BOOK REVIEWS (2014): Robert Burton’s (1620) The Anatomy Of Melancholy [Part 1]

2 March 2014

Framing/Background for Replies[1]

The full title of this 1620 book by Robert Burton runs: The Anatomy of Melancholy, What It Is: With All The Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, And Several Cures Of It. In Three Maine Partitions With Their Several Sections, Members, And Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened And Cut Up.

This year, I have set myself the task to read four or five pages of this book per day, which for its nearly 1,400 pages will put me finishing it sometime in October 2014, once I skip the indexes and footnotes that source Burton’s Latin quotations, &c.

Since I cannot hope to remember with a book this large, especially one read at this pace, whatever I might write as a reply to it, I plan to collect reflections along the way, not particularly numbered or systematically, maybe sometime(s) sporadically placed online, but primarily to memorialize the reading in some way.

In the scheme of temperaments— sanguine (pleasure-seeking and sociable), choleric (ambitious and leader-like), phlegmatic (relaxed and thoughtful), and melancholic (analytical and literal)—I fall into the last category. These days, melancholy gets abused as a synonym for depression, but it more arises from self-reflection.

A Reply To:  Robert Burton’s (1620)[2] The Anatomy Of Melancholy

This is the first post to offer up reflections so far about Burton’s book.I’ve read 210 of 1,381 pages.

Burton says he chose the pseudonym Democritus Jr. because Democritus himself had written a book on melancholy in order in part to understand and cure himself of melancholy. We have a hint of this when Burton notes: “I did sometime laugh and scoff with Lucian, and satirically tax with Menippus, lament with Heraclitus, sometimes again I was petulanti splene cachinno [with mocking temper moved to laughter loud], and then again, urere bilis jecur [my liver was aflame with gall], I was much moved to see that abuse which I could not mend” (19). Nice catch of melancholy there at the end.

Around pages 27 to 30 or so, Burton gets a bit testy an provides a number of Latin phrases or citations about the sheer numbers of book scribblers (how timely most of his remarks still seem) an also—to put it in a single phrase—you can’t please everyone all the time. But also: multo melius es sermone quam lineamentis de moribus hominum judicamus; “we can judge a man’s character much better from his conversation than his physiognomy” (27). From Erasmus, we have orexin habet auctoris celebritas; “the author’s name creates a demand” (28), a phrase I would have found handy recently in an Internet thread.

Also, I simply like the phrase et quod gravissimum; “and what is most serious” (30). And this points to the way that this book is, at times, a kind of one-step shop. Burton piles together so many quotations, perhaps providing an original example of the Internet misattribution—he admits he piles things up—but still one encounters from on Didacas Stella: “Pigmaei gigantum humeris impositi plusquam ipsi gigantes vident”, goodness only knows from where, which translates per burton to, “A dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant may see farther than a giant himself” (25), which phrase should definitely sound familiar and colloquial—moreso in England, where the £2 coin sports it.  And that, because Isaac Newton supposedly wrote something like it in  letter. By the time he did, however, the phrase had become commonplace, enough so to appear in Burton’s book by way of a Spanish theologian.

For fun, however, let us note (from here) the various attributions:

The metaphor of dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants (Latin: nanos gigantium humeris insidentes) is first recorded in the twelfth century and attributed to Bernard of Chartres [see below]. It was famously used by the seventeenth-century scientist Isaac Newton who wrote it as: pigmaei gigantum humeris impositi plusquam ipsi gigantes vident.

One may see from Burton’s text above, if Newton claimed this as his own, he plagiarized it—something Burton, by the way (citing Hierome’s example) says he does not do, attempting always to give credit for phrases, even if it makes him seem like a pedant (he says) and even if it had still not caught on as a popular scholarly habit when he wrote his book.  But, just for clarity, in all of this pother, I wish to track this exact phrase (“pigmaei gigantum humeris impositi plusquam ipsi gigantes vident”), since that exact phrase does actually appear just like this in Burton.

Burton says he got it from Didacas Stella—a sixteenth-century Spanish Franciscan mystic and theologian, born 1524 in Estella, Navarra, died 1578 in Salamanca (see here)—but in the (1159) Metalogicon, John of Salisbury declares it originates with Bernard of Chartres:

Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.

