[Renascence Editions]  
Return to
Renascence Editions

Letter to a Friend.

Sir Thomas Browne

Introduction | Religio Medici | Urn-Burial | Letter to a Friend | Notes

Note on the e-text: this Renascence Editions text was transcribed from the edition of J. W. Willis Bund, 1869, by Judy Boss of Omaha, Nebraska, by whose kind permission it is here published. The text is in the public domain. Content unique to this presentation is copyright © 1998 The University of Oregon. For nonprofit and educational uses only. Send comments and corrections to the Publisher, rbear at uoregon.edu


GIVE me leave to wonder that news of this nature should have such heavy wings that you should hear so little concerning your dearest friend, and that I must make that unwilling repetition to tell you "ad portam rigidos calces extendit," that he is dead and buried, and by this time no puny among the mighty nations of the dead; for though he left this world not very many days past, yet every hour you know largely addeth unto that dark society; and considering the incessant mortality of mankind, you cannot conceive there dieth in the whole earth so few as a thousand an hour.
    Although at this distance you had no early account or particular of his death, yet your affection may cease to wonder that you had not some secret sense or intimation thereof by dreams, thoughtful whisperings, mercurisms, airy nuncios or sympathetical insinuations, which many seem to have had at the death of their dearest friends: for since we find in that famous story, that spirits themselves were fain to tell their fellows at a distance that the great Antonio was dead, we have a sufficient excuse for our ignorance in such particulars, and must rest content with the common road, and Appian way of knowledge by information. Though the uncertainty of the end of this world hath confounded all human predictions; yet they who shall live to see the sun and moon darkened, and the stars to fall from heaven, will hardly be deceived in the advent of the last day; and therefore strange it is, that the common fallacy of consumptive persons who feel not themselves dying, and therefore still hope to live, should also reach their friends in perfect health and judgment;--that you should be so little acquainted with Plautus's sick complexion, or that almost an Hippocratical face should not alarum you to higher fears, or rather despair, of his continuation in such an emaciated state, wherein medical predictions fail not, as sometimes in acute diseases, and wherein 'tis as dangerous to be sentenced by a physician as a judge.
    Upon my first visit I was bold to tell them who had not let fall all hopes of his recovery, that in my sad opinion he was not like to behold a grasshopper,1 much less to pluck another fig; and in no long time after seemed to discover that odd mortal symptom in him not mentioned by Hippocrates, that is, to lose his own face, and look like some of his near relations; for he maintained not his proper countenance, but looked like his uncle, the lines of whose face lay deep and invisible in his healthful visage before: for as from our beginning we run through variety of looks, before we come to consistent and settled faces; so before our end, by sick and languishing alterations, we put on new visages: and in our retreat to earth, may fall upon such looks which from community of seminal originals were before latent in us.
    He was fruitlessly put in hope of advantage by change of air, and imbibing the pure ærial nitre of these parts; and therefore, being so far spent, he quickly found Sardinia in
* "Cum mors venerit, in medio Tibure Sardinia est."

+ In the king's forests they set the figure of a broad arrow upon trees that are to be cut down.

Tivoli,* and the most healthful air of little effect, where death had set her broad arrow;+ for he lived not unto the middle of May, and confirmed the observation of Hippocrates of that mortal time of the year when the leaves of the fig-tree resemble a daw's claw. He is happily seated who lives in places whose air, earth, and water, promote not the infirmities of his weaker parts, or is early removed into regions that correct them. He that is tabidly2 inclined, were unwise to pass his days in Portugal: cholical persons will find little comfort in Austria or Vienna: he that is weak-legged must not be in love with Rome, nor an infirm head with Venice or Paris. Death hath not only particular stars in heaven, but malevolent places on earth, which single out our infirmities, and strike at our weaker parts; in which concern, passager and migrant birds have the great advantages, who are naturally constituted for distant habitations, whom no seas nor places limit, but in their appointed seasons will visit us from Greenland and Mount Atlas, and, as some think, even from the
# Bellonius de Avibus.
    Though we could not have his life, yet we missed not our desires in his soft departure, which was scarce an expiration; and his end not unlike his beginning, when the salient point scarce affords a sensible motion, and his departure so like unto sleep, that he scarce needed the civil ceremony of closing his eyes; contrary unto the common way, wherein death draws up, sleep lets fall the eyelids. With what strife and pains we came into the world we know not; but 'tis commonly no easy matter to get out of it: yet if it could be made out, that such who have easy nativities have commonly hard deaths, and contrarily; his departure was so easy, that we might justly suspect his birth was of another nature, and that some Juno sat cross-legged at his nativity.
    Besides his soft death, the incurable state of his disease might somewhat extenuate your sorrow, who know that monsters but seldom happen, miracles more rarely in
* "Monstra contingunt in medicina." Hippoc.--"Strange and rare escapes there happen sometimes in physick."

