Commonplace notebooks

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Commonplace notebooks
by Thomas Browne

Source British Museum Sloane MS 1848 Spelling modernised

Collected Works of Sir Thomas Browne ed. Simon Wilkin Fletcher and Son Norwich 1835-36

Part 1[edit]

1. Several hints which may be serviceable unto you and not ungrateful to others I present to you in this paper. They are not trite or vulgar, and very few of them anywhere to be met with. I set them not down in order, but as memory, fancy or occasional observation produced them, whereof you may take the pains to single out such as shall conduce unto your purpose.

2. I cannot fancy unto myself a more acceptable representation or state of things then if I could see all my best friends, and worthy acquaintances of fourty years last past, upon the stage of the world at one time.

3. A dialogue between an inhabitant of the earth and of the moon.

4. I attained my purpose and came to reach this port by a bare wind, much labour, great pains and little assistance.

5. Who will not commend the wit of Astrology? Venus born out of the sea hath her exaltation in Pisces.

6. He that found out the line of the middle motion of the planets holds an higher mansion in my thoughts than he that discovered the Indies, and Ptolomy that saw no farther than the feet of the Centaur, than he that hath beheld the snake by the southern pole.

7. The rational discovery of things transcends their simple deductions whose inventions are often casual and secondary to intention.

8. Many things are casually or favourably superadded unto the best Authors and sometimes conceits and expressions common unto them with others, and that not by imitation but coincidence, and concurrence of imagination upon harmony of production. Scaliger observes how one Italian poet fell upon the verse of another, and one that understood not metre or had ever read Martial fell upon one of his verses. Thus it is not strange that Homer should Hebraise and that many sentences in human Authors seem to have their original in Scripture. In a piece of mine published long ago the learned Commentator hath paralled many passages with other of Montaignes essays, whereas to deal clearly, when I penned that piece I had never read three leaves of that Author, and scarce any more ever since.

9. One life suffereth too long for the iniquities thereof; one life is sufficent for the anguish therof if we live no better the life &c.

10. There are not real felicities enough in nature to satisfy a serious mind. And therefore to sweeten the strream of our lives, we are fain to take in the received contentations of the world, to unite with the crowd in their beatitudes & make ourselves happy by consortion, opinion & coimagination. For strictly to separate from reputed & customary felicities or to confine unto the rigour of Realities, were to contract the consolation of our beings, unto comfortless circumscriptions.

11. Some plants have been thought to have been proper unto some one country & yet upon better discovery the same have been found in distant countries & in all community of parts.

12. Truth & falsehood hang almost equilibrously in some assertions and a few grains of truth which bear down the balance.

13. To begin our discourses like Trismegistus of old with verum certe atque verissimum est. would sound arrogantly unto new ears, in this strict enquiry of things, wherein for the most part, probably and perhaps will hardly serve the turn or mollify the spirits of positive contradictors.

14. If Cardan says that a parrot is a beautiful bird, Scaliger will set his wits on work to prove it a deformed animal. The compage of things is not to close as not to admit of object. Many things seem quodlibetically stated in nature & may be many truths seem quodlibetically constituted & like a Delphian sword will cut on both sides.

15. If in the Terraqueous globe all that now is land were sea & all that is sea were land to discover what difernces there would be in all things as to the constitution of climes, tides, navigation, & many other considerables.

16. Whether that fiction be elegantly contrived when Somnus is made to to make Endymion sleep with his eyes open that Luna might look upon them since there is no beauty in open sleeping eyes but a seeming deformity in them.

17. Whether it were not more dullness in Polyphemus to omit to praise the eyes of his Mrs Galaetes while he commendeth her other parts, than weariness to pass them over, lest he should consequently condemn his own.

18. Whether if observable occurrences were strictly taken notice of before the appearing of comets they may not prove as remarkable as those that follow after an equal space of time being taken as those before.

19. Whether as remarkable & great occurrencies have not happened without the appearance of comets as any with, or soon after them.

20. Whether northern comets or on this side of the Eqator have proved more fatal than southern, & whether smaller not sometimes more ominous than greater.

21. Whether Ice is to be found in subterraneous cavities & deep caves in the earth.

22. Whether possession be not often mistaken for witchcraft, and many thought to be bewitched which are indeed possessed?

23. Whether that will hold which I have sometimes observed that lice combed out of the head upon a paper will turn & move towards the body of the party & so as often as the paper is turned about.

24. Whether the heads of all mummies have the mouth open, & why.

25. Whether Noah might not be the first man that compassed the globe, since if the flood covered the whole earth & no no lands appeared to hinder the current he must be carried with the wind & current according to the sun & so in the space of the deluge might near make the tour of the globe. And since if there were no continent of America and all that tract a sea, a ship setting out from Africa without other help would at last fall upon some part of India or China.

