Religio Medici (The Religion of a Doctor) is a book by Sir Thomas Browne, which sets out his spiritual testament as well as being an early psychological self-portrait. In its day, the book was a European best-seller and brought its author fame and respect throughout the continent. It was published in 1643 by the newly-qualified physician after an unauthorized version of his writings on the Christian virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity had been distributed and reproduced with added text the previous year.
Samuel Pepys in his diaries complained that the Religio was cried up to the whole world for its wit and learning, and its unorthodox views placed it swiftly upon the Papal Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1645.
Although predominantly concerned with Christian faith, the Religio also meanders into digressions upon alchemy, hermetic philosophy, astrology, and physiognomy. Whilst discussing Biblical scripture the learned doctor reveals a penchant for esoteric learning, and confesses, for example, that-
- "the severe schools shall never laugh me out of the philosophy of Hermes."
Reception and influence
A rare surviving contemporary review by Guy Patin, a distinguished member of the Parisian medical faculty, indicates the considerable impact Religio Medici had upon the intelligentsia abroad:
A new little volume has arrived from Holland entitled Religio Medici written by an Englishman and translated into Latin by some Dutchman. It is a strange and pleasant book, but very delicate and wholly mystical; the author is not lacking in wit and you will see in him quaint and delightful thoughts. There are hardly any books of this sort. If scholars were permitted to write freely we would learn many novel things, never has there been a newspaper to this; in this way the subtlety of the human spirit could be revealed'
A translation into German of the Religio was made in 1746 and an early admirer of Browne's spiritual testament was Goethe's one-time associate Lavater
In the early nineteenth century Religio Medici was "re-discovered" by the English Romantics, firstly by Charles Lamb who introduced it to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who after reading it exclaimed, "O to write a character of this man!" Thomas de Quincey in his Confessions of an English Opium Eater also praised it, stating:
I do not recollect more than one thing said adequately on the subject of music in all literature. It is a passage in Religio Medici of Sir T. Browne, and though chiefly remarkable for its sublimity, has also a philosophical value, inasmuch as it points to the true theory of musical effects.
Though little read nowadays, in Virginia Woolf's opinion Religio Medici paved the way for all future confessionals, private memoirs and personal writings. In the seventeenth century it spawned numerous imitative titles, including John Dryden's great poem, Religio Laici, but none matched the frank, intimate tone of the original in which the learned doctor invites the reader to share with him in the labyrinthine mysteries and idiosyncratic views of his personality.
In the twentieth century, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung used the term Religio Medici several times in his writings and so on.