Radio 4 is running a series of programmes about The Anatomy of Melancholy in the coming days. Here is a speech I wrote in the late 1990s about the book.
Robert Burton was a man who knew a thing or two about depression. He wrote three volumes, nearly 1500 pages, about its causes, symptoms and cures. His book is called The Anatomy of Melancholy, and he devoted almost his whole life to writing it. He was born in 1577, making him a contemporary of Shakespeare. He went to Oxford University in 1593, and never ventured much further than the library, until his death forty-seven years later.
We like to think that books which help us to live our lives to the full, like Dale Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, are thanks to new discoveries we have made in the C20th. In fact, self-help books go back to the Bible and even further into the Classical world, when philosophers like Plato and Socrates offered their pupils practical wisdom.
Burton wrote a guide on how to cope with life’s miseries, setbacks and misfortunes in the C17th. What relevance does it have for today? I’ll leave it for you to decide. I can’t summarise the whole contents of three volumes in ten minutes, but I shall give you a few random examples of Robert Burton’s views on why we are sometimes sad, and you can judge whether it is as relevant now as it was then.
Burton says there is nothing more depressing than losing money. He illustrates this with a Latin quotation:
Ploratur lacrimis amissa pecunia veris
Lost money is bewailed with grief sincere.
He goes on to add that losing large sums of money can make a man suicidal. He shows this by telling the story of a poor man who went to hang himself, but who by chance found a pot of money, so he flung away the rope and went merrily home: but when the man who hid the gold, discovered it was gone, he hanged himself with the rope the other man had left, because he was so upset.
If losing money is upsetting, applying for a job makes us anxious and expectant.
Burton tells a story about a job that came up in the church. An important cleric died one day, and before the corpse was cold, the would-be successors were putting in their applications. One man was the deputy, so he thought he had a good chance, another man could pull strings, an outside man had brilliant references, but amongst them was a modest, well-mannered and highly-qualified man who suited the job perfectly. He got the job, and Burton describes what great rejoicing there was. Then he adds: “You have heard my tale, but alas! It is a tale, a mere fiction, twas never so, never like to be, and so let it rest”.
Notice Burton doesn’t turn to opinion polls or statistics to make his pronouncements, he uses ancient authors and appealing stories to convey his message. Today, if we have problems with our love life, we would probably look at an article in Cosmopolitan or Marie Claire. It is interesting to compare what these magazines say with what Burton says. Cosmopolitan says being in love is the greatest feeling you can have, Robert Burton thinks it’s awful. He describes men in love as utterly ridiculous.
‘Love is blind, as the saying is, Cupid’s blind, and so are all his followers. Every lover admires his mistress though she be wrinkled, pimpled, have a swollen juggler’s platter face, bald, goggle-eyed, sparrow-mouthed, having a Persian hooked nose, with a Bavarian poke under her chin, her breath stink all over the room, gouty legs, crooked back and pendulis mammis, ‘her dugs like two double jugs’ – he admires her for all of this, he takes no notice of any such errors or imperfections of body or mind, he had rather have her than any other woman in the world.’
Burton then spends dozens of pages explaining how to stop yourself falling in love. Exercise regularly, keep a strict diet, don’t be idle, be busy and you will be safe. He quotes and man called Siriacides:
Gaze not on a maid turn away thine eyes from a beautiful woman.
And if you can’t stop yourself, travel abroad and get her out of your sight. Finally, after about twenty pages, Burton gets to the most desperate remedy of all…to get married. But when he has made his jokes he accepts that marriage has its advantages and disadvantages.
Man’s best possession is a loving wife
She tempers anger and diverts all strife.
Burton quickly moves on to the problems that arise between married partners. He tells an anecdote about a wise lady who once heard a woman complaining that her husband would come home to her every evening and start rowing with her. The wise lady gave her a glass of water, and told her to drink it whenever her husband came home in a foul mood. She tried it, and it worked. The rowing stopped. The woman went back to the lady and asked what she put in the water. The lady replied ‘fair water’ and no more: for it was not the water, but her silence that performed the cure.
I could go on listing examples of Burton’s practical wisdom. But I want to emphasise that Burton always suggested robust cures for the depressive conditions he describes. For instance, he says nothing brings greater distress than the sudden loss of a loved one. So he recommends that from time to time we imagine to ourselves that a wife, a close friend or a child dies in an horrible accident, a murder or some other catastrophe. We hope it won’t happen to us. But such things do happen to others. By admitting to ourselves that it could happen, we can stop ourselves going mad with grief if they occur.
Burton was a wise and canny man. It would not have surprised him to discover that his life’s work is extremely difficult to get hold of in the C20th, and that the public prefers thousands of poorer and paler imitations. To buy The Anatomy of Melancholy will cost you £220 at the Oxford University Press. The last easily accessible edition was published in 1932. I urge you to look for a copy in a second hand book shop or public library. (As of 2020 a complete version is available on Amazon, but look out for the new Penguin Classics edition which will appear in July 2020)
I have only been able to give you a flavour of Burton’s enormous work. I hope I have convinced you that this scholarly old man has a shrewd insight into human nature, and what made a person depressed in the C17th is very similar to what vexes us in the C20th.
Like all good writers, Burton’s message is essentially very simple. He is a gentle pessimist, he doesn’t think we can all be rich, successful and exceptional, he would be quick to list the horrible disadvantages if we were. After 1500 pages his parting advice to those with a heavy heart and a sorrowful countenance is this:
..give not way to solitariness and idleness,
be not solitary, be not idle
‘Sperate Miseri, Cavete Felices’
‘Hope, unhappy ones: ye happy ones, fear’