CASUISTRY (from the Lat. casus, a point of law), the art of bringing general moral principles to bear on particular actions. It is, in short, applied morality; anybody is a casuist who reflects about his duties and tries to bring them into line with some intelligible moral standard. But morality at different times has worn very different dresses. It has sometimes been thought of as an outward law, sometimes as an inward disposition; and each of these rival conceptions has developed a casuistical method of its own. Believers in law have put their trust in authority or logic; while believers in disposition chiefly look to our instinctive faculties—conscience, common-sense or sentiment. The legal is the older group, and to it the name of casuist is often exclusively reserved, generally with the implication that its methods are too purely technical to commend themselves to mankind at large. But common-sense and conscience are quite as definite guides as logic or authority; and there seems no good reason for refusing to give the name of casuistry to their operations.
The casuistry of primitive man is uncompromisingly legal. His morality is not yet separated from his religion; and religion for him means the cult of some superior being—the king or priest of his tribe—whose person is charged with a kind of sacred electricity. “His divinity is a fire, which, under proper restraints, confers endless blessings; but if rashly touched, or allowed to break bounds, it burns or destroys what it touches. Hence the disastrous effects supposed to follow a breach of taboo; the offender has thrust his hand into the divine fire, which shrivels up and consumes him on the spot” (Frazer, The Golden Bough, i. 169). Elaborate rules are accordingly drawn up to secure the maximum of benefit, and the minimum of inconvenience, from this sacred fire; and in the application of these rules does savage casuistry consist. At a higher stage of civilization the god is no longer present in person but issues to his worshippers categorical commands. These logic must seize upon and develop as far as they will go; for the breach of some trifling consequence of a rule might mean the loss of the deity’s favour. Hence the rise of sacred books among most Eastern peoples. On the Jewish Decalogue, for instance, follows the law, and on the law the rabbinical schools. Some of these will be stricter, and some laxer; but on the whole all tend to “aggravate” the law—down to the point of forbidding the faithful to wear a girdle, or to kill a noxious insect on the Sabbath. Though indeed we might look nearer home than the Talmud for similar absurdities; most Puritan communities could furnish strange freaks of Sabbatarian casuistry. Nor have the Catholics been one whit behind them. Their scholastic doctors gravely discuss whether—since water is the “matter” of baptism—a soul can be made regenerate by milk, or rose-water or wine.
At the opposite pole stood ancient Greece. Here ceremonial casuistry found no place, because there were no sacred books. “Among the Greeks writing never attained the consecration of religion. No system of doctrine and observance, no manuals containing authoritative rules of morality, were ever transmitted in documentary form. In conduct they shrank from formulae. Unvarying rules petrified action; the need of flexibility, of perpetual adjustment, was strongly felt” (Butcher, The Greek Genius, p. 182). For this reason their interest in ethical speculations was all the keener; their great thinkers were endlessly engaged in settling what the relation ought to be between duty and self-interest. Ought one to swallow up the other—and, if so, which should prevail? Or was it possible to patch up a compromise between them? The great Stoic philosophers took the austerest line, and held that duty should always and everywhere be our only law. But it was one thing to enunciate such magnificent theories in a lecture, and quite another to apply them in the market-place. Casuistry came to the aid of average human nature—that is to say, pupils began to confront the master with hard cases taken from daily life. And more than one master was disposed to make large—even startlingly large—concessions to the exigencies of practice. This concrete side of moral philosophy came specially into evidence when Stoicism was transplanted to Rome. Cicero’s De Officiis abounds in the kind of question afterwards so warmly discussed by Dr Johnson and his friends. Is it ever right to tell a lie? May a lawyer defend a client whom he knows to be guilty? In selling my goods, is it enough not to disguise their shortcomings, or ought I candidly to admit them? Seneca even made the discussion of such problems into a regular discipline, claiming that their concrete character gave an interest in morality to those who had no love for abstractions; while they prevented those who had from losing themselves in the clouds. And M. Thamin maintains that, if his heroes did not form great characters, at any rate they taught the Roman child to train its conscience. But, then, Cicero and Seneca took common-sense as their guide. They decided each problem on its merits, looking more to the spirit than to the letter, and often showing a practical sagacity worthy of Johnson himself. Quite in the great doctor’s spirit is Cicero’s counsel to his son, to hear what the philosophers had to say, but to decide for himself as a man of the world. Such advice could not be grateful to the philosophers themselves—then a definite professional class, not unlike the “spiritual directors” of a later Rome, who earned their bread by smoothing away the doubts of the scrupulous on all matters intellectual and moral. Their great weapon was their logic; and a logician, as Pascal says, must be very unfortunate or very stupid if he cannot manage to find exceptions to every conceivable rule. In their hands casuistry became the art of finding such exceptions. From the Greek sophists they borrowed ingenious ways of playing off one duty against another, or duty in general against self-interest—leaving the doubter in the alternative of neglecting the one and being a knave, or neglecting the other and being a fool. Or else they raised a subtle distinction between the act and the intention. To get drunk for the sake of the drink was the mark of a beast; but wine was a powerful stimulant to the brain, and to fuddle oneself in order to think great thoughts was worthy of a sage. No doubt these airy paradoxes were not always seriously taken; but it is significant that a common Roman proverb identified “philosophizing” (philosophatur) with thinking out some dirty trick.
