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Alexander Ross (1652) Arcana Microcosmi, Book II, Chapter 15, pp. 174-179.


1. Heavy bodies swim in the dead sea: and the Ancients in this point defended. 2. Crassus had reason to laugh at the Ass eating Thistiles: Laughter defined: in laughter there is sorrow; in weeping, joy. 3. That Christ never laughed, proved. 4. Fluctus Decumanus, what?

THat heavie bodies will not sink in the Lake Asphaltites, or the dead sea of Sodome, is affirmed by Aristotle, Solinus, Diodorus, Justin, Strabo, Plutarch, Josephus, and others, and confirmed by the practice of Vespasian, casting into that lake captives bound, who floated and sunk not: Besides that, it stands with reason, for salt water will support heavie burthens, much more will that water which is thickned with a forcible ebullition of Sulphur and Bitumen; yet the Doctor (Book 7. c. 15.) will not believe but that heavy bodies doe sink there, though not so easily as in other waters. Therefore rejects Pliny's swimming of Bricks, Mandevils Iron, and Munsters burning Candle, which sinks not there, as fabulous;1 yet all this may be true: for the ebullition may be so forcible, the water so thickned with the Bitumen, the sulphurous vapours and spirits so violently tending upward, that they may waft up Bricks and Iron, and not suffer them to sink. A greater wonder then this may be seen in those that write of Ætna, Vesuvius, the burning hills of Island and America, whence are belched out and elevated into the air, great stones by those fiery vapours which issue out of those Vulcans, Within these twenty years Vesuvius cast out great stones above twenty miles distance. And therefore it is no such wonder for a burning Candle to swim, which being extinguished, sinketh; for the flame adds levity to it. But let us see the Doctors reasons, 1. Josephus (saith he) affirms that onely living bodies float, not peremptorily averring they cannot sink, but that they doe not easily descend. Answ. The words of Josephus are these ( de bel. Jud. l. 5. c. 5.) The most heavy bodies that are cast into this Lake, float upon it, neither can any man be easily drowned there, though he would. Here Josephus speaks of living bodies, that though they would, they cannot sink easily;2 they may force themselves perhaps to dive under the water, but not without difficulty, and he speaks also of the heaviest things in generall. Aristotle (saith he) speaks lightly thereof, ὥσπες μυθολογοῦσι, and esteemeth thereof as a Fable. 3 Answ. Aristotle speaks not lightly but seriously of this Lake; for from the quality of supporting heavy bodies, he deduceth one of his prime Arguments to prove the salsedinous4 quality of the Sea. But the Doctor deceiveth himself in the word μυθολογοῦσι, as if this did still signifie a fabulous relation; whereas in that place, and elsewhere, it signifieth a serious narration. So confabulari in Latin doth signifie conference of serious matters for the most part; μυθήω is to speak, not to tell Fables, from μύθος, a word or speech.5 In Homer, κρατερὸν δ᾽ ἐπὶ μῦθον ἔτελλε,6 signifieth a grave and serious speech made by Agamemnon. So in the same Poet,7 μυθολογεύω is to speak and discourse. The like in Phocylides, μέτρον μὲν γαγεῖν πινεῖν καὶ μυθολογεύειν;8 is to be moderat in eating, drinking, & speaking. Andrew Thevet (saith he) saw an Asse cast therein and drowned. Answ. So saith Camerarius indeed, and I will not question the truth of Thevet's narration; there may be divers reasons of this, the violent hurling of the Asse with his burden under the water. 2. His sudden suffocation by the sulphurous exhalations. 3. The Lake in all places thereof, and at all times, hath not the same violent ebullitions, but sometimes there is remission. The Asse then might sink in such a place, and at such a time when and where the boiling was remiss, the vapours weak, and the water thinner then in other parts of the same lake. But hence it will not follow, that in other parts, and at other times, the heaviest bodies may not swim there.

