I’ve been pondering Jim Holt’s review of a biography of Sir Thomas Browne. You don’t often see Browne, who is a mandarin’s mandarin writer, given space in the NYT. The review was evidently launched from the side that does not appreciate Browne as a writer. So be it. Yet there was an emphasis on Browne’s belief in witchcraft that I found troubling – notably this paragraph:
:Browne harbored some foolish beliefs himself, even by the standards of his time. Notably, he believed in witches. Worse, he acted on this belief. In 1662, the supposed savant offered expert testimony at a trial in which two elderly widows were convicted of practicing witchcraft and hanged. The trial at which Browne testified cast a long shadow, serving as an exemplar for the infamous Salem witch trials in America 30 years later.”
Foolish belief it may have been, but Holt’s paragraph has a certain positivist peremptoryness that is unfair and distorting. Sir Robert Boyle, Browne’s contemporary and certainly one of the heros in the creation of early modern science, wrote a preface to Glanvill’s book defending the belief in witchcraft. One could round up a number of worthies whose beliefs, if parsed through the lens of foolish belief, might not be spared the condenscension of the popular science writer, including Newton, who of course spent a good number of years working out the numerology of the apocalypse. Newton is actually a case in point of the use of foolish beliefs, since it has long been known that the action at a distance that he ratified against the Cartesian insistance on the naïve material world picture that depended on vortices was borrowed from the alchemists.
Browne’s testimony against the hapless defendents in the Bury St. Edmond’s trial. Browne testified that the accounts given by the bewitched could be evidence of a satanic power devised against them. He didn’t give his opinion as to the guilt, however, of the accused. As has been noted by one of Browne’s biographers, his testimony was an odd amalgam of naturalizing description – “that the devil in such cases did work upon a natural foundation” - and orthodox witch belief. However, one must grant that Browne’s opinion, which was considered expert, may well have converted the jury to condemning the two women, Amy Denny and Rose Cullender.
Their deaths should stain Browne’s reputation, just as Locke’s investments in the slave trade and arguments for slavery as head of the Board of Trade in response to various laws in Virginia should forever stain his. Let all the ghosts be heard. But I don’t think this should serve the idea of some few “modern” scientific men advancing our consciousness. Because it is never like that.