Synopses & Reviews
In Moral Conscience through the Ages
, Richard Sorabji brings his erudition and philosophical acumen to bear on a fundamental question: what is conscience? Examining the ways we have conceived of that little voice in our headsour self-directed judgehe teases out its most enduring elements, the aspects that have survived from the Greek playwrights in the fifth century BCE through St Paul, the Church Fathers, Catholics and Protestants, all the way to the 17th centurys political unrest and the critics and champions of the eighteenth to twentieth centuries.
Sorabji examines an impressive breadth of topics: the longing for different kinds of freedom of conscience, the proper limits of freedom itself, protests at consciences being terrorized, dilemmas of conscience, the value of conscience to human beings, its secularization, its reliability, and ways to improve it. These historical issues are alive today, with fresh concerns about topics such as conscientious objection, the force of conscience, or the balance between freedoms of conscience, religion, and speech. The result is a stunningly comprehensive look at a central component of our moral understanding.
“Moral Conscience through the Ages is a fascinating and remarkable feat of historical scholarship and philosophical reflection. It is a critical history of a familiar but strangely elusive idea, one that makes its first appearance, in Greek drama, as the notion of sharing knowledge with oneself. Sorabji has a fascinating story to tell—a political and religious story—about how this concept evolved and became the locus of competing moral theories and visions of human moral competence. Enormous in its scope and erudition, yet concise and clear in its exposition, this work will enrich the study of the history of ethics and our understanding of the corruptibility of conscience and the value of religious freedom.”—
“Sorabjis Moral Conscience through the Ages takes us from the earliest Greek tragedies to the life and writings of Mahatma Gandhi. Seldom has the notion of respect for conscience been shown to be capable of so many fascinating permutations. Seldom have so many great thinkers been shown wrestling throughout the ages with this topic. Their thoughts are brought alive for us by Sorabji with warm insight and with a vivid sense of the historical context of each. The book amounts to a rethinking of a central value in our own culture that remains as relevant today as it was over two millennia ago among the ancient Greeks and Romans.”
“Few authors have the breadth and depth of knowledge required to write such a history. Sorabji demonstrates in this work an impressive grasp of Western philosophy and an effortless ability to move across disciplinary boundaries, from moral philosophy to metaphysics, from psychology to politics, and from the history of law to current debates in legal theory. Moral Conscience through the Ages will quickly establish itself among scholars as the standard treatment of its subject. But what is most impressive is that, without sacrificing the rigour that academic researchers demand, he has also written a book that is accessible and practical enough to find its way into the hands of policy makers in debates concerning freedom of conscience and conscientious objection.”
“Moral concepts have a history, and in this immensely learned and yet highly readable book, Sorabji traces the evolution of the idea of conscience from its earliest intimations in classical Greek and Latin down to our own time. Along the way, he raises questions about freedom of conscience, its reliability, its relation to religious beliefs and penitence, its role in legal systems, and its reemergence in modern psychology in the form of the super-ego. Every page offers insights, and I can in good conscience recommend this book to anyone interested in the foundations of a moral life.”
In this engaging study, the authors put casuistry into its historical context, tracing the origin of moral reasoning in antiquity, its peak during the sixteenth and early seventeenth century, and its subsequent fall into disrepute from the mid-seventeenth century.
"The book will lead to a reinterpretation of the history of western morals. . . . It's an excellent book."Baruch A. Brody, Baylor College of Medicine
About the Author
Albert R. Jonsen is Professor of Ethics in Medicine and Chairman, Department of Medical Humanities, University of Washington School of Medicine. Stephen Toulmin is Avalon Foundation Professor of the Humanities at Northwestern University.
Table of Contents
ONE / Sharing Knowledge with Oneself of a Defect: Five Centuries from the Greek Playwrights and Plato to St. Paul and First-Century Pagans
TWO / Christian Appropriation and Platonist Developments, Third to Sixth Centuries CE
THREE / Early Christianity and Freedom of Religion, 200-400 CE
FOUR / Doubled Conscience and Dilemmas of D ouble Bind: A Medieval Insight and a Twelfth-Century Misconstrual?
FIVE / Penitence for Bad Conscience in Pagans and Christians, First to Thirteenth Centuries
SIX / Protesters and Protestants: “Terrorization” of Conscience and Two Senses of “Freedom” of Conscience, Fourteenth to Sixteenth Centuries
SEVEN / Advice on Particular Moral Dilemmas: Casuistry, Mid-Sixteenth to Mid-Seventeenth Centuries
EIGHT / Freedom of Conscience and the Individual: Seventeenth-Century England and Holland
NINE / Four Rehabilitations of Conscience and Connection with Sentiment: Eighteenth Century
TEN / Critics and Champions of Conscience and Its Continuing Resecularization: Nineteenth to Twentieth Centuries
ELEVEN / Modern Issues about Conscientious Objection and Freedoms of Conscience, Religion, and Speech
TWELVE / Retrospect: Nature and Value of Conscience
Table of Main Thinkers and Writers