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The Private Mind Exposed: Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici

When Sir Thomas Browne, a newly minted physician, wrote his Religio Medici, he did not do so for popular consumption. According to most scholars, the book was penned by 1635, when Browne was thirty years old. When unauthorized and defective editions appeared in the 1640s, he agreed to an official publication, not, apparently, to make money but to ensure that his thoughts and words were properly represented.

Obviously, Browne must have shared his writings with somebody, lest we assume that a housekeeper spirited the manuscript away and headed straight for a printing house, but there’s a great difference between sharing one’s writing with a circle of friends and family as opposed to sharing it without whoever can get their hands on the freshly-printed octavo volume.

I say this because some of the things Browne placed in the pages of his meditation were possibly thoughts that he did not own utterly. Like many well-read and intelligent people, Thomas Browne’s mind traveled widely, embraced various ideas, combined and considered ideas, and came to some peculiar conclusions. These are the sort of thing that one might discuss over dinner with a friend but would not nail to the church doors as a manifesto. In section 21 of the book, Browne concludes a discussion of many of the imponderables of the Bible and theology with this:

There are a bundle of curiosities, not onely in Philosophy but in Divinity, proposed and discussed by men of most supposed abilities, which indeed are not worthy our vacant houres, much lesse our serious studies; Pieces onely fit to be placed in Pantagruels Library, or bound up with Tartaretus de modo Cacandi.

He dismisses these questions as unworthy, yet the detail that he lavishes on them suggests that he manages to find his own attention, his own vacant hours drawn into just such discussions. Elsewhere, when Browne confesses his attraction to Pythagoras and hermetic philosophy and a host of other often esoteric teachings, as well as more respectable matters of Classical learning, he reveals the wide range that his mind enjoys. Perhaps it was just such a range that found the Religio Medici on the Catholic index of banned books.

However, I cannot fault Thomas Browne for thinking, employing his God-given intellect to consider the matters of this world. Perhaps nothing recommends Browne so effectively to the Christian reader as his ability to test the waters of alchemy and obscure philosophy without loosing his hold on the essentials of Christian faith, something that minds ranging over a far smaller intellectual realm have found impossible.

Browne explains his technique in section 19.

I have therefore alwayes endeavoured to compose those fewds and angry dissentions between affection, faith, and reason: For there is in our soule a kind of Triumvirate, or Triple government of three competitors, which distract the peace of this our Common-wealth, not lesse than did that other the State of Rome.
As Reason is a rebell unto Faith, so passion unto Reason: As the propositions of Faith seeme absurd unto Reason, so the Theorems of Reason unto passion, and both unto Reason; yet a moderate and peaceable discretion may so state and order the matter, that they may bee all Kings, and yet make but one Monarchy, every one exercising his Soveraignty and Prerogative in a due time and place, according to the restraint and limit of circumstance.

This prefigures the idea of “non-overlapping magisteria” espoused by Stephen J. Gould and an earlier idea of Albert Einstein regarding the separate spheres of science and religion. Browne’s three-fold division, his assertion that any pair looks at the third as nonsense, and his admission that all three must properly balance for a human life to make sense strikes me as far superior to the science-privileging of the later thinkers.

Interestingly, Browne, in writing primarily to work out his own ideas for himself, demonstrates a humility and willingness to self-discipline that I would argue Einstein and, especially, Gould never brought to the discussion as they attempted to protect science from their perception of encroachment by religion.

Posted in English Literature, Neo-Classicism.

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