Thomas Browne, the seventeenth-century doctor and speculative thinker, is one of the authors I’ve only begun to read in the last few years. I had occasionally heard of him in various places over the previous twenty years, most notably when Harriet Vane finds his book Religio Medici in Peter Wimsey’s pocket in Gaudy Night, and realizes from this that she has misjudged Peter’s character. Later, as an undergraduate writing an essay on the metaphysical significance of gardening in the Renaissance, I started his book Quincunxes, or the Gardens of Cyrus, on a train home, but got no further than the first few pages before giving up and going back to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. During my doctoral research I read one of the scholars I most admired at the time discussing Browne’s work Urn Burial, and tried that too, without getting any sense of who this man was or why he might be writing these bizarre and obscure books.
So I was surprised to find how much I loved Religio Medici when I picked up a copy a couple of years ago. Browne’s contorted language, playful way of addressing serious subjects, and intellectual complexity, were profoundly satisfying. Perhaps as a student I had been too keen to “get the gist” of any book, hurrying through the sentences in order to extract a point which could be easily compared or contrasted to other authors of the period. Browne’s work does not lend itself to this style of reading. He’s both far more serious and far more pleasurable than I gave him space to be back then. Following the turns of his thought, and the elaborate ways he expresses those movements, is an absorbing business. His books are an invitation to a rhetorical and intellectual world, which asks to be explored and experienced rather than boiled down to a position on a particular question.
Religio Medici’s title is usually translated as The Religion of a Doctor, though an equivalent book today would probably be called A Doctor’s Faith. The title advertises its strangeness: physicians in the seventeenth-century were often thought of as tending towards atheism or scepticism. Their handling of technicalities of human life, and enquiring into areas which many thought were the proper concern of God, gave them an irreligious reputation. (It may of course have been true that many doctors found that their knowledge and experience clashed with the ways Christian faith was expressed in the period.) In our own period a similar rhetoric sometimes appears around medical ethics and medical discoveries, when the newspapers suggest that doctors are attempting to “play God”.
There could also be an implication that a doctor was acquainted with both speculative and empirical modes of knowledge, and unlikely to be taken in by false reasoning or wishful thinking. The enthusiastic promotion of modern books about the “evidence” for Christianity by lawyers and scientists might provide a parallel. These people are publicly regarded as dealing in “hard evidence” and “watertight arguments”, and their acceptance of religious arguments is felt by some to show the trustworthiness of Christianity, if it can withstand such difficult tests.
Whatever the shades of meaning implied by the title, Browne’s Religio Medici is largely concerned with the writer’s own thought and beliefs. This can make it feel a little self-obsessed (I haven’t read much Montaigne, but I gather the same is true of him), as Browne sketches his intellectual tendencies or mentions what he used to believe but doesn’t any longer. On the other hand, it gives an astonishing demonstration of how a single person’s thoughts about the world are interconnected and disparate at the same time. Belief for Browne is not static or simple, it is a process of thinking and feeling and acting, and observing himself doing all three.
One of the passages which displays this most clearly is also one of my favourites. In it Browne explains why he crosses himself and bows to the altar whilst also regarding himself as a Reformed Christian:
…I am, I confesse, naturally inclined to that, which misguided zeale terms superstition; my common conversation I do acknowledge austere, my behaviour full of rigour, sometimes not without morosity; yet at my devotion I love to use the civility of my knee, my hat, and hand, with all those outward and sensible motions, which may expresse, or promote my invisible devotion…At the sight of a Crosse or Crucifix I can dispence with my hat, but scarce with the thought or memory of my Saviour…
There’s a lot more to be said about that passage, which also contains an astonishing statement of religious pluralism for a seventeenth-century Protestant, but the phrases I’ve picked out show Browne’s subtle sense of belief. Though reserved and austere, fonder of enjoying the inside of his own head than the rowdy presence of others (what many people would call an “introvert” today), he nonetheless carries out physical acts which others might consider extravagant or “emotional”. He takes his hat on an off, he kneels and bows and crosses himself. These actions Browne explains “may expresse or promote my invisible devotion”, linking his mental and emotional world with his physical actions in a process which runs both ways. Kneeling or crossing can physically show his reverence and articulate his belief, but they can also nurture those things in turn. The outwards movements show the faith held by the intellect and emotions, and also enable that faith to grow and deepen.
Browne doesn’t deny a connection between the exterior and the interior, but insists on their dialectical connection. Both are part of the whole human self, and both influence the other. Browne’s words, “outward and sensible motions…invisible devotion” clearly echo the Book of Common Prayer’s definition of a sacrament: “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”. Originating in Augustine’s writings, and part of the Anglican catechism, this phrase resounds in Browne’s account of how his mind, heart, body and faith are bound up together. He doesn’t use the exact words, of course: he is not suggesting his own body is a sacrament. But his meditation on how the internal and external worlds of a single person both engage with God is deeply infused with the language of Anglican devotion and theology.
This should probably be unsurprising, since the words and movements of the Book of Common Prayer provide another “external” world of speech and action which both express and promote the “internal” world of thought and feeling. Browne’s choice of the BCP’s words draws on both the theological formulation which goes back to an African bishop of the fifth century, and on the form of religious experience which the Prayer Book can promote. This echo gestures towards the meaning he intends and the ways in which meanings are shaped in his faith. Having started to write about Thomas Browne, I suppose it was inevitable I’d end up writing about the Book of Common Prayer – no doubt more about both will follows before long.