Good book design tempts the reader. Well designed books cry out from the bookshelf to be looked at, to marvel at, to run your fingers across the pages, and, of course, to read. Subjects or titles that otherwise do not call your name become interesting, teasing you, daring you to NOT indulge in them. Of course, this reverse psychology is exactly what these dastardly books want, knowing that, as weak humans, our wills will easily bend to their temptation. Thank goodness for that or a work like Religio Medici would have remained a dusty memory of something from an old college reading list. Instead, I have enjoyed the immersion in what is one of the great works of the seventeenth century. Its exposition of faith, hope and charity is enlightening, the underlying mysticism thought-provoking, its prose lyrical.
Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) published Religio Medici in 1643. Browne was widely learned, with a deep knowledge spanning a number of areas. His prose, sometimes ornate, always eloquent, is full of vitality, knowledge and wit that remains a pleasure to read. It is amazing to me how little he is read or appreciated today, despite the intellect and pleasure his writings bring to the reader. Despite this lack of current appreciation of Browne, there is no denying his place as one of the greats of English prose, and as one of the most influential writers of the English language when it comes to style and wording. Browne is number 69 in the Oxford English Dictionary‘s list of top cited sources with 775 entries of first usage of a word, 4131 entries of first evidence of a word, and 1596 times as first evidence of a particular meaning of a word. From Wikipedia, some examples of his first usage of a word include:
‘ambidextrous’,’antediluvian’, ‘analogous’, ‘approximate, ‘ascetic’, ‘anomalous’, ‘carnivorous’, ‘coexistence’ ‘coma’, ‘compensate’, ‘computer’, ‘cryptography’, ‘cylindrical’, ‘disruption’,’ergotisms’, ‘electricity’, ‘exhaustion’, ‘ferocious’, ‘follicle’, ‘generator’, ‘gymnastic’, ‘hallucination’,’herbaceous’, ‘holocaust’, ‘insecurity’, ‘indigenous’, ‘jocularity’, ‘literary’, ‘locomotion’, ‘medical’, ‘migrant’, ‘mucous’, ‘prairie’, ‘prostate’, ‘polarity’, ‘precocious’, ‘pubescent’, ‘therapeutic’, ‘suicide’, ‘ulterior’, ‘ultimate’ and ‘veterinarian’
Religio Medici (The Religion of a Physician) was Browne’s first literary work and he did not intend it for publication, but rather as something to be distributed among some friends. The work is essentially a essay of Browne’s contemplation of spirituality and a look into his own beliefs and thinking (including the belief that a man of science can still have a deep belief in God). An unauthorized version appeared in 1642, which led Browne to formally publish it a year later. It quickly became a best seller. Reading it, it is easy to see why. Every page is a gem of writing and thought, with memorable and quotable phrases throughout, as some examples will illustrate.
Browne lays out clearly a role for reason in his faith:
In brief, where the scripture is silent, the Church is my text; where that speaks, ’tis but my comment: where there is a joint silence of both, I borrow not the rules of my Religion from Rome or Geneva, but the dictates of my own reason.
Reason plays an important role in a thinking mans life, but what often is forgotten in our times is the blindness and conceit that a supreme belief in Reason places in our path. On the contrary, Browne knows what to do at the limits of reason.
Where there is an obscurity too deep for our Reason, ’tis good to sit down with a description, periphrasis, or adumbration; for by acquainting our Reason how unable it is to display the visible and obvious effects of Nature, it becomes more humble and submissive unto the subtleties of Faith.
Reason, passion, faith all intertwine and interact; there is a balance.
As Reason is a Rebel unto Faith, so Passion unto Reason: as the propositions of Faith seem absurd unto Reason, so the Theorems of Reason unto Passion, and both unto Reason.
Browne seeks to find that balance by controlling his passions and allowing room for faith beyond where reason reigns:
Let me be nothing, if within the compass of myself I do not find the battail of Lepanto, Passion against Reason, Reason against Faith, Faith against the Devil, and my Conscience against all.
