Tuesday, September 22, 2015


Richard Sorabji, Moral Conscience through the Ages: Fifth Century BCE to the Present. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. Pp. ix, 265. ISBN 9780226182728. $35.00.

Reviewed by James H. Dee, Austin, Texas (jhdee1243@gmail.com)

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Every reader will recognize the name of Richard Sorabji, author, the dust jacket tells us, of fifteen books and editor of "over one hundred" (sc. the ancient commentators on Aristotle) and distinguished not merely for quantity of production but also for the quality of penetrating intelligence. That quality is much in evidence in this important volume, which brings together a remarkable array of information and ideas.

There are twelve chapters, with titles too long for full quotation; they cover: (1) the ancient world from the fifth century BCE to first-century pagans; (2) Christian and Platonic developments from the third to the sixth centuries; (3) early Christianity, 200-400 CE; (4) problems of medieval conscience; (5) bad conscience in pagans and Christians: first to thirteenth centuries; (6) Protestants: fourteenth to sixteenth Centuries; (7) moral casuistry: mid-sixteenth to mid-seventeenth centuries; (8) conscience in seventeenth-century England and Holland; (9) conscience and sentiment: eighteenth century; (10) resecularization of conscience: nineteenth to twentieth centuries; (11) modern issues involving conscience, religion, and speech; (12) the nature and value of conscience. There is a select bibliography, a chronological table of the main thinkers discussed (without page references), a helpfully detailed general index, and an index locorum, compiled by David Robertson.

Readers will note the impressive range—and also a degree of chronological unevenness; but no one could hope to treat equally (or with equal competence) developments across twenty-five centuries of Western philosophical and religious traditions. Likewise, this reviewer makes no pretence of having mastered all the requisite texts and issues addressed in this very learned volume. However, the central concerns of the book are significant historically and extremely relevant in today's world, so readers from a wide variety of fields will benefit from the material that Professor Sorabji has gathered and analyzed.

The Introduction lays out the work's principal aims: Sorabji seeks to establish a "core concept" developed in the last five centuries BCE and adapted over the next two millennia, and he specifies in the first paragraph eight recurrent themes: "the longing for different kinds of freedom of conscience, the proper limits of freedom, protests at conscience's being 'terrorized,' dilemmas of conscience, the value of conscience to human beings, its secularization, its reliability or unreliability, and ways to improve the values on which it draws."

The first chapter examines, with a brief nod to the Biblical David (and no mention of Homeric antecedents), the notion of conscience (primarily, forms of suneidenai with or without heautôi) as implying a split psyche, one part keeping secret a perceived moral defect, the other revealing it to oneself. After a compact survey of the Greek and Latin vocabulary, there is a swift but sharply-focused traversal covering fifth-century playwrights, Plato, Socrates' guardian spirit, Aristotle, the Epicureans, the Stoics, Cicero, St. Paul, general issues relating to conscience, and a list of eight attributes of conscience across 600 years. There are especially illuminating remarks on the absence of a "lawgiver" concept from early Greek ideas of conscience and on the image of a "watcher," credited to Epicurus, although the famous fragment of Critias' Sisyphus already says noôi t' akouôn kai blepôn (TrGF F 19.17).

The second chapter explores Origen, Lactantius, Platonists and Neoplatonists (Iamblichus, Simplicius, Plutarch, Apuleius, Olympiodorus, Philoponus) for contributions to ideas about daily self-examination, divine anger, the conscience-like non-physical nature of Socrates' daemon, and mental attention. Non-specialist readers may feel challenged by the compressed narrative as it jumps from topic to topic, but it lays the groundwork for a more sustained presentation in Chapter Three of a central issue, the relations between freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.

