Writing for Vanity, Sanity, and Perhaps the Common Good

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (Prologue)

“To this end I write, like them, saith Lucian, that recite to trees, and declaim to pillars for want of auditors: as Paulus Aegineta ingenuously confesseth, not that anything was unknown or omitted, but to exercise myself, which course if some took, I think it would be good for their bodies, and much better for their souls; or peradventure as others do, for fame, to show myself (Scire tuum nihil est, nisi te scire hoc sciat alter). I might be of Thucydides’ opinion, to know a thing and not to express it, is all one as if he knew it not. When I first took this task in hand, et quod ait ille, impellents genio negotium suscepi, this I aimed at; vel ut lenirem animum scribendo, to ease my mind by writing; for I had gravidum cor, foetum caput, a kind of imposthume in my head, which I was very desirous to be unladen of, and could imagine no fitter evacuation than this. Besides, I might not well refrain, for ubi dolor, ibi digitus, one must needs scratch where it itches. I was not a little offended with this malady, shall I say my mistress Melancholy, my Aegeria, or my malus genius? and for that cause, as he that is stung with a scorpion, I would expel clavum clavo, comfort one sorrow with another, idleness with idleness, ut ex vipera Theriacum, make an antidote out of that which was the prime cause of my disease. Or as he did, of whom Felix Plater speaks, that thought he had some of Aristophanes’ frogs in his belly, still crying Brecececec, coax, coax, oop, oop, and for that cause studied physic seven years, and travelled over most part of Europe to ease himself. To do myself good I turned over such physicians as our libraries would afford, or my private friends impart, and have taken this pains. And why not? Cardan professeth he wrote his book, De Consolatione after his son’s death, to comfort himself; so did Tully write of the same subject with like intent after his daughter’s departure, if it be his at least, or some impostor’s put out in his name, which Lipsius probably suspects. Concerning myself, I can peradventure affirm with Marius in Sallust, that which others hear or read of, I felt and practised myself; they get their knowledge by books, I mine by melancholising. Experto crede Roberto. Something I can speak out of experience, aerumnabilis experientia me docuit; and with her in the poet, Haud ignara mali miseris succurrere disco; I would help others out of a fellow-feeling; and, as that virtuous lady did of old, being a leper herself, bestow all her portion to build an hospital for lepers, I will spend my time and knowledge, which are my greatest fortunes, for the common good of all.”

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