By Richard Sorabji
OUP (2014) h/b 265pp £22.50 (ISBN 9780199685547)
S. provides a wide-ranging survey of moral conscience throughout the whole Western tradition right up to the present day, beginning with the Greeks. He explains that the word conscience itself comes from a Latin translation of the Greek term suneidenai, which was used originally to mean sharing knowledge with oneself. To understand this metaphor you need to imagine that you are two people, the one with a secret and the one who shares that secret. This first gets a foothold in classical Athenian drama with the case of Orestes, and was developed by the Romans who placed more emphasis on knowing one’s merits rather than one’s defects. Thus the focus on split personality associated with modern Freudianism is there at the very birth of the concept.
S. goes on to describe in learned detail the process whereby this originally secular thought was appropriated and adapted by religion and in the case of the early Christian Church institutionalised into a bureaucratic system of penance. Another change came with the Protestant Reformation, when Governments demanded oaths of loyalty from their subjects: dilemmas of conscience became widespread and with it the practice of casuistry. Further chapters discuss the reliability of one’s conscience as a moral guide, the connection between conscience and sentiment in the18th C, and its resecularization in the 19th and 20th C (no bad thing, we are assured). The threads are then drawn together with a deft philosophical conclusion. S. argues that the essential feature of conscience remains the original idea of self-awareness. Because people’s consciences can be wrong, freedom of conscience needs to be subject to limits, but with enough diversity to preserve the peace. The advantage of having a conscience is exemplified by Gandhi, who was able to become a better person by reflecting on what his conscience told him rather than blindly following it.
A wide range of recent issues is brought into the mix: hate speech, the conscientious objector, cartoons of the Prophet, and the treatment of Muslim divorce. Despite the relentlessly erudite tone this has something for pretty much everyone. Classicists however will have the added pleasure of the index locorum at the end.
Dr Alan Towey—Mayfield School