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On Conscience

by Aigul Aubanova on January 6, 2011

in By S.Soloveychik

The truth distributed in the world – is the foundation of human spirit, the statement about human dignity, the affirmation of the line between good and evil – it lives in people as conscience.  Millions of people for thousands of years sought the truth and reached it, and so, gradually the common knowledge (science), the common message about the truth was defined – con-science.  In many languages this word is constructed the same way as in Russian (message is vest’ and conscience is so-vest’).  In German Wissen – is knowledge, and Gewissen – is conscience.

Conscience – is a common, one for all, knowledge about what good is and what evil is for humankind.  Not for a man, not for his time, not for a group of men, but for humankind as a whole.  The truth – is one and conscience – is one for all.  When we chastise a man that he is without conscience (even imperialists are blamed that they are “shameless and remorseless!”) we assume that they all must have the same conscience as we do.  Conscience – is the truth about a man, living in a man, it is individual in each person and it is common for all – as language is.

The truth -conscience enters the man not with genes, we repeat, and not by upbringing: if conscience depended on upbringing then many people would not have known about it at all.

Thus Kant’s famous question appears.  We will rewrite it from the “Critique of the Practical Reason,” from the last chapter of the book, which in his old age Leo Tolstoy was reading with delight, we rewrite the paragraph that was cited thousands of times:

“Two things have been filling my soul with a constantly new and strong surprise and a reverence, the more and longer I think about them – this is a starry sky above me and a moral law inside of me.”

With a wonderful starry sky above us – everything is clear.

But the moral law inside of a man -where does it come from?  To bring up children would be difficult if we don’t know how conscience appears in a child.  Without this knowledge we will not do anything important, or, on the contrary, we will take too much charge.  Not understanding where conscience comes from we may unintentionally destroy it.

In fact it exists in all of us!  Let’s listen to our speech:

“Where is your conscience?”

“Have you no conscience?”

“Eventually your conscience woke up!”

“Where did you hide your conscience?”

“For what did you exchange your conscience?”

Sometimes people even say, “He sold his conscience.”

Thus, people state that conscience is, and was, available in a man, but -he lost it or it sleeps.

Byron writes about the eighteen year old Child-Harold:

He strives for high, tireless, as a bird.

Or did his conscience move for the first time?

It means conscience was in him.  Where did it come from?  What is that thing in humankind, which all people own and which could be a bearer of the common knowledge of good and evil, of the truth?

This common thing – is a language.  The answer about human conscience, in my opinion, is as follows: a man obtains the moral law, which is conscience, through his native language.  His consciousness, his self-consciousness, and his soul are forming during the obtaining of speech, his consciousness and his speech – are practically the same thing.  In speech and in the language all major images of good and evil, the concept of the truth as well as a concept of the law is available; these concepts and images are becoming a child’s own consciousness similar to language.

Really: here is an impertinent boy, who doesn’t obey anybody.  But even he would not say “we goes” or “more desk.”  He obeys the laws of language, its logic, and this may be a first law, which he perceives and accepts as his law.  Nobody obliges him to say “we go,” but he himself feels awkward and ridiculous to say “we goes.”  Gradually phrases: “people don’t say like this,” “people don’t act like this” are connected in the consciousness of a child.  Because all words that relate to morality are colored in the language by approval and disapproval.  I don’t think that there is a language in the world where the words “coward,” “betrayal,” and “killer” would sound with approval or at least neutrally, and each language definitely possesses words “good” and “bad.”  Language doesn’t say how you should relate to your mother, but in the Russian language, for example, there are words addressing mother as mat'(mother), mamasha, macheha, matushka, maman, mama(mom), mamen’ka, mamochka (mommy), mamulya, mamulechka, – this is like a whole story about a mother.  This is the story, which nobody told and nobody heard; it is in the consciousness of every Russian speaking person – who respects his or her mother or who is “mean,” who “lost his conscience,” and who “doesn’t appreciate his mother at all.”

Studying language, its lively phrases, its proverbs, perceiving the folklore, art and literature of his nation, a child is absorbing a common message of good and evil, – his conscience – and besides, he doesn’t notice that, it seems to him that conscience occurred somehow by itself.

A child sinking in a moral atmosphere of language and culture absorbs drops of the ocean of public consciousness.  Genius people by their immense life work raises to such highs of the truth, that these great people are called the conscience of humankind.  But both a two year old child, who feels something similar to a sense of guilt for the first time, and a well-known writer, who is called a guardian of human conscience, drink from the same source of common human knowledge of the truth.

A child doesn’t acquire conscience from his mother’s milk, but with the mother’s language.  Anybody who speaks any language has conscience.  There is no one man without conscience, no one man without heart.  If it seems to us that we raise a child without conscience we are mistaken, and besides, it is a dangerous mistake.  A really conscienceless child – is too big and therefore too rare phenomenon, it is a bad disease, the complete destroying of a personality that would require hospitalization.  Don’t you suspect your son with such disease?

If we believe that our child doesn’t have conscience then upbringing would become impossible.  Upbringing, we repeat, is the nurturing of a child with the truth, development of conscience, and calling to live with conscience.  How can we raise children if we think that there is no conscience?

Parents are different due to this fact.  Some of them are convinced that each child has a conscience.  Others try to invent such forms of upbringing where they could cope with children without conscience – without conscience of children, and without conscience of parents.  “Conscience” to them seems to be unreliable, because it appears in a child without us and doesn’t abide by our control and subordination.

All people have conscience.  It is not our business to raise conscience, in the Russian language people don’t say “raising conscience,” conscience itself occurs in a child’s soul.  Our business is to raise conscientiousness.

Parenting For Everyone, by S.Soloveychik, book2 Part 2 Chapter 12

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Cornell Thomas April 19, 2013 at 8:19 pm

Can i use a quote from this article


Aigul Aubanova April 19, 2013 at 9:35 pm

Yes, you can, as long as you mention the author of the quote.


Arun Paswan January 3, 2017 at 6:25 am

I love it so much…


Aigul Aubanova January 23, 2017 at 1:53 pm

I agree with you Arun. I love what Soloveychik says on conscience.


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