Sunday, August 27, 2023

'Compassion is the physician's teacher' : Gavin Francis - 'The Opium of Time'

The 21st century Renaissance of interest in Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) continues to flourish with a new, insightful appreciation by the Edinburgh-based doctor Gavin Francis on the seventeenth century physician-philosopher. The Opium of Time includes a generous selection of quotations from Browne's selected writings relevant to the themes of its eight, stand-alone chapters; these in turn are bookended by two reflective letters addressed to Browne in which the author reminds his reader of the very big differences in belief, culture and science between our world today and the seventeenth century of Browne's era.

Dr. Francis joins the ranks of other physicians who have admired Thomas Browne, these include the distinguished Canadian doctor William Osler (1849-1919), the surgeon Sir Geoffrey Keynes, and the Norwich-based GP Anthony Batty-Shaw (1922-2015). Much of the strength of Dr. Francis's appreciation rests in a shared profession for although separated by centuries he recognises that, in many ways little has changed in the role of his profession since Browne's day.  Faced with human illness and suffering the role of the physician as a well-informed and trusted confidant has altered little. In this respect The Opium of Time transcends the technicalities of literary criticism, highlighting Browne's tolerance, humility and compassion as key components of a shared humanism. The discourse Urn-Burial and Christian Morals in particular are favoured by the author as exemplary of Browne's psychological understanding of the human condition, encapsulated in pithy aphorisms such as 'Sorrows destroy us or themselves'.

Its refreshing to read in The Opium of Time of the influence of the Swiss alchemist-physician Paracelsus (1493-1541). During his short life Paracelsus dedicated himself to the art of healing, declaring 'Compassion is the physician's teacher'. Crucially, he urged physicians to experiment upon nature's properties in order to discover new chemicals for medical use, Browne himself knew 'that every plant might receive a name according unto the disease it cureth, was the wish of Paracelsus' [1] As a critical follower of Paracelsus, Browne, like the Swiss physician, was both early chemist and alchemist, the difference between the two activities being fluid not fixed, even with latter scientific figures such as Robert Boyle (1627-91) and Isaac Newton (1643-1727). 

Its primarily because of Dr. Francis's non-judgemental mention of the influence of Paracelsian medicine when others have either denounced, or what's worse, ridiculed Browne's 'spagyric' medicine (the Paracelsian neologism 'spagyric' is inscribed in verse on Browne's coffin-plate) that The Opium of Time can be said to be the most insightful book by a medical professional on Browne since William Osler's day, over a century ago.

The parallel between the humility of Christian faith and the humility of caring work in nursing and medicine is noted by Dr. Francis, a staunch advocate of the beloved but beleaguered institute founded upon Christian values known as the NHS. In Browne's day devout physicians took inspiration from Christ's Ministry. [2] While not sharing his subject's religious faith, Dr. Francis nevertheless applauds Browne's Christian stoicism, engendered one suspects, by a shared close proximity to human suffering and mortality in profession. 

Gavin Francis also highlights Browne's little-recognised sense of humour, a tool which used carefully, he suggests, can assist the doctor-patient relationship when faced with seemingly unsurpassable dilemmas. Humour is encountered throughout Browne's writings. His quip on William Harvey's detection of the circulation of the blood as being, “a discovery I prefer to that of Columbus” (i.e that of America) [3] is typical of his dry and learned humour.  Browne's most sustained piece of humour is the hilarious, 'To an illustrious friend on his wearisome Chatterer' . It may have been composed in order to cheer up his friend Joseph Hall (1574-1656) who was deposed as Bishop Of Norwich in 1643 for supporting the Royalist cause.   

In addition to examining the influence of piety and humility upon Browne's intellect and spirituality, Dr. Francis also tackles the thorny subject of the physician's involvement in a witch trial, discussing how much he was influenced by the endemic misogyny of his era. Browne never testified at the Bury trial, nor could his opinion have influenced any verdict while the patriarchal authority of the Judaic Old Testament held blind sway over reason. A single verse in the Old Testament sanctioned and 'justified' the legal condemnation to death of what is estimated to have been a quarter million of mostly women throughout Europe from 1400-1700. [4] 

Much has been made on what is one of the very few biographical details known about Browne, often inviting disapproval from a comfortably removed historical perspective. His culpability and supposed failure in risking his status and social standing when faced with mass-mind irrationality and legalized prejudice is often exaggerated. Its worthwhile remembering, as Dr. Francis does, that Browne dedicated a large part of his life to relieving the suffering of others. His psychological observation that, 'No man can justly censure or condemn another because indeed no man truly knows another' seems applicable here. [5]

Dr. Francis shares with his subject in a love of travel, both doctors recognising that travel usually broadens the mind in tolerance, understanding and appreciation of different societies and cultures. Its thus an easy excuse for the author to visit Padua in Italy and Leiden in the Netherlands in search of traces of Browne's academic sojourns. 

