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.
What kind of a Christian was Sir Thomas Browne? In the religious landscape of 1630s England he was a Laudian conformist. His Laudianism appears in his attraction to ceremony (‘I am, I confesse, naturally inclined to that, which misguided zeale termes superstition’); in his anti-anti-Catholicism (‘we have reformed from them, not against them,’ Browne observes, and deplores abuse of the pope); and in his fidelity to the institutional English Church. It appears also, Debora Shuger has pointed out, in his doctrinal minimalism, whereby no denomination should insist that they are the only true Christians: ‘those who doe confine the Church of God, either to particular Nations, Churches, or Families, have made it far narrower than our Saviour ever meant it.’ On this view, the English bishops are to be obeyed not because their authority is infallible, or because every ceremony is necessary to go to heaven, but out of duty, respect, love of civic harmony and good order. Religio Medici contains a few sideswipes at Puritans – charity grows coldest, Browne observes, ‘in those which most doe manifest the fires and flames of zeale’ – but on the whole its tone isn’t polemical. Browne was a Laudian of the speculative, eirenic strain, akin in spirit to the intellectuals of Lord Falkland’s Great Tew Circle. The eirenic tendency – ‘I never could divide my selfe from any man upon the difference of an opinion,’ Browne writes – might look apolitical, but when push came to shove in 1642 such persons inclined to the king. During the Civil War Browne was a visible Royalist sympathiser in pro-Parliamentary Norwich.
The first readers of Religio Medici could hear its title as an oxymoron: doctors were not supposed to be good Christians. This notion had various causes: the pagan origins of learned medicine in the West, the popular association between healing and the occult arts, the suspicion that too much exposure to advanced ideas might render a doctor unable to tell wrong from right. Browne alludes to this prejudice in his book’s first sentence, in which he declares himself a Christian despite ‘the generall scandall of my profession, the naturall [i.e. scientific] course of my studies, the indifferency of my behaviour, and discourse in matters of Religion’. He defends inquiry into the ways of nature as a way of glorifying its creator: ‘The wisedome of God receives small honour from those vulgar heads, that rudely stare about, and with a grosse rusticity admire his workes; those highly magnifie him whose judicious enquiry into his acts, and deliberate research of his creatures, returne the duty of a devout and learned admiration.’ Browne’s pride in his scientific learning supports his pervasive self-confidence, as common in physicians then as now. And it is his status as a learned doctor, an expert in the practical application of reason, which lends authority to the move he makes again and again in Religio Medici: the subordination of reason to faith.
‘In Philosophy,’ Browne writes, ‘where truth seems double-faced, there is no man more paradoxicall than my self; but in Divinity I love to keep the road, and though not in an implicite, yet an humble faith, follow the great wheele of the Church, by which I move, not reserving any proper poles or motion from the epicycle of my owne braine.’ An epicycle, in Ptolemaic astronomy, is a smaller circle revolving around a greater one, and the metaphorical motion Browne disclaims is an apt description of his thought, which orbits irregularly around the main circle of orthodox Christianity without flying off into outer space. His distinction between (natural) philosophy and divinity draws the line between knowledge gained through reason and by faith, and much energy in Religio Medici is devoted to maintaining this boundary. He allows that the Bible contains manifest absurdities:
I confesse there are in Scripture stories that doe exceed the fables of Poets, and to a captious Reader sound like Gargantua or Bevis: Search all the legends of times past, and the fabulous conceits of those present, and ’twill bee hard to find one that deserves to carry the buckler unto Sampson; yet all this is of an easy possibility, if we conceive a divine concourse or an influence but from the little finger of the Almighty.
