Thomas Browne.

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

. (page 5 of 15)
Online LibraryThomas BrowneReligio Medici, Hydriotaphia, and the Letter to a Friend → online text (page 5 of 15)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

yet is not this mass of flesh and visible structure the
instrument and proper corpse of the soul, but rather of
sense, and that the hand of reason. In our study of
anatomy there is a mass of mysterious philosophy, and
such as reduced the very heathens to divinity; yet,
amongst all those rare discoveries and curious pieces I
find in the fabrick of man, I do not so much content
myself, as in that I find not, - that is, no organ or
instrument for the rational soul; for in the brain,
which we term the seat of reason, there is not anything
of moment more than I can discover in the crany of a
beast; and this is a sensible and no inconsiderable
argument of the inorganity of the soul, at least in that
sense we usually so conceive it. Thus we are men, and
we know not how; there is something in us that can
be without us, and will be after us, though it is strange
that it hath no history what it was before us, nor cannot
tell how it entered in us.

Sect. 37. - Now, for these walls of flesh, wherein the
soul doth seem to be immured before the resurrection,
it is nothing but an elemental composition, and a
fabrick that must fall to ashes. "All flesh is grass," is
not only metaphorically, but literally, true; for all
those creatures we behold are but the herbs of the field,
digested into flesh in them, or more remotely carnified
in ourselves. Nay, further, we are what we all abhor,
anthropophagi, and cannibals, devourers not only of men,
but of ourselves; and that not in an allegory but a
positive truth: for all this mass of flesh which we be-
hold, came in at our mouths: this frame we look upon,
hath been upon our trenchers; in brief, we have devoured
ourselves. I cannot believe the wisdom of Pythagoras
did ever positively, and in a literal sense, affirm his
metempsychosis, or impossible transmigration of the
souls of men into beasts. Of all metamorphoses or
transmigrations, I believe only one, that is of Lot's
wife; for that of Nabuchodonosor proceeded not so far.
In all others I conceive there is no further verity than
is contained in their implicit sense and morality. I
believe that the whole frame of a beast doth perish, and
is left in the same state after death as before it was
materialled unto life: that the souls of men know
neither contrary nor corruption; that they subsist be-
yond the body, and outlive death by the privilege of
their proper natures, and without a miracle: that the
souls of the faithful, as they leave earth, take possession
of heaven; that those apparitions and ghosts of departed
persons are not the wandering souls of men, but the
unquiet walks of devils, prompting and suggesting us
unto mischief, blood, and villany; instilling and steal-
ing into our hearts that the blessed spirits are not at
rest in their graves, but wander, solicitous of the affairs
of the world. But that those phantasms appear often,
and do frequent cemeteries, charnel-houses, and churches,
it is because those are the dormitories of the dead, where
the devil, like an insolent champion, beholds with pride
the spoils and trophies of his victory over Adam.

Sect. 38. - This is that dismal conquest we all deplore,
that makes us so often cry, O Adam, quid fecisti? I
thank God I have not those strait ligaments, or narrow
obligations to the world, as to dote on life, or be con-
vulsed and tremble at the name of death. Not that I
am insensible of the dread and horror thereof; or, by
raking into the bowels of the deceased, continual sight
of anatomies, skeletons, or cadaverous relicks, like ves-
pilloes, or gravemakers, I am become stupid, or have
forgot the apprehension of mortality; but that, marshal-
ling all the horrors, and contemplating the extremities
thereof, I find not anything therein able to daunt the
courage of a man, much less a well-resolved Christian;
and therefore am not angry at the error of our first
parents, or unwilling to bear a part of this common
fate, and, like the best of them, to die; that is, to
cease to breathe, to take a farewell of the elements; to
be a kind of nothing for a moment; to be within one
instant of a spirit. When I take a full view and circle
of myself without this reasonable moderator, and equal
piece of justice, death, I do conceive myself the miser-
ablest person extant. Were there not another life that
I hope for, all the vanities of this world should not
entreat a moment's breath from me. Could the devil
work my belief to imagine I could never die, I would
not outlive that very thought. I have so abject a con-
ceit of this common way of existence, this retaining to
the sun and elements, I cannot think this is to be a
man, or to live according to the dignity of humanity.
In expectation of a better, I can with patience embrace
this life; yet, in my best meditations, do often defy
death. I honour any man that contemns it; nor can I
highly love any that is afraid of it: this makes me
naturally love a soldier, and honour those tattered and
contemptible regiments, that will die at the command
of a sergeant. For a pagan there may be some motives
to be in love with life; but, for a Christian to be amazed
at death, I see not how he can escape this dilemma -
that he is too sensible of this life, or hopeless of the
life to come.

