Conscience is one of the most commonly experienced psychological faculty of an individual, but is also one of the least understood. For many years, little attention have been given towards understanding conscience; particularly on how it is shaped and who influenced the modern understanding of this concept. Nevertheless, conscience is an important phenomenon that requires significant attention primarily because it impacts all human judgment. The manifestation of conscience delineates man from other animals species as conscience is proof of man’s self-consciousness; an attribute that is only observable among human species. As a learned psychological faculty, the development of conscience may be attributed to cultural influences that have shaped human society’s understanding of what is morally wrong or right.
Apparently, an individual’s sense of morality and ethics is not unique, but is a product of his association with the prevailing culture of society. These prevailing culture, on the other hand, is shaped by world views that developed over the centuries of human civilization. For the same reason, in the study of conscience, the influence of ancient human cultures could not be dismissed. Scholars refer to these ancient cultures as ‘historical relics,’ which can either transform, “either into something very similar, or into something distinct and altogether different” (Khaldun 220). This observation is very much accurate. In fact, most modern theories, such as philosophical, moral, theological and ethical theories, that influence man’s conscience, can be traced back to its ancient origins. The most notable of these ideologies have its roots from the culture of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Many school of thoughts today have its roots from the classical philosophies of ancient Greeks and Romans. In terms of the modern understanding of conscience, the role of the archaic civilization could not be dismissed. However, their contribution to the concept of conscience as manifested in today’s society is minimal as compared to the influence of the major religious denominations that promoted the moral laws, which modern society has adopted. The contribution of Judaism, Christianity and Islam to the development of man’s conscience is of particular significant because it forms the framework of the modern individual’s moral judgment. Although ancient Greek and Roman philosophers have made significant contributions to the concept of conscience, it is the theological meaning of conscience promoted by Judaism, which has greatly impacted its modern understanding.
Greek and Roman Influences on the Understanding of Conscience
The influence of classical civilization to the modern understanding of human experiences is something that could not be underestimated. In fact, most of the modern school of thoughts can trace back their origins to the ancient Greek and Roman thinkers. In terms of the understanding of conscience, archaic influences could not be undermined. In fact, the word, ‘conscience,’ itself, is originally taken from the Latin word, ‘conscientia;’ a direct translation of the Greek word ‘syneidesis’ (Korsgaard). The concept of conscience is believed to have appeared in the philosophies of ancient Greece wherein they used the word ‘syneidesis’ to refer to “knowing something in common with” someone or, in other words, ‘being aware of someone’s secret’ (Korsgaard). In the context of conscience, the Ancient Greeks think of ‘syneidesis’ as being aware of one’s own secret, which is also tantamount to “bearing witness against oneself” (Korsgaard). This Ancient Greek concept of conscience is quite similar to the modern understanding of conscience in the sense that conscience is commonly understood as the guilty feeling that one gets after contemplating about a bad decision or action. The Roman also adopted this Greek interpretation of conscience. In fact, the Romans was attributed for translating the Greek word ‘syneidesis’ to ‘conscientia,’ and expounded its definition to that inner voice experienced by individuals, which impacts the individual more deeply as compared to public approval. The Romans further described conscience as an emotional experience, which he likened to ‘remorsus,’ the Latin word for ‘bite’ (Giubilini). Apparently, the English word ‘remorse’ has its roots to the Latin ‘remorsus,’ which describes the feeling of guilt experienced by someone who has a troubled conscience.
The ancient Greeks, however, are liberated thinkers. Despite the fact that they were the ones who advanced the modern meaning of conscience, their sense of conscience must be quite loose primarily because they are open-mindedness and liberated. A manifestation of such behavior can be observed in the philosophy of Epicurus, the founder of epicureanism. Epicureanism is a school of thought that emphasize hedonism, a pleasure-seeking mindset, which is also the prevailing world view of most ancient Greeks (Epicurus 99). In his letter to his pupil, Menoeceus, Epicurus emphasized that pleasure or happiness is the ultimate goal of human existence (Epicurus 99). According to Epicurus, “we speak of pleasure as the starting point and the goal of the happy life because we realize that it is our primary native good” (Epicurus 100). Epicurus also acknowledge that there are times when people need to suffer or forego pleasure because of two reasons. Accordingly, “there are times when we forego certain pleasures, particularly when they are followed by too much unpleasantness” (Epicurus 100). At times, people “regard certain states of pain as preferable to pleasures, particularly when greater satisfaction results from our having submitted to discomforts for a long period of time” (Epicurus 100).
