Sperate miseri Unhappy hope
Cavete felices Happy be cautious
“Be not solitary, be not idle.”
Those are the last sentences of the formidable “The Anatomy of melancholy” by Robert Burton (1576 – 1640), vicar at St. Thomas, Oxford, a mind of unlimited curiosity that could be satisfied with free access to the Bodleian library. I do recommend buying the book and reading it. Here it is available online. In several posts I’m going to present an abstract with links pointing to a selection of quotes.
The work goes beyond what would be a treatise on melancholy, what perhaps today would be cataloged as a depression disorder. In around 1.400 pages, besides discussing its causes and considering its possible cure, Burton, this tireless reader, presents the show of human fortunes and misfortunes, offers a lucid analysis of our follies, looking at us as if we were an ants’s nest and sometimes reminds us of Erasmus.
Who among us is not a fool ? We don’t know whether to weep, with Heraclitus, or laugh with Democritus. Burton says that Democritus would go on laughing in his era, in the 17th century; and I dare to say that he would amuse himself in our times; we get our souls repaired through different therapies, we apply diy solutions consulting self-help books, we long for the “authentic” experiences in prefabricated adventures to exotic destinations, we undergo plastic surgery to appear more attractive, we take stimulants to be more alert and sleeping pills to go to sleep, antidepressants …
It is a long reading, not always easy but most often fascinating. Burton writes about melancholy to escape from it, a trip along the diverse landscapes of human condition, with bitter critics towards religion and superstition, and laments for bloody wars. Burton is to admire when he renders and filters his vast readings and when he observes the behavior of the humans around him. But he is irresistible when he writes what he likes and speculates wildly. So he asks, what would be Hercules agenda on the 17th century? [what are the most important tasks?] He does not stop here but formulates his “particular utopy”, 25 pages in length, detailing how cities would be planned, rivers, houses, schools, universities or roads.
The first book describes melancholy in general and its causes. No one would be free of it; the expression “melancholy, the character of mortality” is devastating. [It is really inherent to human condition? An unavoidable consequence of the ability to imagine? To be able to imagine a life without death, decrepitude, or the possibility of imagining a life without so many errors committed, without having caused pain, or may be just a life with a bit of luck …]. It agrees with the famous Aristotle/Theophrastus Problema XXX.1 that states all men of genius have been melancholics and that they have a powerful imagination.
An introduction reviews anatomy and general diseases, offers a definition of melancholy and then Burton proceeds to discuss the causes. Our avid reader will list all of them, from life circumstances such as poverty or being in prison, or the fact of getting old and suffer physical decadence and death.
There are also divine causes and our scholar does not omit any kind of demon, actually we have almost a complete study on them and, by the way, a particular one located in Barcino is mentioned. Another curious case involves a possession case that reminds of the vomit scene in the “Exorcist”.
As natural causes, attention must be paid to what is eaten, gluttony, eat too much, or on the contrary, eat too little; evacuation, constipation, hemorrhoids, the quality of the air inhaled, exercise and several kind of activities ad last but not least, sleep.
Probably Burton speaks out of its own experience when he warns about the risks of study and solitary contemplation. Passions of mind, joy, desire, sorrow, fear are also a source of melancholy. We are never satisfied with what we have. We can become obsessed with hunting, eating or spending our wealth in mad buildings.
He can speak about the miseries of scholars out of his own experience and does not miss the opportunity to criticize ferociously the university, an institution that admits whoever has money and graduates fools that only learn some things by the heart after spending some years chopping logic.
When Burton reprobates the excess of curiosity, the time spent in researching superfluous matters, I can’t help thinking that he is not sincere, for it’s obvious that he enjoys it immensely. Other causes discussed are education, slander, imprisonment, poverty; blame on money that seems to have the power of buying anything.
The last part of this book deals with symptoms. Prudently, he advises potential hypocondriacs affected of melancholy to skip it because its reading could worse their condition. There are interesting references to Dürer’s engraving (see the post about Klibansky, Panofsky and Saxl book about Saturn and melancholy), Saturn and Aristotle’s Problema XXX.1 where the hypothesis relating genius, madness and melancholy is formulated.