Sect. 39. - Some divines count Adam thirty years
old at his creation, because they suppose him created in
the perfect age and stature of man: and surely we are
all out of the computation of our age; and every man
is some months older 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 truest microcosm, the womb of our mother;
for besides that general and common existence we are
conceived to hold in our chaos, and whilst we sleep
within the bosom of our causes, we enjoy a being and
life in three distinct worlds, wherein we receive most
manifest gradations. In that obscure world, the womb
of our mother, our time is short, computed by the
moon; yet longer than the days of many creatures that
behold the sun; ourselves being not yet without life,
sense, and reason; though, for the manifestation of
its actions, it awaits the opportunity of objects, and
seems to live there but in its root and soul of vegetation.
Entering afterwards upon the scene of the world, we
arise up and become another creature; performing the
reasonable actions of man, and obscurely manifesting
that part of divinity in us, but not in complement and
perfection, till we have once more cast our secundine,
that is, this slough of flesh, and are delivered into the
last world, that is, that ineffable place of Paul, that
proper ubi of spirits. The smattering I have of the
philosopher's stone (which is something more than the
perfect exaltation of gold) hath taught me a great deal
of divinity, and instructed my belief, how that immortal
spirit and incorruptible substance of my soul may lie
obscure, and sleep a while within this house of flesh.
Those strange and mystical transmigrations that I have
observed in silkworms turned my philosophy into
divinity. There is in these works of nature, which
seem to puzzle reason, something divine; and hath
more in it than the eye of a common spectator doth

Sect. 40. - I am naturally bashful; nor hath conver-
sation, age, or travel, been able to effront or enharden
me; yet I have one part of modesty, which I have
seldom discovered in another, that is (to speak truly),
I am not so much afraid of death as ashamed thereof;
'tis the very disgrace and ignominy of our natures, that
in a moment can so disfigure us, that our nearest
friends, wife, and children, stand afraid, and start at us.
The birds and beasts of the field, that before, in a
natural fear, obeyed us, forgetting all allegiance, begin
to prey upon us. This very conceit hath, in a tempest,
disposed and left me willing to be swallowed up in the
abyss of waters, wherein I had perished unseen, un-
pitied, without wondering eyes, tears of pity, lectures
of mortality, and none had said, "Quantum mutatus ab
illo!" Not that I am ashamed of the anatomy of my
parts, or can accuse nature of playing the bungler in
any part of me, or my own vicious life for contracting
any shameful disease upon me, whereby I might not
call myself as wholesome a morsel for the worms as

Sect. 41. - Some, upon the courage of a fruitful issue,
wherein, as in the truest chronicle, they seem to outlive
themselves, can with greater patience away with death.
This conceit and counterfeit subsisting in our progenies
seems to be a mere fallacy, unworthy the desire of a
man, that can but conceive a thought of the next world;
who, in a nobler ambition, should desire to live in his
substance in heaven, rather than his name and shadow
in the earth. And therefore, at my death, I mean to
take a total adieu of the world, not caring for a monu-
ment, history, or epitaph; not so much as the bare
memory of my name to be found anywhere, but in the
universal register of God. I am not yet so cynical, as
to approve the testament of Diogenes,* nor do I alto-
gether allow that rodomontado of Lucan;+

- - -"Coelo tegitur, qui non habet urnam."
He that unburied lies wants not his hearse;
For unto him a tomb's the universe.

but commend, in my calmer judgment, those ingenuous
intentions that desire to sleep by the urns of their
fathers, and strive to go the neatest way unto corruption.
I do not envy the temper of crows and daws, nor the
numerous and weary days of our fathers before the
flood. If there be any truth in astrology, I may outlive

