In listening to a conversation upon "Conscience" the other day, I was struck by the apparent confusion in the minds of many of the speakers between the instinct itself and the opinions which we formulate upon its promptings. A desire was shown by nearly all to base an absolute ethical rule upon this inward voice, and to decide beforehand certain vexed questions in morals by an appeal to its jurisdiction. But surely this is to consider conscience as equivalent to a well-considered and carefully balanced opinion upon a given course of action, instead of the swift unreasoning impulse that impels to action. In other words, should we not consider conscience as of another nature than reason, or at least as acting upon a different plane?
The instinct that deters us from doing wrong is an intuition, and is quite independent of all formulas. It is not necessarily based upon such ethical knowledge as we may have acquired, because it often acts under conditions that are entirely novel, and in circumstances that we have never anticipated.
The old conundrum compares it to an omnibus strap, as being "an inward check to the outward man", and this is precisely what it is, an inward check. It gives no direction, it formulates no law, it simply stings. Thereupon reason steps in and says to us; "Conscience forbids you to do this thing, therefore it must be wrong, and it is wrong because it is contrary to such and such received ideas of morals". And before we realize the fact, we have gone through this mental process, and are ready to declare that our conscience told us that we must not vote illegally, for instance, whereas it has told us nothing of the kind, but we have felt its prick and have translated it into our own opinion as to what is wrong; we have transferred an impression upon the spiritual plane into an expression upon the mental and moral plane.
We can call conscience the divine light in the soul of man, burning in each one of us with different degrees of brightness according to the nature of the lamp that holds the light. If the lamp be neglected, the wick untrimmed, the oil unreplenished, the glass coated with dust and dirt, the light will burn dim and low, and its rays be of little service, nay, often invisible to the careless eye. And then we go stumbling along the dark and stony road, often bruising ourselves against obstacles that another would avoid, enlightened by a clearer ray of the Divine wisdom. And as men's natures vary in quality, so in one the lamp may be of tinted glass, and throw a lurid or a ghastly light on all around, and in another be of crystal clearness, without imperfection or distortion to obscure or to divert the ray within.
But whatever be the character of the lamp, so formed by our own Karma, which has built its many-sided form and wrought its purity or its foulness out of the work of our own hands, nevertheless within every lamp most surely burns that Divine ray. If we would have our conscience, then, to be in very truth "a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path", we must purify the medium through which it shines, and so order our lives that we may become transparent to that heavenly light. It will never formulate for us a code of ethics that will enable us to decide beforehand upon difficult questions in morals, but the more we listen to its voiceless promptings the more clearly we shall hear them, and the more we shall find these problems of our imagination to be indeed "the baseless fabric of a vision", that shall dissolve at the first touch of reality.
How often, in sailing up a winding river, our way seems suddenly shut in by hills; some great mountain-shoulder thrusts itself across our road, and there seems no outlet through which our boat can pass. "Thus far shalt thou go and no farther" the unrelenting hills seem to say, and we can see no possibility of further progress. But still the boat goes on, until all at once a sudden turn takes us round what seemed an impassable barrier, and the river still stretches out before us.
And so with these puzzles that we make for ourselves and call "problems of conscience". When we really get to the tight place, a way that we never dreamed of opens out before us. There is no such thing, actually, as "a problem of conscience". Conscience simply says "Halt!" or "March!": it is ours to reason why, and instead of obeying to befuddle ourselves with questions of casuistry.
No one can decide for another what is right for that other to do, because, however wise and good he may be, it is impossible for him to understand all his brother's nature and circumstances, to say nothing of the unseen influences which his Karma heaps about him. Therefore none may be the keeper of his brother's conscience, nor, for the same reasons, can he be his brother's judge.
Each must be content to manage his own lamp, and to keep it so clear and clean that the light from it shall not only guide his own feet, but shine out upon the world, so that they who walk in darkness shall be helped to find the way.
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