Archive for April, 2013

Normally, the person whose conscience is authoritarian is boud to the external authorities and to their internalized ‘voice;’ there is a constant interaction between the two.  The presence of external authorities by whom a person is awed is the source which continuously nourishes the internalized authority — the conscience.  If the authorities did not exist in reality, that is, if the person had no reason to be afraid of them, then the authoritarian conscience would weaken and lose power [some people experience ‘being set free’ when an external authority dies].  Simultaneously, the conscience influences the image which a person has of the external authorities.  For such conscience is always colored by man’s need to admire, to have some ideal, to strive for some kind of perfection, and the image of perfection is projected upon the external authorities.  The result is that the picture of these authorities is, in turn, colored by the ‘ideal’ aspect of conscience.  This is important because the concept a person has of the qualities of the authorities differs from their real qualities; it becomes more and more idealized and, therefore, more apt to be re-internalized.  Often this interaction of internalization and projection results in an unshakable conviction in the ideal character of the authority, a conviction which is immune to all contradictory empirical evidence [this is why ‘cult’ figures become so powerful and why zealots will not only die for the cause they will be able to guilt-free kill innocent people].

The contents of the authoritarian conscience are derived from the commands and taboos of the authority; its strength is rooted in the emotions of fear of, and admiration for, the external authority.  Good conscience is the consciousness of pleasing the (external and internalized) authority; guilty conscience is the consciousness of displeasing it.  The good authoritarian conscience produces a feeling of well-being and security, for it implies approval by, and greater closeness to, the external authority; the guilty conscience produces fear and insecurity, because acting against the will of the authority implies the danger of being punished and — what is worse — of being deserted/abandoned/shunned by the external authority.

In order to understand the full impact of the last statement we must remember the character structure of the person with the authoritarian conscience.  He [or she] has found inner security by becoming, symbiotically, part of the external authority felt to be greater and more powerful than himself.  As long as he is part of that external authority — at the betrayal of his own integrity — he feels that he is participating in the external authority’s strength and goodness.  His feeling of certainty and identity depends on this symbiosis; to be rejected by the authority means to be thrown into a void, to face the horror of being ‘nothing’ in the eyes of the external authority.  Anything to the one with the authoritarian conscience is better than this.  To be sure, the love and approval of the external authority give him the greatest satisfaction; but even punishment is better than being deserted/abandoned/shunned.  The punishing external authority is still connected and if one has ‘sinned,’ the punishment is at least proof that the external authority still cares.  By his acceptance of the punishment his sin is forgiven and the security of ‘being part of’ is restored.

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What ‘conscience’ am I considering?  A number of writers, Fromm the psychologist, Lakoff, the linguist, and Jouvenel, the philosopher among them, have identified the authoritarian conscience as significant for many of us.  I have certainly been deeply influenced by the authoritarian conscience and I am thinking that the young 19 year old Boston bomber might well have been powerfully influenced by it.  So, what is the authoritarian conscience?  It is the voice of an internalized external authority, one’s parents, one’s teachers, one’s religious leaders, the culture, the nation – whoever the authorities in one’s culture and subculture happens to be.  As long as ones relationship to the authorities remain external we can hardly speak of conscience; such conduct is regulated by fear of punishment and hope for reward and is always dependent on the presence of these authorities, on their knowledge of what one is doing, and their alleged or real ability to punish and to reward.  Often an experience I took to be a feeling of guilt emanating from my conscience was really nothing but my fear of an authority – a fear of being punished by this authority.

We who act this way do not truly feel guilt; we feel fear.  In the formation of conscience these authorities (and their name is legion for many of us) are either consciously or unconsciously accepted as ethical and moral ‘legislators’ whose laws and sanctions we adopt and internalize.  These laws and sanctions become part of self and over time, instead of feeling responsible to something outside of self we feel responsible to something inside – to one’s conscience.  This Conscience is a more effective regulator of our conduct than fear of external authorities; I can run away from the latter but I cannot escape from myself nor, therefore, from the internalized authority which has now become part of who I am.

