January 11-13, 2002
volume 13, no. 5

The United States of Conscience
        "Our conscience is very much like the best government in the world, that is to say, the government of the United States. Our government has three functions and branches.

        Modern science has explored the whole surface of the earth, made the sea reveal the secrets of its depths, the sun tell the story of its wanderings, and the stars the mystery of their light - but all this exploration is external. Modern man has done little to explore that region which is nearest to him, and yet most unknown, namely, the depts of his own conscience.

        What is conscience? Conscience is an interior government, exercising the same functions as all human government, namely, legislative, executive, and judicial. It has its Congress, its President, and its Supreme Court: it makes its laws, it witnesses our actions in relation to the laws, and finally it judges us.

        First, conscience legislates. One needs only to live to know that there is in each of us an interior Sinai, from which is promulgated, amid the thunder and lightning of daily life, a law telling us to do good and avoid evil. Without even being consulted, conscience plays its legislative role, pronouncing some actions to be in themselves evil and unjust and others in themselves moral and good.

        Second, conscience not only is legislative, in the sense that it lays down a law, but it is also executive, in the sense that it witnesses the application of the law to actions. An imperfect, but helpful, analogy is to be found in our own government. Congress passes a law, then the President witnesses and approves it, thus applying the law to the lives of citizens. In like manner, conscience executes laws in the sense that it witnesses the fidelity of our actions to the law. Aided by memory, it tells us the value of our actions, tells us if we were total masters of ourselves, how much passion, environment, force, and fury influence us; whether our consequences were foreseen or unforeseen; shows us, as in a mirror, the footsteps of all our actions; points its finger at the vestiges of our decisions; comes to us as a true witness and says, 'I was there, I saw you do it. You had such and such an intention.' In the administration of human justice the law can call together only those witnesses who have known me externally, but conscience as a witness summons not only those who saw me but summons me who know myself. And whether I kike it or not, I cannot lie to what it witnesses against me.

        Finally, conscience not only lays down laws, not only witnesses my obedience or disobedience to them, but it also judges me accordingly. The breast of every man bears a silent court of justice. Conscience is the judge, sitting in judgment, handing down decisions with such authority as to admit of no appeal, for no one can appeal a judgment which he brings against himself. That is why there gather about the bar of conscience all the feelings and emotions associated with right and wrong - joy and sorrow, peace and remorse, self-approval and fear, praise and blame. If I do wrong, it fills me with a sense of guilt from which there is no escape; if the inmost sanctuary of my being is assaulted by the stern voice of this judge, I am driven out of myself by myself. Whence, then, can I fly but to myself with the sickening sense of guilt, remorse, and disgrace, which is the very hell of the soul? If, on the contrary, conscience approves my action, then there settles upon me, like the quiet of an evening due, the joy which is a stranger to the passing pleasures of sense. "

January 11-13, 2002
volume 13, no. 5
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