Monday, April 04, 2011

Religio Medici--P a r t II

Browne's reading of Scripture is quite modern, reminiscent in a way of the "close reading" school of criticism which flourished in the middle of the last century and still holds influence in certain corners of academia today--it seems to me that in both my high school and college (1984-94 or thereabouts) this was still the predominant way of reading and understanding literature. His separation of the making of Man, for example, from that entailed in the rest of Creation as these are presented in the Bible, I thought was undertaken in this spirit. The section in which he determined that men can have no idea of who is going to be saved was another. If there is anything I can identify in his writing that stands out, it is that his understanding of the concepts underlying whatever unities one finds in the Bible is very good, and also rather unique even now in its points of emphasis, and in the kinds of things he notices. I will attempt to illustrate this further in what follows.

For one example there is this sentence: "Some Divines count Adam thirty years old at his Creation, because they suppose him created in the perfect age and stature of man." Now, at first this may appear an innocuous thought that everyone has had fleetingly at some time or another, though the way it is phrased is not only more elegant than usual thought attains but gives a probable reason why these Divines would think this at all plausible, and even a hint of a suggestion that their argument might not be entirely implausible. He then goes on to describe a conception of existence in which Man's chronological time on earth is fairly insignificant, which of course is in keeping with the ultimate concept of the Scriptures while leaving room to take notice of and muse upon such incongruent though possibly interesting details as the stories may suggest.

This physician also notes, quite matter-of-factly, his consciousness untroubled by exposure to our modern abortion debates, that "we are all out of the computation of our age, and every man is some months elder than he bethinks him; for we live, move, have a being, and are subject to the actions of the elements, and the malice of diseases, in that other World...the Womb of our Mother...In that obscure World...our time is short, computed by the Moon, yet longer than the days of many creatures that behold the Sun..." This is the sort of description that, from the conscientious male point of view anyway, seems very beautifully and truthfully stated; forgetting that this perception of and attitude towards the matter is not afforded to all who consider it.

"Not that I am ashamed of the Anatomy of my parts, or can own vitious life for contracting any shameful disease upon me, whereby I might not call my self as wholesome a morsel for the worms as any." Regarding his material fitness to depart this life. Mainly another example of one of his architecturally elegant and ingeniously conceived and expressed sentences.

This is my own copy of the book. You may have noticed I have largely gotten out of the pattern of photographing all of my books as I report on them. I will make an exception from time to time however if I think there is something visually worth sharing. The imprint states that this is from the Temple Classics series, London 1896. I got it at the main used bookshop in Brattleboro for $4.

There is a meditation whether any good can come out of living past "that age wherein He thought fittest to dye", which is traditionally considered to be thirty-three. He posits the argument that "age doth not rectify, but incurvate our natures, turning bad dispositions into worser habits, and...brings on incurable vices; for every day as we grow weaker in age, we grow stronger in sin..." He also does not consider that those die young (about thirty) die immaturely. "...when all things are completed in it (the soul, one's life), its age is accomplished." I am open to this general idea on the grounds that very few people develop in a way that is at all interesting after age 33. About the best to be hoped for is that the direction your youthful exuberance and abilities once propelled you in allows you to retain something of presence and agency and interest in your own life longer than it does with most people.

He is skeptical of the relevance of prophecy: "In those days there shall come Wars and rumours of Wars, to me seems no prophecy, but a constant truth, in all times verified since it was pronounced." This guy's sentences, even the simple ones, really do achieve an unusually satisfying sense of balance and proportion. They are not dense, either, like Russian sentences, and do not concentrate the mind upon a specific salient truth, but open up pleasing vistas and possibilities for it to move about in.

Some (juvenile?) humo(u)r? On Adam's fertility: "...the magick of that sperm that hath dilated into so many millions." On the possibility of the earth and every physical body within it's turning to glass at the Last Judgement: "Philosophers that opinioned the worlds destruction by fire, did never dream of annihilation, which is beyond the power of sublunary causes...and therefore some of our Chymicks facetiously affirm, that at the last fire all shall be christallized and reverberated into glass..." How about on the fate of the pagan philosophers and other Worthies of antiquity in Hell: "How strange to them will sound the History of Adam, when they shall suffer for him they never heard of! when they who derive their genealogy from Gods, shall know they are the unhappy issue of sinful man!"

Now I am come to the actual 2nd part of the book, which examines various aspects of the Christian life in earthly practice.

Charity, for example, is only good if it comes from the desire to do the will of God. Pity, or the sympathy of considering that one might someday find himself in a similar situation, do not cut it in Browne's understanding of Christian theology.

Here's some social life for you.

"I envy no man that knows more than my self, but pity them that know less." He could afford this magnanimity. I strike out on both counts. Still, he expresses in numerous places thoughts that we would take as evidence of vanity or otherwise being pleased with himself. "There is, I think, no man that apprehends his own miseries less than my self...I could lose an arm without a tear, and with few groans, methinks, be quartered into pieces..." There is with us a terror of physical pain that makes us regard those who can endure even a mild amount it, or survive a debilitating injury, even if accompanied by lots of tears and whimpering, with awe. The psychology of the 1640s, as well as the overall toughness of the population with regard to pain, was of a considerably different quality from the way we understand it.

Was any railing against pride ever effective?

I liked the paragraph where he declares himself thankful to God to have escaped the sin of conceit, even though he be "in a condition that can hardly avoid it". What condition is this? "For my own part, besides the Jargon and Patois of several provinces, I understand no less than six Languages...I have not onely seen several Countries, beheld the nature of their Climes, the Chorography (ed.--essentially geography, mapping) of their Provinces, Topography of their Cities, but understood their several Laws, Customs, and Policies...I know the names, and somewhat more, of all the constellations in my Horizon...I know most of the plants of my Countrey, and those about me..." In fairness, he claims that these various knowledges have not elevated him in wisdom beyond any number of simple working men he has encountered, so that it is impossible for him to take too much pride in them. The mindset is simply so foreign to anything we encounter today, that we could never take any widely-educated and accomplished professional's assertion that they were in truth little more knowledgeable in important matters than the next guy as being in the least sincere.

Browne is down on marriage and procreation: " is the foolishest act a wise man commits in all his life..." He appears to have gotten married later in his own life however (the extant portrait of his wife bears some resemblance to Katie the available atheist in the picture above), though I do not know whether he had any children or not. "...I borrow occasion of Charity from mine own necessities, and supply the wants of others, when I am in most need my self..." It is hard for me not to see a guy who is somewhat in love with himself.

"Statists that labour to contrive a Common-wealth without poverty, take away the object of charity, not understanding only the Common-wealth of a Christian, but forgetting the prophecie of CHRIST." I'll leave this one to the theologians. We hear a variation on this theme espoused frequently in our political life as well, though there seems to be considerable confusion in our day on how this Christian charity is to be implemented with any substantial effects, spiritual or material, on the receiving parties.

Happiness, according to Browne, belongs exclusively to the realm of God. The life of men on earth apart from God has nothing to do with it.

I have no idea what is going on with my paragraph breaks here. This is getting really tiresome. Hopefully this will work.

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