* Who willed his friend not to bury him, but to hang him
up with a staff in his hand, to fright away the crows.
+ "Pharsalia," vii. 819.

a jubilee; as yet I have not seen one revolution of
Saturn, nor hath my pulse beat thirty years, and yet,
excepting one, have seen the ashes of, and left under
ground, all the kings of Europe; have been contem-
porary to three emperors, four grand signiors, and as
many popes: methinks I have outlived myself, and
begin to be weary of the sun; I have shaken hands with
delight in my warm blood and canicular days; I
perceive I do anticipate the vices of age; the world to
me is but a dream or mock-show, and we all therein but
pantaloons and anticks, to my severer contemplations.

Sect. 42. - It is not, I confess, an unlawful prayer to
desire to surpass the days of our Saviour, or wish to
outlive that age wherein he thought fittest to die; yet, if
(as divinity affirms) there shall be no grey hairs in heaven,
but all shall rise in the perfect state of men, we do
but outlive those perfections in this world, to be recalled
unto them by a greater miracle in the next, and run on
here but to be retrograde hereafter. Were there any
hopes to outlive vice, or a point to be superannuated
from sin, it were worthy our knees to implore the days
of Methuselah. But age doth not rectify, but incurvate
our natures, turning bad dispositions into worser habits,
and (like diseases) brings on incurable vices; for every
day, as we grow weaker in age, we grow stronger in sin,
and the number of our days doth but make our sins
innumerable. The same vice, committed at sixteen, is
not the same, though it agrees in all other circum-
stances, as at forty; but swells and doubles from the
circumstance of our ages, wherein, besides the constant
and inexcusable habit of transgressing, the maturity of
our judgment cuts off pretence unto excuse or pardon.
Every sin, the oftener it is committed, the more it
acquireth in the quality of evil; as it succeeds in time,
so it proceeds in degrees of badness; for as they proceed
they ever multiply, and, like figures in arithmetick, the
last stands for more than all that went before it. And,
though I think no man can live well once, but he that
could live twice, yet, for my own part, I would not live
over my hours past, or begin again the thread of my
days; not upon Cicero's ground,* because I have lived
them well, but for fear I should live them worse. I
find my growing judgment daily instruct me how to
be better, but my untamed affections and confirmed
vitiosity make me daily do worse. I find in my con-
firmed age the same sins I discovered in my youth; I
committed many then because I was a child; and,
because I commit them still, I am yet an infant.
Therefore I perceive a man may be twice a child,
before the days of dotage; and stand in need of AEson's
bath before threescore.

Sect. 43. - And truly there goes a deal of providence
to produce a man's life unto threescore; there is more
required than an able temper for those years: though
the radical humour contain in it sufficient oil for seventy,
yet I perceive in some it gives no light past thirty: men
assign not all the causes of long life, that write whole
books thereof. They that found themselves on the
radical balsam, or vital sulphur of the parts, determine
not why Abel lived not so long as Adam. There is
therefore a secret gloom or bottom of our days: 'twas
his wisdom to determine them: but his perpetual and
waking providence that fulfils and accomplisheth them;
wherein the spirits, ourselves, and all the creatures of
God, in a secret and disputed way, do execute his will.
Let them not therefore complain of immaturity that die
about thirty: they fall but like the whole world, whose

* Ep. lib. xxiv. ep. 24.

solid and well-composed substance must not expect the
duration and period of its constitution: when all things
are completed in it, its age is accomplished; and the
last and general fever may as naturally destroy it before
six thousand, as me before forty. There is therefore
some other hand that twines the thread of life than that
of nature: we are not only ignorant in antipathies and
occult qualities; our ends are as obscure as our begin-
nings; the line of our days is drawn by night, and the
various effects therein by a pencil that is invisible;
wherein, though we confess our ignorance, I am sure
we do not err if we say, it is the hand of God.

Sect. 44. - I am much taken with two verses of Lucan,
since I have been able not only, as we do at school, to
construe, but understand:

"Victurosque Dei celant ut vivere, durent,
Felix esse mori."*
We're all deluded, vainly searching ways
To make us happy by the length of days;
For cunningly, to make's protract this breath,
The gods conceal the happiness of death.

