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Conscience in Context

Historical and Existential Perspectives

Stuart P. Chalmers

In this book, the author presents a detailed study of the notion of conscience from the perspective of its historical development and existential environment. The purpose of the study is to highlight conscience’s dignity and fallibility, as well as its dependence upon the context of virtue and grace, in order to develop as our capacity to perceive the truth in moral action. Starting from the premise that current moral theory is suffering from fragmentation, the author proposes that this fragmented outlook has affected the common understanding of conscience and is therefore in need of renewal, chiefly in terms of the reintegration of conscience with its proper setting. In order to explore this theory, he investigates how conscience has been understood over the centuries, particularly in the New Testament and during the Scholastic period, and analyses a number of important issues concerning its nature and function.

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Chapter Two Conscience in Classical Culture and Sacred Scripture

Extract

C.S. Lewis once wrote that the analysis of the term “conscience” was far from easy. Indeed, not content with describing conscience as a “maze,” where there is at least a discernible start and finish, he preferred to liken the concept to “a simmering pot of meanings,”1 where the whole idea seems to be in constant, bubbling turmoil. Certainly, there are many contradic- tions and inconsistencies in the history and interpretation of conscience. However, we should not think that the use of the term is so variable that it defies all definition, like some kind of boiling alphabet soup. Instead, while giving due acknowledgment to the complexity of the word’s early use, it is possible to discern trends and stages in its development, which will lead us to draw some conclusions about how the concept was understood and employed. These, in turn, will give us some points of reference in our search for an integrated notion of conscience. I will therefore begin this exploration into the background of the concept by examining the early use of conscience (syneidēsis) in classical culture and Sacred Scripture, particularly in the New Testament, since this will allow us to recognize the characteristics of early Christian usage, before turning our attention to Scholastic analysis in the next chapter.2 1 C.S. Lewis, “Conscience and Conscious,” in Studies in Words (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960), 181–213, at 196. 2 The purpose of the historical chapters is to provide suf ficient background to allow us to...

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