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which they had learned in fables, and of which only some feeble vestiges now remain in the eloquence of strolling showmen. The elephant had no joints, and was caught by felling the tree against which he rested his stifflimbsin sleep; the pelican pierced its breast for the good of its young; ostriches were regularly painted with a horseshoe in their bills, to indicate their ordinary diet; storks refused to live except in republics and free states; the crowing of a cock put lions to flight, and men were struck dumb in good sober earnest by the sight of a wolf. The curiosity-hunter, in short, found his game still plentiful, and by a few excursions into Aristotle, Pliny, and other more recondite authors, was able still to display a rich bag for the edification of his readers. Sir Thomas Browne sets out on that quest with all imaginable seriousness. He persuaded himself, and he has persuaded some of his editors, that he was a genuine disciple of Bacon, by one of whose suggestions the Inquiry is supposed to have been prompted. Accordingly, as Bacon describes the idols by which the human mind is misled, Sir Thomas sets out with investigating the causes of error ; but his introductory remarks immediately diverge into strange paths, from which it is obvious that the discovery of true scientific method was a very subordinate object in his mind. Instead of telling us by what means truth is to be attained, his few perfunctory remarks on logic are lost in an historical narrative, given with infinite zest, of the earliest recorded blunders. The period of history in which he most delighted was the antediluvian—probably because it afforded the widest field for speculation. His books are full of references to the early days of the world. He takes a keen personal interest in our first parents. He discusses the unfortunate lapse of Adam and Eve from every possible point of view. It is not without a visible effort that he declines to settle which of the two was the more guilty, and what would have been the result if they had tasted the fruit of the Tree of Life before applying to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Then he passes in revie.v every recorded speech before the Flood, shows that in each of them, with one exception, there is a mixture of falsehood and error, and settles to his own satisfaction that Cain showed less "truth, wisdom, and reverence" than
Satan under similar circumstances. Granting all which to be true, it is impossible to see how we are advanced in settling, for example, whether the Ptolemaic or the Copernican system of astronomy is to be adopted, or in extracting the grains of truth that may be overlaid by masses of error in the writings of alchemists. Nor do we really learn much by being told that ancient authorities sometimes lie, for he evidently enjoys accumulating the fables, and cares little for showing how to discriminate their degree of veracity. He tells us, indeed, that Medea was simply a predecessor of certain modern artists, with an excellent "recipe to make white hair black ;" and that Actaeon was a spirited master of hounds, who, like too many of his ancestors, went metaphorically, instead of literally, to the dogs. He points out, moreover, that we must not believe on authority that the sea is the sweat of the earth, that the serpent, before the Fall, went erect like man, or that the right eye of a hedge-hog, boiled in oil, and preserved in a brazen vessel, will enable us to see in the dark. Such stories, he moderately remarks, being "neither consonant unto reason nor correspondent unto experiment," are unto us "no axioms." But we may judge of his scepticism by his remarks on "Oppianus, that famous Cilician poet." Of this writer, he says that, "abating the annual mutation of sexes in the hyaena, the single sex of the rhinoceros, the antipathy between two drums of a lamb's and a wolfs skin, the informity of cubs, the venation of centaures, and some few others, he may be read with delight and profit." The some "few others" is charming. Obviously, we shall find in Sir Thomas Browne no inexorably severe guide to truth; he will not too sternly reject the amusing because it happens to be slightly improbable, or doubt an authority because he sometimes sanctions a mass of absurd fables. Satan, as he argues at great length, is at the bottom of most errors, from false religion down to a belief that there is another world in the moon; but Sir Thomas takes little trouble to provide us with an Ithuriel's spear; and, indeed, we have a faint suspicion that he will overlook at times the diabolic agency in sheer enthusiasm at the marvellous results. The logical design is little more than ostensible; and Sir Thomas, though he knew it not himself, is really satisfied
with any line of inquiry that will bring him in sight of some freak of nature or of opinion suitable to his museum of curiosities.
