Thomas Browne.

Religio Medici, Hydriotaphia, and the Letter to a Friend online

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which live not in that disadvantage of time, when men
could say little for futurity, but from reason: whereby
the noblest minds fell often upon doubtful deaths, and
melancholy dissolutions. With these hopes, Socrates
warmed his doubtful spirits against that cold potion;
and Cato, before he durst give the fatal stroke, spent part
of the night in reading the Immortality of Plato, thereby
confirming his wavering hand unto the animosity of
that attempt.

It is the heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at
a man, to tell him he is at the end of his nature; or
that there is no further state to come, unto which
this seems progressional, and otherwise made in vain.
Without this accomplishment, the natural expectation
and desire of such a state, were but a fallacy in nature;
unsatisfied considerators would quarrel the justice of
their constitutions, and rest content that Adam had
fallen lower; whereby, by knowing no other original,
and deeper ignorance of themselves, they might have
enjoyed the happiness of inferior creatures, who in
tranquillity possess their constitutions, as having not
the apprehension to deplore their own natures, and,
being framed below the circumference of these hopes,
or cognition of better being, the wisdom of God hath
necessitated their contentment: but the superior in-
gredient and obscured part of ourselves, whereto all
present felicities afford no resting contentment, will be
able at last to tell us, we are more than our present
selves, and evacuate such hopes in the fruition of their
own accomplishments.


Now since these dead bones have already outlasted
the living ones of Methuselah, and in a yard under-
ground, and thin walls of clay, outworn all the strong
and specious buildings above it; and quietly rested
under the drums and tramplings of three conquests:
what prince can promise such diuturnity unto his relicks,
or might not gladly say,

Sic ego componi versus in ossa velim?*

Time, which antiquates antiquities, and hath an art to
make dust of all things, hath yet spared these minor

In vain we hope to be known by open and visible
conservatories, when to be unknown was the means of
their continuation, and obscurity their protection. If
they died by violent hands, and were thrust into their
urns, these bones become considerable, and some old
philosophers would honour them, whose souls they
conceived most pure, which were thus snatched from
their bodies, and to retain a stronger propension unto
them; whereas they weariedly left a languishing corpse
and with faint desires of re-union. If they fell by
long and aged decay, yet wrapt up in the bundle of
time, they fall into indistinction, and make but one
blot with infants. If we begin to die when we live,
and long life be but a prolongation of death, our life is
a sad composition; we live with death, and die not in
a moment. How many pulses made up the life of
Methuselah, were work for Archimedes: common
counters sum up the life of Moses his man. Our days
become considerable, like petty sums, by minute ac-
cumulations: where numerous fractions make up but
small round numbers; and our days of a span long,
make not one little finger.+

If the nearness of our last necessity brought a nearer
conformity into it, there were a happiness in hoary

* Tibullus, lib. iii. el. 2, 26.
+ According to the ancient arithmetick of the hand, wherein
the little finger of the right hand contracted, signified an
hundred. - Pierius in Hieroglyph.

hairs, and no calamity in half-senses. But the long
habit of living indisposeth us for dying; when avarice
makes us the sport of death, when even David grew
politickly cruel, and Solomon could hardly be said to
be the wisest of men. But many are too early old, and
before the date of age. Adversity stretcheth our days,
misery makes Alcmena's nights,* and time hath no
wings unto it. But the most tedious being is that which
can unwish itself, content to be nothing, or never to
have been, which was beyond the malcontent of Job,
who cursed not the day of his life, but his nativity; con-
tent to have so far been, as to have a title to future being,
although he had lived here but in an hidden state of
life, and as it were an abortion.

