular he declined to deny the scientific dictum of previous ages and the popular belief of his own time.

    The mental attitude of reverent belief in its symbolic value, in which this devout philosopher contemplated the material world, is that of many of those who have since helped most to build the structure of Natural Science. The rapturous exclamation of Linnaeus, “My God, I think thy thoughts after thee!” comes like an antiphonal response by “the man of flowers” to these passages in the ‘Religio Medici’:—“This visible world is but a picture of the invisible, wherein, as in a portrait, things are not truly, but in equivocal shapes, and as they counterfeit some real substance in that invisible fabric.” “Things are really true as they correspond unto God’s conception; and have so much verity as they hold of conformity unto that intellect, in whose idea they had their first determinations.”