Despite ironclad evidence to the contrary, we expect consistency in our fellow humans (less so in ourselves). Such is our naïveté. We act surprised when people act foolishly, not like rational animals. Of course, that too is human. Predictability makes life easier. Someone said humans are the pattern-recognizing species. A man who laughs is happy. A man who doesn’t is miserable. Pause for a moment and review your family and friends with those ridiculous generalities in mind.
The first thing to know about Robert Burton (1577-1640) is that he adopted the persona of “Democritus Junior,” after the “laughing philosopher” Democritus of Abdera (born c. 460 B.C.). The polymathic scholar of melancholy enjoyed himself, liked to laugh, was good company. Anthony à Wood, the seventeenth-century antiquary, wrote of Burton in his Athenae Oxonienses (1691-92):
“I have heard some of the ancients of [Christ Church] often say that his company was very merry, facete [facetious], and juvenile, and no man in his time did surpass him for his ready and dexterous interlarding his common discourses among them with verses from the poet or sentences from classical authors.”
The Anatomy of Melancholy (first published 1621, revised five times during his life) is on the short list of the most inexhaustibly entertaining books in the language, written to be read across a lifetime. All the right people loved it – Johnson, Sterne, Lamb, Keats, Anthony Powell, et al. Burton himself described his Anatomy as “a rhapsody of rags gathered together from several dung-hills, excrements of authors, toys and fopperies confusedly tumbled out, without art, invention, judgement, wit, learning, harsh, raw, rude, phantastical, absurd, insolent, indiscreet, ill-composed, indigested, vain, scurrile, idle, dull, and dry . . .” No humorless drudge could have written such a sentence.
He was a heroic reader, a lifelong bachelor scholar. Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote in The Listener in 1977: “What did Burton read in his solitary study? As far as we can see, everything, absolutely everything: ancient classics, modern literature, Latin and Greek, French and English, philosophy, philology, history, politics, travel, mathematics, astronomy, medicine.”
Burton good-humoredly admitted his limitations, which sound to some of us like strengths. Among his faults he numbered “barbarism, Doric dialect, extemporanean style, tautologies, apish imitation.” In A Register and Chronicle Ecclesiastical and Civil, White Kennet (1660-1728), recounts my favorite anecdote of Burton:
“The author is said to have labored long in the Writing of this Book to suppress his own Melancholy, and yet did but improve it . . . . In an interval of vapours he could be extremely pleasant, and raise laughter in any Company. Yet I have heard that nothing at last could make him laugh, but going down to the Bridge-foot in Oxford, and hearing the bargemen scold and storm and swear at one another, at which he would set his Hands to his sides and laugh most profusely.”
Burton died on this date, January 25, in 1640 at age sixty-two.