What song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles
assumed when he hid himself among women, though
puzzling questions,+ are not beyond all conjecture. What
time the persons of these ossuaries entered the famous
nations of the dead, and slept with princes and coun-
sellors, might admit a wide solution. But who were
the proprietaries of these bones, or what bodies these
ashes made up, were a question above antiquarism; not
to be resolved by man, nor easily perhaps by spirits,
except we consult the provincial guardians, or tutelary
observators. Had they made as good provision for
their names, as they have done for their relicks, they
had not so grossly erred in the art of perpetuation. But
to subsist in bones, and be but pyramidally extant, is a
fallacy in duration. Vain ashes which in the oblivion
of names, persons, times, and sexes, have found unto
themselves a fruitless continuation, and only arise unto

* One night as long as three.
+ The puzzling questions of Tiberius unto grammarians. -
Marcel. Donatus in Suet.

late posterity, as emblems of mortal vanities, antidotes
against pride, vain-glory, and madding vices. Pagan
vain-glories which thought the world might last for
ever, had encouragement for ambition; and, finding no
atropos unto the immortality of their names, were never
dampt with the necessity of oblivion. Even old ambi-
tions had the advantage of ours, in the attempts of
their vain-glories, who acting early, and before the
probable meridian of time, have by this time found
great accomplishment of their designs, whereby the
ancient heroes have already outlasted their monuments
and mechanical preservations. But in this latter scene
of time, we cannot expect such mummies unto our
memories, when ambition may fear the prophecy of
Elias,* and Charles the Fifth can never hope to live
within two Methuselahs of Hector.+

And therefore, restless inquietude for the diuturnity
of our memories unto the present considerations seems
a vanity almost out of date, and superannuated piece of
folly. We cannot hope to live so long in our names,
as some have done in their persons. One face of Janus
holds no proportion unto the other. 'Tis too late to be
ambitious. The great mutations of the world are acted,
or time may be too short for our designs. To extend
our memories by monuments, whose death we daily
pray for, and whose duration we cannot hope, without
injury to our expectations in the advent of the last day,
were a contradiction to our beliefs. We whose genera-
tions are ordained in this setting part of time, are pro-
videntially taken off from such imaginations; and,
being necessitated to eye the remaining particle of

* That the world may last but six thousand years.
+ Hector's fame outlasting above two lives of Methuselah
before that famous prince was extant.

futurity, are naturally constituted unto thoughts of the
next world, and cannot excusably decline the considera-
tion of that duration, which maketh pyramids pillars
of snow, and all that's past a moment.

Circles and right lines limit and close all bodies, and
the mortal right-lined circle* must conclude and shut
up all. There is no antidote against the opium of time,
which temporally considereth all things: our fathers
find their graves in our short memories, and sadly tell
us how we may be buried in our survivors. Grave-
stones tell truth scarce forty years. Generations pass
while some trees stand, and old families last not three
oaks. To be read by bare inscriptions like many in
Gruter, to hope for eternity by enigmatical epithets or
first letters of our names, to be studied by antiquaries,
who we were, and have new names given us like many
of the mummies, are cold consolations unto the students
of perpetuity, even by everlasting languages.

To be content that times to come should only know
there was such a man, not caring whether they knew
more of him, was a frigid ambition in Cardan;+ dispar-
aging his horoscopal inclination and judgment of himself.
Who cares to subsist like Hippocrates's patients, or
Achilles's horses in Homer, under naked nominations,
without deserts and noble acts, which are the balsam
of our memories, the entelechia and soul of our sub-
sistences? To be nameless in worthy deeds, exceeds
an infamous history. The Canaanitish woman lives
more happily without a name, than Herodias with
one. And who had not rather have been the good
thief, than Pilate?

* The character of death.
+ "Cuperem notum esse quod sim non opto ut sciatur
qualis sim."

But the iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her
poppy, and deals with the memory of men without
distinction to merit of perpetuity. Who can but
pity the founder of the pyramids? Herostratus lives
that burnt the temple of Diana, he is almost lost that
built it. Time hath spared the epitaph of Adrian's
horse, confounded that of himself. In vain we com-
pute our felicities by the advantage of our good
names, since bad have equal durations, and Thersites
is like to live as long as Agamemnon without the
favour of the everlasting register. Who knows
whether the best of men be known, or whether there
be not more remarkable persons forgot, than any
that stand remembered in the known account of time?
The first man had been as unknown as the last,
and Methuselah's long life had been his only

