Works of Sir Thomas Browne
Perhaps the rashest of all the rash assertions which disfigure Mr. Buckle's History of Civilization in England is one which refers to Sir Thomas Browne. He is described as a man who began by being in the highest degree superstitious, but who, in the years which elapsed between the publication of the Religio Medici and that of the Enquiry into Vulgar Errors (which coincided with the civil wars), was converted by the spirit of the age to a healthy and laudable scepticism. In an article upon Mr. Buckle's book which does not appear to us worthy of the subject, the Quarterly Review pounces with delight upon this unfortunate remark, and uses it to prove that Mr. Buckle does not read the books which he quotes. Sir Thomas Browne, says the Reviewer, is not only equally credulous upon the subject of spirits and witches in each of his books, but after the publication of the second he gave evidence on the famous trial of witches at Bury, before Sir M. Hale, and greatly contributed thereby to the conviction of the prisoners. No doubt the critic is entitled to the credit of having discovered a very serious and very characteristic mistake in the book which he reviews, but we think he has failed to see its true bearing upon the question of the credit to which Mr. Buckle's statements are entitled; and whether he sees it or not, he does not show how the facts to which he refers illustrate the character of Sir Thomas Browne. With respect to the first point, our opinion, expressed long since, is that it is equally impossible to impugn Mr. Buckle's learning and to defend his discretion. He is extremely learned, very positive, and excessively crotchety, and it is creditable to contemporary criticism that in most cases the main propositions of his book have formed the subject of discussion, whilst the errors of detail with which it abounds have been passed over with a slight and general notice, or with a small number of references and illustrations. The second point—the character of Sir Thomas Browne and his writings—we propose to discuss somewhat more fully. Mr. Buckle appears to us to have entirely misunderstood the character of a most remarkable man—a character which, as we think, underwent no essential change during the interval which is alleged to have been so critical, and which in our own age it is most desirable to understand.
Few remarks have thrown more light on Sir Thomas Browne's character than one which is made by Coleridge—we think in his Literary Remains. He says that, if he believed in the doctrine of the transmigration of souls, he would be inclined to imagine that his own soul had once inhabited the body of Sir Thomas Browne. We should add to this remark the observation that it had to some extent both deepened and narrowed in the change. Notwithstanding a certain timidity and obscurity which greatly weaken their effect, Coleridge's theological and metaphysical speculations have profoundly influenced the minds which have acted most powerfully on the present generation. Men so widely different as Dr. Arnold, Mr. John Mill, Mr. Maurice, and Dr. Newman, all have shown the marks of his influence; and they have in some degree owed to it, a temper of mind which is constantly found in the present day in company with opinions not only different from, but conflicting with, each other. It is a temper which might well have been derived from Sir Thomas Browne; but his “strange, irregular head,” as he calls it himself, did not exert the same influence over his contemporaries as that of Coleridge, though it addressed itself with great power to a large range of subjects of which Coleridge was ignorant. The Aids to Reflection, the Literary Remains, and the Confessions of an Enquiring Spirit closely resemble the Religio Medici; but there is nothing, so far as we know, in Coleridge's works, which can be in any degree compared to the treatise on Vulgar Errors.
The temper to which we have alluded cannot easily be described by any single name, and indeed in different minds it manifests itself in very different ways; but it arises from, and depends upon, a consciousness of the connexion between our knowledge of things which do and of things which do not fall within the range of scientific observation. There are writers in the present day who expressly maintain, and there are others whose works appear to imply, that questions which, as far as our experience goes, appear to be insoluble, ought not to be allowed to exercise any influence whatever over our conduct, but should be studiously dismissed from our consideration. There are others who, whilst well aware of the enormous obscurity which hangs over all the problems which lie at the root of theology and morals, maintain that, in spite of this obscurity, men must take some views of these subjects, and must, in forming those views, exercise their reason to the best of their ability on the very incomplete materials at their disposal. The ordinary run of people who handle such topics have no real conception at all of their difficulty, and suppose that their own special circle is in possession of the key to them. Sir Thomas Browne's two principal works appear to us to afford an excellent illustration of the fact that there is nothing necessarily unphilosophical, or otherwise absurd, in the position of those who occupy the second of the three positions which we have indicated ; and it may be interesting to point out how that which has been described as his credulity was not only not opposed to his science, but was, so to speak, a development of it in another direction. Our readers are no doubt acquainted with the strange mixture of gravity and something like humour with which, in his Religio Medici, he dilates on the text credo quia impossibile; and we need not quote instances of the shrewdness with which, in the treatise on Vulgar Errors, he brings received opinions of various kinds to the test of experience. The important observation is, that the contradiction between these states of mind is only superficial. There is in reality the strongest connexion between them, for each of them arises out of a very natural view of the character of the knowledge which we possess upon what have been distinguished as matters of faith and matters of reason. It is in respect of the former alone that the difficulty exists; and we think that a little consideration will show clearly that the view which Sir Thomas Browne took of them by no means deserved the name of credulity, and that it was a view which might well be taken by a mind of great scientific power, and which minds of that order are naturally inclined to take, and have in point of fact frequently taken down to the present time. It is very material to have a clear view of this subject, because there is a wide-spread disposition in the present day to regard the theological and the scientific tempers as essentially opposed to each other.
