Sir Thomas Browne (October 19, 1605 – October 19, 1682) was an English author and doctor, who lived during the time of Sir Francis Bacon and the emergence of scientific thought. His works beautifully merged the new method of inquiry with the old ways of the world. Browne was perhaps one of the most well-read men of his generation, and his knowledge of The Bible, the classics, and writers and poets of all ages amounts to true mastery. Perhaps because of the depth of his learning, Browne's prose is notoriously difficult to read, and his ornate, densely allusive and endlessly disjunctive sentences prefigure the complexities of modern literature.
Browne is a unique figure not only in literature, bearing almost no resemblance to any of his contemporaries, but also in the history of thought in general. He is one of the few writers of great talent who lived during the crucial transition between the ancient world and the modern world of scientific thinking, and who was astute enough to realize that scientific reasoning would be one of the most important issues for the new world to address. Browne married his science to his faith, and his wide learning and inquisitive writings were steeped in a profoundly spiritual world-view. By balancing between these seemingly opposite influences, Browne is one of the most fascinating and enduring authors not only of his own time, but of all time.
The son of a silk merchant from Upton, Cheshire, Browne was born in the parish of St Michael, Cheapside in London on October 19, 1605. His father died while he was still young and he was sent to school at Winchester College.
In 1623 Browne went to Oxford University. He graduated from Pembroke College, Oxford in 1626 after which he studied medicine at various Continental universities, including Leiden, receiving an MD in 1633. He settled in Norwich in 1637 where he practiced medicine until his death. Browne was knighted in September, 1671, when King Charles II, accompanied by the Royal Court, visited Norwich. Sir Thomas Browne died on October 19, 1682, his 77th birthday.
His first well-known work bore the Latin title Religio Medici (The Religion of a Physician). This work was circulated in manuscript among his friends, causing Browne some surprise and embarrassment when an unauthorized edition appeared in 1642, containing a number of religious speculations that might be considered unorthodox. An authorized text with some of the controversial matter removed appeared in 1643. The expurgation did not end the controversy. In 1645, Alexander Ross attacked Religio Medici in his Medicus Medicatus (The Doctor, Doctored). The book was placed upon the Papal index of forbidden reading for Roman Catholics in the same year.
In 1646, Browne published Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or, Enquiries into Very many Received Tenets, and commonly Presumed Truths, whose title refers to the prevalence of false beliefs and "vulgar errors," what we would today call superstitions. These beliefs were still wide-spread in Browne's time as modern science was still in its infancy. Pseudodoxie is a skeptical work that debunks a number of legends circulating in Browne's time by way of reductio ad absurdum, revealing paradoxes in oft-held beliefs in a swift and witty manner. It displays the Baconian side of Browne's thought, that is, the side unafraid of what was then called "the new learning." The book is one of the more noteworthy texts in the history and philosophy of science in propounding the value of rational inquiry and the scientific method, outside of Bacon's Novum Organum itself.
In 1658 Browne published together two Discourses, which are intimately related to each other and are among his most highly praised works. The first, Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial or a Brief Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk, was occasioned by the discovery of some Bronze Age burials in earthenware vessels in Norfolk near Browne's home. Hydriotaphia is perhaps one of the earliest and one of the finest examples of essay-writing in the English language. The work begins innocuously enough, with the first few chapters consisting of Browne's catalogues of funerary customs in the ancient world, his own thoughts on the possible history of the urns buried in Norfolk, and who might have been buried in them. By the third chapter, however, Browne takes a significant departure, spending the rest of the book meditating deeply on the nature of death, immortality, and posterity. Although notorious (even among Browne's works) for its densely allusive style and tremendously long and complex sentences, the revelations in Browne's slow and learned sentences are truly astounding. Here is an excerpt from the book's fifth and final chapter, and some of the finest paragraphs ever written in the English language:
Urn-Burial's second Discourse is The Garden of Cyrus, or, The Quincunciall Lozenge, or Network Plantations of the Ancients, Artificially, Naturally, and Mystically Considered, whose slight subject is the quincunx, the arrangement of five units like the five-spot in dice, which Browne uses to demonstrate that the Platonic forms exist throughout Nature. Again, from modest beginnings, Browne enters into an essay of the highest form, meditating on the nature of the world and physical phenomena, especially the symmetry that can be found even in such a chaotic universe. The two books were printed together, and taken together they amount to Browne's masterpieces. They have been acclaimed by writers and poets of all generations ever since; Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who had read so widely, preferred Browne above almost all others writers in English; Virginia Woolf, an ardent lover of Browne, thought Hydriotaphia and The Garden of Cyrus to be the best books Browne ever wrote.
The influence of Browne's literary style spans four centuries. In the eighteenth century, Doctor Johnson, who shared Browne's love of the Latinate, wrote a brief Life in which he praised Browne as a faithful Christian.
In the nineteenth century Browne's reputation was revived by the Romantics. Thomas De Quincey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Charles Lamb (who considered himself the rediscoverer of Browne) were all admirers. The seminal American novelist Herman Melville, heavily influenced by his style, deemed him "a cracked archangel."
The literary critic Robert Sencourt succinctly assessed Browne as "an instance of scientific reason lit up by mysticism in the Church of England." Indeed, Browne's paradoxical place in the history of ideas, as both a promoter of the new inductive science and as an adherent of ancient spiritual learning accounts for why he remains little-read yet much-beloved by those who know him.
Perhaps no better epitaph for Browne's difficult and wonderful thought exists than what Virginia Woolf wrote of him in 1923,
"Few people love the writings of Sir Thomas Browne, but those that do are the salt of the earth."
In modern times others who have admired the English man of letters include:
"I am merely a word for Chesterton, for Kafka, and Sir Thomas Browne—I love him. I translated him into seventeenth century Spanish and it worked very well. We took a chapter out of Urne Buriall and we did that into Quevedo's Spanish and it went very well."
All links retrieved November 4, 2019.
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