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Thomas Browne


Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) was an English author of a number of works that disclose his curious learning, his humane attitude towards medicine and religion, and his melancholia.

Browne was educated at Pembroke College, Oxford and received his B.A. degree in 1626, and a medical doctorate from the University of Leiden in 1633. He settled in Norwich, where he practiced medicine. He was knighted by King Charles II in 1671.

Browne's first well-known work bore the Latin title Religio Medici, (The Religion of a Physician). This work was circulated in manuscript among his friends, and it caused Browne some surprise and embarrassment when an unauthorised edition appeared in 1642, since the work contained a number of religious speculations that might be considered unorthodox. An authorised text with some of the controversial matter removed appeared in 1643. The expurgation did not end the controversy; in 1645, Alexander Ross[?] attacked Religio Medici in his Medicus Medicatus (The Doctor, Doctored) and in fact the book was placed upon the Papal index of forbidden reading for Catholics in the same year.

In 1646, Browne published Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or, Enquiries into Very many Received Tenets, and commonly Presumed Truths, whose title refers to the prevalence of false beliefs and "vulgar errors." It is a sceptical collection that deals with a number of legends circulating at the time, which it treats in a paradoxical and witty manner. The book is scientifically significant because its arguments were some of the first to cast doubt on the widely-believed hypothesis of spontaneous generation or abiogenesis.

In 1658 Browne published together two Discourses which are intimately related to each other, the first being Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial or a Brief Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk, occasioned by the discovery of some Bronze Age burials in earthenware vessels found in Norfolk. This occasions a lengthy meditation on the funerary customs of the world and the fleetingness of earthly fame and reputation.

Hydriotaphia's (Urn-Burial) 'binary' companion Discourse is The Garden of Cyrus, or, The Quincunciall Lozenge, or Network Plantations of the Ancients, Artificially, Naturally, and Mystically Considered, whose slight subject is the quincunx, the arrangement of five units like the five-spot in dice, which Browne asserts was the way Cyrus's garden was planted. This in turn provokes a long and learned discourse that finds quincunxes all over Creation.

Browne's works were characterised by curious learning, and a rich, unusual prose style, alternating between grandiloquence and pith. He is read today more for the evocative style of his prose than for the learning he offers.

Today Sir Thomas Browne is a much misunderstood and little-read author. His paradoxical place in the history of ideas results from the fact that he was as much a scientist as a devout Christian and as much a promoter of the new inductive science as an adherent of ancient esoteric learning. These factors have contributed greatly to his neglect, whilst the complexity of his ornate and labyrinthine prose has reinforced upon him reliance on received information. Browne's stylistic influence however can be seen in the writings of Doctor Johnson. In the nineteenth century he was greatly admired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the novelist Herman Melville who, heavily influenced by his style, considered him to be 'a cracked archangel'. In modern times references to Browne can be found in such diverse works as the writings of the American natural historian and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, the theosophist Madame Blavatsky, and the Scottish psychologist R. D. Laing[?], whose The Politics of Experience opens with a quotation by Browne. Two review articles by Virginia Woolf upon Browne can be sourced at the excellent site dedicated to Browne at http://www.penelope.uchicago.edu. This website is headed by a quotation from Woolf's 1923 review of a new edition of Browne's writings:

'But why fly in the face of facts? Few people love the writings of Sir Thomas Browne, but those that do are the salt of the earth'.

But perhaps the single most influenced author in modern times, not only by Browne's style but also by his thought, is the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges who alludes to him frequently in his writings, and once even stated-

'I am merely a word for Chesterton, for Kafka, and Sir Thomas Browne—I love him. I translated him into seventeenth century Spanish and it worked very well. We took a chapter out of 'Urne Buriall' and we did that into Quevedo's Spanish and it went very well'.

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