While our authoritarian conscience is different from fear of punishment and hope for reward, the relationship to the authority having become internalized, it is not very different in other respects.  Perhaps the most important point of similarity is the fact that the prescriptions of authoritarian conscience are not determined by our own ‘value judgment’ but by the fact that its commands and taboos are pronounced by authorities.  IF these norms happen to be good, our ‘conscience’ will guide our actions in the direction of the good.  However, what is crucial to understand is that they have not become the norms of conscience ‘because’ they are good, but because they are the norms given by authority.  If they are ‘bad’ [as it seems they were for the young 19 year old Boston Bomber – and perhaps for his older brother], they are just as much part of conscience.  STOP, PAUSE AND REFLECT.  A believer in Hitler, for example, felt he/she was acting according to his/her conscience when he/she committed acts that were humanly revolting – and they did these ‘guilt free’ [which was part of their ‘reward’ – i.e. being guilt-free].  Many throughout history have acted according to ‘conscience’ and have committed guilt-free atrocities as a result of the ‘authorities’ they internalized and then listened to and then acted upon – perhaps the young 19 year-old Boston Bomber responded such.  I am searching and seeking to understand, not only the young man and his brother, but to more deeply understand myself and my own conscience.

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Within minutes of the identification of the two suspected Boston bombers folks were talking about conscience.  How could they kill innocent people, don’t they have a conscience?  A person with a conscience would never do what these two did.  Well, actually, folks were using the word ‘conscience’ but I have yet to hear anyone talking about the concept.  During the past week I have been thinking a great deal about this word, this concept – Conscience.

In our culture we say a person has integrity when they make the following statement: ‘I shall act according to my conscience.’  Throughout history – written and oral – people have upheld the principles of justice, duty, love and truth against a variety of pressures brought to bear upon them in order to force them to relinquish what they knew and believed.  The great prophets (you name the culture) acted according to their conscience when they denounced their country and predicted its downfall because of its corruption and because of its treating people unjustly.  Socrates, we remember, preferred death to a course in which he would have betrayed his conscience by compromising with what he believed was truth.  Consider that without the existence of conscience, the human race would have destroyed itself; some say that if we stay the course we are on as humans that we will destroy ourselves.

Different from these folks are others who have also claimed to be motivated by their conscience: the men of the Inquisition who burned people of conscience at the stake, claiming to do so in the name of conscience; the predatory war-makers, past and present, claiming to act on behalf of their conscience when they put their lust for power and other things above all other considerations.  As I reflect upon all of this it seems to me that there is hardly any act of cruelty or indifference against others or oneself (NOTE: the  against oneself) which has not been rationalized as the dictate of conscience, thus affirming the power of conscience.

Given this, conscience in its many variations can be confusing.  Are these different kinds of conscience the same, with only their contents and contexts differing?  Are they actually different with only the name ‘conscience’ being held in common?  We can turn to the philosophical literature on conscience to find many clues.  The great Roman sages, Cicero and Seneca, speak of conscience as the inner voice which accuses and defends our conduct with respect to its ethical qualities.  The great Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, relates it to self-preservation (taking care of one’s self), and he describes it as the consciousness of harmony within oneself.  For the Scholastic philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, conscience is considered to be the law of reason implanted in man by God.  The Scholastic philosophers used a term that we no longer use today: synderesis; they did not use the term ‘conscience.’  Synderesis is the inner innate awareness of the principles of morality.  The emotional element in this awareness that we call ‘conscience’ was stressed by a number of English writers.

The philosopher, the Lord of Shaftesbury, for example, assumed the existence of a ‘moral sense’ in man, a sense of right and wrong, an emotional reaction, based on the fact that the mind of man is itself in harmony with the cosmic order.  The English author/poet Samuel Butler proposed that moral principles are an intrinsic part of the condition of man and identified conscience particularly with the innate desire for benevolent action.  According to Adam Smith (yes, ‘that’ Adam Smith), our feelings for others and our reaction to their approval or disapproval are the core of conscience.

To expand this to the European continent here are three other voices to consider: Immanuel Kant identified conscience with a sense of duty (many in the West still adhere to this view of conscience); Friedrich Nietzsche, a volatile critic of the religious ‘bad conscience,’ saw genuine conscience rooted in self-affirmation, in the ability to ‘say yes to one’s self.’  Max Scheler, still another German philosopher, believed conscience to be the expression of rational judgment, but a judgment by feeling and not by thought.

