Samuel Johnson's Life of Sir Thomas Browne. From the 2nd edition of Christian Morals (London, 1756), pp. i-lxi.




Sir Thomas Browne.

Though the writer of the following Essays seems to have had the fortune common among men of letters, of raising little curiosity after his private life, and has, therefore, few memorials preserved of his felicities and misfortunes; yet, because an edition of a posthumous work appears imperfect and neglected, without some account of the author, it was thought necessary to attempt the gratification of that curiosity which naturally inquires, by what peculiarities of nature or fortune eminent men have been distinguished, how uncommon attainments have been gained, and what influence learning had on its possessours, or virtue on its teachers.

Sir Thomas Browne was born at London, in the parish of St. Michael in Cheapside, on the 19th of October, MDVCV. 1 His father was a merchant of an antient family at Upton in Cheshire. Of the name or family of his mother, I find no account.

Of his childhood or youth there is little known; except that he lost his father very early; that he was, according to the common 2 fate of orphans, defrauded by one of his guardians; and that he was placed for his education at the school of Winchester.

His mother, having taken 3 three thousand pounds, as the third part of her husband's property, left her son, by consequence, six thousand; a large fortune for a man destined to learning, at that time when commerce had not yet filled the nation with nominal riches. But it happened to him as to many others, to be made poorer by opulence; for his mother soon married Sir Thomas Dutton, probably by the inducement of her fortune; and he was left to the rapacity of his guardian, deprived now of both his parents, and therefore helpless and unprotected.

He was removed in the beginning of the year MDCXXIII from Winchester to Oxford; 4 and entered a gentleman-commoner of Broadgate-Hall, which was soon afterwards endowed, and took the name of Pembroke-College, from the Earl of Pembroke then chancellor of the University. He was admitted to the degree of bachelor of arts, January 31, MDCXXVI-VII; being, as Wood remarks, the first man of eminence graduated from the new college, to which the zeal or gratitude of those that love it most, can wish little better, than that it may long proceed as it began.

Having afterwards taken his degree of master of arts, he turned his studies to physick, 5 and practised it for some time in Oxfordshire; but soon afterwards, either induced by curiosity, or invited by promises, he quitted his settlement, and accompanied his 6 father-in-law, who had some employment in Ireland, in a visitation of the forts and castles, which the state of Ireland then made necessary.

He that has once prevailed on himself to break his connexions of acquaintance, and begin a wandering life, very easily continues it. Ireland had, at that time, very little to offer to the observation of a man of letters: he, therefore, passed 7 into France and Italy; made some stay at Montpellier and padua, which were then the celebrated schools of physick; and returning home through holland, procured himself to be created Doctor of physick at Leyden.

When he began his travels, or when he concluded them, there is no certain account; nor do there remain any observations made by him in his passage through those countries which he visited. To consider, therefore, what pleasure or instruction might have been received from the remarks of a man so curious and diligent, would be voluntarily to indulge a painful reflection, and load the imagination with a wish, which, while it is formed, is known to be vain. It is, however, to be lamented, that those who are most capable of improving mankind, very frequently neglect to communicate their knowledge; either because it is more pleasing to gather ideas than to impart them, or because to minds naturally great, few things appear of so much importance as to deserve the notice of the publick.

About the year MDCCXXXIV,8 he is supposed to have returned to London; and the next year to have written his celebrated treatise, called Religio Medici, "the Religion of a Physician,"9 which he declares himself never to have intended for the press, having composed it only for his own exercise and entertainment. It, indeed, contains many passages, which, relating merely to his own person, can be of no great importance to the publick: but when it was written, it happened to him as to others, he was too much pleased with his performance, not to think that it might please others as much; he, therefore, communicated it to his friends, and receiving, I suppose, that exuberant applause with which every man repays the grant of perusing a manuscript, he was not very diligent to obstruct his own praise by recalling his papers, but suffered them to wander from hand to hand, till at last, without his own consent, they were, in MDCXLII, given to a printer.

This has, perhaps, sometimes befallen others; and this, I am willing to believe, did really happen to Dr. Browne: but there is, surely, some reason to doubt the truth of the complaint so frequently made of surreptitious editions. A song, or an epigram, may be easily printed without the author's knowledge; because it may be learned when it is repeated, or may be written out with very little trouble: but a long treatise, however elegant, is not often copied by mere zeal or curiosity, but may be worn out in passing from hand to hand, before it is multiplied by a transcript. It is easy to convey an imperfect book, by a distant hand, to the press, and plead the circulation of a false copy as an excuse for publishing the true, or to correct what is found faulty or offensive, and charge the errors on the transcriber's depravations.

This is a stratagem, by which an author panting for fame, and yet afraid of seeming to challenge it, may at once gratify his vanity, and preserve the appearance of modesty; may enter the lists, and secure a retreat; and this, candour might suffer to pass undetected as an innocent fraud, but that, indeed, no fraud is innocent;10 for the confidence which makes the happiness of society is, in some degree, diminished by every man whose practice is at variance with his words.

The Religio Medici was no sooner published than it excited the attention of the publick, by the novelty of paradoxes, the dignity of sentiment, the quick succession of images, the multitude of abstruse allusions, the subtilty of disquisition, and the strength of language.

What is much read will be much criticised. The Earl of Dorset recommended this book to the perusal of Sir Kenelm Digby, who returned his judgment upon it, not in a letter, but a book; in which, though mingled with some positions fabulous and uncertain, there are acute remarks, just censures, and profound speculations, yet its principal claim to admiration is, 11 that it was written in twenty-four hours, of which part was spent in procuring Browne's book, and part in reading it.

Of these animadversions, when they were yet not all printed, either officiousness or malice informed Dr. Browne; who wrote to Sir Kenelm, with much softness and ceremony, declaring the unworthiness of his work to engage such notice, the intended privacy of the composition, and the corruptions of the impression; and received an answer equally gentle and respectful, containing high commendations of the piece, pompous professions of reverence, meek acknowledgments of inability, and anxious apologies for the hastiness of his remarks.

The reciprocal civility of authors is one of the most risible scenes in the farce of life. Who would not have thought, that these two luminaries of their age had ceased to endeavour to grow bright by the obscuration of each other: yet the animadversions thus weak, thus precipitate, upon a book thus injured in the transcription, quickly passed the press; and Religio Medici was more accurately published, with an admonition prefixed "to those who have or shall peruse the observations upon a former corrupt copy;" in which there is a severe censure, not upon Digby, who was to be used with ceremony, but upon the observator who had usurped his name: nor was this invective written by Dr. Browne, who was supposed to be satisfied with his opponent's apology; but by some officious friend zealous for his honour, without his consent.