(“Dicebat Bernardus Carnotensis nos esse quasi nanos, gigantium humeris insidentes, ut possimus plura eis et remotiora videre, non utique proprii visus acumine, aut eminentia corporis, sed quia in altum subvenimur et extollimur magnitudine gigantea”)

We see how the implied humility of the original has disappeared from Newton’s use of the phrase. From here, quite obviously rehashing Wikipedia, we have the story repeated:

In a letter dated February 15, 1675* Sir Isaac Newton famously wrote to Robert Hooke “Pigmaei gigantum humeris impositi plusquam ipsi gigantes vident” which translates as “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”  The most evident meaning is that contemporary researchers are better enabled to make new discoveries by relying on the discoveries and insights of researchers from the past (¶1, italics added).[3]

Like a good sport, the author here at least notes that Burton has the phrase in his book half a century prior, and that folks err who attribute the phrase to Newton, but running down this exact phrasing “pigmaei gigantum &c” proves tricky. Especially since, with regard to the letter in question, it reads:

But, in the meantime, you defer too much to my ability in searching into this subject. What Descartes did was a good step. You have added much several ways, and especially in considering the colours of thin plates. If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. But I make no question you have divers very considerable experiments beside those you have published, and some, it’s very probable, the same with some of those in my late papers. Two at least there are, which I know you have often observed … (italics on page in original, from here).

Which decidedly fails as Latin. Now, perhaps I will discover in a hot second that Newton wrote letters in Latin, but until we get to that point, not only do we not have “Pigmaei gigantum humeris impositi plusquam ipsi gigantes vident,” but also this phrase does not translate as “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” but rather more like Burton has it, “A dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant may see farther than a giant himself”. And, while covering all the bases, the phrase “pigmaei gigantum humeris impositi plusquam ipsi gigantes vident” does not appear in Bernard of Chartres, which has “possimus plura eis et remotiora videre”, at least when John of Salisbury supplies it.

And unfortunately, that seems the end of it, since some glosses on Plato’s Timaeus would appear the only extant work by the fellow. So then, how does one arrive at the exact phrase “pigmaei gigantum humeris impositi plusquam ipsi gigantes vident”? At this point—if Bernard’s work does not exist, if John of Salisbury does not reproduce the phrase exactly, the Burton provides the only source I have seen (so far), and that comes from Diego de Estrella. About this, however, Merton (1965)[4] writes (too coyly, too archly):

For centuries now — ever since Burton — scholars have instructed us to look for the Aphorism in “Didacus Stella, in Luc. 10, tom. 2” thus beginning a tradition that was to become obsolete before it became ancient. Let me put it to you plainly (and without that false modesty which is the height of arrogance): who, before now, has followed that scholarly injunction and actually looked into Didacus Stella for the Aphorism? On the evidence, none. Even the incomparable Sarton was evidently willing to repeat Burton’s footnoted directions without following them in actual practice. As he put it, with his characteristically full integrity, “Burton’s reference is probably to Diego’s In sacrosanctum …” No one can mistake the force of the “probably” (and I have supplied the emphasis of italics to ensure this universal recognition). Thorough-going scholar that he was, Sarton was announcing that he had not tracked down the reference for himself. As with Sarton, so, manifestly, with more, Koyré and the myriad of others (including Bartlett) who have routinely cited Burton’s Didacus Stella, in Luc. 10., tom. 2., without themselves looking into the cited source. I have (253–4).

But the remainder of that mystery will have to wait.

From approximately pp. 43–97, Burton cites a heap of grumblers, Democritus principally among them, who maintain that the world teems with madmen, fools, and offers nothing but sights of absurdity. In the course of this, he cannot resist citing practically the entire ecclesiastical hierarchy of Catholicism top to bottom as warranting especial singling out—well done, Protestant hypocrite. But this last marks simply the capstone on the obnoxiousness in this passage. For while Burton assures us he writes of melancholy due to his own, which one might hardly object to, he attempts here to rationalize melancholy as the “natural” response to the world, because the world teems with idiots. Almost exactly 300 years later, Jung (1912)[5] noted:

It is hard to believe that this teeming world is too poor to provide an object for human love—it offers boundless opportunities to everyone. It is rather the inability to love which robs a person of these opportunities.  The world is empty only to him who does now know how to direct his libido towards things and people, and to render them alive and beautiful. (¶253)

One hardly needs say more than that, except this: very many of the grumblers cited by Burton have enjoyed some considerable station in life, no one more than the narrator of Ecclesiastes. To declare from the top of the world that “all is vanity” and the like, and in effect to confess at having bluffed one’s entire way through the administration of a kingdom, provides more evidence of “stupidity” than all of the fools, madmen, and charlatans adduced as evidence by the cited or celebrated authors Burton points to. I don’t doubt for a moment that running a massive enterprise involves difficulties, reversals, and no shortage of unnecessary trouble, but if at the end of the day you think it all a waste of time, then you were the wrong fool for the job and your pathetic mewling after the fact only sets a bad example. Better you should walk away from Omelas without announcing it or making a fuss; whining about it in memoirs deserves the fire pit or amnesia.

