As for ourselves (for neither are we free from this fault) the same guilt, the same crime, may be objected against us: for it is through our fault, negligence, and avarice, that so many and such shameful corruptions occur in the church (both the temple and the Deity are offered for sale), that such sordidness is introduced, such impiety committed, such wickedness, such a mad gulf of wretchedness and irregularity—these I say arise from all our faults, but more particularly from ours of the University. We are the nursery in which those ills are bred with which the state is afflicted; we voluntarily introduce them, and are deserving of every opprobrium and suffering, since we do not afterwards encounter them according to our strength. For what better can we expect when so many poor, beggarly fellows, men of every order, are readily and without election, admitted to degrees? Who, if they can only commit to memory a few definitions and divisions, and pass the customary period in the study of logics, no matter with what effect, whatever sort they prove to be, idiots, triflers, idlers, gamblers, sots, sensualists ... only let them have passed the stipulated period in the University, and professed themselves collegians: either for the sake of profit, or through the influence of their friends, they obtain a presentation; nay, sometimes even accompanied by brilliant eulogies upon their morals and acquirements; and when they are about to take leave, they are honoured with the most flattering literary testimonials in their favour, by those who undoubtedly sustain a loss of reputation in granting them. For doctors and professors (as an author says) are anxious about one thing only, viz., that out of their various callings they may promote their own advantage, and convert the public loss into their private gains. For our annual officers wish this only, that those who commence, whether they are taught or untaught is of no moment, shall be sleek, fat, pigeons, worth the plucking. The Philosophastic are admitted to a degree in Arts, because they have no acquaintance with them. And they are desired to be wise men, because they are endowed with no wisdom, and bring no qualification for a degree, except the wish to have it. The Theologastic (only let them pay) thrice learned, are promoted to every academic honour. Hence it is that so many vile buffoons, so many idiots everywhere, placed in the twilight of letters, the mere ghosts of scholars, wanderers in the market place, vagrants, barbels, mushrooms, dolts, asses, a growling herd, with unwashed feet, break into the sacred precincts of theology, bringing nothing along with them but an impudent front, some vulgar trifles and foolish scholastic technicalities, unworthy of respect even at the crossing of the highways.
I'd bet that in the four hundred years in which this book has been around, there has not been a single academically-affiliated reader who could read this passage and not nod in vague agreement. Today's editions, helpfully, give us a translation from the original Latin--which Burton intended as a device to keep it away from prying eyes (more on this tomorrow)--but the more rigorously trained scholars of yesteryear would presumably have had no trouble getting the point. The academy sucks; universities suck; scholars have miserable lives, and half of them are "mere ghosts" anyway.
I wonder, though, if it's really quite so simple. Of course, we all want books to speak to us, and when we invest weeks or months in a text whose printing probably demands an entire tree, we'd like to get something for our effort. For me, and I suspect for many other readers, the jolt of recognition that comes from seeing modern concerns refracted in an antique lens is precisely the experience that makes old books (sometimes) exhilarating; their intellectual virtues often end up being quite beside the point. It is hard to ignore, too, the sense of intergenerational solidarity and even consolation that takes form once you discover your own anxieties and secret suspicions flowing from the pen of an old writer. Read enough such things and you acquire, inevitably, a habit of sympathy.
What we seldom realize is that it can often be a bad habit. Take Burton here, for instance. Of what significance is it that his complaint about the universities happens to echo in detail some very modern jeremiads about the substitution of new dorm buildings and gyms for True Academic Values? His universities were very different places; the targets of his paragraph-long stream of insults produced very different work from the colleagues you are probably imagining as you read them. Burton's alternative would likely be even less congenial. If we don't look past our initial frisson of recognition, in other words, we annihilate the historical and cultural strangeness of the book in favor of some kind of spurious imagined community that even its fellow members can never share.
That does little to help the self-satisfaction and self-flattery of the ivory tower, which Burton describes so well here. But undoubtedly the habit of sympathy can also promote the opposite feelings: how can the recurrence of the complaint combined with the fluidity of the justification for it (true scholarship, religion, resistance to late-capitalist-blah-blah-blah) not breed in us a kind of uncertainty or an ironic distance from the grounding of our views? Yet that is rarely the effect. Indeed, "nothing new under the sun" seems like an attitude more suited to Burton's age than our own, and we'll happily trot out quotes from some ancient writer or other when it suits our fancy without even a glance in the direction of "eternal problems." The habit of sympathy has stopped teaching us the right kind of lessons.
It's funny how worked up we get about how students "relate" to books, when we haven't even figured out how to properly relate to books ourselves. Oh, we're capable of having the discussion, citing Schleiermacher and Gadamer, constructing a cozy narrative. But how many academics can really pull back and let go, at least experimentally, of the habit of sympathy? How many would keep working without it?