1 Conscience, guilt and repentance

Morally dainty people grow furtive and mistrustful of their own fine intentions. They feel shame for some of their best acts, though they still hope to win praise for them.

Superstitious people feel more compunction when they do an unintended wrong than when they do an intentional one, which they class as a necessary and fair retribution against their foes. If they can do harm unwittingly, they fear that they in turn might be punished despite their blamelessness. They are willing to sponge every sin from their accounts. But their chance misdeeds seem like someone else’s doing, and so they are less predisposed to wink at them.

Some people feel less guilt for the wrongs that they have done than for those that they dread they might do, which they fear might meet with a proportionately indeterminate punishment. ‘Present fears are less than horrible imaginings.’

We preserve our good conscience by practising our bad faith.

The just relish deeds that meld right and wrong. The wrong wakes their compulsions, and the right lulls to sleep their watchdog contrition. ‘What we all love,’ wrote Clough, ‘is good touched up with evil.’

Custom and conditioning weave for us a fine mesh of conscience when we are young, which our impudence and self-interest then unpick as we grow older.

Conscience is like language. We are not born with it. We have to be taught it. It fluctuates from time to time and from place to place. And each of us speaks it with our own accent and intonation and with more or less fluency.

How could those who wield power afford to feel keen remorse? They want to control as much as possible, while feeling answerable for as little as they have to. If you are capable of repenting the harm that you do, then you are not cut out to do great deeds.

Shame, modesty and justice are forthright but shallow. Guilt, humility and mercy are deep but dishonest.

I own up to acts that have shamed me, to show that they are nothing to me and so ought to be nothing to everyone else too.

We don’t care what real carnage we cause, so long as it is not set before our eyes. Our decency inveigles us to cover up the foul consequences of our deeds. A good society is careful to conceal the brutality on which its affluence rests, though it needn’t be so scrupulous, since its citizens don’t much care.

It’s advisable to pretend to blame yourself for a small fault now and then, so that others won’t blame you for your big ones. I pity myself in the hope that others will do the same, and I accuse myself in the hope that they won’t. I pretend that I can’t spare myself, in the hope of cajoling them to spare me. Notorious reprobates, such as Speer, though cognizant that all curse them for their crimes and nerved to display their contrition, here and there let slip that they don’t quite grasp or recall what it is they are supposed to feel so repentant for.

No victor has a bad conscience. But a few may have grown so rich on their depredations that they can spend a bit of their surplus on the pretence that they do.

I grant facts, so as to muddy my motives. I acknowledge what I have done, in order to misrepresent why I did it.

We are calculating even in our confessions. In my unbridled lust to lay bare my sins I still take care to confide to those who love me too much to use my admissions to shame me or else to those who could have no occasion to do so. I don’t confess my real faults, because I know myself so little, or else because what compels me to confess knows the world too well. How mortifying to uncover the real motives that drove me to repent or mend.

The cudgelled are fond of recanting. It takes their mind off their defeat. And when their conquerors are moralizing, as most of them are, then they may profit by it as well.

Some people go to great lengths to avoid feeling the gratitude or guilt which wouldn’t oblige or inhibit them even if they did feel it. Sanctimonious people lumber themselves almost as heavily by pretending to be held in check by their scruples as they would if they really were.

Most of us don’t feel the need to confess, as Goethe claimed. We confess only if we have been conditioned to. And we choose which sins we will own up to, and which we won’t, and to whom we do it. We confess in the hope of evading blame for the wrongs that we fear might be laid to our charge. I admit my misdeeds, not because I feel that I ought to be punished, but because I trust that I will be pardoned. So I acknowledge the derelictions that I know will be excused to the people who I know will excuse me.

How could we forgive those from whom we have had to ask forgiveness? I repent most of my admissions more than the wrongs that I admit to.

You need to learn what you have the right to be modest about, what you have the right to judge, what to praise, and what to excuse. Is any of us entitled to give absolution to those who have harmed others or to feel penitent for the blood-soaked crimes of the past, if we had no part in committing or suffering them? Someone who has not been wronged has no right to forgive on behalf of those who have, and to do so is a mere self-aggrandizing pose. It may taste as sweet to confess as it does to crow. It may be as presumptuous to pardon as it is to convict. Moral play-actors are as keen to take on a confected guilt as they are to shirk a real one. They force the note of their self-reproach, in order to play up their sensitivity.

Monsters of vainglory, such as Rousseau, love to show off their welts. Only terrible egotists feel terrible guilt, since they swell the importance of all that pertains to them, even the wrongs that they have done. People must take some pride in the wrongs that they willingly confess. Those who publicize their guilt must preen themselves on it. ‘We would rather speak ill of ourselves,’ as La Rochefoucauld points out, ‘than not talk of ourselves at all.’