There be many excellent strains in that poet, where-
with his stoical genius hath liberally supplied him:
and truly there are singular pieces in the philosophy
of Zeno, and doctrine of the stoics, which I perceive,
delivered in a pulpit, pass for current divinity: yet
herein are they in extremes, that can allow a man to be
his own assassin, and so highly extol the end and suicide
of Cato. This is indeed not to fear death, but yet to be
afraid of life. It is a brave act of valour to contemn
death; but, where life is more terrible than death, it
is then the truest valour to dare to live: and herein
religion hath taught us a noble example; for all the

* Pharsalia, iv. 519.

valiant acts of Curtius, Scaevola, or Codrus, do not
parallel, or match, that one of Job; and sure there is
no torture to the rack of a disease, nor any poniards in
death itself, like those in the way or prologue unto it.
"Emori nolo, sed me esse mortuum nihil curo;" I would
not die, but care not to be dead. Were I of Caesar's
religion, I should be of his desires, and wish rather to
go off at one blow, than to be sawed in pieces by the
grating torture of a disease. Men that look no further
than their outsides, think health an appurtenance unto
life, and quarrel with their constitutions for being sick;
but I, that have examined the parts of man, and know
upon what tender filaments that fabrick hangs, do
wonder that we are not always so; and, considering the
thousand doors that lead to death, do thank my God
that we can die but once. 'Tis not only the mischief
of diseases, and the villany of poisons, that make an
end of us; we vainly accuse the fury of guns, and the
new inventions of death: - it is in the power of every
hand to destroy us, and we are beholden unto every
one we meet, he doth not kill us. There is therefore
but one comfort left, that though it be in the power of
the weakest arm to take away life, it is not in the
strongest to deprive us of death. God would not ex-
empt himself from that; the misery of immortality
in the flesh he undertook not, that was immortal.
Certainly there is no happiness within this circle of
flesh; nor is it in the opticks of these eyes to behold
felicity. The first day of our jubilee is death; the
devil hath therefore failed of his desires; we are hap-
pier with death than we should have been without it:
there is no misery but in himself, where there is no
end of misery; and so indeed, in his own sense, the
stoic is in the right. He forgets that he can die, who
complains of misery: we are in the power of no calamity
while death is in our own.

Sect. 45. - Now, besides this literal and positive kind
of death, there are others whereof divines make men-
tion, and those, I think, not merely metaphorical, as
mortification, dying unto sin and the world. There-
fore, I say, every man hath a double horoscope; one of
his humanity, - his birth, another of his Christianity, -
his baptism: and from this do I compute or calculate
my nativity; not reckoning those horae combustae, and
odd days, or esteeming myself anything, before I was
my Saviour's and enrolled in the register of Christ.
Whosoever enjoys not this life, I count him but an
apparition, though he wear about him the sensible
affections of flesh. In these moral acceptions, the way
to be immortal is to die daily; nor can I think I have
the true theory of death, when I contemplate a skull or
behold a skeleton with those vulgar imaginations it
casts upon us. I have therefore enlarged that common
memento mori into a more Christian memorandum,
memento quatuor novissima, - those four inevitable
points of us all, death, judgment, heaven, and hell.
Neither did the contemplations of the heathens rest in
their graves, without a further thought, of Rhada-
manth or some judicial proceeding after death, though
in another way, and upon suggestion of their natural
reasons. I cannot but marvel from what sibyl or oracle
they stole the prophecy of the world's destruction by
fire, or whence Lucan learned to say -

"Communis mundo superest rogus, ossibus astra
Misturus - "*

There yet remains to th' world one common fire,
Wherein our bones with stars shall make one pyre.

* Pharsalia, vii. 814.

