was written around 1635 by Sir Thomas Browne
, a Doctor of Medicine
resident in Norwich
. It was not intended for publication. It was intended as, and remains, a piece of religious introspection
. It was first published, without Browne’s consent, in 1642, to immediate success. An authorised and revised edition came out the next year.
The seventeenth century saw a clash between two schools: that of empirical investigation, and the Church. Not only was the period politically and socially troubled, there was great tension between religious belief and scientific discovery. The discoveries of the Age of Reason and of the Renaissance contradicted views that had been beyond doubt. The earth was proven to be spherical, and the geocentric view that the sun revolved around the earth was discredited. Browne’s life spanned the most troubled years of the century.
Religio Medici is the account, literally, of the religion of a physician. Some at the time it was written felt that this was a contradiction in terms. Physicians were notorious for their atheism, and their sciences were so far beyond the comprehension of many that it was rumoured that their healing skills stemmed –paradoxically- from the Devil. Certainly some doctors were frauds living off the credulity the populace, but to extend this to the entire profession would be false. Thus Religio Medici is in part a plea for the medical profession.
Superstition was still rank in England, with witch-hunts continuing up to 1685. In Pseudodoxia Epidemica –otherwise known as Vulgar Errors- Browne tried to address a number of old wives’ tales with a logical and consequential scientific approach. There are chapter headings like ‘of the Phoenix’ and ‘Compendiously of many questionable Customes, Opinions, and Popular Observations’. Browne uses his considerable analytical powers to dissect some common myths. This is Browne the scientist striving for the increase of knowledge against common ignorance.
Following his graduation from Pembroke College, Oxford, Browne studied in European schools of Medicine for three years. At Padua and Leyden, anatomy was pursued without any Catholic intervention as a result of which the Schools of Anatomy there were the most advanced in Europe. Browne spent one year in each of these, receiving his degree as Doctor of Medicine from Leyden in 1633. It is perhaps on this extended trip abroad that Browne became so respectful of the beliefs of others.
Browne is immensely tolerant of other practices: ‘I could never divide myself from any man upon the difference of an opinion’. Though a Protestant, he says ‘I could never heare the Ave Marie Bell without an elevation’. He expresses the division between his and more common attitudes amply well: ‘At a solemne Procession I have wept abundantly, while my consorts, blinde with opposition and prejudice, have fallen into an accesse of laughter.’ He refuses to condemn other denominations simply because he does not hold their views. This is particularly anachronistic. Today, Browne would still be counted amongst the more liberal sectors of society with such respect for others. Browne’s sympathy for others’ practises excludes him from the sectarianism that was so dominant in the seventeenth century.
Browne is very pleased with himself. He writes: ‘I love and honour my owne soule, and have mee thinkes, two armes too few to embrace myself.’ He holds forth on the evils of Avarice, ‘that delirium’, and says that of ‘that Subterraneous Idoll gold -I doe confesse I am an Atheist’. Not content with this, he goes on: ‘I would not entertaine a base designe, or an action that shoulde call mee villain for the Indies.’ He says that he is occasionally too thorough ‘in that common principle, Doe unto others as thou wouldest be done unto thyself.’ These are evidently the thoughts of a man very content with his beliefs and his conduct of them. In his Conclusion, he proposes that the ultimate goal of Man is to find happiness where he can.
Browne’s adherence to Christian practices is not altogether out of piety. He writes in chapter three of Religio Medici: ‘At the sight of a Crosse or Crucifix I can dispence with my Hat, but scarce with the thought or memory of my Saviour.’ This is not indicative of any hollowness to his faith, but an honest admission of humanity. Whose mind, when observing a religious ritual, is entirely focussed upon the object of worship? It is insights such as this that show that Religio Medici is a private and honest introspective meditation.
Browne states his faith as being Anglican, but his faith seems infinitely elastic, encompassing many other philosophies. He says that ‘The severe schools shall never laugh me out of the philosophy of Hermes, that this visible world is but a picture of the invisible.’ Browne also dabbles in Stoicism, and he is so fond of the ideas of Plato that he strongly criticises Aristotle’s attempts to debunk them. He even seems to have faith in astrology; ‘neither is it I thinke my Starre to be wealthy.’
