Alexander Whyte.

Sir Thomas Browne and his 'Religio Medici' an Appreciation online

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Transcribed from the 1898 Oliphant Anderson & Ferrier edition by David
Price, email [email protected]

with some of the best passages of the Physician's Writings selected and
arranged by Alexander Whyte
D. D.

[Illustration from 1642 edition of Religio Medici: ill.jpg]

Oliphant Anderson & Ferrier

Saint Mary Street, Edinburgh, and
21 Paternoster Square, London



The _Religio Medici_ is a universally recognised English classic. And
the _Urn-Burial_, the _Christian Morals_, and the _Letter to a Friend_
are all quite worthy to take their stand beside the _Religio Medici_. Sir
Thomas Browne made several other contributions to English literature
besides these masterpieces; but it is on the _Religio Medici_, and on
what Sir Thomas himself calls 'other pieces of affinity thereto,' that
his sure fame as a writer of noble truth and stately English most
securely rests. Sir Thomas Browne was a physician of high standing and
large practice all his days; and he was an antiquarian and scientific
writer of the foremost information and authority: but it is the
extraordinary depth and riches and imaginative sweep of his mind, and his
rare wisdom and wealth of heart, and his quite wonderful English style,
that have all combined together to seal Sir Thomas Browne with his well-
earned immortality.

Sir Thomas Browne's outward life can be told in a very few words. He was
born at London in 1605. He lost his father very early, and it must have
been a very great loss. For the old mercer was wont to creep up to his
little son's cradle when he was asleep, and uncover and kiss the child's
breast, and pray, 'as 'tis said of Origen's father, that the Holy Ghost
would at once take possession there.' The old merchant was able to leave
money enough to take his gifted son first to Winchester School, and then
to Oxford, where he graduated in New Pembroke in 1626. On young Browne's
graduation, old Anthony a Wood has this remark, that those who love
Pembroke best can wish it nothing better than that it may long proceed as
it has thus begun. As soon as he had taken his university degree young
Browne entered on the study of medicine: and, in pursuit of that fast-
rising science, he visited and studied in the most famous schools of
France and Italy and Holland. After various changes of residence,
through all of which it is somewhat difficult to trace the young
physician's movements, we find him at last fairly settled in the city of
Norwich, where he spent the remainder of his long, and busy, and
prosperous, and honourable life.

Dr. Johnson laments that Sir Thomas Browne has left us no record of his
travels and studies abroad, and all Sir Thomas's readers will join with
his great biographer in that regret. At the same time, as we turn over
the pile of letters that Sir Thomas sent to his student son Edward, and
to his sailor son Thomas, when they were abroad at school and on ship, we
can easily collect and picture to ourselves the life that the writer of
those so wise and so beautiful letters led when he himself was still a
student at Montpellier and Padua and Leyden. 'Honest Tom, - God bless
thee, and protect thee, and mercifully lead thee through the ways of His
providence. Be diligent in going to church. Be constant, and not
negligent in your daily private prayers. Be a good husband. Cast up
your accounts with all care. Be temperate in diet, and be wary not to
overheat yourself. Be courteous and civil to all. Live with an
apothecary, and observe his drugs and practice. Frequent civil company.
Point your letters, and put periods at the ends of your sentences. Have
the love and the fear of God ever before your eyes. And may God confirm
your faith in Christ. Observe the manner of trade: how they make wine
and vinegar, and keep a note of all that for me. Be courteous and humble
in all your conversation, and of good manners: which he that learneth not
in France travaileth in vain. When at sea read good books. Without good
books time cannot be well spent in those great ships. Learn the stars
also: the particular coasts: the depth of the road-steads: and the
risings and fallings of the land. Enquire further about the mineral
water: and take notice of such plants as you meet with. I am told that
you are looked on in the Service as exceeding faithful, valiant,
diligent, generous, vigilant, observing, very knowing, and a scholar.
When you first took to this manner of life, you cannot but remember that
I caused you to read all the sea-fights of note in Plutarch: and, withal,
gave you the description of fortitude left by Aristotle. In places take
notice of the government of them, and the eminent persons. The merciful
providence of God ever go with you, and direct and bless you, and give
you ever a grateful heart toward Him. I send you Lucretius: and with it
Tully's Offices: 'tis as remarkable for its little size as for the good
matter contained in it, and the authentic and classical Latin. I hope
you do not forget to carry a Greek Testament always to church: a man
learns two things together, and profiteth doubly, in the language and the
subject. God send us to number our days, and to fit ourselves for a
better world. Times look troublesome: but you have an honest and
peaceable profession like myself, which may well employ you, and you have
discretion to guide your words and actions. May God be reconciled to us,
and give us grace to forsake our sins which set fire to all things. You
shall never want my daily prayers, and also frequent letters.' And so
on, through a delightful sheaf of letters to his two sons: and out of
which a fine picture rises before us, both of Sir Thomas's own student
life abroad, as well as of the footing on which the now famous physician
and English author stood with his student and sailor sons.

