Consciousness and/or Conscience?


In most modern Romance languages, the appropriation of the Latin word conscientia was made to do double duty as the word they use both for psychological consciousness and also for moral conscience. Italian somehow skirted this (con)fusion and uses the word consapevolezza for the former, and coscienza for the latter. German follows suit with Bewusstsein and Gewissen.  French, Spanish and Portuguese, however, use the selfsame term for both forms of ‘awareness’ (conscienceconciencia, and consciência, respectively). This linguistic flexibility got me thinking.

Although German rejects the Siamese blending of the two meanings (and inaugurates and belabors a new philosophical role for ‘consciousness’ – Bewusstsein – beginning with Hegel), it was Kant who first traced an unsuspected root of theoretical consciousness and knowledge to a deeper source of certainty in the recesses of moral conscience. Conversely, by simply consulting our experience in spoken English, it is not too hard to see how moral conscience requires a consciousness of ends and values in order for the ethical dimension of our minds to be activated. Or reversing the comparison once again, if one did not have a moral conscience directing one to favor the value of truth over falsehood, veracity over mendacity, and being over sham, one’s consciousness would get hopelessly scrambled in no time. All this semantic promiscuity must lead us back, eventually, to the Latin word itself. Amidst all the taxonomic clarity and distinctness the tongue of Cicero gained when conducted through the translations of Aristotle and the meticulous elaborations of Latin Scholasticism in the High Middle Ages, it somehow resisted coining two separate words for these two dimensions of awareness. French, Spanish and Portuguese can thus claim noble Latin pedigree in their isolation of one single vocabulum for the conscience and consciousness we anglophones, Germans and Italians so insistently distinguish.

A good classical metaphysician might point out that truth (in the theoretical order), and goodness (in the moral order), both are rooted in being (in the transcendental order). In other words, truth is just being from the intellect’s point of view, as goodness is just being from the will’s point of view. (If we wanted to round this out in all its spiritual implications, we would have to add beauty to the mix, but since our business here is a bit more superficial, we can leave that to the side – or better hanging mystically above us – for the time being.)  So the possibility, or even the advisability, of semantically entwining psychological awareness and the inner voice of morality within the same two-syllable word may lie in the sovereign unity of being as being. It may be this which attracts its various offspring into occasionally surprising linguistic coition as witness to a deeper ontological interpenetration.

“Spirit”, in the classical tradition, is the sort of substance that puts forth two characteristic forms of vital activity: intellectual and volitional. This is reflected even in the sub-spiritual forms of sensory life (in which we also share), for we all know the difference between simply perceiving or sensing something (say, with the eye or the ear or the finger-tip) and reacting emotionally to what we so perceive (with delight, horror, pleasure or some other ‘movement’ of what we call our feelings). That is the lower, material case of what is realized on the spiritual level by intellection and volition, but it is the same duality of cognition/appetition which is in evidence. We know materially through the senses; we know immaterially through the intellect. We are moved materially through the emotions; we are motivated immaterially through the will.  But there is another aspect of this that must be highlighted.

The senses do not sense, nor does the intellect intuit or the reason reason (intellect and reasoning being the two dimensions of the one spiritual faculty of knowledge). Similarly, our emotions feel nothing, and our will is never motivated, never chooses, never loves. It is only the person, as the undivided agent, who senses, intuits, reasons, resolves, chooses, loves, hates and all the rest through those powers and operations. This is because only the person is an honest-to-goodness substance (a thing that exists in itself); all its faculties and their acts are mere accidents that inhere in the substance, are of it,  for it, through it; there is hardly a preposition that cannot be grammatically factored into this relationship. The being of the person, therefore, is what is really at the center of the universe, enjoying a degree of reality, of unity and of power that only it possesses. When its vital activities reach the summit of their unfolding, the awareness of reality and the moral implications of that awareness effortlessly partake of the person’s undivided oneness. The truth and the goodness of being enter into a perichorese  (a cirumincessio, a mutal indwelling) that invites one proud word to gather all their dual grandeur into a single morpheme.

Conscientia, in Latin, is not constrained by doing double duty, any more than our tongue is overworked by having to talk in one moment, and taste in another; or our hand confused because we will use it first to pick up a cup of coffee, and then to wave at a friend. Truth and Goodness both look, in unison, to their common matrix: being. There is no compelling reason – pace my English-, Italian- and German-speaking readers – to apportion their respective semantic content between two separate nouns, when one noun – with two passionately embraced meanings – can do the work well enough on its own.

One last remark about the importance of both keeping alive the distinct and dual dimensions of our ‘conscious’ and ‘conscientious’ lives, but also of protecting the inviolability of their bond: Much superficial spirituality on offer today has to do with ‘raising our consciousness’ or exploring new ‘levels of consciousness’.  I recall when Western reworkings of Eastern meditative traditions were first offered to my generation back in the 1960s, many of us were attracted to them (whether we were aware of it or not) precisely because they dealt only with consciousness, and not with conscience. Or, in other words, we could practice meditation and ‘get spiritual’ all the while we were promiscuous sexually and enjoying a generous selection of mind-altering drugs. Morality was not part of spirituality any more. Hoorah!  we celebrated in our adolescent naivité. Any serious look at Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras or the Buddha’s Eightfold Way will show that also in the East theory and practice, truth and morality, go hand in hand. Separating them finds no serious warrant in authentic Eastern spirituality.

Extraordinary states of consciousness not accompanied and nourished by ordinary traits of good character and growing virtue do more damage than good. Like the two eyes in our head, these two–consciousness and conscience–belong together, making us conscious and conscientious at once. Only in tandem can they reveal the three-dimensional fullness of the true, the good, and – ultimately – the beautiful.