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The pivot of freedom of conscience

· ​Spirituality ·

Freedom of conscience is the pivot of discernment. Without it we are incapable of thinking and assessing what we do and cannot avoid the stumbling blocks of self-satisfaction or of self-denigration. This return to thinking about the conscience presupposes the deeper examination of an inner experience in which each person may be at the same time both actor and judge of him- or herself. According to the Cartesian method, doubt is the necessary first phase of this interior examination in order to free ourselves from our certainties and to recognize a truth which may run counter to our own interests. Indeed the obsessive demand for freedom of conscience may also conceal forms of ignorance and dependence.

The inn in Fritz Lang’s film “Metropolis” (1921)

Having the courage to judge for ourselves, without following the prevalent opinions, without automatically adhering to the discourse of a teacher or a hierarchical superior, without letting ourselves be blinded by our own passions or interests is a manifestation of inner freedom with respect to others and to ourselves. This entails critical vigilance and the ability to call oneself ourselves into question, a lucidity in the face of the reality of the world and of human beings as they are. Who can aspire to the exercise of a freedom of conscience of this kind? Few people, in fact, and never at all times in their lives. It is far easier to model one’s conscience on the consciences of others and to adhere to preconceived ideas. The sovereign subject does not exist.

We realize how precious freedom of conscience is every time that we are deprived of it, during psychological breakdowns whose causes may be many: the use of psychotropic drugs, pathological disorders, phenomena of conditioning and alienation.... It is by depriving people of this interior forum where personal freedom may be exercised that totalitarian systems of every kind produce infantilized beings and irresponsible perpetrators. The totalitarian machine defends itself by eliminating all who refuse to obey it. Its mechanism gets jammed when a consistent number of people rebel; and it is here that the power of freedom of conscience lies.

Resistance to totalitarian machines demands an incredible amount of energy. It begins in interiority, with laying one’s forces bare, and continues in the exercise of one’s citizenship, as an uprooting of all the forms of daily enslavement. It is always a resistance to the exploitation and dissolution of consciences. It is a test of the frailty of the human being and at the same time of what is indestructible in him or her, as the writings of Etty Hillesum, Solzhenitsyn and many others in the concentration camps testify. An individual’s humanity is diminished from the moment that he or she gives up exercising freedom of conscience, for it is then that the soul is extinguished.

The exercise of freedom of conscience is connected with the discovery of the good or evil of which people are capable. This restless return of the conscience to itself represents the most refined form of moral judgement which discerns “cases of conscience”, wherever other people are indifferent or incapable of judging because they do not see, they do not perceive the unhappiness of others. The examination of conscience is born from an education which is indispensable for the transformation of the self and of one’s spiritual growth. It enables one to become aware in retrospect of one’s own share of responsibility in the wrong which may have been done to someone. Pointless suffering, some will say. A guilty conscience always comes too late, when it is no longer of any use since the evil has been done and can no longer be obliterated. Yet it is thanks to this guilty conscience that one can improve.

I feel the stabbing pain of remorse for the times when it depended on me to do good and I didn’t do it. Remorse for having wounded someone and not having supported him or her is always linked to the fact that it is irrevocable. The evil done cannot be undone. This moral crisis can give rise to terrible psychological suffering: I despair of myself. How is it possible not to tremble with fear in the face of so much blindness or cowardice? And who can I trust if my own conscience lets me down? This is the suffering that torments “the scrupulous conscience” and prevents it from sleeping in peace. The mediation of an external view is sometimes salutary. It enables one to escape from the loneliness of closure into oneself, from the inner exile of the guilty conscience. Another person’s opinion contributes a different point of view which softens one’s own and lets one take one’s distance from the past, detach oneself from one’s guilt and emerge from a brooding as pointless as it is morbid.

Paradoxically it is sometimes when one most despairs of oneself that one comes close to healing, because one recognizes one’s vulnerability and desires to change. Perhaps true despair is that of never having despaired of oneself! Unscrupulous consciences, which do not feel guilty about anything and never feel even the slightest remorse are empty, dead consciences.

