The etymologists tell us that the word conscience is derived from the Latin conscire, meaning to know well, or to have an intimate knowledge of something. This verb could be used in two contexts: conscire alii (to know something along with someone else), and conscire sibi (to know something with oneself only). Time and modern usage has given “conscience” the meaning of an internal conviction, a mental recognition of something.
Cicero comments on something that looks much like this inner mental recognition in his Tusculan Disputations when he says,
I do not know how it happens, but there is a kind of premonition of future ages embedded in our minds: and this instinct is most powerful, and manifests itself most clearly, in men of the most sublime genius and noble spirit. If this conviction were absent, who would be so delusional as to fritter away his life in unremitting labors and dangers? [I.15]
What did he mean by this? What is this “premonition of future ages” that he is talking about? I believe Cicero is hinting at the presence of certain substratal currents flowing through our consciences, currents of eternal truth that are detectable by nearly all of us, but perhaps are only followed by the noblest and greatest among us. The historian Polynaeus, in his Stratagems of War (VI.4), says that the Greek general and statesman Philopoemen introduced into his Achaean army the use of the long spear and shield, along with the helmet, coats of mail, and greaves. Instead of having his men fight with javelins as lightly-armed troops, he made them stand “close and firm” during battle.
But perhaps just as importantly, he understood the psychological dimension of readiness and preparation. He strenuously discouraged in his men all manifestation of luxury, extravagance, and vanity: in clothing, in speech, in eating, and in every other sphere of personal conduct. Philopoemen believed that these sorts of things were corrosive to one’s will and purpose. “Military men,” he would say, “should be above everything that is not absolutely necessary.” We should note that he was an extremely successful commander.
Along these same lines, Polynaeus notes (VI.6) that King Pyrrhus of Epirus, before he engaged in any way, always took certain steps against his potential adversary. He would try to bring them to terms by letting them know of all the terrible consequences that would follow in the wake of hostilities with him. He would also explain why it was in his opponent’s interest to reach an accommodation on favorable terms before violence was initiated. Once the dogs of war were unleashed, he would say, there was no way to predict where things might go. Now what these two examples—Philopoemen and Pyrrhus—have in common is that each of them had an inner conviction, a conscience, that propelled them to glory. They were both willing to listen to that substratal stirring that agitated their minds, that premonition and instinct Cicero speaks about in the quote above.
This same force of conscience was what enabled the character of Capt. Gerd Wiesler to ascend to true greatness in the film The Lives of Others. He could not abandon his humanity. His surveillance of the writer Georg Dreyman awakened something in him that even he himself could not verbalize. This internal knowledge, this blinding conviction, was what gave him the strength to carry out a selfless and sublime act of personal heroism that resonated through the years, without any recognition that he had done it until long after it was over.
But it seems that this kind of self-knowledge is not common. The subconscious currents may flow through all of us, but not all of us heed them or act upon them. I have known many clients over the years who experience all sorts of personal tragedies—divorces, bankruptcies, criminal cases—who never seem to do the kind of self-examination that might enable them to learn from their mistakes. It is as if some blind wall encircles their consciousness. They can never bring themselves to say, for example, “What was it that led me to this?” or “What is it about my personality, or my behavior, that is defective, and how may I correct this defect?” If they do ask these questions, I am never told about it. Instead, such people craft artful techniques to deflect responsibility for every misfortune on to someone else. They are expert at casting aspersions on others, and impugning the characters of others. This tactic can accomplish its purpose for a time, for as Gibbon says,
It is easy for faction and calumny to shed their poison on the administration of the best of princes, and to accuse even their virtues by artfully confounding them with those vices to which they bear the nearest affinity. [Decline and Fall, Ch. VII]
Self-delusion and deflection work for a time: but only for a time. No matter how craftily we may sneak up on the mirror, our reflection always stares us squarely in the face. Deep down, in the well of our souls, we know the differences between good and bad, and right and wrong. What matters is whether we have the conviction to act on such knowledge. The reason why so few do is because it is difficult to do so: taking action in the service of one’s conscience involves shattering ingrained behavior patterns. It involves an agonizing self-examination. It may even entail a physical risk. These are things that most men are simply unwilling to do. But if a man values his long-term survival, he must do it. The former Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was certainly no angel, but he did say something important after his release in 2013 from a lengthy prison term:
It was a strategic mistake of some Western institutions to think they could live without principles…This lack of principles has brought the West to the consequences it is experiencing now. This constant changing in saying what is good and what is bad has caused society to lose these principles for itself.
A conscience stirring beneath the mind’s mundane preoccupations is a call to action that we ignore at our own peril. We are told in Polynaeus (II.20) that when Demaratus sent his intelligence report about Xerxes’s army to the Spartans, he inscribed the information on a tablet that he then coated with wax. If it were intercepted, he believed no one would notice the writing underneath. But this ruse would have fooled no one. For no matter what the surface veneer may present to the world, writing that is true and indelible is always discernible to the viewer.
Read more on the lives and deeds of great generals of antiquity in the new translation of Lives of the Great Commanders: