Thomas Browne Essay - Critical Essays

Browne, Thomas

Introduction

Thomas Browne 1605-1682

English prose writer, essayist, and physician.

The following entry provides criticism on Browne's works from 1973 through 2003.

Sir Thomas Browne holds a unique place in the development of English writing because of the diversity of his interests and training. A physician by training and profession, Browne is now remembered most often for his writings and contribution to the growth of English letters. In works such as the Religio Medici (1642), Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646), and Hydriotaphia (1658), Browne covers a vast variety of subjects, including theories on religion and philosophy, and reflects on issues such as human mortality, time, and eternity. His writing was unique in its combination of empirical observation and religious exploration, and he is often praised for his lyric and rich writing style, which is akin to Senecan prose. Most significantly, Browne lived and wrote during tumultuous times in English history. During his lifetime he was witness to a civil war, the Interregnum, and eventually the Restoration. His writings, especially the Religio Medici, reflect many of his concerns about the events of his time, and through his words Browne is acknowledged now as a master of English prose, leading his readers with both his expression and rhythm to an experience in discovery and tolerance.

Biographical Information

Browne was born in London, England, in 1605. He was the fourth and only son of a successful merchant, also named Thomas Browne, and his wife, Anne Garroway Browne. The family lived in Cheshire in fairly comfortable circumstances, even following Browne's father's death in 1613. He attended Winchester grammar school, where he studied Latin and Greek, and in 1623, he went on to Broadgates Hall at Oxford. The school, which was later renamed Pembroke College, followed the traditional curriculum at Oxford, and Browne studied grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, and geometry. In 1624 the school added the study of anatomy to its curriculum, which was an added advantage to Browne, who became a physician. Browne graduated from Oxford in 1626, and received a master's degree from there in 1629. He then left to live on the Continent, continuing his medical studies until the mid-1630s. During these years, Browne traveled across Europe extensively, visiting and staying at some of the most distinguished medical schools. When he returned to England in 1637, he was awarded a doctorate in physics at Oxford. He then settled in Norwich, beginning his practice as a physician, and serving as mentor to many younger doctors. He married Dorothy Mileham in 1641; they had several children together, although only a daughter, Elizabeth, survived into adulthood. Scholars surmise that it was during his years as a physician in Norwich that Browne began working on his best-known work, the Religio Medici. Comprised mostly of Browne's own opinions and theories regarding the church and religion, the work was not originally intended for publication. The style of the work is unusual because Browne often writes in the first person, and the work is structured more like a conversational letter or meditative lecture than a formal work of prose. Yet the scope of the work, with its personal observations and the model it presents of Christian belief and practice, is often interpreted as a prescriptive text. Browne published several more texts after the Religio Medici, and at his death in 1682, he left behind a large body of unpublished correspondence. These were issued posthumously, as well as other works, such as A Letter to a Friend (1690) and Christian Morals (1716).

Major Works

The Religio Medici was published anonymously, probably without Browne's permission, in 1642. It garnered immediate attention because of its content; divided into two main parts, the work first explains the author's religious beliefs, and then discusses the practical application of these beliefs in the real world, as well as the consequences of not following these principles. As he explores questions of belief and practice, Browne imparts a great deal of significance to the role of human choice in the application of religious beliefs. He also writes in detail about the doctrine of incarnation, stating that Christ was in fact both man and God, and therefore both spirit and flesh. It is in the statement of his theories about incarnation, God, and life that Browne shines as a prose writer, using the style of Senecan prose to build one argument on another. Critics have often remarked on his ability to present, with increasing intensity, the central belief system he is espousing. In his lifetime, though, Browne's work was soundly critiqued for both its style and content. As early as 1643, less than a year after the text was published, Sir Kenelm Digby, a contemporary, published a critique of the work. The following year, Alexander Ross issued an analysis of Browne's work, criticizing him for his errors and sparking a vigorous debate over the validity of the doctor's religious beliefs. The controversy over the accuracy of Browne's theories in the Religio Medici became a major topic of critical debate during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Browne next issued Pseudodoxia Epidemica, also known as Vulgar Errors. This was a large project and took Browne most of his life to complete. Comprising seven volumes, the work once again focuses on issues of religious belief and theory. In contrast to the Religio Medici, this work was less personal in its concerns, and focused more heavily on an examination of truths, observations, popular mythology, and contemporary commentary on the discovery of new and interesting facts. In many ways, Browne's focus in this work is more closely related to his profession—the discussion revolves around significant scientific developments during Browne's time, and he uses moralized natural histories, encyclopedias, and other studies of his era as his focus. For each proposition he states, Browne considers the position taken by established authorities, the evidence in support of the position, and so on. Browne's next works were published together in 1658. These were Hydriotaphia: Urne Buriall and The Garden of Cyrus; in both, Browne uses events in reality to offer observations on the nature of mortality and immortality. While the subject matter of both pieces is regarded as significant, critics have most often focused on Browne's grand style and variety.