Oblivion is not to be hired. The greater part must
be content to be as though they had not been, to be
found in the register of God, not in the record of man.
Twenty-seven names make up the first story and the
recorded names ever since contain not one living cen-
tury. The number of the dead long exceedeth all that
shall live. The night of time far surpasseth the day,
and who knows when was the equinox? Every hour
adds unto that current arithmetick, which scarce stands
one moment. And since death must be the Lucina
of life, and even Pagans could doubt, whether
thus to live were to die; since our longest sun sets
at right descensions, and makes but winter arches,
and therefore it cannot be long before we lie down
in darkness, and have our light in ashes; since the
brother of death daily haunts us with dying memen-
toes, and time that grows old in itself, bids us hope
no long duration; - diuturnity is a dream and folly
of expectation.

Darkness and light divide the course of time, and
oblivion shares with memory a great part even of our
living beings; we slightly remember our felicities, and
the smartest strokes of affliction leave but short smart
upon us. Sense endureth no extremities, and sorrows
destroy us or themselves. To weep into stones are
fables. Afflictions induce callosities; miseries are slip-
pery, or fall like snow upon us, which notwithstanding
is no unhappy stupidity. To be ignorant of evils to
come, and forgetful of evils past, is a merciful provision
in nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few
and evil days, and, our delivered senses not relapsing
into cutting remembrances, our sorrows are not kept
raw by the edge of repetitions. A great part of antiquity
contented their hopes of subsistency with a transmigra-
tion of their souls, - a good way to continue their me-
mories, while having the advantage of plural successions,
they could not but act something remarkable in such
variety of beings, and enjoying the fame of their passed
selves, make accumulation of glory unto their last dura-
tions. Others, rather than be lost in the uncomfortable
night of nothing, were content to recede into the common
being, and make one particle of the public soul of all
things, which was no more than to return into their un-
known and divine original again. Egyptian ingenuity
was more unsatisfied, contriving their bodies in sweet
consistences, to attend the return of their souls. But
all is vanity, feeding the wind, and folly. Egyptian
mummies, which Cambyses or time hath spared,
avarice now consumeth. Mummy is become mer-
chandise, Mizraim, cures wounds, and Pharaoh is sold
for balsams.

In vain do individuals hope for immortality, or any
patent from oblivion, in preservations below the moon;
men have been deceived even in their flatteries, above
the sun, and studied conceits to perpetuate their names
in heaven. The various cosmography of that part hath
already varied the names of contrived constellations;
Nimrod is lost in Orion, and Osyris in the Dog-star.
While we look for incorruption in the heavens, we find
that they are but like the earth; - durable in their main
bodies, alterable in their parts; whereof, beside comets
and new stars, perspectives begin to tell tales, and the
spots that wander about the sun, with Phaeton's favour,
would make clear conviction.

There is nothing strictly immortal, but immortality.
Whatever hath no beginning, may be confident of no
end; - all others have a dependent being and within
the reach of destruction; - which is the peculiar of
that necessary essence that cannot destroy itself; - and
the highest strain of omnipotency, to be so powerfully
constituted as not to suffer even from the power of
itself. But the sufficiency of Christian immortality
frustrates all earthly glory, and the quality of either
state after death, makes a folly of posthumous memory.
God who can only destroy our souls, and hath assured
our resurrection, either of our bodies or names hath
directly promised no duration. Wherein there is so
much of chance, that the boldest expectants have found
unhappy frustration; and to hold long subsistence,
seems but a scape in oblivion. But 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 infamy of
his nature.

Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible sun
within us. A small fire sufficeth for life, great flames
seemed too little after death, while men vainly affected
precious pyres, and to burn like Sardanapalus; but
the wisdom of funeral laws found the folly of prodigal
blazes and reduced undoing fires unto the rule of sober
obsequies, wherein few could be so mean as not to pro-
vide wood, pitch, a mourner, and an urn.

