Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Dr. Browne's 'readie way to read the characters of Morpheus'.

Thomas Browne's short tract On Dreams is exemplary of the seventeenth century physician-philosopher's deep learning and dedication to his medical profession. Furthermore, Browne's On Dreams  reveals him to be a pioneering psychologist, not least for anticipating concepts associated with the psychology of Carl Gustav Jung.

Its worthwhile reminding ourselves of the nature of dreams and the historical antecedents of their interpretation. Dreams can have a wide variety of moods and feelings, frightening or anxious, exciting and adventurous, sometimes with a magical content or empowering, sometimes with a sexual element and most often simply puzzling. Dreams can give a creative or inspiring thought, and in the past they've been viewed as a conduit of God-given revelation and prophecy. 

The ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia left evidence of dream interpretation dating back to at least 2100 BCE. In one of the world's oldest literary works The Epic of Gilgamesh the hero Gilgamesh escapes the vengeance of the gods by paying attention to dreams which warn and show him how to overcome his enemy.  The Greek physician Hippocrates (469–399 BCE) had a simple dream theory: during the day, the soul receives images; during the night, it produces images, similarly, the Greek historian Herodotus in his Histories, wrote, "The visions that occur to us in dreams are, more often than not, the things we have been concerned about during the day".

Thomas Browne (1605-82) demonstrates his familiarity with Hippocrates' theory to the causes of dreams stating in accordance to the ancient Greek physician, 'the thoughts or actions or the day are acted over and echoed in the night'. Browne himself had an intimate relationship to the world of dreams. Living in an age of grim living conditions and little entertainment, dreaming was a welcome diversion in seventeenth century England.  Browne confesses of his enjoyment of dreaming in  Religio Medici (1643) thus-

'There is surely a nearer apprehension of any thing that delights us in our dreams, than in our waked senses........I thank God for my happy dreams, as I do for my good rest, for there is a satisfaction in them unto reasonable desires, and such as can be content with a fit of happiness; and surely it is not a melancholy conceit to think we are all asleep in this world, and that the conceits of this life are as mere dreams to those of the next, as the Phantasms of the night, to the conceit of the day'. [1]

Dreams were rich nourishment for Browne's imagination, not least because he was able to lucid dream, that is, to be conscious of oneself actually dreaming, and thus able to take an active instead of a passive role in the events occurring in a dream, effectively controlling the action of a dream. Browne  elucidates on  his rare gift in Religio Medici thus -

'yet in one dream I can compose a whole Comedy, behold the action, apprehend the jests, and laugh myself awake at the conceits thereof; were my memory as faithful as my reason is then fruitful, I would never study but in my dreams, and this time also would I choose for my devotions, but our grosser memories have then so little hold of our abstracted understandings, that they forget the story, and can only relate to our awaked souls, a confused and broken tale of that that hath passed'. [2]

On Dreams opens with fleeting allusion to night and sleep, themes which, together with dreams inspired some of the greatest passages of Browne's literary art. Citing the Old Testament book of Genesis and its story of Jacob's dream, Joseph's interpretation of the Egyptian pharaoh's dreams and Nebuchadnezzar's demand not only for the interpretation of his dream but of his dream itself, Browne in common with other Renaissance thinkers viewed dreams as God-given communications and their interpretation sanctioned in the Bible. 

Even as late as the seventeenth century the little-understood psychic phenomena of the dream was believed to be of either divine or diabolical origin. Browne's remark that, 'We have little doubt there be demoniacal dreams' seems  to be an observation based upon personal, first-hand experience. If there are demonic dreams Browne argues -

'Why may there not be Angelical ? If there be Guardian spirits, they may not be unactively about us in sleep, but may sometimes order our dreams, and many strange hints, instigations, or discoveries which are so amazing unto us, may arise from such foundations'.

And in fact a belief in Guardian angels as well as witches was integral to Thomas Browne's spiritual hierarchy. Its unsurprising therefore that the Christian in Browne is concerned  in On Dreams about the possibility of sinning in one's dreams. In his short tract he also condemns those who have paid too close attention to their dreams at the expense of common sense, stating, 'Yet he that should order his affairs by dreams, or make the night a rule unto the day, might be ridiculously deluded'.

On Dreams includes examples of Browne's 'dimensional imagery' in which the very large and very small are juxtaposed, noting that in dreams -

'the phantastical objects seem greater than they are, and being beheld in the vaporous state of sleep, enlarge their dimensions unto us; whereby it may prove easier to dream of Giants than pygmies'.