Critical Reception

Browne is consistently acknowledged as one of the finest prose writers of his day. His writing style was rich and varied, and many scholars have remarked upon his use of humor and richness of allusion, even in the most intense of discussions. In his own lifetime, Browne's literary reputation was first built upon the multivolume Pseudodoxia Epidemica. Critics during his time, including Samuel Pepys and Samuel Johnson, admired his work greatly, while the Romantics in the eighteenth century also viewed his work with great interest. In modern evaluations of Browne's work, his clear thinking and rhythmic writing style continue to be acknowledged, and he is appreciated as a skilled articulator of the events of his time. In 1972, however, Stanley Fish, in his Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature, criticized Browne for his beliefs regarding the nature and function of art. Fish's critique of Browne has evoked passionate responses from contemporary critics, Frank J. Warnke among them. According to Warnke, although Fish's evaluation of Browne has some merit, it is essentially unfair to the intention of Browne's writing, which per Warnke, has a very personal and persuasive aesthetic. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Browne did not comment openly on the political and religious events of his time. His works, especially the Religio Medici, writes James N. Wise (1973), are works of “contemporary argumentation.” In this text, says Wise, Browne clearly makes an argument for tolerance and charitableness. Wise feels that it is precisely Browne's carefully structured ambivalence in matters of reason and faith that constitute his best method of persuasion. In his review of Browne's place among seventeenth-century prose writers, Laurence Stapleton (1973) characterizes him as “the most original prose writer” of his time. Stapleton observes that Browne's method of writing, especially his skillful combining of observation and evaluation set the standard for many later authors, including Samuel Johnson and De Quincey. Modern evaluations of Browne's work focus primarily on his Religio Medici. Jonathan F. S. Post (1987) observes that whatever Browne's other qualifications, it is his unique writing style, “one of the most distinctive and recognizable in the history of English prose,” which remains his most remarkable achievement.

Principal Works

Religio Medici (prose) 1642

Pseudodoxia Epidemica: or, Enquiries into Very Many Received Tenents, and Commonly Presumed Truths [Vulgar Errors] (prose) 1646

Hydriotaphia: Urne burial, or, A Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes Lately found in Norfolk. Together with The Garden of Cyrus, or the Quincunciall, Lozenge, or Net-work Plantations of the Ancients, Artificially, Natrually, Mystically Considered. With Sundry Observations (prose) 1658

Certain Miscellany Tracts (prose) 1683

A Letter to a Friend, Upon Occasion of the Death of His Intimate Friend (prose) 1690

Posthumus Works of the Learned Sir Thomas Browne, Kt. M.D. (collected works) 1712

Christian Morals (prose) 1716

Criticism

Laurence Stapleton (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Stapleton, Laurence. “Sir Thomas Browne and Meditative Prose.” In The Elected Circle: Studies in the Art of Prose, pp. 42-72. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973.

[In the following essay, Stapleton offers an evaluation of Browne's major prose works.]

