Saturday, October 09, 2021

'To Annex a Constant Property Unto Any Nation'

What group of people might Sir Thomas Browne be describing? 

“As for their diet, whether in obedience unto the precepts of reason, or the Injunctions of parsimony, therein they are very temperate; seldom offending in ebrietie or excess of drink, nor erring in gulosity or superfluity of meats; whereby they prevent indigestion and crudities, and consequently putrescence of humors.”


Understand that this passage is drawn from Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646-72), also known as Vulgar Errors, in which Browne dismisses such notions as the existence of unicorns and the impact of garlic on magnetism. He is not “scientific” by twenty-first-century standards – no experiments with repeatable findings are involved -- but neither is he uncritically credulous. He applies reason to some of his day’s more farfetched notions. In the passage quoted above, he is talking about Jews. You’ll find it in Chap. X of the volume’s Fourth Book, “Of Many Popular and Received Tenents Concerning Man.” The chapter’s title: “That Jews Stink.” Browne states his response in the first paragraph:


“[T]hat an unsavoury odour is gentilitious or national unto the Jews, if rightly understood, we cannot well concede; nor will the information of reason or sence induce it.”


Browne spends the next eleven paragraphs refuting the apparently commonly held belief. He never says the notion is anti-Semitic – a word that didn’t enter English for another two centuries. Rather, he takes on what we might call the “Stink Libel” directly, though in his final paragraph he refutes stereotyping any heterogenous group of people, “to annex a constant property unto any Nation.”


No one reads Browne today to free himself of superstition. Rather, we admire his skeptical, curious spirit and glory in his language. Take gulosity, directly from the Latin. Dr. Johnson defines it as “greediness; gluttony; voracity.” The OED cites Browne and gives the same synonyms. In his “Life of Browne,” Johnson writes:


“His style is, indeed, a tissue of many languages; a mixture of heterogeneous words, brought together from distant regions, with terms originally appropriated to one art, and drawn by violence into the service of another. He must, however, be confessed to have augmented our philosophical diction; and, in defence of his uncommon words and expressions, we must consider, that he had uncommon sentiments, and was not content to express, in many words, that idea for which any language could supply a single term.”


Johnson is in good company. Coleridge, Hazlitt and Lamb, not to mention W.G. Sebald, loved him too. Few writers are so rewarding to read.

1 comment:

Thomas Parker said...

Just a few days ago I finished Religio Medici, which I've been using for my "just before retiring" bedside reading. Near the end was this:

"There is surely a piece of Divinity in us, something that was before the Elements, and owes no homage unto the Sun. Nature tells me I am the image of God as well as Scripture; he that understands not thus much, hath not his introduction or first lesson, and is yet to begin the Alphabet of man."