+ Matt. iv. 23.

physick.* Angelus Victorius gives a serious account of a consumptive, hectical, phthisical woman, who was suddenly cured by the intercession of Ignatius. We read not of any in Scripture who in this case applied unto our Saviour, though some may be contained in that large expression, that he went about Galilee healing all manner of sickness and all manner of diseases.+ Amulets, spells, sigils, and incantations, practised in other diseases, are seldom pretended in this; and we find no sigil in the Archidoxis of Paracelsus to cure an extreme consumption or marasmus, which, if other diseases fail, will put a period unto long livers, and at last makes dust of all. And therefore the Stoics could not but think that the fiery principle would wear out all the rest, and at last make an end of the world, which notwithstanding without such a lingering period the Creator may effect at his pleasure: and to make an end of all things on earth, and our planetical system of the world, he need but put out the sun.
    I was not so curious to entitle the stars unto any concern of his death, yet could not but take notice that he died when the moon was in motion from the meridian; at which time an old Italian long ago would persuade me that the greatest part of men died: but herein I confess I could never satisfy my curiosity; although from the time of tides in places upon or near the sea, there may be considerable deductions; and
* "Aristoteles nullum animal nisi æstu recedente expirare affirmat; observatum id multum in Gallico Oceano et duntaxat in homine compertum," lib. 2, cap. 101.

+ "Auris pars pendula lobus dicitur, non omnibus ea pars, est auribus; non enim iis qui noctu sunt, sed qui interdiu, maxima ex parte."--Com. in Aristot. de Animal. lib. 1.

Pliny* hath an odd and remarkable passage concerning the death of men and animals upon the recess or ebb of the sea. However, certain it is, he died in the dead and deep part of the night, when Nox might be most apprehensibly said to be the daughter of Chaos, the mother of sleep and death, according to old genealogy; and so went out of this world about that hour when our blessed Saviour entered it, and about what time many conceive he will return again unto it. Cardan3 hath a peculiar and no hard observation from a man's hand to know whether he was born in the day or night, which I confess holdeth in my own. And Scaliger4 to that purpose hath another from the tip of the ear:+ most men are begotten in the night, animals in the day; but whether more persons have been born in the night or day, were a curiosity undecidable, though more have perished by violent deaths in the day; yet in natural dissolutions both times may hold an indifferency, at least but contingent inequality. The whole course of time runs out in the nativity and death of things; which whether they happen by succession or coincidence, are best computed by the natural, not artificial day.
    That Charles the Fifth5 was crowned upon the day of his nativity, it being in his own power so to order it, makes no singular animadversion: but that he should also take King Francis6 prisoner upon that day, was an unexpected coincidence, which made the same remarkable. Antipater, who had an anniversary feast every year upon his birth-day, needed no astrological revolution to know what day he should die on. When the fixed stars have made a revolution unto the points from whence they first set out, some of the ancients thought the world would have an end; which was a kind of dying upon the day of its nativity. Now the disease prevailing and swiftly advancing about the time of his nativity, some were of opinion that he would leave the world on the day he entered into it; but this being a lingering disease, and creeping softly on, nothing critical was found or expected, and he died not before fifteen days after. Nothing is more common with infants than to die on the day of their nativity, to behold the worldly hours, and but the fractions thereof; and even to perish before their nativity in the hidden world of the womb, and before their good angel is conceived to undertake them. But in persons who outlive many years, and when there are no less than three hundred and sixty-five days to determine their lives in every year; that the first day should make the last, that the tail of the snake should return into its mouth precisely at that time, and they should wind up upon the day of their nativity, is indeed a remarkable coincidence, which, though astrology hath taken witty pains to salve, yet hath it been very wary in making
* According to the Egyptian hieroglyphic.

* Turkish history.

predictions of it.*
    In this consumptive condition and remarkable extenuation, he came to be almost half himself, and left a great part behind him, which he carried not to the grave. And though that story of Duke John Ernestus Mansfield7* be not so easily swallowed, that at his death his heart was found not to be so big as a nut; yet if the bones of a good skeleton weigh little more than twenty pounds, his inwards and flesh remaining could make no bouffage,8 but a light bit for the grave. I never more lively beheld the starved characters of Dante+ in any living face; an aruspex might have read a lecture upon him without exenteration, his flesh being so consumed, that he might, in a manner, have discerned his bowels without opening of him; so that to be carried,
+ In the poet Dante's description.