It has been suggested that his beliefs lay closer to Fideism, a doctrine popular with writers like Montaigne and Pascal that allowed one to ‘believe as a Christian what I cannot believe as a philosopher’. Fideism separates the mind from all else, allowing believers to philosophise or practise what they will with impunity. If this is the case, Browne could conduct his scientific research with a clear conscience, happy that religion was a matter of faith rather than reason. The argument runs that Browne felt secure enough in this compartmentalisation of faith and reason to embark upon his remarkably rigorous criticism of the Scriptures. In the light of this, one can understand the allegations of atheism levelled at him, an unrepentant physician, deconstructing the Bible, despite the firm belief that he expresses in Religio Medici.
This argument is not particularly persuasive when one considers the lengths Browne has gone to to accommodate himself in his religion. If he had been a Fideist, it would have been a simpler matter to acknowledge the fact than to write Religio Medici.
It is this that is so interesting in Browne’s attempts to reconcile to fundamentally opposed schools of thought. Like all intelligent and committed Christians, he is fiercely agnostic in his faith, and his application of his immense intellect to the contradictions presented to him produces interesting results. He is determined not to let his reason and his belief do battle until one is won over, but to probe one with the other, and use each to discover more about the other. On the allure of submitting to the atheism of many of his colleagues he says:’ The Devill played at Chesse with me, …and thought to gain a Queen of me, taking advantage of my honest endeavours.’
So convinced is Browne that a questioning and curious faith that is carefully constructed by the believer for themselves is the most satisfying, and the most valid; ’Tis our doubt of reason we owe unto God’, that he says he is pleased not to have witnessed any events of the Bible. He says: ‘Tis an easie and necessary belief to credit what our eye and sense hath examined’. He is ‘thankful that I lived not in the dayes of miracles’, and had his faith ‘thrust upon me’. He admits that he can never understand God: ‘God hath not made a creature that can comprehend him’, although he also writes that ‘there be not enough impossibilities in Religion for an active faith’. To exclude the intellect from his belief on the grounds that he will never accomplish his aim would be unsatisfying, and it would be false to call it a comprehensive faith. Browne’s best explanation of his belief is that it is: ‘not divided by the intellect, but actually comprehended in its Unity’.
Browne remains down to earth throughout Religio Medici. He describes his body ‘as wholesome a morsell for the wormes as any’, and he often returns to death in the progress of his meditations. He praises the profane philospohies of Zeno and the Stoics for their attitude towards it, and quotes ‘the excellent straines’ of a poem by Lucan:
‘We’re all deluded, vainly searching wayes,
To make us happy by the length of dayes;
For cunningly to make’s protract his breath,
The Gods conceal the happiness of Death.’
Death, says Browne, is much to be desired. It is Life that men should fear, not Death. What torture can compare to lengthy disease, he asks. He expresses surprise that given the frailty of the human body men don’t die faster. In section 44, which is lengthy and entirely devoted to death, God is mentioned only twice, and in passing. His approach to life and death is not at all Christian. He says that there is no pleasure to be found within ‘this circle of flesh’, and that death is a preferable state as no further calamities can befall you. Browne’s approach is not that with an end to life is an end to sin, rather an end to suffering.
The scientist in Browne is not exclusively pessimistic
in his outlook. He appreciates ‘masterpieces
of the creator’ like the flower
. He even says that man is an ‘amphibious
piece betweene a corporall and spirituall essence’, which is a considerably more optimistic view than he takes above, with his ‘circle of flesh’. He says that rather than ‘the life of animals’ we live ‘the life of spirits’. This is nearly the opposite view on mankind that he takes above; it rejoices in existence. He finds it difficult to keep the realist
and scientist that his profession requires in balance with the natural optimism he feels.
Sir Thomas Browne’s faith as expressed in Religio Medici is immensely complex, and merits an entire book to examine it thoroughly. Browne could not have lived at a better time, for he encapsulated the developing conflicts between religion and science, and possessed the articulacy to express them exactly. He ‘stands like Janus in the field of knowledge.’ What shines through the work is that for Browne, all that matters is that one is content with oneself. The faith he defines for himself is a fractured and unclassifiable mixture of whichever doctrines and philosophies appeal. The religious edifice he constructs is one that he tailors to suit himself. In his uplifting conclusion, he says: ‘That God himselfe is happy, I call happinesse…O Lord, my ambition I dare call happinesse on earth: dispose of me according to the wisdome of thy pleasure.’