* * * * *

You might read every word of Sir Thomas Browne's writings and never
discover that a sword had been unsheathed or a shot fired in England all
the time he was living and writing there. It was the half-century of the
terrible civil war for political and religious liberty: but Sir Thomas
Browne would seem to have possessed all the political and religious
liberty he needed. At any rate, he never took open part on either side
in the great contest. Sir Thomas Browne was not made of the hot metal
and the stern stuff of John Milton. All through those terrible years
Browne lived securely in his laboratory, and in his library, and in his
closet. Richard Baxter's _Autobiography_ is as full of gunpowder as if
it had been written in an army-chaplain's tent, as indeed it was. But
both Bunyan's _Grace Abounding_ and Browne's _Religio Medici_ might have
been written in the Bedford or Norwich of our own peaceful day. All men
are not made to be soldiers and statesmen: and it is no man's duty to
attempt to be what he was not made to be. Every man has his own talent,
and his corresponding and consequent duty and obligation. And both
Bunyan and Browne had their own talent, and their own consequent duty and
obligation, just as Cromwell and Milton and Baxter had theirs. Enough,
and more than enough, if it shall be said to them all on that day, Well

'My life,' says Sir Thomas, in opening one of the noblest chapters of his
noblest book, 'is a miracle of thirty years, which to relate were not a
history, but a piece of poetry; and it would sound to common ears like a
fable.' Now, as all Sir Thomas's readers must know, the most
extraordinary criticisms and comments have been made on those devout and
thankful words of his concerning himself. Dr. Samuel Johnson's were not
common ears, but even he comments on these beautiful words with a wooden-
headedness almost past belief. For, surely the thirty years of
schoolboy, and student, and opening professional life that resulted in
the production of such a masterpiece as the _Religio Medici_ was a
miracle both of God's providence and God's grace, enough to justify him
who had experienced all that in acknowledging it to God's glory and to
the unburdening of his own heart, so richly loaded with God's benefits.
And, how a man of Samuel Johnson's insight, good sense, and pious feeling
could have so missed the mark in this case, I cannot understand. All the
more that both the chapter so complained about, and the whole book to
which that chapter belongs, are full of the same thankful, devout, and
adoring sentiment. 'The world that I regard,' Sir Thomas proceeds, 'is
myself. Men that look upon my outside, and who peruse only my conditions
and my fortunes, do err in my altitude. There is surely a piece of
divinity in us all; something that was before the elements, and which
owes no homage unto the sun.' And again, 'We carry with us the wonders
we seek without us. There is all Africa and all its prodigies in us all.
We are that bold and adventurous piece of nature, which he that studies
wisely learns, in a compendium, what others labour at in a divided piece
and endless volume.' And again, 'There is another way of God's
providence full of meanders and labyrinths and obscure methods: that
serpentine and crooked line: that cryptic and involved method of His
providence which I have ever admired. Surely there are in every man's
life certain rubs, and doublings, and wrenches, which, well examined, do
prove the pure hand of God. And to be true, and to speak out my soul,
when I survey the occurrences of my own life, and call into account the
finger of God, I can perceive nothing but an abyss and a mass of mercies.
And those which others term crosses, and afflictions, and judgments, and
misfortunes, to me they both appear, and in event have ever proved, the
secret and dissembled favours of His affection.' And in the _Christian
Morals_: 'Annihilate not the mercies of God by the oblivion of
ingratitude. Make not thy head a grave, but a repository of God's
mercies. Register not only strange, but all merciful occurrences. Let
thy diaries stand thick with dutiful mementoes and asterisks of
acknowledgment. And to be complete and to forget nothing, date not His
mercy from thy nativity: look beyond this world, and before the era of
Adam. And mark well the winding ways of providence. For that hand
writes often by abbreviations, hieroglyphics, and short characters,
which, like the laconism on Belshazzar's wall, are not to be made out but
by a key from that Spirit that indited them.' And yet again, 'To
thoughtful observers the whole world is one phylactery, and everything we
see an item of the wisdom, and power, and goodness of God.' How any man,
not to speak of one of the wisest and best of men, such as Samuel Johnson
was, could read all that, and still stagger at Sir Thomas Browne holding
himself to be a living miracle of the power, and the love, and the grace
of God, passes my understanding.

