Man's Sanctuary: The Development Of Conscience And Liberty

by William Edmund Fahey


One of the winning papers from the 1995 Lord Acton Essay Competition, the theme of which was "The Dangers Posed To Liberty By Democratic Governance."

Larger Work

Duty And Responsibility


1 - 8

Publisher & Date

Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, Grand Rapids, MI, 1995

The wisest men, following Aristotle, have always known that unless moral virtues are practiced habitually a certain malaise will take root, and slowly men will no longer know the measure of things;1 their ability to discern between actual virtues and commonplace duties will gradually diminish, and soon they will accept even traditional vices as acts which must be endured in the name of "tolerance," "pluralism," or "diversity." When an individual's power to discern between virtue, duty, and vice is paralyzed, he can no longer truly be said to be a free citizen, for his ability to choose the Good is impaired and he easily falls prey to the rhetorical or physical coercion of other men. Only a virtuous society can foster free and responsible individuals. Only religion, specifically a religion, which grounds its claims in a transcendent order, can promote lasting virtues. Only the interior faculty of reflection, that is the conscience, can engage a transcendent order. Lord Acton accurately perceived the connection between conscience, religion, virtue, and freedom in stating:

Moral defects lead to the loss of liberty. So we may say that it flourishes jointly with conscience. Decay of the one brings about decay of the other. Democracy undermines conscience by making men prefer what others think best to what they think best themselves. So it demoralizes like excess authority. It relieves men from the sense of responsibility and the duty of effort.

When stripped of religion, democracy — or any other form of government — will undermine man's individual judgment, because a society without a religious underpinning will become confused as to what conscience is, and what it means freely and properly to exercise one's conscience. The inability to use one's conscience is the ultimate enslavement.

Several general observations about conscience maybe made which illuminate the organic relationship between religious and civil freedoms. First, one must habitually practice virtuous conduct in order to nurture a moral conscience. Placing trust in any social plan or personal discipline alone, however, will not properly develop an individual's conscience. Instead, such trust will lead to the belief that man is essentially free and capable of living a good life of his own volition if only he follows out certain proscribed behaviors. Rules will come in two forms: authoritarian or individualistic. Authoritarian philosophies often begin as systems of 'enlightenment' held by circles of elite specialists. These specialists, moving across the stage of history as Gnostics, or the likes of Robespierre or Lenin, guarantee salvation or Utopia — or even liberty — to those who obey their plan. Authoritarian methods often start with rhetorical persuasion, but ultimately end in the use of force. Yet more dangerous to the conscience are individualistic rules, which deceive men into obeying only their own 'inner voice'. The individualist holds that man is by nature good, that evils come from society and that these evils can be avoided entirely if only men would realize their self-potentiality and live by codes of their own making. Individualist thinkers, such as Rousseau or Nietzsche, are legion in our modern era, but their true intellectual precursor is Pelagius, the heresiarch of individualist thinking. Whereas authoritarian systems disintegrate into brute oppression, individualistic rules decay into relativism.

Ancient history provides ample evidence of the effects authoritarian or individualist philosophies have had on man's freedom. That confidence was ultimately given over to ideology, and not religion, was thus the central flaw in ancient conceptions of liberty. This confidence was given despite an awareness of human nature's destructive tendencies. The short-lived but noble experiment of Greek democracy provides us with a sobering warning. In his celebrated funeral oration, recorded by the historian Thucydides, the great statesman, Pericles, argued that it was the Athenian way of living, specifically their democratic form of government, which had made Athens great and the school of excellence for the entire Greek world.2 Yet throughout his history, Thucydides reveals that this democracy was established upon the tribute of a far flung empire, an empire kept intact by a superior navy. Athenian greatness attracted envy, and envy ushered in a long war, during which Athens zealously fought to maintain her imperial democracy, but ultimately failed. Thucydides provides a description of the horrible plague, which ravaged Athens in 430 B.C., in the early stages of the war. Athenian behavior reveals the nature of things to come. After a belated return to their temples, the Athenians turned to the delights and distractions of the moment: "no one was willing to persevere in struggling for what was considered an honorable result, since he could not be sure that he would not perish before he achieved it."3 In short, the Athenians were happy to support an authoritarian regime when it profited their city, but when that regime began to disintegrate, the city, bereft of a strong religious core, slid into individualistic pursuits. The long Peloponnesian war engulfed the whole Greek world and ultimately destroyed the embryonic democracies, which were taking shape in parts of the Mediterranean. Revolutions broke out in city after city. Class warfare and bitter factionalism became endemic. In concluding his description of the demise of one such city, Thucydides stated that

there were savage and pitiless actions into which men were carried not so much for the sake of gain as because they were swept away into an internecine struggle . . . Then, with the ordinary conventions of civilized life thrown into confusion, human nature, always ready to offend even where laws exist, showed itself proudly in its true colors, as something incapable of controlling passion, insubordinate to the idea of justice.4

Although the Greeks conceived democracy and granted liberty to certain members of the ancient city — and clearly understood the importance of moral virtue — they grounded their political freedom in tenuous entities such as a civic constitution, rather than in shared religious beliefs.

