According to J. Budziszewski (in reply to Edward T. Oakes), Conscience “has both an unchanging deep structure and a changing surface structure.” He goes on to distinguish between (i) synderesis, “Deep Conscience,” the “unchanging deep structure,” and (ii) conscientia, the “changing surface structure” of Conscience. Jim Riley also acknowledges this, pointing out that Thomas Aquinas said that te Nature of Conscience is to “act upon an innate knowledge of morality,” and that it is “[d]iscovered, [and] God-given.” Sigmund Freud, on the other hand, believes that its nature or role is that it is a “moral policeman developed from guilt learnt at a pre-rational stage,” and that it is “[a]cquired, [and] developmental.”

I am on Aquinas’s (and J. Budziszewski’s) side on this issue, but I also believe that Freud has a few good ideas. Before we reach some kind of maturity, or “the age of reason,” we learn a lot about morality through what we feel. In “Men Without Chests,” the first chapter (lecture) of The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis argues that in order for a person to become moral, he or she has to be trained in the “right responses” before “the age of reason.” He writes:

St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful. In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.’[1]

But, let’s go back to Aquinas. He emphasizes that the nature or role of Conscience is to “act upon an innate knowledge of morality.” But what is this “innane knowledge of morality”? This is what J. Budziszewski calls synderesis, “deep conscience.” To explain further, we must take a look at the theory of “Natural Law.”

The Natural Law, is the Moral Law which is embroidered in our very Nature. It is “first principles in Ethics,” just as the Law of Non-Contradiction is one of the first principles in Logic. It is what we know intuitively. But what we do, is part of the conscientia. And this might be wrong. What we need to to then, is to rationally seek to do the — and to be — good. How we do this, might not be an easy task. But many ask me how a moral command can exist in and of itself. Let me answer with a counter-question: How can any abstract law, for example the Law of Non-Contradiction, exist in and of itself? Why can that be true, while a moral command is not?

The innate and intuitive knowledge of this Natural Law is what is called synderesis, while conscientia is the way we apply these principles. J. Budziszewski explains (in his reply to Edward T. Oakes) that “conscientia cannot only err but rationalize; we can either try to come to terms with first principles, or play tricks with them instead. Just as Father Oakes suggests, the conscientia of a society can either advance or regress, depending on which of these responses it chooses to make.”

To explain further, I would like to quote St. Jerome (d. 420). He explains the four living creature in John’s vision (Rev. 4:7). There he makes a reference to synderesis (quoted from an article on synderesis):

This the Greeks call synderesis, which spark of conscience was not extinguished from the breast of Adam when he was driven from Paradise. Through it, when overcome by pleasures or by anger, or even as sometimes deceived by a similitude of reason, we feel that we sin; … and this in the scriptures is sometimes called spirit…. And yet we perceive that the conscience (conscientia) is itself also thrown aside and driven from its place by some who have no shame or modesty in their faults.

Notes & references:

1. Lewis, C.S., The Abolition of Man (Lewis, 1947/HaperCollins, 2001), pp. 16-17