Part 2[edit]

26. Cupid is said to be blind; affection should not be too sharp sighted & love not to be made by magnifying glasses. If things were seen as they are the beauty of bodies would be much abridged & therefore the wisedom of God hath drawn the pictures outsides of things softly & amiably unto the natural edge of our eyes, not able to discover those lovely asperities which make oystershells in good faces & hedgehogs even in Venus moles.

27. We are no way doubtful that there are witches, but have not always been satisfied in the applications of their witchcrafts or whether the parties accused or suffering have been guilty of that abomination, or persons under such affliction suffered from such hands. In ancient time we read of many possessed & probably there are many still, but the common cry & general opinion of witches hath confounded that of possession, men salving such strange effects from veneficial agents & out of the party suffering. Many strange things have been done beyond the salvo of human reason which might proceed as well from possession as venefication. If the man in the gospel had now lived who would not have said he had been bewitched which few or none might then suspect; Or who now sayeth that Saul was bewitched. Many examples may occur of the like nature amongst us wherein whether possession be not sometimes mistaken for venefication may well be considered.

28. Why Commodus, heated in the Theatrical recreations, would drink his refrigerated wine only from the hand of a woman. If not for being overheated by the hotter hands of men.

29. When tis said in the Book of Wisdom that the earth is unto God but as sand, and as a drop of morning dew, therein may be implied the earth & water or the whole Terraqueous globe, but when 'tis delivered in the Apocalypse that the Angel set his right foot upon the sea and his left upon the earth, what further hidden sense there is in that distinction may further be considered.

30. Whether the Ancients were better Architects than their successors many discourses have passed. That they were not only good builders, but expedient & skillful demolishers, appeears by the famous palace of Publicola which they pulled down & razed to the ground by his order in one day.

31. If any plantations of civil nations were ever made from civil nations, how it comes to pass that letters & writing was unknown unto all the parts of America.

32. When God commanded Abraham to look up to heaven & number the stars thereof, that he extraordinarily enlarged his sight to behold the host of heaven & the innumeraable heap of stars which Telescopes how show unto us, some men might be persuaded to believe. Who can think that when tis said that the blood of Abel cried from heaven , Abel fell a-bleeding at the sight of Cain according to the observation of men slain to bled at the presence of the murder.

33. Rob. Hutchinson at the Wheatsheaf in St. Peters in Norwich drank a gallon of Brandy burnt and sweetened in the month of June 1675 in the space of 14 hours. He drank it hot, fell into a fever & complained of an extraordinary burning in his stomach, but recovered in 7 days, with a great loathing of brandy after. He is aged 56. Another man who drank with him drank also a gallon of burnt Brabdy for his share & rode home into the country after it, and seemed not to suffer any more than a burning heat in his stomach for some days. He drank a good quantity of beer after he made an end of his gallon of brandy.

34. The picture of Signor Verdero in a proper habit. A suit of a mandrake or nightshade Green. A cloak of a Thistle colour faced with Holly green. A Burdock green hat with an hatband of poppy leaf vert, set with emeralds and Beryls and a plume of parrot green feathers. Stockings of an Ivy gree with sage coloured garters. A Rue coloured sash or girdle with Brake green fringe. Pantoffles of cabbage colour laced with sea Holly or eryngo green. Ribbons all about of fig layrel and Box green.

35. Whoever understandeth the fructifying quality of water will quickly apprehend the conguity of that invention which made the cornucopia to be filled with flowers by the Naiades or water nymphs.

36. Wonderful without doubt & of excellent signification are the mysteries, allegories & figures of holy scripture had we the true intelligence of them, but whether they signified any such thing as Gamailiel, Rampeggnoli, Venetus & others do put upon them is a great obscurity & Urim & Thummim unto me.

37. The symbolical mysteries of scripture sacrifices, cleansings, feasts & expiations is tolerably made out by Rabbins & Ritual commentators. But many things are obscure the Jews themselves will say that Solomon understood not the mystery of the Red cow. Even in that Pagan lustration of the people of Rome at the Palilia, why they made use of the ashes of a calf taken out of the belly of the dam, the blood of an horse and bean straw hath not found a convincing or probable conjecture.

38. In vain we seek to satisfy our souls in narrow theories close apprehensions of the divine essence even from the revealed world, since we have an happy sufficency in our own natures to apprehend the will & pleasure of God delivered in holy scripture: it being neither our concern nor capacity to comprehend or reach his nature. the divine revelation in such points being not framed unto intellectuals of earth. Even the best of creatures have enough to admire in their higher created natures. Admiration being the act of the creature & not of God, who doth not admire himself.

39. Could we intimately apprehend the ideated man and as it primitively stood in the intellect of God upon the first exertion by creation, we might more narrowly apprehend our degeneration;& how widely we are fallen from the pure exemplar Idea of ourselves.