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Great writers use paradox as one way of bringing the reader to a ‘stop,’ thus providing an opportunity to step-back and reflect.  One of my all-time favorite books is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island; I recently re-read this wonderful story and two days ago I watched the original Disney version which has been recently restored.  Stevenson also wrote, among other works, a book that captured his experiences traveling throughout America [Across the Plains is the title].  He captured the vastness of our country when he wrote: ‘We were at sea – there is no other adequate expression – on the plains of Nebraska.’  I remember driving from Indianapolis to Omaha in the summer of 1972 and affirm that it is like being on the ocean.

I found the following written in one of my older journals; there was no author listed and I am sure that it is not something that emerged from within my being so I will credit the most famous author, ‘anonymous,’ with the following: ‘A paradox is truth standing on its head to attract our attention.’  As human beings we are, by nature, searchers and seekers and one of the things we search for and seek after is truth and paradoxes help us as we travel along searching and seeking.  Katherine Mansfield offers us one to ponder: ‘If you wish to live, you must first attend your own funeral.’  What is the story you want others to tell about you as they mill about at your wake?  Are you currently ‘writing’ that story?  If not, what story are you now writing and living out?

The Chinese offered us the concept of yin-yang [gentle reader you might check out one of my earlier postings about Yin-Yang].  Some of their ancients were masters when it comes to self-contradictory thinking.  The great Chinese sage, Lao-Tzu was one of the earliest to directly recognize the deep connection between truth and paradox.  In the sixth century B.C.E. he wrote: ‘The truest sayings are paradoxical.’  Here are some others offered to us by the great Chinese sages: ‘Happiness is the absence of the striving for happiness.’ [Chuang-Tzu]; ‘Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s own ignorance.’ [Confucius]; ‘Failure is the foundation of success. . .success the lurking place of failure.’ [Lao-Tzu].

We Western thinkers have also been enamored with paradox.  The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard offered that ‘The paradox is the source of the thinker’s passion, and the thinker without a paradox is like a lover without a feeling: a paltry mediocrity.’  Then there is Thoreau who was very familiar with Confucius and Lao-Tzu; he put it this way: ‘Truth is always paradoxical.’  Consider this tidbit from Thoreau: ‘I have a great deal of company in the house, especially in the morning when nobody calls.’  His best company, it seems, is himself.  The English historian Edward Gibbon seconded it (or was it firsted it) when he wrote: ‘I was never less alone than when by myself.’  O.K. let’s go back a bit.  In the first century B.C.E. the Roman poet Tibullus wrote: ‘In solitude, be a multitude to thyself.’

In closing I will leave us with a few more wonderful paradoxical statements:
‘You can’t say civilization isn’t advancing, in every war they kill you in a new way.’ [Will Rogers]

‘Thanks to the interstate highway system, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything.’   [Charles Kuralt]

‘Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.’ [John Kenneth Galbraith]

‘Nobody goes there anymore.  It’s too crowded.’  [Yogi Berra]

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My father was a person of few words, spoken or written.  When he spoke, we paused to listen.  One of the reasons I would pause was that my father would often say something that did not fit the context. I took great glee when he spoke this way.  For example, he was quickly passing through the family room one afternoon and I asked him where he was going in such a hurry.  His reply, as he motored by was, “I am going to see a man about a dog!’  He moved on and I stared into the empty space that was, a second before, filled with my father.  Then I laughed.  One night I had a question for my father, I was reading a story for class and the word ‘paradox’ appeared before my eyes.  I could have looked it up but I wanted a few minutes with my father and so I trundled off to his den where I knew he would either be reading or working with his stamps or coins (he had a magnificent stamp collection).  I knocked on the closed door and he invited me in.  He was reading (he was an avid reader).  I asked him, ‘What is a paradox?’  He looked up, gave me ‘the look’ that suggested that I go look it up in the dictionary; then he paused and said, ‘Among other things, it is two doctors.’  He then returned to his reading.  As I turned to leave I noticed a smile cross his face.  My father had just told me, in his way, to go look the definition up and he also gifted me with his quick humor.  I could hardly wait to go to school the next day and tell the class what I had learned.

