Robert Burton (February 8, 1577 – January 25, 1640) was an English scholar and vicar at Oxford University, best known for writing The Anatomy of Melancholy.
Life and work
Born at Lindley, Leicestershire, Burton spent most of his life at Oxford, first as a pupil at Brasenose College, and then as a Student (the equivalent of a fellow at other Oxford and Cambridge colleges) of Christ Church. He studied a large number of diverse subjects, many of which informed his masterful study of melancholia for which he is chiefly famous. He was appointed vicar of St. Thomas Church in Oxford in 1616, and in 1630 he was also made the rector of Segrave, Leicester. Apart from The Anatomy of Melancholy his only other published work is Philosophaster, a satirical Latin comedy.
Read Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, free from Project Gutenberg.
He wrote The Anatomy of Melancholy largely to write himself out of being a lifelong sufferer from depression. As he described his condition in the preface "Democritus Junior to the Reader,"
"for I had gravidum cor, foetum caput [a heavy heart, and hatchling in my head], a kind of imposthume in my head, which I was very desirous to be unladen of."
Therefore, the treatise itself was intended as treatment. Again, from the preface:
"I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy. There is no greater cause of melancholy than idleness, no better cure than business."
However, this sentence may also be interpreted ironically, as Burton is citing a well-known adage of the time. Indeed, the entire preface is quite satirical in nature — at one point Burton pretends to warn melancholy people to avoid his book for fear of exacerbating their symptoms:
"Yet one caution let me give by the way to my present or future reader, who is actually melancholy, that he read not the symptoms or prognostics in the following tract, lest by applying that which he reads to himself, aggravating, appropriating things generally spoken to his own person (as melancholy men for the most part do), he trouble or hurt himself, and get in conclusion more harm than good."
The parenthetical aside is delightfully tongue-in-cheek.
The work, published under the pseudonym Democritus Junior in 1621, was quite popular. In the words of Thomas Warton:
"the author's variety of learning, his quotations from rare and curious books, his pedantry sparkling with rude wit and shapeless elegance ... have rendered it a repertory of amusement and information".
Later authors sometimes drew from the work without acknowledgment (such accusations were leveled at Laurence Sterne's book Tristram Shandy). Samuel Johnson considered it one of his favorite books.
Burton was a mathematician and dabbled in astrology. When not depressed he was an amusing companion, "very merry, facete, and juvenile," and a person of "great honesty, plain dealing, and charity." Merry, indeed, Burton had favorite sources for laughter. In 1728 Bishop Kennet wrote that:
"I have heard that nothing could make him laugh, but going down to the Bridge-foot in Oxford and hearing the Barge-men scold and storm and swear at one another, at which he would set his Hands to his Sides, and laugh most profusely."
Burton's burial in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, evinces that rumors of his suicide by hanging are unfounded.
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