The Antidote to Melancholy: Robert Burton’s Centuries-Old Salve for Depression, Epochs Ahead of Science

“Whosoever… is overrun with solitariness, or carried away with pleasing melancholy and vain conceits… or crucified with worldly care, I can prescribe him no better remedy than… to compose himself to the learning of some art or science.”

The Antidote to Melancholy: Robert Burton’s Centuries-Old Salve for Depression, Epochs Ahead of Science

The discovery of the crucible for consciousness within the body was made centuries before the advent of modern neuroscience. This is also before William James’ pioneering theory about how emotions are affected by our bodies, which was published in Epochs prior to the invention of modern neuroscience. Robert Burton (February 8, 1577–January 25, 1640) took up these questions in his 1621 tome The Anatomy of Melancholy (public library | public domain), observing that “there is almost no part of the body, which being distempered, doth not cause this malady.”

An impressive florilegium nearing a thousand pages strewn with a progenitor of hypertext, the book weaves together a cornucopia of quotations from earlier writers, from Seneca to Solomon, to illustrate Burton’s central points — many radical then, some radical still — about a subject he examines “philosophically, medicinally, historically, opened and cut up”; a subject of which he had an early and intimate experience. “That which others hear or read of,” he wrote, “I felt and practised myself; they get their knowledge by books, I mine by melancholizing.”

Gilbert Jackson 1635, Robert Burton

Burton was only a teenager when he was plunged into his first episode of debilitating depression — a term that did not yet exist in the modern sense, because mental health did not yet exist as a clinical concept. This “melancholy,” which often left him with “a heavy heart and an ugly head,” was so disabling that it took him more than a decade to complete his studies at Oxford. He kept trying to leave the university and start an independent life, but never quite managed, lamenting his “hopes frustrated” and feeling “left behind, as a Dolphin on shore.”

Eventually — centuries before psychologists demonstrated that revising our inner narrative about a situation is the only way to improve our experience of that situation — Burton reoriented to his circumstance, coming to feel that his “monastick life” protected him “from those tumults & troubles of the world.” Out of this conflicted isolation, he composed Anatomy of MelancholySubtitled What it is, with all the kinds, causes, symptomes, prognostickes, & severall cures of it.”The book touched lives such as Nick Cave, Jorge Luis Borges and Samuel Johnson. Keats — whose brief and light-giving life was punctuated by periodic onslaughts of darkness — declared it his favorite book.

Whitman was a great example of this with his book Leaves of Grass, Burton kept obsessively revising and expanding his magnum opus, publishing five more editions by the end of his life — no small triumph for a book in the first century since the Printing Revolution, or a book in any era, especially one nearly a thousand pages long.

Frontispiece from the 2nd edition, 1626.

Burton inhabited the golden age of Renaissance anatomy, when Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings peered into the distant future of medicine. However, medicine was as primitive as a knife directed at the body. This led to total Cartesian exclusion for the mind. Psychology was not even a faint contour in humanity’s imagination. Three and a quarter centuries had passed before neuroscience became a reality. It was a remarkable leap of imagination that Burton used a term from physiology in order to understand a new psychology. But even as a progressive of his era, he was also — like every visionary — a product of his era. (Which is alright — as I often say, even the farthest seers can’t bend their gaze beyond their era’s horizon of understanding; to expect of them otherwise is ahistorical hubris and an act of cruelty toward the limits of their time and place, which they chose no more than we have chosen ours.) Burton endorsed the humoral theory of the human body, navigated life-decisions by astrological calculations, earnestly believed in a physiological basis for men’s intellectual superiority, celebrated barbarisms like hunting and hawking as spiritually worthy recreations, and excluded women from all recreations of the mind, relegating them to “curious needleworks,” the making and showing off of “confections, conserves, distillations, &c.,” and the tending to “sweet-smelling flowers” in the garden.

And yet, through his convoluted Old English and his epochal blind spots, there shines a bright and clear light of understanding — a beam stretching backward and forward in time, to the dawn of our species and to the far future of our science, illuminating what it means to be human and what we can do to magnify the light of our humanity even in our darkest hours.

Jacob’s DreamWilliam Blake 1805 This print is also available as a stationery card, a mask, or as an image.

Burton will treasure this phrase. Magnificence is the word Burton uses over and over for the activities he most recommends as salves for depression — he writes of how reading, walking, and art “much magnify” the person who partakes of them; four centuries before neurologist Oliver Sacks reflected on forty years of medical practice to point to gardens as one of the two things that have most helped his patients heal, Burton writes of a royal garden that “highly magnifies” the visitor’s spirit.

This is the essence of his insight — the way our physiological experience and our psychological experience can magnify each other. He wrote:

To that great inconvenience, which comes on the one side by immoderate and unseasonable exercise, too much solitariness and idleness on the other, must be opposed as an antidote, a moderate and seasonable use of it… both of body and mind… conducing to… the general preservation of our health.

Burton is able to see the time period between Hippocrates and Galen’s birth and holistic health as it exists today. He distills what his predecessors recommended for optimal health. He observes that of the “labours, exercises, and recreations” most commonly recommended, “some properly belong to the body, some to the mind, some more easy, some hard, some with delight, some without, some within doors, some natural, some are artificial.” He then goes on to make his own recommendation for the activities most potent as antidotes to melancholy. A beautiful passage is dedicated to running, dancing and other country and urban sports.

Spring Moon on Ninomiya Beach, 1931 — one of Hasui Kawase’s vintage Japanese woodblocks. Prints available.