Browne has, indeed, in his own preface, endeavoured to secure himself from rigorous examination, by alleging, that "many things are delivered rhetorically, many expressions merely tropical, and therefore many things to be taken in a soft and flexible sense, and not to be called unto the rigid test of reason." The first glance upon his book will indeed discover examples of this liberty of thought and expression: "I could be content (says he) to be nothing almost to eternity, if I might enjoy my Saviour at the last." He has little acquaintance with the acuteness of Browne, who suspects him of a serious opinion, that any thing can be "almost eternal," or that any time beginning and ending is not infinitely less than infinite duration.

In this book, he speaks much, and, in the opinion of Digby, too much of himself; but with such generality and conciseness as affords very little light to his biographer: he declares, that, besides the dialects of different provinces, he understood six languages; that he was no stranger to astronomy; and that he had seen several countries; but what most awakens curiosity, is his solemn assertion, that "His life has been a miracle of thirty years; which to relate were not history but a piece of poetry, and would sound like a fable."

There is, undoubtedly, a sense, in which all life is miraculous; as it is an union of powers of which we can image no connexion, a succession of motions of which the first cause must be supernatural: but life, thus explained, whatever it may have of miracle, will have nothing of fable; and, therefore, the author undoubtedly had regard to something, by which he imagined himself distinguished from the rest of mankind.

Of these wonders, however, the view that can be now taken of his life offers no appearance. The course of his education was like that of others, such as put him little in the way of extraordinary casualties. A scholastick and academical life is very uniform; and has, indeed, more safety than pleasure. A traveller has greater opportunities of adventure; but Browne traversed no unknown seas, or Arabian desarts; and, surely, a man may visit France and Italy, reside at Montpellier and Padua, and at last take his degree at Leyden, without any thing miraculous. What it was, that would, if it was related, sound so poetical and fabulous, we are left to guess; I believe, without hope of guessing rightly. The wonders probably were transacted in his own mind: self-love, co-operating with an imagination vigorous and fertile as that of Browne, will find or make objects of astonishment in every man's life: and, perhaps, there is no human being, however hid in the crowd from the observation of his fellow-mortals, who, if he has leisure and disposition to recollect his own thoughts and actions, will not conclude his life in some sort a miracle, and imagine himself distinguished from all the rest of his species by many discriminations of nature or of fortune.

The success of this performance was such, as might naturally encourage the author to new undertakings. A gentleman of Cambridge,12 whose name was Merryweather, turned it not inelegantly into Latin; and from his version it was again translated into Italian, German, Dutch, and French; and, at Strasburg the Latin translation was published with large notes, by Levinus Nicolaus Moltkenius.13 Of the English annotations, which in all the editions from MDCXLIV accompany the book, the author is unknown.14

Of Merryweather, to whose zeal Browne was so much indebted for the sudden extension of his renown, I know nothing, but that he published a small treatise for the instruction of young persons in the attainment of a Latin style. He printed his translation in Holland with some difficulty.15 The first printer to whom he offered it, carried it to Salmasius, "who laid it by (says he) in state for three months," and then discouraged its publication: it was afterwards rejected by two other printers, and at last was received by Hackius.

The peculiarities of this book raised the author, as is usual, many admirers and many enemies; but we know not of more than one professed answer, written under 16 the title of "Medicus medicatus," by Alexander Ross, which was universally neglected by the world.

At the time when this book was published, Dr. Browne resided at Norwich, where he had settled in MDCXXXVI, by 17 the persuasion of Dr. Lushington his tutor, who was then rector of Barnham Westgate in the neighbourhood. It is recorded by Wood, that his practice was very extensive, and that many patients resorted to him. In MDCXXXVII 18 he was incorporated Doctor of physick in Oxford.

He married in MDCXLI 19 Mrs. Mileham, of a good family in Norfolk; "a lady (says Whitefoot) of such symmetrical proportion to her worthy husband, both in the graces of her body and mind, that they seemed to come together by a kind of natural magnetism."

This marriage could not but draw the raillery of contemporary wits 20 upon a man, who had just been wishing in his new book, "that we might procreate, like trees, without conjunction;" and had 21 lately declared, that "the whole world was made for man, but only the twelfth part of man for woman;" and, that "man is the whole world, but woman only the rib or crooked part of man."

Whether the lady had been yet informed of these contemptuous positions, or whether she was pleased with the conquest of so formidable a rebel, and considered it as a double triumph, to attract so much merit, and overcome so powerful prejudices; or whether, like most others, she married upon mingled motives, between convenience and inclination; she had, however, no reason to repent: for she lived happily with him one and forty years, and bore him ten children, of whom one son and three daughters outlived their parents: she survived him two years, and passed her widowhood in plenty, if not in opulence.

Browne having now entered the world as an author, and experienced the delights of praise and molestations of censure, probably found his dread of the publick eye diminished; and, therefore, was not long before he trusted his name to the criticks a second time; for in MDCXLVI 22 he printed Enquiries into vulgar and common errors; a work, which as it arose not from fancy and invention, but from observation and books, and contained not a single discourse of one continued tenor, of which the latter part arose from the former, but an enumeration of many unconnected particulars, must have been the collection of years, and the effect of a design early formed and long pursued, to which his remarks had been continually referred, and which arose gradually to its present bulk by the daily aggregation of new particles of knowledge. It is, indeed, to be wished, that he had longer delayed the publication, and added what the remaining part of his life might have furnished: the thirty-six years which he spent afterwards in study and experience, would doubtless have made large additions to an "enquiry into vulgar errors." He published in MDCLXXIII the sixth edition,23 with some improvements; but I think rather with explications of what he had already written, than any new heads of disquisition. But with the work, such as the author, whether hindered from continuing it by eagerness of praise, or weariness of labour, thought fit to give, we must be content; and remember, that in all sublunary things, there is something to be wished, which we must wish in vain.

This book, like his former, was received with great applause, was answered by Alexander Ross, and translated into Dutch and German, and not many years ago into French. It might now be proper, had not the favour with which it was at first received filled the kingdom with copies, to reprint it with notes partly supplemental and partly emendatory, to subjoin those discoveries which the industry of the last age has made, and correct those mistakes which the author has committed not by idleness or negligence, but for want of Boyle's and Newton's philosophy.