# i.e. "by six persons." § Morta, the deity of death or fate.

|| When men's faces are drawn with resemblance to some other animals, the Italians call it, to be drawn in caricatura.

sexta cervice# to the grave, was but a civil unnecessity; and the complements of the coffin might outweigh the subject of it.
    Omnibonus Ferrarius in mortal dysenteries of children looks for a spot behind the ear; in consumptive diseases some eye the complexion of moles; Cardan eagerly views the nails, some the lines of the hand, the thenar or muscle of the thumb; some are so curious as to observe the depth of the throat-pit, how the proportion varieth of the small of the legs unto the calf, or the compass of the neck unto the circumference of the head; but all these, with many more, were so drowned in a mortal visage, and last face of Hippocrates, that a weak physiognomist might say at first eye, this was a face of earth, and that Morta§ had set her hard seal upon his temples, easily perceiving what caricatura|| draughts death makes upon pined faces, and unto what an unknown degree a man may live backward.
    Though the beard be only made a distinction of sex, and sign of masculine heat by Ulmus,* yet the precocity and early growth thereof in him, was not to be liked in reference unto long life. Lewis, that virtuous but unfortunate king of Hungary, who lost his life at the battle of Mohacz,9 was said to be born without a skin, to have bearded at fifteen, and to have shown some grey hairs about twenty; from whence the diviners conjectured that he would be spoiled of his kingdom, and have but a short life; but hairs make fallible predictions, and many temples early grey have outlived the psalmist's period.+ Hairs which have most amused me have not been in the face or head, but on the back, and not in men but children, as I long ago observed in that endemial distemper of children in Languedoc, called the
* Ulmus de usu barbæ humanæ.

+ The life of man is threescore and ten.

# See Picotus de Rheumatismo.

morgellons,# wherein they critically break out with harsh hairs on their backs, which takes off the unquiet symptoms of the disease, and delivers them from coughs and convulsions.
    The Egyptian mummies that I have seen, have had their mouths open, and somewhat gaping, which affordeth a good opportunity to view and observe their teeth, wherein 'tis not easy to find any wanting or decayed; and therefore in Egypt, where one man practised but one operation, or the diseases but of single parts, it must needs be a barren profession to confine unto that of drawing of teeth, and to have been little better than toothdrawer unto King Pyrrhus,* who had but two in his head.
    How the banyans of India maintain the integrity of those parts, I find not particularly observed; who notwithstanding have an advantage of their preservation by abstaining from all flesh, and employing their teeth in such food unto which they may seem at first framed,
* His upper jaw being solid, and without distinct rows of teeth.

+ Twice tell over his teeth, never live to threescore years.

from their figure and conformation; but sharp and corroding rheums had so early mouldered these rocks and hardest parts of his fabric, that a man might well conceive that his years were never like to double or twice tell over his teeth.+ Corruption had dealt more severely with them than sepulchral fires and smart flames with those of burnt bodies of old; for in the burnt fragments of urns which I have inquired into, although I seem to find few incisors or shearers, yet the dog teeth and grinders do notably resist those fires.
    In the years of his childhood he had languished under the disease of his country, the rickets; after which, notwithstanding many have become strong and active men; but whether any have attained unto very great years, the disease is scarce so old as to afford good observation. Whether the children of the English plantations be subject unto the same infirmity, may be worth the observing. Whether lameness and halting do still increase among the inhabitants of Rovigno in Istria, I know not; yet scarce twenty years ago Monsieur du Loyr observed that a third part of that people halted; but too certain it is, that the rickets increaseth among us; the small-pox grows more pernicious than the great; the king's purse knows that the king's evil grows more common. Quartan agues are become no strangers in Ireland; more common and mortal in England; and though the ancients gave that
* Asphalestatos kai rheistos, securissima et facillima.-- Hippoc.