Christianity swept the whole discussion on to a higher plane. All the stress now fell on the disposition, not on the outward act. The good deeds of a just man were a natural consequence of his justice; whereas a bad man was no whit the better, because he now and then deviated into doing right. Actions, in short, were of no account whatever, apart from the character that produced them. “All things are lawful unto me,” said St Paul, “but all are not expedient.” And St Augustine sums the whole matter up in the famous phrase: “Have charity, and do as thou wilt.” Narrow-minded Christian consciences, however, could not stay long on this level; law was so very much more satisfying a guide than vague, elusive charity. And law in plenty was forthcoming, so soon as the Church developed the discipline of public confessions followed by appropriate penances for each fault. At first the whole proceeding was informal and impulsive enough; but by the 7th century it had grown thoroughly stereotyped and formal. Libri Poenitentiales began to appear—detailed lists of all possible sins, with the forfeit to be exacted from each. As public penance finally decayed, and auricular confession took its place, these were superseded by the Summae de Poenitentia,—law-books in the strictest sense. These were huge digests of all that popes, councils, primitive fathers had decided on every kind of question pertaining to the confessional—what exactly is a sin, what kind of questions the priests must ask, under what conditions he could give absolution. As such, they were eagerly welcomed by the clergy; for a single magistrate, sitting in secret without appeal, necessarily grasps at whatever will lighten his burden of responsibility. Nor was their complexity a stumbling-block. The medieval mind was only too prone to look on morality as a highly technical art, quite as difficult as medicine or chancery law—a path where wayfaring men were certain to err, with no guide but their unsophisticated conscience. What could they possibly do but cling to their priest with a “blind and unexpressed faith”?
Against this state of things the Reformation was a violent protest. Catholicism increasingly took for granted that a man imperilled his soul by thinking for himself; Protestantism replied that he could certainly lose it, if he left his thinking to another. For it is to the individual conscience that God speaks; through the struggles of the individual conscience He builds up a strong and stable Christian character. “A man may be a heretic in the truth,” says Milton in his Areopagitica (1644), “if he believes things only because his pastor says so, or the Assembly so determines, without knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes his heresy. There is not any burden that some would not gladlier post off to another than the charge and care of their religion. A wealthy man, addicted to his pleasures and his profits, finds religion to be a traffic so entangled, and of so many piddling accounts, that of all mysteries he cannot skill to keep a stock going upon that trade. What does he therefore but resolve to give over toiling, and find himself some factor, to whose care and conduct he may commit the whole managing of his religious affairs—some divine of note and estimation that must be. To him he adheres, resigns the whole warehouse of his religion with all the locks and keys into his custody, and indeed makes the very person of that man his religion. So that a man may say his religion is now no more within himself, but is become a dividual moveable, which goes or comes near him, according as that good man frequents the house.”