Five languages secured not the epitaph of Gordianus.
The man of God lives longer without a tomb than any
by one, invisibly interred by angels, and adjudged to
obscurity, though not without some marks directing
human discovery. Enoch and Elias, without either
tomb or burial, in an anomalous state of being, are
the great examples of perpetuity, in their long and
living memory, in strict account being still on this
side death, and having a late part yet to act upon this
stage of earth. If in the decretory term of the world
we shall not all die but be changed, according to re-
ceived translation, the last day will make but few graves;
at least quick resurrections will anticipate lasting
sepultures. Some graves will be opened before they
be quite closed, and Lazarus be no wonder. When many
that feared to die, shall groan that they can die but once,
the dismal state is the second and living death, when
life puts despair on the damned; when men shall wish
the coverings of mountains, not of monuments, and
annihilations shall be courted.

While some have studied monuments, others have
studiously declined them, and some have been so vainly
boisterous, that they durst not acknowledge their graves;
wherein Alaricus seems most subtle, who had a river
turned to hide his bones at the bottom. Even Sylla,
that thought himself safe in his urn, could not prevent
revenging tongues, and stones thrown at his monument.
Happy are they whom privacy makes innocent, who
deal so with men in this world, that they are not
afraid to meet them in the next; who, when they die,
make no commotion among the dead, and are not
touched with that poetical taunt of Isaiah.*

Pyramids, arches, obelisks, were but the irregularities
of vain-glory, and wild enormities of ancient magna-
nimity. But the most magnanimous resolution rests in
the Christian religion, which trampleth upon pride and
sits on the neck of ambition, humbly pursuing that
infallible perpetuity, unto which all others must
diminish their diameters, and be poorly seen in angles
of contingency.+

Pious spirits who passed their days in raptures of
futurity, made little more of this world, than the world
that was before it, while they lay obscure in the chaos
of pre-ordination, and night of their fore-beings. And
if any have been so happy as truly to understand
Christian annihilation, ecstasies, exolution, liquefaction,
transformation, the kiss of the spouse, gustation of
God, and ingression into the divine shadow, they have
already had an handsome anticipation of heaven; the
glory of the world is surely over, and the earth in ashes
unto them.

To subsist in lasting monuments, to live in their pro-
ductions, to exist in their names and predicament of
chimeras, was large satisfaction unto old expectations,
and made one part of their Elysiums. But all this
is nothing in the metaphysicks of true belief. To live
indeed, is to be again ourselves, which being not only an
hope, but an evidence in noble believers, 'tis all one to
lie in St Innocent's# church-yard as in the sands of

* Isa. xiv. 16. + The least of angles.
# In Paris, where bodies soon consume.
Egypt. Ready to be anything, in the ecstasy of
being ever, and as content with six foot as the moles
of Adrianus.*

- "Tabesne cadavera solvat,
An rogus, haud refert." - LUCAN. viii. 809.

* A stately mausoleum or sepulchral pile, built by Adrianus
in Rome, where now standeth the castle of St Angelo.



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GIVE me leave to wonder that news of this nature
should have such heavy wings that you should
hear so little concerning your dearest friend,
and that I must make that unwilling repetition to tell
you "ad portam rigidos calces extendit," that he is dead
and buried, and by this time no puny among the mighty
nations of the dead; for though he left this world not
very many days past, yet every hour you know largely
addeth unto that dark society; and considering the
incessant mortality of mankind, you cannot conceive
there dieth in the whole earth so few as a thousand an

Although at this distance you had no early account
or particular of his death, yet your affection may cease
to wonder that you had not some secret sense or intima-
tion thereof by dreams, thoughtful whisperings, mer-
curisms, airy nuncios or sympathetical insinuations,
which many seem to have had at the death of their
dearest friends: for since we find in that famous story,
that spirits themselves were fain to tell their fellows
at a distance that the great Antonio was dead, we have
a sufficient excuse for our ignorance in such particulars,
and must rest content with the common road, and Ap-
pian way of knowledge by information. Though the
uncertainty of the end of this world hath confounded
all human predictions; yet they who shall live to see
the sun and moon darkened, and the stars to fall from
heaven, will hardly be deceived in the advent of the
last day; and therefore strange it is, that the common
fallacy of consumptive persons who feel not themselves
dying, and therefore still hope to live, should also reach
their friends in perfect health and judgment; - that you
should be so little acquainted with Plautus's sick com-
plexion, or that almost an Hippocratical face should
not alarum you to higher fears, or rather despair, of
his continuation in such an emaciated state, wherein
medical predictions fail not, as sometimes in acute dis-
eases, and wherein 'tis as dangerous to be sentenced by
a physician as a judge.