+ Pro febre quartana raro sonat campana.

disease* very good words, yet now that bell+ makes no strange sound which rings out for the effects thereof.
    Some think there were few consumptions in the old world, when men lived much upon milk; and that the ancient inhabitants of this island were less troubled with coughs when they went naked and slept in caves and woods, than men now in chambers and feather-beds. Plato will tell us, that there was no such disease as a catarrh in Homer's time, and that it was but new in Greece in his age. Polydore Virgil delivereth that pleurisies were rare in England, who lived but in the days of Henry the Eighth. Some will allow no diseases to be new, others think that many old ones are ceased: and that such which are esteemed new, will have but their time: however, the mercy of God hath scattered the great heap of diseases, and not loaded any one country with all: some may be new in one country which have been old in another. New discoveries of the earth discover new diseases: for besides the common swarm, there are endemial and local infirmities proper unto certain regions, which in the whole earth make no small number: and if Asia, Africa, and America, should bring in their list, Pandora's box would swell, and there must be a strange pathology.
    Most men expected to find a consumed kell,10 empty and bladder-like guts, livid and marbled lungs, and a withered pericardium in this exsuccous corpse: but some seemed too much to wonder that two lobes of his lungs adhered unto his side; for the like I have often found in bodies of no suspected consumptions or difficulty of respiration. And the same more often happeneth in men than other animals: and some think in women than in men: but the most remarkable I have met with, was in a man, after a cough of almost fifty years, in whom all the lobes adhered unto the pleura, and each lobe unto another; who having also been much troubled with the gout, brake the rule of Cardan,* and died of the stone in the bladder. Aristotle makes a query, why some animals cough, as man; some not, as oxen. If coughing be taken as it consisteth of a natural and voluntary motion, including expectoration
* Cardan in his Encomium Podagræ reckoneth this among the Dona Podagræ, that they are delivered thereby from the phthisis and stone in the bladder.

+ Hippoc, de Insomniis

and spitting out, it may be as proper unto man as bleeding at the nose; otherwise we find that Vegetius and rural writers have not left so many medicines in vain against the coughs of cattle; and men who perish by coughs die the death of sheep, cats, and lions: and though birds have no midriff, yet we meet with divers remedies in Arrianus against the coughs of hawks. And though it might be thought that all animals who have lungs do cough; yet in cataceous* fishes, who have large and strong lungs, the same is not observed; nor yet in oviparous quadrupeds: and in the greatest thereof, the crocodile, although we read much of their tears, we find nothing of that motion.
    From the thoughts of sleep, when the soul was conceived nearest unto divinity, the ancients erected an art of divination, wherein while they too widely expatiated in loose and in consequent conjectures, Hippocrates+ wisely considered dreams as they presaged alterations in the body, and so afforded hints toward the preservation of health, and prevention of diseases; and therein was so serious as to advise alteration of diet, exercise, sweating, bathing, and vomiting; and also so religious as to order prayers and supplications unto respective deities, in good dreams unto Sol, Jupiter coelestis, Jupiter opulentus, Minerva, Mercurius, and Apollo; in bad, unto Tellus and the heroes.
    And therefore I could not but notice how his female friends were irrationally curious so strictly to examine his dreams, and in this low state to hope for the phantasms of health. He was now past the healthful dreams of the sun, moon, and stars, in their clarity and proper courses. 'Twas too late to dream of flying, of limpid fountains, smooth waters, white vestments, and fruitful green trees, which are the visions of healthful sleeps, and at good distance from the grave.
    And they were also too deeply dejected that he should dream of his dead friends, inconsequently divining, that he would not be long from them; for strange it was not that he should sometimes dream of the dead, whose thoughts run always upon death; beside, to dream of the dead, so they appear not in dark habits, and take nothing away from us, in Hippocrates' sense was of good signification: for we live by the dead, and everything is or must be so before it becomes our nourishment. And Cardan, who dreamed that he discoursed with his dead father in the moon, made thereof no mortal interpretation; and even to dream that we are dead, was having a signification of liberty, vacuity from cares, exemption and freedom from troubles unknown unto the dead.
    Some dreams I confess may admit of easy and feminine exposition; he who dreamed that he could not see his right shoulder, might easily fear to lose the sight of his right eye; he that before a journey dreamed that his feet were cut off, had a plain warning not to undertake his intended journey. But why to dream of lettuce should presage some ensuing disease, why to eat figs should signify foolish talk, why to eat eggs great trouble, and to dream of blindness should be so highly commended, according to the oneirocritical verses of Astrampsychus and Nicephorus, I shall leave unto your divination.
    He was willing to quit the world alone and altogether, leaving no earnest behind him for corruption or aftergrave, having small content in that common satisfaction to survive or live in another, but amply satisfied that his disease should die with himself, nor revive in a posterity to puzzle physic, and make sad mementoes of their parent hereditary. Leprosy awakes not sometimes before forty, the gout and stone often later; but consumptive and tabid* roots sprout more early, and at the fairest make seventeen years of our life doubtful before that
* Tabes maxime contingunt ab anno decimo octavo and trigesi mum quintum.--Hippoc.

