In the seventeenth century, ideas and theories, old and new, clamored for attention and consideration; rational thought and science had not yet begun to classify, assimilate, accept, and reject the great mass of learning that had accumulated over the centuries since ancient times. More than that, each scholar attempted, in that age before specialization, to master all human knowledge. Such was the age in which Robert Burton, who styled himself Democritus, Jr., wrote The Anatomy of Melancholy, which in many ways exemplifies the times in which it was written.
Burton was more than an educated man; he gave his life to learning, and much of his vast hoard of erudition found its way into his book. Ostensibly a study on melancholy, his work, before it was finished, absorbed into its pages most of the learning of Burton’s time, either through his examination of everything he could associate with melancholy or through his many digressions.
The Anatomy of Melancholy is difficult to categorize. Its organization is complex, almost incoherent. An outline for each of the three “partitions” of the book, complicated though each is, does not indicate all that Burton manages to cram into the pages. The device seems really to be Burton’s way of following a pseudoscientific convention, a style of his times. Perhaps the best way to categorize the book is to regard it as an informal and heterogeneous collection of essays on human dissatisfaction with the universe, as people of the seventeenth century understood the universe, and on ways in which that dissatisfaction could be cured. In that sense, at least, the book is a treatise on psychology, although the digressions Burton makes are so numerous and involved that the reader sometimes wonders whether the author may not have lost his way.
Burton assuredly has no special theme or thesis he is attempting to prove. One critic has said that all The Anatomy of Melancholy proves is that a seventeenth century classical education could produce an astounding amount of recondite learning. Burton presents no set of principles, scientific or otherwise, to be proved, but he does bring to his work a tremendous zest for learning. This sense of gusto often puts the contemporary reader at a disadvantage, for Burton lards his paragraphs heavily, perhaps no English writer more so, with tags of Latin prose and poetry. Too few contemporary readers have enough knowledge of Latin to enable them to read tags in that language. The quotations are from countless authorities, many of them long since forgotten. A typical page, for example, cites Leo Afer, Lipsius, Zuinger, Seneca, Tully, Livy, Rhasis, Montaltus, Celsus, and Comesius. This host of references, allusions, and quotations makes...
(The entire section is 1127 words.)