Tue, 28 Apr 2020
Urquhart, Rosse, and Browne
A couple of years ago, not long before I started this blog, I read some of the works of Sir Thomas Browne. I forget exactly why: there was some footnote I read somewhere that said that something in one of Jorge Luis Borges' stories had been inspired by something he read in Browne's book The Urn Burial, which was a favorite of Borges'. I wish I could remember the details! I don't think I even remembered them at the time. But Thomas Browne turned out to be wonderful. He is witty, and learned, and wise, and humane, and to read his books is to feel that you are in the company of this witty, learned, wise, humane man, one of the best men that the English Renaissance has to offer, and that you are profiting thereby.
The book of Browne's that made the biggest impression on me was Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646), which is a compendium of erroneous beliefs that people held at the time, with discussion. For example, is it true that chameleons eat nothing but air? ("Thus much is in plain terms affirmed by Solinus, Pliny, and others...") Browne thinks not. He cites various evidence against this hypothesis: contemporary reports of the consumption of various insects by chameleons; the presence of teeth, tongues, stomachs and guts in dissected chameleons; the presence of semi-digested insects in the stomachs of dissected chameleons. There's more; he attacks the whole idea that an animal could be nourished by air. Maybe all this seems obvious, but in 1672 it was still a matter for discussion. And Browne's discussion is so insightful, so pithy, so clear, that it is a delight to read.
Browne's list of topics is fascinating in itself. Some of the many issues he deals with are:
Well, I digress. To return to that list of topics I quoted, you might see "of the blacknesse of Negroes", and feel your heart sink a little. What racist jackass thing is the 1646 Englishman going to say about the blackness of negroes?
Actually, though, Browne comes out of it extremely well, not only much better than one would fear, but quite well even by modern standards. It is one of the more extensive discourses in Pseudodoxia Epidemica, occupying several chapters. He starts by rebutting two popular explanations: that they are burnt black by the heat of the sun, and that they are marked black because of the curse of Ham as described in Genesis 9:20–26.
Regarding the latter, Browne begins by addressing the Biblical issue directly, and on its own terms, and finds against it. But then he takes up the larger question of whether black skin can be considered to be a curse at all. Browne thinks not. He spends some time rejecting this notion: "to inferr this as a curse, or to reason it as a deformity, is no way reasonable". He points out that the people who have it don't seem to mind, and that "Beauty is determined by opinion, and seems to have no essence that holds one notion with all; that seeming beauteous unto one, which hath no favour with another; and that unto every one, according as custome hath made it natural, or sympathy and conformity of minds shall make it seem agreeable."
Finally, he ends by complaining that "It is a very injurious method unto Philosophy, and a perpetual promotion of Ignorance, in points of obscurity, ... to fall upon a present refuge unto Miracles; or recurr unto immediate contrivance, from the insearchable hands of God." I wish more of my contemporaries agreed.
Another reason I love this book is that Browne is nearly always right. If you were having doubts that one could arrive at correct notions by thoughtful examination of theory and evidence, Pseudodoxia Epidemica might help dispel them, because Browne's record of coming to the correct conclusions is marvelous.
Some time afterward, I learned that there was a rebuttal to Pseudodoxia Epidemica, written by a Dr. Alexander Rosse. (Arcana Microcosmi, ... with A Refutation of Doctor Brown's VULGAR ERRORS... (1652).) And holy cow, Rosse is an incredible knucklehead. Watching him try to argue with Browne reminded me of watching an argument on Usenet (a sort of pre-Internet distributed BBS) where one person is right about everything, and is being flamed point by point by some jackass who is wrong about everything, and everyone but the jackass knows it. I have seen this many, many times on Usenet, but never as far back as 1652.
This is the point at which I stopped writing the article in 2008. I had mentioned the blockheaded Mr. Rosse in an earlier article. But I have no idea what else I had planned to say about him here.
Additional notes (April 2020)