Constitutional excellence anchored in communal religious beliefs was the accomplishment of the early Roman republic. In describing the two great and warring powers of the western Mediterranean at the third century B.C., the historian Polybius praised Rome and Carthage for their constitutions.5 Roman civilization he judged to be superior, not on the basis of their government, but because of their religious values:

I think that what other peoples hold in reproach is precisely what binds together the political institutions of the Romans: I mean superstition . . . If it were possible to form a state consisting entirely of learned men, possibly this sort of practice would not be necessary: but since every populace is unstable and full of lawless appetites, irrational emotions and violent passions, the only recourse is to restrain the masses by means of dark fears and this kind of ceremonial. Therefore me ancients, in my view, did not act without foresight or method when they introduced to the masses beliefs about the gods and conceptions of the underworld; on the contrary, it is the moderns who are careless and unreasonable in eradicating such ideas.6

What Polybius meant by "superstition," we would understand as common religious beliefs. Polybius, a Greek slave and skeptic, begrudgingly reveals to us that communal piety gave the young Roman republic an edge over her competitors. He could not, however, come to accept religion as the ultimate and best source of a civilization; rather, it remained for him the most effective form of coercion. Perhaps Polybius' skepticism was not unjustified. Religious values waned as Roman greatness increased and the Roman republic succumbed increasingly to the use of naked power. The moral virtues of earlier generations were kept alive through story largely as a criticism of the slavish behavior of Romans towards their own imperial rulers. The Latin historian Livy, in recounting the ancient tale of Horatius at the bridge, a legend some five centuries old by the time he wrote it, tells of how a single citizen held the enemies of Rome at bay, "mocking them all as tyrants' slaves who, careless of their own liberty, were coming to destroy the liberty of others."7 Destroying the liberty of others became the imperative of the Roman empire, the pax Romana or 'Roman peace'. In his work Agricola, the second-century historian Tacitus has the Scottish chieftain Calgacus address his warriors as the last free men in the world.8 And in one of the most damning criticisms of the recklessness of Roman imperialism Tacitus, through the persona of Calgacus, summarizes the coming of Roman so-called 'liberty': "they make a desert and call it peace." By the end of antiquity, the city of Rome was herself stripped of political independence by totalitarian emperors who moved their courts elsewhere. The old imperial capitol succumbed to a debilitating welfare system and focused increasingly on fleeting pleasures. The last pagan historian of Rome describes the lurid distractions with which a now oppressed and decadent citizenry occupied themselves: "they devote their whole life to drink, gambling, brothels, shows, and pleasures in general. Their temple, home, and public square, in fact the center of all their hopes and desires, is the Circus Maximus."9 Despite an auspicious beginning where religious and civic society complimented one another, the Roman government disintegrated. Neither their pagan religiosity nor well-conceived constitutions were capable of bequeathing lasting liberty on mankind.

Christianity in the West broke the connection between the State and Religion, and in doing so paradoxically made possible political and religious freedom. By contrast, when religious and political power were combined in antiquity, the state compelled the individual conscience to follow the religious rituals acceptable to the government.10 Hence the early Christians were persecuted as "atheists" because they opposed both pagan religion, with its toleration of all religious systems, and (by the logic of the Roman government) civic society. By the fifth century, however, Augustine clearly articulated a political philosophy, which would separate religion, at least Christianity, from any particular form of government. Augustine proposed that there where two spheres of power, which he described as cities:

Two loves built two Cities — the earthly, which is built up by the love of self to the contempt of God, and the heavenly, which is built up by the love of God to the contempt of the self.11

Augustine's distinction between the two cities, a distinction which did not require any particular civic allegiance, made it possible for a truly free society to develop in the West. A Christian was not foremost a citizen of this or that polity, but a member of God's kingdom.