He appears, indeed, to have been willing to pay labour for truth. Having heard a flying rumour of sympathetick needles, by which, suspended over a circular alphabet, distant friends or lovers might correspond, he procured two such alphabets to be made, touched his needles with the same magnet, and placed them upon proper spindles: the result was, that when he moved one of his needles, the other, instead of taking by sympathy the same direction, "stood like the pillars of Hercules." That it continued motionless, will be easily believed; and most men would have been content to believe it, without the labour of so hopeless an experiment. Browne might himself have obtained the same conviction by a method less operose, if he had thrust his needles through corks, and set them afloat in two basons of water.

Notwithstanding his zeal to detect old errors, he seems not very easy to admit new positions; for he never mentions the motion of the earth but with contempt and ridicule,24 though the opinion, which admits it, was then growing popular, and was, surely, plausible, even before it was confirmed by later observations.

The reputation of Browne encouraged some low writer to publish, under his name, a book called 25 "Nature's cabinet unlocked," translated, according to Wood, from the physicks of Magirus;26 of which Browne took care to clear himself, by modestly advertising, that "if any man 27 had been benefited by it, he was not so ambitious as to challenge the honour thereof, as having no hand in that work."

In MDCLVIII, the discovery of some antient urns in Norfolk gave him occasion to write Hydriotaphia, Urn-burial, or a discourse of sepulchral urns, in which he treats with his usual learning on the funeral rites of the antient nations; exhibits their various treatment of the dead; and examines the substances found in his Norfolcian urns. There is, perhaps, none of his works which better exemplifies his reading or memory. It is scarcely to be imagined, how many particulars he has amassed together, in a treatise which seems to have been occasionally written; and for which, therefore, no materials could have been previously collected. It is, indeed, like other treatises of antiquity, rather for curiosity than use; for it is of small importance to know which nation buried their dead in the ground, which threw them into the sea, or which gave them to birds and beasts; when the practice of cremation began, or when it was disused; whether the bones of different persons were mingled in the same urn; what oblations were thrown into the pyre; or how the ashes of the body were distinguished from those of other substances. Of the uselessness of these inquiries, Browne seems not to have been ignorant; and, therefore, concludes them with an observation which can never be too frequently recollected.

"All or most apprehensions rested in opinions of some future being, which, ignorantly or coldly believed, begat those perverted conceptions, ceremonies, sayings, which Christians pity or laugh at. Happy are they, which live not in that disadvantage of time, when men could say little for futurity, but from reason; whereby the noblest mind fell often upon doubtful deaths, and melancholy dissolutions: with these hopes Socrates warmed his doubtful spirits, against the cold potion; and Cato, before he durst give the fatal stroke, spent part of the night in reading the immortality of Plato, thereby confirming his wavering hand unto the animosity of that attempt.

"It is the heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at a man, to tell him he is at the end of his nature; or that there is no further state to come, unto which this seems progressional, and otherwise made in vain: without this accomplishment, the natural expectation and desire of such a state were but a fallacy in nature; unsatisfied considerators would quarrel at the justice of their constitution, and rest content that Adam had fallen lower, whereby, by knowing no other original, and deeper ignorance of themselves, they might have enjoyed the happiness of inferior creatures, who in tranquillity possess their constitutions, as having not the apprehension to deplore their own natures; and being framed below the circumference of these hopes or cognition of better things, the wisdom of God hath necessitated their contentment. But the superior ingredient and obscured part of ourselves, whereto all present felicities afford no resting contentment, will be able at last to tell us we are more than our present selves; and evacuate such hopes in the fruition of their own accomplishments."

To his treatise on Urnburial was added The garden of Cyrus, or the quincunxial lozenge, or network plantation of the antients, artificially, naturally, mystically considered. This discourse he begins with the Sacred garden, in which the first man was placed; and deduces the practice of horticulture, from the earliest accounts of antiquity to the time of the persian Cyrus, the first man whom we actually know to have planted a Quincunx; which, however, our author is inclined to believe of longer date, and not only discovers it in the description of the hanging gardens of Babylon, but seems willing to believe, and to persuade his reader, that it was practised by the feeders on vegetables before the flood.

Some of the most pleasing performances have been produced by learning and genius exercised upon subjects of little importance. It seems to have been, in all ages, the pride of wit, to shew how it could exalt the low, and amplify the little. To speak not inadequately of things really and naturally great, is a task not only difficult but disagreeable; because the writer is degraded in his own eyes by standing in comparison with his subject, to which he can hope to add nothing from his imagination: but it is a perpetual triumph of fancy to expand a scanty theme, to raise glittering ideas from obscure properties, and to produce to the world an object of wonder to which nature had contributed little. To this ambition, perhaps, we owe the Frogs of Homer, the Gnat and the Bees of Virgil, the Butterfly of Spenser, the Shadow of Wowerus, and the Quincunx of Browne.

In the prosecution of this sport of fancy, he considers every production of art and nature, in which he could find any decussation or approaches to the form of a Quincunx; and, as a man once resolved upon ideal discoveries seldom searches long in vain, he finds his favourite figure in almost every thing, whether natural or invented, antient or modern, rude or artificial, sacred or civil; so that a reader, not watchful against the power of his infusions, would imagine that decussation was the great business of the world, and that nature and art had no other purpose than to exemplify and imitate a Quincunx.

To shew the excellence of this figure, he enumerates all its properties; and finds it in almost every thing of use or pleasure: and to shew how readily he supplies what he cannot find, one instance may be sufficient; "though therein (says he) we meet not with right angles, yet every rhombus containing four angles equal unto two right, it virtually contains two right in every one."

The fanciful sports of great minds are never without some advantage to knowledge. Browne has interspersed many curious observations on the form of plants, and the laws of vegetation; and appears to have been a very accurate observer of the modes of germination, and to have watched with great nicety the evolution of the parts of plants from their seminal principles.

He is then naturally led to treat of the number five; and finds, that by this number many things are circumscribed; that there are five kinds of vegetable productions, five sections of a cone, five orders of architecture, and five acts of a play. And observing that five was the antient conjugal or wedding number, he proceeds to a speculation, which I shall give in his own words; "the antient numerists made out the conjugal number by two and three, the first parity and imparity, the active and passive digits, the material and formal principles in generative societies."28

These are all the tracts which he published: but many papers were found in his closet, "Some of them (says Whitefoot) designed for the press, were often transcribed and corrected by his own hand, after the fashion of great and curious writers."

