Skip to main content

Moral Conscience through the Ages

Fifth Century BCE to the Present

In Moral Conscience through the Ages, Richard Sorabji brings his erudition and philosophical acumen to bear on a fundamental question: what is conscience? Examining the ways we have conceived of that little voice in our heads—our self-directed judge—he teases out its most enduring elements, the aspects that have survived from the Greek playwrights in the fifth century BCE through St Paul, the Church Fathers, Catholics and Protestants, all the way to the 17th century’s political unrest and the critics and champions of the eighteenth to twentieth centuries.

Sorabji examines an impressive breadth of topics: the longing for different kinds of freedom of conscience, the proper limits of freedom itself, protests at conscience’s being ‘terrorized,’ dilemmas of conscience, the value of conscience to human beings, its secularization, its reliability, and ways to improve it. These historical issues are alive today, with fresh concerns about topics such as conscientious objection, the force of conscience, or the balance between freedoms of conscience, religion, and speech. The result is a stunningly comprehensive look at a central component of our moral understanding. 

240 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2014

Philosophy: Ethics, General Philosophy, History and Classic Works


"Sorabji convincingly establishes that many important philosophical issues emerge only if we situate the discussion of conscience in these wider contexts. As a result, his volume explores debates over whether one can effectively pressure conscience to change without hypocrisy, as well as the historical and philosophical connections among freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and tolerance. Moreover, Sorabji traces discussions of conscience not just through the usual suspects, such as Socrates, Augustine, Aquinas, Butler, and Kant, but also through the classical Greek playwrights, St. Paul, Huss, Cromwell, and Gandhi. While the treatment of each thinker or movement is concise, Sorabji details how the relevant concepts and arguments change to address new social, political, or religious circumstances. It is in demonstrating these webs of connection and change across centuries that Sorabji is at his best....Sorabji's encyclopaedic investigation is an excellent starting point for scholars investigating the many debates over the scope and significance of conscience."

Jeffrey Hause | The Philosophical Quarterly

"Sorabji’s close reading of subtle arguments spanning 25 centuries, as he transliterates key Greek and Latin terms and does his best to define their particular meanings in different periods, enables us to see how later figures took up or rejected earlier ideas."

Times Higher Education

"In this fascinating and magisterial study, Richard Sorabji both demonstrates and describes the intense interest philosophers have had in the ethically central phenomenon of conscience ever since the ancients.... Readers will find here both excellent history of philosophy and, it may be hoped, a stimulus to contemporary thought."

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

Moral Conscience through the Ages is a fascinating and remarkable feat of historical scholarship and philosophical reflection. It is a critical history of a familiar but strangely elusive idea, one that makes its first appearance, in Greek drama, as the notion of sharing knowledge with oneself. Sorabji has a fascinating story to tell—a political and religious story—about how this concept evolved and became the locus of competing moral theories and visions of human moral competence. Enormous in its scope and erudition, yet concise and clear in its exposition, this work will enrich the study of the history of ethics and our understanding of the corruptibility of conscience and the value of religious freedom.”—

Richard Kraut, Northwestern University

“Sorabji’s Moral Conscience through the Ages takes us from the earliest Greek tragedies to the life and writings of Mahatma Gandhi. Seldom has the notion of respect for conscience been shown to be capable of so many fascinating permutations. Seldom have so many great thinkers been shown wrestling throughout the ages with this topic. Their thoughts are brought alive for us by Sorabji with warm insight and with a vivid sense of the historical context of each. The book amounts to a rethinking of a central value in our own culture that remains as relevant today as it was over two millennia ago among the ancient Greeks and Romans.”

Peter R. Brown, Princeton University

“Few authors have the breadth and depth of knowledge required to write such a history. Sorabji demonstrates in this work an impressive grasp of Western philosophy and an effortless ability to move across disciplinary boundaries, from moral philosophy to metaphysics, from psychology to politics, and from the history of law to current debates in legal theory. Moral Conscience through the Ages will quickly establish itself among scholars as the standard treatment of its subject. But what is most impressive is that, without sacrificing the rigour that academic researchers demand, he has also written a book that is accessible and practical enough to find its way into the hands of policy makers in debates concerning freedom of conscience and conscientious objection.”

Michael Hickson, Trent University

“Moral concepts have a history, and in this immensely learned and yet highly readable book, Sorabji traces the evolution of the idea of conscience from its earliest intimations in classical Greek and Latin down to our own time. Along the way, he raises questions about freedom of conscience, its reliability, its relation to religious beliefs and penitence, its role in legal systems, and its reemergence in modern psychology in the form of the super-ego. Every page offers insights, and I can in good conscience recommend this book to anyone interested in the foundations of a moral life.”

David Konstan, New York University

Moral Conscience through the Ages is an ambitious historical analysis of the changing meanings of moral conscience and related concepts from ancient Greek playwrights up to twentieth-century authors. I am not aware of any other book with this scope, let alone with such skill. Sorabji is eminently successful at proving his points, and his book will appeal to many audiences.”

Robert Louden, author of Morality and Moral Theory

Table of Contents


ONE / Sharing Knowledge with Oneself of a Defect: Five Centuries from the Greek Playwrights and Plato to St. Paul and First-Century Pagans
TWO / Christian Appropriation and Platonist Developments, Third to Sixth Centuries CE
THREE / Early Christianity and Freedom of Religion, 200–400 CE
FOUR / Doubled Conscience and Dilemmas of D ouble Bind: A Medieval Insight and a Twelfth-Century Misconstrual?
FIVE / Penitence for Bad Conscience in Pagans and Christians, First to Thirteenth Centuries
SIX / Protesters and Protestants: “Terrorization” of Conscience and Two Senses of “Freedom” of Conscience, Fourteenth to Sixteenth Centuries
SEVEN / Advice on Particular Moral Dilemmas: Casuistry, Mid-Sixteenth to Mid-Seventeenth Centuries
EIGHT / Freedom of Conscience and the Individual: Seventeenth-Century England and Holland
NINE / Four Rehabilitations of Conscience and Connection with Sentiment: Eighteenth Century
TEN / Critics and Champions of Conscience and Its Continuing Resecularization: Nineteenth to Twentieth Centuries
ELEVEN / Modern Issues about Conscientious Objection and Freedoms of Conscience, Religion, and Speech
TWELVE / Retrospect: Nature and Value of Conscience

Select Bibliography
Table of Main Thinkers and Writers
General Index
Index Locorum

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press