These are not the writings or thoughts of a religious zealot. He exudes tolerance in matters of religion and carries his belief in a manner which often seems lost in the modern age.
I could never divide myself from any man upon the difference of an opinion, or be angry with his judgment for not agreeing with me in that from which perhaps within a few days I should dissent myself. I have no Genius to disputes in Religion, and have often thought it wisdom to decline them…Every man is not a proper Champion for Truth, nor fit to take up the Gauntlet in the cause of Verity. Many, from the ignorance of these Maximes, and an inconsiderate Zeal unto Truth, have too rashly charged the Troops of error, and remain as Trophies unto the enemies of Truth.
There is some interesting discussion of time, including a recognition that there is nothing new:
…men are liv’d over again, the world is now as it was in Ages past; there was none then, but there hath been some one since that parallels him, and is, as it were, his revived self.
Browne discusses predestination and eternity in a straightforward manner:
But in Eternity there is no distinction of Tenses; and therefore that terrible term Predestination, which hath troubled so many weak heads to conceive and the wisest to explain, is in respect to God no prescious determination of our Estates to come, but a definitive blast of his Will already fulfilled, and at the instant that he first decreed it; for to his Eternity, which is indivisible and all together, the last Trump is already sounded, the reprobates in the flame, and the blessed in Abraham’s bosome.
He also dips into the age old discussion on the creation of something out of nothing; a question that still evades reason and likely forever will:
…Creation, that is, a production of something out of nothing. And what is that? whatsoever is opposite to something; or more exactly, that which is truely contrary to God: for he onely is, all others have an existence with dependency, and are something by a distinction. And herein is Divinity conformant unto Philosophy, and generation not onely founded on contrarieties, but also creation; God, being all things, is contrary unto nothing, out of which were made all things, and so nothing became something, and Omneity informed Nullity into an Essence.
Throughout the work, Browne talks of the glory of death. Life is transitory, death is permanent; the promise of Christ makes the one much more attractive then the other. He quote Lucan:
We’re all deluded, vainly searching ways
To make us happy by the length of days;
For cunningly to make’s protract this bath,
The Gods conceal the happiness of Death.
Further explaining that:
There is, indeed, not to fear death, but yet to be afraid of life. It is a brave act of valor to contemn death; but where life is more terrible then death, it is the truest valor to dare to live….There is therefore but one comfort left, that, though it be in the power of the weakest arm to take away life, it is not in the strongest to deprive of us of death….He forgets that he can dye who complains of misery; we are in the power of no calamity while death is in our own.
I boast nothing, but plainly say, we all labour against our own cure; for death is the cure of all diseases.
It is better to sit down in a modest ignorance, and rest contented 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, and is an accessary of our glorification.
Understanding what is to come with death is essential, as only then can one live life preparing for that eventuality. Yet, very few act of such knowledge:
The number of those who pretend unto Salvation, and those infinite swarms who think to pass through the eye of the Needle, have much amazed me.
Lastly, I do desire with God that all, but yet affirm with men that few, shall know Salvation; that the bridge is narrow, the passage straight, unto life: yet those who confine the Church of God, either to particular Nations, Churches, or Families, have made it far narrower than our savior ever meant it.
Who passes through that needle is beyond our knowledge, comprehension or power. It is not for us to judge.
No man can justly censure or condemn another, because indeed no man truly knows another…Further, no man can judge another, because no man knows himself….yet is every man his greatest enemy, and, as it were, his own Executioner.
Lastly, a few other random thoughts I thought well worth writing down. The first for all of us to remember as we age:
But age doth not rectify, but incurvate our natures, turning bad dispositions into worser habits, and (like diseases) brings on incurable vices; for every day as we grow weaker in age, we grow stronger in sin, and the number of our days doth but make our sins innumerable.The same vice committed at sixteen, is not the same…at forty, but swells and doubles from the circumstance of our ages…the maturity of our judgment cuts off pretence unto excuse or pardon. Every sin, the oftener it is committed, the more it acquireth in the quality of evil…
What is heaven?