We have seen in his own noble words how Sir Thomas Browne's life appeared
to himself. Let us now look at how he appeared to other observing men.
The Rev. John Whitefoot, the close and lifelong friend of Sir Thomas, has
left us this lifelike portrait of the author of _Religio Medici_. 'For a
character of his person, his complexion and his hair were answerable to
his name, his stature was moderate, and his habit of body neither fat nor
lean, but [Greek text]. In his habit of clothing he had an aversion to
all finery, and affected plainness. He ever wore a cloke, or boots, when
few others did. He kept himself always very warm, and thought it most
safe so to do. The horizon of his understanding was much larger than the
hemisphere of the world: all that was visible in the heavens he
comprehended so well, that few that are under them knew so much. And of
the earth he had such a minute and exact geographical knowledge as if he
had been by divine providence ordained surveyor-general of the whole
terrestrial orb and its products, minerals, plants, and animals. His
memory, though not so eminent as that of Seneca or Scaliger, was
capacious and tenacious, insomuch that he remembered all that was
remarkable in any book he ever read. He had no despotical power over his
affections and passions, that was a privilege of original perfection, but
as large a political power over them as any stoic or man of his time,
whereof he gave so great experiment that he hath very rarely been known
to have been overpowered with any of them. His aspect and conversation
were grave and sober; there was never to be seen in him anything trite or
vulgar. Parsimonious in nothing but his time, whereof he made as much
improvement, with as little loss as any man in it, when he had any to
spare from his drudging practice, he was scarce patient of any diversion
from his study: so impatient of sloth and idleness, that he would say, he
could not do nothing. He attended the public service very constantly,
when he was not withheld by his practice. Never missed the sacrament in
his parish, if he were in town. Read the best English sermons he could
hear of with liberal applause: and delighted not in controversies. His
patience was founded upon the Christian philosophy, and sound faith of
God's providence, and a meek and humble submission thereto. I visited
him near his end, when he had not strength to hear or speak much: and the
last words I heard from him were, besides some expressions of dearness,
that he did freely submit to the will of God: being without fear. He had
oft triumphed over the king of terrors in others, and given him many
repulses in the defence of patients; but when his own time came, he
submitted with a meek, rational, religious courage.'

Taking Sir Thomas Browne all in all, Tertullian, Sir Thomas's favourite
Father, has supplied us, as it seems to me, with his whole life and
character in these so expressive and so comprehensive words of his,
_Anima naturaliter Christiana_. In these three words, when well weighed
and fully opened up, we have the whole author of the _Religio Medici_,
the _Christian Morals_, and the _Letter to a Friend. Anima naturaliter