Let us, however, pass from the anteroom, and enter this queer museum. We pause in sheer bewilderment on the threshold, and despair of classifying its contents intelligibly within any moderate space. This much, indeed, is obvious at first sight—that the title "vulgar errors" is to some extent a misnomer. It is not given to vulgar brains to go wrong by such complex methods. There are errors which require more learning and ingenuity than are necessary for discovering truths; and it is in those queer freaks of philosophical minds that Sir Thomas specially delights. Though far, indeed, from objecting to any absurdity which lies on the common highroad, he rejoices in the true spirit of a collector when he can discover some grotesque fancy by rambling into less frequented paths of inquiry. Perhaps it will be best to take down one or two specimens, pretty much at random, and mark their nature and mode of treatment. Here, for example, is that quaint old wonder, the phoenix, "which, after many hundred years, burnetii itself, and from the ashes thereof ariseth up another." Sir Thomas carefully discusses the pros and cons of this remarkable legend. In favor of the phoenix, it may be alleged that he is mentioned " not only by human authors," but also by such "holy writers" as Cyril, Epiphanius, and Ambrose. Moreover, allusions are made to hirri in Job and the Psalms. "All which notwithstanding," the following grave reasons may be alleged against his existence: First, nobody has ever seen a phoenix. Secondly, those who mention him speak doubtfully, and even Pliny, after telling a story about a particular phoenix which came to Rome in the censorship of Claudius, unkindly turns round and declares the whole story to be a palpable lie. Thirdly, the name phoenix has been applied to many other birds, and those who speak unequivocally of the genuine phoenix, contradict each other in the most flagrant way as to his age and habitat. Fourthly, many writers, such as Ovid, only speak poetically, and others, as Paracelsus, only mystically, whilst the remainder speak rhetorically, emblematically, or hieroglyphically. Fifthly, in the Scriptures, the word translated "phoenix" means a palmNew Series.—Vol. XIV., No. 1.
tree. Sixthly, his existence, if we look closely, is implicitly denied in the Scriptures, because all fowls entered the ark in pairs, and animals were commanded to increase and multiply, neither of which statements are compatible with the solitary nature of the phoenix. Seventhly, nobody could have known by experience whether the phoenix actually lived for a thousand years, and, therefore, "there may be a mistake in the compute." Eighthly, and finally, no animals really spring, or could spring, from the ashes of their predecessors, and it is impossible to believe that they could enter the world in such a fashion. Having carefully summed up this negative evidence—enough, one would have fancied, to blow the poor phoenix into summary annihilation—Sir Thomas finally announces his grave conclusion in these words—" How far to rely on this tradition we refer unto consideration." And yet he feels impelled to add a quaint reflection on the improbability of a statement made by Plutarch, that "the brain of a phoenix is a pleasant bit, but that it causeth the headache." Heliogabalus, he observes, could not have slain the phoenix, for it must of necessity be "a vain design to destroy any species, or mutilate the great accomplishment of six days." To which it is added, by way of final corollary, that after Cain had killed Abel, he could not have destroyed Eve, supposing her to have been the only woman in existence; for then there must have been another creation, and a second rib of Adam; must have been animated.
We must not, however, linger too long, with these singular speculations, for it is. probable that phoenix-fanciers are becoming rare. It is enough to say briefly that if any one wishes to understand the natural history of the basilisk, the griffin, the salamander, the cockatrice, or the amphisbcena—if he wishes to know whether a chameleon lives on air, and an ostrich on horseshoes—whether a carbuncle giveslight in the dark, whether the Glastonbury thorn bore flowers on Christmas-day,, whether the mandrake "naturally groweth under gallowses," and. shrieks "upon," eradication "—on these and many other such points he may find grave discussions in Sir Thomas Browne's pages. He lived in the period when it was still held to be a sufficient proof of a story that it was. written in a book, especially if the book, a
were Latin; and some persons, such as Alexander Ross, whose memory is preserved only by the rhyme in Hudibras, argued gravely against his scepticism.* For Sir Thomas, in spite of his strange excursions into the marvellous, inclines for the most part to the sceptical side of the question. He was not insensible to the growing influence of the scientific spirit, though he believed implicitly in witchcraft, spoke with high respect of alchemy and astrology, and refused to believe that the earth went round the sun. He feels that his favorite creatures are doomed to extinction, and though dealing lovingly with them, speaks rather like an attached mourner at their funerals than a physician endeavoring to maintain their flickering vitality. He tries expeViments and has a taste for dissection. He proves by the evidence of his senses, and believes them in spite of the general report, that a dead kingfisher will not turn its breast to the wind. He convinced himself that if two magnetic needles were placed in the centre of rings marked with the alphabet (an odd anticipation of the electric telegraph, minus the wires) they would not point to the same letter by an occult sympathy. His arguments are often to the point, though overlaid with a strange accretion of the fabulous. In discussing the question of the blackness of negroes, he may remind benevolent readers of some of Mr. Darwin's recent speculations. He rejects, and on the same grounds which Mr. Darwin declares to be conclusive, the hypothesis that the blackness is the immediate effect of the climate ; and he points out, what is important in regard to " sexual selection," that a negro may admire a flat nose as we admire an aquiline; though, of course, he diverges into extra-scientific questions when discussing the probable effects of the curse of Ham, and rather loses himself in a "digression concerning blackness." We may fancy that this problem pleased Sir Thomas rather because it appeared to be totally insoluble than for any other reason; and in spite of his occasional gleams of scientific observation, he is always most at home when on the borderland which divides the purely marvellous from the region of ascertainable fact. In the last half of his book,
* Ross, for example, urges that the invisibility of the phcenix is sufficiently accounted for by the natural desire of a unique animal to keep out of harm's way.