He makes lists of biblical paradoxes: where was Lazarus’s soul before he was raised from the dead? If Eve was created from Adam’s rib, which of them will possess that rib at the Resurrection? The curse of suffering in childbirth doesn’t seem to apply equally to all women. How did the tree of knowledge grow in Eden, since God had not yet caused it to rain upon the earth? How did Moses burn the golden calf into powder, since gold doesn’t powder but liquifies when heated? The end of such reasonings is to humble reason, which must be trained to submit to faith: ‘yet doe I beleeve that all this is true, which indeed my reason would perswade me to be false; and this I think is no vulgar part of faith to believe a thing not only above, but contrary to reason, and against the arguments of our proper senses.’
Browne acknowledges the danger of a scientific education: it might leave an opening for the devil to suggest naturalistic explanations for biblical miracles.
For our endeavours are not onely to combate with doubts, but alwayes to dispute with the Devill; the villainy of that spirit takes a hint of infidelity from our Studies, and by demonstrating a naturality in one way, makes us mistrust a miracle in another … I know that Manna is now plentifully gathered in Calabria, and Josephus tels me, in his dayes ’twas as plentifull in Arabia; the Devill therefore made the quere, Where was then the miracle in the dayes of Moses? the Israelites saw but that in his time, the natives of these Countries behold in ours. Thus the Devill playd at Chesse with mee, and yeelding a pawne, thought to gaine a Queen of me, taking advantage of my honest endeavors; and whilst I labour’d to raise the structure of my reason, hee striv’d to undermine the edifice of my faith.
The devil might prompt you to wonder whether Browne’s efforts to humble his reason are as sincere as he professes. Is he writing scepticism behind a veil of orthodoxy? Some contemporary respondents to Religio Medici found Browne’s doubts bad medicine. One was the Calvinist minister Alexander Ross, who wrote a hostile answer entitled Medicus Medicatus, or the Physicians Religion Cured:
I deny not, that many of Gods servants have their doubtings; but this comforts them, that Christ prayeth for them, that their faith shall not fail, and this assures them of their salvation … No perfection here: the fairest day hath its clouds, and the strongest faith its doubts: but to be still doubting, is a sign of a bad Christian, and, as Seneca will have it, of a bad man.
For all his disapproval, however, Ross does not accuse Browne of deliberately subverting Christianity. He objects in the quotation above to Browne’s anti-Calvinist line on the then controversial question of assurance: whether you can know with perfect certainty that you will be saved. For Ross, unwillingness to swear to an assurance of salvation shows a lack of trust in Christ’s prayers, and so he assumes that Browne, who will not swear to it – ‘I am confident and fully perswaded, yet dare not take my oath of my salvation’ – has therefore no way to quiet his doubts, and must remain ‘still doubting’. Browne would disagree. His position, in accord with Rome on this point, is that perfect assurance of salvation is neither possible nor necessary. To claim that you are sure of heaven through your faith, he declares, is as vain as to claim that you have deserved it through your works:
Insolent zeales that doe decry good workes and rely onely upon faith, take not away merits: for depending upon the efficacy of their faith, they enforce the condition of God, and in a more sophisticall way doe seeme to challenge Heaven. It was decreed by God, that onely those that lapt in the water like dogges, should have the honour to destroy the Midianites; yet could none of those justly challenge, or imagine hee deserved that honour thereupon. I doe not deny, but that true faith, and such as God requires, is not onely a marke or token, but also a meanes of our Salvation; but where to finde this, is as obscure to me, as my last end. And if our Saviour could object [i.e. present] unto his owne Disciples, & favorites, a faith, that to the quantity of a graine of Mustard seed, is able to move mountaines; surely that which wee boast of, is not anything, or at the most, but a remove from nothing.
Our works don’t earn us heaven, but our faith is nothing to boast of, either. Browne’s partisan side is visible here: a Puritan reader would not miss the slighting reference to ‘Insolent zeales’, or the implication that Calvinist claims to sure salvation are presumptuous. Browne holds that we are justified by faith, but is willing to accept that he has no idea where that saving faith comes from. For Ross, lack of certainty on such an important point would feel like a slippery slope to despair. Browne found sufficient traction.
