Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

CONSCIENCE.

§ I.
Of the Conscience of Good and of Evil.

Locke has demonstrated — if we may use that term in morals and metaphysics — that we have no innate ideas or principles. He was obliged to demonstrate this position at great length, as the contrary was at that time universally believed. It hence clearly follows that it is necessary to instil just ideas and good principles into the mind as soon as it acquires the use of its faculties.

Locke adduces the example of savages, who kill and devour their neighbors without any remorse of conscience; and of Christian soldiers, decently educated, who, on the taking of a city by assault, plunder, slay, and violate, not merely without remorse, but with rapture, honor, and glory, and with the applause of all their comrades.

It is perfectly certain that, in the massacres of St. Bartholomew, and in the “autos-da-fé,” the holy acts of faith of the Inquisition, no murderer’s conscience ever upbraided him with having massacred men, women, and children, or with the shrieks, faintings, and dying tortures of his miserable victims, whose only crime consisted in keeping Easter in a manner different from that of the inquisitors. It results, therefore, from what has been stated, that we have no other conscience than what is created in us by the spirit of the age, by example, and by our own dispositions and reflections.

Man is born without principles, but with the faculty of receiving them. His natural disposition will incline him either to cruelty or kindness; his understanding will in time inform him that the square of twelve is a hundred and forty-four, and that he ought not to do to others what he would not that others should do to him; but he will not, of himself, acquire these truths in early childhood. He will not understand the first, and he will not feel the second.

A young savage who, when hungry, has received from his father a piece of another savage to eat, will, on the morrow, ask for the like meal, without thinking about any obligation not to treat a neighbor otherwise than he would be treated himself. He acts, mechanically and irresistibly, directly contrary to the eternal principle.

Nature has made a provision against such horrors. She has given to man a disposition to pity, and the power of comprehending truth. These two gifts of God constitute the foundation of civil society. This is the reason there have ever been but few cannibals; and which renders life, among civilized nations, a little tolerable. Fathers and mothers bestow on their children an education which soon renders them social, and this education confers on them a conscience.

Pure religion and morality, early inculcated, so strongly impress the human heart that, from the age of sixteen or seventeen, a single bad action will not be performed without the upbraidings of conscience. Then rush on those headlong passions which war against conscience, and sometimes destroy it. During the conflict, men, hurried on by the tempest of their feelings, on various occasions consult the advice of others; as, in physical diseases, they ask it of those who appear to enjoy good health.

This it is which has produced casuists; that is, persons who decide on cases of conscience. One of the wisest casuists was Cicero. In his book of “Offices,” or “Duties” of man, he investigates points of the greatest nicety; but long before him Zoroaster had appeared in the world to guide the conscience by the most beautiful precept, “If you doubt whether an action be good or bad, abstain from doing it.” We treat of this elsewhere.

Whether a Judge Should Decide according to his Conscience, or according to the Evidence.

Thomas Aquinas, you are a great saint, and a great divine, and no Dominican has a greater veneration for you than I have; but you have decided, in your “Summary,” that a judge ought to give sentence according to the evidence produced against the person accused, although he knows that person to be perfectly innocent. You maintain that the deposition of witnesses, which must inevitably be false, and the pretended proofs resulting from the process, which are impertinent, ought to weigh down the testimony of his own senses. He saw the crime committed by another; and yet, according to you, he ought in conscience to condemn the accused, although his conscience tells him the accused is innocent. According to your doctrine, therefore, if the judge had himself committed the crime in question, his conscience ought to oblige him to condemn the man falsely accused of it.

In my conscience, great saint, I conceive that you are most absurdly and most dreadfully deceived. It is a pity that, while possessing such a knowledge of canon law, you should be so little acquainted with natural law. The duty of a magistrate to be just, precedes that of being a formalist. If, in virtue of evidence which can never exceed probability, I were to condemn a man whose innocence I was otherwise convinced of, I should consider myself a fool and an assassin.

Fortunately all the tribunals of the world think differently from you. I know not whether Farinaceus and Grillandus may be of your opinion. However that may be, if ever you meet with Cicero, Ulpian, Trebonian, Demoulin, the Chancellor de l’Hôpital, or the Chancellor d’Aguesseau, in the shades, be sure to ask pardon of them for falling into such an error.

Of a Deceitful Conscience.

The best thing perhaps that was ever said upon this important subject is in the witty work of “Tristram Shandy,” written by a clergyman of the name of Sterne, the second Rabelais of England. It resembles those small satires of antiquity, the essential spirit of which is so piquant and precious.

An old half-pay captain and his corporal, assisted by Doctor Slop, put a number of very ridiculous questions. In these questions the French divines are not spared. Mention is particularly made of a memoir presented to the Sorbonne by a surgeon, requesting permission to baptize unborn children by means of a clyster-pipe, which might be introduced into the womb without injuring either the mother or the child. At length the corporal is directed to read to them a sermon, composed by the same clergyman, Sterne.

Among many particulars, superior even to those of Rembrandt and Calot, it describes a gentleman, a man of the world, spending his time in the pleasures of the table, in gaming, and debauchery, yet doing nothing to expose himself to the reproaches of what is called good company, and consequently never incurring his own. His conscience and his honor accompany him to the theatres, to the gaming houses, and are more particularly present when he liberally pays his lady under protection. He punishes severely, when in office, the petty larcenies of the vulgar, lives a life of gayety, and dies without the slightest feeling of remorse.

