Monday, 6 February 2012

Life lessons of Sir Thomas Browne


To live in the modern world is to live in a world where Christianity is excluded from public discourse, and to be competent in modern discourse is therefore to develop the habit of excluding Christianity from thought.

This is not only a matter of excluding the subject matter, although it is that; it is also that the actual grammar, logic, reasoning of modern public thought is built upon rules which have no place for transcendental realities.

If modern public discourse even mentions anything like God, or the immortal soul, or Good and evil, or truth, beauty and virtue - it treats them not as realities, not even as potential realities, but as means to ends of this-worldly happiness or suffering.

So, it is here and now, worldly the effects of beliefs that are discussed; not their reality or falsity.


(This applies even in science, scientists discuss the effect of their scientific beliefs - they don't consider, and would be regarded as simple-minded or crazy to consider - the reality of their scientific beliefs. False science is nowadays conceptualised in terms of that which is harmful, misery-inducing - and, by a weird inversion, that belief or statement which does, or might, produce misery is nowadays regarded as false, and deserving of suppression. That a belief might be true and also lead to misery, or false and lead to pleasure, is outwith the evaluation system: science is regarded - from inside - as necessarily 'good', hence necessarily pleasure-increasing.)


Yet the Christian life is supposed to be a life in perpetual communion with God, a life in which our hearts, minds and bodies are orientated towards God.

Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682), in his Religio Medici - the religion of a doctor:

Now, if we can bring our affections to look beyond the body, and cast an eye upon the soul, we have found out the true object, not only of friendship, but Charity; and the greatest happiness that we can bequeath the soul, is that wherein we all do place our last felicity, Salvation; which though it be not in our power to bestow, it is in our charity and pious invocations to desire, if not procure and further.

I cannot contentedly frame a prayer for my self in particular, without a catalogue for my friends; nor request a happiness, wherein my sociable disposition doth not desire the fellowship of my neighbour.

I never hear the Toll of a passing Bell, though in my mirth, with out my prayers and best wishes for the departing spirit; I cannot go to cure the body of my patient, but I forget my profession, and call unto GOD for his soul; I cannot see one say his prayers, but, in stead of imitating him, I fall into a supplication for him, who perhaps is no more to me than a common nature: and if GOD hath vouchsafed an ear to my supplications, there are surely many happy that never saw me, and enjoy the blessing of mine unknown devotions.

To pray for Enemies, that is, for their salvation, is no harsh precept, but the practice of our daily and ordinary devotions.


Sir Thomas Browne was, amongst other virtues, one of the greatest writers and 'intellectuals' of his age - what is more he was a physician (which, even then, was recognised as tending to harden the personality, to make a skepticism), what is more a scientist (classifying, analysing), what is more he was only about thirty when he wrote Religio Medici and was not only yet unmarried but confessed to never having been in love.

All these would be expected to turn his mind away from God.

Yet, what I perceive in Religio Medici is that Christian devotion permeated Browne's life in a way that is utterly different from that of an intellectual of today, utterly different from any public figure of today.

Because still, at that time, almost all discourse - including medicine and science - was permeated by Christian reflections and evaluations - there was not a 'secular realm', the public realms had not been purged of all Christian vocabulary and evaluations.

Perhaps one reason why the Reformers, the Protestants, of the seventeenth century and earlier were able to take the extraordinary step (it seems extraordinary to me) of excluding monasticism from Christianity - was that everyday life itself was then potentially almost-purely-monastic - so that relatively little was lost (although there was indeed loss of the highest type of Christian sanctity: actual Sainthood).

But now we have inherited a public realm is which science and medicine, as well as politics, administration, law, literature, news and gossip... all have been purged utterly of Christianity, and (for Protestants, at least) there is no hope of any escape from this daily, hourly worldliness which now reaches deep into the churches.


Now for my life, it is a miracle of thirty years, which to relate, were not a History, but a piece of Poetry, and would sound to common ears like a Fable.

For the World, I count it not an Inn, but an Hospital; and a place not to live, but to dye in.

