How to Form a Real Conscience

“For all I am of poet,” says the stranger to the two men climbing the mountain of Purgatory, the Aeneid

was my mama and my nurse;
without it, all my work weighs not a dram.
And I’d content to spend an extra year—
could I have lived on earth when Virgil lived—
suffering for my sins in exile here!

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.”

The man of ressentiment simultaneously fears and despises authority, wishing to cut it down to his size, while craving approval from his fellows. Says Scheler: “Thus the ‘generality’ or ‘general validity’ of a judgment becomes his substitute for the true objectivity of value. He turns away from his personal quest for the good and seeks support in the question: What do you think? What do all people think? What is the ‘general’ tendency of man as a species? Or what is the trend of ‘evolution,’ so that I may recognize it and place myself in its ‘current’? All collectively are supposed to see what no one alone can see and recognize: a positive insight is to result from the accumulation of zero insights!” Scheler can thus explain to us why professors who most loudly trumpet “critical thinking” are prone to go along with every educational and social fad; unwilling to accept the gifts of tradition, and unable to resist the security of numbers.

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.

Editor’s note: The image above painted by Raffaello Sanzio in 1510-11 depicts (from left to right) Dante, Homer, Virgil and Statius from the Divine Comedy.

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

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  • RufusChoate

    A splendid composition. There has never been a time in reading Professor Anthony Esolen that I have not been amply rewarded with great and profound insights. Thank you for this gift.

  • ForChristAlone

    Great writing is just that – great – when it prompts you to go directly to the sources it cites.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    “[H]ard thinking of the wrong sort, mere calculation, or thinking that begins from false principles, can deform the conscience…”


    Conscience does not merely judge an action to be right or wrong; it inspires self-approval and hope, or compunction and fear, insofar as we obey or disobey.

    Bl John Henry Newman is very good on this: “These various perturbations of mind, which are characteristic of a bad conscience, and may be very considerable,—self-reproach, poignant shame, haunting remorse, chill dismay at the prospect of the future,—and their contraries, when the conscience is good, as real though less forcible, self-approval, inward peace, lightness of heart, and the like,—these emotions constitute a specific difference between conscience and our other intellectual senses”

  • BM

    There is a wise saying of Hesiod that captures this need to know through another. Aristotle brings into his writings in several places, as do St. Albert and St. Thomas. Paraphrasing it, Aquinas writes (Com. Nic. Eth., Bk. I, l. 4):

    “Now one who is skilled in human affairs either discovers working principles for himself and sees them as self-evident, or he readily acquires them from someone else. But a man about whom neither of these things can be correctly said should listen to the verdict of the poet Hesiod. He calls that man best who can understand by himself, and that man good who takes what is said by another. But the man who is capable neither of understanding by himself nor of bearing in mind what he hears from another is useless as far as acquiring a science is concerned.”

  • Dick Prudlo

    Does “resentment.” as described, remind us of someone very high at the Vatican? It does me.

  • ColdStanding

    If being in the presence of a noble soul in someway imparts goodness to our own soul or lifts and activates what goodness is in our soul, how much more will our soul benefit from drinking from the very source of goodness that filled the noble object of our admiration in the first place? Fr. Michael Mueller, in his Prayer, the Key to Salvation, suggests that while our bodies can not be in the presence of God, our souls can fly to Him, completely by-passing even the greatest angels. Such is our privilege.

    Therefore, for man, all things necessary must be acquired. We must reach for them. They must be asked for. What is learning a science other than asking for it? Greatness is God. He places it in others, crumbs on a trail, to lead sleeping man back to Him.

  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Such a valuable insight! The notion of ressentiment is one of those unnoticed, subtle aspects of a fallen world and a darkened intellect, perhaps a form of the vice known as “professional envy” where excellence and success are met with sullenness and mediocrity whose only standard is the lowest common denominator, the “average,” and the trendy. A scintillating essay!

    • PalaceGuard

      One of my least-favorite aphorisms is “Show me a hero, and I’ll prove him a bum”.

  • the gardener

    I should have know that you wrote this. Your thoughts and writing are so special. Years ago I would read the New Yorker and Arturo Vivante who lived here in Wellfleet would have stories published and that always happened. I would read the story love it and my husband would say” you always love his work” Thank you for your wonderful insights.

  • tamsin

    So ressentiment is a type of impatience. Which is a kind of pride.

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  • Daniel P

    In Plato’s Republic, Socrates makes this sort of point by roundly praising Glaucon and Adeimantus — two people who, despite not knowing any strong argument for their position that justice is better than injustice, believe it anyway. Such praise is scandal to many modern philosophers.

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  • Bruno

    A great insight; we can readily recognize that a painter’s honor is due because we know we can’t do the same. Why is it that in matters of revelation many don’t show the same humility? But alas, these days not even good artists can be told from the bad ones.

  • Objectivetruth

    Peter Kreeft once wrote that even a dwarf, standing on the shoulders of a giant, can see the horizon. Thank God the Church has many giants for us to stand upon.

    “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.”

    For me, this passage in John 6 is an absolute pivot point in the Church. Peter at that moment I’ll bet was as blown away with confusion as the thousands that walked away from Christ that day. But Cephas stood “rock” solid, believing in faith and love that the words of the man he knew to be the son of the living God, were true.

  • Fides

    Thanks again for the good write! It went well with the first cup on my weekly reread day.

  • Bill

    Hero worship instead of seeking out the truth as commanded by God and “thou shall not worship another as I am a jealous God” comes to mind as the fallacy of the ideas within this article.
    We all need to seek out and learn, but also self revelation through one’s own eye’s firmly pleases the spirit in understanding in its free will. Virgil correctly said “Brother” to make sure Statius did not falsely worship at the feet of another man.
    Come at each others as brothers, not as a parent to a child to be taught and the parents to be revered. This is not resentment, this is allowing self maturity and owning the glorious unveiling that God has put in front of us. Let us all be guides and sharing in wisdom. But, lets not cause one to obey (hero worship) man and fear the self revelation of God’s face and Glory.