The very same juxtaposition of giant and pygmies, Browne's 'dimensional imagery' is featured in his late work Christian morals, in moralizing highly relevant to our own day.

'without which, though Giants in Wealth and Dignity, we are but Dwarfs and Pygmies in Humanity, and may hold a pitiful rank in that triple division of mankind into Heroes, Men and Beasts'.  (C.M. 3:14)

In the painting The Gentleman's Dream or Disillusion with the World (1655) by the Spanish Baroque-era artist Antonio de Peruda (c.1611-1678) a courtier sleeps and dreams beside a table displaying various vanitas objects. A guardian angel unfurls a scroll with the words, "Eternally it stings, swiftly it flies and it kills", inscribed upon it, a waspish allusion to the sting of Time.

Browne references both ancient and modern philosophers in On Dreams including the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, a big influence upon Browne who declared in Religio Medici - 'I have often admired the mystical way of Pythagoras' and a creative influence of the discourse The Garden of Cyrus. [3]

In addition to Pythagoras, the Italian physician, mathematician and general polymath Jerome Cardan  is also mentioned twice in the tract. Jerome Cardan (1501-76) was highly influential in various disciplines, writing over 200 works on science. His interests included medicine, biology, engineering, chemistry, astrology and astronomy and he's credited with inventing several mechanical devices including the combination lock and the Cardan shaft with its universal joints which allow for the transmission of rotary motion at various angles and used in car-motors to the present day.  He was often short of money and kept himself solvent by being an accomplished gambler and chess player. Cardan had a reoccurring dream which ordered him to write De subtilitate rerum (1550) a book which Thomas Browne was critical of when assessing Cardan in his encyclopedic endeavour  Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646-72) -

'We had almost forgot Jeronymus Cardanus that famous Physician of Milan, a great Enquirer of Truth, but too greedy a Receiver of it. He hath left many excellent Discourses, Medical, Natural, and Astrological; the most suspicious are those two he wrote by admonition in a dream, that is De Subtilitate & Varietate Rerum. Assuredly this learned man hath taken many things on trust, and although examined some, hath let slip many others. He is of singular use unto a prudent reader but to him that desireth hoties, or to replenish his head with varieties, like many others before related, either in the original or confirmation, he may become no small occasion of error'. [4]

Browne's judgement of Jerome Cardan didn't prevent him from acquiring sometime in 1663 or shortly after (he often purchased books upon notification of their publication by book-dealers) an edition of Jerome Cardan's complete works which included Somniorum Synesiorum, omnis generis insomnia explicantes, libri IIII (Synesian dreams, dreams of all kinds set forth, in four books). [5]

Jerome Cardan's work on the interpretation of dreams is partly inspired by Synesius of Cyrene (c.370-c.413 CE) a Greek bishop of ancient Libya and author of  De insomniis (On dreams). Cardan divided dreams into four categories based on their causes: digestive dreams caused by food and drink; humoural caused by imbalances in the four humours; anamnestic caused by passions or changes in emotion; and finally prophetic dreams of a supernatural or divine origin. Jerome Cardan viewed the first three categories as natural and ordinary bodily processes. Most of this work however, is devoted to a discussion of prophetic dreams which he views from a philosophical perspective.

Jerome Cardan is one of several independent-minded figures from Renaissance intellectual history whom Browne was highly critical of, yet read closely. Other notable candidates of similar critical influence upon Browne include Cardan's countryman, the polymath Giambattista della Porta (1538-1615) the Belgian scientist Van Helmont (1577-1644) the Swiss physician Paracelsus (1494-1541) and the German scholar of comparative religion Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680). 

Browne sometimes wrote with his most recent reading in mind. From his mention of the Italian polymath and physician Jerome Cardan twice in On Dreams its possible to tentatively date On Dreams as written circa 1663 from two facts. According to the 1711 Auction Sales Catalogue an edition of Jerome Cardan's Opera (Complete works) dated 1663 is listed as once in Browne's library. [5]. Coincidentally, almost half of Browne's eldest son  Edward Browne's dissertation for his bachelor of medicine degree, on the use of dreams to the physician, was written in 1663.[6] Its therefore possible to speculate that Browne may have composed On Dreams to assist his son. In any event the short tract On Dreams isn't dissimilar in either its literary style or subject-matter to Browne's  A Letter to a Friend  (circa 1656) in which dreams as experienced by the dying are commented upon. As such On Dreams may be read as an appendage to A Letter to a Friend, Browne's major medical writing.

