Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy: An Appreciation

December 16, 2014

Burton, R 1621, Anatomy of Melancholy, J.W. Moore 1857, s.1.

By Dr. Raymond Hardy and Gayle Allan


Anatomy of Melancholy

It was at a family gathering in May 2014 that I was chatting with my 82 year-old Uncle Ray. He commented on how, in retirement, his interests and reading had broadened. The nature of our discussions led me to recommend to him one of my favourite books, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. I suggested he read it and send me some first impressions. When he did, his reaction was so strongly positive, and his pleasure in it so apparent, we thought it might be fun to write an appreciation of this wonderful book together. Although it could be thought that we have little in common academically (Ray has two degrees in Engineering and a PhD in Mining, while my background is various degrees in the Arts area), we are both higher education teachers and life-long students. Ray has lectured in Civil Engineering for seven years of a total of more than 60 years in the mining industry, while I have been teaching and learning for over 25 years.

So, we meet in our shared lecturing experiences, and our pursuit of a life of scholarship, to offer this joint appreciation of Robert Burton’s magnificent opus, The Anatomy of Melancholy.


In Classical, Medieval and Renaissance medicine, melancholy was one of the four humours, fluids that determined the mental, physical and spiritual health of the body. Good health relied on all four humours being balanced, thus promoting a feeling of ease and comfort. Any dominance by one or more humours caused dis-ease. A person whose body contained an excess of melancholy was said to suffer from melancholia, with symptoms of fear, sadness, withdrawal, fits of rage, and suspicion. Melancholia had various disease profiles (it was said to be the cause of jealousy for example), which depended on the mix of the other humours and the severity of the imbalance. Those who suffered from melancholia were said to have a melancholy temperament.

Historically, melancholia was thought to be a spur to great artistic creativity. Aristotle saw it as a condition that “afflicted all great men”, although he, and his Classical and Medieval counterparts, also generally viewed melancholia as an “unwelcome disease” (Schiesari 1992, p.7). However, the condition was valorised in the Renaissance period, initially by Florentine philosopher Marcello Ficino (like Burton, a self-confessed sufferer), who argued that melancholia was an indication of the especially gifted, an “elite illness” that enabled the sensitivity and despair necessary for creative thought and production. However, Ficino was clear that melancholia only afflicted men (not women) in this particular way, and was regarded as a “specific representational form for male creativity” (Schiesari 1992, p.7). Some critics view Ficino’s efforts to valorise the humour as an attempt to nullify the feminising potential of melancholy – the sadness, the sensitivity, the tearfulness, the exaggerated emotional states – and reclaim it for men. Many of his other counterparts soon followed suit.

However, in The Anatomy of Melancholy, their contemporary Robert Burton acknowledges and embraces both the elevating and emasculating effect of melancholy, and does not downplay the potentially disruptive nature of such a volatile humour. Burton, like Ficino, suffered from melancholy (he contends that most scholars do), and admits that there is a large amount of self-interest motivating his writing of Anatomy. In his ‘Introduction’ Burton claims, “I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy.”

Now, over to Uncle Ray…


Your correspondent – turned reviewer – is very conscious of the manifest status-disparity between his dwarf-like scholastic skills and the gigantic intellect of the author of the book being reviewed. But, as Robert Burton, Oxford Scholar (1577 -1640), so famously wrote in the ‘Introduction’ to his much-admired, iconic, three-volume classic treatise The Anatomy of Melancholy (published 1621 under the pseudonym Democritus Junior): “A dwarf standing on the shoulders of giants can see further.” This most fascinating metaphor gripped my attention – it seemed familiar. In the follow up the sustained popularity of ‘dwarves-standing-on giant’s-shoulders’ with authors in many disciplines became an interest that had to be pursued to conclusion. Certainly Burton not only completed a great work on melancholia, updating it several times in his lifetime; his metaphorical and general quotations are an invaluable, impressive supplementary benefit.

Brief research revealed that earliest recorded attribution of ‘a dwarf standing on the shoulders of giants’ was by John of Salisbury (c.1120 – 1180AD), English author and Vatican diplomat. John cited Bernard of Chartres, an early twelfth-century French author, Neo-Platonist philosopher and scholar. On the assassination of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, John left England to become Bishop of Chartres for the remainder of his life.

Another interesting adoption of the metaphor of ‘a-dwarf-on giant’s-shoulders seeing-further’ was by Isaac Newton, second Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge (for 33years). In a letter to Robert Hooke, Newton acknowledged mathematical and scientific contributions of René Descartes, a French Philosopher and mathematician; and of Hooke himself, an English natural philosopher, architect and mathematician; and wrote “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”. Newton was referring to his solution of the Universal Law of Gravitation and elliptical planetary orbits. Samuel Taylor Coleridge has also been cited as adopting the metaphor (1828). So much could be written about Coleridge, but to start would be opening Pandora’s Box.

A contemporary example of adoption of the metaphor is a book title, On The Shoulders of Giants: The Great Works of Physics and Astronomy, by Stephen Hawking (2002) Emeritus Lucasian Professor of Mathematics (the 17th and for 30 years). The book’s title is an apt one, as it is a compilation of the works of Nicolas Copernicus, Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler and Albert Einstein.

