Religio Medici (The Religion of a Doctor) by Sir Thomas Browne became a European best-seller which brought its author fame and respect throughout England and the continent. Browne's spiritual testament and early psychological self-portrait was finally published in 1643 after an unauthorized version was distributed and reproduced with added text the previous year.
Structured upon the Christian virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity, Religio Medici while thematically upon the Christian faith is also a psychological self-portrait. Whilst discussing Church authority and religious ritualism, Browne rejects them in favour of Reason and The Bible. Browne expresses a belief in salvation "by faith alone", the existence of hell, the day of judgement, the resurrection and other tenets of Protestantism, rejecting the religious dictations of the Pope.
There is no Church whose every part so squares unto my Conscience; whose Articles, Constitutions, and Customs seem so consonant unto reason, and as it were framed to my particular Devotion, as this whereof I hold my Belief, the Church of England; to whose Faith I am a sworn Subject, and therefore in a double Obligation subscribe unto her Articles, and endeavour to observe her Constitutions. Whatsoever is beyond, as points indifferent, I observe according to the rules of my private reason, or the humor and fashion of my Devotion; neither believing this, because Luther affirmed it, or disproving that, because Calvin hath disavouched it. I condemn not all things in the Council of Trent, nor approve all in the Synod of Dort. In brief, where the Scripture is silent, the Church is my Text; where that speaks, ’tis but my Comment: where there is a joynt silence of both, I borrow not the rules of my Religion from Rome or Geneva, but the dictates of my own reason.
Science and religion
Throughout Religio Medici Browne uses scientific imagery to illustrate religious truths as part of his discussion on the relationship of science to religion, presenting religion as in agreement with natural philosophy as science was then known as, a topic which has lost none of its contemporary relevance.
Browne's latitudinarian Anglicanism meanders into digressions upon alchemy, hermetic philosophy, and physiognomy. Throughout his life he held a penchant for these esoteric teachings, stating in Religio Medici, I have often admired the mystical way of Pythagoras and the secret magicke of numbers, and the severe schools shall never laugh me out of the philosophy of Hermes.
He ends the book with the paragraph:
Blesse me in this life with but the peace of my conscience, command of my affections, the love of thy selfe and my dearest friends, and I shall be happy enough to pity Cæsar. These are O Lord the humble desires of my most reasonable ambition and all I dare call happiness on earth: wherein I set no rule or limit to thy hand or providence, dispose of me according to the wisdom of thy pleasure. Thy will bee done, though in my own undoing.
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'
Throughout the seventeenth century Religio Medici spawned numerous imitative titles, including John Dryden's great poem, Religio Laici, but none matched the frank, intimate tone of the original in which Browne shares his thoughts upon his Christian Faith, Hope and Charity, as well as the idiosyncrasies of his personality with his reader.
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.
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. Charles Lamb 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.
In the twentieth century, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung used the term Religio Medici several times in his writings.
- Ole Peter Grell, Dr. Andrew Cunningham (1996). Religio medici: medicine and religion in seventeenth-century England. Scolar Press. ISBN 9781859283394
- Ann Thomson (2008). Bodies of Thought : Science, Religion, and the Soul in the Early Enlightenment: Science, Religion, and the Soul in the Early Enlightenment. Oxford University Pressp. p. 66 ISBN 9780191553080
- Claire Preston (2009). Thomas Browne and the Writing of Early Modern Science. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521107792
- Bliss, Michael (1999). William Osler: a life in medicine. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. p. 45-46 ISBN 978-0-19-512346-3. OCLC 41439631.