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appearance of a sneer, I can discover nothing wherewith to be pleased; more particularly when I recollect that, among the principal grounds of his contempt for the Koran, he enumerates “the impossibilities” which, in his opinion, it contains. But, while I condemn this levity and petulance of language, which characterised his conversation no less than his writings, my charity forbids me to conclude any thing derogatory to his general belief; though it must be frankly acknowledged that expressions of this “amphibious nature,” somewhat thickly scattered, are among the worst imperfections of the “Religio Medici."
With respect to the “impossibilities ” themselves, it may be observed, that our eyes not being keen enough to discern the links which bind together the several parts of the universe, it might be as well if we abstained from deciding what can, and what cannot be. When Socrates was once asked his opinion of the celebrated poem of Empedocles, he replied, that he believed it to be an exceedingly fine work, since all he could understand of it appeared to be possessed of great beauty. What this Athenian said ironically, we may without irony affirm of the great poem of the universe: all we comprehend of it is beautiful, and there can be little doubt that what exceeds our comprehension in it is no less so. Metaphysicians inclined to universal scepticism, finding that in the vast regions of philosophy we can, to adopt a homely phrase, scarcely see beyond our noses, have dwelt with something like exultation on the incapacity
of man's intellect to overcome the difficulties which surround the most indubitable truths. For example, all the world admit, as a philosophical axiom, that matter may be divided ad infinitum; since, whatever has dimensions and solidity may be separated into parts, those parts, again, into others, and so on for ever. Nothing seems clearer, or more demonstrable than this. And yet the reader, no doubt, knows well that it may be no less clearly shown to be impossible. For, to pass over a particle of matter, however small, will require an instant of time; and if matter be divisible ad infinitum, which has been admitted, any given mass, say a cubic foot, must necessarily contain an infinity of atoms. Now, as some time, however short, is certainly necessary to pass over each of these, the number of moments requisite to take us over the whole must be infinite—that is, an eternity. But, from experience we know, that to traverse such surface is not the work of a second ; therefore the number of atoms it contains must be limited, therefore matter is not divisible ad infinitum. We have here, of course, a mere jeu d'esprit ; but it nevertheless exhibits very correctly the limits, in that direction, of the human understanding.
But if physics thus contain depths unfathomable, is it not reasonable to expect, in the obscure regions of ontology, in that science which is conversant with God and spiritual existences, that we shall be stopped, almost at every step, by phenomena beyond our comprehension? It is childish to babble of the "impossibilities of religion," until
we understand the whole scheme of the world, intellectual and physical—until we can explain who we are, whence we are, and wherefore we are. Until we know what laws govern the elements, mould them into sentient forms, and again, after a season, dissolve those warm and beautiful structures, and give their dust to the winds. Until we can decide the nature of that mysterious principle which we term life; discover how in some things it becomes a fountain of motion, in others of motion and passion, in others of motion, passion, intellectuality, and all those marvellous phenomena which we observe in ourselves and others. Until we can say in what consists the invisible chain we denominate affection, that binds us not to the living only, but to the dead, to forms long passed away, to minds translated beyond the stars, and the utmost bourne of the visible creation. Until then, let us be humble, nor mutter, even in the secrecy of our hearts, that there is any contradiction, any basis for scepticism, any impossibility in religion.
It will, perhaps, be sufficient thus to have glanced at the more serious faults of Sir Thomas Browne. To dwell further on them might seem to be uncharitable. He would appear, at the period of writing the “Religio Medici,” to have been passing through those clouds of doubt and uncertainty which beset most speculative men at one period or another of their career; and he employed himself for his own sole use, as he tells us, in carefully noting down all the difficulties and dangers his faith had to encounter. The history of his expe
rience, however, if properly considered, cannot fail to prove useful to others : since one chief purpose of books is to serve as beacons, by the light of which we may discover the rocks and shoals of study, and learn to steer wide of them in our own way into port.
Another defect of the “Religio Medici," and, indeed, of Sir Thomas Browne's works generally, brings them within the scope of Lord Bacon's censure, where, investigating the causes why literature is sometimes neglected, he says, many substances in nature, which are solid and entire, do many times putrefy and corrupt into worms; so good and sound knowledge doth often corrupt and dissolve into a number of subtle, idle, unwholesome, and (as I may term them) vermiculate questions, which seem indeed to have a kind of motion and quickness in them, and yet are unsound and hollow, and of no solid use." (0)
In fact, simply to be knowing is not the object of a philosopher ; but to be learned in precisely those things the knowledge of which must improve and elevate his character as a citizen and as a
And such was the aim that regulated the studies of Sir Thomas More. He investigated the science of morals, because without morals private happiness is unattainable; he studied the science of politics, because without the knowledge of politics there can be no public happiness. By similar views were the researches of Milton, Sidney, and
(0) Advancement of Learning, I. 4. §. 3.
Locke directed; and the result was a powerful sympathy for mankind at large, correct feelings, and personal contentment.
Browne, on the contrary, though he professes to have made numerous inquiries respecting the form and spirit of various foreign polities, never prosecuted with the ardour of preference the study of ethics or of government. Neither, so far as I can discover, did he much busy his imagination with the plastic and mimetic arts, with the laws which regulate the beauty of form, and convert a piece of marble or canvass into a kind of secular idol; or even pursue those still nobler and lovelier modifications of beauty which meet our eye in the domains of poetry and eloquence. No, for such things he appears to have experienced no love. His preferences led him into a quite contrary direction-to the discussion of questions curious enough in themselves, and not without a certain interest, but barren as the sand on the beach. For example, it is a point with him to ascertain whether Judas was hanged, or only broke his neck; whether Eve was fashioned from Adam's right or left side ; whether, in fact, there be such a thing, in nature, as right or left; (an inquiry which probably suggested Sterne's ingenious speculation respecting the right end of a woman ;) whether the world was created in summer, winter, or spring ; whether Adam was not, Hibernice, about thirty when first called into existence; and whether, seeing he could never have had any use for one, our great first parent was furnished with a navel.