indeed, having exhausted natural history, he plunges with intense delight into questions which bear the same relation to genuine antiquarianism that his phcenixes and salamanders bear to scientific inquiry: whether the sun was created in Libra; what was the season of the year in Paradise; whether the forbidden fruit was an apple ; whether Methuselah was the longest-lived of all men (a main argument on the other side being that Adam was created at the perfect age of man, which in those days was fifty or sixty, and thus had a right to add sixty to his natural years); what was the nature of St. John the Baptist's camel's-hair garment; what were the secret motives of the builders ol the tower of Babel; whether the three kings really lived at Cologne—these and many other profound inquiries are detailed with all imaginable gravity, and the interest of the inquirer is not the less because he generally comes to the satisfactory and sensible conclusion that we cannot possibly know anything whatever about it
The Inquiry into Vulgar Errors was published in 1646, and Sir Thomas's next publication appeared in 1658. The dates are curiously significant. Whilst all England was in the throes of the first civil war, Sir Thomas had been calmly finishing his catalogue of intellectual oddities. This book was published soon after the crushing victory of Naseby. King, parliament, and army, illustrating a very different kind of vulgar error, continued to fight out their quarrel to the death. Whilst Milton, whose genius was in some way most nearly akin to his own, was raising his voice in favor of the liberty of the press, good Sir Thomas was meditating profoundly on quincunxes. Milton hurled fierce attacks at Salmasius, and meanwhile Sir Thomas, in his quiet country town, was discoursing on " certain sepulchral urns lately found in Norfolk." In the year of Cromwell's death, the result of his labors appeared in a volume containing The Garden of Cyrus and the Hydriotaphia.
The first of these essays deserves notice as the book in which Sir Thomas has most unreservedly laid the reins upon the neck of his fancy. Borne by his strange hobby, he soared away from the troubles that raged in this sublunary sphere. He ransacks heaven and earth, he turns over all his stores of botanical knowledge, he searches all sacred and profane literature to discover anything that is in the form of an X, or that reminds him in any way of the number 5. It is needless to say that his labors are rewarded by an ample harvest. He seems, as it were, to have quincunx on the brain. From the garden of Cyrus, where the trees were arranged in this order, he rambles through the universe, stumbling over quincunxes at every step. To take, for example, his final, and, of course, his fifth chapter, we find him modestly disavowing an " inexcusable Pythagorism," and yet unable to refrain from telling us that five was anciently called the number of justice; that it was also called the divisive number; that most flowers have five leaves^ that feet have five toes; that the cone has a "quintuple division ;" that there were five wise and five foolish virgins; that the "most generative animals" were created on the fifth day ; that the cabalists discovered strange meanings in the number five; that there were five golden mice ; that five thousand persons were fed with five barley-loaves; that the ancients mixed five parts of water with wine ; that plays have five acts ; that starfish have five points; and that if any one inquire into the causes of this strange repetition, "he shall not pass his hours in vulgar speculations." We, however, must decline the task, and will content ourselves with a few characteristic phrases from his peroration. "The quincunx of heaven," he says, referring to the Hyades, "runs low, and 'tis time to close the five parts of knowledge. We are unwilling to spin out our awaking thoughts into the phantasms of sleep, which often continueth precogitations, making cables of cobwebs, and wildernesses of handsome groves Night, which Pagan
theology could make the daughter of chaos, affords no advantage to the description of order; although no lower than that mass can we derive its genealogy. All things began in order, so shall they end, and so shall they begin again; according to the admirer of order and mystical mathematics of the City of Heaven. Although Somnus, in Homer, be sent to rouse up Agamemnon, I find no such* effects in these drowsy approaches of night. To keep our eyes open longer were but to act with our Antipodes. The huntsmen are up in America, and they are already past their first sleep in Persia. But who can be drowsy at that hour, which
roused us from everlasting sleep? Or have slumbering thoughts at that hour, when sleep itself must end, and, as some conjecture, all shall awake again?"