As a religion, Christianity obviously taught virtue, but unlike the religions of antiquity it did not locate ultimate truth in rituals, but in the development of the individual conscience, in creeds.12 Creeds require that an individual freely display his consent or dissent, and such freedom encourages — perhaps even necessitates — the primacy of the individual conscience. The traditional Christian understanding of conscience, long in its development, was given one of its noblest and succinct definitions in the Catholic conciliar document, Gaudium et Spes:

[Conscience] is man's sanctuary and most secret core, where he finds himself alone with God . . . In loyalty to conscience Christians unite with others in order to search for the truth and to resolve, according to this truth, the many problems which arise in the life of individuals as well as in the life of society. Therefore, the more a good conscience prevails the more people and social groups move away from blind willfulness and endeavor to conform to the objective norms of moral behavior.13

In meditating upon this document and in responding to the question of whether man can live a good life without religious faith. Pope John Paul II replies that religious truth will be "at work in the depths of the person who searches for the truth with honest effort and who willingly accepts it as soon as it becomes known to him. Such willingness is, in fact, a manifestation of grace at work in the soul."14 It is crucial, as the pope indicates, to keep in mind the last part of this statement, the sentence concerning grace. Without an understanding of a transcendent grace, man falls into a Pelagian interpretation of reality. Pelagius, a contemporary of Augustine, had argued that so long as intentions were good and rationality applied, men and women could lead virtuous lives without divine grace. Supremely trusting in human nature, Pelagius and his followers have been described as "ascetics too confident in their own asceticism."15 The potentiality of human freedom intoxicated them. If only a proper monastic discipline could be designed and applied, the Pelagians argued, men would lead good lives and achieve their salvation. Since, they held, God would not permit men whose intentions were good from failing, man was in fact fully capable of obtaining salvation through his own efforts. It would be a grave error to dismiss the Pelagian controversy as a debate long settled, one with little bearing on contemporary questions of liberty and freedom. John Courtney Murray, among others, had foreseen that the ancient heresies of early Christian history would resurface to plague society.16

Religion, however, is often present under both the authoritarian and individualistic systems. So it cannot be said that mere 'religion' stabilizes a society, at least not in any enduring capacity. Only a religion, which teaches grace and humility will ever succeed at fostering a healthy conscience, and by extension will promote lasting liberty. Properly understood, an individual's conscience is the interior space within which God communicates His word to man. The ability to listen to God's word, rather than the self, is created only through humility. This humility need not necessarily be the abandonment of property or status; the truly humble man knows the worth and proper use of these things. It is as much a hallmark of pride to disavow material possessions as intrinsic social evils as it is to employ them to the disadvantage of others. To be truly humble is to love as God loves and to act according to God's will: this is what it means to be set free by the Truth. Thus the exercise of conscience, in its fullest Christian sense, not only cultivates virtuous individuals, but ultimately establishes the conditions for a free and responsible society.17


1 Cf., Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 2.1 (1103a14-26).

2 Thucydides, 2.34-41.

3 Thucydides, 2.53. Trans. P.J. Rhodes in Readings in the Classical Historians. Selected and introduced by M. Grant (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1992), p. 79.

4 Thucydides, 3.84. Trans. R. Warner in Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1954), pp. 244-5.

5 Polybius, Histories 6.11-18.

6 Polybius, Histories 6.56. Trans. M. Chambers, in Polybius: The Histories (New York: Washington Square Press, 1966), pp. 263-4.

7 Livy, 2.10. Trans. A. de Selincourt, in Livy: The Early History of Rome (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1971), p. 116.

8 Tacitus, Agricola 30-32.

9 Ammianus Marcellinus, 28.4. Trans. W. Hamilton, in Ammianus Marcellinus: The Later Roman Empire (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1986), p. 362.

10 On the novelty and effects of Christianity in the ancient world, see F. de Coulanges, The Ancient City Trans. W. Small (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1956), pp. 389-96.

11 Augustine, City of God 14.28. Trans. C. Dawson in Dynamics of World History, ed. J.J. Mulloy (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1956), p.310.

12 This distinguishing feature of Christianity, the insistence on affirming creeds, was, of course, something which developed over time. I do not argue that ritual in any way lacks significance in Christianity, I am only concerned here with highlighting a crucial moment in the history of Man's freedom.

13 Gaudium et Spes 16.

14 John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope. Translated from the Italian by J. MacPhee and M. MacPhee (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), p. 194.

15 L. Bouyer, The Spirituality of the New Testament and the Fathers. Trans. M.P. Ryan (New York: Desclee Company, 1963), p. 449.

16 John Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1960), p. 197.

17 I should like to thank my wife, Amy Elizabeth Fahey, for her comments on this paper. Any stylistic grace found herein may be attributed to her; any substantial errors remain my own.

© Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty 1995.

This item 4437 digitally provided courtesy of