In “Exercise Rectified of Body and Mind,” Burton praises the “many flourishing Commonwealths” that prescribe “labour and exercise to all sorts of men” to “prevent those grievous mischiefs that come by idlenesse.”1 It is to the cause of idleness that Burton attributes “this feral disease of melancholy” that “so frequently rageth … amongst our great ones.”2 And for this reason, he says, “there can be no better cure, then continuall businesse, as Rhasis holds, to have some employment or other, which may set their minde aworke, and distract their cogitations” (2:68). Of all such distracting employments, he says, “there is none so generall, so aptly to be applyed to all sorts of men, so fit & proper to expell Idlenesse and Melancholy, as that of Study” (2:84). This advice would seem to contradict the Aristotelian view of melancholy as a highly unstable humor that could produce a frenzied state of genius if overheated, which, Aristotle’s commentators argued, was more likely to occur through mental overexertion. Modern scholars have therefore tended to regard Burton’s own elaborate study either as an unwitting propagation of the disease it seeks to alleviate or an ironic illustration of the way that scholarly melancholia endlessly perpetuates itself through more and more study. This chapter hopes to show how Burton subtly elides pathological explanations of melancholia while at the same time revising the grounds on which the physiological relation between melancholy and genius had historically been drawn. He regards the intense concentration required to produce adust brilliance as a hazard for the melancholic, for whom he sees no better cure than diversion. He is adamant on this point: treatment of melancholic dishumor demands recreation of the spirits. He lists many ways by which this may be accomplished but considers study the best by far (2:90). The regimen of diverse and diverting study that Burton breathlessly describes in “Exercise Rectified of Body and Mind” and models in the “Digression of the Ayre” has led scholars to characterize the Anatomy as the work of an amateur who moves across too great a
1 Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Thomas C. Faulkner, Nicolas K. Kiessling, and Rhonda Blair, 6 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 2:67. Unless otherwise indicated, all references to the Anatomy are to this edition, hereafter cited parenthetically in text by volume and page number.