Of these, two collections have been published; one by Dr. Tenison, the other in MDCCXXII by a idless editor. Whether the one or the other selected those pieces which the author would have preferred, cannot now be known: but they have both the merit of giving to mankind what was too valuable to be suppressed; and what might, without their interposition, have, perhaps, perished among other innumerable labours of learned men, or have been burnt in a scarcity of fuel like the papers of Pereskius.

The first of these posthumous treatises contains "Observations upon several plants mentioned in Scripture." These remarks, though they do not immediately either rectify the faith, or refine the morals of the reader, yet are by no means to be censured as superfluous niceties or useless speculations; for they often shew some propriety of description, or elegance of allusion, utterly undiscoverable to readers not skilled in oriental botany; and are often of more important use, as they remove some difficulty from narratives, or some obscurity from precepts.

The next is, "Of garlands, or coronary and garland plants"; a subject merely of learned curiosity, without any other end than the pleasure of reflecting on antient customs, or on the industry with which studious men have endeavoured to recover them.

The next is a letter, "On the fishes eaten by our Saviour with his disciples, after his resurrection from the dead;" which contains no determinate resolution of the question, what they were, for indeed it cannot be determined. All the information that diligence or learning could supply, consists in an enumeration of the fishes produced in the waters of Judea.

Then follow "Answers to certain queries about fishes, birds, and insects;" and "A letter of hawks and falconry, antient and modern:" in the first of which he gives the proper interpretation of some antient names of animals, commonly mistaken; and in the other has some curious observations on the art of hawking, which he considers as a practice unknown to the antients. I believe all our sports of the field are of Gothick original; the antients neither hunted by the scent, nor seemed much to have practised horsemanship as an exercise; and though, in their works, there is mention of "aucupium" and "piscatio", they seemed no more to have been considered as diversions, than agriculture or any other manual labour.

In two more letters, he speaks of "the cymbals of the Hebrews," but without any satisfactory determination; and of "repalick or gradual verses,"29 that is, of verses beginning with a word of one syllable, and proceeding by words of which each has a syllable more than the former; as,

"O Deus, æternæ stationis conciliator.


and, after his manner, pursuing the hint, he mentions many other restrained methods of versifying, to which industrious ignorance has sometimes voluntarily subjected itself.

His next attempt is "On languages, and particularly the Saxon tongue." He discourses with great learning, and generally with great justness, of the derivation and changes of languages; but, like other men of multifarious learning, he receives some notions without examination. Thus he observes, according to the popular opinion, that the Spaniards have retained so much Latin, as to be able to compose sentences that shall be at once grammatically Latin and Castilian: this will appear very unlikely to a man that considers the Spanish terminations; and Howel, who was eminently skilful in the three provincial languages, declares, that after many essays he never could effect it.

The principal design of this letter, is to shew the affinity between the modern English, and the antient Saxon; and he observes, very rightly, that "though we have borrowed many substantives, adjectives, and some verbs, from the French; yet the great body of numerals, auxiliary verbs, articles, pronouns, adverbs, conjunctions, and prepositions, which are the distinguishing and lasting parts of a language, remain with us from the Saxon."

To prove this position more evidently, he has drawn up a short discourse of six paragraphs, in Saxon and English; of which every word is the same in both languages, excepting the terminations and orthography. The words are, indeed, Saxon, but the phraseology is English; and, I think, would not have been understood by Bede or Ælfric, notwithstanding the confidence of our author. He has, however, sufficiently proved his position, that the English resembles its paternal language more than any modern European dialect.

There remain five tracts of this collection yet unmentioned; one, "Of artificial hills, mounts, or barrows, in England;: in reply to an interrogatory letter of E.D. whom the writers of the Biographia Britannica suppose to be, if rightly printed, W.D. or Sir William Dugdale, one of Browne's correspondents. These are declared by Browne, in concurrence, I think, with all other antiquarians, to be for the most part funeral monuments. He proves, that both the Danes and Saxons buried their men of eminence under piles of earth, "which admitting (says he) neither ornament, epitaph, nor inscription, may, if earthquakes spare them, outlast other monuments: obelisks have their term, and pyramids will tumble; but these mountainous monuments may stand, and are like to have the same period with the earth."

In the next, he answers two geographical questions; one concerning Troas, mentioned in the Acts and Epistles of St. Paul, which he determines to be the city built near the antient Ilium; and the other concerning the dead sea, of which he gives the same account with other writers.

Another letter treats "Of the Answers of the Oracle of Apollo at Delphos, to Croesus, king of Lydia." In this tract nothing deserves notice, more than that Browne considers the oracles as evidently and indubitably supernatural, and founds all his disquisition upon that postulate.30 He wonders why the physiologists of old, having such means of instruction, did not inquire into the secrets of nature: but judiciously concludes, that such questions would probably have been vain; "for, in matters cognoscible, and formed for our disquisition, our industry must be our oracle, and reason our Apollo."

The pieces that remain are, "A prophecy concerning the future state of several nations;" in which Browne plainly discovers his expectation to be the same with that entertained lately with more confidence by Dr. Berkeley, "that America will be the seat of the fifth empire:" and "Museum clausum, sive Bibliotheca abscondita;" in which the author amuses himself with imagining the existence of books and curiosities, either never in being, or irrecoverably lost.

These pieces I have recounted, as they are ranged in Tenison's collection, because the editor has given no account of the time at which any of them were written. Some of them are of little value, more than as they gratify the mind with the picture of a great scholar, turning his learning into amusement; or shew, upon how great a variety of enquiries the same mind has been successfully employed.

The other collection of his posthumous pieces, published in octavo, London MDCCXXII, contains "Repertorium; or some account of the tombs and monuments in the cathedral of Norwich;" where, as Tenison observes, there is not matter proportionate to the skill of the Antiquary.

The other pieces are, "Answers to Sir William Dugdale's enquiries about the fens; A letter concerning Ireland; Another relating to urns newly discovered; Some short strictures on different subjects;" and "A Letter to a Friend on the Death of his intimate Friend," published singly by the author's son in MDCXC.

There is inserted, in the Biographia Britannica, "A letter containing instructions for the study of physick;" which, with the Essays31 here offered to the publick, completes the works of Dr. Browne.