He veers away from his theme somewhat to imagine how Democritus might have responded to the state of affairs in Burton’s ay, and then seems to imagine some kind of Heracles who might heroically make a difference, exact that “there is no remedy, it may not be redressed, desinent homines tum demum stultescere quando esse desinent [men will cease to be fools only when they cease to be men]” (97).

From this lazy conclusion, made all the lazier given the immense amount of citation Burton piles together to make the point, he then—having told us the world consists only of fools—in all seriousness proposes his idea of utopia.

The boorishness or perhaps rather the utter platitudes of his utopia notwithstanding, what strikes me more involves the bipolar character of this massive exposition (indicative of hte subject matter? Is this why Burgess calls the Anatomy a great comic work?): after a heap of depressiveness, it gets answered by a manic utopia. This certainly illustrates both the theme and problem of the book (as it unfolds so far), but it means it equally lacks in diagnostic power (this utopia) as the previous diatribe.

And at the centre of this farrago stands the insistence, not cited from classical sources but Burton’s own phrase in Latin (I believe) that “men will cease to be fools only when they cease to be men”. Since Burton practices foolishness, we should therefore ignore him. Or if we can only act foolishly, then we must erect our rational civilization on this immovable base.

But in general, and I have ranted about this lots elsewhere, any invocation of human nature as unchangeable involves a hopeless condemnation. Do amend your silly opinion—after all, you did not always hold it, which shows that the thesis stands false—or spare us the babble (popular as a way to extort obsequiousness, obedience, or apathy with respect to changing the status quo). Nothing more tempts me to want to suggest, “Then just shoot yourself” than this sort of position, even as I despise the fact that I find it a kind of (in)adequate response to the position.

Nothing changes in this that Burton finally admits that he is as much a fool as anyone else.

Meanwhile, a rather sweet notion in passing.

There is a foolish opinion which some hold, that [devils and angels] are the souls of men departed; good and more noble were deified, the baser grovelled on the ground, or in the lower parts, and were devils; the which, with Tertullian, Porphyrius the philosopher, M. Tyrius, ser.  27, maintains. “These spirits,” he saith, “which we call angels and devils, are naught but souls of men departed, which either through love and pity of their friends yet living, help and assist them, or else persecute their enemies, whom they hated” (181).

The idea this keys off in me is that we might be persecuted by a devil but not have known the fellow personally in life. We may have affronted a friend of his, and thus become his or her enemy. And then we can extend this idea to the Jungian domain of the unconscious, and devils become a sort of objective correlative (if that’s the right phrase here) for a guilty conscience.


[1] If you’ve read this already in my other book replies, you can skip it. Otherwise: two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop).  I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests. These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about. Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

[2] Burton, R. (1620). The anatomy of melancholy, what it is: with all the kinds, causes, symptomes, prognostickes, and several cures of it. in three maine partitions with their several sections, members, and subsections. philosophically, medicinally, historically, opened and cut up . New York: New York Review of Books.

[3] Perhaps part of the reason Newton omits to mention dwarfs arises from the following:

Within the context of [Newton’s] letter, Newton refers to an optical experiment performed by Hooke, where he claims that Hooke has “added much several ways, and especially in taking the colours of thin plates into philosophical consideration.”   However, it has commonly been interpreted by historians that Newton was using the “standing on giants” phrase as a sly insult to Hooke, who many believe was short in stature – but some believe he was simply afflicted with a combination of Scoliosis and Pott’s disease, which would have made Hooke a hunchback (1).  The two men had bitterly quarreled in the past after Hooke publicly claimed that he had given Newton the idea that gravity follows an inverse square law and that Newton simply crunched the numbers (2) (¶, from here).

[4] Merton, RK (1965). On the shoulders of giants: the post-Italianate edition. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

[5] Jung, C. G. (1962). Symbols of transformation: an analysis of the prelude to a case of schizophrenia. New York: Harper.

One Response to “BOOK REVIEWS (2014): Robert Burton’s (1620) The Anatomy Of Melancholy [Part 1]”

  1. mindocr said

    Reblogged this on Mindocr’s Weblog.

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