January 27

Burtonsbook

1640, the burial of a melancholy author

One of the most interesting books of the 17th century is The Anatomy of Melancholy, a massive treatise on mental illness, particularly depression. It is the work of the Oxford scholar Robert Burton (1577-1640). According to Dr Samuel Johnson, it was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.

Of his own mental condition Burton said:  “a kind of imposthume in my head, which I was very desirous to be unladen of and could imagine no fitter evacuation than this … I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy. There is no greater cause of melancholy than idleness, no better cure than business”. In his view, melancholy was “a disease so frequent … in our miserable times, as few there are that feele not the smart of it”, and he said he compiled his book “to prescribe means how to prevent and cure so universall a malady, an Epidemicall disease, that so often, so much crucifies the body and mind.”

Here are some of his observations:

“He that increaseth wisdom, increaseth sorrow.”

“What cannot be cured must be endured.”

“Wine is strong, the king is strong, women are strong, but truth overcometh all things.”

“Let thy fortune be what it will, ’tis thy mind alone that makes thee poor or rich, miserable or happy.”
“It is an old saying, ‘A blow with a word strikes deeper than a blow with a sword’; and many men are as much galled with a calumny, a scurrile and bitter jest, a libel, a pasquil, satire, apologue, epigram, stage-plays, or the like, as with any misfortune whatsoever.”
“Now go and brag of thy present happiness, whosoever thou art, brag of thy temperature, of thy good parts, insult, triumph, and boast; thou seest in what a brittle state thou art, how soon thou mayst be dejected, how many several ways, by bad diet, bad air, a small loss, a little sorrow or discontent, an ague, &c.; how many sudden accidents may procure thy ruin, what a small tenure of happiness thou hast in this life, how weak and silly a creature thou art.”

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