Friday, September 24, 2010


Burton's Characters

Robert Burton recommmends, "I would advise him that is actually melancholy not to read this tract of Symptoms, lest he disquiet or make himself for a time worse, and more melancholy than he was before." (Anatomy of Melancholy, Part I, Sec. 3, Mem. 1, Subs. 2.) I suffer a bit from melancholy, but I find Burton's treatise a welcome distraction, and I can't take his advice not to read it. For years I just dipped into his book here and there, but I recently started reading it from cover to cover.

Certain paragraphs of Burton seem similar to character sketches by Theophrastus, Joseph Earle, Samuel Butler, and others. Here are Burton's character sketches of 1) the suspicious and jealous man, and 2) the bashful man, both from the subsection just cited:
Suspicion, and jealousy, are general symptoms: they are commonly distrustful, apt to mistake, and amplify, facilè irascibiles, testy, pettish, peevish, and ready to snarl upon every small occasion, cum amicissimis, and without a cause, datum vel non datum, it will be scandalum acceptum. If they speak in jest, he takes it in good earnest. If they be not saluted, invited, consulted with, called to counsel, &c., or that any respect, small compliment, or ceremony be omitted, they think themselves neglected, and contemned; for a time that tortures them. If two talk together, discourse, whisper, jest, or tell a tale in general, he thinks presently they mean him, applies all to himself, de se putat omnia dici. Or if they talk with him, he is ready to misconstrue every word they speak, and interpret it to the worst; he cannot endure any man to look steadily on him, speak to him almost, laugh, jest, or be familiar, or hem, or point, cough, or spit, or make a noise sometimes, &c. He thinks they laugh or point at him, or do it in disgrace of him, circumvent him, contemn him; every man looks at him, he is pale, red, sweats for fear and anger, lest somebody should observe him. He works upon it, and long after this false conceit of an abuse troubles him.


Crato, Laurentius, and Fernelius, put bashfulness for an ordinary symptom, subrusticus pudor, or vitiosus pudor, is a thing which much haunts and torments them. If they have been misused, derided, disgraced, chidden, &c., or by any perturbation of mind, misaffected, it so far troubles them, that they become quite moped many times, and so disheartened, dejected, they dare not come abroad, into strange companies especially, or manage their ordinary affairs, so childish, timorous, and bashful, they can look no man in the face; some are more disquieted in this kind, some less, longer some, others shorter, by fits, &c., though some on the other side (according to Fracastorius) be inverecundi et pertinaces, impudent and peevish. But most part they are very shamefaced, and that makes them with Pet. Blesensis, Christopher Urswick, and many such, to refuse honours, offices, and preferments, which sometimes fall into their mouths, they cannot speak, or put forth themselves as others can, timor hos, pudor impedit illos, timorousness and bashfulness hinder their proceedings, they are contented with their present estate, unwilling to undertake any office, and therefore never likely to rise. For that cause they seldom visit their friends, except some familiars: pauciloqui, of few words, and oftentimes wholly silent. Frambeserius, a Frenchman, had two such patients, omnino taciturnos, their friends could not get them to speak: Rodericus à Fonseca consult. tom. 2. 85. consil. gives instance in a young man, of twenty-seven years of age, that was frequently silent, bashful, moped, solitary, that would not eat his meat, or sleep, and yet again by fits apt to be angry, &c.
I don't see myself in the portrait of the suspicious and jealous man, but reading the character sketch of the bashful man is like looking at myself in the mirror.

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