In Search of Sir Thomas Browne: The Life and Afterlife of the Seventeenth Century’s Most Inquiring Mind
by Hugh Aldersey-Williams.
Norton, 2015.
Hardcover, 352 pages, $27.

Reading Sir Thomas Browne’s unique prose reminds me of walking through the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Unlike most museums with a series of rooms and hallways, the Pitt Rivers is a single atrium—open, streaming with light and shadow—filled to the ceiling with archaeological and ethnographic wonders from around the world. Things dangle from the rafters, stare out from behind display glass, and are stuffed away in drawers and cabinets waiting to be discovered. There is organization here but no coherency beyond what can be found in the love of human artefacts and ideas. Here, one must be prepared to stay put,to idle, and to relish.

Perhaps this is why Browne is all but forgotten today. His prose meanders rather than walks in a straight line. His spiritual autobiography Religio Medici appears clumsy and cluttered to the purpose-driven modern reader, preferring clarity over revelry. Browne like the Pitt Rivers is too much of a reveler for us. He revels in language, in thoughts and ideas, in the natural world, in metaphorical imagery, and in beliefs.

Virginia Woolf probably best describes what it is like to encounter the “sublime genius” of Browne’s prose. She explains that Browne, more than anyone else she read, had “the strangest thoughts and imaginings … He has wished for death. He has doubted all things.” Like a closet of curiosities, Browne’s writings were collections of natural discoveries retrofitted with his metaphysical musings. Everything and anything could be found in Browne, as he rambles through “the finest of lumber rooms in the world—a chamber stuffed from floor to ceiling with ivory, old iron, broken pots, urns, unicorns’ horns, and magic glasses full of emerald lights and blue mystery.”

It is in light of such endorsements that Hugh Aldersey-Williams has written In Search of Sir Thomas Browne, with the stated purpose of reviving interest in Browne. This he does, but in a very Brownian way. Rather than following the traditional chronological structure of biography, Aldersey-Williams creates his own lumber room of curiosities out of Browne’s thought and writings, each chapter of the book addressing a different topic: Faith, Animals, Tolerance, Objects, Plants, and more. He seeks for Browne in his books, as well as in the artefacts of his life (what remains of them) and in the book of nature inhabiting modern East Anglia, where Browne spent his adult life. The book adheres to Browne’s specifications when he wrote, “my life … is a miracle of thirty years, which to relate, were not a History, but a piece of Poetry.” Rather than a straightforward biography, the book encourages us to revel in Browne’s “roving mind,” from his love of ornithology and his affinity for polecat skulls to his particular brand of Christianity, which is, according to Aldersey-Williams, “poetic, mythic, and metaphoric.”

Beyond the prosaic “born in London in 1605 to a silk merchant,” Sir Thomas Browne’s biography permits no simplifications. He was a physician known by his patients for his precision and austerity, but his writing meanders and often shocks. He was a man of learning and incredible inquisitiveness who thought that libraries should be destroyed. In Browne’s book Pseudodoxia (a study of false beliefs), he allows for the existence of basilisks, witches, and satyrs but scoffs at griffins and sphinxes. He was trained at the leading European schools of medicine (Leiden, Montpellier, and Padua) but had no aspirations for a career that extended beyond the borders of rustic East Anglia. Browne clung to the tradition of Galen and Aristotle, even though he carefully studied the new medical advances of men like Andreas Vesalius and William Harvey.

Browne stands out as something of an anomaly among the great thinkers and writers of seventeenth-century England. Perhaps this is another reason why he is not read very much today. He cannot be easily placed within the intellectual developments of the period. In his works like Religio Medici and Hydriotaphia (or Urn Burial), he is out-of-pace with the early Enlightenment and the scientific revolution. Even his Pseudodoxia seems like a book of Enlightenment skepticism, but at the same time is determinedly of the old world in its opinions.

Although he was a man of science, Browne’s greatest successescame in the “business of words.” Religio Medici and Hydriotaphia rank among the finest pieces of English prose. For example in Religio Medici, he wrote, “Men that look no further than their outsides, think health an appurtenance unto life, and quarrel with their constitutions for being sick; but I that have examined the parts of man, and know upon what tender filaments that fabric hangs, do wonder that we are not always so; and considering the thousand doors that lead to death, do thank my God that we can die but once.” His elaborate sentence structure and his ability to weave fractals of argumentation earned him the admiration of literary titans like Samuel Johnson, Samuel Coleridge, Woolf, and Jorge Luis Borges. Also, he had a knack for inventing words. Among coiners of English words, Browne ranks twenty-fifth in the Oxford English Dictionary, topping Francis Bacon and John Milton. He lays claim to over seven hundred words, which are as varied as antediluvian, inconsistent, carnivorous, and cryptography. Browne preferred inventing one word rather than using two that already existed, particularly if he felt it sounded better.

It is, however, Browne’s ideas and his intellectual style, more than his skills as a wordsmith, that Aldersey-Williams finds most important. Throughout the book, Aldersey-Williams points to an aversion toward all dogmatism, whether it is fideism or rationalism, whether science should be based upon classical authorities or upon experimentation. He enjoyed and found a certain amount of truth in all of these, but was never totally devoted to any. This is why Browne “can never join the emerging community of scientists” in the seventeenth century, because he lacked a dogmatic commitment to their way of science.

Aldersey-Williams is drawn to Browne’s openness, and the questions that his openness raises about contemporary issues. Here, Aldersey-Williams finds a kindred spirit, when he criticizes the “contemporary delusions” of environmental movements that idealize the natural world. Browne would have shared his bemusement at the illusory control humans believe we have over nature. He also would affirm Aldersey-Williams’s frustration at the “unhappy place” we have reached where science is so divorced from society. When Aldersey-Williams is exasperated at the “combative language” of scientists like Richard Dawkins, he finds solace in Browne’s “forbearance” when he writes in Pseudodoxia, “we shall so far encourage contradiction, as to promise no disturbance, or re-oppose any Pen, that shall fallaciously or captiously refute us.”

Unfortunately, it is at these very personal moments for Aldersey-Williams—where he feels a connection with Browne—that his own presuppositions sneak in. When this happens, he can dash quickly into anachronistic whimsies that are as distracting as they are misleading. Throughout the book, he wants, very badly, for Browne not to believe in witchcraft and strives to explain it away. Elsewhere, he raises the question: would Browne have been an atheist today. While Browne did not believe anyone could possibly be a positive atheist (asserting no gods exist), Browne’s “faith,” as Aldersey-Williams explains, “leads him toward a moral philosophy that would surely be acceptable to persons of any religion—or none.” Interesting, but ultimately irrelevant. The question is about as useful as asking: would Richard Dawkins have been a witch hunter in the seventeenth century?

This desire to modernize Browne, to make him something other than what he is, runs contrary to the spirit of the book. The Pitt Rivers is not the British Museum, nor should we want it to be. One does not assemble a closet of curiosities in order to wish it were something different. In its best moments, In Search of Sir Thomas Browne shows us this; it shows us what can be gained from idle reveling.  

David J. Davis is an assistant professor of history at Houston Baptist University.