The earliest form in which casuistical thought showed itself in ancient civilization consisted probably in the train of painful dilemmas in which men found themselves involved who endeavoured to reconcile the vicissitudes of life and destiny with their own ideas of justice and of injustice. To take a familiar instance, it is evident that the Book of Job contains in it the seeds of casuistical thought. The hero of the narrative at first cannot be convinced that the Maker of the world can only do right. In the event, it is true that the action of Providence is justified even by the standard of the sufferer's individual moral sense; but the discussion and the doubt show that the justification was, prima facie, considered to be necessary. When we turn to the next best known literature of the early world, we find nearly a similar problem working itself out into a different and a less satisfactory solution. Greek tragedy begins with the thought that the gods are hard, that fate is inexorable, and that the righteous as well as the unrighteous are the victims of its rigid and blind decrees. How is it to be with the man or hero who obeys natural justice and natural philanthropy in the teeth of the will of Destiny and Heaven? That he must be a victim of his lot is the teaching of the story of Prometheus; but the artist who paints the martyrdom of Prometheus is distracted himself, and distracts his audience, with all the perplexing ideas suggested by the spectacle. How, again, is it to be with the man who obeys one divine law, and in so doing necessarily breaks another? That he, too, must suffer is the moral of the drama of the Eumenides. What of the man who has offended the gods unwittingly or innocently? or of the man who is too prosperous, or too happy, or too proud? All of them must pay the penalty of their innocent offences. Such is the ultimate conclusion of the early Greek drama, but, though this is the final sentence, the spirit of casuistry lives and breathes in every line of the argument that precedes it and of the plot which is destined to be so closed. Passing from this primitive conflict, consisting of the revolt of the moral sense against the harshness of destiny, we come to another casuistical tempest of even more modern interest. The two great centres of moral obligation in early times—if we may so style them—would naturally be the State and the family. The citizen owed implicit allegiance to his country, but he also owed unbounded filial respect to his ancestors, his parents, and his kinsmen. If the former cycle of duties was the most eagerly insisted upon by the teaching of the State, the latter had in its favour the potent instincts of humanity. It could not, in the nature of things, be very long before the two rival codes clashed, and the clang and echo of the collision has been perpetuated in the finest monuments of classical literary genius. The most characteristic and, so to speak, representative forms of the domestic idea would be evidently respect for the living family—which may be summed up in the term filial piety—and respect for the departed, which may not inappropriately be denominated piety towards lie dead. Both furnish materials for subtle casuistical thought. Suppose piety towards one parent is incompatible with piety towards another; that is the problem presented to us by the tragic story of Orestes. Suppose, on the other hand, that filial piety towards a parent interferes with obedience to the regulations of the State; that is the difficulty elaborated with such beauty in the tale of Oedipus. Lastly, let us suppose that veneration for the ashes of the dead becomes inconsistent with a similar political duty. This, and no other, is the moral conflict delineated from the first page of Antigone's history to the last. It is evident that we have in all these a specimen of full-blown casuistry, in such a shape as it necessarily takes in a society so organized.
The next stage through which the casuistical spirit passes is one still more intelligible to modern times. It is, however, a stage that follows closely upon and is almost cotemporaneous with the former. It owes its origin to the bewildering dissension between various, though respectable, schools of philosophy in the first place, and in the second, to the growth of personal feelings of religion and sentimental morality. Questions now arise as to which of several teachers are to be believed. Questions also make their appearance as to whether natural instincts of right and wrong are not better than all teachers, and especially than mere political authority. The apostolic difficulty whether it is better to obey God or man occurred under a slightly varied form, and was solved by Socrates and some of the Sophists of his time in a similar way. How to discover an infallible guide in moral perplexities, how conscience is to reform and perfect itself so as to act in such cases as an efficient guide, and on what sure basis, amidst the shifting sands of logic and philosophy, moral consciousness is to rest, were the great difficulties out of which the Socratic school rose to its elevation, containing within it the germs of all subsequent philosophy. It was not, however, till Christianity began to rule Europe that religious casuistry culminated. The Church and its teachings then came into contact and conflict with the natural laws of the family, the composite laws of society, and the jarring interests of States, just as in ancient times the interests of the family had fallen into antagonism with the interests of the commonwealth. Religious law, like moral law, is moreover indefinite in its nature. One religious or one moral precept, when pushed to an extreme, crosses perhaps another extreme form of an equally unimpeachable tenet. When logic began to be applied in its severity to Christian ethics, and logical conclusions to be deduced from vague theological premisses, the truth of -which lay rather in the spirit than in the letter, casuistry had enough to do to reconcile all the opposite deductions among themselves, and to reconcile all of them to the necessities of external social life. The reconciliation in each separate case was often too ingenious to appear strictly honest, and casuistry soon found itself reproached for an ingenuity which was not its own fault, but the fault of the circumstances with which it was called upon to deal. It fell, moreover, as all learning fell, into the hands of a body of men isolated from social ties for the express purpose that they might maintain the discipline and influence of their own spiritual body, and in their hands it degenerated doubtless into an instrument for swaying and tampering with men's consciences. A stigma attached itself to the name of an art which is itself much older than its modern name, and much older than the men who misused it.
The decay of casuistry is nevertheless the result less of this stigma and reproach than of the altered circumstances under which modern English society flourishes. Arbitration between rival duties is less needed, for rivalry between different codes and different duties has almost ceased. The tendency of legislation has been to put an end to it. The State no longer interferes with domestic, or with religious, or with private interests. Codes of political law learn to bend to the spirit of the times. They cannot, except in rare and ephemeral circumstances, contradict the positive teaching of morality, for the great object of legislation is to accommodate political enactments to that teaching. The virtual establishment of religious liberty prevents any but morbidly susceptible minds from even imagining occasions where the rights of Caesar are inconsistent with the rights of Heaven. Theology and morality have removed all opportunities of mutual hostility by softening down the rough edge of codified enactments which, at different historical epochs incrusted first one and then the other. They have, so to speak, decodified their law, and found, after the decodification, that the spirit of both is, or ought to be, identical. The law of honour—a modern and a somewhat fragmentary and arbitrary constitution— has undergone a like toning down. A man of honour need not, through the course of a long and sensitive career, foil foul of any positive religious or moral or political obligation. It is no longer imperative on us to fight duels or to torture Jews. If Roman Catholicism were again to obtain a permanent hold upon the population of the country, old perplexities might perhaps again revive, and consciences again be vexed with a tumultuous warfare between spiritual and civil codes. But the modern spirit which the Vatican denounces in its successive Encyclicals renders such a contingency improbable, and destroys one of the last chances of the resurrection of casuistry to new life. Knowledge of, and intercourse with, many nations of various types of character in the long run affects our way of looking at our own institutions and our own moral axioms. The effect is, not to weaken our practical allegiance to them, but to make us regard them less and less as things of universal obligation, susceptible of a sort of mathematical proof. Weary of its laborious endeavours through many hundred years to reconcile the contradictions of opposite and incompatible laws, civilization does away with the necessity for such reconciliation by modifying the law, and thus abolishing the contradiction.
Saturday Review, March 17, 1866.