Upon my first visit I was bold to tell them who had
not let fall all hopes of his recovery, that in my sad
opinion he was not like to behold a grasshopper, much
less to pluck another fig; and in no long time after
seemed to discover that odd mortal symptom in him
not mentioned by Hippocrates, that is, to lose his own
face, and look like some of his near relations; for he
maintained not his proper countenance, but looked like
his uncle, the lines of whose face lay deep and invisible
in his healthful visage before: for as from our begin-
ning we run through variety of looks, before we come
to consistent and settled faces; so before our end, by
sick and languishing alterations, we put on new visages:
and in our retreat to earth, may fall upon such looks
which from community of seminal originals were before
latent in us.

He was fruitlessly put in hope of advantage by change
of air, and imbibing the pure aerial nitre of these parts;
and therefore, being so far spent, he quickly found Sar-
dinia in Tivoli,* and the most healthful air of little
effect, where death had set her broad arrow;+ for he
lived not unto the middle of May, and confirmed the
observation of Hippocrates of that mortal time of the
year when the leaves of the fig-tree resemble a daw's
claw. He is happily seated who lives in places whose
air, earth, and water, promote not the infirmities of his
weaker parts, or is early removed into regions that
correct them. He that is tabidly inclined, were unwise
to pass his days in Portugal: cholical persons will find
little comfort in Austria or Vienna: he that is weak-
legged must not be in love with Rome, nor an infirm
head with Venice or Paris. Death hath not only par-
ticular stars in heaven, but malevolent places on earth,
which single out our infirmities, and strike at our
weaker parts; in which concern, passager and migrant
birds have the great advantages, who are naturally
constituted for distant habitations, whom no seas nor
places limit, but in their appointed seasons will visit
us from Greenland and Mount Atlas, and, as some think,
even from the Antipodes.#

Though we could not have his life, yet we missed not
our desires in his soft departure, which was scarce an
expiration; and his end not unlike his beginning, when
the salient point scarce affords a sensible motion, and
his departure so like unto sleep, that he scarce needed
the civil ceremony of closing his eyes; contrary unto the
common way, wherein death draws up, sleep lets fall

* "Cum mors venerit, in medio Tibure Sardinia est."
+ In the king's forests they set the figure of a broad arrow
upon trees that are to be cut down.
# Bellonius de Avibus.

the eyelids. With what strife and pains we came into
the world we know not; but 'tis commonly no easy
matter to get out of it: yet if it could be made out,
that such who have easy nativities have commonly hard
deaths, and contrarily; his departure was so easy, that
we might justly suspect his birth was of another nature,
and that some Juno sat cross-legged at his nativity.

Besides his soft death, the incurable state of his
disease might somewhat extenuate your sorrow, who
know that monsters but seldom happen, miracles more
rarely in physick.* Angelus Victorius gives a serious
account of a consumptive, hectical, phthisical woman,
who was suddenly cured by the intercession of Ignatius.
We read not of any in Scripture who in this case applied
unto our Saviour, though some may be contained in
that large expression, that he went about Galilee healing
all manner of sickness and all manner of diseases.+
Amulets, spells, sigils, and incantations, practised in
other diseases, are seldom pretended in this; and we
find no sigil in the Archidoxis of Paracelsus to cure
an extreme consumption or marasmus, which, if other
diseases fail, will put a period unto long livers, and at
last makes dust of all. And therefore the Stoics could
not but think that the fiery principle would wear out
all the rest, and at last make an end of the world, which
notwithstanding without such a lingering period the
Creator may effect at his pleasure: and to make an end
of all things on earth, and our planetical system of the
world, he need but put out the sun.

I was not so curious to entitle the stars unto any

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Online LibraryThomas BrowneReligio Medici, Hydriotaphia, and the Letter to a Friend → online text (page 12 of 15)