+ A sound child cut out of the body of the mother.

# Natos ad flumina primum deferimus sævoque gelu dura mus et undis.

age. They that enter the world with original diseases as well as sin, have not only common mortality but sick traductions to destroy them, make commonly short courses, and live not at length but in figures; so that a sound Cæsarean nativity+ may outlast a natural birth, and a knife may sometimes make way for a more lasting fruit than a midwife; which makes so few infants now able to endure the old test of the river,# and many to have feeble children who could scarce have been married at Sparta, and those provident states who studied strong and healthful generations; which happen but contingently in mere pecuniary matches or marriages made by the candle, wherein notwithstanding there is little redress to be hoped from an astrologer or a lawyer, and a good discerning physician were like to prove the most successful counsellor.
    Julius Scaliger, who in a sleepless fit of the gout could make two hundred verses in a night, would have but
* Julii Cæsaris Scaligeri quod fuit.--Joseph. Scaliger in vita patris.
five* plain words upon his tomb. And this serious person, though no minor wit, left the poetry of his epitaph unto others; either unwilling to commend himself, or to be judged by a distich, and perhaps considering how unhappy great poets have been in versifying their own epitaphs; wherein Petrarch, Dante, and Ariosto, have so unhappily failed, that if their tombs should outlast their works, posterity would find so little of Apollo on them as to mistake them for Ciceronian poets.
    In this deliberate and creeping progress unto the grave, he was somewhat too young and of too noble a mind, to fall upon that stupid symptom observable in divers persons near their journey's end, and which may be reckoned among the mortal symptoms of their last disease; that is, to become more narrow-minded, miserable, and tenacious, unready to part with anything, when they are ready to part with all, and afraid to want when they have no time to spend; meanwhile physicians, who know that many are mad but in a single depraved imagination, and one prevalent decipiency; and that beside and out of such single deliriums a man may meet with sober actions and good sense in bedlam; cannot but smile to see the heirs and concerned relations gratulating themselves on the sober departure of their friends; and though they behold such mad covetous passages, content to think they die in good understanding, and in their sober senses.
    Avarice, which is not only infidelity, but idolatry, either from covetous progeny or questuary11 education, had no root in his breast, who made good works the expression of his faith, and was big with desires unto public and lasting charities; and surely where good wishes and charitable intentions exceed abilities, theorical beneficency may be more than a dream. They build not castles in the air who would build churches on earth; and though they leave no such structures here, may lay good foundations in heaven. In brief, his life and death were such, that I could not blame them who wished the like, and almost to have been himself; almost, I say; for though we may wish the prosperous appurtenances of others, or to be another in his happy accidents, yet so intrinsical is every man unto himself, that some doubt may be made, whether any would exchange his being, or substantially become another man.
    He had wisely seen the world at home and abroad, and thereby observed under what variety men are deluded in the pursuit of that which is not here to be found. And although he had no opinion of reputed felicities below, and apprehended men widely out in the estimate of such happiness, yet his sober contempt of the world wrought no Democratism or Cynicism, no laughing or snarling at it, as well understanding there are not felicities in this world to satisfy a serious mind; and therefore, to soften the stream of our lives, we are fain to take in the reputed contentations of this world, to unite with the crowd in their beatitudes, and to make ourselves happy by consortion, opinion, and co-existimation; for strictly to separate from received and customary felicities, and to confine unto the rigour of realities, were to contract the consolation of our beings unto too uncomfortable circumscriptions.
    Not to fear death,* nor desire it, was short of his resolution: to
* Summum nec metuas diem nec optes.

+ Who upon some accounts, and tradition, is said to have lived thirty years after he was raised by our Saviour.-- Baronius.

# In the speech of Vulteius in Lucan, animating his soldiers in a great struggle to kill one another.--"Decernite lethum, et metus omnis abest, cupias quodcunque necesse est." "All fear is over, do but resolve to die, and make your desires meet necessity."--Phars.iv.486.

