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Μεγαλοι οι λογοι, και εμβριθεις αι εννοιαι
A work sublime in words, and weighty in matter.
Among the great writers of the seventeenth century, whose productions, though meriting an immortality of fame, have fallen into neglect, may be mentioned the name of Sir Thomas Browne.
When Dr. Johnson, more than half a century ago, employed his powerful talents on the biography of this once celebrated physician and philosopher, it was to have been expected, that such an effort from such a quarter would have excited the attention of the public, and brought forward the object of his just praise. But the result has not been in any degree commensurate to the wishes of those who have studied the writings of Browne, with a deep and well
founded admiration for their value and originality.
One great cause of this failure, may probably be ascribed to the circumstance, that of those whose curiosity has been stimulated by the encomium of Johnson to consult the works of Browne, the greater number has been induced, from the attraction of title, rather to refer to the “ Enquiries into Vulgar and Common Errors," or to “ The Garden of Cyrus," than to the “ Religio Medici,” or the “ Hydriotaphia.” The consequence has been, that the two chief faults of the writer, the latinity of his style, so striking a feature in the first of these productions, and the lawless eccentricity of his fancy, so sin- • gularly prominent in the second, have occasioned either perplexity or disgust; and the folio has insensibly dropped from the hands of its disappointed readers.
That this could ever have been the case, had the Religio MEDICI been entered upon by any reader of taste and feeling, I am most unwilling to believe; for I know of no prose work of the century in which it appeared, not even excepting the writings of Jeremy Taylor and
Milton, which abounds in more decisive proofs of fervency of genius, sublimity of sentiment, and richness of imagination. It is, moreover, a work of exalted piety; and, as it was written early in life, when the author was not more than thirty years of age, it has nearly, if not altogether, escaped that deluge of exotic phraseology which has so materially blemished his subsequent compositions.
It must not, however, be denied, that even in this production, admirable as it is in many parts, there are passages, and those not very unfrequently occurring, which either by their paradoxical subtlety, their quaint and fantastic imagery, or their unguarded familiarity of illustration, are calculated, not only to injure its effect as a whole, but to weaken that impression on the mind, which every friend to virtue and religion would wish its nobler parts indelibly to fix.
It is on this account, and especially at the present period, when scepticism and infidelity have reared their heads with such effrontery amid the walks of science, that I esteem myself to be doing an acceptable service to the public,
in once more bringing before it the best portions of the best work of this great and good man, of this profound philosopher and truly Christian physician.
And if, whilst thus employed in the grateful task of selecting passages worthy of being had in everlasting remembrance, I have ventured, occasionally, to accompany them with a commentary of my own, I beg it to be understood, that in so doing, I have chiefly had in view, either the corroboration of their doctrine through the medium of what subsequent opinion has produced, or the applicability of their sentiment to the circumstances of the present times.
Previous, however, to my entering on this minute consideration of the book, it will, I think, be of essential service to the cause which I am about to advocate, to state, that the life of Sir Thomas Browne, which was protracted to the age of seventy-seven, and terminated on his birth-day, October the 19th, 1682, was in strict conformity, as to religious practice, with the tenor of his writings. • The opinions of every man," observes Dr. Johnson, in concluding his biography of this estimable character, “ must
be learned from himself; concerning his practice, it is safest to trust the evidence of others. Where these testimonies concur, no higher degree of historical certainty can be obtained ; and they
; apparently concur to prove, that Browne was a zealous adherent to the faith of Christ, that he lived in obedience to his laws, and died in confidence of his mercy." *
The RELIGIO MEDICI, which was written in 1635, and first surreptitiously presented to the world in 1642, was not originally intended for the public eye; but was composed, as the author tells us, in his address to the reader,
a private exercise directed to himself;" a circumstance, which has thrown over the work much additional interest and value, by giving to its matter a more unreserved tone of communication, and to its style a greater freedom and vivacity. There is another anecdote also connected with the work of still greater importance; for Mr. Whitefoot, the bosom friend of the author, has declared, that, to the last, Sir Thomas
* Life of Sir Thomas Browne, originally prefixed to the second edition of his Christian Morals,” which appeared in the year 1756.