Doctor Slop interrupts the reading to observe that such a case was impossible with respect to a follower of the Church of England, and could happen only among papists. At last the sermon adduces the example of David, who sometimes possessed a conscience tender and enlightened, at others hardened and dark.

When he has it in his power to assassinate his king in a cavern, he scruples going beyond cutting off a corner of his robe — here is the tender conscience. He passes an entire year without feeling the slightest compunction for his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah — here is the same conscience in a state of obduracy and darkness.

Such, says the preacher, are the greater number of mankind. We concede to this clergyman that the great ones of the world are very often in this state; the torrent of pleasures and affairs urges them almost irresistibly on; they have no time to keep a conscience. Conscience is proper enough for the people; but even the people dispense with it, when the question is how to gain money. It is judicious, however, at times, to endeavor to awaken conscience both in mantua-makers and in monarchs, by the inculcation of a morality calculated to make an impression upon both; but, in order to make this impression, it is necessary to preach better than modern preachers usually do, who seldom talk effectively to either.

Liberty of Conscience.

[Translated from the German.]

[We do not adopt the whole of the following article; but, as it contains some truths, we did not consider ourselves obliged to omit it; and we do not feel ourselves called upon to justify what may be advanced in it with too great rashness or severity. — Author.]

“The almoner of Prince — who is a Roman Catholic, threatened an anabaptist that he would get him banished from the small estates which the prince governed. He told him that there were only three authorized sects in the empire — that which eats Jesus Christ, by faith alone, in a morsel of bread, while drinking out of a cup; that which eats Jesus Christ with bread alone; and that which eats Jesus Christ in body and in soul, without either bread or wine; and that as for the anabaptist who does not in any way eat God, he was not fit to live in monseigneur’s territory. At last, the conversation kindling into greater violence, the almoner fiercely threatened the anabaptist that he would get him hanged. ‘So much the worse for his highness,’ replied the anabaptist; ‘I am a large manufacturer; I employ two hundred workmen; I occasion the influx of two hundred thousand crowns a year into his territories; my family will go and settle somewhere else; monseigneur will in consequence be a loser.’

“ ‘But suppose monseigneur hangs up your two hundred workmen and your family,’ rejoined the almoner, ‘and gives your manufactory to good Catholics?’

“ ‘I defy him to do it,’ says the old gentleman. ‘A manufactory is not to be given like a farm; because industry cannot be given. It would be more silly for him to act so than to order all his horses to be killed, because, being a bad horseman, one may have thrown him off his back. The interest of monseigneur does not consist in my swallowing the godhead in a wafer, but in my procuring something to eat for his subjects, and increasing the revenues by my industry. I am a gentleman; and although I had the misfortune not to be born such, my occupation would compel me to become one; for mercantile transactions are of a very different nature from those of a court, and from your own. There can be no success in them without probity. Of what consequence is it to you that I was baptized at what is called the age of discretion, and you while you were an infant? Of what consequence is it to you that I worship God after the manner of my fathers? Were you able to follow up your wise maxims, from one end of the world to the other, you will hang up the Greek, who does not believe that the spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son; all the English, all the Hollanders, Danes, Swedes, Icelanders, Prussians, Hanoverians, Saxons, Holsteiners, Hessians, Würtembergers, Bernese, Hamburgers, Cossacks, Wallachians, and Russians, none of whom believe the pope to be infallible; all the Mussulmans, who believe in one God, and who give him neither father nor mother; the Indians, whose religion is more ancient than the Jewish; and the lettered Chinese, who, for the space of four thousand years, have served one only God without superstition and without fanaticism. This, then, is what you would perform had you but the power!’ ‘Most assuredly,’ says the monk, ‘for the zeal of the house of the Lord devours me.’ ‘Zelus domus suæ comedit me.

“ ‘Just tell me now, my good almoner,’ resumed the anabaptist, ‘are you a Dominican, or a Jesuit, or a devil?’ ‘I am a Jesuit,’ says the other. ‘Alas, my friend, if you are not a devil, why do you advance things so utterly diabolical?’ ‘Because the reverend father, the rector, has commanded me to do so.’ ‘And who commanded the reverend father, the rector, to commit such an abomination?’ ‘The provincial.’ ‘From whom did the provincial receive the command?’ ‘From our general, and all to please the pope.’

“The poor anabaptist exclaimed: ‘Ye holy popes, who are at Rome in possession of the throne of the Cæsars — archbishops, bishops, and abbés, become sovereigns, I respect and fly you; but if, in the recesses of your heart, you confess that your opulence and power are founded only on the ignorance and stupidity of our fathers, at least enjoy them with moderation. We do not wish to dethrone you; but do not crush us. Enjoy yourselves, and let us be quiet. If otherwise, tremble, lest at last people should lose their patience, and reduce you, for the good of your souls, to the condition of the apostles, of whom you pretend to be the successors.’

“ ‘Wretch! you would wish the pope and the bishop of Würtemberg to gain heaven by evangelical poverty!’ ‘You, reverend father, would wish to have me hanged!’ ”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25