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The Casuistry Of Duelling
by [?]


This mention of Allan Cunningham recalls to my recollection an affair which retains one part of its interest to this day, arising out of the very important casuistical question which it involves. We Protestant nations are in the habit of treating casuistry as a field of speculation, false and baseless per se; nay, we regard it not so much in the light of a visionary and idle speculation, as one positively erroneous in its principles, and mischievous for its practical results. This is due in part to the disproportionate importance which the Church of Rome has always attached to casuistry; making, in fact, this supplementary section of ethics take precedency of its elementary doctrines in their catholic simplicity: as though the plain and broad highway of morality were scarcely ever the safe road, but that every case of human conduct were to be treated as an exception, and never as lying within the universal rule: and thus forcing the simple, honest-minded Christian to travel upon a tortuous by-road, in which he could not advance a step in security without a spiritual guide at his elbow: and, in fact, whenever the hair-splitting casuistry is brought, with all its elaborate machinery, to bear upon the simplicities of household life, and upon the daily intercourse of the world, there it has the effect (and is expressly cherished by the Romish Church with a view to the effect) of raising the spiritual pastor into a sort of importance which corresponds to that of an attorney. The consulting casuist is, in fact, to all intents and purposes, a moral attorney. For, as the plainest man, with the most direct purposes, is yet reasonably afraid to trust himself to his own guidance in any affair connected with questions of law; so also, when taught to believe that an upright intention and good sense are equally insufficient in morals, as they are in law, to keep him from stumbling or from missing his road, he comes to regard a conscience-keeper as being no less indispensable for his daily life and conversation, than his legal agent, or his professional ‘man of business,’ for the safe management of his property, and for his guidance amongst the innumerable niceties which beset the real and inevitable intricacies of rights and duties, as they grow out of human enactments and a complex condition of society. Fortunately for the happiness of human nature and its dignity, those holier rights and duties which grow out of laws heavenly and divine, written by the finger of God upon the heart of every rational creature, are beset by no such intricacies, and require, therefore, no such vicarious agency for their practical assertion. The primal duties of life, like the primal charities, are placed high above us–legible to every eye, and shining like the stars, with a splendour that is read in every clime, and translates itself into every language at once. Such is the imagery of Wordsworth. But this is otherwise estimated in the policy of papal Rome: and casuistry usurps a place in her spiritual economy, to which our Protestant feelings demur. So far, however, the question between us and Rome is a question of degrees. They push casuistry into a general and unlimited application; we, if at all, into a very narrow one. But another difference there is between us even more important; for it regards no mere excess in the quantity of range allowed to casuistry, but in the quality of its speculations: and which it is (more than any other cause) that has degraded the office of casuistical learning amongst us. Questions are raised, problems are entertained, by the Romish casuistry, which too often offend against all purity and manliness of thinking. And that objection occurs forcibly here, which Southey (either in The Quarterly Review or in his Life of Wesley) has urged and expanded with regard to the Romish and also the Methodist practice of auricular confession–viz., that, as it is practically managed, not leaving the person engaged in this act to confess according to the light of his own conscience, but at every moment interfering, on the part of the confessor, to suggest leading questions (as lawyers call them), and to throw the light of confession upon parts of the experience which native modesty would leave in darkness,–so managed, the practice of confession is undoubtedly the most demoralising practice known to any Christian society. Innocent young persons, whose thoughts would never have wandered out upon any impure images or suggestions, have their ingenuity and their curiosity sent roving upon unlawful quests: they are instructed to watch what else would pass undetained in the mind, and would pass unblameably, on the Miltonic principle: (‘Evil into the mind of God or man may come unblamed,’ etc.) Nay, which is worst of all, unconscious or semi-conscious thoughts and feelings or natural impulses, rising, like a breath of wind under some motion of nature, and again dying away, because not made the subject of artificial review and interpretation, are now brought powerfully under the focal light of the consciousness: and whatsoever is once made the subject of consciousness, can never again have the privilege of gay, careless thoughtlessness–the privilege by which the mind, like the lamps of a mail-coach, moving rapidly through the midnight woods, illuminate, for one instant, the foliage or sleeping umbrage of the thickets; and, in the next instant, have quitted them, to carry their radiance forward upon endless successions of objects. This happy privilege is forfeited for ever, when the pointed significancy of the confessor’s questions, and the direct knowledge which he plants in the mind, have awakened a guilty familiarity with every form of impurity and unhallowed sensuality.