Overmuch Study


Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy is among the most entertaining of reads, hardly a psychological manual but perhaps more intuitively insightful than any modern psychological manual (what I share below, for example, is echoed in contemporary lingo by a recent New Yorker article revealing that over 50% of graduate students, compared to only 10% of the general population, report feeling so depressed that they cannot function).

The Anatomy of Melancholy is a medical compilation of ‘psychological’ texts from the early 17th century. I take the book to be making the overall claim that melancholy is the human condition, offering explanations of different types of melancholy generated by life’s various preoccupations–money, love, work, family, school, etc. Overmuch study generates the brand of melancholy specific to scholars. Better than I could, the following comes close to describing the condition of a graduate student during finals week.

Let’s start with two reasons as to why students are plagued by the melancholy of overmuch study:

The one is, they live a sedentary, solitary life, sibi et Musis, free from bodily exercise and those ordinary disports which other men use; and many times if discontent and idleness concur with it, which is too frequent, they are precipitated into this gulf on a sudden. But the common cause is overmuch study; too much learning, as Festus told Paul, hath made thee mad.”

The second is contemplation, ‘which dries the brain and extinguisheth natural heat; for whilst the spirits arc intent to meditation above in the head, the stomach and liver are left destitute, and thence come black blood and crudities by defect of concoction, and for want of exercise the superfluous vapors cannot exhale,’ etc.”

That second point explains why I’m always cold. And this one gives a clue as to why my looks are going:

And something more they add, that hard students are commonly troubled with gouts, catarrhs, rheums, cachexia, bradiopepsia, bad eyes, stone, and colic, crudities, oppilations, vertigo, winds, consumptions, and all such diseases as come by overmuch sitting; they are most part lean, dry, ill-colored, spend their fortunes, lose their wits and many times their lives, and all through immoderate pains and extraordinary studies. If you will not believe the truth of this, look upon great Tostatus’ and Thomas Aquinas’ works, and tell me whether those men took pains?”

And my lack of physical agility:

Because they cannot ride an horse, which every clown can do, salute and court a gentlewoman, carve at table, cringe, and make conges, which every common swasher can do, hos populusridet, etc., 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. . . . Thus they go commonly meditating unto themselves, thus they sit, such is their action and gesture.”

 And a prediction of my conceivable future with a philosophy degree:

But our patrons of learning are so far nowadays from respecting the Muses and giving that honor to scholars or reward which they deserve…that after all their pains taken in the universities, cost and charge, expenses, irksome hours, laborious tasks, wearisome days, dangers, hazards (barred interim from all pleasures which other men have, mewed up like hawks all their lives), if they chance to wade through them, they shall in the end be rejected, contemned, and, which is their greatest misery, driven to their shifts, exposed to want, poverty, and beggary. . .”

And if the overmuch study hasn’t yet led to melancholy, “the conceit of this alone [is] enough to make [us] all melancholy.”






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