It is safe to say that Browne’s essays represent some of the most finely crafted prose of any British author. Browne’s complex and often ambivalent stance toward Christianity has earned him a unique and unsettling position among critics from the start. Samuel JOHNSON in his Life of Sir Thomas Browne (1756) posited that Browne may have “hazarded an expression” that could be misinterpreted as blasphemous only if taken out of the overall context of his literary corpus. The real challenge and treasure of reading Browne’s work is to be found in grappling with the massive breadth of learning that informed elaborate contexts of his essays and coming to terms with his often elusive tenor.
Of all the essays, the Religio Medici (1642) stands as the central text defining both Browne’s style and world-view. In the Religio, Browne dealt with a growing concern during the 17th c. with the physical sciences and the various mechanistic philosophies that purported purely rationalist and potentially atheistic explanations for life processes. However, Browne would offer no unequivocal position here. And in the most famous section of part 2 to the Religio he declares: “I am above Atlas, his shoulders . . . whilst I study to finde how I am a Microcosme or little world, I finde myselfe something more than the great. There is surely a piece of divinity in us . . . Nature tells me I am the image of God as well as scripture.” Besides detecting a precursor of the Whitmanesque persona, Browne takes a daring stance as an individual for his time. In part 1, he offers his version of a “new religion” offering an expanded version of what Christianity ought to be wherein he considers “we being all Christians” exclusivity is a very un-Christian thing. Toward the close of the essay in speaking of Gold as the “God of the earth,” Browne confesses that he “is an atheist” and “for this only doe I love and honor my owne soul.” Browne constantly appears to be taking away with one hand the very thing given by the other.
This slippery play in Browne’s text has earned him a controversial position within English literature. Stanley Fish holds the rather extreme view that Browne is a “self indulgent” writer whose “words are objects frozen into rhetorical patterns which reflect on the virtuosity of the writer.” It is understandable that Fish arrives at this conclusion when attempting to view Browne’s work as a self-contained text. But as Stephen Greenblatt and other New Historicists have adroitly pointed out a text such as the Religio is born of the complex and burgeoning world of the Renaissance much of which we cannot ever hope to recapture and much less if we do not take into account impending influences such as politics, scientific trends, etc. Subsequently, Browne’s work is a prime example of the decentered text wherein the organic self he presents is reflected in a dynamic prose that conveys the physician’s mind in motion.
Besides his “Christian Morals,” the rest of Browne’s corpus holds an important place not just in terms of social and philosophical aspects but for the varied fields of inquiry he covers. His Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) is reminiscent of Robert BURTON’s Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1621. Although not nearly as exhaustive a study as the Anatomy, the Pseudodoxia is a witty exposé of falsehoods and ill-founded beliefs. B was no empiricist and his thought ran counter to much of Sir Francis BACON’s inductive approach.
Hydriotaphia: Urne-Buriall and The Garden of Cyrus appeared together in 1658 and are some of Browne’s most idiosyncratic and fascinating essays. Browne employs the discovery of some cremation urns as a figure of man’s ephemeral nature in Urne Buriall. His knowledge of contemporary chemistry supplements his explication of decomposition or putrefaction in the alchemical sense of the transformation of decaying matter.
As in Urne Buriall, The Garden of Cyrus is a fluid and organic meditation initially focusing on the ancient hanging gardens of Babylon. Browne holds that the quincunx or lozenge of the universe’s reticulation can be found everywhere in vegetable, mineral, and animal matter. Browne was assuredly a Pythagorean of the late Renaissance. In many ways, Browne’s Cyrus is a precursor to C. G. Jung’s theory of synchronicity as an a-causal or nondiachronic notion of being and existence.
Browne was truly one of the last great Renaissance eclectics. He was a trained physician and chemist who had traveled extensively, and was fluent in six languages. He corresponded with Arthur Dee, a chemist and physician of note as well as the son of John DEE. Browne’s contributions have been acknowledged by Samuel Taylor COLERIDGE, Herman Melville, James Russell Lowell, and many other notable authors, and there is little sign that Browne’s influence has lost any momentum as a pivotal force in the art of the essay.
Bibliography Bennett, J., Sir T. B. (1962); Fish, S., “ The Bad Physician: The Case of Sir T. B.,” in his Self Consuming Artifacts (1985): 353–73; Huntley, F. L., Sir T. B. (1962); Merton, E. S., Science and Imagination in Sir T. B. (1949)