be dissolved, and be with Christ, was his dying ditty. He conceived his thread long, in no long course of years, and when he had scarce outlived the second life of Lazarus;+ esteeming it enough to approach the years of his Saviour, who so ordered his own human state, as not to be old upon earth.
    But to be content with death may be better than to desire it; a miserable life may make us wish for death, but a virtuous one to rest in it; which is the advantage of those resolved Christians, who looking on death not only as the sting, but the period and end of sin, the horizon and isthmus between this life and a better, and the death of this world but as a nativity of another, do contentedly submit unto the common necessity, and envy not Enoch or Elias.
    Not to be content with life is the unsatisfactory state of those who destroy themselves,# who being afraid to live run blindly upon their own death, which no man fears by experience: and the Stoics had a notable doctrine to take away the fear thereof; that is, in such extremities, to desire that which is not to be avoided, and wish what might be feared; and so made evils voluntary, and to suit with their own desires, which took off the terror of them.
    But the ancient martyrs were not encouraged by such fallacies; who, though they feared not death, were afraid to be their own executioners; and therefore thought it more wisdom to crucify their lusts than their bodies, to circumcise than stab their hearts, and to mortify than kill themselves.
    His willingness to leave this world about that age, when most men think they may best enjoy it, though paradoxical unto worldly ears, was not strange unto mine, who have so often observed, that many, though old, oft stick fast unto the world, and seem to be drawn like Cacus's oxen12, backward, with great struggling and reluctancy unto the grave. The long habit of living makes mere men more hardly to part with life, and all to be nothing, but what is to come. To live at the rate of the old world, when some could scarce remember themselves young, may afford no better digested death than a more moderate period. Many would have thought it an happiness to have had their lot of life in some notable conjunctures of ages past; but the uncertainty of future times have tempted few to make a part in ages to come. And surely, he that hath taken the true altitude of things, and rightly calculated the degenerate state of this age, is not like to envy those that shall live in the next, much less three or four hundred years hence, when no man can comfortably imagine what face this world will carry: and therefore since every age makes a step unto the end of all things, and the Scripture affords so hard a character of the last times; quiet minds will be content with their generations, and rather bless ages past, than be ambitious of those to come.
    Though age had set no seal upon his face, yet a dim eye might clearly discover fifty in his actions; and therefore, since wisdom is the grey hair, and an unspotted life old age; although his years come short, he might have been said to have held up with longer livers, and to have been
* Wisdom, cap. iv.
Solomon's* old man. And surely if we deduct all those days of our life which we might wish unlived, and which abate the comfort of those we now live; if we reckon up only those days which God hath accepted of our lives, a life of good years will hardly be a span long: the son in this sense may outlive the father, and none be climacterically old. He that early arriveth unto the parts and prudence of age, is happily old without the uncomfortable attendants of it; and 'tis superfluous to live unto grey hairs, when in precocious temper we anticipate the virtues of them. In brief, he cannot be accounted young who outliveth the old man. He that hath early arrived unto the measure of a perfect stature in Christ, hath already fulfilled the prime and longest intention of his being; and one day lived after the perfect rule of piety, is to be preferred before sinning immortality. Although he attained not unto the years of his predecessors, yet he wanted not those preserving virtues which confirm the thread of weaker constitutions. Cautelous chastity and crafty sobriety were far from him; those jewels were paragon, without flaw, hair, ice, or cloud in him; which affords me a hint to proceed in these good wishes, and few mementoes unto you.
    Tread softly and circumspectly in this funambulous13 track and narrow path of goodness; pursue virtue virtuously, be sober and temperate, not to preserve your body in a sufficiency for wanton ends, not to spare your purse, not to be free from the infamy of common transgressors that way, and thereby to balance or palliate obscure and closer vices, nor simply to enjoy health, by all of which you may leaven good actions, and render virtues disputable, but, in one word, that you may truly serve God, which every sickness will tell you you cannot well do without health. The sick man's sacrifice is but a lame oblation. Pious treasures, laid up in healthful days, excuse the defect of sick non-performance; without which we must needs look back with anxiety upon the last opportunities of health; and may have cause rather to envy than pity the ends of penitent malefactors, who go with clear parts unto the last act of their lives, and in the integrity of their faculties return their spirit unto God that gave it.
    Consider whereabouts thou art in Cebe's14 table, or that old philosophical pinax15 of the life of man; whether thou art still in the road of uncertainties; whether thou hast yet entered the narrow gate, got up the hill and asperous way which leadeth unto the house of sanity; or taken that purifying potion from the hand of sincere erudition, which may send thee clear and pure away unto a virtuous and happy life.
    In this virtuous voyage let no disappointment cause despondency, nor difficulty despair. Think not that
* Through the Pacifick Sea with a constant gale from the east.
you are sailing from Lima to Manilla,* 16 wherein thou mayest tie up the rudder, and sleep before the wind, but expect rough seas, flaws and contrary blasts; and 'tis well if by many cross tacks and veerings thou arrivest at the port. Sit not down in the popular seats and common level of virtues, but endeavour to make them heroical. Offer not only peace-offerings but holocausts unto God. To serve him singly to serve ourselves were too partial a piece of piety, not like to place us in the highest mansions of glory.
    He that is chaste and continent not to impair his strength or terrified by contagion will hardly be heroically virtuous. Adjourn not that virtue until those years when Cato could lend out his wife, and impotent satyrs write satires against lust, but be chaste in thy flaming days when Alexander dared not trust his eyes upon the fair sisters of Darius, and when so many think that there is no other way but
* Who is said to have castrated himself.