Sir Thomas Browne is in one way the most original prose writer of the seventeenth century; not simply for the uniqueness of tone, the individual voice imparted to every sentence, but because he evolved a form of writing that contained the seed of growth. The sermon had no future, the Baconian essay was perfected by Bacon, never to be equalled. Browne's prose, in contrast, created an encounter of...

(The entire section is 9289 words.)

James N. Wise (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Wise, James N. “Browne and His Critics.” In Sir Thomas Browne's ‘Religio Medici’ and Two Seventeenth-Century Critics, pp. 1-11. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1973.

[In the following essay, Wise provides a brief overview of Browne's ideas concerning the nature of divinity in the context of critical reaction from Alexander Ross and Kenelm Digby.]

Why should we look once again at the writings of three controversialists of seventeenth-century England—Sir Thomas Browne, Sir Kenelm Digby, and Alexander Ross? Browne has become so traditionally a part of the history and texture of classic English prose style that we sometimes unconsciously...

(The entire section is 4175 words.)

Laurence A. Breiner (essay date September 1977)

SOURCE: Breiner, Laurence A. “The Generation of Metaphor in Thomas Browne.” Modern Language Quarterly 38, no. 3 (September 1977): 261-75.

[In the following essay, Breiner contends that Browne consistently uses metaphors to convey the principles and ideas contained in his works, and that there is a commonality in the images he uses in most of his prose works.]

Thomas Browne has been variously treated as a scientist, a religious writer, and a prose stylist. But largely because of seventeenth-century tensions between science and religion, even between plain honesty and literary style, studies along these lines tend to diverge in their conclusions, and produce...

(The entire section is 6193 words.)

Mark L. Caldwell (essay date September 1982)

SOURCE: Caldwell, Mark L. “The Transfigured ‘I’: Browne's Religio Medici.Thought: A Review of Culture and Ideas 57, no. 226 (September 1982): 332-44.

[In the following essay, Caldwell observes that the Religio Medici derives its sense of unity from its fine melding of the personal and the eccentric, in terms of Browne's thoughts and ideas.]

Browne was once revered for a quaint willingness to share with his reader the aimless, eccentric privacies of his informal thought. The ellipses and protean divagations of his style, the chatty asides and apparent confessions of endearing prejudice, were thus viewed as inevitable marks of a personality...

(The entire section is 7050 words.)

Frank J. Warnke (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Warnke, Frank J. “A Hook for Amphibium: Some Reflections on Fish.” In Approaches to Sir Thomas Browne: The Ann Arbor Tercentenary Lectures and Essays, edited by C. A. Patrides, pp. 49-59. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1982.

[In the following essay, Warnke refutes Stanley Fish's critique of Browne's work, stressing that a common religious background is not a necessity when trying to appreciate the artistic or religious ideas in a work of prose.]

It was in some ways refreshing when, in his Self-Consuming Artifacts of 1972, Stanley Fish attacked Sir Thomas Browne as being “the bad physician.”1 Not since Sir Kenelm Digby's...

(The entire section is 5740 words.)

Robert Ellrodt (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Ellrodt, Robert. “Time and the Body in the Works of Sir Thomas Browne.” In Multiple Worlds, Multiple Words: Essays in Honour of Irène Simon, edited by Hena Maes-Jelinek, Pierre Michel and Paulette Michel-Michot, pp. 97-101. Liège, Belgium: University of Liège, 1987.

[In the following essay, Ellrodt discusses Browne's conception of time in his works.]

Sir Thomas Browne's conception of time, though often clothed in biblical imagery, is largely derived from the Platonic tradition. Yet his medical profession seems to be responsible for the most distinctive and original features of his intuition of temporality.

A vivid consciousness of...

(The entire section is 2142 words.)

Jonathan F. S. Post (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Post, Jonathan F. S. “Elements of Style and The Politics of Laughter: Comic Autobiography in Religio Medici.” In Sir Thomas Browne, pp. 57-94. Boston, Mass.: Twayne Publishers, 1987.

[In the following essays, Post outlines the main elements of Browne's style, focusing on his Religio Medici and characterizing it as a text that lends itself to loose interpretation due to Browne's use of wit and comic improvisation.]