To the life of this learned man, there remains little to be added, but that in MDCLXV he was chosen honorary fellow of the college of physicians, as a man, "Virtute et literis ornatissimus -- eminently embellished with literature and virtue:" and, in MDCLXXI, received, at Norwich, the honour of knighthood from Charles II; a prince, who, with many frailties and vices, had yet skill to discover excellence, and virtue to reward it, with such honorary distinctions at least as cost him nothing, yet conferred by a king so judicious and so much beloved, had the power of giving merit new lustre and greater popularity.

Thus he lived in high reputation; till in his seventy-sixth year, he was seized with a colick, which, after having tortured him about a week, put an end to his life at Norwich, on his birthday, October, 19, MDCLXXXII.32 Some of his last words were expressions of submission to the will of GOD, and fearlessness of death.

He lies buried in the church of St. Peter, Mancroft, in Norwich, with this inscription on a mural monument, placed on the south pillar of the altar:

M. S.

Hic situs est THOMAS BROWNE, M. D.

Et Miles.

Ao1605. Londini natus

Generosa Familia apud Upton

In agro Cestriensi oriundus.

Scholâ primum Wintoniensi, postea

In Coll. Pembr.

Apud Oxonienses bonis literis

Haud leviter imbutus;

In urbe hâc Nordovicensi medicinam

Arte egregia, & fælici successu professus,

Scriptis quibus tituli, Religio Medici

Et Pseudodoxia Epidemica, aliisque

Per Orbem notissimus.

Vir Prudentissimus, Integerrimus, Doctissimus;

Obiit Octobr. 19. 1682.

Pie posuit mæstissima Conjux

Da. Doroth. Br.

Near the Foot of this Pillar

Lies Sir Thomas Browne, Kt. and Doctor in Physick,

Author of Religio Medici, and other Learned Books,

Who practised Physick in this City 46 years,

And died Octr. 1682, in the 77 Year of his Age.

In Memory of whom,

Dame Dorothy Browne, who had bin his Affectionate Wife

47 Years, caused this Monument to be Erected.

Besides this lady, who died in MDCLXXXV, he left a son and three daughters. Of the daughters nothing very remarkable is known; but his son, Edward Browne, requires a particular mention.

He was born about the year MDCXLII; and, after having passed through the classes of the school at Norwich, became bachelor of physick at Cambridge; and afterwards removing to Merton-College in Oxford, was admitted there to the same degree, and afterwards made a doctor. In MCDCLXVIII he visited part of Germany; and in the year following made a wider excursion into Austria, Hungary, and Thessaly; where the Turkish sultan then kept his court at Larissa. He afterwards passed through Italy. His skill in natural history made him particularly attentive to mines and metallurgy. Upon his return he published an account of the countries through which he had passed; which I have heard commended by a learned traveller, who has visited many places after him, as written with scrupulous and exact veracity, such as is scarcely to be found in any other book of the same kind. But whatever it may contribute to the instruction of a naturalist, I cannot recommend it as likely to give much pleasure to common readers: for whether it be, that the world is very uniform, and, therefore, he who is resolved to adhere to truth, will have few novelties to relate; or that Dr. Browne was, by the train of his studies, led to inquire most after those things, by which the greatest part of mankind is little affected; a great part of his book seems to contain very unimportant accounts of his passage from one place where he saw little, to another where he saw no more.

Upon his return, he practised physick in London; was made physician first to Charles II, and afterwards in MDCLXXXII to St. Bartholomew's hospital. About the same time he joined his name to those of many other eminent men, in "A translation of Plutarch's lives."33 He was first censor, then elect, and treasurer of the college of physicians; of which in MDCCV he was chosen president, and held his office, till in MDCCVIII he died in a degree of estimation suitable to a man so variously accomplished, that King Charles had honoured him with this panegyrick, that "He was as learned as any of the college, and as well-bred as any of the court."

Of every great and eminent character, part breaks forth into publick view, and part lies hid in domestick privacy. Those qualities which have been exerted in any known and lasting performances, may, at any distance of time, be traced and estimated; but silent excellencies are soon forgotten; and those minute peculiarities which discriminate every man from all others, if they are not recorded by those whom personal knowledge enables to observe them, are irrecoverably lost. This mutilation of character must have happened, among many others, to Sir Thomas Browne, had it not been delineated by his friend Mr. Whitefoot, "who esteemed it an especial favour of Providence, to have had a particular acquaintance with him for two-thirds of his life." Part of his observations I shall, therefore, copy.

"For a character of his person, his complexion and hair was answerable to his name; his stature was moderate, and a habit of body neither fat nor lean, but ἐυσάρκος.

"In his habit of clothing, he had an aversion to all finery, and affected plainness, both in the fashion and ornaments. He ever wore a cloak, or boots, when few others did. He kept himself always very warm, and thought it most safe so to do, though he never loaded himself with such a multitude of garments, as Suetonius reports of Augustus, enough to clothe a good family.

"The horizon of his understanding was much larger than the hemisphere of the world: All that was visible in the heavens he comprehended so well, that few that are under them knew so much: He could tell the number of the visible stars in his horizon, and call them all by their names that had any; and of the earth he had such a minute and exact geographical knowledge, as if he had been by Divine Providence ordained surveyor-general of the whole terrestrial orb, and its products, minerals, plants, and animals. He was so curious a botanist, that besides the specifical distinctions, he made nice and elaborate observations, equally useful as entertaining.

"His memory, though not so eminent as that of Seneca or Scaliger, was capacious and tenacious, insomuch as he remembered all that was remarkable in any book that he had read; and not only knew all persons again that he had ever seen at any distance of time, but remembered the circumstances of their bodies, and their particular discourses and speeches.

"In the latin poets he remembered every thing that was acute and pungent; he had read most of the historians, antient and modern, wherein his observations were singular, not taken notice of by common readers; he was excellent company when he was at leisure, and expressed more light than heat in the temper of his brain.

"He had no despotical power over his affections and passions, (that was a privilege of original perfection, forfeited by the neglect of the use of it;) but as large a political power over them, as any Stoick, or man of his time, whereof he gave so great experiment, that he hath very rarely been known to have been overcome with any of them. The strongest that were found in him, both of the irascible and concupiscible, were under the controul of his reason. Of admiration, which is one of them, being the only product, either of ignorance, or uncommon knowledge, he had more, and less, than other men, upon the same account of his knowing more than others; so that tho' he met with many rarities, he admired them not so much as others do.