The difference between the two is not that between firm faith and subversive doubt. Both are earnest Christians of different stripes, and both take for granted that doubts are commonplace. To raise sceptical questions in the period was not in itself subversive; it would look so only if it appeared that you were endorsing sceptical conclusions. To read Browne this way you would have to ignore most of what he says. He doubts that the Day of Judgment will involve a literal judicial proceeding; he does not question that the Day of Judgment will take place. The Samson story is absurd, but an almighty God could make it happen, just as God could reduce the golden calf to powder – ours not to ask how. As for the view that the devil uses science to undermine Christianity, it has at least one proponent in the present US Congress, Representative Paul Broun of Georgia, who declared in September 2012: ‘All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a saviour.’ Congressman Broun is also, as it happens, a physician.
As a scientist, Browne aims to raise the structure of his reason as high as he can; as a Christian, he is more mystic than sceptic. In repeatedly expressing and quieting his doubts, he is contending not with unbelief proper, but with a rationalist approach to belief that seeks to explain all points of faith, leaving no room for mystery. Browne knows this rationalist impulse is strong within him; the trick is to confine it within its proper sphere. His effort to secure the border between reason and faith is not an early version of Gould’s ‘non-overlapping magisteria’, because for Browne, as for theistic believers generally, both spheres include facts, such as he took the burning of the golden calf to be. They are different kinds of fact, or facts known in different ways, on different authorities and by different procedures. This is the way you think about the natural world; this is the way you think about Christianity.
If Browne’s subordinations of reason to faith are not disingenuous, the devil might whisper next, do they involve whistling in the dark? In place of Browne the crypto-sceptic, one might substitute Browne the tormented Christian, wanting to believe but continually impeded by doubts. Some support for this view can be found in Browne’s references to ‘sturdy doubts … which I confesse I conquered, not in a martiall posture, but on my knees’ and ‘those unanswerable doubts which torment the wisest understandings’ about God’s justice, to be resolved only at the Day of Judgment. What counts against it is the untroubled way Browne writes about his doubting, as if it were a kind of intellectual hobby:
I love to lose my selfe in a mystery, to pursue my reasons to an o altitudo. ’Tis my solitary recreation to pose my apprehension with those involved aenigma’s and riddles of the Trinity, with Incarnation and Resurrection. I can answer all the objections of Satan, and my rebellious reason, with that odde maxim I learned of Tertullian, Certum est quia impossibile est.
On the one hand, his reason is rebellious, grammatically linked with Satan himself – where does the one cause begin, and the other end? – and Tertullian’s maxim, which serves as his shield against them both, is ‘odde’. On the other hand, the process of taming the rebel reason is described as a ‘solitary recreation’; for Browne, the whole business is pleasurable and voluntary. ‘I love to lose my selfe in a mystery’ is not the language of spiritual crisis. Compare Bunyan in Grace Abounding:
For about the space of a month after, a very great storm came down upon me, which handled me twenty times worse then all I had met with before; it came stealing upon me, now by one piece, then by another; first all my comfort was taken from me, then darkness seized upon me; after which whole flouds of Blasphemies, both against God, Christ, and the Scriptures, was poured upon my spirit, to my great confusion and astonishment. These blasphemous thoughts were such as also stirred up questions in me against the very being of God, and of his onely beloved Son; as whether there were in truth a God or Christ, or no? and whether the holy Scriptures were not rather a Fable and cunning Story, then the holy and pure Word of God?
The Tempter would also much assault me with this: How can you tell but that the Turks had as good Scriptures to prove their Mahomet the Saviour, as we have to prove our Jesus is; and could I think that so many ten thousands in so many Countreys and Kingdoms, should be without knowledge of the right way to Heaven (if there were indeed a Heaven) and that we onely, who live but in a corner of the Earth, should alone be blessed therewith? Every one doth think his own Religion rightest, both Jews, and Moors, and Pagans; and how if all our Faith, and Christ, and Scriptures, should be but a think-so too?