Be charitable before wealth make thee covetous, and lose not the glory of the mitre. If riches increase, let thy mind hold pace with them, and think it is not enough to be liberal but munificent. Though a cup of cold water from some hand may not be without its reward, yet stick not thou for wine and oil for the wounds of the distressed, and treat the poor as our Saviour did the multitude to the reliques of some baskets.
    Trust not unto the omnipotency of gold, or say not unto it, thou art my confidence. Kiss not thy hand when thou beholdest that terrestrial sun, nor bore thy ear unto its servitude. A slave unto Mammon makes no servant unto God. Covetousness cracks the sinews of faith, numbs the apprehension of anything above sense; and only affected with the certainty of things present, makes a peradventure of things to come; lives but unto one world, nor hopes but fears another: makes their own death sweet unto others, bitter unto themselves, brings formal sadness, scenical mourning, and no wet eyes at the grave.
    If avarice be thy vice, yet make it not thy punishment. Miserable men commiserate not themselves, bowelless unto themselves, and merciless unto their own bowels. Let the fruition of things bless the possession of them, and take no satisfaction in dying but living rich. For since thy good works, not thy goods will follow thee; since riches are an appurtenance of life, and no dead man is rich, to famish in plenty, and live poorly to die rich, were a multiplying improvement in madness and use upon use in folly.
    Persons lightly dipt, not grained, in generous honesty are but pale in goodness and faint-hued in sincerity. But be thou what thou virtuously art, and let not the ocean wash away thy tincture. Stand majestically upon that axis where prudent simplicity hath fixed thee; and at no temptation invert the poles of thy honesty that vice may be uneasy and even monstrous unto thee; let iterated good acts and long confirmed habits make virtue natural or a second nature in thee; and since few or none prove eminently virtuous but from some advantageous foundations in their temper and natural inclinations, study thyself betimes, and early find what nature bids thee to be or tells thee what thou mayest be. They who thus timely descend into themselves, cultivating the good seeds which nature hath set in them, and improving their prevalent inclinations to perfection, become not shrubs but cedars in their generation. And to be in the form of the best of bad, or the worst of the good, will be no satisfaction unto them.
    Let not the law of thy country be the non ultra of thy honesty, nor think that always good enough that the law will make good. Narrow not the law of charity, equity, mercy. Join gospel righteousness with legal right. Be not a mere Gamaliel in the faith, but let the Sermon on the Mount be thy Targum unto the law of Sinai.
    Make not the consequences of virtue the ends thereof. Be not beneficent for a name or cymbal of applause; nor exact and punctual in commerce for the advantages of trust and credit, which attend the reputation of just and true dealing: for such rewards, though unsought for, plain virtue will bring with her, whom all men honour, though they pursue not. To have other by-ends in good actions sours laudable performances, which must have deeper roots, motives, and instigations, to give them the stamp of virtues.
    Though human infirmity may betray thy heedless days into the popular ways of extravagancy, yet, let not thine own depravity or the torrent of vicious times carry thee into desperate enormities in opinions, manners, or actions. If thou hast dipped thy foot in the river, yet venture not over Rubicon; run not into extremities from whence there is no regression, nor be ever so closely shut up within the holds of vice and iniquity, as not to find some escape by a postern of recipiscency.17
    Owe not thy humility unto humiliation by adversity, but look humbly down in that state when others look upward upon thee. Be patient in the age of pride, and days of will, and impatiency, when men live but by intervals of reason, under the sovereignty of humour and passion, when it is in the power of every one to transform thee out of
* Iræ furor brevis est.
thyself, and put thee into short madness.* If you cannot imitate Job, yet come not short of Socrates,18 and those patient Pagans, who tired the tongues of their enemies, while they perceived they spit their malice at brazen walls and statues.
    Let age, not envy, draw wrinkles on thy cheeks; be content to be envied, but envy not. Emulation may be plausible, and indignation allowable, but admit no treaty with that passion which no circumstance can make good. A displacency at the good of others, because they enjoy it although we do not want it, is an absurd depravity sticking fast unto nature, from its primitive corruption, which he that can well subdue were a Christian of the first magnitude, and for ought I know may have one foot already in heaven.
    While thou so hotly disclaimest the devil, be not guilty of Diabolism. Fall not into one name with that unclean spirit, nor act his nature whom thou so much abhorrest, that is, to accuse, calumniate, backbite, whisper, detract, or sinistrously interpret others. Degenerous depravities and narrow-minded vices! not only below St Paul's noble Christian, but Aristotle's true gentleman.* Trust not with some that the Epistle of St James is apocryphal, and so read with less fear that stabbing truth that in company with this vice, "thy religion is in vain." Moses broke the tables without breaking the law, but where charity is broke the law itself is shattered, which cannot be whole without love
* See Aristotle's Ethics, chapter Magnanimity.

