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Evans, W.N. (1974). The Casuist: A Study in Unconscious Irony. Psychoanal. Rev., 61(3):397-413.

(1974). Psychoanalytic Review, 61(3):397-413

The Casuist: A Study in Unconscious Irony

W. N. Evans

Historically, the science of casuistry is associated with the three great moral systems of mankind: Judaism, Roman Catholicism, and Mohammedanism. Faced by the inexorable demands of the moral imperatives, the casuist sought to mitigate their severity by saying to the possessor of a perplexed conscience: “Yours is a special case [Latin: casus, as case], and in your present predicament I would advice you as follows …” And so, morally speaking, he tempered the wind to the shorn lamb by demonstrating how a harsh rule could be circumvented and at the same time obeyed. Thus, moral consistency was preserved.

The reason why the science of casuistry fell into disrepute was that it addressed itself to such jejune questions as: Should a man who is seriously ill be subject to the rule of fasting? If a bandit attacks me, have I the right to retaliate? Is a soldier in time of war subject to the rule of abstinence?

The scholar, from whom I take these examples, while condemning the casuists as “collectors of exemptions and exceptions,” nevertheless gives these examples as typical of the questions on which a perplexed man needs the guidance of “common sense” 15 What this learned man fails to note is the exquisite, tongue-in-cheek irony that underlies such questions.

Consider this earth-shaking question from the same source: Ought a starving man to die of hunger in front of a piece of bread which does not belong to him? In the name of “common sense” is one to take this dilemma seriously?

Lexicographers define the adjective casuistic by giving a list of synonyms: quibbling, evasive, sophistical, specious.

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