Science, strictly so called, is nothing more than classification. It is a mere arrangement of a vast number of facts under certain general heads or formulas, which are usually, by a very delusive and objectionable metaphor, described as laws; an all that science, in this sense of the word, enables us to do is to predict events by attending to the general expressions thus ascertained, or—to adopt the common language—to bring particular cases under general laws. It is thus obvious that the questions which are capable of scientific treatment are not unlimited. Science gives us nothing but facts, and orders of succession. It tells us that, under certain circumstances, bodies move in certain directions, and with velocities which bear a certain ratio to their distances from each other and from certain points between them. It tells us that the human body consists of parts which bear certain relations to each other, and which discharge various functions with different degrees of vigour, according to certain ascertainable circumstances. It tells us that the earth is composed of materials disposed in a certain order, and implying the succession of a variety of different conditions of existence, separated by enormous intervals of time; and it gives us a vast mass of information upon a thousand other subjects, which, however, always falls into analogous forms. It is obvious to any one accustomed to accurate thought, that, vast and various as this kind of knowledge is, it is essentially limited. There is an enormous range of subjects respecting which an increase of scientific knowledge makes numberless suggestions to all but the vainest or most sluggish minds, but as to which it neither furnishes, nor has any tendency to furnish, any sort of solution whatever. It has often appeared to us probable that the endless and apparently hopeless character of the Nominalist and Realist controversy arises from the fact that the disputants speak not only of different things, but of different orders of things, both of which may very possibly exist. The Nominalist, in this view, would be supposed to direct his attention to phenomena—to our conceptions of objects—whilst the Realist addressed himself to the substances which those conceptions represent. That such substances may possibly exist the most hardy Nominalist would probably not deny. He would only contend that our knowledge of them is entirely limited by our conceptions. Science, and that which lies beyond science, whatever it may be called, occupy positions precisely analogous to Nominalism and Realism, so considered. Science classifies phenomena, and indicates the order in which they succeed each other; but when they are classified, the mind is not satisfied, and in our opinion ought not to be satisfied. True it is that the heavenly bodies move in a certain order—true it is that they occupy at successive periods of time positions indicated by a formula which is called the law of gravitation—but what is the why to this how? Gravity, in a scientific point of view, is the mere name of a phenomenon, indicating in general terms the positions which the planets will successively occupy; but is there any real force which impels these bodies, and, if so, what is it? Is it a self-subsisting ultimate fact, or is it produced by something else? That must be a very dull mind to which science does not suggest this and thousands of similar questions; but it has never solved, nor shown the slightest tendency to solve, any one of them. It is, we think, indisputable that science deals only with formulas, or laws, as they are called; but it does not refute, still less does it destroy, the idea of causation; and the more exact and comprehensive are the formulas which it frames, the more irresistible does our curiosity become as to the cause of the facts which the formula enables us to predict. People may be content to rest on the fact that, if they take an emetic, it will make them sick; but when they are told of some vast principle which pervades the whole material universe, as far as we can judge, it is impossible not to seek to carry matters back a step further, and to attempt by analogy and conjecture, since science will not aid us, to assign some cause for this arrangement, on the existence of which the mind can to some extent rest satisfied.
