King, Ewan: Thomas Browne and the creation of tolerance – subjectivity, argumentation and belief in early modern England.

The reception of the prose writings of Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) by historians of ideas has been, at best, uneven. On the one hand, Browne’s importance has always been apparent. Generations of scholars have acknowledged him as an attractively tolerant, exceptionally receptive thinker, someone who responds in a lively way to an impressively wide range of contemporary debates.  Religio Medici (1643) is a key contribution to the early modern development of “lay theology” as a genre;  Urne Buriall (1658), with its learned reflections on funerary customs, is a fascinating example of the Enlightenment’s new-found awareness of the arbitrariness of human tradition (and thus forms an interesting anticipatory dialogue partner for Giambattista Vico, whose life - just - overlaps with Browne’s).  By contrast The Garden of Cyrus (1658) highlights Browne’s scientific activity, with natural historical considerations that look both backward and forward (back to an Aristotle who has become a discussion partner to be critically engaged, rather than an ‘authority’ to be confidently cited; forward, via Schelling, to contemporary philosophy of ecology).  On the other hand, the fact remains that Browne’s primary reception, both in the anglophone tradition and beyond, has been mainly in literary studies, rather than the history of ideas.  The most celebrated readers of Browne have been literary artists, though typically artists with a bent for philosophy (for example Dr Johnson, Coleridge, Virginia Woolf, Jorge Luis Borges).  Browne can thank the extraordinary power of his idiosyncratic prose for this uneven reception.  What Browne actually says has sometimes been overshadowed by the way he says it; not all critics have resisted the temptation of an anachronistic reading of Browne as a fin de siècle aesthete, as though someone who expresses himself so beautifully just can’t be too concerned with what he is actually saying  (Woolf praises Browne, and Stanley Fish condemns him, in more or less these terms). However, as three recent scholarly contributions indicate particularly clearly (Preston 2009, Murphy & Todd 2008; Barbour & Preston 2009), the eloquence of Browne’s writings is no index of any aesthetic detachment from the debates the texts engage. In the context of this conference’s focus on inclusion and exclusion, the first thing to say about Browne is that he lives and writes in the context of the English Civil War (1642-51) and Restoration (1660): that is, in a period of unprecedented political and religious upheaval, ideological and actual violence.   To state this is to situate Browne in the same European context from which we see e.g. Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza emerge. Nor is this European context simply analogous to Browne’s English situation: Browne himself was heavily involved in developments on the continent; he read in six modern languages, funded European study trips for both his sons and his daughters, and had himself studied in (Catholic) Montpellier, (Reformed) Leiden and (notoriously heretical) Padua, experiences that gave him a unique window on a variety of religious, political, scholarly and scientific practice. That the chronic upheavals of 1550-1650 created a widespread desire for social peace is hardly surprising. Browne’s thought and style, like those of Montaigne and Descartes, consistently betrays a search for the eirenic position. However, to understand the task facing this sort of thinker, it is vital to avoid the anachronistic assumption that goes something like this. If the protagonists in various conflicts could somehow be brought to care less about the issues involved, everything will somehow sort itself out. This conception of a singular ‘tolerance’ as a universal social panacea was no more realistic in a 17 th century context then it is now. Far from being a helpful tool to diffuse contemporary situations of ideological identity wars, and political or religious strife, it is in fact afflicted with a hidden violence of its own. The imperative for Browne’s contemporaries was the development of a much more sophisticated kind of tolerant subjectivity, one that would allow the contemporary thinker to maintain intellectual integrity, and a coherent identity, while somehow diffusing some of the dangers in the highly charged discourses they engaged. However, as the radical novelty of the Cartesian method indicates, those who hoped to think in this new way, had to be prepared to think with bold independence. For all the allure of the example Montaigne offered, his brand of tolerance involved a withdrawal from publicity that limited its usefulness as an example. For the thinkers of the following century the tolerant subject would necessarily be a public persona, but one informed in a new way by the developing sense of private subjectivity. There is scope to see some alarming recent political trends and events, whether in the USA, Britain, Finland or elsewhere, as exposing the inadequacy of certain commonly invoked conceptions of toleration.  Reflection on the historical sources of our conception and valuation of tolerance has therefore never been more timely. Thomas Browne’s unique blend of medical insight, scientific praxis, theological and philosophical creativity, and literary sophistication privilege his work as a valuable site for what will necessarily be the collaborative work of enriching our public discourse, through the elaboration of a more robust concept of tolerance.