It may be that people have crises of conscience only in books, though even in life they claim that they do. When cleft between one temptation and another, they feel that they are torn between desire and duty. Writers dramatize the moral choices which few of us have occasion to make in life. Most conscience has its place in literature and not in life. Most guilt has its place in magic and not in morality. We superstitiously fear that a nonexistent cause might recoil on us as a real effect.

Bad conscience and remorse are like ghosts. Many of us claim to have been haunted by them at some time, but few show any lasting effects.

I feel morally healthier for having caught a mild dose of queasy conscience once in a while. My moral constitution proves more hale than I might have hoped. I’m too quick to recuperate my strength when my fits of heart-burning are past.

Our cowardice tells us that we are constrained by conscience more often than conscience makes us cowards.

My conscience likes to scold me, since it is too weak to stop me. I’m prepared to lend it a hearing, on the proviso that it comes too late to hold me back from doing what I want to. I bear with its stings, but kick back when it tries to put a brake on me. I chafe at its prohibitions, but lounge in its regrets. I leave it its teeth, but draw its venom. So when it bites me, I feel more righteous and more alive.

Conscience is a still small voice, because it has grown hoarse with repeating admonitions to which we pay no heed.

‘People,’ as Canetti wrote, ‘love as self-recognition what they hate as accusation.’ We freely own up to faults that we would crimson to have witnessed. We accuse ourselves of flaws that we’d be incensed to be accused of by anyone else, since we judge ourselves by our own strict standard, while they judge us by their lax one. ‘The human being,’ as Twain said, ‘always looks down when he is examining another person’s standard.’ We may see quite well that we are despicable, yet still hate those who dare to second our view. Those who make a show of their humility or penitence would fume if anyone else were to treat them as they claim to believe is their due.

We hide our mean acts and motives in the dark. Yet we have no doubt that we would be vindicated if we were judged by God who knows our secret springs. If he showed forth our true value we would be seated at his right hand. We may think that we want to be saved, but what we really want is to be rewarded.

My scrupulosity must have the eyesight of a lynx, since it can make out none but my most microscopic flaws. It penalizes my small misdemeanours punctiliously, but my large ones leniently. Some people have scruples and inhibitions but no conscience, as some have gaudy superstitions but no faith.

A human being is not a rational but a rationalizing animal. Don’t we strain our topmost potentialities to extenuate our lowest compulsions and to find fine pretexts to whitewash our foul concupiscence? Principled people, unlike brazen scoundrels, can’t bear to do wrong unless they have a high-sounding rationale to make it seem right. But they never have to go far out of their way to find one.

Having repented so often to no avail, this time I feel sure that I can make a fresh start. My imperfections serve to reassure me that one day I will grow perfect.

If I feel contrite, then I must have a keen conscience. And if I have a keen conscience, then I can safely do as I like. I’m licensed to do what I wish, since I can count on the pricks of my compunction to hold me back from doing wrong.

Conscience stands as the guardian of our habits. You can coach it to salute the wrongs that you do each day. It won’t meddle with you, so long as you don’t depart from your fixed ways. Wilde notes how ‘the sin that we had done once and with loathing, we would do many times and with joy.’ We cease to feel shame for shameful deeds, if we do them often enough. It’s the wrongs that we do infrequently that make us feel uncomfortable. The moral sense is a mirror. We gaze into it, and condone what we look like most of the time, and fret only when we swerve from this.

If we do our duty long enough, it becomes a joy. And if we practise injustice long enough, it becomes our duty.

Conscience, as Freud says, may chide you like a parent when you’re young, but as you grow up you have to train it to behave like a good child, to be seen and not heard.

When we are deliberating on how we ought to act, we assume that we are exceptions to the moral code. But when we judge how we have acted, we feel sure that we are exemplars of it.

We frame strict statutes of conscience, but then suspend their operation. We treat each of our needs as a state of emergency. We use all occasions to excuse us from abiding by the rules that we have laid down for ourselves. And we use our own destiny as a pretext to exempt us from the rules that the world has laid down for us. ‘Every man, in his own opinion,’ Hazlitt says, ‘forms an exception to the ordinary rules of morality.’ And we judge that we form exceptions to the rules because we fulfil them so faultlessly.

I congratulate myself that I have such unique faculties, and excuse myself that I have common faults.

