Robert Burton, perfect happiness and the visio dei
in The Renaissance of emotion
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Happiness is not a state that one readily associates with Burton’s encyclopaedic dissection of melancholic affliction, but this chapter makes the case for its central importance in the understanding of his Anatomy of Melancholy. Focusing on his section on ‘Religious Melancholy’, which begins with a paean to the beauty of God, this chapter shows how Burton draws together patristic, neo-Platonic, and contemporary Jesuit authorities to argue that the sight of God is the state of true happiness. In contrast to other seventeenth-century writers who are interested in the relationship between happiness and the visio dei, Burton does not invoke the idea in perorational mode, offering happiness as a final promise to his melancholic readership, but rather places it before his analysis of religious superstition and atheism, thus complicating our understanding of his ultimate stance on the reality and achievability of this state. The chapter scrutinizes Burton’s use of happiness as a rhetorical tool in the structuring of the Anatomy and his original mixture of religious and philosophical source materials, considering how both become a means of communicating his ideas about the possibility of seeing God through earthly eyes and the emotions that might accompany such an experience.

The Renaissance of emotion

Understanding affect in Shakespeare and his contemporaries

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