"He was never seen to be transported with mirth, or dejected with sadness; always cheerful, but rarely merry, at any sensible rate; seldom heard to break a jest; and when he did, he would be apt to blush at the levity of it: his gravity was natural, without affectation.

"His modesty was visible in a natural habitual blush, which was increased upon the least occasion, and oft discovered without any observable cause.

"They that knew no more of him than by the briskness of his writings, found themselves deceived in their expectation, when they came in his company, noting the gravity and sobriety of his aspect and conversation; so free from loquacity, or much talkativeness, that he was something difficult to be engaged in any discourse; though when he was so, it was always singular, and never trite or vulgar. Parsimonious in nothing but his time, whereof he made as much improvement, with as little loss as any man in it: when he had any to spare from his drudging practice, he was scarce patient of any diversion from his study; so impatient of sloth and idleness, that he would say, he could not do nothing.

"Sir Thomas understood most of the European languages; viz. all that are in Hutter's Bible, which he made use of. The Latin and Greek he understood critically; the Oriental languages, which never were vernacular in this part of the world, he thought the use of them would not answer the time and pains of learning them; yet had so great a veneration for the matrix of them, viz. the Hebrew, consecrated to the Oracles of God, that he was not content to be totally ignorant of it; tho' very little of his science is to be found in any books of that primitive language. And tho' much is said to be written in the derivative idioms of that tongue, especially the Arabick, yet he was satisfied with the translations, wherein he found nothing admirable.

"In his religion he continued in the same mind which he had declared in his first book, written when he was but thirty years old, his Religio Medici, wherein he fully assented to that of the church of England, preferring it before any in the world, as did the learned Grotius. He attended the publick service very constantly, when he was not withheld by his practice. Never missed the sacrament in his parish, if he were in town. Read the best English sermons he could hear of, with liberal applause; and delighted not in controversies. In his last sickness, wherein he continued about a week's time, enduring great pain of the cholick, besides a continual fever, with as much patience as hath been seen in any man, without any pretense of Stoical apathy, animosity, or vanity of not being concerned thereat, or suffering no impeachment of happiness. Nihil agis dolor.

"His patience was founded upon the christian philosophy, and a sound faith of God's Providence, and a meek and holy submission thereunto, which he expressed in few words: I visited him near his end, when he had not strength to hear or speak much; the last words which I heard from him, were, besides some expressions of dearness, that he did freely submit to the will of God, being without fear: He had often triumphed over the king of terrors in others, and given many repulses in the defence of patients; but when his own turn came, he submitted with a meek, rational, and religious courage.

"He might have made good the old saying of Dat Galenus opes, had he lived in a place that could have afforded it. But his indulgence and liberality to his children, especially in their travels, two of his sons in divers countries, and two of his daughters in France, spent him more than a little. He was liberal in his house entertainments, and in his charity; he left a comfortable, but no great estate, both to his lady and children, gained by his own industry.

"Such was his sagacity and knowledge of all history, antient and modern, and his observations thereupon so singular, that, it hath been said by them that knew him best, that if his profession, and place of abode, would have suited his ability, he would have made an extraordinary man for the privy-council, not much inferior to the famous Padre, Paulo, the late oracle of the Venetian state.

"Tho' he were no prophet, nor son of a prophet, yet in that faculty which comes nearest it, he excelled, i. e. the stochastick, wherein he was seldom mistaken, as to future events, as well publick as private; but not apt to discover any presages or superstition."

It is observable, that he who in his earlier years had read all the books against religion, was in the latter part of his life averse from controversies. To play with important truths, to disturb the repose of established tenets, to subtilize objections, and elude proof, is too often the sport of youthful vanity, of which maturer experience commonly repents. There is a time, when every wise man is weary of raising difficulties only to task himself with the solution, and desires to enjoy truth without the labour or hazard of contest. There is, perhaps, no better method of encountering these troublesome irruptions of skepticism, with which inquisitive minds are frequently harassed, than that which Browne declares himself to have taken: "If there arise any doubts in my way, I do forget them; or at least defer them, till my better settled judgment and more manly reason be able to resolve them: for I perceive, every man's reason is his best Oedipus, and will, upon a reasonable truce, find a way to loose those bonds, wherewith the subtilties of error have enchained our more flexible and tender judgments."

The foregoing character may be confirmed and enlarged, by many passages in the Religio Medici; in which it appears, from Whitefoot's testimony, that the author, though no very sparing panegyrist of himself, has not exceeded the truth, with respect to his attainments or visible qualities.

There are, indeed, some interior and secret virtues, which a man may sometimes have without the knowledge of others; and may sometimes assume to himself, without sufficient reasons for his opinion. It is charged upon Browne, by Dr. Watts, as an instance of arrogant temerity, that, after a long detail of his attainments, he declares himself to have escaped "the first and father-sin of pride." A perusal of the Religio Medici will not much contribute to produce a belief of the author's exemption from this father-sin: pride is a vice, which pride itself inclines every man to find in others, and to overlook in himself.

As easily may we be mistaken in estimating our own courage, as our own humility; and, therefore, when Browne shows himself persuaded, that "he could lose an arm without a tear, or with a few groans be quartered to pieces," I am not sure that he felt in himself any uncommon powers of endurance; or, indeed, any thing more than a sudden effervescence of imagination, which, uncertain and involuntary as it is, he mistook for settled resolution.

"That there were not many extant, that in a noble way feared the face of death less than himself," he might likewise believe at a very easy expence, while death was yet at a distance; but the time will come to every human being, when it must be known how well he can bear to die; and it has appeared that our author's fortitude did not desert him in the great hour of trial.

It was observed by some of the remarkers on the Religio Medici, that "the author was yet alive, and might grow worse as well as better:" it is, therefore, happy, that this suspicion can be obviated by a testimony given to the continuance of his virtue, at a time when death had set him free from danger of change, and his panegyrist from temptation to flattery.

But it is not on the praises of others, but on his own writings, that he is to depend for the esteem of posterity; of which he will not easily be deprived, while learning shall have any reverence among men: for there is no science, in which he does not discover some skill; and scarce any kind of knowledge, profane or sacred, abstruse or elegant, which he does not appear to have cultivated with success.

