The Wisdom of Sir Thomas Browne

“As reason is a rebel to faith, so passion is a rebel to reason,” says Sir Thomas Browne, one of the great intellects of seventeenth century England. Another of my favorite quotes is: “Be able to be alone. Lose not the advantage of solitude, and the society of thyself. ” What originally prompted me to pick up his works was Samuel Johnson’s remark that we better understand writers by reading the authors they read (and Browne was an important influence on Johnson).

Browne’s prose is like a rich port wine that has been locked away in a forgotten cellar. It is something that one savors and ponders… and marvels at its current obscurity. Take for example the opening paragraph of Christian Morals: “Tread softly and circumspectly in this funambulatory Track and narrow Path of Goodness: Pursue Virtue virtuously: Leven not good Actions nor render Virtue disputable. Stain not fair Acts with foul Intentions: Maim not Uprightness by halting Concomitances, nor circumstantially deprave substantial Goodness.”

In the meditation “On Dreams” Browne writes: “Half our dayes wee passe in the shadowe of the earth, and the brother of death exacteth a third part of our lives.” The seventeenth century physician and religious writer offers common sense with uncommon grace. His meditations verge on the poetic. Speaking of self-control, he says: “Chain up the unruly Legion of thy breast. Lead thine own captivity captive, and be Caesar within thyself.” As for philosophical fads that adopt abstruse terminology to obscure good conduct, he urges us to “Live by old Ethicks and the classical Rules of Honesty. Put no new names or notions upon Authentick Virtues and Vices. Think not that Morality is Ambulatory; that Vices in one age are not Vices in another; or that Virtues which are under the everlasting Seal of right Reason, may be Stamped by Opinion.”

I recommend the Norton edition of Browne’s prose works.

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