Conscience ordains the code by which you are duty bound to live. But it also acts as your advocate to abet you in circumventing it. If acute enough to arraign you, it will be astute enough to acquit you. ‘The moral sense,’ Twain says, ‘enables us to perceive morality and how to avoid it.’ Conscience makes casuists of us all.

Our conscience pleads our suit more cleverly than we know, but in few cases needs to plead it as cleverly as it does.

Most righteous people are like intransigent autocracies. They have laudable principles but no division of powers and no dissent. Their remorse acts like a conscientious but compliant judge in a state where the executive supervises the judiciary.

How could God be guilty, since who is there to punish him?

2 Punitive conscience

The scruples of a prim swindler don’t stay silent, but rattle with righteous anger, like the press in nazi Germany.

What we hate in others we love in ourselves. The ruthless self-seeking that we detest in them is the selfless assertion of the right on which we preen ourselves.

I try to blot out the wrongs that I do by upbraiding others. I can be reconciled to the ill-treatment I mete out to them only by believing that it is they who are to blame for it.

We, who are all guilty, blaze with indignation when the guilty go free.

We use our conscience to find rationalizations for our own sins and to smell out the sins of our enemies or neighbours. Those who have a strict conscience are never at a loss to justify what they do or to condemn what their opponents do. Those who live under the eye of their own unsparing conscience will sharply spy through the motives of others and find fault with them. Our scrupulousness makes us more punitive than forbearing. Self-accusers whip the backs of others far more spitefully than they do their own. Those who are threshed by shame are affronted by the wickedness of others far more than they are by their own. Most of us keep a sense of blame parked where our sense of guilt ought to be. For every gram of remorse in the world, there must be a ton of fault-finding indignation. And for every one person who is racked by self-blame, there must be a thousand who burn for retribution.

If it weren’t for our fastidious conscience, how would we know who to blame for all the wrongs that we do?

We won’t lift a finger to see that right is done. Yet we love to rail when others fail to do it.

I have no doubt that my conscience is strict with me, since it judges the rest of the world with such severity. I’ve trained it to bark only at strangers.

3 Flattering conscience

I accuse myself of the most gratifying faults. I find myself wanting in the traits that no one would claim to want. I complain that my worst flaw is that I am too modest, and that I lack the cunning to tell the lies that would serve my advantage. You have not completed your moral schooling, till you’ve learnt the trick of idealizing your motives. Vanity sews tunics for our moral nakedness. ‘All a man’s ways are clean in his own eyes.’

We may be frankly ashamed of ourselves, yet still do all that we can to imprint our blotched image on the world.

We don’t so much conclude that we must be good people because we do good works, rather we assume that the works we do must be good because we are such good people.

When someone dies whom I loved but left in the lurch, I take comfort that at least I did all that I could to help them. I rarely reproach myself for having wronged one who is no longer here to reproach me.

4 Innocence

We are all irredeemably guilty, since we know not what we do, though we so easily could. We pretend not to know, so that we don’t have to care. We don’t want to see what we are doing, because we want to be free to keep on doing it. It is a crooked kind of ingenuousness. ‘Ignorance is not innocence but sin,’ as Browning wrote. Our sheepish innocence is a crafty ignorance, which spares us an appalled awakening to the harm that we do, and our resilience is a ruthless insensibility, and the young are borne along by their swell.

Why in the wake of each atrocity do we take comfort in the cordial lie that we were all innocent and undefiled before it took place? How many times have we lost our moral virginity, and how many times has it been miraculously restored? Sanctimonious people love to paw and slobber over lost innocence, so that they can anathematize the unclean who have robbed us of it and fire us up to take revenge on them.

Our moral childhood comes to a close when we find out that people may not be blameless just because they’ve been misused, and that the downtrodden may behave as nastily as their oppressors.

It is the perverse who retain their childish innocence. They have not yet found out how dear evildoing will cost them and how viciously the world will punish them for flouting decent worldly interests, or else they are so irrational that they don’t care.

Children seem so ingenuous because they are so unnatural. They are still rehearsing a part which they don’t quite grasp, and they have not yet learnt the craft to hide their guileless cunning. A grown-up has no right to be innocent.

The pure and upright treat their foes with punctilious fairness, that they might be free to curse them with a good conscience. Or else they claim to be encumbered by principles so much more stringent than those of their opponents, that they have a permit to act unscrupulously so as to even the odds.

Those who do unconscionable evil feel more innocent than those to whom it has been done. These it coats in a sticky scurf, which they fear can be seen by all, whereas its agents deem that they have dealt out a cleansing justice. It is the victims who wake with the clammy horror of guilt upon them. If to have an unspotted conscience is peace and happiness, then it’s evildoers who must be the happiest of all. The damned in the pit of fire will be refreshed by cool springs of self-righteousness, though the unjustness of their fate makes them seethe with a sanctimonious fury.