Sorabji notes that those two are not identical and, importantly, that were three different suppressions of beliefs and actions—against Christians, against heretics, and against pagans. Here, in contrast with the merely philosophical subjects of the previous chapter, it could be life or death, in this world or the next. Tertullian and Lactantius ask the pre-Christianized Empire to tolerate them—but once in power, Christians quickly turned against "heretics," using mild admonition or, with Augustine's approval, a little persecution of their own. Tertullian is one of the first to plead for non-compulsion of religious acts, but he himself later says, "Heretics deserve to be compelled" (Ad officium haereticos compelli non inlici dignum est. Duritia vincenda est, non suadenda, Scorpiace 2 [CSEL 20.147], a text readers might like to see in full).

Chapter Four deals with the complex consequences of what may have been a simple scribal error, writing suntêrêsis or sundêrêsis for suneidêsis, which was regarded as distinct from conscientia. Bonaventure, Albert the Great, and Aquinas tried to make room for this faculty, whereas William of Ockham and Luther rejected it. A final section explores "moral double bind" (where both doing and not doing X involve inescapable moral wrong), found as early as Euripides' Orestes and addressed sporadically by Paul, Origen, Abelard, Aquinas, and Mahatma Gandhi.

The twenty-four page fifth chapter outlines thirteen centuries of penitence-related ideas, pagan and Christian; Sorabji notes that penitence is important because it required examination of one's conscience and because Catholic abuses were a primary source of Luther's rebellion. The pagan aspect receives only two paragraphs, based on two inscriptions from Asia Minor, the first of which is neither quoted nor translated, making the discussion difficult to follow.1 On the Christian side, the Gospels show Jesus calling for forgiveness, but things became more complicated as some leaders in the early church offered "concessions" to those seeking absolution for various sins after baptism. Different parts of the Empire had disconcertingly divergent approaches to penance, from long, grotesquely public rituals to quietly private confessions, discreet payments, and a potentially troublesome split between fear of Hell (called "attrition") and genuine repentance ("contrition").

Chapter Six begins with brief sketches of three pre-Lutheran opponents of Roman claims about absolution, Marsilius of Padua, John Wyclif, and Jan Hus, each of whom denied the Church's long-asserted power. Beginning around 1515, Luther engaged in a far more radical critique, focusing, as everyone knows, on the power of faith—and, as is perhaps less well known, describing the Pope's edicts as "introducing executioner's tortures for conscience." The full text is: Heu quot carnificinas conscientiarum in ecclesiam invexit ignorantia ista legis Dei et legum hominum (Luthers Werke 2.487); Sorabji quotes only the (misspelled) word carnificia, leaving readers to look up this remarkable phrase for themselves. Luther proceeded to overthrow virtually the entire edifice of the Church's teachings, rejecting "the terrorization of conscience" and developing two vitally important principles, that it was "neither safe nor right to go against conscience" (contra conscientiam agere neque tutum neque integrum sit, Luthers Werke 7.838, another passage not quoted), and that personal beliefs must be free from external compulsion. Two pages explore John Calvin's retreat from Luther's notion of political freedom and Sebastian Castellio's defense of "heresy" as a matter of "acting according to conscience."

Chapter Seven treats the acute problems of "casuistry" created in the seventeenth century by the brutal conflicts between Catholics and Protestants (and among Protestants themselves) over allegiance and loyalty. Drawing on classical sources like Aristotle and Cicero's De Officiis, the casuists focused on particular individuals in particular situations, perhaps an inevitable shift when hundreds were being executed for the "wrong" beliefs.

Historian Keith Thomas has described the seventeenth century as the age of conscience, so it is appropriate that this period elicits by far the longest chapter, thirty-eight pages in two parts, divided by the pivotal year 1660 (the restoration of the monarchy). In part one, Sorabji summarizes the views of early Baptists (John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, Leonard Busher, John Murton: none of them household names, but significant contributors). Murton smuggled a treatise to Roger Williams, who in turn knew John Milton, both central figures in the next stage. Displeased with England and persecuted in Massachusetts, Williams wrote a charter for Rhode Island that granted freedom of conscience (even to Catholics) and protected the natives. A two-page table of events from 1642 to 1689 briefly interrupts the narrative, which resumes with an account of Milton's defenses of freedom, the Levellers' use of the ignorance and hypocrisy arguments against compulsion, the shifting claims of Hobbes (who demoted conscience to mere opinion), and the different strategies of the Quakers and the Diggers.