II. That Crassus never laughed but once, and that was at an Asse eating Thistles, seems strange to the Doctor,9 yet he gives no reason for this, but only that the object was unridiculous, & that laughter is not meerly voluntary. But these are no reasons: for a more ridiculous object there cannot be, then to see such a medley of pleasure and pain in the Asses eating of Thistles;10 for whilst he bites them, they prick him, so that his tongue must needs be pricked, though perhaps his lips may be hard, and not so easily penetrable; when arose the Proverb, Like lips, like lettice.11 But there was something else in this that moved Crassus to laugh: For he saw here the vanity both of most men taking pleasure in those things which are accompanied with much pain and sorrow: Besides, he saw here the folly of the Roman rich men, who held Thistles for such a dainty dish, that they would not suffer poor men to eat thereof, engrossing them with great summes of money to themselves, which notwithstanding the Asses did eat on free cost. Was it not then a ridiculous thing to see rich men pay so dear for Asses food, and to debarre poore men from that meat which they permitted to Asses?12 Pliny could not but laugh at the consideration of this folly. 2. When he saith, that Laughter is not meerly voluntary, he can inferre nothing from hence, except this, that it was as natural for Crassus to laugh, as for others; which I deny: for some are more naturally inclined to it then others; all have not the like temper and constitution of body, some have hard and solid hearts, heavie and pensive spirits, which no ridiculous object can move to laugh; these are called13 ἀγελαστοῖ. There be others again who can never be moved to weep. But he gives us here a lame definition of laughter, when he sayes, It is a sweet contraction of the Muscles of the face, and a pleasant agitation of the vocall organs. These are but the effects of laughter,14 the cause is the softnesse and agility of the heart, the cheerfulnesse and levity of the spirits, moving first the Diaphragma, and by them the Muscles. Again, there is a laughter called Sardonius, which is accompanied with a contraction of the Muscles; but this is not sweet, yet it is laughter; and in singing, which is not laughter, there is an agitation of the vocall organs, accompanied with pleasure. Lastly, whereas he condemneth Heraclitus, and by his weeping made a hell on earth; 15 he is deceived: For oftentimes there is hell in laughing, and a heaven in weeping, in tears there is often delight, and in laughing pain, and as Solomon saith, Madnesse. Aristotle saith (1. Rhet.) That there is in sorrow and tears a certain sense of pleasure; and as Prudentius saith,

Gaudia concipiunt lachrymos, dant gaudia fletum.

This is δακρυγενᾶ.16 Teares (saith St. Ambrose) feed the mind,17 and ease the heart, which David found when he said, My tears have been my meat day and night. Good men therefore found not the uncomfortable attendments of hell in weeping but rather the comfortable enjoyments of heaven.

III. The Scripture witnesseth, that Christ wept thrice, but never that he laughed. The Doctor thinks18 there is no danger to affirm the act and performance of that, wherreof we acknowledge he power and essential property, and whereby he convinced the doubt of his humanity. Answ. We deny not but there was in Christ, by reason of his humanity, the faculty of risibility; yet it will not follow that therefore he did actually laugh: For this act is rather a property of levity and folly, then of reason and humanity; therefore we see women more inclined to laughing then men, childhood then old age, and fools then wise men. Neither needed Christ to prove his humanity by laughing, he proved it sufficiently by weeping, which is the first demonstrative act of our humanity as soon as we are born; onely Zoroastres the author of Magick, came like a fool laughing into the World.19 Again, he saith, We need not fear to adscribe that to the Incarnat Sun, which is sometimes attributed to the uncarnat Father. Answ. From a metaphoricall laughing which is adscribed to the Father,20 to a naturall and reall laughing in the Son, can be no consequence. God laughs figuratively, therefore Christ laughs really, is as good a consequence, as if I should infer, that man flieth naturally, because God is said to flie tropically.21 Lastly, he saith, It is not reasonable to conclude from Scripture negatively, in points which are not matters of Faith. Answ. It is true, where the Scripture speaks superficially, and by way of any thing, divers circumstances are omitted, in which regard we may not conclude negatively; but where tthe Scripture speaks exactly, as it doth of our Saviour, we may reason from the negative.22 For no lesse then four Evangelists write the story of Christ so fully, that they mention all his passions and affections, as his anger, joy, sorrow, pity, hunger thirst, feare, wearisomnesse, &c. They speak that he mourned three severall times. So when the Prophets describe him, they set him out as a man of sorrowes, acquainted with griefes, smitten of God, and afflicted, wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, and stricken for our sins. It is strange then, that neither Prophet, Historian, Apostle, nor Evangelist, should speak a word of his laughing, and yet so punctually mention to us his griefs, sorrows, and weeping: therefore not without cause did Chrysostome, Austin, Basil, Bernard, and others, conclude negatively, That Christ never laughed, and yet he did not for this cease to be a Man. For the like is recorded of Crassus, Grand-father to that Crassus who was killed in the Parthian war; who (as is said) never laughed but once. It is also recorded of Anaxagorous, Aristoxenes, Socrates, Cato, Nerva the Emperour, and others, that they were never seen to laugh. Besides, seldome or never is23 laughing in Scripture taken in a good sense; it is called madnesse, and like the cracking of thorns:24 laughing is threatned to end in sorrow, and woe is denounced to those that laugh; but a blessing to the mourners.25 As for the priority of the heart above the brain, whereof the Doctor speaks here, I have already proved out of Aristotle, and it is plain that in the Scripture it is of greater account then the brain, because this is never mentioned, but still the heart, let the Physitians say what they wil for the brains principality.

