This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

Humanism and the conscience

Humanism presents man as noble by nature. This tenet is not always explicit, but humanism always takes humanity as a starting point and argues that man, in and of himself and without reference to his fallen nature and the corresponding need for salvation, can choose values and live a good and meaningful life. This could not be so unless man was good by nature and able to grasp the good by his own lights. To recall the Catholic schema presented at the beginning of this section, we can say that humanism tends to view moral evil as a direct consequence of physical evil (disease, social conditions, etc.) and to deny that the moral problem, although influenced by physical factors, is situated in the soul of the human will and cannot be addressed merely by analyzing physical factors.

In the humanist anthropology, if it can be said to have an anthropology at all, the conscience is a given, a power bequeathed by nature to each person as a sufficient and functional guide to moral truth, like a compass that cannot but point north. The assumption seems to be that we possess the conscience in the same way that we possess the heart or lungs, and that this instrument is unwaveringly accurate except, of course, for those cases where religion or some other artificial and negative external influence disfigures or interferes with it. This view conveniently dispenses with the need for a spiritual education since that sort of intervention would only derail the natural function of the conscience.

For the traditionalist, on the other hand, it is precisely the education of the conscience that renders it reliable and trustworthy. It is possessed in some degree by everyone but always requires development. It must be trained or else it will begin to atrophy, leaving the individual with a conscience that is stunted, suppressed, and malformed.

What humanism has always ignored, to the detriment of humanity, is that the conscience needs formation, and due to the nature of the conscience, this implies a moral education. In other words, the proper formation of the conscience depends on the intervention and influence of certain external authorities, such as religion, which are the very authorities humanism detests. According to humanism, which is as optimistic as it is naïve, man needs to be sufficient unto himself. He cannot need the correction and education provided by any ancient institution.

To put it another way, we could say that, due to the fact that the conscience is indeed present in everyone, this moral and spiritual education takes place no matter what, and that it is more a question of whether it takes place with or without guidance, whether it is a good education or a bad one. The conscience will undergo formation, one way or another.

The whole task of spiritual education consists in learning to recognize the good, in defining the boundaries of the good with respect to the inner life of the soul, and, once that holy ground is staked out, constructing the inner temple, erecting its defenses, and in learning to identify and repel whatever would desecrate it. It is a matter not just of learning to see spiritual truth, but also of moral fortification and defense. It is very much a question of struggle and war, and success depends on ceaseless vigilance.

We can now return to our main subject and see that non-resistance to evil is the reverse of a spiritual education. It is spiritual neutralization. Non-resistance and its ideology of tolerance combine to form an amoral acid that slowly dissolves all of our carefully constructed moral fortifications.

It also needs to be pointed out that the structure of the conscience is, at least in part, a social phenomenon. Since the moral life must be cultivated, and since this cultivation is guided by external influences in addition to private discernment and intention, we cannot deny that it has a collective aspect. My inner life is not entirely my own. Although I inhabit it first and foremost and it is my primarily my responsibility, although I live in it and it is my own private chamber, much of what I find there and assume to be my own creation was originally given from without.

The community, by way of parents, teachers, and priests, helps its members to understand the nature of this inner domain. They teach us to keep it sanitary and provide techniques on how to arrange its defenses. This means that the task of spiritual education as a social institution is susceptible to sophistication, on the one hand, and degeneration, on the other. The technique of spiritual education possessed by societies is the inheritance of thousands of years of discernment. We find that the collective aspect of the conscience (which, again, is not its only aspect) has been established for centuries, and each new member is given access to this wellspring of moral knowledge and benefits from it. This is one of the benefits of membership in a community. This is why the ancient wisdom could never be individualistic, and always taught that man was only able to develop his full potential within the context of society.

What is most important to our point here is that this work of spiritual education is never complete and that this ‘art’ does not maintain itself. We can liken it to a garden that the community must cultivate for the sake of its individual members.

On both the collective and the individual, private level, the conscience cannot simply be left alone as if its ability to perceive truth were self-sustaining. And yet this is what has been done. In the name of non-resistance, liberalism, and progressive tolerance, all moral guides are silenced. The maintenance of the inner chamber, the whole art of spiritual defense, is abandoned and eventually undermined.

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