Fleeing to the Company of Thomas Browne

Those of us who take up the pen or keyboard will usually have a wide interest in what the world casts up for us, in drama or comedy.  But in my own case, I must confess, I have been overtaken by despair over the Orwellian nature of what engulfs us now in our political life.

Thugs rampage in the streets of Portland, Chicago, Seattle, smashing and setting fires and looting, for joy and profit, and they are called, on television, “protestors.”

I’ve already expressed my concern in these columns with a style of conservative jurisprudence that prides itself on studiously avoiding the questions of moral substance at the heart of the cases.

We find a media that have inverted and given a false account of virtually every issue that arises in our politics and law, from the phony “Russian conspiracy” to abortion, transgenderism, and of course – gasp – “climate change.”

The passion over the climate comes from people who have long rejected the notion of moral truth, and taken “the environment” as their religion and as their substitute source for moral righteousness.  This is in part a new paganism with a worship of the earth.  If it shows a lingering concern for human lives, they are the lives threatened by rising waters in the future.

But then the question naturally arises:  Why such a concern for humans not yet living, when set against the 800,000 living beings destroyed every year in this country in abortions?  And yet, the party that now declares itself the party of “light” and hope, against the darkness of the current president and his administration, finds no darkness in its willingness to defend and promote these killings as a deep “right,” which can brook not the slightest restraint.

As Orwell would have it, “war is peace” and “peace is war.”  Everything is inverted.

Under these conditions, I find myself, in muted despair, seeking something to bring me out of this trough; and one good source will ever be the redoubtable Sir Thomas Browne in his notable Religio Medici, written in the 1630s.

Browne famously and facetiously railed against the mode cast up by nature for reproducing ourselves. “I could be content,” he wrote, “that we might procreate like trees, without conjunction, or that there would be any way to perpetuate this world without this triviall and vulgar way of coition.”  Still, he evidently managed to overcome his aversions, for he did beget nine children.


He anticipated Spinoza by wondering why people were drawn to miracles as confirmations of God, rather than seeing the Creation itself and the laws of nature as miracles even more striking.   “To create Nature,” he wrote, is “as great a miracle, as to contradict or transcend her.”

But he anticipated also the philosopher Alvin Plantinga with reflections on the “warrants” for belief in God and Christ.  “I do beleeve,” he wrote, “without all doubt, that there is such a City as Constantinople, yet for me to take my oath thereon, were a kinde of perjury, because I hold no infallible warrant from my owne sense to confirme me in the certainty therefore.”

For he had never been there, never actually seen Constantinople.  He had to make a judgment on the veracity of the accounts, and whatever record could be had, of the people who had seen it.

Newman, in one of his homilies, recalled the scene of Jesus walking on the waters to rejoin the apostles in their boat.  But “He who could walk the waters could also ride triumphantly upon what is still more fickle, unstable, tumultuous, treacherous – the billows of human wills, human purposes, human hearts.”

That would ever prove the hardest challenge, this wild variety of souls, this Church, as Michael Novak used to say, “of the sinners, by the sinners, and for the sinners.”

Browne was soberly aware of what was immanently troubling in a life filled with creatures like us, and he recognized what was striking in those who did not fear death; and yet he was also concerned about those who were afraid to live.  It was a “brave act of valour,” he said, “to contemne death, but where life is more terrible than death, it is then the truest valour to dare to live.”

For the miracle of life deserved to be savored in its smallest and grandest things.  Browne would have us stand back in loving awe, looking at embers that may be revived:  The “ashes of a plant revive the plant, and from its cinders recall it into its stalk and leaves again.” And if the “Art of man” can do such thing, “what blasphemy is it to affirme the figure of God cannot doe in these more perfect and sensible structures.”

Browne was not a man gushing in sentiment, and yet he admitted that he could not “behold a Begger without relieving his necessities with my purse, or his soule with my prayers.”  What came upon him was that “these scenical and accidental differences betweene us cannot make me forget that common and untoucht part of us both; there is under these. . .miserable outsides. . .a soul of the same alloy with our owne, whose Geneology is God as well as ours, and in as faire a way to salvation as our selves.”

And with that sense of things, I guess . . . that I should be looking for a liberal Democrat to take to dinner.


*Image: Dorothy, Lady Browne (née Mileham) and Sir Thomas Browne by Joan Carlile (attributed), c. 1650 [National Portrait Garden, London]

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.