IV. That Fluctus decumanus, or the tenth wave, is greater or more dangerous then any other, &c. is evidently false.26 Here the Doctor troubles himself to no purpose, in refuting the greatnesse of the tenth wave, and tenth egge: For the tenth of any thing was not counted the greatest of any things was called by the name of Tenth; because that is the first perfect number, as consisting of 1, 2, 3, and 4. It was also held a sacred number; therefore the tenth of spoils was dedicated to Hercules, and from him called Herculan, the tenth of fruits was paid by the Corinthians to Cyphelus their King, by Cyrus to Jupyter, by the Arabians to Sabis, and long before by Abraham and Jacob to the true God. When there was yet no positive law, but the law of Nature. In the number then of Ten, the Ancients conceived there was perfection and excellencie: For Nature perfects man, and brings him into the world the tenth moneth; she hath parted his hands into ten fingers, his feet into ten toes: she hath given him ten passages for evacuation, in three ten dayes the male child is formed in the womb, in foure ten dayes the female: there be ten Heavens; they made up their musick of ten strings, their year of ten moneths, Apollo with the nine Muses made up the full consort, they used to drink but ten times in their Feasts, the womans Dowry anciently was ten Sestertia at least; and the greatest ordinarily decies Sestertium, that is ten hundred thousand pounds, of our money 7812. l. 10. s. Many other observations may be made of this number; therefore any thing that was greater then another, was called Decumanum. Porta Decumana was the great gate of the camp.27 Limes decumanus in grounds, was from East to West; decumana pyra in Pliny,28 are great Pears; Decumatio was the calling forth of every tenth delinquent in an Army for punishment: And Lipsius thinks that from them the great gate of the Camp out of which they went, was called Decumana. This number also of Ten is musical in Scripture, as may be seen in divers passages thereof.29 Now whereas he saith, That the Greeks expresse the greatest wave by the number of three, as their word τρικυμία shewes. This he hath from Erasmus in his Adagies: but I think it is not from τρία, three, but from τρίω, I fear, for this τρικυμία is not the third wave, but the most terrible & greatest wave.30 Hence the Latin Decumanus should be rendred δεκακυμία, not τρικυμία.




1. Browne rejects none of these outright, though he seems to doubt whether bricks will float. Indeed, he accepts more than Ross, since Ross seems to say that heavy objects sink and are then cast upwards by "ebullitions", while Browne accepts that objects float more readily there than in fresh water, but rejects the assertion that nothing can sink there.

2. Josephus bel. Jud. 4.8.4, in modern editions; Ross's translation is tendentious.

3. This is not what Browne says; the word, he says, is "variously rendred", as indeed it is. And Aristotle speaks lightly of the Dead Sea in two ways: he mentions it only briefly, and he mentions it as possibly fabulous but supporting his scientific argument — that is, he is not discussing the sea itself, but the properties of salty water.

4. One of a number of words used by Ross that have not made it into the OED. (His statement about Aristotle is incorrect; Aristotle does not prove the sea salty, but uses its stipulated saltiness to support his argument about saltwater in general.)

5. True enough (although not completely) in Homer's day, but the word increasingly came to mean a (false) story (cf. the English "story" and the expression "likely story"). In any case, when an author feels it necessary to add an "aiunt", the quality of the story is immediately suspect. "The Dead Sea, they say in stories, is so salty that it can support a mule....."

6. κρατερὸν δ᾽ ἐπὶ μῦθον ἔτελλε, Il. 1.25, 1.326, and 1.379. The tau of krateron is either broken or missing in the Ross original.

7. E.g., in Odys. 12.450. A bad choice, as it means, in essence, "to relate [a story] word for word; to tell a tale".

8. Phocylides of Miletus, in his Ποιημα Νουθετικον, line 65. Μέτρῳ μὲν φαγέειν, πίνειν καὶ μυθολογεύειν.

9. Pseudodoxia VII.16. Browne gives a perfectly cogent explanation for his statement.

10. Unless it be an Asse's writing a book.

11. This somewhat opaque proverb appears in several places: In a letter of Jerome to Chromatius, Jovinus, and Eusebius. Jerome implies that Crassus laughed at the saying, not at the ass. Campion uses it as well, in the second chapter of his "Art of English Poesie". Another version — "like lips, like learner" — appears on line in Esther Sowerman's Ester hath hang'd Haman (where it is claimed that it was Socrates who laughed at the ass).

Ray's Proverbs (1678) has the following entry (pp. 168-169):

Like lips like lettuce.

Similes habent labra lattucas. A thistle is a sallet fit for an asses mouth. We use when we would signifie that, things happen to people which are suitable to them, or which they deserve: as when a dull scholar happens to a stupid or ignorant master, a froward wife to a peevish husband, & c. Dignum patellâ operculum. Like priest, like people, and on the contrary. These proverbs are always taken in the worse sense. Tal carne tal cultello. Ital. Like flesh like knife.

