Thomas Browne – “Religio Medici” (the end)

Browne ends by claiming that there is nothing truly ugly but chaos, the kind that was before the creation of the world. In the next excerpt, Browne meditates upon the nature of angels,  and claims that humans are “amphibious” creatures, combining both the corporal essence of animals and spiritual essence of angels. About twenty years later Pascal wrote the brilliant remark that “Man is neither angel nor brute, and the unfortunate thing is that he who would act the angel acts the brute.” which I feel develops upon Browne’s thought, even though I am pretty sure he didn’t read him. Moreover, the metaphor of man as microcosm, so popular in the era, makes total sense to him, because in our lives we pass through all the five stages of life as it was known then: from pure matter like stones, through plant life, animal life, human life until we become pure spirits. There is only one world we perceive by senses, but the other we know through our reason is invisible. But Moses (traditionally believed to be the author of the Pentateuch) left no description of the invisible world, and as for the visible, the description is so obscure that Browne kind of leans towards the theory that Moses, being raised by Egyptians, wrote in hieroglyphs, i.e. he used words rather as metaphors.

In the next excerpt Browne writes about his certainty of his own salvation, and he distances himself from Puritans who believed you could tell whether you were one of the elect. He writes he is reasonably convinced there is such a city as Constantinople, but he wouldn’t swear on it, because he has not seen it with his own eyes, and so it is with his assurance of salvation – he believes in God’s grace and mercy, but he also cannot but remember the sinfulness of his own soul.

The last excerpt in the NAEL selection is from Part 2, where Browne discusses the virtue of charity. He presents himself as a very charitable person and completely free of all prejudices, either aesthetic, religious or national. He does not feel the need to throw a stone at a toad, he does not hate the French or Dutch just because of their nationality. The only thing he detests is the rabble, who individually may be nice men enough, but being together frees their worst instincts. He makes clear that he refers not to just to lower classes, because fools are fools, no matter what social class they are born in.

Now, it is passages like the one above which made Browne so endearing to many readers many centuries after his death. It is, after all, refreshing to hear a voice of tolerance from the famously intolerant era, with the Civil War in England, Thirty Years’ War in Europe and many other religious conflicts. Thus it comes as a bit of shock to learn that Browne was an expert witness at a witch trial and his testimony may have contributed to the sentencing of two women to death. It is a sobering thought to think that even smartest, nicest men are not free from the prejudices of the times and place they live in, no matter how much they may flatter themselves they are. (Sidenote: if anybody can give me an example of a 17th c. intellectual who thought witchcraft trials were rubbish, let me know.)

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