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FREEWILL BAPTIST QUARTERLY.
No. LXIII. JULY, 1868.
ART. I.-NATURE AND FUNCTIONS OF CONSCIENCE.
Upon scarcely another topic in the whole field of ethical science has there been in the past, and is there to-day, so much confusion of thought and contradiction of statement as upon that of the nature and offices of conscience. It has been designated in turn by as many different names as would serve to catalogue nearly all the classes of phenomena which the mind exhibits. It has been called an instinct, an emotion, a sentiment, a moral sense, a divine umpire, an infallible guide, the voice of God. Mr. Wesley calls it, “that faculty whereby we are conscious at once of our own words and actions and of their merit or demerit.” Mr. Coleridge says: “Conscience is the ground and antecedent of self-consciousness. The Scotch philosophy regarded it as a moral sense. “The testimony of our moral faculty,” says Dr. Reid, “ like that of the external senses, is the testimony of nature, and we have the same reasons to rely upon it.” President Mahan says of this faculty that “its voice is, and cannot but be recognized as, the voice of God in the soul.” And if we turn to German writers we find no less a diversity of definition. Wolff viewed the conscience as a mere theoretical judgment. Mosheim classed it among the perfections of the understanding, while Crusius regards it as “an in
nate instinct by virtue of which we feel ourselves bound to subordinate all our aims and acts to the will of God.” Reinhard describes it as “a tendency we have of allowing ourselves to be guided in our actions by the thought of Deity.” Kant defines conscience, in one place, as “the moral judgment in its act of self-criticism;" in another, as "the consciousness of an inner tribunal in one's self,” and in yet another, as “the practical reason holding up
before man in
every case of a law his duty of approving or disapproving.” He maintains that “it is not an acquired something, that there is no duty of seeking after one, but that on the contrary every man as a moral being has one originally in himself.” Fichte holds that conscience is “ the immediate consciousness of our specific duty,” and which as such is the consciousness of our absolute primitive self, and above which there is no authority, but by which, on the contrary, every other must be proved and judged. All acting on mere authority, thinks Fichte, is in contempt of conscience. Dr. Schenkel defines [Herzogs Real-Encyk. Art. Gewissen] conscience as “the religious central organ in man;" but remarks elsewhere in the same essay, that, so long as man remained sinless, and in undisturbed communion with God, he as yet had no conscience. But Professor Wuttke of Halle says [Sittenlehre I., 379,] that “conscience is that revelation of the divine will which is given to the moral subject in his rational self-consciousness,” and adds, in the same connection, that “the conscience exists in its full purity and vigor only in a sinless state. Professor Trendelenburg, of Berlin, ventures the safe definition, that conscience is the backward and forward working of the entire God-directed man against the partial, selfish propension of his nature.
But these questions and partial statements might be indefinitely extended without better accomplishing our object, which was simply to advert to the infinitely varied ways in which conscience has been defined. They will suffice to awaken in all reflecting minds one or more of the following convictions, viz., either that the same idea is expressed in strangely varied language, or that the thing attempted to be defined is of a very obscure, undeterminable nature, or that different men apply the same term to widely different functions of the soul. Whatever
ground there may be for the two former, there is doubtless more for the latter. The true key to the variety of definition lies in the fact of the widely variant sphere of spiritual activity to which the term conscience has been applied. One writer views it as a simple process of the understanding, another assigns to it a mere emotional character, while a third makes it to embrace both, and to consist in the harmony of the two. As general fact the field to which conscience is assigned increases both in extent and in the complexity of the spiritual processes which it embraces, in proportion as the writer assigns more of moral self-sufficiency to the soul and less of importance to objective and subjective Revelation. And for a very evident
For if man possesses in himself an unerring guide, a faculty capable of discovering the moral law, and of intelligently applying it to all the vicissitudes of life, where is the absolute necessity of a revealed law, or the great importance of the enlightening influences of the Holy Spirit? How wide the difference between the opinion of some, that conscience is simply a religious emotion, and that e. g., of Rousseau and Fichte, that it is an infallible guide !