This is more destabilising doubt than anything in Religio Medici. Browne never questions the existence of God or the truth of the Scriptures, nor is he tempted to relativism by the counter-claims of other religions; he dismisses the Quran as ‘an ill composed Piece, containing in it vaine and ridiculous errours in Philosophy, impossibilities, fictions, and vanities beyond laughter’ and observes of the Jews’ perseverance in their faith: ‘This is a vice in them, but were a virtue in us; for obstinacy in a bad cause, is but constancy in a good.’ For Bunyan, doubts come unbidden like natural disasters, bringing confusion and astonishment in their wake. Browne describes his doubts as if he were proud of them – proud of his cleverness in thinking them up, and proud that he can handle them without damaging his faith. When he asserts that ‘my selfe could shew a catalogue of doubts, never yet imagined nor questioned by any,’ this is a boast, not an expression of spiritual turmoil. It expresses the same ingenuous bravado with which he announces that he could lose an arm without a tear, that he has no fear of hell, or that he thanks God that his sins do not include pride. He allows that dangerous authors like Machiavelli and Lucian should be kept from ‘common heads’ whose faith would be threatened by them, but knows his own to be no common head. He writes as one who has ventured among perilous ideas and returned unscathed, and displays his skill in managing his rebellious reason as an expert might display his skill in handling machinery dangerous in less practised hands. One lesson to be gained from Religio Medici is that the occurrence of doubt, and the degree to which doubt troubles you, are independent variables.
The best way to understand Religio Medici is to take everything Browne says at face value, inconsistencies and all. When he says ‘in divinity I love to keep the road’ he means it; when he speaks of sturdy doubts he has conquered on his knees, he means that too. Nobody has ever accused him of systematic thinking, but he made no claims to it. His unpredictable turns of mind are part of his charm. His professions of orthodoxy were sincere and justified; we just need a capacious sense of what orthodoxy was. The Laudian Church had ample room for speculative thinkers, as long as they were not publicly antagonistic on matters of discipline. Potentially dangerous ideas might crop up anywhere in the period: among educated laymen like Browne, among conforming or nonconforming clergy, among unlettered villagers, radical tub-preachers or New Model soldiers. If you denied the doctrine of the Trinity, or the divinity of Christ, or the truth of the Bible, or the existence of God, you would shock your readers and might land in trouble; but even these fundamentals could be discussed as long as you did not come down finally on the wrong side.
The discovery of ancient funerary urns in a Norfolk field, some thirty miles from Norwich, prompted the writing of Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Buriall (1658). Browne was intrigued by this local find, and his brief treatise on the subject is a mix of archaeological notes and antiquarian learning that blossoms into a reflection on last things. Like Religio, Urne-Buriall muses unsystematically on its subject, but Urne-Buriall is an older author’s book: calm, scholarly, concerned not with his own ‘irregular selfe’ but with the general fact of mortality. Its final pages are as beautiful as any English prose of the 17th century.
Browne the naturalist takes a Hamlet-like interest in the physical changes in the human body after death:
Teeth, bones, and hair, give the most lasting defiance to corruption. In an Hydropicall body ten years buried in a Church-yard, we met with a fat concretion, where the nitre of the Earth, and the salt and lixivious liquor of the body, had coagulated large lumps of fat, into the consistence of the hardest castle-soap; whereof part remaineth with us. After a battle with the Persians the Roman Corps decayed in a few dayes, while the Persian bodies remained dry and uncorrupted.
