Study Guide

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman Book 2, Chapter 17

By Laurence Sterne

Book 2, Chapter 17

  • It begins, "---
  • Denied. Before Trim can read it, Tristram has to describe how he's standing, which is very unlike the way you're imagining him. He's bent forwards at exactly 85 degrees, which is the most convincing angle. (We'll find out later how Corporal Trim knew exactly what angle to use.)
  • He arranges his legs just so, holds the sermon purposefully in front of him, and lets his right hand fall naturally to his side.
  • The sermon is on a verse from Hebrews 13:18: "For we trust we have a good conscience." And it begins, "---
  • Nope. First they have to argue about whether the writer is a Protestant, and then Trim begins a story about his brother who has been held by the Inquisition for fourteen years after marrying a Jewish woman in Portugal.
  • After this brief and touching interlude (it brings tears to Trim's eyes), the sermon begins, although not without interruptions from Dr. Slop, Mr. Shandy, Toby, and even Trim himself.
  • Basically, the sermon says that you have to carefully think about the state of your conscience. If a man thinks he's guilty, he certainly is, because the conscience is more likely to be lenient. But simply thinking that you're innocent doesn't mean that you are.
  • As the sermon lists all the ways that a man's conscience might falsely declare him innocent, Dr. Slop insists that this could not possibly happen in "our" church—that's the Anglican one. Ever the logical one, Mr. Shandy points out that it happens all the time.
  • So Toby and Dr. Slop get in a little tiff over the Anglican seven sacraments. Toby seems to think seven is too many, but Dr. Slop insists that seven is a great number.
  • C'mon, think about it: seven cardinal virtues, seven wonders of the world, seven days of creation, and so forth. Stand to reason, then, that there should be seven sacraments.
  • The sermon describes various types of men who might not listen to their consciences. One is merry and thoughtless, one is selfish and cruel (Toby really dislikes this one), and a third is manipulative—he obeys the "Letter of the Law," so he thinks he is safe.
  • Dr. Slop hates this one the most, and thinks that if these men had to go to confession three times a year like a good Anglican, they'd never be able to deceive themselves so long.
  • A fourth man is simply a villain, but, because he's a Catholic, he thinks that confession and repentance means that he can do anything he wants.
  • All this is to say that conscience doesn't always fulfill its duty. Conscience alone is not enough to keep us honest and good—the law of God is the final authority. At this point, Dr. Slop conks out.
  • Clearly, Mr. Shandy approves of the sermon. He asks Trim what he thinks, and Trim grasps at the only part he understands—something about watch-men and towers.
  • This sends the company into a discussion of towers and fortifications, but we quickly get back to the point: religion is the best way to ensure that morality has a firm base.
  • Religion and morality make a strong pair, but it's possible to have one without the other—as we find in the Roman Catholic Church, which has religion without morality.
  • Get ready for some fire and brimstone to drop. Trim can't finish the reading because he's afraid that the horrors of the inquisition he's reading about are affecting his brother at this very moment.
  • Mr. Shandy brings it home with the sermon's conclusion: (1) If a man speaks against religion, his passions have gotten the better of him. (2) If a man tells you that something goes against his conscience, it really means he just doesn't feel like doing it. (3) Your conscience is not law: God and reason make the law.
  • Discussing the sermon, the company figures that Yorick must have written the sermon and stuck it in the book when he borrowed it from Toby earlier.
  • But Yorick never got credit for the sermon; it fell through his pocket and was sold to a different parson—under whose name it was even preached at the cathedral in York!—until this very moment.
  • By the way, if you liked this sermon, look for a whole book of them that Tristram is going to publish. New York Times Best Seller list, natch.