I believe the world grows near its end; yet is neither
old nor decayed, nor will ever perish upon the ruins of
its own principles. As the work of creation was above
nature, so its adversary, annihilation; without which
the world hath not its end, but its mutation. Now,
what force should be able to consume it thus far, with-
out the breath of God, which is the truest consuming
flame, my philosophy cannot inform me. Some believe
there went not a minute to the world's creation, nor
shall there go to its destruction; those six days, so
punctually described, make not to them one moment,
but rather seem to manifest the method and idea of
that great work of the intellect of God than the manner
how he proceeded in its operation. I cannot dream that
there should be at the last day any such judicial pro-
ceeding, or calling to the bar, as indeed the Scripture
seems to imply, and the literal commentators do con-
ceive: for unspeakable mysteries in the Scriptures are
often delivered in a vulgar and illustrative way, and,
being written unto man, are delivered, not as they truly
are, but as they may be understood; wherein, notwith-
standing, the different interpretations according to dif-
ferent capacities may stand firm with our devotion, nor
be any way prejudicial to each single edification.

Sect. 46. - Now, to determine the day and year of this
inevitable time, is not only convincible and statute
madness, but also manifest impiety. How shall we
interpret Elias's six thousand years, or imagine the
secret communicated to a Rabbi which God hath de-
nied unto his angels? It had been an excellent quaere
to have posed the devil of Delphos, and must needs
have forced him to some strange amphibology. It hath
not only mocked the predictions of sundry astrologers
in ages past, but the prophecies of many melancholy
heads in these present; who, neither understanding
reasonably things past nor present, pretend a know-
ledge of things to come; heads ordained only to mani-
fest the incredible effects of melancholy and to fulfil old
prophecies,* rather than be the authors of new. "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. "There shall
be signs in the moon and stars;" how comes he then
like a thief in the night, when he gives an item of his
coming? That common sign, drawn from the revela-
tion of antichrist, is as obscure as any; in our common
compute he hath been come these many years; but,
for my own part, to speak freely, I am half of opinion
that antichrist is the philosopher's stone in divinity, for
the discovery and invention whereof, though there be
prescribed rules, and probable inductions, yet hath
hardly any man attained the perfect discovery thereof.
That general opinion, that the world grows near its
end, hath possessed all ages past as nearly as ours. I
am afraid that the souls that now depart cannot escape
that lingering expostulation of the saints under the
altar, "quousque, Domine?" how long, O Lord? and groan
in the expectation of the great jubilee.

Sect. 47. - This is the day that must make good that
great attribute of God, his justice; that must reconcile
those unanswerable doubts that torment the wisest
understandings; and reduce those seeming inequalities
and respective distributions in this world, to an equality
and recompensive justice in the next. This is that one
day, that shall include and comprehend all that went
before it; wherein, as in the last scene, all the actors
must enter, to complete and make up the catastrophe of

* "In those days there shall come liars and false prophets."

this great piece. This is the day whose memory hath,
only, power to make us honest in the dark, and to be
virtuous without a witness. "Ipsa sui pretium virtus sibi,"
that virtue is her own reward, is but a cold principle,
and not able to maintain our variable resolutions in a
constant and settled way of goodness. I have practised
that honest artifice of Seneca, and, in my retired and
solitary imaginations to detain me from the foulness of
vice, have fancied to myself the presence of my dear and
worthiest friends, before whom I should lose my head
rather than be vicious; yet herein I found that there
was nought but moral honesty; and this was not to be
virtuous for his sake who must reward us at the last. I
have tried if I could reach that great resolution of his,
to be honest without a thought of heaven or hell; and,
indeed I found, upon a natural inclination, and inbred
loyalty unto virtue, that I could serve her without a
livery, yet not in that resolved and venerable way, but
that the frailty of my nature, upon an easy temptation,
might be induced to forget her. The life, therefore, and
spirit of all our actions is the resurrection, and a stable
apprehension that our ashes shall enjoy the fruit of our
pious endeavours; without this, all religion is a fallacy,
and those impieties of Lucian, Euripides, and Julian, are
no blasphemies, but subtile verities; and atheists have
been the only philosophers.

Sect. 48. - How shall the dead arise, is no question of
my faith; to believe only possibilities is not faith, but
mere philosophy. Many things are true in divinity,
which are neither inducible by reason nor confirmable
by sense; and many things in philosophy confirmable
by sense, yet not inducible by reason. Thus it is im-
possible, by any solid or demonstrative reasons, to per-
suade a man to believe the conversion of the needle to
the north; though this be possible and true, and easily

1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15

Online LibraryThomas BrowneReligio Medici, Hydriotaphia, and the Letter to a Friend → online text (page 5 of 15)