Twelve years after the Areopagitica appeared Pascal’s Provincial Letters (1656–1657). These deal with the casuists of the Counter-Reformation in the spirit of Milton, laying especial stress on the artificiality of their methods and the laxity of their results. Not, of course, that they meant deliberate evil; Pascal expressly credits them with good intentions. But they were drawn, almost to a man, from Italy or Spain, the two countries least alive to the spirit of the Reformation; and most of them were Jesuits, the order that set out to be nothing Protestantism was, and everything that Protestantism was not. Hence they were resolutely opposed to any idea of reform; for to begin making changes in the Church’s system would be a tacit admission that Luther had some show of reason on his side. On the other hand, they would certainly lose their hold on the laity, unless some kind of change were made; for many of the Church’s rules were obsolete, and others far too severe to impose on the France of Montaigne or even the Spain of Cervantes. Thus caught between two fires the casuists developed a highly ingenious method, not unlike that of the Roman Stoics, for eviscerating the substance of a rule while leaving its shadow carefully intact. The next step was to force the confessors to accept their lax interpretation of the law; and this was accomplished by their famous theory of probabilism—first taught in Spain about 1580. This made it a grave sin in the priest to refuse absolution, whenever there was some good reason for giving it even when there were other and better reasons for refusing it. This principle does not deserve all the abuse that has been lavished upon it. It secured uniformity in the confessional, and thereby protected the penitent from the caprices of individual priests; and by depriving these of responsibility, it forced the penitent back on himself. But the gain was more than counterbalanced by the evil. The less the Church could expect from its penitents, the more it was driven to trust to the miraculous efficiency of sacramental grace. Once get a sinner to confession, and the whole work was done. However bad his natural disposition, the magical words of absolution would make him a new man. As for most penitents, all they cared for was to scrape through by the skin of their teeth. Casuistry might insist that it only proposed to fix the minimum of a minimum, and beg them for their soul’s sake to aim a little higher. Human nature seldom resists the charms of a fixed standard—least of all when it is applied by a live judge in a visible court. If the priest must be satisfied with little, why be at the trouble of offering more? For this reason, probabilism found vigorous opponents in Bossuet and other eminent divines; and various of its excesses were condemned by the popes during the latter half of the 17th century. After a long eclipse it was finally re-established, though in a very modified form, by Alfonso Liguori about the middle of the 18th century.
In Protestant countries casuistry shrank and dwindled, though works on the subject continued to be written both in Germany and England during the 17th century. The best known of the Anglican books is Jeremy Taylor’s Ductor Dubitantium (1660). But the Protestant casuist never pretended to speak authoritatively; all he did was to give his reasons, and leave the decision to the conscience of his readers. “In all this discourse,” says Bishop Sanderson, one of the best of the English writers, “I take it upon me not to write edicts, but to give my advice.” Very soon, however, these relics of casuistry were swept away by the rising tide of common-sense. The 18th century loved to discuss hard cases of conscience, as a very cursory glance at Fielding’s novels (1742–1751) or Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791) will show. But the age was incurably suspicious of attempts to deal with such difficulties on any kind of technical system. Pope was never tired of girding at
“Morality by her false guardians drawn,
Chicane in furs, and casuistry in lawn”
while Fielding has embodied the popular conception of a casuist in Parson Thwackum and Philosopher Square, both of whom only take to argument when they want to reason themselves out of some obvious duty. Still more outspoken is the Savoyard vicar in the Émile (1762) of Jean Jacques Rousseau: “Whence do I get my rules of action? I find them in my heart. All I feel to be good is good; all I feel to be evil is evil. Conscience is the best of casuists; it is only when men wish to cheat it that they fly to logical quibbles.” Extravagant as this sentiment sounds, it paved the way to better things. The great object of 17th-century moralists had been to find some general principle from which the whole of ethics could be deduced; common-sense, by turning its back on abstract principles of every kind, forced the philosophers to come down to the solid earth, and start by inquiring how the world does make up its mind in fact. During the last two centuries deduction has gone steadily out, and psychology come in. Ethics have become more distinctively a science, instead of an awkward hybrid between a science and an art; their business has been to investigate what moral conduct is, not to lay down the law as to what it ought to be. Hence they deliberately refuse to engage in casuistry of the old-fashioned sort. Further, it is increasingly felt that ethical judgments do not depend on reason alone, but involve every element in our character; and that the real problem of practical morality is to establish a harmonious balance between the intelligence and the feelings—to make a man’s “I think this is right” correspond with his “I feel that it is so.” Whether systematic training can do anything to make the attainment of this balance easier is a question that has lately engaged the attention of many educational reformers; and whatever future casuistry may still have before it would seem to lie along the lines indicated by them.
There is an excellent study of the ancient casuists by M. Raymond Thamin, Un Problème moral dans l’antiquité (Paris, 1884). For the Roman Catholic casuists see Döllinger und Reusch, Moralstreitigkeiten im siebzehnten Jahrhundert (2 vols., Nördlingen, 1889), and various articles (“Casuistik,” “Ethik,” “Moralsysteme,” &c.) in Wetzer and Welte’s Kirchenlexicon (Freiburg, 1880–1896). See also the editions of Pascal’s Provincial Letters, by John de Soyres (with English notes, Cambridge, 1880), and A. Molinier (2 vols., Paris, 1891). The Anglican casuists are discussed in Whewell, Lectures on Moral Philosophy (London, 1862). For general reflections on the subject see the appendix to Jowett’s edition of the Epistle to the Romans (London, 1855). Most modern text-books on ethics devote some attention to the matter—notably F. H. Bradley in his Ethical Studies (London, 1876). See also Hastings Rashdall, Theory of Good and Evil (2 vols., Oxford, 1907).