The Literary Doctor: Sir Thomas Browne

Reading one literary genius discuss the work of another is always a special treat. Among Samuel Johnson’s lesser-known essays is his study of the 17th century physician, author and amateur metaphysician, Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682), author of the famous Religio Medici (“A Doctor’s Religion”).

According to Johnson, Browne’s father died when he was young, and though he received a substantial legacy, his mother remarried and so he was “according to the common fate of orphans, defrauded by one of his guardians.” In 1623 he entered Pembroke College at Oxford. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree “he turned his studies to physcick  [medicine].” After being employed for a brief time in Ireland, his intellectual restlessness took him to France, Italy and Holland (where he received his doctorate). As is the case with so many of the men whose lives Johnson chronicled, few personal details were available. Thus his biographer laments that “that those who are most capable of improving mankind, very frequently neglect to communicate their knowledge.” Browne apparently compiled no diaries or memoirs.

The London physician returned to England in 1634, the year that Religio Medici was completed. The author did not actually authorize its printing. Manuscripts were circulated by Browne among friends and acquaintances and, there being no copyright law, it was eventually published without his consent. Johnson does not hesitate to criticize the work for its lack of scholarly precision, but says that its rapid fame was well earned “by the novelty of paradoxes, the dignity of sentiment, the quick succession of images, the multitude of abstruse allusions, the subtilty of disquisition, and the strength of language.”

Johnson pokes fun at the fact that Browne, who had spoken rather slightingly of marriage and women in his philosophical essays, went on to marry in 1641. It appears that his wife had “no reason to repent, for she lived happily with him one-and-forty years, and bore him ten children.” One of the studies of his old age was an inquiry into the “common errours” of mankind. Johnson opines that

Notwithstanding his zeal to detect old errours, he seems not very easy to admit new positions, for he never mentions the motion of the earth [around the sun] but with contempt and ridicule, though the opinion which admits it was then growing popular, and was surely plausible, even before it was confirmed by later observations.

Another interesting insight is Browne’s impact on the development of modern English. Johnson argues that the relative stability of the language in the previous generation gave way to an epoch of experimentation, especially in Milton’s extensive use of the Latin idiom. “Browne, though he gave less disturbance to our structures in phraseology, yet poured in a multitude of exotick words; many, indeed, useful and significant.”

The complete text of Johnson’s life of Browne can be found in volume six of his collected works. For related comments, see The Wisdom of Sir Thomas Browne.

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