On Melancholy

Author: Robert BurtonPublisher: Hesperus Press

“I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy. There is no greater cause of melancholy than idleness, no better cure than business.”

And with that Robert Burton states his reasons for writing The Anatomy of Melancholy. While it may have cured his own melancholy I doubt that his ministrations would cure others.

Written in the seventeenth-century by a fervent academic, The Anatomy of Melancholy is a sprawling work by an author who adhered staunchly to the school of splatter gun writing with wild digressions and masses of references and quotations. Originally 1500 pages long, the new 108 page edition with handy subtitles is a very welcome abridgement of a rather odd book.

Burton divides his work into four parts, beginning with an arcane introduction in which Burton addresses the reader in the guise of Democritus, the ‘laughing philosopher’ of ancient Greece. The first part of the book addresses the definitions, symptoms and causes of melancholy, the second part discusses a range of cures and the third concludes with a close examination of melancholy arising from love and religion.

Some of Burton’s comments and advice ring true even four hundred years later: “A true saying is that gluttony kills more than the sword, this all-devouring and murdering gut“; “Nothing better than exercise (if opportunely used) for the preservation of the body“; “To the unhappy man nothing is dearer than solitude, where there is none to reproach him for his misery.” However, his digressions on bird migration, fossils and continental drift are less helpful.

What I can say about this book is that while it will not cure you of melancholy (rather undefined a term as it is by Burton) it is very interesting to learn about seventeenth-century perspectives on psychology and physiology, frequently addressing issues that could be diagnosed properly today, including agoraphobia, anxiety and panic attacks. From a historical perspective, his discussions of contemporary issues such as religious heresy and Islam are illuminating.

This book is a great taster for those who might want to take on the full leviathan 1500 page original. I however was happy with just 108.

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