The world that I regard is my self; it is the Microcosm of my own frame that I cast mine eye on; for the other, I use it but like my Globe, and turn it round sometimes for my recreation.

Men that look upon my outside, perusing only my condition and Fortunes, do err in my Altitude; for I am above Atlas his shoulders.

The earth is a point not only in respect of the Heavens above us, but of that heavenly and celestial part within us: that mass of Flesh that circumscribes me, limits not my mind: that surface that tells the Heavens it hath an end, cannot persuade me I have any: I take my circle to be above three hundred and sixty; though the number of the Ark do measure my body, it comprehendeth not my mind: whilst I study to find how I am a Microcosm, or little World, I find my self something more than the great.

There is surely a piece of Divinity in us, something that was before the Elements, and owes no homage unto the Sun. Nature tells me I am the Image of GOD, as well as Scripture: he that understands not thus much, hath not his introduction or first lesson, and is yet to begin the Alphabet of man.

Let me not injure the felicity of others, if I say I am as happy as any: Ruat cælum, fiat voluntas Tua [Let Thy will be done, though the heavens fall], salveth all; so that whatsoever happens, it is but what our daily prayers desire. In brief, I am content; and what should Providence add more?

Religio Medici - Sir Thomas Browne




Browne's humanity well worthy of imitation but we cannot simply return to his era. He strived to reconcile science with religion but hardly anyone reads his discourse 'The Garden of Cyrus' any more; its perhaps the earliest writing arguing for the existence of intelligent design, and 'proving' God's existence through the Platonic Forms in Nature. Browne's commonplace note-books include prayers which show how God was in his thought at all time, but even he recognised that Science and Religion were beginning to part ways. It remains the task of our age to somehow reconcile these two alienated spheres, science and religion, Man and God's wisdom.

bgc said...


I haven't worked-through to Garden of Cyrus yet, but I will do so.

I don't think there is any possibility of returning to Browne's era, whatever that might mean - my fear is that we will return to a much simpler and more violent era than Browne's - even though he lived through the English Civil War.

Anonymous said...

Peter S. said…

This is the key issue: how to find or create a spiritual ‘modus vivendi’ that allows one to be ‘in the modern world but not of it’? This is the terrible spiritual position of the individual embedded in modernity, for, if a normative civilization quite naturally provides supports for the remembrance of God and the spiritual life, the modern world substitutes, in practical fact, these supports with impediments. In effect, instead of swimming with the spiritual current of a normative civilization, the individual must swim against the current of the modern world if he is to escape spiritual ruination.

As Don Colacho – whose aphorisms are available once again: –critically observes, “Today the individual must gradually reconstruct inside himself the civilized universe that is disappearing around him.” []

There is a twofold effort that is required: intellectual, in that one must see through the errors of the modern conception, and build, for oneself at least, an understanding of things that relates back to the Transcendent and to spiritual realities; operative, in that one should try, in whatever partial and intermittent manner, to orient one’s daily life toward prayer and the remembrance of God. Modern life is inherently centrifugal, scattering one’s attention to the periphery; the task before one is to return, again and again, to the Center, to quite literally ‘re-collect’ oneself before God.

As Frithjof Schuon recommends, “In short, one must live ‘in a little garden of the Holy Virgin,’ without unhealthy curiosity and without ever losing sight of the essential content and goal of life. That is ‘holy poverty’ or ‘holy childlikeness’; it is also, so to speak, ‘holy monotony’.... dominated by the proximity of the sacred, and on the margin from the uproar of this lower world.... This seems obvious, but most believers take no account of it.”

bgc said...

@ Peter S - well expressed - and the DC aphorism is very suggestive.

Kristor said...

@ Peter S. - thanks for your recent contributions to orthospheric comboxes. I find your comments quite valuable.

Anonymous said...

Peter S. said…

Dear Dr. Charlton & Kristor,

Thank you for your very kind comments above – thanks also to Proph as well for the cross-posting. Best to you all.