Chapter X The Uninstructed Conscience

There is no end to the vagaries of the uninstructed conscience. It is continually straining out the gnat and swallowing the camel. The most hardened criminal has his conscience; and he justifies that which he does by specious reasons. 'Society is against' him, he says; he 'has never had a fair chance.' Why should he 'go about ragged and hungry when another man rides in his carriage and eats and drinks his fill?' 'If that man has so much, let him keep it if he can; if cleverer wits than his contrive to ease him of a little, that is only fair play.' Thus do reason and inclination support one another in the mind of the Ishmael whose hand is against every man; and, if every man's hand is against him, that is all the more reason, he urges, that he should get what he can take out of life.

Conscience Persistent upon some Points.––But there are points upon which the glib flow of reason does not silence his conscience. He must be true to his 'pals,' and to give up a pal to justice would probably be a greater crime in his eyes than to kill a man. Also, he will be fair in his dealings with his companions, and will share according to bargain. Perhaps he has a child whom he cherishes, or a friend whom he cares for. No man's conscience is silent on every point of duty; and perhaps there is no one, savage or civilized, who does not act up to his conscience in, at any rate, some few points. The first effort of the missionary or explorer is to find out in what matters the people he is amongst are dependable. Livingstone was able to live with the most degraded tribes of Africans, because his sympathy and knowledge helped him to discover safe ground,––the points on which the savage conscience was inflexible, as, for example, loyalty to a guest, gratitude to a benefactor. Indeed, Livingstone made some great discoveries in human nature amongst these barbarous tribes; for the good that is true of the worst must be true of those who are better. He found they all knew that they must not murder, nor steal, must be obedient to parents, kind to each other, and much besides; that is to say, they had the light of conscience. We know, too, from Captain Cook how the Otaheitans wept when they first saw a white man flogged. Cruelty was contrary to their savage code.

Moral Stability.––But the uninstructed conscience is open to every prompting of inclination, seconded, as it is sure to be, by a thousand good reasons. This is the cause of the instability of conduct shown by the savage, the criminal, the raw schoolboy, the rough yokel, and the ignorant and undisciplined of every class of life, even when such ignorance is credited by a university degree. It is only the instructed conscience which is stable.

There are persons of whom we say, 'We always know how so-and-so will act. We can depend upon him.' The reason is that he is not liable to be carried away by sudden inroads of outside opinion. His knowledge affords him a standard by which he judges the worth of such opinion; his principles, a test of its moral rightness. Therefore the flashy new opinion, which history tells him has been tried and found wanting long ago, has no chance with him. He examines it in the light of his principles, finds it to be based on an error of thought, that it leads to further errors of thought and action; and it takes no hold upon his mind.

A Nation may be Unstable.––As for the rest––the persons who have taken no pains to instruct their conscience––the sudden rush of a community, a person, a nation after a new notion, the last crank, is extraordinary, and becomes a mania. Scott, who is a past master in moral philosophy, perhaps because of his legal habit of mind, gives us in Peveril of the Peak an historical example of the nation run mad with a notion. And a single example of the power of a notion on the uninstructed conscience, and of how such baseless notion may spread like an epidemic, is so instructive that I must quote part of a note relative to the Popish Plot appended to Peveril of the Peak:––"The infamous character of those who contrived and carried on the pretended Popish Plot, may be best estimated by the account given in North's Examen, who describes Oates himself with considerable power of colouring. 'He was now in his trine exaltation, his Plot in full force, efficacy and virtue; he walked about with his guards (assigned for fear of the Papists murdering him). He had lodgings in Whitehall, and £I200 per annum pension: and no wonder, after he had the impudence to say to the House of Lords, in plain terms, that, if they would not help him to more money, he must be forced to help himself. He put on an Episcopal garb (except the lawn sleeves), silk gown and cassock, great hat, satin hatband and rose, long scarf, and was called, or most blasphemously called himself, the Saviour of the nation; whoever he pointed at, was taken up and committed; so that many people got out of his way, as from a blast . . . The very breath of him was pestilential, and, if it brought not imprisonment or death over such on whom it fell, it surely poisoned reputation . . . The Queen herself was accused at the Commons' bar. The city, for fear of the Papists, put up their posts and chains: and the Chamberlain, Sir Thomas Player, in the Court of Aldermen, gave his reason for the city's using that caution, which was, that he did not know but the next morning they might all rise with their throats cut . . . Nothing ordinary or moderate was to be heard in people's communication; but every debate and action was high-flown and tumultuous. All freedom of speech was taken away; and not to believe the Plot, was worse than being Turk, Jew, or infidel."'

A Besetting Idea.––This theme seems to have had some fascination for the mind of Scott. He presents it to us as the key to more than one historical character. In Balfour of Burley1, we have a monomaniac, a man possessed and impelled by a homicidal idea; and yet, when that idea had resulted in barbarous and sacrilegious crime, the man's native, uninstructed conscience wrestled with the 'reasonable' conclusion to which he had brought himself, and he suffered great mental anguish. This example of a besetting idea is even more instructive than that of Brutus, as Shakespeare interprets him, because Scott is at some pains to show that prejudice, credulousness, intolerance, superstition, lawless ambition, even homicidal crime, are the natural outcome of the dark mind of ignorance; the more so, when this ignorance is allied with mental power, and the mind is struck by a forcible idea. The belated action of conscience upon such a mind is portrayed in this case with wonderful vividness.