There's a fascinating relationship between Thomas Browne to the Swiss psychologist  Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961). For example, both men were physicians who took their psychiatric responsibilities seriously, both studied comparative religion and alchemical literature in depth and both had a big  interest in their own and others' dreams. I've written at length about this fascinating relationship  elsewhere on this blog. [7] 

C.G.Jung's Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1963) like Browne's Religio Medici (1643) is an autobiographical account and spiritual testament which includes many philosophical digressions. The biggest difference between the two autobiographies being whilst Religio Medici was penned before its author embarked upon a medical career, C.G. Jung's Memories, Dreams, Reflections was written after a long medical career, shortly before the author's death. It includes recollections of some of the many dreams Jung had, of digging up the bones of prehistoric animals, of kneeling to hand a girl an umbrella, of a tree transformed by frost, of his father reading a fish-skin bound Bible and many equally bizarre others. According to Jung-

'The dream is a little hidden door in the innermost and most secret recesses of the psyche, opening into that cosmic night which was psyche long before there was any ego consciousness....All consciousness separates; but in dreams we put on the likeness of the more universal, truer, more eternal man dwelling in the darkness of primordial night. [8]

In On Dreams Browne declares- 'We owe unto dreams that Galen was a physician, Dion an historian, and that the world hath seen some notable pieces of Cardan' to which one might add we owe unto dreams that the Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung embarked upon a long study of alchemy.

Jung's dream which heralded his encounter with alchemy occurred in 1926 when he dreamt he was travelling through the Lombardy plain in Northern Italy. Upon viewing a large manor house located near Verona he entered its courtyard. Suddenly its gates slammed shut and he thought to himself, 'Now, we are caught in the seventeenth century'. Only much later did Jung come to realize that his dream alluded to his many years of studying alchemy, the golden age of alchemy being the seventeenth century.

Amazingly, Memories, Dreams, Reflections includes an endorsement of Browne as a psychologist. Jung's autobiography is prefaced by a verse chosen by his secretary Aniela Jaffe to describe the psychologist, but the author of the verse, the English romantic poet Samuel Coleridge is eulogizing upon Thomas Browne, not C.G. Jung. This verse is notable for its early usage of the word 'consciousness' which the Oxford English Dictionary attributes to the poet William Wordsworth, Coleridge's sometime mentor as the first to use and in all probability was 'borrowed' from him. Coleridge's enthusiastic response to Browne focuses upon the self-analytical and mind-expanding qualities of the physician-philosopher.

He looked at his own Soul
With a Telescope. What seemed
all irregular he saw and
shewed to be beautiful
Constellations: and he added
to the Consciousness hidden
worlds within worlds.

Thomas Browne's anticipation of a Jungian interpretation of dreams is boldly declared in On Dreams -

Many dreams are made out by sagacious exposition from the signature of their subjects; carrying their interpretation in their fundamental sense & mysterie of similitude, whereby he that understands upon what natural fundamental every notional depends, may by symbolical adaptation hold a readie way to read the characters of Morpheus.

Browne's proposal of 'symbolical adaptation' as 'a readie way to read the characters of Morpheus' (the god of sleep is known as 'Fashioner' in Ancient Greek: μορφή meaning 'form, shape') requires elaboration.

Its worth remembering first that the word 'symbol'  derives from the Greek σύμβολον symbolon, meaning "token, watchword" from σύν syn "together" and βάλλω bállō " "I throw, put". The meaning of symbol as "something which stands for something else" was first recorded  in Edmund Spenser's epic poem The Faerie Queene (1596)

According to C.G Jung - 'Symbols are never simple - only signs and allegories are simple. The symbol always covers a complicated situation which is so far beyond the grasp of language that it cannot be expressed at all in any unambiguous manner. [ 9]

'If symbols mean anything at all, they are tendencies which pursue a definite but not yet recognisable goal and consequently can express themselves only in analogies.' [10]

The Renaissance study of nature included the study of human nature. It was the radical 'Luther of Medicine' the Swiss physician-alchemist Paracelsus who first encouraged and urged the physician to take dreams and seriously, declaring-

"The interpretation of dreams is a great art. Dreams are not without meaning wherever they may come from - from fantasy, from the elements, or from another inspiration". [11]

Orthodox Christian theology did not however always possess a clear-cut view or answer to the new spiritual and psychological concerns experienced by many during the Renaissance, an age of great change. The effects of urbanization for example increased interaction between widely differing social, cultural, moral and religious perspectives and increased awareness of sexuality. 