Whatever Browne's achievements were as a scientist and an Anglican apologist, he is best known today as a stylist who created one of the most distinctive and recognizable voices in the history of English prose. The “stylist,”...

(The entire section is 18906 words.)

Michael Wilding (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Wilding, Michael. “Religio Medici in the English Revolution.” In Dragons Teeth: Literature in the English Revolution, pp. 89-113. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Wilding offers a critical reading of Browne's Religio Medici in the context of the English Revolution, especially as it relates to the breakdown of censorship during the time the work was composed.]

I

Not only radicals wrote in a coded, careful, cautious way. Sir Thomas Browne, generally deemed to offer an escape from the political strife of his age, emerges upon analysis, as so many supposedly apolitical figures so often do...

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Victoria Silver (essay date winter 1990)

SOURCE: Silver, Victoria. “Liberal Theology and Sir Thomas Browne's ‘Soft and Flexible’ Discourse.” English Literary Renaissance 20, no. 1 (winter 1990): 69-105.

[In the following essay, Silver offers a detailed analysis of Browne's Religio Medici in response to previous critical analyses of the work, including its famed dismissal by Stanley Fish. Silver admits that while she dismisses Fish's arguments against Browne in general, she agrees with the critic when he states that Browne is often defended to the extreme by his admirers, who fail to recognize the conservative and often “luscious” nature of Browne's writing.]

Near the end of her fine and...

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Marta Straznicky (essay date September 1990)

SOURCE: Straznicky, Marta. “Performing the Self in Browne's Religio Medici.Prose Studies, History, Theory, Criticism 13, no. 2 (September 1990): 211-29.

[In the following essay, Straznicky studies the strategy of self-presentation as used by Browne, contending that this duality is presented most clearly by Browne in the speaking voice of the text.]

… at my death I meane to take a totall adieu of the world, not caring for a Monument, History, or Epitaph, not so much as the bare memory of my name to be found any where but in the universall Register of God.1

To whom does this voice belong? Apart...

(The entire section is 9488 words.)

Andrew Cunningham (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Cunningham, Andrew. “Sir Thomas Browne and his Religion Medici: Reason, Nature, and Religion.” In Religio Medici: Medicine and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England, edited by Ole Peter Grell and Andrew Cunningham, pp. 12-61. Aldershot, England: Scolar Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Cunningham explores the relationship between Browne's role as a physician and his contributions to the understanding of religion; also includes an overview of Browne's life and works, focusing in detail on his Religio Medici.]

THE MAN, HIS MIND AND HIS BRAIN

Sir Thomas Browne was the first to use the expression Religio Medici for...

(The entire section is 21108 words.)

Adam H. Kitzes (essay date winter 2002)

SOURCE: Kitzes, Adam H. “Hydriotaphia: ‘The Sensible Rhetorick of the Dead.’” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 42, no. 1 (winter 2002): 137-54.

[In the following essay, Kitzes studies the problem of decay in language as it is addressed by Browne in his Hydriotaphia, writing that in this work, Browne clearly concluded that the decay experienced by society is a result of its own constitution and not of any external influences.]

In Philosophy where truth seemes double-faced, there is no man more paradoxicall then my self; but in Divinity I love to keepe the road, and though not in an implicite, yet an humble faith, follow...

(The entire section is 7660 words.)

Samuel Glen Wong (essay date winter 2003)

SOURCE: Wong, Samuel Glen. “Constructing a Critical Subject in Reigio Medici.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 43, no. 1 (winter 2003): 117-36.

[In the following essay, Wong explores the reasons why Browne's work became such an integral part of the public and literary discourse concerning authorial intention and critical interpretation.]

This essay reexamines the relationship among three works: the Religio Medici of Sir Thomas Browne which first appeared in 1642; Browne's preface to the 1643 Religio; and Observations upon “Religio Medici,” the commentary written by Sir Kenelm Digby near the end of 1642. Read in concert,...

(The entire section is 8046 words.)