The Curious Mind of Sir Thomas Browne
Who was Sir Thomas Browne?
Virginia Woolf said he had a ‘sublime genius’. Herman Melville called him a ‘cracked archangel’. Jorge Luis Borges translated him – ‘the best prose writer in the English language’ – into Spanish. Other fans include Samuel Johnson Lytton Strachey, Stephen Jay Gould and W.G. Sebald. ‘He’ is Sir Thomas Browne, and the chances are that, while you know his admirers, you are not familiar with him. Who was he? Firstly, he was a physician in 17th century Norwich. But he was also a philosopher, a writer, a moralist, a naturalist, a herbalist, a chemist and alchemist, a mathematician and geometer, and a populariser of science – one of the first. He is responsible for the addition to the English language of words such as hallucination, electricity, computer, literary, medical and incontrovertible.
Religion and science
Browne’s literary reputation rests mainly on three gloriously baroque essays, Religio Medici, Urn Burial, and The Garden of Cyrus. In Religio Medici, he reconciles his rational mind as a physician with his Christian faith. The book appeared at a time of religious tension between Catholics and Protestants before the English Civil War. ‘I borrow not the rules of my religion from Rome or Geneva, but the dictates of my own reason,’ he bravely wrote. In the same essay, he set aside rather simply the controversy between science and religion that so agitates some people today: ‘I teach my haggard and unreclaimed Reason to stoop unto the lure of Faith.’ But he did not accept the biblical truth of the Creation or the Flood, and the literal truth of the Ark is disproved for him by the existence of unrecorded animal species in the Americas. Browne’s thinking could scarcely be more relevant to today's tension between science and religion. He dared to bring experiment to bear on apparent miracles – many of which could only emerge as highly dubious – but also resolved that faith was something apart from reason.
But Browne’s longest and most detailed work is the one most obviously relevant to us today. This is the Pseudodoxia Epidemica – another glorious title, and given the helpful English subtitle Enquiries into Very Many Received Tene[n]ts and Commonly Presumed Truths. In other words, it is a catalogue of urban myths of the 17th century, a list of epidemic pseudodoxies. In some 500 pages, Browne has a go at some 200 of these urban myths. It is exhilarating, entertaining stuff, by turns elegant and humorous, but always tolerant of people’s credulousness. Some errors are the result of mistranslated terms, others of mythological embellishment. Simple, if privileged, observation deals with others. An anatomy class confirms that men and women have the same number of ribs, not the biblically different number. Some are dealt with by linguistic knowledge: the idea that beavers will bite off their own testicles to escape a hunter, for example, though contained in Aesop and Aristotle, is the result of confusion of the Greek for beaver (Castor) and Latin for castrate (castrare). Some are confronted by logic. For example, the mythical unicorn is probably based on sightings of the rhinoceros or the oryx. Or, is glass poisonous? No, but it might easily be thought so at a time when glass powder was used to kill rats and glass for windows was a luxurious innovation few could enjoy. Could Xerxes' army have drunk whole rivers dry, as Herodotus has it? Well, you could ask, how big was the army, how big was the river ... but Browne clearsightedly cuts straight through the debate to find it ‘wondrous strange that they exhausted not the provision of the Countrey, rather then the waters thereof’.
Other myths are refuted empirically: does a fly make its buzzing noise with its mouth? No, the body buzzes even after the head is cut off. You can do the experiment yourself. Browne was a true Baconian, and tested ideas more than Bacon did himself. He is thought to have maintained a physick garden. He was a keen naturalist, recording some of the first sightings of various species in Norfolk. He kept a bittern in his back yard, which helped him disprove the belief that the birds make their characteristic booming noise with the help of the reeds among which they live. He was not afraid to refute palpable nonsense. But he was also not afraid to be seen sitting on the fence. One of his most eloquent passages concerns the merits or otherwise of gold ‘inwardly taken’ as ‘a cordiall of great efficacy, in sundry medical uses’. He is first inclined to disbelief, although this puts him at odds with Classical scholars, on the grounds that as gold passes through the body unchanged, it cannot effect any change. But then he considers that magnetic lodestone exerts its effect without change, and cannot rule out that gold might work in some equally mysterious way. He is not afraid to display tolerance either. If pregnant women believed that clutching a stone to their bellies offered them relief from pain, he at least saw that the practice was unlikely to do them much harm, and was happy to let them go their way.
New vulgar errors
We should look more carefully at how Thomas Browne dealt with the urban myths of the 17th century. It might help us find better ways to deal with our own. These bizarre pieces of folklore may seem hilariously primitive. But, there are new vulgar errors and an epidemic of pseudodoxy today in the nonsense that’s believed by many, some of them in the highest places eg global warming is a scientific fiction (George W. Bush) or that the combined MMR vaccine causes autism. Browne’s use of rationalism to attack widespread superstition puts him in a tradition of scientist-writers that today includes Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins. But he does it with a lightness of touch that often escapes today’s authors. Unlike some of them, he has a high level of tolerance and a sense of humour that is always gentle, never mocking. He may be ironic but he is never sarcastic. As Edmund Gosse, another of Browne's distinguished biographers, pointed out: ‘He deprecated the frown of theology. But he knew by experience that people love to preserve their mistakes, and are often heartily vexed to be set right.’ Note that ‘by experience’. This is key to Browne, the practising physician, accustomed to reasoning with patients at the bedside.One might add that he would have deprecated also the frown of the scientist or science writer
Hugh Aldersey-Williams is a writer and curator. His most recent book is Panicology (Penguin, 2008). He curated the exhibition ‘Identity: Eight Rooms, Nine Lives’ at the Wellcome Collection, London, until 6 April 2010.
Browne’s works may be seen at http://penelope.uchicago.edu