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The Problems of Scholarship, Solved
July 2, 2009 - 12:28am


Because I’m on such a tight deadline I pretty much read, write, or think about my topic all the time, so when I go to bed I like to treat myself to something diverting. That’s why I’ve been reading Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621; selected edition by Michigan State UP, 1965).

Though it pretends to be a kind of medical textbook, it’s one of those big crazy erudite rambling books like Montaigne’s that covers about everything, from the “nature of spirits, bad angels, or devils” to the “miseries of marriage” to “fearful dreams and visions.” I think I saw a couple of earthquakes in there, a tempest, and a few “stick-frees [invulnerable men] such as shall endure a rapier’s point, musket shot, and never be wounded….” (“But such examples [of enchantment] are infinite,” Burton says.)

I was pleased recently to read the section titled, “Love of Learning, or Overmuch Study: With a Digression of the Misery of Scholars and Why the Muses are Melancholy.” Studium vehemens, or ardent study, is “an especial cause of madness,” Burton writes, that produces a “peculiar fury.” Isn’t that the truth, even 400 years later? You should hear what I’ve said to the cat when it rubs its cheek oils on the corners of my open laptop. Once, it blushed under its fur.

For a dozen pages Burton nails various problems of scholarship: “And to this day is every scholar poor; / Gross gold from them runs headlong to the boor”…“troubled with gouts, catarrhs, rheums, cachexia, bradypepsia, bad eyes, stone, and colic, crudities, oppilations, vertigo, winds, consumptions, and all such diseases as come by overmuch sitting”.

But the best part is that nobody else, except Twain, can give as good a cussing to those who really need it as Burton can, and he gives scholars their turn for “meditating unto themselves” and being “excellent well learned, but so rude, so silly, that they had no common civility nor knew how to manage their domestic or public affairs”:

Because they cannot ride a horse, which every clown can do, salute and court a gentlewoman, carve at table, cringe and make congees, which every common swasher can do…they are laughed to scorn and accounted silly fools by our gallants. Yea, many times, such is their misery, they deserve it: a mere scholar, a mere ass.

It’s the spirit of a cussing and the manner of its delivery that makes it so invigorating for us all, and it’s particularly bracing when he lets rip on the whole system:

For we [those university bred] are the main cause why the state is oppressed with so many evils; we of our ownselves introduce this sad state of affairs, though deserving meantime any scorn and misery for not counteracting it to the best of our abilities. For what do we expect can happen when every day pell-mell poor sons of Alma Mater, sprung from the soil, manikins of no rank whatsoever, are eagerly admitted to degrees? And if these have learnt by heart one or two definitions and distinctions and spent the usual number of years in chopping logic, it matters not to what profit, whatever kind of fellows they eventually turn out to be, idiots, triflers, idlers, gamesters, tipplers, worthless, slaves to lust and pleasure…provided they have spent so many years at the university and passed muster as gownsmen, they are presented for lucre’s sake and through the interest of their friends—I may add often with splendid testimonials to their morals and learning; and on leaving college they are furnished with these, written most amply in their favor by those who undoubtedly thereby abandon good faith and lose credit….

The only thing our annual officials generally desire is that they may squeeze money from the number of those who take degrees, nor do they much care what manner of men they are, whether literate or illiterate, provided they are fat, and sleek, and handsome, and to sum up in one word, monied.

Philosophasters who have no art become Masters of Arts, and the authorities bid those be wise who are endowed with no wisdom and bring nothing to their degree but the desire to take it. Theologasters, sufficiently and more than sufficiently learned if they but pay the fees, emerge full-blown B.D.’s and D.D.’s. And hence it happens that such sorry buffoons everywhere, so many idiots, placed in the twilight of letters, ghosts of pastors, itinerant quacks, stupid, dolts, clods, asses, mere animals, burst with unwashed feet into the sacred precincts…bringing nothing but a brazen countenance, some vulgar trash, and scholastic trifles hardly worth hearing on the high roads.

Purged of sin by this excoriation, I fell dead asleep like a little crusader, the Melancholy folded over my heart and a martyred smile on my face, and dreamt of walking as though enchanted through the infernos of censure and blame….


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