11-Notes“The Ayenbite of Inwyt,” Richard Rolle of Hampole called it. Prick of conscience. The voice of God within. Internal wisdom.

Tolstoy saw most people seeking to silence it with habit, if not with tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs.  See “Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves?”: “The cause of the world-wide consumption of hashish, opium, wine, and tobacco, lies not in the taste, nor in any pleasure, recreation, or mirth they afford, but simply in man’s need to hide from himself the demands of conscience.”

We speak of social conscience.  Of artistic conscience.

Joyce ends his A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, with Stephen Dedalus’s vow to “forge… the uncreated conscience of my race.”

I love the witty dismissal by Shakespeare’s Second Murderer (a hit man) in Richard III: “I’ll not meddle with it; it makes a man a coward. A man cannot steal but it accuseth him; a man cannot swear, but it checks him; a man cannot lie with his neighbor’s wife, but it detects him. ‘Tis a blushing shamefaced spirit that mutinies in a man’s bosom. It fills a man with obstacles. It made me once restore a purse of gold that, by chance, I found. It beggars any man that keeps it. It is turned out of towns and cities for a dangerous thing, and every man that means to live well endeavors to trust to himself and live without it.”

Its legacy is shame. “The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul.”

“Oh, shame where is thy blush?”

Jiminy Cricket to Pinocchio: “Yep, the world is full of temptations…. They’re the wrong things that seem right at the time. But sometime the wrong things may be right at the wrong time or visa versa.… Understand?… Give a little whistle and always let your conscience be your guide.”

Clear conscience. Troubled. Weighing on. Strong. Weak. Stirrings of.  Haunted by.

Tim O’Brien: “I was ashamed of my conscience.”  How to resolve divided duties? Conscientious objection? Drafted, we believe our country’s policies unjust. Social conscience is conflicted by moral conscience.

Abraham proceeds to sacrifice Isaac.

Freud called it the super ego. Inherent? Learned? Think psychopaths and sociopaths. How could he, a teenager, mow down children at Sandy Hook? The abused abuse. The motiveless malignity.

Beyond good and evil, writes Nietzsche. Banality of evil, says Hannah Arendt.  Rebel conscience, says Camus. Saint Genet, the criminal, says Sartre.

Wired for righteousness. Suicide bombers. Kamikazes.

Animals have instincts. In humans, conscience overrules instinct. Or tries to. We can’t afford that iPhone, but don’t reach out to steal it.

Ten Commandments. 613 mitzvoth. Sharia. Taboos: Acts, Persons, Things, Words. Nemesis.

Embarrassed by thanks for our spontaneous generosity, we say “Pass it on.” Or some of us do.



DeWitt Henry was the founding editor of Ploughshares.  His novel, The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts won the Peter Taylor Prize.  He’s also published two memoirs, Sweet Dreams and Safe Suicide; and the collection Falling: Six Stories.   He is Professor Emeritus at Emerson College.

Photo by Frank Dina