So, gentle reader, in addition to being two doctors, what is a paradox?  The word, paradox, comes from two Greek words, para meaning ‘beyond’ and doxa meaning ‘opinion.’  Literally, then, a paradox is something ‘beyond opinion’ – today we might say that it conveys the sense of being beyond the pale of current opinion or ‘contrary to current thinking.’  In Shakespeare’s time it had a negative connotation, suggesting something that was fantastically unbelievable or even heretical (I learned this in reading Bill Bryson’s wonderful book, The Mother Tongue – if you, gentle reader, are not familiar with this gem I invite you to check it out).  Over time, the meaning shifted to how we use it today – something that is true even though it may seem untrue.  Here is one that was given us by the poet Robert Browning: ‘Less is more.’  We are not speaking logically when we use this now common paradox.

Now, in order to grasp a paradox one must be able to think abstractly which is probably why young children become confused when one offers them a paradox [of course, I have also met many adults whose strength is concrete thinking and they do not find them interesting and frequently experience them as a bother – the same could be said of ‘literalists’ who are not enamored with word-play].  Here’s another common paradox given to us by the French writer Alphonse Karr: ‘The more things change, the more they remain the same.’  Literally, the statement is false.  However, Karr provides us with an important life-lesson.  Even though I change, often dramatically, as I age I remain in a real sense the same.  One more before I finish today’s posting.  I am drawn to the wisdom of the ancients and one of these folks is the Chinese wise-man, Lao-Tzu.  He noted that to lead the people, walk behind them.  Followers must truly feel that the leader ‘has their back’ as it were.  Leaders must also be willing to serve the followers and one way of doing this is making space for them to choose which direction to go.

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The mystics counsel us that spiritual transformation requires sustained nurturing [a reminder that ‘transformation’ is a fundamental change in character or structure].  Our commitment and our capacity to sustain spiritual transformation is often hindered, if not interrupted, when we discover that we are unsure, or hesitant, or full of doubt and angst or when we simply question — especially when we frame questions from that deep place of not-knowing.  At these times, the mystics remind us, that we become aware that we would rather be someplace else rather than on this particular threshold.  It is at these times that we make like a rabbit and run away (or is it hop?).  We know, deep down inside, that if we remain committed and step over the threshold that we will never be the same again and because we don’t know, truly know, what lies on the other side of the threshold we are filled with a little dread and perhaps fear.  It is no accident that the most often used words in the Torah, the New Testament and the Qu’ran are ‘Be Not Afraid.’

Now it is true that not all threshold experiences are so daunting, nor are they so transformational.  Some are quite manageable and we nurture our spirit in more gentle and yet just as profound ways.  I have been nurtured by crossing the threshold in response to a poem, or a story, or even a sentence or a word.  These ‘seeds’ enter into my spirit-garden, into my soul, into my heart and I savor them into life.  I might find myself questioning a long-held truth, for example.  Or I might find myself considering something I had dismissed as not worthy of my time and energy.  Some of these thresholds open pathways of peace — when I cross the threshold of ‘living in the moment’ I can experience this type of peace.  Some of these thresholds open the pathways to deep, or deeper, relationships.  Some of these thresholds help me cross over from ‘being asleep’ to ‘being awake and aware.’  Some of these thresholds lead me onto a path that brings discomfort, uneasiness, dis-ease, anxiety, and pain.  Some of these thresholds, I have experienced, open the pathway to the ‘dark night of the soul’ and some of these thresholds open the way to the wasteland — not the desert.  Some of these thresholds open the pathway to the land of the lost.

No matter which of these are presented to you-me-us, thresholds connect the mundane with the mysterious [or is it ‘mystery’?]; they connect you-me-us to both to the commonplace and the awesome. Thresholds ‘call’ us to a different territory; they open the road-less-traveled to us.  The word ‘threshold’ originally referred to the doorway leading to the place where the threshing of grain occurred.  Beyond the entrance lay the place of separating the wheat from the chaff.  Do I really want to know what is the wheat of my being and what is the chaff?  Do I really want to separate them?  The types of thresholds I am thinking about invite me to consider these two stretching questions.

Am I willing to frame these thresholds as a gift?  I have experienced that when I choose to step over one or more of these thresholds and enter into the land of the unknown that I am affirming that I do want to grow, that I do want to become wiser and healthier, that I do want to lose some of the burdens that weigh me down and that hinder my development.  Am I willing to be a bit more aware of these types of thresholds that will open before me today?  Am I willing, then, to step across just one of them today?  I am not sure, right now I feel more like the rabbit ready to run (or is it hop?).

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