Replete with original observations which others have overlooked, Dr. Francis also draws attention to how Thomas Browne when elderly, enjoyed reading, or having read to him, accounts by traveller's from distant lands such as Africa, India and China. Throughout The Opium of Time one also learns more of Dr. Francis's own extensive travels which have included working visits to India and Africa as well as Antarctica. 

In a book engaging in narrative, the author takes delight as many others, in Browne's inventive coining of new words into the English language. Browne's neologisms catered for the need for a preciser vocabulary in the early scientific revolution and many, such as 'electricity' 'ambidextrous' 'network' cater for this need. Through his deep study and understanding of Greek and Latin Browne is also credited with introducing words associated with his profession such as 'medical', 'pathology' and 'hallucination' for example.     

Thomas Browne gave good advice to literary critics when declaring - 'If the substantial subject be well forged we need not examine the sparks which fly irregularly from it'. [6] 

The Opium of Time is a wholly original response to the Renaissance humanism, wit and scholarship of Thomas Browne, nevertheless a few 'irregular sparks' fly from it, silently smouldering in the deep pile carpet of truth. Credence is given to the unreliable narrator of W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn who  mischievously supplements fictitious text to  the conclusion of The Garden of Cyrus. A footnote regret that Aldrovandi's Monstrorum Historia would not have been known to Browne is groundless. Throughout his life Browne kept well-abreast on the latest publications, nationally and internationally. The Sales Auction Catalogue of his and his eldest son Edward's combined libraries is solid evidence of the vast and extraordinary range of Browne's interests. The 1711 catalogue records that Aldrovandi's Monstrorum Historia (picture below) along with some half a dozen other titles by the Italian zoologist are listed as once in his library. [7]

Nor can one agree that Browne's choice of a 'provincial general practise' is exemplary of his humility. Norwich was England's second city in Browne's day, a position it occupied until the early Industrial Revolution. Densely populated and surrounded by a highly-productive agricultural hinterland, the ancient City had important links in trade, culture and travel to mainland Europe, in particular the Netherlands. As the home to a wealthy gentry who were financially able to consult and afford a doctor's fees, Norwich was an ideal location for an ambitious, newly-qualified physician to establish a medical practise in order to support a wife, home and family. 

But a greater weakness of The Opium of Time is its author's reluctance to acknowledge Browne's esoteric inclinations, resulting in an incomplete portrait of the seventeenth century physician-philosopher. Other than a welcome mention of the medical influence of Paracelsus, Dr. Francis is reluctant to discuss Browne's relationship to esotericism. Its a reluctance which results in the removal of a sentence of text. An entire sentence in which Browne makes a tacit nod to like-minded influences upon him, 'It was the opinion of Plate and is yet of the Hermetical philosophers', is removed and replaced thus .... and not presumably for the purposes of page formatting or in order to save ink. [8]

Such glossing over of Browne's esoteric credentials is regrettable. Its a slippery path to travel upon if, for example, one dislikes the sentiment expressed in a few bars of a Beethoven symphony or imagery in the lines of a Shakespeare sonnet to simply extract and omit them from a work of art. 

It's usually the British historian Dame Frances Yates (1899-1981) who is credited as the first to  explore the vital influence which Western esotericism wielded upon scientists, thinkers and artists of the Renaissance-era. Yates demonstrated Western esotericism to be worthy of academic study. Catholic in faith herself, she also disproved a commonplace misapprehension, that its necessary to personally believe ideas espoused by Western esotericism when studying its influence in intellectual history.

Ever since the humanist scholar Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) introduced Plato's Timaeus to Western readers and attributed his translation of the Corpus Hermeticum to the mythic Hermes Trismegistus, numerous thinkers, scholars and artists throughout the Renaissance era (circa 1500-1650) studied and were influenced by Western esoteric concepts such as Neoplatonism, Hermetic philosophy, Cabala, Gnosticism and alchemical symbolism which they incorporated into their art, philosophy or science. Thomas Browne, in common with British contemporaries such as the Welsh clergyman Thomas Vaughan (1621-1666) the Oxford antiquarian Elias Ashmole (1617-92), the Paracelsian physician Robert Fludd (1574-1637) and Arthur Dee (1579-1651) eldest son of the Elizabethan magus John Dee were influenced by the tenets of Western esotericism.  Thomas Browne makes clear his allegiance in Religio Medici  when  emphatically declaring, 'the severe schools shall never laugh me out of the philosophy of Hermes wherein as in a portrait things are not truly seen but in equivocal shapes'. [9] There's no evidence he ever deviated from this opinion in his life-time. Even in Christian Morals a moralistic work believed to have been written late in his life during the mid 1670's which Dr. Francis refreshingly champions for its many profound psychological observations, mention of astrology, physiognomy, the alchemical maxim solve et coagula  along with the mythic Hermes Trismegistus can be found.

