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.”

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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

    Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).

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