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In Search of Sir Thomas Browne: The Life and Afterlife of the Seventeenth Century's Most Inquiring Mind.

In Search of Sir Thomas Browne: The Life and Afterlife of the Seventeenth Century's Most Inquiring Mind. By Hugh Aldersey-Williams. (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015. Pp. xx, 352. $27.00.)

The Enlightenment rhetorician Hugh Blair praised John Locke's works as paragons of English prose style; everybody else who reads Locke knows differently. Thomas Browne, on the contrary, has long been admired as a great writer of the English sentence. Jorge Luis Borges called him the best. Herman Melville plagiarized some of Browne's whale descriptions for Moby Dick, while Virginia Woolf liked the neologisms (15). "Electricity," "hallucination," "swaggy," "retromingent"--these all come from Browne (10). He invented more words than John Milton, and yet he remains nearly forgotten outside of specialized academic circles, to the intellectual historian's detriment, or so claims Hugh Aldersey-Williams. I think he has a point.

Structurally speaking. In Search of Sir Thomas Browne is best described as a curio cabinet. Aldersey-Williams puts on display Browne's various experiments and ideas, some more eccentric than others. For example, Browne proved twice that a dead kingfisher made for a terrible weathervane, and he determined that mother bears did not lick their newborn cubs into bear shapes (xvii, 264). Browne debunked these and many other myths, but he also believed flying horses and the basilisk might be real; that some elephants have "written whole sentences"; that we all have guardian angels; and that the Devil tempts us (98). Browne is the sort of man who would go on a Bigfoot hunt today, and he would happily investigate the merits of the ancient alien-astronaut theory, because he knew that the world was full of impossible objects. Of course, Browne suspends too much disbelief at times, but the alternative is worse. As cases in point, Aldersey-Williams gives us Richard Dawkins and John Durant, both of whom gravely placed The X-Files on their "public danger" list (163). Twin Peaks, presumably, is out of the question.

An atheist who got to page seventy-eight of The God Delusion, Aldersey-Williams sees in Browne a useful corrective to fundamentalism (210). The religious fanatic and atheistic fanatic alike find themselves stunted by the burden of their own certitude. Enter Browne, who provides an alternative mode of inquiry governed by good-natured skepticism, "insatiable curiosity," and a capacity for wonderment (228). Such positive traits may even help us to achieve "a reconciliation between science and religion," though Browne's role in the 1662 Bury witch trial will complicate this laudable goal (xx).

If the book has a weakness, then it is in Aldersey-Williams's understanding of how science and spiritualism relate to each other, then and now. The commonplace idea, which occasionally shapes his arguments, is that science slowly refuted occultism, but as Stuart Clark and especially Paul Monod have recently shown, this is simply not the case. Occult forms of thinking were never disproved by early modern science; rather, theosophy, Christianity, magic, and many other traditions flourished in the Enlightenment and beyond. They flourish today, a fact worth stressing insofar as it highlights an ongoing dialogue about the role of spirituality, heterodox or otherwise, in scientific investigations.

Aldersey-Williams recovers and joyfully demonstrates Browne's habnabbery, showing himself to be a kindred spirit. The book is a pleasure to recommend.

Ryan J. Stark

Corban University
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Author:Stark, Ryan J.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2017
Words:544
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