The impact of Epicurean philosophy is the tendency of individuals to be self-serving. In this context, the concept of conscience of the ancient Greeks must be different from the modern understanding of conscience in the sense that the Greek society must be selfish or must have placed little emphasis on self-sacrifice as compared to the contemporary society because of their hedonistic point of view. And though Greeks believe in deities, their view on death and the afterlife makes them less accountable to themselves as compared to a more religious modern society. Epicurus’s teachings about death, for instance, provides a glimpse of what ancient Greeks must be thinking on the subject of death. According to Epicurus, death “is simply the loss of a few atoms from the body” (Epicurus 99). For the same reason, people has nothing to fear about death. However, when people do not fear death, it follows that they have nothing to fear about. As stated by Epicurus, “This, the most horrifying of evils, means nothing to us, then, because so long as we are existent death is not present and whenever it is present we are nonexistent” (Epicurus 100). The notion of being non-existent after death must have promoted the hedonistic lifestyle that prevailed during archaic times. Because of the prevailing belief that death ends everything, the tendency of the individual is to eat, drink and be merry. After all, after death, these things does not exist anymore. Moreover, the tendency of this belief is for the individual to not feel accountable of his actions. Under this prevailing view, it is quite difficult to develop a sense of conscience that is similar to the sense of conscience observed by modern society. The idea of stealing, for instance, may be discouraged in the archaic times not because it is against their moral law, but because it causes another party to retaliate, thereby affecting also the overall happiness of the person who steals.
Judaism, Christianity and Islamic Influences on Conscience
Judaism, Christianity and Islam are considered by scholars as Abrahamic religions because all originated or claims to originate from the patriarch Abraham. Judaism is one of the world’s oldest religions. It was first practiced by the Hebrews, a Semitic tribe that originated in the Tigris and Euphrates region. The emergence of Judaism can be traced back to the Jewish patriarch, Abraham, who is believed to have lived in Mesopotamia during the Bronze Age (Brown 7). Prior to Judaism, the concept of conscience and morality must have already existed in Mesopotamia as evidenced by laws and social order. The manifestation of which is the discovery of the laws of Hammurabi, the king who ruled the ancient city of Babylon around 2,000 B.C. Hammurabi consider himself as a “reverent Godfearing prince” whose purpose is to “to make justice to appear in the land, to destroy the evil and the wicked that the strong might not oppress the weak” (“Selections from The Code of Hammurabi” 2). In the same way, the Hebrews also established a lasting covenant with God to adhere his moral laws. Based on Hebrew scriptures, Abraham made a covenant with Yahweh to worship and follow his laws. These laws were eventually passed on to Abraham’s descendants and was handed down by Yahweh, himself, to Moses, whom the Hebrews believe as the greatest of all the prophets. The handing of the law to Moses by God, himself, is recorded in the book of Exodus of the Hebrew scriptures wherein God said to him, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites: You yourselves saw that 1 spoke to you from the very heavens”(“Selections from The Holy Scriptures (The Jewish Bible)” 157).
Just like the laws of Hammurabi, Judaism introduced a framework of morality through the laws of Moses, which is also believed to be the divine laws given by God wherein men should be judged. One of the most significant attribute of the Judaism to the modern concept of morality is in its emphasis on obedience to the established laws. These laws are further strengthened on the thought that the laws written by Moses are not just ordinary laws written by man, but is the law of God, himself. Examples of such laws are “You shall not murder;” “You shall not commit adultery;” and “You shall not steal” among many others (“Selections from The Holy Scriptures (The Jewish Bible)” 157).