The Garden of Cyrus has been described as 'the ultimate test of one's response to Browne'. For Dr. Francis and for many others, its 'the strangest of all Browne's books'. Consulting the well-worn role-call of Browne's literary critics little assists comprehension of its hermetic content. Dr. Johnson from the height of his 18th century Age of Reason in particular was unsympathetic and disparaging towards it. Modern scholarship however recognises a helpful interpreter, one who Gavin Francis mentions in his 'Shapeshifters: A Doctor's Notes on Medicine and Human change'  namely the Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961). Through a judicious application of C.G. Jung's life-long study and understanding of Western esotericism its possible to acquire new insights on Browne's inventive creativity and literary symbolism. 

Dr. Francis notes of a passage in Urn-Burial, that - 'It is almost as if Browne wished death and new life to sit adjacent on the page. He seemed to want to demonstrate the fraternity of life and death, their interdependence.' But in fact its more through the physical binding and union of the diptych discourses Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus that Browne ingeniously demonstrates this fraternity. The somber, saturnine speculations of Urn-Burial are 'answered" by the mercurial garden delights of Cyrus. The gordian knot as to why they exhibit a plethora of oppositions or polarities in  respective themes, truths and imagery such as -  Decay and Growth, Mortality and Eternity, Body and Soul, Accident and Design, Speculation and Revelation, Darkness and Light, World and Universe, Microcosm and Macrocosm, is sundered in C. G. Jung's sharp observation - 'the alchemystical philosophers made the opposites and their union their chiefest concern'. [10] 

Jung's lifetime study of comparative religion and alchemical literature also assists in identifying the source of imagery at the apotheosis of Browne's Urn-Burial  in which he states,  'Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible sun within us'. Browne's 'astral imagery' in this case originates from his reading and 'borrowing' imagery by the Belgian alchemist and foremost advocate of Paracelsus, Gerard Dorn whose writings feature in the alchemical anthology known as the Theatrum Chemicum. [11] 

All of which strongly suggests Browne's esoteric inclinations are far greater than usually is acknowledged and none of which distracts from enjoyment of what is a personal appreciation.

Slender in volume but compressed with original observations and well-attuned in empathy with its subject, The Opium of Time will hopefully be enjoyed and enlighten its readers, long may it remain in print. Opium however, in Browne's proper-name symbolism is invariably associated with Oblivion, the philosopher of the Oblivion of Time in Urn-Burial knowing that ultimately little survives the devouring of Time.     

Books consulted

* The Opium of Time: Gavin Francis OUP 2023 

* Shapeshifters: A doctor's notes on medicine and human change Gavin Francis  Wellcome Collection 2016

*  The Major Works of Sir Thomas Browne edited and with an Introduction by C. A. Patrides Penguin  1977

*  A Catalogue of the Libraries of Sir Thomas Browne and Dr Edward Browne, his son. A Facsimile Reproduction  with an Introduction, Notes and Index by J.S. Finch  pub.  E. J .Brill 1986

See also

 *  The Opium of Time  Opiate imagery and drugs in Thomas Browne's  literary works. (2016) 

*   Carl Jung and Thomas Browne On the extraordinary relationship between Jung and Browne

*    Paracelsus and Sir Thomas Browne

*   A selection of books in Thomas Browne's library

*   To an illustrious friend on his wearisome Chatterer  


[1]  Pseudodoxia Epidemica Book 2 chapter 7

[2] 'And Jesus went about all Galilee ....healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people.' Matthew 4:23

[3] In Browne's correspondence to Henry Power

[4] 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live' (Exodus 22 verse 18)

[5] Religio Medici Part 2:4

[6] Christian Morals Part 2: Section 2

[7]  Aldrovandi's Monstrorum Historicum Bologna 1642. 1711 Sales Catalogue  page 18 no. 23 

[8] Religio Medici Part 1: 32

[9] Religio Medici Part 1 : 12 

[10] In foreword to C.G. Jung's Mysterium Coniunctionis (C.W. vol. 14) 

[11] Over 900 pages of Dorn's writings feature in the first volume of the foremost alchemical anthology of the 17th century, the Theatrum Chemicum.  Browne's copy listed Sales Catalogue. page 25 no. 124.

Jung even took a copy of the Theatrum Chemicum with him when visiting India. In his Mysterium Coniunctionis he states - 'In Dorn's view there is in man an 'invisible sun', which he identifies with the Archeus. This sun is identical with the 'sun in the earth'. The invisible sun enkindles an elemental fire which consumes man's substance and reduces his body to the prima materia'. - CW. 14: 49


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