To which we might add the French "à bon chat bon rat".

12. So I suppose that we would go into hysterical gales of laughter on seeing a dog eat a truffle.

13. Lucilius is made to describe Crassus by this word (= not laughing) in Cicero de Finibus 5.30.

14. No; they are laughter, of the sort that Browne wishes to discuss.

15. Browne says that the spirits of hell condemn Heraclitus, who made a hell for himself on earth, when there was much worse awaiting him after death.

16. Presumably δακρυογονα. Aeschylus describes Ares as "δακρυογόνος", father of tears. So, following Ross, we can say that tears beget joy which begets tears which beget joy which..... In any case, the proposition that sorrow may lead to a certain sense of pleasure in no way implies the corollary that pleasure always leads to sorrow.

17. Ambrose is generally an enemy to weeping, although he says that tears are his only weapon against the barbarians, that tears are a sign of repentance, that some grief is natural, and so on. Still, given the fact that David washes his bed with tears, Ambrose is forced to give some explication.

18. Pseudodoxia VII.16, where Browne says that Jesus, a human, must have laughed at least as a child and youth. This seems probable.

19. The Scripture does not record that Jesus wept at his birth. Logically, it is as "dangerous" to impute this act of humanity to him as to impute any other that is unrecorded. Indeed, it is more so; it is not at all unheard of for a new-born baby to breathe without a cry, and certainly without tears, whereas a child who never laughs is, pace Ross, one who should be rushed to the doctor. On Zoroaster, the usual source is Pliny, who does not say that he was born laughing, merely that he laughed (and not "like a fool") on the day of his birth; highly unusual. See HN VII.72 (as englished by Holland, Chap. XVI).

20. At the various places where God is described as laughing, or going to laugh (mostly in the Psalms, e.g., Ps. 2:4, 37:13, 59:8), it is indeed "adscribed" to him; but I see no reason to believe it is "metaphorical". Why shouldn't God laugh? That laughter is good, seems to be acknowledged in Luke 6:21-25; those that weep now, shall laugh; that hunger, shall be fed; those that laugh and are full, shall mourn and weep and hunger. And we are enjoined to laugh in season, Ec. 3:4. "The glory of God," says the saint, "is a human fully alive," and that surely includes laughter.

21. God is never said to fly in the (canonical) Scriptures, although his Spirit is said to "move upon the face of the waters", which could just as well be called swimming. In addition, man is not the Son of God. The parallel is far from accurate, although Browne's argument is certainly far-fetched (and unnecessary).

22. If so, we may conclude, among other things, that Jesus did not breathe, excrete except by sweating and weeping, comb his hair, blink, cut his toe-nails, or sneeze. Also, he did not exist between the ages of 12 and about 30, as well as for most of the period between his birth and the age of 12. In the Bible, only a few people are recorded as laughing: Abraham, who falls on his face laughing; Sarah (who denies laughing to God, once, and who is made to laugh at the birth of her son); Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arabian, in scorn; and various minstrels, kings and general "noises off", here and there, also generally in scorn. Does that mean that generations of men heard laughter only a score of times?

23. 1652: "in", but catchword on 177 reads "is".

24. Like madness: Ec. 2:1; like thorns: Ec. 7:6, of the laughter of fools. Laughter is "good" in more than half the passages of the Bible, if we take good to mean either joyful, or scornful by the right side; it is "bad" in the rest mostly because of who is laughing. The instances from Ecclesiastes are highly inappropriate to Ross's argument, read in context.

25. And what is the blessing? They shall laugh.

26. Pseudodoxia VII.17. As Ross merely repeats, in a far longer and less elegant form, what Browne writes, it is difficult to see that he is troubling himself to any more purpose than did Browne.

27. The Porta Decumana of a camp was the gate guarded by the tenth cohort. It was the gate that faced away from the enemy and was therefore the official escape route, among its other uses. It was therefore also the main gate, although not necessarily the "greatest", the Romans having a strong taste for perfect symmetry. The decumanus of a town or a field ran east-west, or more or less east west (compare the "east" and "west" sides of a cathedral); the "cardo" ran north-south; Ross leaves this point out, as "cardo" sounds more important than "decumanus", which would undercut his ramblings.

28. HN XV.54 [decimiana].

29. Not particularly; in two passages in psalms, a psaltery is said to have ten strings. And of course the number ten appears numerous times, as do the numbers one hundred, fifteen, and twenty. And there are ten commandments, but this is not musical.

30. Are we then to suppose τρικωμία = "villages to be dreaded", τρίμηνος is a fearful period, and τριλογία is a work to be feared? Well, maybe that last, when they're one of those endless NYTimes best-seller fantasy trilogies.

This page is by James Eason