Christianity and Islam, on the other hand, are two major religious denomination that developed out of the Hebrew religion. Christianity is believed to have been established by Jesus Christ, whom Christians believe as the messiah and the son of God. The church was propagated by Christ’s apostles after his death in the first century. Starting as a minority, Christians were initially persecuted. As observed by the church historian, Eusebius of Caesarea, “imperial decree was published everywhere, ordering the churches to be razed to the ground and the Scriptures destroyed by fire and giving notice that those in places of honour would lose their places, and domestic staff, if they continued to profess Christianity, would be deprived of their liberty” (Eusebius 185). After the death of the apostles, upheavals and conflict within the church broke Christianity into many factions. The faction that prevailed eventually become the Roman Catholic Church when it was recognized by the Emperor Constantine as the Roman Empire’s official religion when he won over his adversary. As observed by Eusebius, “They danced and sang in city and country alike, giving honour first of all to God our Sovereign Lord, as they had been instructed, and then to the pious emperor with his sons, so dear to God” (Eusebius 186). Christianity spread rapidly over Rome’s territory, particularly in Europe where it became the official religion of European monarchs.
Christianity, however, failed to propagate in the Asian region as it was repealed by the rise of Islam. Founded by Mohammad in the early 600 A.D., Islam quickly spread from the Arabian peninsula to the neighboring areas through conquest and conversion. The Arabs, who were the first converts to Islam, became instrumental in the propagation and spread of the Islamic faith in Eurasia and the rest of the world. At its peak, Islam is the religion that dominated all of central Asia and parts of Europe through its Caliphate; the last of which is the empire established by the Ottoman Turks. If not for a repealed Islamic invasion of Europe, which was launched by the Moors of Spain sometime in the 8th century, the whole of Europe would have been converted to Islam. Despite having many doctrinal differences, Abrahamic religions share a similar belief as to the nature of God and his laws. Judaism, Christianity and Islam agree that there is only one God and that he requires all people to worship and follow his commandments. A passage in Quran, for instance, quoted Allah saying, “Have no fear of man; fear Me, and do not sell My revelations for a paltry sum” (“Selections from the Qur’an” 216). They also agree that good and bad deeds are rewarded and punished by God not only on this life, but also in the life after death. For God, according to God, himself, is “an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations,” but he also shows kindness for those who love him and keeps his commandments (“Selections from The Holy Scriptures (The Jewish Bible)” 156). Similarly, reward and punishment is also observed in Islam as the Quran says, “We decreed for them a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, and a wound for a wound”(“Selections from the Qur’an” 216).
Fundamentally, adherence to the laws of Yahweh, God or Allah is not an option, but a requirement in order to attain the desired reward; believed to be given by God to those who follow his commandments. Historically, each of these Abrahamic religions have strictly imposed their religious laws to their members. The major theme in their teachings is the punishment that awaits those who do not obey. The Hebrew bible, for instance, is filled with circumstances wherein God punished those who disobey him by death. During the time of Noah, God decreed to “bring the flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh” except for Noah and his family (“Selections from The Holy Scriptures (The Jewish Bible)” 155). Hebrews who refuse or fail to follow God’s commandment during the time of Moses and the old kingdom of Israel, on the other hand, are subjected to harsh punishment and even death. This reward and punishment system gives an idea that God could not be mocked as he is just God who can punish anyone who disobeys his commandments. As preached by the prophet, Amos, “Seek the Lord, and you will live, else He will rush like fire upon the House of Joseph and consume Bethel with none to quench it” (“Selections from The Holy Scriptures (The Jewish Bible)” 157). Christians were also observed to impose their religious beliefs among their converts and were also known to persecute those who do not follow God’s teachings. The Catholic Church, in particular, is noted for its strict observance of the Christian doctrine early in its history. There was little tolerance to religious freedom as heretics were burned to the stake. Later on, the church expelled or excommunicated others who refuse to follow its teachings. Similarly, Islam have little tolerance towards people who do not share its beliefs. Just like Judaism and Christianity, those who disobey the laws of Islam were punished depending on the severity of their transgressions.
Modern Understanding of Conscience
In order to determine who among these major world-views significantly shaped man’s understanding of conscience, it is first necessary to understand the meaning of conscience in the modern context. The modern concept of conscience is quite difficult to define. Nevertheless, most people experience it and describe it as that that little voice that tells them that they might have done something wrong. Like a gut feeling or intuition, conscience is not only psychological, but also an emotional experience. For the same reason, the phrase, ‘pangs of guilt’ is often used when referring to conscience when one feels a sense of remorse after doing something that is considered wrong. As far as the definition of conscience is concerned, the modern concept of conscience coincides with the ancient Greek and Romans who perceive conscience as the self, reflecting and giving judgment to its own actions.
