How to Form a Real ConscienceANTHONY ESOLEN
A person of noble mind and heart admires nobility and greatness in others.
was my mama and my nurse;
He doesn't know that it's Virgil who is walking right beside him. When Dante can't hold back the trace of a smile, Virgil allows him to tell the poet Statius who he is. "Now be seized with wonder, be amazed," he says, for that same Virgil whom you praised is here with us now. At which Statius falls to his knees and moves to embrace his master, when Virgil gently stops him, calling him "brother" and reminding him that they are but shades. Statius' reply is manly and gracious. Now you can tell, he says, how warm was my love for you and your work, when I forget where I am, and treat "shadows as if they had solidity."
A person of noble mind and heart admires nobility and greatness in others. We think more, far more of Statius when he so forthrightly appraises his own work, and honors the work of his predecessor Virgil. It is not false modesty. He does not cringe. He is utterly unlike Dickens' sallow, calculating, venomous Uriah Heep, always protesting how 'umble he is. Statius is free with his praise because he is strong enough to be free with himself. A man with the seeds of greatness in his spirit will be happy to sit at the feet of a great man, learning all he can. So was Plato, placing all of his insights on the lips of his beloved teacher Socrates. So was Aristotle, who departed from the teaching of Plato but honored him all his life, and began his own school only after the death of his master. So was Thomas Aquinas, spending his youth listening and thinking, and when his teacher Albert of Cologne heard other students make fun of the quiet young man, Albert, himself a greathearted follower of Aristotle, said that the "dumb ox" Thomas would one day bellow so loud that all the world would hear him.
If we want to learn how to paint, we stand beside the master who knows more than we do, whose example can show us far more than can be put into words. So Michelangelo learned from the great but lesser sculptor Ghiberti, praising his golden work on the doors of the baptistery in Florence, calling them the Gates of Paradise. If we want to learn how to be noble, good, great of soul, courageous, wise, we cannot begin with ourselves. We must find a teacher.
That's hard to admit, though, if equality is your watchword. The boy who really wants to learn manhood is right not to be interested in equality. What can equality give him? He wants excellence, and that means he looks to someone who sees farther than he sees, who can do more than he can, who has been through trials he has never known, and who has learned to master his passions and make them work for good and noble ends.
It is also impossible to admit your need for a master if you won't accept a truth unless it can be expressed so as to satisfy your intellect, here, now. What seems to be a paradox is easy to resolve once we consider the difference between nobility and what Max Scheler called ressentiment, in his remarkable book of that name. Ressentiment brings a delusion in values. It is caused by impotence and envy, when you see something great and good which you cannot attain, whose goodness remains as it were transparent to you, bringing you agony, but which you learn to denigrate, to slander, to try ineffectually to destroy. You end up living for that enmity.
"The man of ressentiment is a weakling," says Scheler. "He is the absolute opposite of the type of man who realizes objective goodness against a whole world of resistance even when he is alone to see and feel it." Think of the mighty Saint Athanasius contra mundum, when the whole easy world was sagging into Arianism, that waystation between Christ the Eternal Son and a Jesus no better than we are. Think of the cheerful Saint Francis, tossing away everything he owned in Assisi, yet too hearty in his love of poverty to bother to spit and sneer at people who still owned goods. Think of Peter who, when most of our Lord's disciples had left him in confusion and superior disappointment, says to Jesus, "You have the words of everlasting life."
Indeed, Scheler points out that in all human matters, not only the religious, all of us at most times are going to need revelation. Not everyone can experience truths and values with the same clarity and force. Revelation implies that what can be known only by "a highly developed gift of cognition and feeling can be communicated to another group that has no organ for their original apprehension. This group must 'believe' what others 'see.'" And that will be all right for a people whose politics and culture are not based upon ressentiment. What difference does it make to us who paints the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or who sees that God is He whose essence it is to exist, so long as someone has done so and has bequeathed the gift to the rest of us?
But, says Scheler, when ressentiment rules, we scorn to have anything revealed to one person if that puts us in the position of inferiors, of receivers. "What is not 'verifiable,'" he says, "and indeed whatever cannot be explained to the most stupid person is necessarily taken to be 'subjective imagination'!"
There's much more to be said about this book. It is like Lewis' The Abolition of Man, or Pieper's Leisure: The Basis of Culture, or Pope Benedict's The Spirit of the Liturgy; to read it is to stand on a high mountain when the weather is clear. My main point here is to apply Scheler's insights to the forming of a conscience.
For there is no more reason for me to accept my conscience as it is, and apply it at my pleasure to situations that require "bravery, readiness to sacrifice, daring, high-mindedness, vitality, desire for conquest, indifference to material goods, patriotism, loyalty to [my] family, tribe, and sovereign," than to accept my intellect as it is, and deign only to accept what I can understand now and without trouble, or to accept my artistic talent as it is, and deign only to compose poems without the leadership of a Virgil or a Dante. When the Church says that one's conscience must be properly "formed," she implies that it must in fact be formed — it is not a given. Forming it requires more than hard thinking. In fact, hard thinking of the wrong sort, mere calculation, or thinking that begins from false principles, can deform the conscience. Satan, writhing in envy and weakness, thought hard. So did Hitler. Margaret Sanger thought relentlessly, and she too hated the good she did not possess.
That is where the Church's magisterium and the saints come in. The first brings us the revelation, and the second shows us the truth in action, in flesh and blood. If we begin with the question "Can you prove to me that what I want to do is wrong?" we have already set ourselves against learning. The better way is to seek the genius of holiness, and to follow those footsteps.
Anthony Esolen. "How to Form a Real Conscience." Crisis Magazine (June 5, 2014).
Reprinted with permission of Crisis Magazine.
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