But is this conflicting use of the word necessary or even justifiable? Is it not practicable, and if so, then very desirable, so definitely to determine to what precise activity of the soul the term is applicable, as to be enabled with assurance to say of this or that spiritual phenomenon that it does or does not fall within the sphere of conscience? Such is our conviction, and to realize it shall be the aim of this paper. And it is scarcely needful to observe that we design to use the word conscience, not in its loose and popular, but in its accurate and true sense, as expressive of the moral activity of the soul. The question before us then is: What is the precise faculty or function or series of functions of the soul to which the term conscience is strictly applicable?
The words faculty and function we use purposely, rather than part or department; for the soul is not like a machine or other material object, capable of being surveyed and distributed into sections. It is a unit, and all its phenomena are activities, not of this or that of its parts, but of its whole self.
It is not so well to say that it has understanding, imagination and feelings, as that it understands, imagines and feels. These words designate simply different directions of activity in the same substance. After itself, there is nothing else that we can predicate of the soul but its activities and the resulting habits. The inquiry is reduced, therefore, to this: Which of the activities of the soul is the conscience?
And we answer, first, negatively, that it is not any supposed one which confers on us this idea,—that there is such a distinction as right and wrong, good and evil. This idea does not come to the soul through its own activity, for it is one of the essential elements of its own existence. A soul is a rational, accountable spirit; but such a spirit without the idea of right and wrong is inconceivable; hence, this idea inheres originally in every human soul, and cannot be generated within itself or received from without. Without it there may be embryonic or idiotic capabilities of soul, just as in the seed there may be the capability of a tree; but in neither case is the soul or the tree, as yet, an actual fact. Even as in mathematics the whole
superstructure rests on a few elementary axioms, so the idea of moral good and evil stands along side of these inborn ideas of existence, liberty, causality and divinity, as one of the fundamental elements of moral intelligence. Whatever, therefore, the conscience may have to do with the idea of right and wrong, it does not generate it or communicate it to the soul.
But is the conscience that activity of the soul by which we determine what is right or wrong, by which we classify actions as good or evil? No. And for the reason that the activity here called into play is exclusively intellectual, whereas the conscience, as is generally admitted and as we shall for the present assume, is a moral and religious function. But let us examine this matter. A classified knowledge of the moral law may be obtained in different ways. As soon as, by the aid of the intuitions of reason, the soul reflects on the relations of the finite to the infinite, the creature to the Creator, it perceives that they imply submission, reverence, etc.
The duties of man to man may
also be partially learned in the same way. It may be, and is in fact, largely obtained by tradition and by parental instruc
tion. And whatever is communicated to man in this
way cepted as right until he sees satisfactory reasons for rejecting it. And, finally, it is derived by Christian nations, in the main, from Revelation.
Now, in all these cases, what is the nature of the object received, and what is the precise activity of the soul which is concerned in receiving? Surely that which is received is not feelings, emotions, sentiments, for these are not directly communicable from without; they are generated by the soul itself under the influence of ideas or truths. For what is the uniform procedure when we would work a change in the feelings of our fellow? Is it not to convince the understanding, to present things to him under a new or specific aspect? Is it not to show him the reasonableness or desirableness of a change in his thinking or acting? But in all this, the receiver, that to which we address ourselves, is the understanding, and it is only through this that we hope to reach the feelings. The divine procedure in the scriptures is of the same kind. Our learning the moral law, therefore, from any or all of the above sources, consists simply in receiving truths, facts, ideas, by the understanding. And this is a purely intellectual process, wholly devoid of moral character. For the essential sphere of morality and religion is not the understanding, but the heart, the emotions. A man's understanding may be excellently furnished with all attainable knowledge of the moral law, and yet he may remain utterly destitute of morality and religion. This, we say, is possible; and how often do we see it approximated in real life! How numerous the cases of men reared by Christian parents, in the midst of Christian associations and furnished with the highest intellectual culture, who live in utter disregard of their intellectual convictions and indulge in all kinds of immorality and sin! To receive moral instruction, to perfect one's views of duty, is in itself, therefore, no more a moral or religious activity of the soul than to analyze ores or to calculate eclipses. Consequently, the faculty by which we are able to do this—the understanding, the judgment-cannot be the conscience.
Having failed to find the conscience in the reason or the understanding, we now inquire whether it is an element or activity