Thomas Browne and Individuality

     In this post, I want to expand on my previous post on Thomas Browne.  Browne is a good example of individuality in two ways: religion and life. 

    Christianity is a religion that presupposes individual choice.  Unlike a tribal religion which people are born into and are a member of simply by virtue of being part of the tribe, Christianity must be consciously chosen, at least by the first generation of converts.  After this, people can be born into a Christian culture, and their religious practice becomes less consciously chosen.  For many centuries, an important aspect of Christianity was obedience to authority, whether this be the authority of local Christian leaders or the doctrines of a Church.  

    Now, we are in an era where, by necessity, Christian practice must be chosen individually.  For example, the choice to join or remain a member of any particular denomination or to not join any denomination.  Or what religious practices to participate in.  This individual aspect will express itself in different ways for different people.   

    Browne is intermediate between this fundamentally individualistic Christianity and the older societal Christianity.  For example, he writes in Religio Medici:

    "In philosophy, where truth seems double-faced, there is no man more paradoxical than myself: but in divinity I love to keep the road; and, though not in an implicit, yet an humble faith, follow the great wheel of the church, by which I move; not reserving any proper poles, or motion from the epicycle of my own brain. By this means I have no gap for heresy, schisms, or errors, of which at present, I hope I shall not injure truth to say, I have no taint or tincture. I must confess my greener studies have been polluted with two or three; not any begotten in the latter centuries, but old and obsolete, such as could never have been revived but by such extravagant and irregular heads as mine. "

    One of these "heresies" was: 

"A third there is, which I did never positively maintain or practise, but have often wished it had been consonant to truth, and not offensive to my religion; and that is, the prayer for the dead; whereunto I was inclined from some charitable inducements, whereby I could scarce contain my prayers for a friend at the ringing of a bell, or behold his corpse without an orison for his soul."  

    In other words, Browne had believed in the efficacy of prayer for the dead, but changed his mind in accordance with what he regarded as proper belief.  

    Browne also writes: 

    "But, to difference myself nearer, and draw into a lesser circle; there is no church whose every part so squares unto my conscience, whose articles, constitutions, and customs, seem so consonant unto reason, and, as it were, framed to my particular devotion, as this whereof I hold my belief—the Church of England; to whose faith I am a sworn subject, and therefore, in a double obligation, subscribe unto her articles, and endeavour to observe her constitutions"

    This paragraph encapsulates the two aspects of belief.  On the hand, Browne writes that he is a "sworn subject" of the Church of England and obeys the beliefs of that church.  But, his justification is his conscience, "particular devotion," and "reason."  In other words, Browne obeys the Church of England based on his individual judgement. 

    Although Browne rejected prayer for the dead because he believed it was heretical, Browne believed in guardian angels.  He wrote in his book Christian Morality

"'Tis better to think that there are Guardian Spirits, than that there are no Spirits to Guard us"

    In this case, he is believing based on individual discernment not authority.  

    As an upstanding man of his time Browne obeyed Church authority, but he also spent much time trying to understand and learn about religion as an individual.  I would say that his heart was more on the individual side than the authority side.  In my previous post, I called Browne a proto-Romantic Christian, meaning that was similar to but proceeded the lineage that Bruce Charlton has drawn up, consisting of Blake, Coleridge, Chesterton, etc.  Bruce Charlton made a good point in a comment saying: 

    "Proto-romantic? Well, nothing comes from nowhere, so there is always some kind of transition. But I find the spirit of Browne to be very different from that of the romantics. He is so measured and moderate - a bit more like a renaissance humanist type, or Montaigne.

I find him more like the end of an era (late, late medieval) than the beginning of a new.

    After thinking this over, the term proto-Romantic is somewhat misleading.  Charlton is right that Browne was not a Romantic but rather was of the Renaissance/ Medieval period in terms of his outlook on life.  Perhaps I should call him an individualist Christian.  

