We all run across words when we’re reading that are familiar enough to accept unconsciously whatever vague idea we have of what they actually mean … and keep on reading without hardly a pause. Now we have digital books and if a word pops up that we are curious about, a couple of quick taps and the dictionary definition is in an adjunct window. If we are still curious (or befuddled), another tap takes us to the internet withe the word in question already discovered in many many websites.
The other day I ran into this passage while reading H. Rider Haggard’s She:
I felt it was hopeless to argue against casuistry of this nature, which, if it were carried to its logical conclusion, would absolutely destroy all morality, as we understand it.
Ayesha (She-who-must-be-obeyed) has just argued with Holly. Her major premise is that:
It is the scheme of things. Thou sayest, too, that a crime breeds evil, but therein thou dost lack experience; for out of crimes come many good things, and out of good grows much evil … Man doeth this, and doeth that from the good or evil of his heart; but he knoweth not to what ends moral sense doth prompt him; for when he striketh he is blind to where the blow shall fall, not can he count the airy threads that weave the web of circumstance.
Now I have read over the word “casuistry” for years. I was first introduced to me in an English Literature class at the university and if I recall, my understanding of it’s meaning or application was even then on shaky ground. Here’s what the dictionary and Wikapedia have to say about “casuistry.”
Most dictionaries give two definitions for casuistry: in general the negative version is given precedence over the older more positive definition. First, the negative: the use of clever but unsound reasoning, especially in relation to moral questions; and then the positive: the resolving of moral problems by the application of theoretical rules to particular instances.
Wikapedia points out that originally “casuistry” had no negative connotations but that the negative has become more prevalent and nowadays the word is almost always used in a negative or pejorative manner. An OED reference adds that the word “[o]ften (and perhaps originally) applied to a quibbling or evasive way of dealing with difficult cases of duty.” Wikipedia continues, “Its textual references, except for certain technical usages, are consistently pejorative (“Casuistry‥destroys by Distinctions and Exceptions, all Morality, and effaces the essential Difference between Right and Wrong”).”
Does Holly use “casuistry” in a pejorative manner? Is he interpreting Ayesha’s moral suppositions correctly?
The philosophies expressed by Ayesha are interesting, not just when considered in the primitive world of She, but also when applied to more modern political maneuvering. If I interpret casuistry correctly, a modern use would be in the moral argument: if we make same-sex marriage legal then in no time at all people will be marrying ducks and chickens. Of course this is an idiot’s argument … but then the country has developed a fine crop of idiots recently.
Interestingly, most definitions of “casuistry” draw a parallel definition to a more common term, “sophistry.”
I have been accusing the Republican Party of lying to the people of this country but now I can see that I would be perhaps more accurate if I represented their lies and fabrications as an expression of their skill in sophistry … their ability to tell fancy lies. Unfortunately, in politics there are no double negatives: Republicans may not be capable of telling the truth but they’re still fascists.