Truth v. falsehood: Sir Thomas Browne and fake news

Sir Thomas Browne, Christian Morals

 First published posthumously in 1716: it purported to be advice to his children, but ‘may be considered as advice on obtaining individuation and self-realization as much as Christian virtue’, with sections on appearance and perspective (Wikipedia). The following passage strikes me as particularly pertinent in these sad times when prominent leaders take ‘post-truth’ positions, where all commentary with which they disagree is ‘fake news’, while all of their utterances (including tweets) are presented as if unequivocally, unanswerably true. Britain’s implausible new Prime Minister, for example, asserted in his characteristically pompous, bombastic first parliamentary speech in his new role yesterday (heaven help us) that Britain under his premiership is about to enter a ‘new golden age’. Right.

An extract from this passage by Browne is an epigraph to Jocelyn Brooke’s wonderfully strange ‘Military Orchid’ trilogy (highly recommended), according to an entry in an old notebook of mine, as it obviously appealed to me when I copied it out in 2012. I seem to have mislaid or disposed of my copy of the book, so can’t verify this.

I’d like to think Browne’s argument supports a sceptical or suspicious attitude to all such groundless statements (or tweets), rather than advocacy for ‘anything goes’, ‘quodlibet’ or fake news. I offer it here as a hopeful spot of light in an increasingly dark world.

The notes at the end are what I had to check up online for clarification (I’ve emboldened these terms in his text; otherwise the orthography is as it appears in the first edition). I thought they might help readers follow Browne’s typically labyrinthine style and arcane references (see yesterday’s post on his contributions to the English lexicon. I also recommend the website dedicated to him and his work).

Pt II, section 3 (from the online edition at the Univ. Chicago website, taken from the first edition)

LET well weighed Considerations, not stiff and peremptory Assumptions, guide thy discourses, Pen, and Actions. To begin or continue our works like Trismegistus of old, verum certè verum atque verissimum est, would sound arrogantly unto present Ears in this strict enquiring Age, wherein, for the most part, Probably, and Perhaps, will hardly serve to mollify the Spirit of captious Contradictors. If Cardan saith that a Parrot is a beautiful Bird, Scaliger will set his Wits o’ work to prove it a deformed Animal. The Compage of all Physical Truths is not so closely jointed, but opposition may find intrusion, nor always so closely maintained, as not to suffer attrition. Many Positions seem quodlibetically constituted, and like a Delphian Blade will cut on both sides. Some Truths seem almost Falshoods, and some Falshoods almost Truths; wherein Falshood and Truth seem almost æquilibriously stated, and but a few grains of distinction to bear down the ballance. Some have digged deep, yet glanced by the Royal Vein; and a Man may come unto the Pericardium, but not the Heart of Truth. Besides, many things are known, as some are seen, that is by Parallaxis, or at some distance from their true and proper beings, the superficial regard of things having a different aspect from their true and central Natures. And this moves sober Pens unto suspensory and timorous assertions, nor presently to obtrude them as Sibyls leaves, which after considerations may find to be but folious apparences, and not the central and vital interiours of Truth.

Notes preceded by J: from Dr Johnson’s commentary to his 1756 edition of Browne’s text, from an online edition in Google Books. Others are adapted from the likes of Wikipedia

The Emerald Tablet, also known as the Smaragdine Tablet, or Tabula Smaragdina, is a compact and cryptic piece of the Hermetica reputed to contain the secret of the prima materia and its transmutation. It was highly regarded by European alchemists as the foundation of their art and its Hermetic tradition…Although Hermes Trismegistus is the author named in the text, its first known appearance is in a book written in Arabic between the sixth and eighth centuries.

The layers of meaning in the text have been associated with the creation of the philosopher’s stone, as well as with other esoteric ideas – which would have appealed greatly to polymath Thomas Browne.

Extract from Newton’s translation (from his alchemical papers, now in the library of King’s College, Cambridge) of the text’s beginning:

Tis true without lying, certain and most true.
That which is below is like that which is above
and that which is above is like that is below 
to do the miracles of one only thing.

Cardan: Gerolamo Cardano (1501 – 1576): Italian mathematician, physician, scientist, astrologer, astronomer philosopher, writer.

Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540 – 1609): French Protestant religious leader, historian and scholar. While travelling as a young man in England, he formed an unfavourable opinion of the English (surely not?). Their inhuman disposition and inhospitable treatment of foreigners especially made a negative impression on him (little has changed: see Brexit). He was also disappointed in finding only a few Greek manuscripts and few learned men.

Compage: consistency, solid structure; contraction of separate parts into a whole.

Quodlibetically: in academic contexts, ‘in the manner of a subtle or elaborate argument or point of debate, usually on a theological or scholastic subject.’ Here Browne seems to be using the adverb in the sense of its Latin root, ‘quodlibet’, literally ‘whatever you please’, hence its usage in music for a pot pourri or medley; so he seems to mean here something like ‘ambiguously’ or ‘in a randomly mixed way’. J: ‘determinable on either side’.

Delphian Blade: J – The Delphian Sword became proverbial, not because it cut on both sides, but because it was used to different purposes (i.e. ‘positions’ in discourse can be multivalent).

Royal Vein: J – I suppose the main vein of a mine

Pericardium: J – The main integument of the heart. Lovely word, ‘integument’.

Parallaxis: J – The parallax of a star is the difference between its real and apparent place

Sybil of Delphi, by John Collier, 1891.

Sybil of Delphi, by John Collier, 1891. Art Gallery of South Australia Website Webpage PictureOld source [1], Public Domain,

Sibyls leaves: oak leaves on which their notoriously riddling answers (‘singing the fates’) were written by the famous women oracles, like those at Delphi, or Cumae (who was consulted by Vergil’s Aeneas before his descent into the underworld – of which she acted as guide). The epigraph to Eliot’s The Waste Land is a quotation from Petronius about her longing to die. Browne appears to be invoking epistemological distinctions (as stated in Aristotelian logic) between assertoric propositions – assertions that are unreliable, speculative, possibly untrue or unverifiable, as opposed to apodictic ones, which are a priori (deduced from pure reason), clearly provable and logically certain.




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2 thoughts on “Truth v. falsehood: Sir Thomas Browne and fake news

  1. As I’ve said often recently, we really are ion the way to hell in a handcart. However, I find it fairly alarming that the concept of fake news is so old….

    • Browne is perhaps urging for moderation in discourse, avoidance of dogmatic assertions, but some of our political leaders seem not to heed that advice, hence the current mess

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