There were at least two men in England who could look out upon the seething scene with perspective and calm. John Selden was so learned that men said, “Quod Seldenus nescit nemo scit”—What Selden does not know, nobody knows. As an antiquarian he collected state records of pre-Norman England and compiled an authoritative Titles of Honor (1614); as an Orientalist he made a European reputation with his study of polytheism, De diis Syris (1617); as a jurist he expounded rabbinical law and wrote a History of Tythes refuting the claim of the divine origin of tithes; as an M.P. he took part in impeaching Buckingham and Laud and in drawing up the Petition of Right; he was twice imprisoned. He attended the Westminster Assembly as a lay delegate “to see wild asses fight,” and pleaded for moderation in religious disputes. After his death his Table Talk, recorded by his secretary, became an English classic. Shall we sample him?
’Tis a vain thing to talk of an heretic, for a man can think no otherwise than he does think. In the primitive times there were many opinions. One of these being embraced by some prince … the rest were condemned as heresies … No man is the wiser for his learning; it may administer matter to work in … but wit [intelligence] and wisdom are born with a man … Wise men say nothing in dangerous times. The lion … called the sheep to ask her if his breath smelled; she said Yes; he bit off her head for a fool. He called the wolf and asked him; he said No; he tore him to pieces for a flatterer. At last he called the fox, and asked him. Why [said the fox], he had got a cold and could not smell.33
Sir Thomas Browne was a fox. Born in London (1605), educated at Winchester School, Oxford, Montpellier, Padua, and Leiden, absorbing arts and sciences and history at every turn, he resigned himself to the practice of medicine at Norwich. He sublimated his uroscopies by jotting down his ideas de omnibus rebus et quibusdam aliis (“on all things and a few others”), and eloquently concealed his theology in Religio medici (1642), one of the milestones in English prose. Here is a British Montaigne, quite as quaint and fanciful, as undulant and diverse, perhaps borrowing from him in the pages of friendship,34 subordinating his skepticism to conformity, relishing reason and professing faith, congested with classical allusions and derivatives, but loving the art and the music of words, and using style as “the antiseptic of decay.”
He was by education inclined to doubt. His longest work, Pseudodoxia epidemica (1646), explained and chastised hundreds of “false opinions epidemic” in Europe—that a carbuncle gives light in the dark, that an elephant has no joints, that the phoenix regenerates itself from its own ashes, that the salamander can live in fire, that the unicorn has a horn, that swans sing before their death, that the forbidden fruit was an apple, that “the toad pisseth and this way diffuseth its venom.”35 But, like every iconoclast, he had his icons. He accepted angels, demons, palmistry, and witches;36 in 1664 he shared in the condemnation as witches of two women, who were soon thereafter hanged protesting their innocence.37
He had no fancy for women, and thought sex ridiculous:
I was never yet once, and commend their resolutions who never marry twice … I could be content that we might procreate like trees, without conjunction, or that there were any way to perpetuate the world without this trivial and vulgar way of union; it is the foolishest act a wise man commits in all his life; nor is there anything that will more deject his cool’d imagination, when he shall consider what an odd and unworthy piece of folly he hath committed.38
As to his titular topic, he is apologetically Christian:
For my religion, though there be several circumstances that might persuade the world I have none at all (as the general scandal of my profession, the natural course of my studies, the indifferency of my behavior and discourse in matters of religion, neither violently defending one, nor with that common ardor and contention opposing another), yet, in despite hereof, I dare without usurpation the honorable style of Christian. Not that I merely owe this title to the font, my education, or the clime wherein I was born … but having in my riper years and confirmed judgment seen and examined all.39
He feels that the marvels and the order of the world declare a divine mind—”nature is the art of God.”40 He confesses to having entertained some heresies, and he slips into some doubts about the Biblical account of Creation;41 but now he feels the need of an established religion to guide wondering, wandering men; and he deplores the vanity of heretics who disturb the social order with their hot infallibilities.42 Puritans were not to his taste; he remained quietly faithful to the first Charles during the Civil War and was knighted for his pains by the second.
In his later years he was moved to meditation on death by the unearthing of some ancient sepulchral urns in Norfolk, and he recorded his thoughts in a desultory masterpiece of English prose, Hydriotaphia, Urne-Buriall (1658). He recommends cremation as the least vain method of disencumbering the earth of ourselves. “Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us”; but we flicker out with ignominious haste. “Generations pass while some trees stand, and old families last not three oaks.”43 The world itself is probably nearing its end in “this setting part of time.” We need the hope of immortality to gird us against this brevity; it is a precious prop to feel ourselves immortal—but a great pity that we must be scared into decency by visions of hell.44 Heaven is no “empyreal vacuity” but “within the circle of this sensible world,” in a condition of mental content and peace. Then, hurrying back from the verge of heresy, he ends his Religio with a modest prayer to God:
Bless me in this life with but peace of my conscience, command of my affections, the love of Thyself and my dearest friends, and I shall be happy enough to pity Caesar. These are, O Lord, the humble desires of my most reasonable ambition, and all I dare call happiness on earth; wherein I set no rule or limit to thy Hand or Providence. Dispose of me according to the wisdom of Thy pleasure. Thy will be done, though in my undoing.45