Robert Burton philosophy

THE work by which Robert Burton is remembered is The Anatomy of Melancholy, one of the most fascinating books in literature. First published in 1621, it ran through six editions in thirty years, brought an estate to the bookseller Cripps, and was continually revised by its author. It is an enormous compendium of sound sense, sly humour, universal erudition, medieval science, fantastic conceits and noble sentiments, arranged as a methodical treatise and illustrated with numberless quotations from the wisdom of all the ages. The long preface, Democritus to the Reader, is one of the most interesting parts of the book.


GENTLE reader, I presume thou wilt be very inquisitive to know what antick or personate actor this is that so insolently intrudes upon this common theatre to the world's view, arrogating another man's name; whence he is, why he doth it and what he hath to say. Seek not after that which is hid; if the contents please thee, suppose the man in the moon to be the author; I would not willingly be known.

I call myself Democritus, to assume a little more liberty of speech, or, if you will needs know, for that reason which Hippocrates relates, how, coming to visit him one day, he found Democritus in his garden at Abdera, under a shady bower, with a book on his knees, busy at his study, sometimes writing, sometimes walking.

The subject of his book was melancholy and madness. About him lay the carcasses of many several beasts, newly by him cut up and anatomised; not that he did contemn God's creatures, but to find out the seat of this black bile, or melancholy, and how it is engendered in men's bodies, to the intent he might better cure it in himself, and by his writings teach others how to avoid it; which good intent of his Democritus Junior is bold to imitate, and because he left it imperfect and it is now lost, to revive again, prosecute and finish in this treatise. I seek not applause; I fear good men's censures, and to their favourable acceptance I submit my labours. But as the barking of a dog I contemn those malicious and scurrile obloquies, flouts, calumnies of railers and detractors.

Of the necessity of what I have said, if any man doubt of it, I shall desire him to make a brief survey of the world, as Cyprian adviseth Donate; supposing himself to be transported to the top of some high mountain, and thence to behold the tumults and chances of this wavering world, he cannot choose but either laugh at, or pity it. St. Hierom, out of a strong imagination, being in the wilderness, conceived that he saw them dancing in Rome; and if thou shalt climb to see, thou shalt soon perceive that all the world is mad, that it is melancholy, dotes; that it is a common prison of gulls, cheats, flatterers, etc., and needs to be reformed. Kingdoms and provinces are melancholy; cities and families, all creatures vegetal, sensible and rational, all sorts, sects, ages, conditions, are out of tune; from the highest to the lowest have need of physic. Who is not brain-sick? Oh, giddy-headed age! Mad endeavours! Mad actions!

If Democritus were alive now, and should but see the superstition of our age, our religious madness, so many professed Christians, yet so few imitators of Christ, so much talk and so little conscience, so many preachers and such little practice, such variety of sects--how dost thou think he might have been affected? What would he have said to see, hear and read so many bloody battles, such streams of blood able to turn mills, to make sport for princes, without any just cause? Men well proportioned, carefully brought up, able in body and mind, led like so many beasts to the slaughter in the flower of their years, without remorse and pity, killed for devils' food, 40,000 at once!

At once? That were tolerable; but these wars last always; and for many ages, nothing so familiar as this hacking and hewing, massacres, murders, desolations! Who made creatures, so peaceable, born to love, mercy, meekness, so to rave like beasts and run furiously to their own destruction?

How would our Democritus have been affected to see so many lawyers, advocates, so many tribunals, so little justice; so many laws, yet never more disorders; the tribunal a labyrinth; to see a lamb executed, a wolf pronounce sentence? What's the market but a place wherein they cozen one another, a trap? Nay, what's the world itself but a vast chaos, a theatre of hypocrisy, a shop of knavery, a scene of babbling, the academy of vice? A warfare, in which you must kill or be killed, wherein every man is for himself; no charity, love, friendship, fear of God, alliance, affinity, consanguinity, can contain them. Our goddess is Queen Money, to whom we daily offer sacrifice. It's not worth, virtue, wisdom, valour, learning, honesty, religion, for which we are respected, but money, greatness, office, honour.

All these things are easy to be discerned, but how would Democritus have been moved had he seen the secrets of our hearts! All the world is mad, and every member of it, and I can but wish myself and them a good physician, and all of us a better mind.

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