Friday, March 18, 2011

Thomas Browne--Religio Medici (1642) P a r t I

There is a class of gentleman scholar--and the type I am thinking of is almost exclusively male--usually of a certain age (late-middle to old), of a culturally and politically rightward persuasion, connoisseurs of the finest arts and wines and most civilizing leisure pursuits, a deep understanding of the ways of woman gained in the course of an often raffish youth and life as man of the world (and often replete with multiple divorces), evidently with some kind of independent income, as their official professional affiliation is always either with some kind of educational establishment or as an author of erudite and esoteric works of literature or scholarship which are lucky to achieve sales in the low four figures, yet they seem to live on a considerably higher plane of comfort and material abundance than most people in these lines of work. It is one of the convictionss of this class of gentleman scholar, or at least a significant subclass of it, that English prose attained its highest state during the middle decades of the 17th century. One of the heroes of this set, and not always in a minor role, is the physician, scholar, and contemplative man of letters, Sir Thomas Browne, a man who attained easily to worldly respectability while remaining mentally at a great distance above it, and who has been anointed by many learned critics as one of the most original, and in at least one instance the greatest, English prose writers of all time; in whose career, achievements, and broadly encompassing outlook on and understanding of life the gentlemen scholars doubtless see more than a little of themselves. Virginia Woolf--who was also a avowed fan of our author's--famously made the observation that Middlemarch was one of the few books in English written for grown-up people; to segue from that, Browne seems to be one of the few authors in English who has anything to say to mature men who have experienced life deeply and contemplated and mastered vast areas of it. As I cannot pretend to be such a person myself I cannot definitively convey what this particular communion of intellects must be like, though, like Billy Joel explained in introducing the R & B group Sam & Dave at their induction into the Rock Hall of Fame, while he had never seen them live he could only imagine how awesome it must have been, I can imagine that the commiseration of Thomas Browne and his modern day spiritual descendents must make for pretty heady intellectual activity when it occurs. To be honest the book, while fine and enjoyable after its fashion, did not make the grand impression on me that it has made on so many others. For one thing, I do not think personally that the prose of the mid-17th century marked the height of English style and purity--I would nominate the early decades of the 18th century for that honor, with a stripped-down revival of that language's animating spirit in the 1920-1960 era (in England). For another, judging from my notes, of which I took a great many given that the book is only 119 pages long, I did not really agree much with Browne's worldview in details of either greater or lesser significance, which is doubtless of primary importance in coming into sympathy with an hour. I concede however to remaining impressed with the currency he holds among the very exacting communities of the mind which I referred to earlier.

As noted above, Browne was a rational man, a man of science, and as such he questions much of the anti-rational trappings in which religion, perhaps especially that of the Papist variety, is enshrouded, and he starts out by intoning that, "Holy-water and Crucifix" are "dangerous to the common people", while he pities pilgrimages as "fruitless journeys". I have always suspected that things like church ceremonies and pilgrimages probably rate among the high points of intensity of most common people's experience of life. If the author is hinting that they would be better advised to experience God without the use of these props and ceremonies, but through a purer process intellectection, I am quite certain very few would benefit from the change. But indeed, he very quickly disengages from this assertive posture, and begins to toss around long and complex sentences the general content of which could have come from me. These have such beginning clauses as "I could never divide myself from any man upon the difference of an opinion...", "I have no Genius to disputes in Religion...", and "Every man is not a proper Champion for Truth..." Then a few pages later he asserts the superiority of faith over observed experience, at least with regard to religion, citing among other points the example of those "who lived before His coming, who upon obscure prophesies and mystical Types could raise a belief, and expect apparent impossibilities."

So far this is all material anybody who reads has more or less gone over before. It is true that one could parse and hold a seminar on nearly every sentence in the book, if one had the time, which I take to be one of the primary appeals of the style. But who does have the time? Not merely literally, but in terms of the rhythm and form with which their mind engages the world. I don't think I do anymore.

