In Search of Sir Thomas Browne: The Life and Afterlife of the Seventeenth Century's Most Inquiring Mind

In Search of Sir Thomas Browne: The Life and Afterlife of the Seventeenth Century's Most Inquiring Mind

Language: English

Pages: 352

ISBN: 0393241645

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


The extraordinary life and ideas of one of the greatest―and most neglected―minds in history.

Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682) was an English writer, physician, and philosopher whose work has inspired everyone from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Jorge Luis Borges, Virginia Woolf to Stephen Jay Gould. In an intellectual adventure like Sarah Bakewell's book about Montaigne, How to Live, Hugh Aldersey-Williams sets off not just to tell the story of Browne's life but to champion his skeptical nature and inquiring mind.

Mixing botany, etymology, medicine, and literary history, Aldersey-Williams journeys in his hero's footsteps to introduce us to witches, zealots, natural wonders, and fabulous creatures of Browne's time and ours. We meet Browne the master prose stylist, responsible for introducing hundreds of words into English, including electricity, hallucination, and suicide. Aldersey-Williams reveals how Browne’s preoccupations―how to disabuse the credulous of their foolish beliefs, what to make of order in nature, how to unite science and religion―are relevant today.

In Search of Sir Thomas Browne is more than just a biography―it is a cabinet of wonders and an argument that Browne, standing at the very gates of modern science, remains an inquiring mind for our own time. As Stephen Greenblatt has written, Browne is "unnervingly one of our most adventurous contemporaries."

60 illustrations

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Elements in English Literature (London: L. and Virginia Woolf, 1931) Pevsner, Nikolaus, Norfolk 1: Norwich and North-East Norfolk (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1997) Weaver, Warren, A Great Age for Science (New York: Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, 1961) MELANCHOLY American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5 (Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association, 2013) Burton, Robert, The Anatomy of Melancholy (New York: New York Review of Books, 2001)

begin to understand how this mythic creature could have grown out of such realities. For among the roe deer that from time to time wander up under cover of the barley to help themselves to the contents of my garden, I occasionally see a young stag with a single antler. Browne’s difficulty is with the version of the animal that has become stylized in emblems and heraldry. The unicorn was incorporated into the royal coat of arms under James VI of Scotland after his succession to the English throne

in the genetics of plant developmental biology’. There is something reassuring about this, not so much because it is a poke in the eye for reductionism and the apparently inexorable tendency for discoveries to be made at scales smaller than the visible, as because it restores the idea that simply looking at things in the right way might still have much to teach us. Assisted by computer visualizations, plant biologists are once again finding that observation of the growth and form of plants may be

goes that gold is not altered by the human digestive system: Now herein to deliver somewhat which in a middle way may be entertained; we first affirm, that the substance of Gold is invincible by the powerfullest action of natural heat; and that not only alimentally in a substantial mutation, but also medicamentally in any corporeal conversion. It is notable, in the light of Browne’s careful symmetry earlier on, that he does not stop to name these opposing voices who are now pulling him away

a veritable throwback to the seventeenth century, in some cases lack of evidence was itself cited as evidence of the devilish deviousness of the perpetrators. Subsequent investigation into the handling of these incidents found that the social workers had been too ready to believe the children’s stories and unwilling to take denials of wrongdoing at face value. They had used flawed interviewing techniques in which leading questions and ‘anatomically correct’ dolls served to project interviewers’

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