His exuberance of knowledge, and plenitude of ideas, sometimes obstruct the tendency of his reasoning and the clearness of his decisions: on whatever subject he employed his mind, there started up immediately so many images before him, that he lost one by grasping another. His memory supplied him with so many illustrations, parallel or dependent notions, that he was always starting into collateral considerations: but the spirit and vigour of his persuit always gives delight; and the reader follows him, without reluctance, thro' his mazes, in themselves flowery and pleasing, and ending at the point originally in view.

To have great excellencies and great faults, "magnæ virtutes nec minora vitia, is the poesy," says our author, "of the best natures."34 This poesy may be properly applied to the style of Browne: It is vigorous, but rugged; it is learned, but pedantick; it is deep, but obscure; it strikes, but does not please; it commands, but does not allure: his tropes are harsh, and his combinations uncouth.35 He fell into an age in which our language began to lose the stability which it had obtained in the time of Elizabeth; and was considered by every writer as a subject on which he might try his plastick skill, by moulding it according to his own fancy. Milton, in consequence of this encroaching license, began to introduce the Latin idiom: and Browne, though he gave less disturbance to our structures and phraseology, yet poured in a multitude of exotick words; many, indeed, useful and significant, which, if rejected, must be supplied by circumlocution, such as commensality for the state of many living at the same table; but many superfluous, as a paralogical for an unreasonable doubt; and some so obscure, that they conceal his meaning rather than explain it, as arthritical analogies, for parts that serve some animals in the place of joints.36

His style is, indeed, a tissue of many languages; a maixture of heterogeneous words, brought together from distant regions, with terms originally appropriated to one art, and drawn by violence into the service of another. He must, however, be confessed to have augmented our philosophical diction; and in defence of his uncommon words and expressions, we must consider, that he had uncommon sentiments, and was not content to express in many words that idea for which any language could supply a single term.37

But his innovations are sometimes pleasing, and his temerities happy he has many "verba ardentia", forcible expressions, which he would never have found, but by venturing to the utmost verge of propriety; and flights which would never have been reached, but by one who had very little fear of the shame of falling.

There remains yet an objection against the writings of Browne, more formidable than the animadversions of criticism. There are passages, from which some have taken occasion to rank him among Deists, and others among Atheists. It would be difficult to guess how any such conclusion should be formed, had not experience shown that there are two sorts of men willing to enlarge the catalogue of infidels.

It has been long observed, that an Atheist has no just reason for endeavouring conversions; and yet none harass those minds which they can influence, with more importunity of solicitation to adopt their opinions. In proportion as they doubt the truth of their own doctrines, they are desirous to gain the attestation of another understanding: and industriously labour to win a proselyte, and eagerly catch at the slightest pretence to dignify their sect with a celebrated name.38

The others become friends to infidelity only by unskilful hostility; men of rigid orthodoxy, cautious conversation, and religious asperity. Among these, it is too frequently the practice, to make in their heat concessions to Atheism, or Deism, which their most confident advocates had never dared to claim or to hope. A sally of levity, an idle paradox, an indecent jest, an unseasonable objection, are sufficient, in the opinion of these men, to efface a id from the lists of Christianity, to exclude a soul from everlasting life. Such men are so watchful to censure, that they have seldom much care to look for favourable interpretations of ambiguities, to set the general tenor of life against single failures, or to know how soon any slip of inadvertency has been expiated by sorrow and retraction; but let fly their fulminations, without mercy or prudence, against slight offences or casual temerities, against crimes never committed, or immediately repented.

The Infidel knows well what he is doing. He is endeavouring to supply, by authority, the deficiency of his arguments; and to make his cause less invidious, by shewing numbers on his side: he will, therefore, not change his conduct, till he reforms his principles. But the zealot should recollect, that he is labouring, by this frequency of excommunication, against his own cause; and voluntarily adding strength to the enemies of truth. It must always be the condition of a great part of mankind, to reject and embrace tenets upon the authority of those whom they think wiser than themselves; and, therefore, the addition of every name to infidelity, in some degree invalidates that argument upon which the religion of multitudes is necessarily founded.

Men may differ from each other in many religious opinions, and yet all may retain the essentials of Christianity; men may sometimes eagerly dispute, and yet not differ much from one another: the rigorous persecutors of error should, therefore, enlighten their zeal with knowledge, and temper their orthodoxy with Charity; that Charity, without which orthodoxy is vain; Charity that "thinketh no evil," but "hopeth all things," and "endureth all things."

Whether Browne has been numbered among the contemners of religion, by the fury of its friends, or the artifice of its enemies, it is no difficult task to replace him among the most zealous Professors of Christianity. He may, perhaps, in the ardour of his imagination, have hazarded an expression, which a mind intent upon faults may interpret into heresy, if considered apart from the rest of his discourse; but a phrase is not to be opposed to volumes: there is scarcely a writer to be found, whose profession was not divinity, that has so frequently testified his belief of the Sacred Writings, has appealed to them with such unlimited submission, or mentioned them with such unvaried reverence.

It is, indeed, somewhat wonderful, that He should be placed without the pale of Christianity, who declares, that "he assumes the honourable stile of A Christian," not because it is "the religion of his country," but because "having in his riper years and confirmed judgment seen and examined all, he finds himself obliged, by the principles of Grace, and the law of his own reason, to embrace no other name but this:" Who, to specify his persuasion yet more, tells us, that "he is of the Reformed Religion; of the same belief our Saviour taught, the Apostles disseminated, the Fathers authorized, and the martyrs confirmed:" Who, tho' "paradoxical in philosophy, loves in divinity to keep the beaten road;" and pleases himself, that "he has no taint of heresy, schism, or error:" To whom, "where the Scripture is silent, the Church is a text; where that speaks, 'tis but a comment;" and who uses not "the dictates of his own reason, but where there is a joint silence of both:" Who "blesses himself, that he lived not in the days of miracles, when faith had been thrust upon him; but enjoys that greater blessing, pronounced to all that believe and saw not." He cannot surely be charged with a defect of faith, who "believes that our Saviour was dead, and buried, and rose again, and desires to see him in his glory:" and who affirms, that "this is not much to believe;" that "as we have reason, we owe this faith unto history;" and that "they only had the advantage of a bold and noble faith, who lived before his coming; and, upon obscure prophecies and mystical types, could raise a belief." Nor can contempt of the positive and ritual parts of religion be imputed to him, who doubts, whether a good man would refuse a poisoned eucharist; and "who would violate his own arm, rather than a church."

