Kant & Newman on the Divine Origin of Conscience (III: God’s Presence to Our Consciousness )

The transcendent reality has frequently been identified as the source of the good – the good in itself and the good in human consciousness.

Otto’s research indicates that the numinous is perceived to be good while Eliade’s research indicates that hierophanies concern not only the breakthrough of the sacred into the world, but also the revelation of paradigmatic models for human behavior.

The identification of the transcendent reality with the good is not only a part of religious intuition, but also philosophical reflection since the time of the ancient Greeks.

Plato believed that the highest reality was the good itself,  and that the good itself was present to human beings, and that we could know it through questioning and dialectic.

St. Paul brought these considerations to a whole new level by showing that all human beings could know the good (as well as evil) through their consciences. In the Letter to the Romans, he reflects on the Gentile’s ability to know God’s law without having the benefit of Judeo-Christian revelation:

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences [συνειδησις] also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them (Rom 2:14-15).

For St. Paul, “the law” is God’s law, and he asserts that God writes this law on the hearts of all people so distinctly that it accuses and defends them.

St. Thomas Aquinas concurred with St. Paul, and formulated a general explanation of conscience which has become a cornerstone of philosophy up to the present time.  Conscience has two components:

  1. What Aquinas called “synderesis” (an attraction to and love of the good and a fear of and repulsion toward evil), and
  2. Awareness of certain general precepts of the good.

With respect to synderesis, our attraction to and love of the good leads to feelings of nobility and fulfillment when we do good (or contemplate doing it). Conversely, our fear of and repulsion toward evil leads to feelings of guilt and alienation when we do evil (or contemplate doing it).

Conscience not only has the above emotional and personal component, it also has an intellectual one. We have a sense of what is good or evil (in a general way).

These precepts might include;

  • do good
  • avoid evil
  • do not kill an innocent person
  • do not unnecessarily injure another
  • do not steal from another
  • do not unnecessarily harm another
  • give a person their just desserts
  • be truthful to yourself and others.

Aquinas associated these precepts of conscience with the natural law, holding that the natural law is part of God’s eternal law:

Now among all others, the rational creature is subject to Divine providence in the most excellent way, in so far as it partakes of a share of providence, by being provident both for itself and for others.

Wherefore it has a share of the Eternal Reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end: and this participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called the natural law.

In our next blog post, we will dig deeper into “III.A: Kant and the Divine Origin of Conscience”, another interesting and informative read!

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