* * * * *

The _Religio Medici_ was Sir Thomas Browne's first book, and it remains
by far his best book. His other books acquire their value and take their
rank just according to the degree of their 'affinity' to the _Religio
Medici_. Sir Thomas Browne is at his best when he is most alone with
himself. There is no subject that interests him so much as Sir Thomas
Browne. And if you will forget yourself in Sir Thomas Browne, and in his
conversations which he holds with himself, you will find a rare and an
ever fresh delight in the _Religio Medici_. Sir Thomas is one of the
greatest egotists of literature - to use a necessary but an unpopular and
a misleading epithet. Hazlitt has it that there have only been but three
perfect, absolute, and unapproached egotists in all literature - Cellini,
Montaigne, and Wordsworth. But why that fine critic leaves out Sir
Thomas Browne, I cannot understand or accept. I always turn to Sir
Thomas Browne, far more than to either of Hazlitt's canonised three, when
I want to read what a great man has to tell me about himself: and in this
case both a great and a good and a Christian man. And thus, whatever
modification and adaptation may have been made in this masterpiece of
his, in view of its publication, and after it was first published, the
original essence, most genuine substance, and unique style of the book
were all intended for its author's peculiar heart and private eye alone.
And thus it is that we have a work of a simplicity and a sincerity that
would have been impossible had its author in any part of his book sat
down to compose for the public. Sir Thomas Browne lived so much within
himself, that he was both secret writer and sole reader to himself. His
great book is 'a private exercise directed solely,' as he himself says,
'to himself: it is a memorial addressed to himself rather than an example
or a rule directed to any other man.' And it is only he who opens the
_Religio Medici_ honestly and easily believing that, and glad to have
such a secret and sincere and devout book in his hand, - it is only he who
will truly enjoy the book, and who will gather the same gain out of it
that its author enjoyed and gained out of it himself. In short, the
properly prepared and absolutely ingenuous reader of the _Religio Medici_
must be a second Thomas Browne himself.

'I am a medical man,' says Sir Thomas, in introducing himself to us, 'and
this is my religion. I am a physician, and this is my faith, and my
morals, and my whole true and proper life. The scandal of my profession,
the natural course of my studies, and the indifference of my behaviour
and discourse in matters of religion, might persuade the world that I had
no religion at all. And yet, in despite of all that, I dare, without
usurpation, assume the honourable style of a Christian.' And if ever any
man was a truly catholic Christian, it was surely Sir Thomas Browne. He
does not unchurch or ostracise any other man. He does not stand at
diameter and sword's point with any other man; no, not even with his
enemy. He has never been able to alienate or exasperate himself from any
man whatsoever because of a difference of an opinion. He has never been
angry with any man because his judgment in matters of religion did not
agree with his. In short he has no genius for disputes about religion;
and he has often felt it to be his best wisdom to decline all such
disputes. When his head was greener than it now is, he had a tendency to
two or three errors in religion, of which he proceeds to set down the
spiritual history. But at no time did he ever maintain his own opinions
with pertinacity: far less to inveigle or entangle any other man's faith;
and thus they soon died out, since they were only bare errors and single
lapses of his understanding, without a joint depravity of his will. The
truth to Sir Thomas Browne about all revealed religion is this, which he
sets forth in a deservedly famous passage: - 'Methinks there be not
impossibilities enough in revealed religion for an active faith. I love
to lose myself in a mystery, and to pursue my reason to an _O altitudo_!
'Tis my solitary recreation to pose my apprehension with those involved
enigmas and riddles of the Trinity, with incarnation and resurrection. I
can answer all the objections of Satan and my rebellious reason with that
odd resolution I learned of Tertullian, _Certum est quia impossibile
est_. I desire to exercise my faith in the difficultest point; for
anything else is not faith but persuasion. I bless myself, and am
thankful that I never saw Christ nor His disciples. For then had my
faith been thrust upon me; nor should I have enjoyed that greater
blessing pronounced to all that believe and saw not. They only had the
advantage of a noble and a bold faith who lived before the coming of
Christ; and who, upon obscure prophecies and mystical types, could raise
a belief and expect apparent impossibilities. And since I was of
understanding enough to know that we know nothing, my reason hath been
more pliable to the will of faith. I am now content to understand a
mystery in an easy and Platonic way, and without a demonstration and a
rigid definition; and thus I teach my haggard and unreclaimed reason to
stoop unto the lure of faith.' The unreclaimed reader who is not already
allured by these specimens need go no further in Sir Thomas Browne's
autobiographic book. But he who feels the grace and the truth, the power
and the sweetness and the beauty of such writing, will be glad to know
that the whole _Religio_ is full of such things, and that all this
author's religious and moral writings partake of the same truly Apostolic
and truly Platonic character. In this noble temper, with the richest
mind, and clothed in a style that entrances and captivates us, Sir Thomas
proceeds to set forth his doctrine and experience of God; of God's
providence; of Holy Scripture; of nature and man; of miracles and
oracles; of the Holy Ghost and holy angels; of death; and of heaven and
hell. And, especially, and with great fulness, and victoriousness, and
conclusiveness, he deals with death. We sometimes amuse ourselves by
making a selection of the two or three books that we would take with us
to prison or to a desert island. And one dying man here and another
there has already selected and set aside the proper and most suitable
books for his own special deathbed. 'Read where I first cast my anchor,'
said John Knox to his wife, sitting weeping at his bedside. At which she
opened and read in the Gospel of John. Sir Thomas Browne is neither more
nor less than the very prose-laureate of death. He writes as no other
man has ever written about death. Death is everywhere in all Sir Thomas
Browne's books. And yet it may be said of them all, that, like heaven
itself, there is no death there. Death is swallowed up in Sir Thomas
Browne's defiant faith that cannot, even in death, get difficulties and
impossibilities enough to exercise itself upon. O death, where is thy
sting to Rutherford, and Bunyan, and Baxter, and Browne; and to those who
diet their imaginations and their hearts day and night at such heavenly
tables! But, if only to see how great and good men differ, Spinoza has
this proposition and demonstration that a 'free man thinks of nothing
less than of death.' Browne was a free man, but he thought of nothing
more than of death. He was of Dante's mind -

