Sir Thomas Browne: A Man of Achievement in Literature

By Joan Bennett | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VI
'PSEUDODOXIA' (BOOKS II-VII)

IN the opening and closing chapters of Book I Browne framed his inquiry. The frame is traditional, orthodox Christian belief He glances in those first and last chapters at the Devil as the source of error and, particularly in ch. 10, of error about God and about his own supernatural powers. But in the body of his work Browne is not writing about theology. He had described his own faith in Religio Medici, Part I, and it is recognizably at the root of his conception of the created world; but he had no wish then and he has no wish now to engage in theological controversy. The subject of Pseudodoxia is widespread misconception about phenomena; he undertakes, as his subtitle declares: Enquiries into Very many received Tenents, And commonly presumed Truths, concerning, for the most part, matters of fact. He inquires into beliefs about certain minerals, vegetables, animals, or about mankind; and, in the last three books, he inquires into beliefs that arise out of myth, allegory, metaphor, or proverb. He hopes to contribute to the advancement of positive knowledge.

In writing about Religio Medici and Book I of Pseudodoxia I thought it best, even at the risk of tediousness, to follow very closely at the heels of the author. Admirers of Browne in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have selected noble or amusing passages from his works; I believe that, although this has kept his name green and fostered appreciation of his style, it has not much helped the modern reader to discover what he was doing in his writings. By following the train of his thought and attempting, sometimes, to interpret his meaning I hoped to gain, and perhaps to impart, a fuller understanding of what Sir Thomas intended and of how his contemporaries understood him. However, to adopt the same method for Pseudodoxia, Books II-VIII, would be to

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