They rudely stare about
- ‘Religio Medici’ and ‘Urne-Buriall’ by Thomas Browne, edited by Stephen Greenblatt and Ramie Targoff
NYRB, 170 pp, £7.99, September 2012, ISBN 978 1 59017 488 3
It is still often proposed that religion and science need not conflict. Stephen Jay Gould held that they occupy ‘non-overlapping magisteria’: science deals with questions of fact, religion with questions of value and meaning. This is wishful thinking, because religions base themselves on factual claims. The god Yahweh promised the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants; Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon from golden plates received from the angel Moroni; Jesus of Nazareth is seated at the right hand of the Father, and will return to judge the living and the dead. Religion, whatever else it involves, has an irreducible core of supernatural belief. Devout persons can, for practical purposes, compartmentalise faith and reason without felt contradiction. But the Bible contains thousands of truth-claims, and at some point any normally curious believer will wonder: how do these square with the rest of my education and experience of the world? Which ones are to be understood literally, which ones metaphorically? Who decides, and on what grounds?
Faith, the Epistle to the Hebrews says, is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen; without faith it is impossible to please God. Hence the designation of belief without evidence as one of the core Christian virtues. Later formulations could be more explicitly fideistic. That Christ was resurrected is certain, Tertullian claimed, because it is impossible. The Reformation principle of justification by faith alone raised the stakes: now faith was not only one of the three theological virtues, but the sole means whereby one got to heaven and escaped hell. This idea lent new urgency to old questions about the relation between faith and reason, and about the mechanics of faith: what could you do to acquire it, discern it, strengthen it, or recover it if you lost it? Early modern England had a large market for books dealing with such matters. Most of them were produced by ministers or theologians, but one of the most enduringly popular was written in 1635 by a physician, Thomas Browne.
Browne was thirty years old. He had lately returned to England after several years studying medicine on the Continent, and was serving a medical apprenticeship in Halifax. There, in his spare time, he compiled a book of personal musings on religion, Religio Medici, which circulated widely in manuscript and found its way to a London printer in 1642 – without his knowledge, Browne claimed, perhaps disingenuously. The book sold well, and despite its wartime publication soon achieved marks of success in England and abroad: reprintings, responses, imitations, translations, inclusion on the Vatican Index. Browne meanwhile had moved to Norwich, where he remained for the rest of his life. He practised his profession, raised a family, wrote several more books, gained a wide reputation as a man of learning and was knighted in 1671. His writing has long been admired for its eloquence, wit and idiosyncratic authorial voice. It is also worth reading as a 17th-century intellectual’s attempt to work out the relation between religion and science.
The past decade has seen a number of valuable studies of his work; Oxford has commissioned a new Complete Works, and a new biography is due out this year. Stephen Greenblatt and Ramie Targoff’s edition of Browne’s two best-known books, designed for a general readership, is a welcome complement to these scholarly projects. The text preserves original spelling and notes; a finely wrought, judicious introduction describes Browne’s wide-ranging curiosity, his influences, his self-fascination, his faith and doubts. A pocket edition of Browne is good to have not least because his aphoristic style rewards casual reading. Open it at any page, and find a surprise.
Browne thought of himself as a natural philosopher, what we would now call a scientist, which by the standards of the day he was. He had received a state of the art medical education at the universities of Montpellier, Padua and Leiden, to which he added clinical experience and extensive reading. Browne’s scientific reputation in his time derived mainly from his longest book, Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Vulgar Errors, published in 1646 and in several expanded editions thereafter. Pseudodoxia is an encyclopedic work of 17th-century myth-busting, debunking dozens of common misconceptions: that diamonds can be softened or broken in goat’s blood; that bitter almonds counteract drunkenness, a falsehood that ‘hath much deceived the hope of good fellows’; that a kingfisher, hung by the bill, will make a natural weathervane; that a bear ‘brings forth her young informous and unshapen, which she fashioneth after by licking them over’. Browne found it possible that a basilisk could kill a man at a distance, as it was reputed to do, by darting poisonous rays from its eyes; but held it unlikely, according to optical principles, that the basilisk could kill this way unless its victim looked back. He credited griffins and basilisks but remained sceptical about the phoenix, for all the antiquity of its reports.
Pseudodoxia is often described as a work of Baconian new science, and its opening section on the reasons vulgar errors persist owes something to Bacon’s discourse on that subject in Novum Organum. In practice Browne’s methods were more traditional. On occasion he conducted an experiment, as when he tested the famous antipathy between spiders and toads by putting some in a glass together to see what happened (the toad ate seven of the spiders). More often he treated a question in scholastic fashion, citing the various authorities on either side and then evaluating them. That the authorities might all be wrong was a problem of which Browne was well aware, but he was rarely in a position to do his own research. Today only his most dedicated fans will read the Pseudodoxia from cover to cover, but it’s useful for showing how gradually the practices we have come to think of as scientific method emerged from older ways of thinking. Wittgenstein, speaking of the transition between his earlier and later phases, writes that ‘My account will be hard to follow: because it says something new but still has eggshells from the old view sticking to it.’ Intellectual history is full of eggshells.
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