For freedom of conscience can also assume the aspect of a burden. No one else can carry it for us. We thus understand why the majority of men and women refuse to take this burden on. Freedom of conscience is a source of apprehension. It is an uncomfortable experience which we try to avoid. More than anything else we long “to have peace”. Can people be forced to exercise a freedom of conscience from which they instinctively seek to liberate themselves? This is the terrible question which Étienne de La Boétie asks in his important essay on “voluntary servitude”. De facto the exercise of freedom of conscience is a question that concerns me. But given that it is not natural, it is the educator’s responsibility to awaken it or to denounce its absence every time we shirk it.

The cover of the reworking of Sophocles’ “Antigone” by Bertolt Brecht (1948 edition)

In noting the absence of a guilty conscience in Eichmann during his trial in Jerusalem the philosopher Hannah Arendt concluded that it originated in “a curious, quite authentic inability to think”. All too often human beings do not know either what they think or what they do. They are unaware of the gravity of their guilt and of the consequences of their actions. They take an evil action for a good one, they pay no attention to others and remain alien to themselves. Out of laziness, negligence or blindness, the conscience thus effortlessly removes itself from all responsibility and abdicates from its inner freedom. Yet even if we will never possess freedom of conscience, we cannot give up exercising it without seriously jeopardizing the possibility of personal thinking or of a moral life.

The exercise of freedom of conscience is a call to become better, to lift oneself above the quagmire of our lives, and at the same time is a rejection of moral rigorism and of laxity. How is it possible still to remain human when it is impossible to follow the principles of the morality that separates good from evil? In William Styron’s novel there is Sophie’s dilemma: the Nazi official forces her to choose which of her two sons to save and which to sacrifice, otherwise they will both die. How many rescuers in catastrophes are subjected to similar impossible decisions! Over and above these extreme situations, daily life often sets before us the choice of the “lesser evil”. Discernment – when we cannot choose between good and evil and are floundering among the tragic decisions of existence – then obliges us to move to ethical innovation, to remain attentive to the individual situations, to the attenuating circumstances and to the ambivalence of the feelings involved. Freedom of conscience must not be confused with free will; this is exercised in the grey zones of action. In the absence of an illusory interior transparency discernment consists essentially of the work of freeing ourselves from illusions, which presupposes no longer lying to ourselves.

Freedom of conscience is the virtue of a person, whether man or a woman. Why invoke the specificity of the role of women? Is there a particular situation of women with regard to exercising freedom of conscience?

We can interpret the history of women as a long struggle to have themselves recognized as autonomous individuals. The 20th century has put an end to a sort of curse which burdened them. And yet women still have to face so many difficulties, even in our democracies, when they want to exercise their freedom of conscience and refuse to delegate to men the power of speaking in their stead and of deciding their destinies. In order to let men believe that it is they who govern, women often have to proceed with cunning and must act secretly or underhandedly. Putting an end to a tradition of exclusion and subordination requires time and patience.

Here it is a question of a freedom, and of a freedom won with difficulty, at the price of strong determination and great loneliness. This acquires meaning in resistance to the acts of violence to which women are daily subjected, with their share of inequality, humiliation and abuse – to the point that a new term has been coined in order to indicate the specificity of violence perpetrated against women: “femininicide”. Thus freedom of conscience connected with the word “woman” evokes first and foremost an act of emancipation, the history of a liberation under way as a permanent resistance to violence.

Although the feminine cannot be reduced to the role of women, the philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas speaks of the manifestation of overexposure to violence. But the feminine is also the sign of a radical otherness, of an inviolable and impregnable territory. It can of course be violated but it is impossible to possess or to assimilate it. Thus the feminine is another name for freedom of conscience, the expression of an interiority which it is impossible to appropriate, through which a human being, whether man or woman, becomes inaccessible and escapes all control: it is the treasure of being more alive and more defenceless. It is the treasure of Antigone who refused to submit to the laws of men and invoked superior “unwritten” laws at the risk of her own life.

Nathalie Sartou-Lajus




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 25, 2020