Precisely a quarter millennium before Thomas Bernhard observed that “there is nothing more revealing than to see a thinking person walking, just as there is nothing more revealing than to see a walking person thinking,” and two centuries before Nietzsche extolled the mental benefits of walking, Burton writes:

To walk amongst orchards, gardens, bowers, mounts, and arbours, artificial wildernesses, green thickets, arches, groves, lawns, rivulets, fountains… brooks, pools, fishponds, between wood and water, in a fair meadow, by a river side… in some pleasant plain, park, run up a steep hill sometimes, or sit in a shady seat… [is] a delectable recreation.

Noting that such recreations can uniquely “refresh and give content to a melancholy dull spirit,” and that they are universally and readily available to just about anyone anywhere, he adds:

Each palace and every city has its own unique walks, cloisters and terraces.

One of artist Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a rare 1913 English edition of Leaves of Grass. Available as a printed version.

Burton moves on from the exercise and care of the body to discuss the exercise and care of the mind. He evaluates various options for the best antidote against melancholy.

There is chess, “invented (some say) by the general of an army in a famine, to keep soldiers from mutiny” — an activity he considers “good and witty exercise of the mind,” sure to allay melancholy in those who are “idle, and have extravagant impertinent thoughts, or troubled with cares, nothing better to distract their mind, and alter their meditations.” But he hastens to caution that chess “may do more harm than good” if you become too invested in its mastery — then, chess can become “too full of anxiety” and turn into “a testy choleric game” causing grave distress to the brittle ego of the loser who is already in low spirits.

As chess pieces, the Red King and Red Queen. One of John Tenniel’s illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass: What Alice Discovered There, 1872. This print is also available as stationery card and a paper version.

Then there are acts of charity and philanthropy, “which are harmless jests, and have their good uses,” but people often perform them “to exhilarate themselves and others” — acts often used to prop the doer’s own ego, with little long-term circumstances of those upon whom they are bestowed. (Here too Burton is far ahead of his time, presaging our still dawning understanding of the paradoxes of aid in notions like “effective altruism” and “impact investing.”)

This is his best prescription. T.H. was centuries before this. White dreamt up the adventures of King Arthur’s court and put into the mouth of his Merlyn the mightiest consolation for sorrow , Burton offers:

Amongst those exercises, or recreations of the mind within doors, there is none so general, so aptly to be applied to all sorts of men, so fit and proper to expel idleness and melancholy, as that of study… Who is he that is now wholly overcome with idleness, or otherwise involved in a labyrinth of worldly cares, troubles and discontents, that will not be much lightened in his mind by reading of some enticing story, true or feigned, [or] observe what our forefathers have done, the beginnings, ruins, falls, periods of commonwealths, private men’s actions displayed to the life, &c… Who is not earnestly affected with a passionate speech, well penned, an elegant poem, or some pleasant bewitching discourse?… To most kind of men it is an extraordinary delight to study. What a wonderful world of books it is! It offers a wealth of information in every subject, art, and science, depending on the sweetness and ability of its reader. In arithmetic, geometry, perspective, optics, astronomy, architecture, sculpture, painting… in mechanics and their mysteries, military matters, navigation, riding of horses, fencing, swimming, gardening, planting… in music, metaphysics, natural and moral philosophy, philology, in policy, heraldry, genealogy, chronology… What so sure, what so pleasant?


If a person is alone, unhappy, or entangled with vain thoughts and melancholy, but does not know how to use his time or care for the world, then I have no other remedy than to encourage him to study and to learn something.

Cindy Derby, Art from A Velocity Of Being: Letters for a Young Reader. This print is available for donation to the New York Public Library System.

He also mentions the delicate disclaimer, that excessive melancholy in one’s mind may lead to overabsorption.

Study is only prescribed to those that are otherwise idle, troubled in mind, or carried headlong with vain thoughts and imaginations, to distract their cogitations… and divert their continual meditations another way. Nothing in this case better than study… As meat is to the body, such is reading to the soul.

Burton celebrates a particular area of curative curiosity, in an excerpt that particularly pleased my astronomically-enraptured soul.

In all nature what is there so stupendous as to examine and calculate the motion of the planets, their magnitudes, apogees, perigees, eccentricities, how far distant from the earth, the bigness, thickness, compass of the firmament, each star, with their diameters and circumference, apparent area, superficies, by those curious helps of glasses, astrolabes, sextants, quadrants… arithmetic, geometry, and such like arts and instruments?

Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory
Total eclipse of the sun by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot. Available as a printed copy, as well as on stationery and face masks.

Burton returns to the balance between bodily exercise and mental activity in lifting the gray gauze of melancholy.

It is important to exercise both body and mind. Overtired bodies can tire the mind. As Plutarch observed, the mind can oppress the body. Students often find their bodies falling out.

Complement these fragments from the monolith of time and thought that is Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy — which goes on to offer remedies for insomnia, apathy, and other manifestations of the eternal malady — with a modern florilegium of great writers on the mightiest remedy for depression, then revisit Walt Whitman’s workout and neuroscientist Antonio Damasio on how the feeling-tone of the body scores the symphony of the mind.

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Over the past decade, I spent hundreds of hours and thousands each month writing. MarginalianThe magazine, which bore for fifteen years the unsettling name Brain Pickings. Thanks to the support of readers, it has been free from ads and still exists. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Donations are a great way to make your life better. Every dollar counts.


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