Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Antiquaries > Browne’s “scepticism”
  Pseudodoxia Epidemica Hydriotaphia; The Garden of Cyrus  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

X. Antiquaries.

§ 5. Browne’s “scepticism”.

The fact is that Browne’s obvious and, indeed, almost ostentatious desultoriness, and the subtle “two-sidedness” of his scepticism, have led too many modern critics into the opposite and complementary error to that of some of his contemporaries. These latter were suspicious of him, or indignant with him, because he doubted or denied some things; the former are contemptuously, or, at least, compassionately, surprised, because he admits or, at least, does not question other things. But it may be very seriously questioned whether his attitude, when the conditions of his time and his opportunities are duly weighed, does not become a far more reasonable one than that of either set of censors. Browne had mastered the fact—which the Alexander Rosses  1  and even the Kenelm Digbys had not mastered—that, where a fact or an opinion previously adopted by a sufficiently communis sensus is open to trial by experiment, and experiment does not prove or justify it, you should give it up. But he had also mastered the fact—which some, at least, of his modern critics have not mastered—that, where such a fact or an opinion is not open to experiment, or where experiment has, as yet, been insufficiently applied, you are at liberty not to give it up, and to doubt the wisdom of those who do.   14
  There is no space here to follow out this consideration; and, if there were, it might be improper to do so. It is enough to say that from Religio Medici to Christian Morals, though the dissolvent principle may appear uppermost in the one, and the conservative principle in the other, this double scepticism is the hinge and centre of Browne’s thought; that, naturally enough, it is as disagreeable or unintelligible to those who hold certain kinds of modern view, as it was to others of an opposite temper in his own times; and that, perhaps, there is room for not entirely unintelligent or uninstructed folk who choose to do so to hold it, with the adjustments with which Browne would certainly have held it to-day. And it may further be deemed to have some real connection with the astonishing chiaroscuro, the mixture of shaded sunlight and half illuminated gloom which makes the charm of his style and habit of expression; while its connection with the singular charity and equity of his temper and judgment is quite unmistakable.   15
  For the admitted desultoriness, no apology seems to be required, because the objection, and the want of objection, to it are equally matters of individual taste. And a tolerably brisk student, undertaking the task as a matter of postgraduate study, could classify Browne’s materials prettily in any one of half a dozen different ways, and make it almost a pattern monograph. But Browne did not choose to adopt this method. He simply took—sometimes in more or less apparent or real connection, sometimes at haphazard—examples of pseudoorthodoxy (as he might, perhaps, have even better entitled the treatise) and submitted them to the microscope or aqua fortis of his method—applying now experiment, as in the case of the kingfisher and its supposed virtue as a vane; now investigation of historical or other proof or disproof; now considerations of probability, analogy, decency and the like. His command of these different lines of evidence is remarkable: he scarcely ever confuses them, or the degree of certainty which they may be supposed to import; but the immense range of his subject—natural and other history of almost every conceivable kind except pure literature, upon which, strangely enough,  2  he never touches—and the open flouting of any attempt at consecutiveness, may afford some excuse for the failure, in some cases, of critics to recognise this.   16
  On the other hand, in no book has he been so parsimonious of that nectar of his style which modern readers have been wont to take as the solace of his supposed sins of desultoriness, credulity and unscientific conduct generally; and in none is that humour, which some have strangely ignored or refused to recognise, subtler and less obtrusive, though it is tolerably pervading. “It is delivered with aiunt and ferunt by many,” he says of the story of pope Joan. Oppian, he informs us,
abating the annual mutation of sexes in the hyaena, the single sex of the rhinoceros, the antipathy between two drums, of a lamb and a wolf’s skin, the informity of cubs, the venation of Centaures, the copulation of the murena and the viper, with some few others, he may be read with great delight and profit.
The quintessential dryness of that “with some few others” between the list of abatements and the commendation can only escape a palate predestined not to taste it. And it is equally difficult to understand the missing of the humour in the famous prefatory declaration—that, “if elegancy still proceedeth … we shall, within few years, be fain to learn Latin to understand English”—by a man who, before he had finished, was to observe how something “handsomely sets forth the efficacy of assuefaction.”
  For twelve years—years of the utmost trouble and turmoil to England but, apparently, unhistorical with him—Browne published nothing; but, in 1658, when his political redemption was drawing night, he was moved to two wonderful deliverances which may have occupied him for a longer or shorter time, but which certainly contain the quintessence both of his thought and of his expression. Hydriotaphia or Urn Burial was directly inspired by the discovery of certain sepulchral vessels in Norfolk; no equally definite origin is assigned for its singular companion The Garden of Cyrus—a discussion of the ubiquity and virtues of the quincuncial arrangement (:.:). Both, however, are, in effect—though the first not quite so much as the second—occasions, if not occasions merely, for the outpouring of their author’s remarkable learning, of his strange quietist reflection on the mysteries of the universe, of his profound though unobtrusive melancholy, of the intensely poetical feeling which denied itself poetical expression  3  and, above all, of his unique and splendid style. They were the last things that he himself published—uniting them, a year after their first appearance, to Pseudodoxia in its third edition, and Religio in its fifth authorised form. The folio of 1659 may, in a sense, be called his Works, so far as he published these himself, A Letter to a Friend, Christian Morals and the various Miscellanies being, in some cases quite obviously, in almost all probably, destitute of final revision, though all but a quarter of a century passed between 1658 and his death.   18

Note 1. Butler’s famous couplet about the “sage philosopher, that had read Alexander Ross over,” and, perhaps, some remarks in editions and notices of Browne, have occasioned a sort of general idea of Ross as a pattern Dunce or Obscurus Vir. He was, however, nothing of the kind; but an original, who, with great learning and not small acuteness, put both at the service of a crotchety conservatism, seeking only, as he says himself, for causes “which may stand with the grounds of Divinity and Philosophy.” John Robinson, of Norwich, “fellow citizen and colleague,” as he proudly calls himself, of Browne, to whom he is very polite, was a much duller man. His Endoxa are chiefly minute technical demurrers. His notion of wit may be gathered from his remark on sugar: Saccharum, quod per jocum ego soleo sal charum dicere. [ back ]
Note 2. Yet his purely literary knowledge was certainly not small; and he is, perhaps, the only great Englishman of letters of his day, except Milton, who shows familiarity with Dante. [ back ]
Note 3. Browne has left little verse, and that little of less merit. The best, as well as the best known, is the evening hymn in Religio Medici, II, § xii, which recalls to all readers bishop Ken’s later one, and may recall to a few the similar composition of Flatman, which came, perhaps, between the two. All three, it is worth observing, were Wykehamists, and, as such, accustomed to Latin hymns. [ back ]

  Pseudodoxia Epidemica Hydriotaphia; The Garden of Cyrus  

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