Chapter XI The Instructed Conscience

Sound Moral Judgment.––I do not say that the man with the instructed conscience is incapable of moral wrong. That is not the case. His advantage is that he can rarely do or think amiss without being aware of his offence; and the stability which this enlightenment gives to its possessor is a distinction. Emerson remarks upon the curious fact that many persons have a name, a force, in the world which exceeds their deeds or their recorded words. We are profoundly interested in Arnold Toynbee, John Sterling, Arthur Hallam, and other young men whose span of life did not by much exceed their university days. Emerson says that the secret of this sort of esteem which is not founded upon accomplishment is––character. Very likely he is right; but perhaps the particular development of character we reverence in such men is the sound moral judgment born of the instructed conscience. Goldsmith gives us a charming type of this manner of moral balance in Dr Primrose1. How wise are his decisions, how just his resolutions, how gentle and how penetrating his reproofs. Can we ever forget that epitaph to which his wife should live up, or the way in which he allowed his family to have that portrait painted––too big for any room in the house––a reproof of vanity none of them could forget! How humble he is in prosperity, how equable in adversity! And all this has come to him through his books and his prayers––not through his books alone, and not through his prayers alone.

Dr Johnsontoo. We who are used to dictionaries are not impressed by 'the great lexicographer' as such. Indeed, his output, whether in action or in writing, was surprisingly small for a man of such vast power; and, as to the manner of his writing, why, Boswell himself had a style that we like better to-day; but there have been few men better qualified than he to arrive at the just judgments of an instructed conscience. That is why the Life is such inimitable reading. To be plied with Boswell's 'Sir?' on all manner of occasions must have been irritating, and we do not wonder that now and then Johnson whimsically chose to make the worse appear the better cause. But what a world of just and righteous judgments the wise man utters! No wonder his contemporaries waited on his words. We can all talk platitudes and air the moralities of others; but to say what he himself would call 'luminous' things about all the occasions of life, many of the personages in history––this is a distinction to which only the instructed conscience can enable a man to attain. It is probable that everyone who makes his mark beyond what we see of his accomplishment does so from the force, not of genius, but of moral judgment.

Moral Judgments and a Virtuous Life.––The power to form moral judgments and the power to live a virtuous life are not identical; but for persons whose living is not confined to a very narrow sphere the one is necessary to the other. Simple people may think duly about daily work and duties because their conscience is instructed by homely wisdom that has come down to them without their knowing it; but, if we mean to live in the wide world of thought and action, our first care must be to get, by slow degrees, the power of forming just opinions.

How are we to get such power? In the first place, we must observe and think for ourselves, not 'cute' and clever thoughts about our neighbours' doings, discovering a low motive here, a sharp practice there: persons who allow themselves in this habit of mind lose the power of interpreting life by the aid of an illuminated conscience. But, if we observe with gentle, large, and humble thoughts, we shall find much to instruct and improve us in the life of every family. We shall see good in the action of statesmen, at home and abroad; wisdom in the attitudes of nations.

But most of us have little chance of seeing men and things on a wide scale, and our way to an instructed conscience is to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. We must read novels, history, poetry, and whatever falls under the head of literature, not for our own 'culture.' Some of us begin to dislike the word 'culture,' and the idea of a 'cultivated' person; any effort which has self as an end is poor and narrow. But there is a better reason for an intimacy with literature as extensive and profound as we can secure. Herein we shall find the reflections of wise men upon the art of living, whether put in the way of record, fable, or precept, and this is the chief art for us all to attain.