The same author brings again before us the perils of benighted ignorance, and its power of converting the purest teaching to the foulest uses, in the character of the Independent, Sergeant Tomkins2 (or, as he calls himself, Honest Joe and Trusty Tomkins), who believed that he was saved, and therefore could do no sin; which he interpreted to mean that that which was foul sin in other men, he might commit and yet be void of offence.

Perils of Ignorance.––In our own days of enlightenment and progress, we seem to be less aware of the grossness, dullness and foulness of ignorance than were the more thoughtful minds of the Middle Ages. We do not understand that the uninstructed conscience is at the mercy of the darkened mind. Intelligent persons will be heard to remark, 'I don't see the good of missionaries,' 'Every nation and tribe has the religion best suited to it'; as though anything but evil can come out of the dark places of the earth, where passion, prejudice, and superstition extinguish the natural light of Conscience.

The ignorance at home, in our very schools and colleges, is a cause of alarm. It is because of our ignorance that we are like those seventy thousand Americans whom Emerson describes as "going about in search of a religion." The very 'tolerance' upon which we pride ourselves arises from the ignorance which does not know how to distinguish between things that differ. We are not so far gone, perhaps, as that nation which provides us with new notions and new religions, but our readiness to receive what comes in our way lays us open to the charge of an uninstructed conscience.

In political matters we trust to our newspaper, which is expressly the organ of our party, and do not look for the side-lights of other writings, or the illumination cast by history and literature. We get our education in this kind out of compendiums and lectures; and these, naturally, cannot afford the copious detail out of which conscience gathers instruction.

Scrupulosity.––We are in the way, too––like that young man of whom Mrs. Piozzi tells us in her Anecdotes of Johnson,––of erring by over-scrupulosity in one direction, as by laxity in another.

"A person," Johnson said, "had for these last five weeks often called at my door, but would not leave his name or any other message, but that he wished to speak with me. At last we met, and he told me that he was oppressed by scruples of conscience. I blamed him gently for not applying, as the rules of our Church direct, to his parish priest or other discreet clergyman; when, after some compliments on his part, be told me he was clerk to a very eminent trader, at whose warehouses much business consisted in packing goods in order to go abroad; that he was often tempted to take paper and packthread for his own use, and that he had indeed done so often, that be could recollect no time when he had ever bought any for himself. 'But probably,' said I, 'your master was wholly indifferent with regard to such trivial emoluments. You had better ask for it at once, and so take your trifles with content.' 'Oh, sir!' replies the visitor, 'my master bid me have as much as I pleased, and was half angry when I talked to him about it.' 'Then pray, sir,' said I, 'tease me no more about such airy nothings,' and was going on to be very angry, when I recollected that the fellow might be mad, perhaps; so I asked him, 'When he left the counting-house of an evening?' 'At seven o'clock, sir.' 'And when do you go to bed, sir?' ' At twelve o'clock.' 'Then,' replied I, 'I have at least learnt thus much by my new acquaintance––that five hours of the four-and-twenty unemployed are enough for a man to go mad in; so I would advise you, sir, to study algebra, if you are not already an adept in it. Your head would get less muddy and you will leave off tormenting your neighbors about paper and packthread, while we all live together in a world that is bursting with sin and sorrow."'

Undue scrupulosity about small matters is a sure mark of the uninstructed conscience. The man should not have taken his master's packthread; but to occupy his own attention and that of others about so small a matter was a worse offense, and illustrates the fact that only the instructed conscience is capable of seeing things in due proportion, of distinguishing what really matters from that which is of no consequence. This is why a child makes such enormous mistakes in his valuation of life. He will be guilty of lying, unkindness, cruelty even, and not know that he has done wrong, while a trifling act, like the opening of a forbidden drawer, will fret his conscience for months. The schoolboy's moral code is marked by similar disproportion. To deceive his master is no offense, but to 'blab' on another boy puts him beyond the pale.

The subject of the uninstructed conscience is so wide, and covers so much of life, that I can only offer an illustration or a hint here and there; but let us be sure of this, that, though all men are endowed with conscience, its light is steady and certain only in proportion as it is informed by a cultivated intelligence; and of this, also, that the uninstructed conscience leaves its possessor open to bigotry, fanaticism, panic, envy, spite. His reason justifies every offence to a man who has little knowledge of persons and events whereby to correct his judgments. You will observe, I am not speaking of willful sin; alas, the instructed conscience also is open to sin! But we shall consider this most anxious matter later: meantime, let us be well assured that more than half the errors and offenses committed in the world are sins of ignorance; that is, people think and do amiss because they are at no pains to acquire an instructed conscience.