Typical of Browne in this passage are the scientific terms, including a coinage, ‘lixivious’, the vivid everyday analogy between corpse-fat and castle-soap, and the casual juxtaposition of his own observations with those taken from ancient history. ‘Part remaineth with us’ indicates, I think, that Browne brought home a sample of this hardened corpse-fat for the private collection of specimens and curiosities which occupied much of his house in Norwich, as we know from John Evelyn’s diary. It appears that Browne examined the Norfolk urns himself, though as in Pseudodoxia most of his facts come from his reading. Urne-Buriall draws on dozens of sources, from Homer and Herodotus to Cardano and John Stow, which Browne meticulously references in more than a hundred notes. He paid no mind to the divisions of knowledge of our more specialised age. Examining the urns and their human ashes leads him to consider how past civilisations buried their dead, to assess the relative virtues of burning and burying, to note the variety of funerary monuments, to compare the beliefs about the afterlife on which these various burial practices were based. As in Religio, there are lists of questions. Why, in the Odyssey, do the female ghosts appear to Ulysses before the male? Why does Agamemnon’s shade know the future, but not the present? As in Pseudodoxia, Browne discriminates between more and less reliable received opinions: ‘That [Christ] was crucified with his face towards the West, we will not contend with tradition and probable account; but we applaud not the hand of the Painter, in exalting his Crosse so high above those on either side; since hereof we find no authentick account in history.’
While the younger Browne dismisses other religions, Urne-Buriall surveys Christian and pagan burial practices with detachment. As Greenblatt and Targoff observe, ‘underlying Urne-Buriall is the tacit recognition that pagans and Christians share many of the same fears and desires when confronting their deaths,’ such as the impulse to preserve intimate relationships – by mixing ashes in an urn, or the interment of couples or families beneath a single tombstone. Browne never doubts that the Christian account of the afterlife is the true one, but notes inconsistencies between Christian belief and practice. Why, he wonders, do we build funeral monuments, while we hope and expect that the Last Judgment will soon bring history to a close? The Norfolk urns, whose ashes tell nothing about their occupants, offer yet another proof that efforts to preserve our earthly memory are vanities. Browne would have been fascinated by the scientific methods that enabled the recent identification of Richard III’s bones and would not have been surprised that the remains of the last Plantagenet king should be discovered beneath a Leicester car park. ‘Grave-stones tell truth scarce fourty years.’ Nor should we bet on the posthumous survival of our reputations. ‘In vain we compute our felicities by the advantage of our good names, since bad have equall durations; and Thersites is like to live as long as Agamemnon … And who had not rather have been the good theef, than Pilate?’
The final pages of Urne-Buriall draw the traditional contrast between ephemeral earthly things and Christian immortality, and look forward with awe to the Last Day, when ‘Some Graves will be opened before they be quite closed, and Lazarus be no wonder.’ Browne believed, as did Jesus and Paul, that the apocalypse was imminent. ‘The great mutations of the world are acted, our time may be too short for our designes.’ From the same premises, the Puritan strain of Christianity drew more urgent conclusions: fly from the wrath to come. Understand that you need a saviour. Repent of your sins, amend your life, while time remains. For Browne too the imminence of the Last Judgment was a fact to be welcomed; it is his answer to the problem of evil, and to the certainties of death and oblivion. But he acknowledges human dignity as well as human depravity, and leaves out the exhortations to repentance. ‘Man is a Noble Animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave, solemnizing Nativities and Deaths with equall lustre, nor omitting Ceremonies of bravery, in the infamy of his nature.’ This superbly balanced sentence consists of five antitheses, and for each antithesis both terms must be given their proper weight. We are animals, and yet we are noble; though we reduce to anonymous ashes, we are splendid. ‘Man’ is used inclusively, with no distinction between Christians and others, or between good Christians and bad ones. Browne dedicated Urne-Buriall to a friend whose father, a patient of Browne’s, had recently died. It may be that he wrote the book partly as an essay in consolation, and when consoling the bereaved one does not dwell on sin and hell. But Browne’s generous-minded view of human splendour in our ashes is of a piece with his sense of mystery, with his easy attitude towards paradoxes, and with his willingness to take on trust matters of ultimate concern.