"Think you," asks Coleridge, commenting upon this passage, "that there ever was such a reason given for going to bed at midnight, to-wit, that if we did not, we should be acting the part of our antipodes?" In truth, Sir Thomas finishes his most whimsical work whimsically enough. The passage gives no bad specimen of the quaint and humorous eloquence in which he most delights—snatching fine thought from sheer absurdities, and putting the homeliest truth into a dress of amusing oddity. It may remind us that it is time to leave the queer freaks of fancy, which occupy so large a part of his writings, and to endeavor to justify shortly the language of one of the acutest of recent critics,* who calls his "our most imaginative mind since Shakspeare." Everywhere, indeed, his imaginative writing is, if we may so speak, shot with his peculiar humor. It is difficult to select any eloquent passage which does not show this characteristic interweaving of the two elements. Throw the light from one side, and it shows nothing but quaint conceits; from the other, and we have a rich glow of poetic coloring. His humor and his melancholy are inextricably blended ; and his melancholy itself is described to a nicety in the words of Jaques :—" It is a melancholy of his own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and, indeed, the sundry contemplation of his travels, in which his often rumination wraps him in a most humorous sadness." That most marvellous Jaques, indeed, is rather too much of a cynic, and shows none of the religious sentiment of Sir Thomas Browne; but if they could have talked together in the forest, poor Jaques would have excited a far closer sympathy than he recrives from his very unappreciative companions. The books in which this "humorous sadness" finds the fullest expression are the Religio Medici and the Hydriotaphia. The first apparently resulted from the "sundry contemplation of his travels," and is written throughout in his characteristic strain of thought. From his travels he had learnt the best lesson of
* Mr. Lowell, in "Shakspeare Once More," Among my Books.
a lofty toleration. The furious controversies of that age, in which the stake, the prison, and the pillory were the popular theological arguments, produced a characteristic effect on his sympathies. He did not give in to the established belief, like his kindly-natured contemporary Fuller, who remarks, in a book published about the same time with the Religio Medici, that even " the mildest authors" agree in the propriety of putting certain heretics to death. Nor, on the other hand, does he share the glowing indignation which prompted the great protests of Chillingwor'th and Taylor against the cruelties practised in the name of religion. Browne has a method of his own in view of such questions. He shrinks from the hard, practical world into spiritual meditation. He regards all opinions less as a philosopher than as a poet. He asks, not whether a dogma is true, but whether it is beautiful or quaint. If his imagination or his fancy can take pleasure in contemplating it, he is not curious to investigate its scientific accuracy. And therefore he catches the poetical side of creeds which differ from his own, and cannot even understand why anybody should grow savage over their shortcomings. He never could be angry with a man's judgment "for not agreeing with me in that from which, perhaps, within a few days I should dissent myself." Travelling in this spirit through countries where the old faith still prevailed, he felt a lively sympathy for the Catholic modes of worship. Holy water and crucifixes do not offend him. He is willing to enter the churches and to pray with the worshippers of other persuasions. He is naturally inclined, he says, "to that which misguided zeal terms superstition," and would show his respect rather than his unbelief. In an eloquent passage, which might teach a lesson to some modern tourists, he remarks :—" At the sight of a cross or crucifix I can dispense with my hat, but scarce with the thought and memory of my Saviour. I cannot laugh at, but rather pity, the fruitless journeys of pilgrims, or contemn the miserable condition of friars; for though misplaced in circumstances, there is something in it of devotion. I could never hear the Ave Mary bell without an elevation; or think it a sufficient warrant, because they erred in one circumstance, for me to err in all —that is, in silence and dumb contempt.
Whilst, therefore, they directed their devotions to her, I offered mine to God, and rectified the errors of their prayers by rightly ordering my own. At a solemn procession I have wept abundantly, while my consorts, blind with opposition and prejudice, have fallen into an excess of laughter and scorn."
Very characteristic, from this point of view, are the heresies into which he confesses that he has sometimes fallen. Setting aside one purely fantastical theory, they all imply a desire for toleration even in the next world. He doubted whether the damned would not ultimately be released from torture. He felt great difficulty in giving tfp prayers for the dead, and thought that to be the object of such prayers, was "a good way to be remembered by posterity, and far more noble than a history." These heresies, he says, as he never tried to propagate them, or to dispute over them "without additions of new fuel, went out insensibly of themselves." Yet he still retained, in spite of its supposed heterodoxy, some hope for the fate of virtuous heathens. "Amongst so many subdivisions of hell," he says, "there might have been one limbo left for these." With a most characteristic turn, he softens the horror of the reflection, by giving it an almost humorous aspect. "What a strange vision will it be," he exclaims, "to see their poetical fictions converted into verities, and their imagined and fancied furies into real devils! How strange to them will sound the history of Adam, when they shall suffer for him they never heard of!"
The words may remind us of an often quoted passage from Tertullian; but the Father seems to gloat over the appalling doctrines, from which the philosophical humorist shrinks, even though their very horror has a certain strange fascination for his fancy. Heresies such as these will not be harshly condemned at the present day. From others of a different kind, Sir Thomas is shielded by his natural love of the marvellous. He loves to abandon his thoughts to mysterious contemplations; he even considers it a subject for complaint, that there are "not impossibilities enough in religion for an active faith." "I love," he says, "to lose myself in a mystery; to pursue my reason to an O altitudo! 'Tis my solitary recreation to pose my apprehension with those involved