From their close understanding of the human condition and dissatisfied with Christian dogma alchemist-physicians  as diverse as Paracelsus, John Dee, Van Helmont, Jerome Cardan and Thomas Browne either augmented concepts originating from the western esoteric traditions or coined home-grown neologisms and symbols in order to describe their understanding of the psyche.  Each of these aforenamed alchemist-physicians took their own dreams far more seriously than most in contemporary society today; each recognized their dream-lives to be of great importance to their self-development or individuation process in Jungian terms. From alchemist-physicians analysis of their dreams there emerged the beginnings of the modern-day science of psychology. Their rudimentary and tentative understanding of the self and unconscious psyche  several of whom C.G. Jung found confirmation of his psychology, in particular Gerard Dorn, were the fruits of the Renaissance spirit of enquiry into nature, which includes human nature. As C.G.Jung explains-

'the language of the alchemists is at first sight very different from our psychological terminology and way of thinking. But if we treat their symbols in the same way as we treat modern fantasies, they yield a meaning - even in the Middle Ages confessed alchemists interpreted their symbols in a moral and philosophical sense, their "philosophy" was, indeed, nothing but projected psychology'. [12]

Thomas Browne's fascination with symbols is writ large throughout his oeuvre. Allusion to symbolism involving the alphabets of various languages, numbers, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Mercurial characters, kabbalistic signs and geometric symbols as well as metaphors, allegories, anagrams and  riddles can be found in his writings, not least in his highly hermetic discourse  The Garden of  Cyrus (1658) a literary work densely packed with symbolism. Not only is the ubiquity of the number five in art and nature prominent in The Garden of Cyrus but also its many closely-associated extensions including the V shape and the Latin numeral for 5, which by mirror doubling becomes the figure X, significant  to Christians as the first letter of the name of Christ in Greek, the ten commandments as well as the Pythagorean tetraktys, which by multiplication (X) becomes the reticulated network, as seen illustrated on the discourse's frontispiece. (Below)

The literary critic Peter Green recognized- 'there is nothing vague or woolly about Browne's mysticism...Every symbol is interrelated with the over-all pattern'. [13]

Crucially, in relation to Jungian psychology, Browne not only employs one of the earliest usages of the very word 'archetype' in The Garden of Cyrus  but even attempts to delineate the archetype of the 'wise ruler' through utilizing highly-original proper name symbolism, alluding to Solomon, Moses, Alexander the Great, Augustus and of course the titular hero of the discourse, Cyrus. Browne's proper-name symbolism also alludes to the archetypal figure of the ‘Great Mother' as a symbol of fertility and fruitfulness with mention of Sarah, Isis, Juno, Cleopatra and Venus. But if ever there were a sly, Royalist supporter's opposition to Cromwell's rule of England (1650-1658), its surely in Browne's repeated citing of examples of the 'Wise ruler' from history in  The Garden of Cyrus.

The religious mystic and symbol go together hand in glove. For most Christian mystics the inexhaustible symbolism of the Cross was sufficient for expression of their spiritual thought. The Elizabethan mathematician and hermetic philosopher John Dee (1527-1608) however devised his very own mystical symbol, the Monas Hieroglyphica a complex, metaphysical 'explanation' of the cosmos. Dee's Monas symbol became a printer's colophon which was avidly reproduced by various alchemystical philosophers in their publications. John Dee's eldest son Arthur Dee became a friend of Browne's upon his return from Russia and retirement to what was at the time, England's second city in terms of prosperity and population, Norwich.

Peter French  speculates- 'Little is known of this son of Dee's; one cannot help but wonder however, how much he may have influenced Browne, who was one of the seventeenth century's greatest literary exponents of the type of occult philosophy in which both the Dee's were immersed'.[14]