40. Aristotle who seems to have borrowed many things from Hippocrates; in the most favourable acception makes mention but once of him, & that by the by & without reference unto his doctrine. Virgil so much beholding unto Homer hath not his name in his works, & Pliny that seems to borrow many authors out of Dioscorides hath taken no notice of him. Men are stil content to plume themselves with others feathers. Fear of discovery not single ingenuity makes qotations rather than transcriptions, of which now withstanding the plagarism of many, holds little consideration, wherof though great authors may complain small ones cannot but take notice.

41. Whether it be safe for obtaining a bass or deep voice to make frequent use of vitriol & whether it hath such an effect.

42. Cardan to try the alteration of the Air exposed a sponge which grew dank when the air is inclined to moisture. Another way I have made more exact trial, by putting a dry piece of sponge into one balance of a gold scale so equally poised with weights in the other balance that it will hang without inclining either way. For then upon alteration of the air to moisture the scale with the sponge will fall & when the air grows hot & dry will rise again. The like may be done by favago marinus, found commonly in the sea shore.

43. In the head of reddish grey snails without shells, I have often found stones or flat testaceous substances. To acquire some quantity of them, to make trial of those qualities in them as against quartans, by way of Amulet, in the strangurie & for east delivery if taken inwardly, & against dryness & thirst if held in the mouth in distempers.

44. To make trial of whether live crayfishes put into spirits of wine will presently turn red as though they had been boiled & taken out walk about in that colour.

45. How the Ancients made the north part of Britain to bend so unreasonably eastward according to the old map agreeable unto Ptolomy, or how Pliny could so widely mistake as to place the Isle of Wight between Ireland & England, if it be not mistaken for the Isle of Man or Anglesea.

46. The story of Jonah might afford the hint unto that of Andomeda & the sea monster that should have devoured her, the scene being laid at Joppa by the fabulists, as also unto the fable of Hercules out of Lycophron, 3 nights in the whales belly, that is Hercules Phoenicius.

47. We consider not sufficently the good of evils nor fairly compute the mercy of providence in things that are afflictive at first hand. The famous Andreas D'Oria invited to a feast by Aloisio Fieschi with intent to dispatch him fell opportunely into a fit of the gout & so escaped that mischief. When Cato intended to kill himself, with a blow which he gave his servant that would not bring him his sword, his hands so swelled that he had much ado to effect it whereby any but a resolved stoic might have taken a hint of consideration & that some merciful genius would have contrived his preservation.

48. Aristotle who seems to have borrowed many things from Hippocrates; in the most favorable acception makes mention of him but once of him, 7 that by the by & without reference unto his doctrine. Virgil so much beholding unto Homer hath not his name in his works, & Pliny that seems to borrow many authors out of Dioscorides hath taken no notice of him. Men are still content to plume themselves with others feathers. Fear of discovery not single ingenuity makes quotations rathre than transcriptions, of which not withstanding the plagarism of many, holds little consideration, whereof though great authors may complain small ones cannot but take notice.

49. Diogenes the cynic being asked what was the best remedy against a blow answered , An helmet. This answer he gave not from any experience of his own who scarce wore any covering on his head, yet he that would seee how well an hemet becommeth a Cynick may behold it in that draught of Diogenes prefixed to his life in the new edition of the epitome of Plutarch's Lives in English, wherein in the additional lives he is set forth soldier-like with an helmet and a battle-axe.

A note on Hippocrates from reading Plutarch's Life of Julius Caesar

50. There fell a pestilent disease among them which came by ill meats which hunger drove them to eat. But after he had taken the city of Gomphes in Thessaly he met not only with plenty of victuals, but strangely did rid them of that disease; for the soldiers meeting with plenty of wine drank hard & making merry drove away the infection of the pestilence, in so much that drinking drunk they overcame their disease & made their bodies new again. the soldiers were driven to take seaweeds called Alga & washing away the brackishness thereof with sea water, putting to it a little herb called Dogstooth, to cast it so to their horses to eat. This country of Thessaly became the more considerable unto me because it hath been the seat of many notable actions & produced many famous persons, & because the famous Hippocrates & father of physicians lived and practised in it, as may be collected from the oration of his son Thessa unto the Athenians & the description of his life by Soranus annexed unto his works wherein 'tis delivered that he was admonished by dream to live in Thessaly: that he had an habitation in Thessaly, that the princes & rulers of the barbarian nation of Illyria & Paeonia sent unto him, as also the king of Macedonia that he died in or about Larissa; that he was buried between Gyrton & Larissa & had had of old a monument in those parts.And it may be also observed that in the epidemicks or books of Hippocrates wherein he sets down the particular progress of diseases, of his patients with their names & habitations unto life or death, it may be observed that he mentions many places of Thessaly, but of any one place the greatest number of his patients were of Larissa.

