A Counterfeit Conscience

Perhaps my favorite recorded conversation in English literature is the short chat between Boswell and Dr. Johnson, when Boswell said he wanted to stand for election to Parliament, and Johnson advised against it:

BOSWELL. “Perhaps, Sir, I should be the less happy for being in Parliament. I never would sell my vote, and I should be vexed if things went wrong.”

JOHNSON. “That’s cant, Sir. It would not vex you more in the house than in the gallery: publick affairs vex no man.”

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BOSWELL. “Have not they vexed yourself a little, Sir? Have not you been vexed by all the turbulence of this reign, and by that absurd vote of the House of Commons, ‘That the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished?’”

JOHNSON. “Sir, I have never slept an hour less, nor eat an ounce less meat. I would have knocked the factious dogs on the head, to be sure; but I was not vexed.”

BOSWELL. “I declare, Sir, upon my honour, I did imagine I was vexed, and took a pride in it; but it was, perhaps, cant; for I own I neither eat less, nor slept less.”

JOHNSON. “My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may talk as other people do: you may say to a man, ‘Sir, I am your most humble servant.’ You are not his most humble servant. You may say, ‘These are bad times; it is a melancholy thing to be reserved at such times.’ You don’t mind the times. You tell a man, ‘I am sorry you had such bad weather the last day of your journey, and were so much wet.’ You don’t care six-pence whether he is wet or dry. You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in Society: but don’t think foolishly.”

The cant that Johnson dismisses here is not the same as the etiquette that smoothes the way for social intercourse. It’s also not the same as hypocrisy. The hypocrite speaks one way and behaves in another, often unaware that he is doing it. So why do we say we are “vexed,” or “offended,” or “outraged,” when we won’t be losing a minute of sleep? Why do we say we “stand beside” people who suffer oppression, when we don’t move an inch in their support? More: why do we seem to feel better about ourselves when we declare our vexation, or our solidarity with the oppressed?

I suggest that this cant is the expression of a false, superficial substitute for conscience. In a strong man, the conscience is a sentry on the battlements, a stern monitor, a sergeant in the trenches, a commander whom we must heed. We’d like to take it easy, but the sentry urges us to stay awake, because we don’t know the hour when the thief will come. We’d like to usher the troupe of worldly pleasures through the gates, but the monitor glares at us and pulls us up short. We’d like to wait out the battle, but the sergeant calls us to our duty. We’d like to be big in the world and small in soul, but the Lord summons us to sanctity, let the world think what it will.

The substitute, though, is like the “skin” that covers over the throat of someone suffering with diphtheria. It suffocates. It doesn’t require us to do anything, only to declare that we believe something. Even if we do take action, it’s not love that moves us, but a desire to appear righteous.

Max Scheler discusses the phenomenon in Ressentiment, turning our attention to the widow in the gospels, who gives her small coin to the treasury. “The widow’s mites,” he says, “are more to God than the gifts of the rich—not because they are only ‘mites’ or because the giver is only a ‘poor widow,’ but because her action reveals more love.” Saint Paul means the same thing, when he says that even if he sold all he had and gave it to the poor, if he did not have love, it would avail him nothing. Love is not valuable because it is useful, as “just one of the countless forces which further human or social welfare.” It is itself the thing we want more of, “that there should be a maximum of love among men,” love that penetrates the whole person and lends us a higher and richer mode of life. “Its meaning,” says Scheler, “lies in itself, in its illumination of the soul, in the nobility of the loving soul in the act of love.”

Several years ago, at the beginning of the second Iraq War, a first-string football player for the Arizona Cardinals enlisted for action and was slain in the early fighting. He was ridiculed by many social commentators for having had the wrong belief about the war. They could not see his act of patriotism, or if they did see it, they hated it, because it illustrated too painfully his nobility and their pettiness. In other words, they transferred his act of love, whether or not he was mistaken in its object, from the realm of the spiritual and the inner man to the realm of public analysis, where they could sit in their parlors and hug themselves for a mere opinion.

Or look at Dorothy Day. Under the calming influence of the poet-theologian Peter Maurin, she learned to live the gospel in a poverty that was good and valuable in itself, and not meant as a reproach to a hated world without. Which political causes she supported and whether she was mistaken are not the point. Saint Vincent Ferrer, after all, supported the wrong “pope” during the Great Western Schism. The point is that Dorothy Day loved. So did Mother Teresa. She has been vilified by atheists of both the left and the right, for not having led the correct political revolution in India. Thus people who have never lifted a sore-riddled man from a ditch, or tended the dying with gentleness so that their last day upon earth would be suffused with kindness and light—people who have never done anything so splendidly beautiful for Jesus or for anyone, even those whom they say they love—can comfort themselves with the assurance that they believe the right thing about social welfare, or a free economy, or what have you. The false conscience sibilates its soothing words.

“Nothing can be further removed from this genuine concept of Christian love,” says Scheler, “than all kinds of ‘socialism,’ ‘social feeling,’ ‘altruism,’ and other subaltern modern things.” This is how the cant works. Consider a politician who has failed in those things that should have concerned him most. His marriage is a dreadful mockery. His children have fled. He despises the place where he was born. His faith is a specter. He cannot follow Pascal’s advice, to learn to sit still in his room. He turns to others, not from an expansiveness of soul, not in love, but from a desire to escape from his smallness. The altruistic urge, says Scheler, “is really a form of hatred, of self-hatred, posing as its opposite (“Love”) in the false perspective of consciousness.” Such a person lives only by opposition. He wants people whom he can patronize or cultivate as marginalized—to use the ugly and inhuman word—just so that he can continue in his enmity.

Such a person assuages the nagging awareness of his impotence and failure by declaring the “right” thing, by voting for the “right” thing, by believing the “right” thing, even perhaps by sending money to the “right” thing. Those deeds may cost him little enough. They may bring him comfortably into the company of others who share his opinions, and who will tell him that he is right, and that they are all better than other people, who declare the wrong things, vote for the wrong things, and so forth.

All of this is cant. A Christian with a properly formed conscience must understand that, as Scheler, says, the peace on earth which Jesus demands is “a sacred region of peace, love, and forgiveness, existing in the depths of man’s soul in the midst of all struggle and preventing him from believing that the goals of the [historical] conflict are ultimate and definitive.” Love your neighbor as yourself, says Jesus. That is our challenge. He brings us life, and that in abundance. How terrifying a promise that is!

Editor’s note: Pictured above is German philosopher Max Scheler (1874-1928), the subject of Karol Wojtyla’s 1954 doctoral dissertation.


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