The Measure of Conscience
On our sorry attempts at self-deception, both personal and societal
Classical literature, unlike today’s invasive shlock, offers us a legacy of rich moral reflections. Two related instances come to mind. Both make insightful judgments about our sorry attempts at self-deception, both personal and societal.
In his haunting novella The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886), Leo Tolstoy points out how often the wrongs of the respectable were conducted “with clean hands, in clean linen, with French phrases.” Perhaps their fastidiousness served to muffle complicity and silence conscience. Tolstoy’s observation, one suspects, holds true today.
But every era is what it is and not another. So it’s worth noting, as well, that our current fastidiousness is sadly compatible with a counterfeit “wokeness.” With the advancing unionization of prostitutes, their clients can signal an ersatz solidarity. Some call it progress.
In Daniel Deronda (1876), a tour de force of moral psychology, George Elliot (Mary Ann Evans) reflects on the disparity between the pangs of conscience and the seriousness of crime. With insight and, yes, an eminent Victorian eloquence, she describes an alternate history of our race:
Were uneasiness of conscience measured by extent of crime, human history had been different, and one should look to see the contrivers of greedy wars and mighty marauders of the money-market in one troop of self-lacerating penitents with the meaner robber and cut-purse and the murderer that doth his butchery in small with his own hand.
While war is not precisely the health of the state, it is the life blood of munition makers and arms dealers. It is the calling card of the tyrant. We know only too well the name “Vladimir Putin.” But do we know the names of those who stockpile his invasion of Ukraine? Do we know the names of those who make the cluster-bombs the “necessity” of which Joe Biden regrets? Their names should be posted in public places.
How easily appeals to self-defense become exercises in the devil’s game of body counts and intransigence. But decent people can and do walk away. With characteristic eloquence, Elliot identifies the barricade to which they have recourse:
No doubt wickedness hath its rewards to distribute, but whose wins in this devil’s game must needs be baser, more cruel, more brutal than the order of this planet will allow for the multitude born of woman, the most of these carrying a form of conscience— a fear which is the shadow of justice, a pity which is the shadow of love—that hindereth from the prize of serene wickedness, itself difficult of maintenance in our composite flesh.
How, then, are we to understand conscience? To be sure, it brings us a fear that is the shadow of justice. It brings us a pity which is the shadow of love. Such are its effects, but what is it in itself that it should do so?
We speak, rightly, of the verdict of conscience insofar as it is our last best exercise of practical reason, of thinking clearly about what ought to be done here and now. So let us reason with our whole mind. We speak, again rightly, of the voice of conscience insofar as it is God’s addressing our inmost selves. So let us love God with our whole soul.
Doubtless wickedness has its rewards, and political power is often among them. So too is cultural cachet in its multiple influencing forms. But serene wickedness? Tyrants live in a crippling anxiety and one in which their enablers share. We know Herod’s name, and Herod listened to John. Pray God we listen more faithfully to conscience.
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