Sir Thomas Browne’s "Religio Medici" (Religion of a Doctor/Physician): Skepticism and Scientific Reasoning are Mixed with Faith and Revelation



“And, considering the thousand doors that lead to death, do thank my God that we can die but once.”

Thomas Browne (1605 - 1682)

English physician and writer.

Religio Medici

Sir Thomas Browne’s first important work, Religio Medici (Religion of a Doctor/Physician), probably written in 1635 at the age of thirty, is a rambling discourse in which skepticism and scientific reasoning are mixed with faith and revelation. The book was published in 1642 and translated into Latin, Dutch, French and German. Soon after its appearance in the continent, the book became popular. In France, particularly, Browne’s Religio Medici was highly esteemed and the author revered. Read More Age of Dryden

Browne was a physician by profession and a divine or preacher by inclination. He was a mystic. Outwardly, his life passed happily and calmly. He did not reflect the troubles of the civil war. He was a Royalist and an Anglican, but he did not compromise himself and his peace was not disturbed. The exercise of his wit won him much renown. He devoted his leisure to studying the antiquities of Norwich. Read More Age of Dryden He applied Bacon’s method to the examination of the natural phenomena of the place. His science is, like Bacon’s, oddly mixed with prejudice. Browne refuses to accept the system of Copernicus and maintains that the earth is the centre of the universe. He believes in astrology, alchemy, witchcraft and magic. His evidence as a doctor caused two poor women to be put to death as witches.

Doctor and the Patient
 Browne’s mind held a curious medley. In spite of his deep knowledge of natural science, he kept a taste for miracles. This learned man is especially impressed by the narrow limits of science. He reveals his complex soul in the most celebrated and most curious of his books, Religio Medici. Neither prettiness nor wit is the dominant quality of this work. In spite of being Anglican he deals so gently with Catholicism that he has been suspected of being a Catholic. He tells us that he ‘could never hear the Ave-Mary bell without an elevation.’ He is full of sympathy for all Christian sects and even of pity for infidels. Read More Age of Dryden He prides himself on being a cosmopolitan without national prejudice. Yet he should not be mistaken for a scholar or deist of the eighteenth century because he ignores the cult of reason. In his opinion “it is better to sit down in a modest ignorance and rest content with the natural blessing of our own reasons, than buy the uncertain knowledge of this life with sweat and vexation, which death gives every fool gratis.”

Browne does not envy the early Christians the Miracles which they witnessed and which compelled them to believe. Instead he considers that their experience would make his faith too little meritorious. Read More Age of Dryden Moreover, he sees miracles everywhere, even in existence at its simplest. In his words, “Now for my life, it is a miracle of thirty years, which o relate were not a history but a piece of poetry, and would sound to common cars like a fable.”

 Browne’s habitual themes are those of the preacher-the vanity of glory, the nearness of death. He renews them with erudite reminiscences which rekindled the ashes of the most remote historical past, and with constant reference to the Universe and to cosmographical facts. As a result, there is strangeness and also loftiness in his writings.

The second part of Religio Medici is a pure autobiography. His character stands self-revealed, but he does not stand before as a naked soul shivering in the cold before an unsympathetic public, but as a man of culture and piety draped in the silver garment of hope that his religious connections have girt around him. Religio Medici is not an autobiography in the sense that Gibbons’, Herbert Spencer’s, and John Stuart Mill’s autobiographies are. Browne tells us little about his doings and a lot about his musing. Most autobiographers tell us a lot about their doing and little about their musings. Read More Age of Dryden Browne’s Religio Medici explains why Browne believes in Religion. He transmits to posterity a defence of those consolations which a religious philosophy alone can give. He states the well-worn common places of theological controversy, such as the argument from creation i.e. The Harmony of the Universe, and the argument from Design or Purpose i.e., the teleological argument by giving reference to his own thoughts and feelings. In the Second Part, when he discourses on the Christian virtue of Charity, his best argument is often a reference to his own life. There is a distinction between theology and science. In theology all depends upon authority and tradition, and has been settled long ago, and handed down to us. In Science authority does not come of itself, but all ground covered has to be constantly verified by experiment. The one is stationary, the other on the march. Neither Pascal nor Browne allowed Science to interfere in the domain of faith or with the dogmatism of moral ideal. Gosse adds that both Pascal and Browne looked upon the generations of humanity as a single man, whose conduct was fixed by a set of stationary injunctions, above and beyond all criticism.

Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-1665), English author, natural scientist, diplomat, and naval commander writes a commentary on Religio Medici, titled Observations upon Religio Medici (1643). Though the book was so much praised, Browne had to face some fierce criticism. Alexander Ross, a Scottish pamphleteer of the day, familiar, to the readers of Samuel Butler’s Hudibras, at the instigation of Edward Benlowes, a Catholic who had turned into a rabid Protestant and other friends came out with a pamphlet, “Medicus Medicatus or the Physician’s Religion cured by a lenitive or gentle potion.” The book assailed the liberality of Browne’s outlook upon ‘Christianity and it was praised by the Puritans of the day as a “Learned, sound and solid” contribution to philosophy. Read More Age of Dryden The book attacked both Sir Thomas Browne and Sir Kenelm Digby. Ross criticized Browne’s sentimentality, his rhetoric and looseness of logic, —which charge can easily be sustained. He quoted long passages from Religio Medici and tried to refute them. Ross’s indignation as a stern Puritan seems to boil in his- veins, when he sees or smell a feeling of tenderness in Browne towards the Roman Catholics and his tolerance generally. But with all this, Browne’s is renown as a thinker and apologist for Christianity spread rapidly through England, and long before his death, Browne had the consolation to see his book translated not only into Latin but also into several of the languages of modern Europe.

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