It is not in one department of science, alone that these windows are opened into a region which lies above, beyond, and around experience. Suppose our knowledge of human nature enlarged to such an extent that we could foretel the thoughts, feelings, and actions of any given human being, human nature would still be the same. It would still present the phenomena of will and conscience; and as astronomy does not answer such questions as these, How came the stars where they are? what is the meaning of this marvellous march and order? why does matter attract other matter? so metaphysics, even in that ideal state, would not answer the questions, What am I? whence do I come? whither do I go? what is this will which, though you foretel its actions, still originates my acts? what is this conscience which still continues to approve or to blame the acts which you foretell? To us it appears that the fearful and wonderful structure of the soul would appear more, and not less, fearful and wonderful if the fiat of conscience, the sensation of will, and the sentiment of moral responsibility were felt and even demonstrated to co-exist with foreknowledge on the part of other human beings of the conduct of a given individual. Suppose we could predict infallibly that a given man would commit a given crime on a given day, that he would feel fearful remorse, and that we should inflict terrible punishment upon him; would not the fact of the prediction deepen the awe with which we at present regard conscience, will, and responsibility, and increase instead of diminishing our anxiety to assign some cause for their existence, instead of contenting ourselves with the mere fact that they do exist? We do not hesitate to express our conviction that a very important part of the value of science is that it raises these reflections in a sober and orderly manner, and that it can only raise them in minds which have been, at least to some extent, previously fortified by its own discipline.
Imperfect as Sir Thomas Browne's science may have been in many respects—and it is evident that his mind was deeply imbued with the philosophy which tries to solve questions about things by tricks played with words—it is abundantly clear throughout each of his great books that the double conception of that which is subject to, and that which lies beyond, the province of science, lay at the root of all his speculations, and, in fact, supplied the clue by which they were guided. Near the beginning of the Religio Medici he draws a distinction between the provinces of faith and reason, which we notice, not in order to discuss its truth, but because it affords a strong analogy to the distinction which we have attempted to point out between the province of science and the province of that which is quite as necessary as science—conjecture and probability. We need not say that the belief by which he, like the vast mass of mankind in the present day, tried to solve the mysteries which the world, viewed scientifically or not, presents to every human creature who looks at it, was a belief in God and in the various spiritual influences by which Christians believe heaven and earth to be united. It is quite absurd to say that, in its principle, this belief conflicted in any way whatever with his belief in or prosecution of science; and his books show, perhaps as clearly as any others that could be mentioned, that the two lines of thought are so far from being conflicting that they are mutually complementary. In that vast range of subjects which, as we have already observed, are indicated but cannot be explored by science, Sir Thomas Browne felt that he was not an explorer, but partly a disciple and partly a conjecturer; and he delighted, after the manner of his age, in throwing into the quaintest forms the enthusiastic belief with which he followed what he regarded as infallible guides. What has been called his credulity was neither want of power of mind nor want of shrewdness of observation—it was nothing more than the fault of an ardent temper, which unduly and unwarily enlarged the limits within which conjecture and probability are our only guides, and narrowed those in which we have facts to guide us. When he gave his evidence against the Suffolk witches, he was not guilty of any want of scientific acuteness. He mistook the province to which the facts before him belonged; but can it be seriously contended that Sir Thomas Browne's position as a man of science would have been higher if he had never entertained the principle which led him to believe in witches? Would the treatise on Vulgar Errors have been a greater book if its author had never written—“I love to lose myself in a mystery, to pursue my reason to an O altitude! . . . . . I can answer all the objections of Satan and my rebellious reason with that odd resolution I learnt of Tertullian— Certum est quia impossibile est.” We do not believe it in the least degree. It appears to us to be as certain as any such criticism can be, that in common with most of the great scientific men of his day, and with a very large proportion indeed of those of our own day, Sir Thomas Browne would have lost all his interest in science if he had disbelieved, or if he had even ignored the existence of God and of a spiritual intercourse between this world and the next. If the ultimate fact at which we arrive is a huge machine grinding on indefinitely without any moral purpose or personal author, it is hardly worth the while of a man of any life or spirit to trouble himself to take it to pieces, even though it may for the present grind out something called civilization. None of the great functions of life—neither science, nor literature, nor the active pursuits of the world—can dispense, with the feelings and the imagination. Shallow people, who look only at their abuse, occasionally treat these parts of our nature as amiable weaknesses. They are, in fact, the sources of all its strength. Indeed, if they were entirely absent, all action of every kind would end, for there would be no motives to set the intellect at work, and no conjectures to guide its operations. Whatever opposition may sometimes appear to exist between the spirit of science and the spirit of theology, must arise out of ignorance and misconception on one side or the other. There is between the two a natural and indissoluble connexion, and we do not know that any better illustration could be given of the fact than that which is supplied by the writings of Sir Thomas Browne. His theological opinions, no doubt, often warped his scientific views, but the fact that he was able to write the Religio Medici was the very fact which good him to become the author of the treatise on Vulgar Errors.
Saturday Review, July 31, 1858.