Anatomy of Melancholy, 241-244 – Pt. I, Sec. 2, Mem. II, Subs. 6 – Immoderate Exercise a Cause, and how. Solitariness, Idleness


A of M 241-243

I didn’t draw “immoderate exercise” because who is ever melancholy from exercising too much? I really can’t identify with that at all. All I got from that bit was a good quote to whip out the next time your marathon-addict friend is espousing the joys of running until you feel like you are going to die:

“Nothing is so good but it may be abused: nothing better than exercise (if opportunely used) for the preservation of the body; nothing so bad if it be unseasonable, violent, or overmuch.” (241)

I mean, I do admire people who can run marathons. I’m just saying that at a certain point there might be better things you could do with that time.

Now idleness, idleness I get:

Opposite to exercise is idleness (the badge of gentry) or want of exercise, the bane of body and mind, the nurse of naughtiness, stepmother of discipline, the chief author of all mischief, one of the seven deadly sins, and a sole cause of this and many other maladies, the devil’s cushion, as Gaulter calls it, his pillow and chief reposal. (242)

Burton really has it in for the idle rich – gotta love that – those naughty sinners lounging on soft squishy devil’s cushions, probably on a yacht too. Pshaw.

As a fern grows in untilled grounds, and all manner of weeds, so do gross humours in an idle body, Ignavum corrumpunt otia corpus. A horse in a stable that never travels, a hawk in a mew that seldom flies, are both subject to diseases; which, left unto themselves, are most free from any such encumbrances. An idle dog will be mangy, and how shall an idle person think to escape? Idleness of the mind is much worse than this of the body; wit without employment is a disease. (243)

If you want one snappy quote from Burton on idleness, it is that last one: “Wit without employment is disease.” If you prefer a snappy Latin phrase, then the next time you feel like a lazy devil, try shaking your fist and shouting, “Aerugo animi, rubigo ingenii!” According to Burton that means “the rust of the soul!” (Again, if anyone can assist me with Latin translations, I would super duper appreciate it, because Google translate is incredibly bad at Latin and I suspect that Burton takes a lot of liberties, if he bothers to translate at all.)

Are we done yet? Oh no no no! What’s worse than an idle rich person or an intellectual in a creative slump? An idle society.

In a commonwealth, where is no public enemy, there is, likely, civil wars, and they rage upon themselves: this body of ours, when it is idle and knows not how to bestow itself, macerates and vexeth itself with cares, griefs, false fears, discontents, and suspicions; it tortures and preys upon its own bowels, and is never at rest.

If you have taken one single history class, then you know that is true. No war = rise in nationalism / civil war / persecution of immigrants and minorities / creating a new war / etc. A high unemployment rate aggravates the problem immensely. Did you know that suicide rates decline during wartime? So, generally, do unemployment rates. Weird how that happens, right? Well, people are super busy when there’s an effing war happening. (Link!)

If everyone had fulfilling jobs that were appropriately valued by society, as demonstrated through adequate remuneration and respect, maybe all of this nonsense would stop. I’d like to think.

So in the words of the great John Cale and Lou Reed, paraphrasing the GREAT Andy Warhol:

He’d get to the factory early
If I’d ask him he’d tell you straight out
It’s just work, the most important thing is work
No matter what I did it never seemed enough
He said I was lazy, I said I was young
He said, “How many songs did you write?”
I’d written zero, I lied and said, “Ten.”
“You won’t be young forever
You should have written fifteen”
It’s work, the most important thing is work.

(“Work,” Songs for Drella, 1990)

Burton names idleness as the chief cause of melancholy: “Nothing begets it sooner, increaseth and continueth it oftener, than idleness.” (242) And he’s just so totally right. So to wrap things up, a massive block quote from Burton on idleness, that nurse of naughtiness:

Thus much I dare boldly say; he or she that is idle, be they of what condition they will, never so rich, so well allied, fortunate, happy, let them have all things in abundance and felicity that heart can wish and desire, all contentment, so long as he or she or they are idle, they shall never be pleased, never well in body and mind, but weary still, sickly still, vexed still, loathing still, weeping, sighing, grieving, suspecting, offended with the world, with every object, wishing themselves gone or dead, or else earned away with some foolish phantasy or other. And this is the true cause that so many great men, ladies, and gentlewomen, labour of this disease in country and city; for idleness is an appendix to nobility; they count it a disgrace to work, and spend all their days in sports, recreations, and pastimes, and will therefore take no pains; be of no vocation: they feed liberally, fare well, want exercise, action, employment, (for to work, I say, they may not abide,) and Company to their desires, and thence their bodies become full of gross humours, wind, crudities; their minds disquieted, dull, heavy, etc. care, jealousy, fear of some diseases, sullen fits, weeping fits seize too familiarly on them. For what will not fear and phantasy work in an idle body? 


This post is part of a long, tedious, and very illustrated read-along of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. More info here and follow along on Facebook here. Illustrations posted via devon_isadevon on Instagram. Page numbers given are from the 2001 New York Review of Books edition.

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