If there were a true saint on earth, he or she would stink in the fastidious nostrils of the righteous.

It’s well attested that power corrupts, and since there is always someone more powerful than us, we know that we must be innocent, and thus entitled to go on exercising our brutal power.

5 Forgiveness

In the end all must be forgiven. Don’t we each need something or someone more than we are needed? We must spare our fellows, not because they are capable of so much good, but because they are capable of so little. ‘The greatest forbearance with people,’ says Ebner-Eschenbach, ‘comes from giving up on them.’ The Lord remitted our sins, not because he hoped that we might mend them, but seeing that we are but dust and that the imaginations of our heart are evil from our youth. Mercy is one of the virtues of despair.

Some people are forgiving because they care so much for principles or persons, and some because they care so little.

We forgive people because they mean so little to us or else because they mean so much, because we have no need of them or because we can’t get by without them.

We are all sure that we have a right to unconditional love. But if we need it, then we have no right to it. And if we have earned the right to it, then we have no need of it. ‘Most people,’ Ebner-Eschenbach says, ‘need more love than they merit.’

To understand all is to forgive no more than half. We can find it in our hearts to pardon those who have done wrong, once we’ve grasped that they were conditioned by factors that left them no choice. But we can’t help but condemn them, when we glimpse that they were set going by motives still more vile than we might at first have thought.

Contempt may make you magnanimous, as confidence may make you modest. It is the stony-hearted conquerors, such as Caesar or Alexander, that may be the readiest to overlook the offences of their enemies, in order to display their scorn for them and to emblazon the greatness of their own soul and victory. There is, as Billings notes, ‘no revenge so complete as forgiveness.’

The saints spare their enemies, as a farmer fattens hogs, to render them fit and seasoned for the everlasting oven. ‘For in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head.’ Lukewarm christians might not have found it so hard to love their foes, if they’d had more faith in the hell that they hoped they were bound for.

You might be dismayed to discover what small gibes people will loathe you for, or for what dire offences they’ll forgive you. ‘An injury,’ Chesterfield points out, ‘is much sooner forgotten than an insult.’

When people approve of me or bear with me, they show what a low value they set on me. I don’t matter enough to rebuke or to resent. We think too poorly of most people to impute to them grand faults. How could they be proud, when they have nothing to be proud of? How could they be avaricious, when they have got so little? Why would they be vain, when, unlike us, they have no grounds to be?

Even those who pardon their enemies may have their hearts parched by the day to day vexations of living with the ones they love.

We forgive people more for our own sake than for theirs.

6 ‘They ne’er pardon who have done the wrong’

There are some people whom we can’t forgive, not because of how much they have wronged us, but because of how much we have wronged them. ‘They ne’er pardon who have done the wrong,’ as Dryden, Tacitus and so many attest. We are ill-disposed to pardon those whom we have hurt. And we are least willing to pardon the ones who have not deserved to be hurt. And we don’t pardon them in order to demonstrate how much they deserved it. When we slide in our victims’ blood or it splashes back on our garments of white, we curse them for making such a mess. But we have the grace to forgive our enemies the harm that we do them, so long as they don’t spot that it is we who did it.

We hate some people because we have done them so much harm, and others because we lack the power to do them any.

We don’t forgive people for the first hurt that we do them. Then we prove how right we were to do it by doing them more. ‘By aggravating a wrong,’ Hazlitt says, ‘we seem to ourselves to justify it.’ Our indignation with them excuses the wrongs that we do them. And when we wrong them a second time we grow all the more indignant with them.

We justify the harm that we do our foes by traducing them. And we hide the harm that we do our friends by our praise of them. We act kindly towards some people, so that we can think cruelly of them. We think fondly of others, so as to hush our qualms while we’re cheating them.

I don’t forgive those before whom I let my faults show. ‘You glimpsed his weak point,’ as Schiller wrote, ‘and he won’t forgive you.’ I pardon people for the wrong that they do me sooner than for a humiliation that I bring on my own head in front of them. We are readier to forgive them for mistreating us than we are for witnessing us making fools of ourselves. They are guilty of witnessing me at my worst, and my shame gives them no quarter. ‘We often forgive those who bore us,’ La Rochefoucauld says, ‘but we can’t forgive those whom we bore.’

You must love someone dearly, or else not care for them in the least, if you can forgive them for the wrongs that you do them or for forgiving you.