In a story about the origins of confessional apps like Whisper and the now-defunct Secret, I recently mentioned The Athenian Mercury, a British periodical of the 1690s that is widely credited with inventing the modern advice column. "I would honestly love to read a compilation of questions & answers from the Athenian Mercury," somebody wrote in the comment section of that story. To which I say: Me too!
Perusing these inquiries feels a little bit like wading through fields of Google auto-complete. There's something satisfying (and, okay, a little voyeuristic) about knowing the questions tugging at another person's mind. And while contemporary advice columns have a reputation for being pretty narrowly self-concerned—people often ask what to do about specific, personal problems—The Athenian Mercury dealt mostly (though not exclusively) with big, existential questions. Or, as Josh Sternberg wrote to me on Twitter, "17th-century people had a different definition of 'advice;' they were a contemplative people on the cusp of enlightenment."
Right. But also they were just people. Our awkward, curious ancestors. Those who apparently wrote into The Athenian had questions about love affairs and petty arguments. They wanted to know how to communicate their feelings, and when it was okay to lie. So while there's something more than a little romantic about reading the existential questions that our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents might have had, there is another kind of delight in the centuries-old mundane. More than 300 years ago, people wondered about the difference between clouds and fog, and why their babies always seemed to cry after dinnertime.
And so. Here's a smattering of my favorite questions and answers, condensed and edited for clarity, from an "entire collection of all the valuable questions and answers" in The Athenian Mercury Oracle, printed in 1703:
Q: Why is thunder more terrible in the night time?
A: In the dead of night, noises are rendered more distinct and consequently more terrible by the universal stillness everywhere else.
Q: In what space of time do you think the whole mass of blood circulates through the body!
A: 'Tis probable in much shorter time than many have imagined... It will be circulated six or seven times over through the heart in the space of an hour.
Q: My father had a dog, which he kept a great many years, in which time I had two brothers and one sister that died. And it was observed that this dog—always the day before they died—went about a hundred yards from the house and laid his nose towards the church where they were all buried, and howled in a strange, hideous manner for an hour or more at a time. And when my father died, he did the same. Now it seems as if this dog had some prophetic, or what to call it, knowledge in these matters.
A: We can't tell you what to make of hundreds of such instances as these, some of which we ourselves are assured are true. All we can say is, that there must be something in it not natural, since what power in nature has a dog more than any other creature to foresee (or rather foresmell) such accidents?
Q: If I [am thinking of committing] any great and enormous crime and sin (as adultery), but do not personally and actually commit it, am I guilty of the crime and sin?
A: Though our thoughts generally proceed from the habit of our minds, upon which account we are the more guilty if they are disorderly, yet our inclinations likewise having great dependance on the temperament of our bodies, a bare disposition is much less culpable than an act; but where... there wants nothing but an opportunity to complete it, the crime is the same in the sight of God Almighty.
Q: Is it proper for women to be learned?
A: All grant that they may have some learning, but the question is of what sort, and to what degree? Some indeed think they have learned enough if they can distinguish between their husband's breeches and another man's... Others think they may pardonably enough read, but by no means be trifled with writing. Others again, that they ought neither to write nor read. A degree yet higher are those who would have them read plays, novels, and romances—with perhaps a little history, but by all means terminating their studies there, and not letting them meddle with philosophy... because it takes them off from their domestic affairs and because it generally fills them of themselves ... 'tis a weakness common to our own sex as well as theirs... We see no reason why women should not be learned now. For if we have seen one lady gone mad with learning... there are a hundred men could be named, whom the same cause has rendered fit for bedlam.
Q: What is the cause of the winds, and whence do they come, and whither do they go?
A: We read that the heathens pictured Aeolus, the God of Wind, standing at the mouth of a cave, having a linen garment girt around him and a Smith bellows under his feet.
Q: Why does leaning on the elbow and compressing the external corner of the right eye cause objects to appear duplicated?
A: The reason why objects are seen double ... is from an alteration of the plain. When the plain is double, it receives a double picture, just so the eye, if anyone dares venture to compress it so violently, will be raised up on a ridge and make two plains, and consequently paint two images on the retina, or optic nerve.
Q: If the light of the moon is borrowed from the sun, why are they so differing in complexion?
A: Sir, we beg your pardon, if we tell you, your curiosity might easily have been satisfied by almost anybody else, for everyone that has but a very little knowledge of nature, and the system of the world can tell you, that the contrary question might with the same reason have been demanded, why the light of the sun and moon are so like in complexion, the vast distance betwixt them, and the inaptitude of the moon for reflection of light, being a gross earthy body, would have been an answer to the last, had the moon been made of a very fine polished hard metal, the reflection of the sun's light from it would have been too glorious and bright for the eye to have beheld it, and that it so proper for reflection as it is, may answer yours.
Q: Dancing, is it lawful?
A: Dancing seems in some sort natural: It's difficult not to leap for joy and the whole body seems almost necessarily to follow the motion of the spirits and blood ... this natural way of expelling mirth, which is also a healthful exercise to the body.
Q: What is anger?
A: Anger is a passion of the irascible appetite caused by apprehension of a present evil, which may be repelled, but with some difficulty.
Q: Why don't moon beams convey warmth as the sun beams do?
A: From these reasons, as we imagine: The first is, the great distance the moon is from us, and consequently the rays of the sun are reflected very weakly: No doubt but were we upon the moon, we should find the rays reflect from it all around its atmosphere as the rays of the sun falling on the Earth reflect a great heat, especially from walls and sides of houses... The second reason may be the roughness and porosity of the moon's body, which is not so apt for reflection as if it were smooth and close. And, last, because of the globosity of the moon; for being round, it reflects the sun's rays every way, and does not collect them so strongly for any one place.
Q: What's love?
A: Love, and you'll know ... We'll give you the best description we can of that passion, which we have some reason to know ... 'Tis a mixture of friendship and desire, bounded by the rules of honor and virtue ... Love, being a medium between pure friendship and perfect desire, 'tis warm enough to keep friendship from an ague, but not so furiously hot as to set all on fire.
Q: Is there, do you think, a large part of the world still left to discover?
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.