+ Holy, holy, holy.

that is "the fulfilling of it." Look humbly upon thy virtues, and though thou art rich in some, yet think thyself poor and naked without that crowning grace which "thinketh no evil, which envieth not, which beareth, believeth, hopeth, endureth all things." With these sure graces while busy tongues are crying out for a drop of cold water, mutes may be in happiness, and sing the "Trisagium,"+ in heaven.
    Let not the sun in Capricorn* go down upon thy wrath, but write thy wrongs in water, draw the curtain of night upon injuries, shut them up in the tower of
* Even when the days are shortest.

+ Alluding to the tower of oblivion, mentioned by Procopius, which was the name of a tower of imprisonment among the Persians; whoever was put therein was as it were buried alive, and it was death for any but to name him.

# St Matt. xi.

oblivion,+ and let them be as though they had not been. Forgive thine enemies totally, without any reserve of hope that however God will revenge thee.
    Be substantially great in thyself, and more than thou appearest unto others; and let the world be deceived in thee, as they are in the lights of heaven. Hang early plummets upon the heels of pride, and let ambition have but an epicycle19 or narrow circuit in thee. Measure not thyself by thy morning shadow, but by the extent of thy grave; and reckon thyself above the earth, by the line thou must be contented with under it. Spread not into boundless expansions either to designs or desires. Think not that mankind liveth but for a few; and that the rest are born but to serve the ambition of those who make but flies of men, and wildernesses of whole nations. Swell not into vehement actions, which embroil and confound the earth, but be one of those violent ones that force the kingdom of heaven.# If thou must needs rule, be Zeno's king, and enjoy that empire which every man gives himself: certainly the iterated injunctions of Christ unto humility, meekness, patience, and that despised train of virtues, cannot but make pathetical impression upon those who have well considered the affairs of all ages; wherein pride, ambition, and vain-glory, have led up to the worst of actions, whereunto confusions, tragedies, and acts, denying all religion, do owe their originals.
* Ovation, a petty and minor kind of triumph.
Rest not in an ovation,* but a triumph over thy passions. Chain up the unruly legion of thy breast; behold thy trophies within thee, not without thee. Lead thine own captivity captive, and be Cæsar unto thyself.
    Give no quarter unto those vices that are of thine inward family, and, having a root in thy temper, plead a right and propriety in thee. Examine well thy complexional inclinations. Rain early batteries against those strongholds built upon the rock of nature, and make this a great part of the militia of thy life. The politic nature of vice must be opposed by policy, and therefore wiser honesties project and plot against sin; wherein notwithstanding we are not to rest in generals, or the trite stratagems of art; that may succeed with one temper, which may prove successless with another. There is no community or commonwealth of virtue, every man must study his own economy and erect these rules unto the figure of himself.
    Lastly, if length of days be thy portion, make it not thy expectation. Reckon not upon long life; but live always beyond thy account. He that so often surviveth his expectation lives many lives, and will scarce complain of the shortness of his days. Time past is gone like a shadow; make times to come present; conceive that near which may be far off. Approximate thy latter times by present apprehensions of them: be like a neighbour unto death, and think there is but little to come. And since there is something in us that must still live on, join both lives together, unite them in thy thoughts and actions, and live in one but for the other. He who thus ordereth the purposes of this life, will never be far from the next, and is in some manner already in it, by a happy conformity and close apprehension of it.

Transcribed by Judy Boss in Omaha, Nebraska.
HTML by Richard Bear, Eugene, Oregon, March 1998.

Introduction | Religio Medici | Urn-Burial | Letter to a Friend | Notes

RE Logotype for Renascence
Renascence Editions