The opinions of every man must be learned from himself: concerning his practice, it is safest to trust the evidence of others. Where these testimonies concur, no higher degree of historical certainty can be obtained; and they apparently concur to prove, that Browne was A zealous adherent to the faith of CHRIST; that he lived in obedience to his laws, and died in confidence of his mercy.


The original notes are not specially marked; my comments are put in [square brackets].

1. Life of Sir Thomas Browne, prefixed to the antiquities of Norwich.

2. Whitefoot's characer of Sir Thomas Browne in a marginal note.

3. Life of Sir Thomas Browne.

4. Wood's Athenæ Oxonienses.

5. Wood.

6. Life of Sir Thomas Browne.

7. Ibid.

8. Biographia Britannica.

9. Letter to Sir Kenelm Digby, prefixed to the Religio Medici, folio edit.

10. [Surely, if candor might suffer it to pass undetected, honesty ought to allow it to pass until it has been detected? A conjecture, however probable, is yet a conjecture; and if no fraud is innocent, neither is any accusation of fraud unaccompanied by even the pretence of a proof.]

11. Digby's letter to Browne, prefixed to the Religio Medici, folio edit.

12. Life of Sir Thomas Browne.

13. [The 1756 text has "Moltsarius".]

14. [These are the annotations of John Keck.]

15. Merryweather's letter, inserted in the life of Sir Thomas Browne.

16. Life of Sir Thomas Browne. [We don't neglect anything around here, much; you can read Medicus Medicatus, if you have the desire and some patience, here.]

17. Wood's Athenæ Oxonienses.

18. Wood.

19. Whitefoot.

20. Howel's letters. [James Howell, who scribbled endless and, to some at least, entertaining letters. I haven't [yet] looked this one up -- laziness, not antipathy.]

21. Religio Medici [Part II, sect. 9].

22. Life of Sir Thomas Browne.

23. [The 6th edition is dated 1672. The date of 1673 comes from the "Life" affixed to the 1712 edition of the Repertorium; that author gets it, in turn, from the half-title-page of the 1672 edition (which bears the date 1673), or from Wood, who also has 1673.]

24. [This is not true; it is indeed, an outright lie. So far as I can recall, Browne never mentions the motion of the earth "with ridicule". He says he doesn't believe in it, but readily admits that he may well be wrong. In fact, he admits the possibility so frequently that the reader suspects that he did believe in it, at least sometimes, but was unwilling to confess that he did. See, for instance, Pseudodoxia Epidemica I.5: "And therefore if any affirm, the earth doth move, and will not believe with us, it standeth still; because he hath probable reasons for it, and I no infallible sense, nor reason against it, I will not quarrel with his assertion."]

25. Wood, and Life of Thomas Browne.

26. [Wood takes the passage from Tenison, with attribution. It is subsequently borrowed by just about everybody, with varying degrees of accuracy in the attribution. It can hardly, in any case, be said that Wood says that the book is "translated" from Magirus.]

27. At the end of Hydriotaphia. [To be precise, in the Letter from the Stationer at the end of the Garden of Cyrus.]

28. [Dr. Johnson has missed the point of the Garden of Cyrus, neglecting to move on to the "so what?" stage (or to consider what its relation might be to Hydriotaphia -- there is one. That's not unusual for other people, but it's a bit disappointing in Johnson.]

29. [Thus 1756. Sc. Ropalic.]

30. [Again, as a point of literary criticism, this is dubious. Of course Browne "considers" the oracles as supernatural -- they would hardly be of much interest otherwise. As I point out in a note to the Miscellany Tract, whether Browne believed they were supernatural is another and much more difficult question (not that it matters much). On the question, compare the tract on Prophecy.]

31. [That is, the Christian Morals, to which this life of Browne is prefixed. For the letter of instruction, see Biographia Britannica. Other pieces of Browneana were published in the Wilkin edition of the 1846.]

32. Browne's Remains. Whitefoot.

33. [This is the edition found widely on line and nearly universally ascribed (on line) to "Dryden", who wrote the Life of Plutarch prefixed to the first volume. "Dr. Brown" translated the lives of Themistocles (Vol. I) and Sertorius (Vol. III).]

34. [What he actually says (Sect. 11) -- pace Dr. Johnson and most of the online editions of Religio Medici -- is that it is the posy of the best natures, in all editions printed during his life, as well as in the 1686 Works. Posy is a short line of verse; a motto; a device. Poesy is of course something different.]

35. [Very pretty, but is it true? And the statements coming up need to be investigated as well. Anybody who reads Elizabethan and Jacobean literature and comes away with a feeling of linguistic "stability" needs to explain his point carefully.]

36. [In Pseudodoxia Epidemica, a work in which Browne pokes a good deal of fun at himself (Johnson is sometimes lacking a sense of humor), while at the same time poking at the lexical edges of the language. I'm especially fond of the plays on "cecutiency" and "cecity" in the chapter on moles; but the Preface makes it clear that this kind of word-play is to be expected, when we are asked to distinguish be something desired if not desiderated. In any case, "arthritical analogies" is quite precise and does not conceal Browne's meaning, at least not in the sense that Johnson seems to mean.]

37. [What on earth is Johnson reading? Browne loves to express in many words what could be expressed in a single term. It's a mark of his style, in fact, that he will use a term and immediately "translate" it, or move it along (at a sometimes glacial pace). Look at the first sentence of the Epistle of Pseudodoxia: "Would Truth dispense, we could be content, with Plato, that knowledg were but remembrance; that intellectual acquisition were but reminiscential evocation, and new Impressions but the colouring of old stamps which stood pale in the soul before." That is saying three times, with a variety of plain and fancy words, "If it were true, we'd be content to say that knowledge is memory, along with Plato". And that's a mild instance. Look at the sentence that concludes Chapter 10 of Book I: "Thus he endeavours to entangle Truths: And when he cannot possibly destroy its substance, he cunningly confounds its apprehensions; that from the inconsistent and contrary determinations thereof, consectary impieties, and hopeful conclusions may arise, there's no such thing at all", in which the wordy fanciness descending to a plain statement is a reflection of the underlying sentiment. He is also quite capable of writing extended passages in which none of what we might think of as the hallmark high-flying words occurs at all.]

38. Therefore no hereticks desire to spread
Their wild opinions like these epicures.
For so their stagg'ring thoughts are computed,
And other men's assent their doubt assures.


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