Liberty of conscience, according to John Stuart Mill, was the “first of all the articles of the liberal creed,” and Lord Acton agreed that the idea of conscience played a key role in the development of classical liberalism. A “reverence for conscience,” which consists of “the preservation of an inner sphere exempt from state power,” is essential to a free society. This “appeal to personal autonomy” is the “main protection against absolutism, the one protection against democracy.”

The idea of conscience is deeply rooted in Western thinking about ethics, religion, and politics. Among ancient schools of thought, it was developed most fully by the Stoics, especially Epictetus, who spoke eloquently of an inner freedom that is immune to external coercion. We can, he held, achieve this ...

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