- Writing Conscience and the Nation in Revolutionary England by Giuseppina Iacono Lobo
The English Revolution of the 1640s and 1650s might be viewed as giving violent expression to disputes over conscience that reached back at least as far as the Reformation. Was conscience a means of wider Christian fellowship or a more divisively individual self-authorization? Giuseppina Iacono Lobo offers a suggestive contribution to a growing literature with reference to both sides of the political divide, to the many-sided religious discussions of the matter, and to their literary consequences. After a preliminary survey of the issues, where she problematizes her key term "conscience," Iacono Lobo offers chapters on the writings of King Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, and early Quakers, before turning to more familiar literary–historical readings of Thomas Hobbes, Lucy Hutchinson, and John Milton. The chapters on Hutchinson and Milton best realize the ambitions of this study.
Iacono Lobo's deft descriptive summaries and critically inflected paraphrases yield much fuller consideration of "conscience" than of "the nation," the other term in her title. On this evidence, Milton best answers her expectation that conscience and nation should so inform each other, and it is revealing of what is most dynamic in his thought that this should be the [End Page 166] case. But "nation" itself is also a complex term, not least in this period. Iacono Lobo's own quotations of Cromwell speaking of "these Nations," rather than of "the nation" singular, invite her to be more responsive to this complexity, especially as an issue in recent historiography of the English Revolution.
Iacono Lobo may have some justification for her narrow take on a topic that so quickly expands to include many controversies and authors. And Restoration discussions of conscience usefully inflect her account of the preceding decades. But, here, some fuller engagement with the urgent debate over the issue already in the earlier 1640s might have better framed the belated reflections of that debate in Eikon Basilike, in Cromwell's speeches and letters, in Quaker claims, and in Hobbes's philosophy. Iacono Lobo is alert to the destabilizing amplification of conscience by more prophetic revelations – "heroic conscience," as she styles them – and the imperatives resulting in that "revolutionary discourse of conscience" that continues to operate in the 1650s especially. But how had Presbyterians taken over from the Church of England the role of policing sectarian excesses in this kind? The issues had been profoundly in dispute from long before the Putney debates (unmentioned here) all the way down to broken Restoration promises to respect liberty of conscience and beyond. This context might have done much to inform the trawl through Cromwell's letters and speeches for "conscience," where he describes a positive duty (much more than a "negative liberty") and not just "a freedom from obstacles for the believer." Chasing the word through these texts yields some results, but greater resolution might have followed from a more phenomenological account of how the language of conscience betrays what experience, or hopes for experience, among the faithful. In the chapter devoted to Quakers, this works a bit better, as experiential claims behind arguments from conscience come more into view. But, to enter upon Hobbes's scholarship is difficult, especially when relying on selected secondary scholarship and with narrow reference only to the philosopher's most familiar work (Leviathan) – again, it would have helped to look back as far as Hobbes's Elements of Law or ahead to Behemoth. Iacono Lobo shows how Hobbes parses collective (literal) and more individual (metaphorical) claims for conscience in reaction to what he viewed as destructive excesses of his contemporaries. The suggestive comparison of Hobbes with James Harrington again invites shrewder contextualization and a better sense of Harrington's habitual ironies.
The narrowness of Iacono Lobo's analyses mostly invites impatience where she supplies an indulgent view of Charles I's tendentious promotion of claims for conscience in Eikon Basilike, insofar as it even was his work. What is it about Eikon Basilike criticism that is so vulnerable to the...