It is a long time ago now, in the deep misty antiquity of the 1970s I think, when I heard Pierre Elliott Trudeau rise in the Commons and cite the endearing 17th-century author and doctor, Sir Thomas Browne. Perhaps some worthy squirrel of our Parliamentary page book, Hansard, can unearth the moment. It is beyond me and my secretary Google. But that Browne was the cited and Mr. Trudeau the citer flies from all doubt. I sent up a cheer to the black-and-white TV at the time, and cried: “a politician and a scholar!”
Despite his distance from us, Browne is a trove of ready reflection and present wisdom. No less than that splendid Falstaffian sage, Harold Bloom, king of the dwindling band of sane literary critics, finds his favourite wisdom quotation in Sir Thomas: “Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible sun within us.” Sweet and true.
Browne was a neighbourly man, of harmony and easy commerce with men and nature. He admired those little creatures, bees and ants, for their fellowship: “The civility of these little citizens more neatly sets forth the wisdom of their Maker.” His own regard for the practice and worth of civility breathes in everything he wrote and is finely set forth in his own inimitable words (who could not wish the following sentiment their own?): “I could never divide myself from any man upon the difference of an opinion, or be angry with his judgment for not agreeing with me in that, from which perhaps within a few days I should dissent myself.”
Had that sentiment been bannered over the fractious hearings of the U.S. Senate judiciary committee these past weeks, the world might have been spared much that was ugly and mean. And for that matter, were it burned in a board and hung above our own Parliamentary mace, it could offer service to our set of quarrelsome and querulous legislators. Certainly in the past few days or so, when the sad, sorrowful, wanton extinction of poor Victoria Stafford was inevitably recalled in the debate over one of her murderers’ transfer to a Saskatchewan healing lodge, a reminder of Browne’s injunction always to be temperate over “differences of opinion … or judgment” would have been a blessing.
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