It is also notable that the dwarf-giant metaphor has found its way into modern music compositions in lyrics, titles and album titles by English composers. So follows the hypothetical conclusion of the pervasiveness of Burton’s influence on the past 400 years of English authorship in all knowledge disciplines by ‘dwarves’ and ‘giants’ alike. It is reasonable to conclude that English authors would have been aware of Burton’s scholarship and taken opportunity to embellish their work with the wealth of metaphor and quotations his work provides.

In review it became manifest that when hypothetically treating ‘a-dwarf-standing-on-giant’s-shoulders-can-see-further’ as a proposition (as in geometry), a logical first corollary is that ‘a-giant-standing-on-a-powerful-dwarf’s-shoulders-can also see further’; about the same distance. A logical second corollary is that ‘a-giant-standing-on-a-giant’s-shoulders can see even further’. It seems that through the history of development of Knowledge, in all disciplines by our species (notwithstanding expressions of humility), the second corollary was and is likely applicable.

Notwithstanding the hypothetical assignment of credit for genesis of all of the examples above and generally implied to Robert Burton, the world of written and spoken art owes him a great deal more credit for the benchmark he created.

Returning to Burton’s analysis of melancholia, it is understandable that Burton’s scholastic concentration was isolating in effect. It does not surprise me that depression is common in ageing academics. When I finished my PhD thesis in 2007 it felt like a death in the family. I lost a long-time friend. I think concentration and focus on a specific research subject creates a small world of its own with the author being the sole occupier. That is a comfortable world of high personal achievement, pride and ego massaging as the treatise unfolds; a world where it is easy to fall into the abyss of melancholia when the last paragraph rolls off the printer. Fortunately I was Secretary of a Rotary Club, lectured in short term Masters programmes at the School of Mines and did a seminar presentation every couple of months. But my personal experience makes me sympathetic to Burton’s need to immerse himself in dissecting the events that are the anatomy of melancholy to avoid descending into his own melancholia.

On reflection of Burton’s ‘Introduction’, I detected a note of irony – even false modesty. Burton gives scant importance to the then traditional fashion of anonymity or nom de plumes, for example he disingenuously uses pseudonym ‘Democritus Junior’ in one breath, and then ‘outs’ himself in the next. What did Burton see in the ancient Greek philosopher, Democritus, an Atomist, as common with himself? Certainly Democritus was an iconic scholar as was Burton. Democritus was highly esteemed by his fellow citizens and is reported as living solely for his studies and was known as the Laughing or Mocking Philosopher. He was a mathematician, as was Burton, who also dabbled in astronomy. Whereas Democritus drew much amusement from the ineptitudes of his fellow citizens, Burton visited a local bridge to hear the profanities of the bargemen that dissolved him in great laughter. Perhaps Burton fancied himself and Democritus as fellow travellers in the world of scholarship and that, when their spirits finally met, they could enjoy a good laugh together.

All professional people at sometime in their career – particularly those in academia, should read Burton. Current school curricula neglect many of the benefits I enjoyed in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Fortunately my primary and secondary schooling involved English in all the standard forms with Literature the focus in high school. Poetry, Shakespearean plays and essays, plus creative composition, were all on the menu.  Also, fortunately, I became a serious reader for life of technical tomes and an egalitarian spread of topics from ancient philosophers to modern natural science – and, of course, many paperback novels.

Reading has been a most valuable contribution to my life. Discovering Ernest Hemingway’s skill with the single word sentence was for me like a prospector finding a significant gold nugget. When it finally came to writing reports for executives, compiling a thesis, letters for a wide range of purposes, my early education was a sound foundation for adaptation to different styles. It has been disappointing to observe increasing neglect of those so essential, basic skills that enable students and graduates to be comfortable with the written and spoken word. As a convert to the concept that all human activity is evolutionary, I find current school curricula to be to some degree inappropriate. With knowledge doubling every two years or so, it will be more important to know how to search for knowledge than attempt to remember it. If current school graduate skills are evolution by adaptation and natural selection, then I have completely misunderstood Charles Darwin. Perhaps Darwin should be on school curricula.

With so much more that could be said about The Anatomy of Melancholy and author Robert Burton, I leave the subject now with the uncomfortable feeling that my task has just begun.


Ray’s observation about knowing how to search for knowledge is such an important one in our information-saturated world. We can never hope to access all that is available, nor to remember all we have seen and read and heard. What we do need to know is how to discover or rediscover ideas ourselves. Robert Burton’s mighty effort, and his ‘dwarf-giant’ metaphor reminds us of that. It is not in most of us to write a three-volume meditation on a single subject (although he does ‘drift’ a little), but we can draw on the work of all of who have gone before us, as Burton does, if we just know where and how to look.

Neither Uncle Ray nor myself would have ever thought that a collaboration such as this would have been possible, given the diversity of our academic backgrounds. But it is fitting that it was brought about by a mutual interest in a book written by a man who committed himself to life-long learning, as we have. Robert Burton – we salute you!

Schiesari, J 1992, The Gendering of Melancholia: Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Symbolics of Loss in Renaissance Literature, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London.

One Response to “Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy: An Appreciation”

  1. […] is Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy: An Appreciation by Raymond Hardy and Gayle Allan. After Gayle’s review of the term ‘melancholia’ […]

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