Thomas Browne Introduction - Essay


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.