Part Two begins with extended treatments of Locke and Bayle. The former, writing (but not publishing) in the immediate aftermath of the Restoration, treads carefully along the line that separates binding from imposing on conscience; much later, his famous Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) adds a new twist to the old arguments about the ineffectiveness of compulsion and our ignorance of which religion is true, viz. a concern for eternal salvation, which no earthly ruler can confer. Bayle goes a bit farther, endorsing tolerance even for "erroneous" consciences and (perhaps mischievously) noting the resulting paradox: God might require conscientious heretics to compel others into heresy.

The ninth chapter presents attempts at the rehabilitation of conscience, especially in Joseph Butler, Adam Smith, Rousseau, and Kant—not as a form of reason but as a feeling or sentiment. Sorabji carefully traces the path from conscience as partly free from divine authority (Butler), via an imagined impartial (but not emotionless) spectator (Smith) and a complex interplay of reason and French sentiment developing in late adolescence (Rousseau), to a fully secularized concept that, properly understood, should be free of error (Kant).

Chapter Ten highlights Thoreau, Nietzsche, and Freud as contributors to a "resecularization" of conscience and Newman, Tolstoy, and (at surprising six-page length) Gandhi as rejecting that shift. Thoreau's "civil disobedience" was based on personal conscience (not on God) and was not a call for general "freedom of conscience"; Nietzsche invented a social mythology of stronger and weaker to account for conscience, good and bad, and for an intensifying of the illness that is Christian theism. The Freudian tripartite psyche posits the superego as the locus of conscience (a different kind of a divided self), caught up in Oedipal conflicts, although the role of the father, originally dominant, has been minimized by post-Freudians (and dismissed by others). In contrast, Newman retains a quasi-divine status for conscience, allowing that it could even overrule the Pope, whereas Tolstoy thought that the final stage of human social evolution would be the emergence of a conscience that recognized universal brotherhood. In defending his 1924 and 1933 hunger strikes, Gandhi fused the indubitability of Socrates' daimonion with his own conviction that he was hearing "the true voice of God," although, as Sorabji carefully demonstrates, special difficulties arose from his non-violent philosophy.

The penultimate chapter discusses conscientious objection: in World War I, Britain allowed it on religious, moral and socialistic grounds, whereas in the US only religious and "quasi-religious" objections have been permitted. A brief section on "Hate speech" and the famous Skokie case is followed by more extended commentary on India's policies on religious speech and practice; American readers will wish he had turned his attention to recent "religious freedom" controversies here.

The retrospective Chapter Twelve, on "the nature and value of conscience," has a thirteen-item list of ideas contained in the "core concept"; readers may feel it also underlines the inevitable diversity of views among so many strong-minded individuals. Sorabji wisely notes that "resecularization" has significant advantages and that, on any view, conscience requires constant reflection on core values, both our own and those of others.

The book is almost free of errors, but one oddity will amuse classicists, who may wonder how it slipped past author, referees, and University of Chicago Press subeditors: a footnote reference to "Terence, Adolphae 348" (15 n. 15); on the same page, Plautus is assigned to the third century BCE, and on 37 the word for "shameless" is aoidêmon. The dust jacket (not Sorabji's responsibility) credits the lurid (but censored) painting of Orestes, Clytemnestra, and the Furies to "William Adolphe Bourguerau" (sc. Bouguereau).

The range (and sometimes the compactness) of exposition will require close attention throughout, but this is an extremely valuable contribution to our understanding of this significant and difficult concept.


1.   Tituli Asiae minoris 5.1.261, 318; syneidêsis also appears in 1157 and 1616 (Christian texts)—both, strikingly, with idia.

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