Self reflection or self assessment, however, could not be relied upon, primarily because the judgment of people is subjective and tends to favor their own selfish desires. For the same reason, modern society tend to develop a concept of conscience that is based on concrete principles, which aims to guide people on how to act in a given situation. This concept of conscience is consistent with the moral principles found in the teachings of the Abrahamic religions. The Archaic world view promotes the concept of utilitarianism. This world view teaches people to pursue happiness as the ultimate goal in life, but it does not give concrete principles regarding what is morally right or wrong. In a sense, the archaic world view allows people to make their own interpretation of what good is based on what makes them happy. Unfortunately, this is not how modern society works. Modern society have evolved into a society that follows concrete rules, which aims to guide individuals on what actions are acceptable or not. Murder, stealing, adultery and many other acts that are considered as crimes are considered as such because such acts are clearly prohibited in the laws of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Unlike the hedonistic principles of the Greeks and Romans, the Abrahamic religions also promoted a concept of conscience based on self-sacrifice. Unselfishness is a major theme in the teachings of these religions. Moses, the celebrated prophet of Judaism, for instance, sacrificed his high-position in the Egyptian royal court in order to follow God’s calling. Similarly, Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity, is believed to have made the ultimate sacrifice of himself when he allowed himself to be crucified and die in the cross. Mohammad also emphasized self sacrifice; teaching about self restrain, austerity and self-denial for the sake of Islam.
The urge to do good, to sacrifice one’s self for the sake of others, are the ideals embodied in the moral code of the Abrahamic teachings. These are the teachings that defines the contemporary notion of conscience. Many Renaissance thinkers tried to break away with this concept by promoting the idea that human beings are free-spirited individuals who are free to do what they please. Such notion can be observed in the writings of the Italian orator, Giovanni Pico. According to Pico, “human nature is not fixed, and the will is perfectly free” adding that “human beings are shape-shifting creatures who may be vegetative, bestial, rational, divine, or even co-equal with God” (Pico 305). These attempts to rejuvenate the classical line of thought appealed during the Renaissance period, but little solace can be availed of these views in terms of conscience. Even renaissance thinkers like Pico reverts back to the need to be in good terms with God by following his commandment. Pico believes that “God the master-builder, had, by the laws of his secret wisdom, fabricated this house, this world which we see, a very superb temple of divinity” (Pico 306). In fact, the modern notion of conscience contradicts freewill in the sense that it suppresses it. Modern society, for instance, is built upon laws and policies that limits man’s freewill. Examples of such are laws that govern and regulates commerce or laws that regulate properties. In fact, almost all laws aims to regulate the excesses that may arise out of man’s freewill, which may eventually lead him to greed. Evidently, these laws are very much related to the traditional practices of Abrahamic religions, which appealed to modern law makers. Modern government services such as the justice system, healthcare system and welfare services that is shared equally by all individuals regardless of their tax contributions, for instance, is a manifestation of self-sacrifice promoted by Abrahamic religions that found its way to modern day legislation.
Ancient Greeks and Roman thinkers promoted the modern definition of conscience by relating it to the concept of ‘syneidesis,’ which was later translated by the Romans to ‘conscientia.’ In the Greek and Roman perspective, conscience is self-reflection and judgment of one’s action based on self awareness. The archaic world view on conscience is based on hedonism and freewill. While this point of view towards conscience was widely encountered particularly during the renaissance, such view does not reflect on the principles wherein modern social institutions are built. The problem with the archaic world view is that it is prone to self-service or selfishness. Under such framework, conscience would become counterproductive because it would only serve to satisfy a person’s pursuit of happiness. Today, the pursuit of happiness is still the main goal of all individuals, but due to the influence of the teachings of the Abrahamic religions, people have learned to assess their actions based on concrete laws. These laws served as the major framework of the common laws that are being observed in most nations today. Due to the teachings of these major world religions, its moral laws formed the core of the individual’s conscience, imposing the guilt or remorseful feelings whenever such beliefs are transgressed or not satisfied. It can be deduced that the religious teachings of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are more influential or have played a greater role in the in the modern understanding of conscience.
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