Medusa's Gaze: Casuistry and Conscience in the Renaissance

Medusa's Gaze: Casuistry and Conscience in the Renaissance

Medusa's Gaze: Casuistry and Conscience in the Renaissance

Medusa's Gaze: Casuistry and Conscience in the Renaissance

Excerpt

Among the follies thatAlexander Pope assigned to the lunar sphere in The Rape of the Lock, after the cages for gnats and the dried butterflies, we find "tomes of casuistry." He made the phrase rhyme with "chains to yoke a flea" -- an aptly deflated image for the kind of snare that casuistry had come to represent in the world that Pope knew. In the culture of mid-eighteenth-century England, casuistry -- the science of resolving problems of moral choice, known as "cases of conscience" -- had lost the reputation it had acquired in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as the principal agent of scandal, moral decay, and political subversion -- as an "endlesse and living veine of powder & salt-peeter," to borrow the words of one Protestant commentator. Why this change, this descent into the banal, should have occurred has something to do, in part, with the exertion of political and social lines of force that determine what we might call the halflife value of what a culture constitutes as its privileged discourses, a phenomenon thatMichel Foucault work -- notably The Archaeology of Knowledge -- illumined.

In some ways casuistry indeed had the trappings of a residual text in eighteenth-century English culture, particularly insofar as the social and political context in which it had gained notoriety two centuries earlier was no longer a dominant force. The "Catholic problem," especially, had been virtually neutralized, if not entirely resolved; in any case, the existence of a dissident religious population no longer carried the implication of an imminent restructuring of the political identity of the commonwealth, as it did in the days when the word "papist" evoked the image of a network of secret traitors quietly working to bring about a Spanish takeover. Casuistry, the discourse . . .

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