Working up to page 23 now in my notes, I cannot say that I am blown away either by the ideas, which seem to me to be pretty standard musings among the intellectuals of this age, or the style, which I suppose has a kind of neatly proportioned intricateness that is interesting, but nothing that I am mesmerized by. From pages 15-23 he has told us that to God, for whom eternity is ever present, the Last Judgement has already occurred and its effects visible, that for God to will is automatically to act, that God gave man Reason for the purpose of contemplating His Creation, and that no Work of God, including, presumably, morbidly obese people, can be ugly; none of which insights as far as I am aware are especially unique to Browne, however. He attributes wholly to God, and not to "the ingenuity and industry of the people" the success of the nation of Holland. He asserts that Wealth and Intellect are seldom united, and that is an unjust ambition to desire the former if happy enough to possess the glories of the latter. He pooh-poohs some examples of doubt which are at the very least not unreasonable ("...there are a set of Heads, that can credit the relations of Mariners, yet question the Testimonies of St Paul..."). The book is a meditation that goes on and on in this vein, pulling in associations and examples from the world of knowledge and experience, which can be a delightful thing to read, if the observations being made are interesting enough. Perhaps it is the clarity and relative unity and simplicity of point of view which the advanced mind of this time could command that is so attractive to our modern men of experience and authority. I am not seeing it yet.

He does acknowledge a few mysteries that he cannot so easily dismiss, such as how the discovery of America revealed the existence of numerous beasts that were not recorded as having been on Noah's Ark, and, assuming the benevolent hand of God to be arranging all entities so as to enable them to attain the highest realization of which they are capable, "How America abounded with Beasts of prey and noxious Animals, yet contained not in it that necessary Creature, a Horse, is very strange." His conception of religion, like most Englishmen I should add, still strikes me as shaky at best. This passage is an excellent illustration of the intellectual stimulation caused by the continuing discoveries taking place in America however.

On page 36 Browne breaks down the Koran. Given that his style with its agile and intricately constructed sentences is the main source of the great esteem in which he is held, I think it is a good time to look at one of these sentences and see what it has to tell us:

"The Alcoran of the Turks (I speak without prejudice) is an ill composed Piece, containing in it vain and ridiculous Errors in Philosophy, impossibilities, fictions, and vanities beyond laughter, maintained by evident and open Sophisms, the Policy of Ignorance, deposition of Universities, and Banishment of Learning, that hath gotten Foot by Arms and violence: this (ed--the Bible) without a blow hath disseminated it self through the whole Earth."

Leaving the truth of the various assertions aside, the effect is of the major points of a larger essay or argument compressed into a fairly compact sentence. It almost has something of the form of a mathematical proof or logic syllogism set with attention to literary style. The main thing about Browne's sentences that grabs me is the balance and even distribution of weight among the various clauses and sections. There is no point in them on which all the weight is made to sit, but the impression is produced by the accumulation of a series of images of a more or less equal heaviness. That is what comes to me for the moment.

This picture is nothing to the point. In searching for an image having something to do with Religio Medici, one naturally ends up getting a lot of pictures of the real Medicis (the Medici of the book's title refers to the author's profession), so I thought I would put one of them up.

"Mens Works have an age like themselves; and though they out-live their Authors, yet have they a stint and period to their duration..." One knew this too, but it is expressed rather more than usually finely here I think.

"Of those three great inventions in Germany, there are two which are not without their incommodities, and 'tis disputable whether they exceed not their use and commodities." This refers to the overabundance of books produced by the invention of the printing press and all that. We will be getting those computer chip implants with the full contents of the internet uploaded into our brains any time now. And no, it will not make us happy and we will spend all our time complaining that we want to return to an Agrarian society. What are we to do? Are we to love knowledge or aren't we? Well, we are supposed to be able to discern what constitutes valuable knowledge and discard the rest; a task at which it seems we are only getting worse as time goes on.