Where the Soul hath the full measure and complement of happiness; where the boundless appetite of that spirit remains compleatly satisfied, that it can neither desire addition nor alteration; that, I think, is truly Heaven.
On charity and the poor:
He is rich, who hath enough to be charitable; and it is hard to be so poor, that a noble mind may not find a way to this piece of goodness. “He that giveth to the poor, lendeth to the Lord”…..Statists that labour to contrive a Common-wealth without poverty, take away the object of charity, not understanding only the Common-wealth of a Christian, but forgetting the prophecie of Christ. (“The poor ye shall have alwaies with you.”)
Nature is the Art of God.
This 1939 edition of Religio Medici from the Limited Editions Club is not spectacular. It is not a “wow” inducing volume. It is not meant to be. It is simple, yet beautiful. Somber, yet lively and thoughtful. In short, apropos for the work of Browne itself. The book was designed and printed by the great John Henry Nash. As stated by George Macy in the Monthly Letter (ML):
The only difference between a badly-designed book and a well-designed book is taste in design: the only difference between a badly-printed book and a well-printed book is care. John Henry Nash exercises care in the printing of his books.
The type is a special cutting of Cloister, 18 point size, cut by American Typefounders Company in 1914, designed by Morris Fuller Benton. It is hand-set. The type is set in a rich black square upon the page with noble margins where Sir Thomas Browne’s glosses are printed in italic. The title of the book runs across the head of each page, in Caxton Black type. All is printed on paper from Strathmore Paper Company from specifications by John Henry Nash. The ML describes the paper as having a soft and mellow color and a rough and pleasing surface, of which I agree. The design, type and paper make for an eminently readable text, as you will see below.
There are no illustrations. George Macy telling us:
For it does not aim to be a triumph of illustration, it aims only to be a triumph of printing.
The title page and frontispiece are both surrounded by a beautiful and classic decorative border. The frontispiece is a portrait of Sir Thomas Browne printed from copper-plate. In addition, the original title page of the non-authorized 1642 first edition is included. The original was engraved by William Marshall, a well known seventeenth-century British illustrator, and has been re-engraved in copper, for this edition, by Dolph Henry Murnik. As for the binding, the boards are covered with natural linen and the sides are covered with an imported marbled paper. Very handsome indeed. At 7 3/4″ x 11″ and 144 pages, it is very easy and comfortable to read. I should also mention that the introduction by Geoffrey Keynes is excellent (he also edited this work). Keynes, while a noted scholar and bibliophile in his own right, is best known as the younger brother of the economist John Maynard Keynes.
As this book can usually be found in near fine or better condition for anywhere from $40-100, it is a proverbial no-brainer. You should have this in your library. Don’t let the topic scare you away, it is a triumph of writing nicely packaged in a well designed edition.
About the Edition
- Printed by John Henry Nash at the University of Oregon
- The title page of the edition of 1642, originally engraved by William Marshall, has been re-engraved in copper by Dolph Henry Murnik
- The frontispiece is a portrait of Sir Thomas Browne printed from copper-plate
- Edited by Geoffrey Keynes
- The hand set type is a special cutting of Cloister, 18 point size, cut by American Typefounders Company in 1914, designed by Morris Fuller Benton (aims to be a faithful rendering of Nicolas Jenson’s roman letter)
- Type is set in a rich black square upon the page with noble margins where Sir Thomas Browne’s glosses are printed in italic
- Title of the book runs across the head of each page, in Caxton Black type
- Paper from Strathmore Paper Company from specifications by John Henry Nash
- Boards are covered with natural linen and the sides are covered with an imported marbled paper
- 7 3/4″ x 11″, 144 pages
- Limited to 1500 copies, signed by John Henry Nash
Pictures of the Edition
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