    In addition to religion, Browne provides a good example of developing one's individuality in life.  I believe, following Bruce Charlton, Rudolf Steiner, and Owen Barfield, that one task for modern human beings is to develop individually.  But it is difficult to imagine in detail what this would look like.  Some people can develop their individuality by being geniuses: great thinkers, artists, or leaders, but for most of us that is simply not possible.  But also, individuality by its nature is dependent on what is within the individual, not on impact compared to other people.  

    Following from this belief that modern human beings have a task to develop certain qualities, I believe that many of the negative developments of the past two centuries are perversions of good impulses.  For instance, in this day and age, development of real individuality has been replaced by fake individuality.  Celebrity is a good example of this.  Rather than developing according to one's own deepest good motivations, the idea is to adopt a persona and then to have that persona be singled out above other people.  So, being an individual has become redefined as being singled out, being "special," developing a persona rather than the true self.  

    Thomas Browne provides a good example of what real individuality looks like.  He was a man with a wide range of interests, some rather obscure.  But this was no mere eccentricity or contrarianism, being different for the sake of being different.  I believe Browne's writings and studies arose organically, from his genuine interests.  As an example, here are the titles of some of his works: 

The Garden of Cyrus, or The Quincuncial Lozenge, or Network Plantations of the Ancients, naturally, artificially, mystically considered (1658)

Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or, a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk

Psedudodoxia Epidemica, or Enquiries into Common and Vulgar Errors

On Dreams 

On Bubbles 

On Tobacco 

On Echoes 

Observations on frogs 

Observations on eggs

On fossil remains in Norfolk 

Account of a thunderstorm

Upon the darke thicke miste

    Two other examples of real individuality are these posts from Bruce Charlton: "Creativity and hobbies" and "Making an Irish sandwich." One important thing about real individuality and real hobbies is that they aren't about anything other than themselves.  They are done for their own sake and arise spontaneous out of one's good motivations.  


  1. I shouldn't want imply I am being categorical about disputing the proto-modern classification! Every distinction has a grey area, cases which could plausibly be allocated in either direction. Another from Browne's era is Thomas Traherne.

    Steiner dated the 'modern' world from about 1400 - which (to an Englishman) is the death of Chaucer (also the Gawain poet and Langland), the end of the Black Death, and about the end of the Wars of the Roses.

    Yet the modern world does not really begin until about the middle 1700s with the birth of the novel, the agrarian and industrial revolutions, and then the first full literary Romantics in Britain and Germany.

    But that period from 1400-1750 is transitional, and there were very considerable changes during it, without quite reaching a qualitative threshold - and events during that span are perhaps best regarded as exactly that - a transitional period, rather than either medieval or modern.

    1. "I shouldn't want imply I am being categorical about disputing the proto-modern classification!"

      The distinction you raised was helpful in my thinking. I had the idea for the second half of this post about a year ago and your comment made me realize that I should expand more on how Browne represented a transition.

      "But that period from 1400-1750 is transitional, and there were very considerable changes during it, without quite reaching a qualitative threshold - and events during that span are perhaps best regarded as exactly that - a transitional period, rather than either medieval or modern."

      Yes, in some ways it is a rather peculiar time because so much happened and especially so much that has been considered proverbially Western Culture, such as music and yet, it was also transitional. Certainly not as huge a break from around 1400 as from 1750 onward.

      I'll have to think more about this.

  2. As a low church evangelical who has recently taken interest in Catholic practices, I can relate to Thomas Browne. Is it truly "heretical" to pray for the dead? While Browne was a member of the Church of England, prayers for the dead were quite common prior to Henry VIII removing the Church of England from under the jurisdiction of Rome.

    Perhaps he was a proto type of a "Mere Christian" as CS Lewis. I find it interesting that Lewis started out as a low church evangelical yet embraced Catholic concepts as he grew in his faith. While some traditionalists may find my faith too broad, I really believe that a full Christian faith is catholic and reformed.

    1. Good comment.

      I think that Catholic practices and beliefs such as prayers for the dead, saints, guardian angels, etc. add depth to our understanding of the spiritual. It is surely significant that, at least in the British Isles (and I think also in the Hellenistic world), in the first generations after paganism there seemed to be more miracles than in the later generations of Christians.


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