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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42.1 (2002) 137-154

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Hydriotaphia, "The Sensible Rhetorick of the Dead"

Adam H. Kitzes

In Philosophy where truth seemes double-faced, there is no man more paradoxicall then my self; but in Divinity I love to keepe the road, and though not in an implicite, yet an humble faith, follow the great wheele of the Church, by which I move, not reserving any proper poles or motion from the epicycle of my own braine.

I love to lose my selfe in a mystery to pursue my reason to an oh altitudo. 'Tis my solitary recreation to pose my apprehension with those involved aenigma's and riddles of the Trinity, with Incarnation and Resurrection.

Religio Medici 1

Thomas Browne's published works are no "well-wrought urns." They are more like the urns he writes about with such interest in Hydriotaphia (1658): subject to corruption, hard to pin down, and seemingly animated by some spectral agent that carries them along an undetermined trajectory. Or perhaps they are closer to the Sphinx--another of Browne's favorite figures--in that they mumble something to us, but what that is nobody can fully make out. He did not always prefer things this way, however. The Epistle to the Reader in Religio Medici suggests that he published his text in order to undo the corruption that his writing had already suffered: "This I confesse about seven yeares past, with some others of affinitie thereto, for my private exercise and satisfaction, [End Page 137] I had at leisurable houres composed; which being communicated unto one, it became common unto many, and was by transcription successively corrupted untill it arrived in a most depraved copy at the presse." 2 Nor is his writing entirely inscrutable; far from it, in fact. But to the extent that it does make sense, it verifies a principle at which he ultimately arrives: any act of communication tends to mean what it says less and less over time.

Just what is the relation between this process of decay in language and the paradoxical statements Browne is known to have been so fond of composing? In this essay, I address this question by arguing that, over time, Browne came to regard them as two aspects of a single problem. I also hold that in Hydriotaphia, Browne's attitude toward paradox went through substantial revision--substantial enough to produce real changes in his public persona. His notion of paradox evolves from a rhetorical technique that performatively demonstrates the major precepts of his arguments about reason and nature (as we see it in Religio Medici), to the presence of irresolvable contradictions that lie at the basis of any society united by language. The discovery Browne makes in the Hydriotaphia is that every society is subject to corruption and ruin, not from an external cause but from the material that constitutes it in the first place.

Thus, while Religio Medici may be the most personally revealing testimony Browne gives about his writing, it only tells part of the story. The passages cited at the beginning of this essay characterize Browne's early attitude toward his own writing and thought. Both demonstrate his skepticism about human reason--inevitably, our most basic principles of argument and reason give way to an abyss of complications. 3 This is developed further in sections 13-6, where he implies that even the principle that the universe corresponds to a reasonable order can only be taken on faith. He assures us, "Natura nihil agit frustra, is the onely indisputable axiome in Philosophy," without demonstrating the truth of it--a crucial distinction, since the true and the axiomatic are never the same things. 4 Instead, he merely asserts it, and the axiom may turn out to be no more than a conventional statement that natural philosophers need to agree upon. Even when he compares God to an excellent artist, he tempers it with conditional phrases: "Now this course of Nature God seldome alters or perverts, but like an excellent Artist hath...


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