Religio Medici (The Religion of a Doctor)


Frontispiece of the 1642 pirated edition of Religio Medici. Rare Books: Houghton Library at Harvard University


Religio Medici (The Religion of a Doctor) by Sir Thomas Browne MD, is a spiritual testament and an early psychological self-portrait. Published in 1643 after an unauthorized version was distributed the previous year, it became a European best-seller which brought its author, unexpected fame at home and abroad.


Sir Thomas Browne was a highly influential intellectual of his day and long after. He graduated from Pembroke College at Oxford University in 1626, after which he studied medicine at Padua and Montpellier universities, completing his studies at Leiden, where he received a medical degree in 1633. He settled in Norwich in 1637 and practiced medicine there until his death in 1682. Browne was a polymath, exceedingly well read and an expert in many disciplines. As we are still doing today, he struggled to make sense of science and religion, utilizing his great breadth of knowledge. Structured upon the Christian virtues of Faith and Hope (part 1) and Charity (part 2), Browne expresses a belief in salvation “by faith alone“, the existence of hell, the day of judgement, the resurrection and other tenets of Protestantism. However, as you will read below, Browne left room in his philosophical approach, for the construct of individual reason, as separate from any church.


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. In brief, where the Scripture is silent, the Church is my Text; where that speaks, ’tis but my Comment: where there is a joint silence of both, I borrow not the rules of my Religion from Rome or Geneva, but the dictates of my own reason.


Throughout Religio Medici Browne uses scientific imagery to illustrate religious truths as part of his discussion on the relationship of science to religion, a topic which has lost none of its contemporary relevance. Browne’s latitudinarian Anglicanism meanders into digressions upon alchemy, astrology, hermetic philosophy, and physiognomy. Throughout his life, the Christian mystic held an interest in esotericism, stating in Religio Medici:


I was born in the planetary hour of Saturn and I think I have a piece of that leaden planet in me. I have often admired the mystical way of Pythagoras and the secret magicke of numbers. the severe schools shall never laugh me out of the philosophy of Hermes. and I hold moreover that there is a Phytognomy, or Physiognomy, not only of men, but of Plants, and Vegetables; and in every one of them, some outward figures which hang as signs or bushes of their inward forms.


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:

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, 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.


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.


The book strongly influenced the prominent physician William Osler in his early years. Osler, who is considered the “father of modern medicine“, is said to have learned it by heart. In Virginia Woolf’s opinion Religio Medici paved the way for all future confessionals, private memoirs and personal writings. In the twentieth century, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung used the term Religio Medici several times in his writings. In the 21st Century, the tension continues between evidence based science and religious beliefs. There should be a way for both to peacefully co-exist, since one of the most important and motivating human feeling is hope. Hope is shared by science and religion, simply defined differently. At this point in history, hope is needed everywhere.



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