On Dreams is not Browne's only literary work in which the psychological is prominent. His two closely-related discourses of 1658 Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus are a portrait of the human condition and psyche, depicting humanity as simultaneously irrational and rational, fearful of death, yet forever with the future in mind, serious and merry, enduring pain and illness as well as enjoying health and pleasure. Imagery involving Light and Darkness permeates the diptych discourses, as does the dominant themes of Time (Urn-Burial) and Space (The Garden of Cyrus) the basic framework of  the Mandala. Most often a circular visual image, but conceivable as a literary structure, in Jungian psychology the meditative image of the mandala symbolically represents the dreamer's search for completeness and self-unity; its function is to assist with healing and to help transform ordinary minds into enlightened ones. Plexiformed in their polarity, themes and imagery, Browne's diptych discourses are capable of achieving such a transformation to the receptive mind.  By focusing his reader's attention to the discourses primary symbols of Urn and Quincunx, Thomas  Browne  -

'by concentrating, almost like a hypnotist, on this pair of unfamiliar symbols, paradoxically releases the reader's mind into an infinite number of associative levels of awareness, without preconception to give shape and substance to quite literally cosmic generalizations...............Mystical symbolism is woven throughout the texture of Browne's work and adds, often subconsciously, to its associative power of impact. [15]

C.G.Jung, recognizing the enduring continuity of symbolism in the collective unconscious psyche throughout long stretches of time perceptively observes-

'The symbolic statements of the old alchemists issue from the same unconscious as modern dreams and are just as much the voice of nature'. [16] 

Browne concludes his short tract On Dreams refuting that children don't dream under six months old, that men don't dream in some countries by supplying a footnote upon the difference between false and true dreams in the form of the Ivory gate and the polished horn gate as mentioned in Homer's Odyssey, in which Penelope the hero's wife says of dreams-

"Ah my friend," seasoned Penelope dissented
"dreams are hard to unravel, wayward, drifting things-
not all we glimpse in them will come to pass...
Two gates there are for our evanescent dreams,
one is made of ivory, the other made of horn.
Those that pass through the ivory cleanly carved
are will-o'-the-wisps, their message bears no fruit.
The dreams that pass through the gates of polished horn
are fraught with truth, for the dreamer who can see them. [17]


In addition to being a superb introduction to Browne's literary style, On Dreams includes a number of highly original speculations on the psyche's relationship to dreams, 'the Theatre of Ourselves', as the physician-philosopher memorably defines the psyche. 

Link to full text of  On Dreams

Books consulted

* Patrides C. A. ed. and with an introduction The Major Works of Sir Thomas Browne pub. Penguin  1977 includes On Dreams
* Finch J. S - A Catalogue of the Libraries of Sir Thomas Browne and Dr Edward Browne, his son. A Facsimile Reproduction with an Introduction, Notes and Index.  E. J .Brill    1986
* Jung C. G.  Memories, Dreams, Reflections trans. R & C Winston London 1979
* Jung C.G. Psychology and Religion Vol. 11 Collected works pub. RKP 1958
* Green, P. Sir Thomas Browne  pub. 1959 Longmans, Green & Co (Writers and Work, No.108).
* The Odyssey Homer translated by Robert Fagles 1996 Viking Penguin


[1] Religio Medici Part 2  Section 11
[2] Ibid.
[3] R.M. Part 1:12
[4] Pseudodoxia Epidemica Bk 1:18 no.13
[5] Sales Catalogue p.19 no 96  Opera Omnia 10 vol. Lyon 1663
[6] I am indebted to Ms. A. Wyatt for information about Edward Browne's bachelor of medicine dissertation and indeed on all matters relating to Thomas Browne's eldest son, Edward Browne (1644-1708).
[7]  Carl Jung and Sir Thomas Browne
[8]  Glossary  of  Memories, Dreams, Reflections.
[9] Carl Jung Complete Works  Vol:11 paragraph 385
[10] CW 14: paragraph 667
[11] Paracelsus: Selected Writings edited by Jolande Jacobi pub. Princeton University Press 1951
[12] CW 14: paragraph 737
[13] Green, P. Sir Thomas Browne pub. 1959 Longmans, Green & Co (Writers and Work, No.108)
[14] John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus, by Peter J. French Pub. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1972
[15] Green, P. Sir Thomas Browne  pub. 1959 Longmans, Green & Co (Writers and Work, No.108)
[16] Collected Works vol. 11: paragraph 105
[17] Book 19 lines 560-565 The Odyssey Homer by Robert Fagles pub. 1996 Viking Penguin


'Before Waking'  40 x 50 cm. (2015) by Peter Rodulfo.

The Knight's Dream by Antonio de Peruda. (1655)

Henri Rousseau Le Rêve (The Dream) 1909. Rousseau's last painting.

'Dreaming Fisherman' by Peter Rodulfo

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