The arrow seen beforehand slacks its flight.

The _Religio Medici_ was Sir Thomas Browne's first book, and the
_Christian Morals_ was his last; but the two books are of such affinity
to one another that they will always be thought of together. Only, the
style that was already almost too rich for our modern taste in the
_Religio_ absolutely cloys and clogs us in the _Morals_. The opening and
the closing sentences of this posthumous treatise will better convey a
taste of its strength and sweetness than any estimate or eulogium of
mine. 'Tread softly and circumspectly in this funambulatory track, and
narrow path of goodness; pursue virtue virtuously: leaven not good
actions, nor render virtue disputable. Stain not fair acts with foul
intentions; maim not uprightness by halting concomitances, nor
circumstantially deprave substantial goodness. Consider whereabout thou
art in Cebes' table, or that old philosophical pinax of the life of man:
whether thou art yet in the road of uncertainties; whether thou hast yet
entered the narrow gate, got up the hill and asperous way which leadeth
unto the house of sanity; or taken that purifying potion from the hand of
sincere erudition, which may send thee clear and pure away unto a
virtuous and happy life.' And having taken his reader up through a
virtuous life, Sir Thomas thus parts with him at its close: 'Lastly, if
length of days be thy portion, make it not thy expectation. Reckon not
upon long life; think every day thy last. And since there is something
in us that will still live on, join both lives together, and live in one
but for the other. And if any hath been so happy as personally to
understand Christian annihilation, ecstasy, exaltation, transformation,
the kiss of the spouse, and ingression into the divine shadow, according
to mystical theology, they have already had an handsome anticipation of
heaven: the world is in a manner over, and the earth in ashes unto them.'
'Prose,' says Friswell, 'that with very little transposition, might make
verse quite worthy of Shakespeare himself.'

* * * * *

The _Letter to a Friend_ is an account of the swift and inevitable
deathbed of one of Sir Thomas's patients: a young man who died of a
deceitful but a galloping consumption. There is enough of old medical
observation and opening science in the _Letter_, as well as of sweet old
literature, and still sweeter old religion, to make it a classic to every
well-read doctor in the language. 'To be dissolved and to be with Christ
was his dying ditty. He esteemed it enough to approach the years of his
Saviour, who so ordered His own human state, as not to be old upon earth.
He that early arriveth into the parts and prudence of age is happily old

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Online LibraryAlexander WhyteSir Thomas Browne and his 'Religio Medici' an Appreciation → online text (page 1 of 4)