I was first introduced to Thomas Browne in one of my favorite books, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. How could I not be intrigued by Sebald’s distillation of Browne’s thought?
What we perceive are no more than isolated lights in the abyss of ignorance, in the shadow filled edifice of the world. We study the order of things, says Browne, but we cannot grasp their innermost essence. And because it is so, it befits our philosophy to be writ small, using the shorthand and contracted forms of transient Nature, which alone are a reflection of eternity.
W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, 19
And, indeed, Browne is an intriguing thinker, an eclectic sort of man, with an appreciation of nature near and dear to my own:
Thus there are two bookes from whence I collect my Divinity; besides that written one of God, another of his servant Nature, that universall and publik Manuscript, that lies expans’d unto the eyes of all; those that never saw him in the one, have discovered him in the other: This was the Scripture and Theology of the Heathens the naturall motion of the Sun made them more admire him, than its supernaturall station did the Children of Israel the ordinary effects of nature wrought more admiration in them, than in the other all his miracles; surely the Heathens knew better how to joyne and reade these mysticall letters, than wee Christians, who cast a more carelesse eye on these common Hieroglyphicks and disdain to suck Divinity from the flowers of nature.
Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, 19
Idiosyncratic spelling original. Incidentally, Browne apparently invented the words electricity, medical, pathology, hallucination, and literary. The list itself is an apt description of his works. More of Browne on nature:
I hold there is a general beauty in all the works of God, and therefore no deformity in any kind of species of creature whatsoever: I Cannot tell by what Logick we call a Toad, a Beare or an Elephant, ugly; they being crated in those outward shapes and figures which best expresse the actions of their inward formes and having past with approbation that generall visitation of God, who saw that all that he had made was good, that is, conformable to his will, which abhors deformity, and is the rule of order and beauty. There is therefore no deformity but in monstrosity, wherein notwithstanding there is a kind of beauty, Nature so ingeniously contriving those irregular parts, as they become sometimes more remarkable than the principall Fabrick. To speake yet more narrowly, there was never anything ugly, or mis-shapen, but the Chaos; wherein not withstanding to speake strictly, there was no deformity, because no forme nor was it yet impregnate by the voyce of God: Now nature is not at variance with art, nor art with nature; they being both the servants of his providence; Art is the perfection of Nature; Were the world now as it was the sixt day, there were yet a Chaos: Nature hath made one world, and Art another. In briefe all things are artificall for Nature is the Art of God.
Religio Medici, 20
In Urne Buriall, perhaps a better showcase of his eclectic sensibilities than Religio Medici, he offers insight into the eternal struggle of the historian, enthralled by the fragments of the past, fighting a desperate and losing battle against the mists of forgetfulness:
Large are the treasures of oblivion, and heapes of things in a state next to nothing almost numberlesse much more is buried in silence than is recorded, and the largest volumes are butt epitomes of what hath been. The account of time beganne with night, and darnesse still attendeth it. Some things never come to light; many have been delivered; butt more hath been swallowed in obscurity & the caverns of oblivion.
Browne, Urne Buriall, 141
The urns of the title were Roman funerary urns found in a field in England. Browne marveled at how such fragile artifacts could be preserved yet undiscovered only a few feet below the surface, trod upon by who knows how many in the long centuries between their burial and discovery. This discovery leads him to some truly wonderful prose and a near-bewildering survey of ancient funerary customs. It culminates:
But 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.
Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us.
Browne, Urne Buriall, 137
I like Browne, I like the way his mind works, and I’m keen to explore further, particularly in The Garden of Cyrus, his companion piece to Urne Buriall, which (I’m told) is a discourse on the interaction of art and nature hinted at in the above quoted passage from Religio Medici. Fun stuff.
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