On Aristotle[edit]

Source British Museum Sloane MS No. 1827

Not so long ago Jean de Launoy, a theologian of Paris, published a book on the changing popularity of Aristotle; whence he establishes that that most famous philosopher has been sometimes publicy burned, sometimes restored, now condemned by solemn decrees, then restored again, and in fact undergone eight changes in the same university.

Certainly the early Christians, Justin, Clement, Tertullian, Augustine and many others held opinions contrary to the great man's writings. And today he is bitterly cut to the quick by the moderns and almost at the point of death; so that it seems to me that the peripatetic philosophy is now brought to a standstill and can hardly be rescued, or not even hardly.

But while much is lacking in Aristotle, much wrong, much self-contradictory, yet not a little is valuable. Do not then bid farewell to his entire work; but while you hardly touch the Physics and read the Metaphysics superficially, make much of all the rest and study them unwearingly.

Petrus of Abano and Alexander of Aphrodisias have annotated the Problems of Aristotle industriously; better still Petrus Septalius, a physician of great fame.But while, in a less liberal spirit and not tainted with the new philosophy, he expounds almost everything to the philosopher's mind, often and often he hardly gets to the point and does not satisfy a spirit eager for truth.

So it will be worth the effort to weigh them again, so that the truth and reason of the questions may be better determined and where the old rules fail we may pass to new propositions....

On Guardian Angels[edit]

Source British Museum Sloane MS No.1875


The learned Gaspar Schottus dedicates his Thaumaturgus Mathematicus unto his tutelary or Guardian Angel..now though we must not lose God in good Angels or, because their presence is always supposed about us, hold less memory of the onminprescency of God in our prayers and addresses for his care and protection over us; yet they who do assert such spirits do find something out of Scripture and Antiquity for them. But whether the Angel which wrestled with Jacob were Esaus good angel; whether our Saviour on earth had one deputed unto him, or whether that was his good angel which appeared and strengthened him before his passion; whether Anti-Christ shall have any,whether all men have one, some more; whether these Angels do guard successively and distinctly unto one person after another or whether but once and singly but one person at all; whether we are under the care of our mothers good Angel in the womb or whether that spirit undertakes us when the stars are thought to concern us, that is at our nativities, men have a liberty and latitude to opinion.

Concerning the too nice curiosity of censuring the Present, or judging into Future Dispensations[edit]

We have enough to do rightly to apprehend and consider things as they are, or have been, without amusing ourselves how they might have been otherwise, or what variations, consequences, and differences might have otherwise arisen upon a different face of things, if they had otherwise fallen out in the state or actions of the world.
The learned King Alphonso would have the calf of a man's leg placed before rather than behind; and thinks he could find many commodities from that position.
If, in the terraqueous globe, all that now is land had been sea, and all that is sea land, what wide difference there would be in all things, as to consitution of climes, tides, disparity of navigation, and many other concerns, were a long consideration.
If Setorius had persued his designs to pass his days in the Fortunate Islands, who can tell but we might have had many noble discoveries of the neighbouring coasts of Africa; and perhaps America had not been so long unknown to us.
If Nearchus , admiral to Alexander the Great, setting out from Persia, had sailed about Africa, and come into the Mediterranean, by the straits of Hercules, as was intended, we might have heard of strange things, and had probably a better account of the coast of Africa than was lost by Hanno.
If King Perseus had entertained the barbarous nations but stout warriors, which inso great numbers offered their service to him, some conjecture it might be, that Paulus Emilus had not conquered Macedon.
If [ Antiochus?] had followed the counsel of Hannibal, and come about by Gallia upon the Romans, who knows what success he might have had against him ?
If Scanderbeg had joined his forces with Hunnaides, as might have been expected before the battle in the plains of Cossoan, in good probability they might have ruined Mahomet, if not the Turkish empire.
If Alexander had marched westward, and warred with Romans, whether he had been able to subdue that little but valiant people, is an uncertainty; we are sure he overcame Persia; histories attest and prophecies foretell the same. It was decreed that the Persians should be conquered by Alexander, and his successors by the Romans, in whom Providence had determined to settle the fourth monarchy, which neither Pyrrhus nor Hannibal must prevent; though Hannibal came so near it, that he seemed to miss it by fatal infatuation: which if he had effected, there had been such a traverse and confusion of affairs, as no oracle could have predicted. But the Romans must reign, and the course of things was then moving towards the advent of Christ, and blessed discovery of the Gospel: our Saviour must suffer at Jerusalem, and be sentenced by a Roman judge; St. Paul, a Roman citizen, must preach in the Roman provinces, and St. Peter be bishop of Rome, and not of Carthage.

Source MS. Sloan 1865 & 1869