All right, what next? It's Judaism's turn to get trashed. "I am ashamed at the Rabbinical Interpretation of the Jews upon the Old Testament, as much as their defection from the New: and truly it is beyond wonder, how that contemptible and degenerate issue of Jacob, once so devoted to Ethnick Superstition, and so easily seduced to the Idolatry of their Neighbours, should now in such an obstinate and peremptory belief adhere onto their own Doctrine, expect impossibilities, and, in the face and eye of the Church, persist without the least hope of Conversion." The thing is, it would be hilarious, for a minute at least, assuming false idolators did not begin getting struck down immediately, if Jesus and Allah both turned out to be false messiahs and the real son of the Jewish god did show up in person someday. Even Browne admits that "It is the promise of Christ to make us all one Flock; but how and when this Union shall be, is as obscure to me as the last day."

Being rather simple-minded, I did like the argument that if one accepts that God has created all the world, then miracles contradicting or transcending what appear to us to be the fixed laws of nature are no greater miracles, as far as God is concerned, than the creation of nature as we perceive it, but are only more unfathomable to us. These kinds of slight distinctions in definitions and relevant consequences therein feed Browne's syllogistic style of writing well.

Further on with regard to miracles--the type of subject on which Browne's fancy was wont to linger on at great length--he does not think much of the idea that supposed relics, even if they could be proven to be authentic, would be possessed of supernatural qualities in themselves. This is in keeping with his ideas of pilgrimages as pointless excursions. "I cannot conceive why the Cross that Helena found and whereon Christ himself dyed, should have power to restore others onto life." In a rather amusing aside, he computed the gift of the ashes of John the Baptist from the King of Jerusalem to the Genovese in place of payment for supporting him in his war a nice fraud.

" brief, conceive light invisible, and that is a Spirit."

I will have to do one more section on this.


Hydriotaphia said...

But please do not make the same mistake as the psychologist C.G.Jung did stating -

' it was a real Religio Medici a complete survey of all the religious conclusions an old doctor might draw from his innumerable experiences of suffering and death and from the inexorable realities of life's reverses'. Cw 18:1465

But in fact as Sir t.b. informs his reader 'I have not yet seen one revolution of Saturn' R.M. 1:42

in other words aged less than 30 years old when writing his spiritual testimony and psychological self-portrait.

The newly translated King James Bible (1611) a huge influence on Browne's literary style. Note also his use of parallelism, that is saying the same thing twice in different ways in the same sentence.

I agree with you, not all his ideas are easy to subscribe to in the modern age, least of all a harmonious accord between Science and Religion of his era, soon to divide starting with Galileo and Newton's discoveries.

Part 2 on charity and dreams reveals far less contentious and more genial aspects of the worthy physician's character.
Enjoy !

Kevin McFoy Dunn said...

Well, with Browne it's admittedly the style or nothing, as, yes, not much in the vagrant ideate structure -- such as it is -- ever really amounts to more than concatenated epitomes of divers among the beardy authorities valorized in his epoch. That style does indeed work for me, as it happens, I being the kind of guy whose idea of a good time comprises sitting in my den and playing (along with the rock stuff on the modern axes) Roncalli on my 5-course guitar and Visée and Castaldi on my theorbo. So I stand convicted out of my own keyboard of affective antiquarianism, and full well know that others' mileage is apt rather to vary.

In fairness, though, there's a lot of ambiguous waffling on literalism to be found in the good doctor -- the intro portions on the sources of error in Pseudodoxia Epidemica are Sufi-level in this regard (i.e., the analogue of an 'arif averring -- effectively privately, certainly, shaykh to murid -- that though the purity mandates' ablutions, dietary restrictions, etc., etc., are with respect to the praxis of the adept ridiculous, it's needful to observe them both as epiphenomena of submission broadly construed and as a token of respect for one's brethren in the umma, be they never so incorrigibly, crassly externalist).

All that said, your typology of class cum political alignment for the ilk of Browne, perennially framed, seems just about right. Cheers!