Conscience is central to human nature and our understanding of that nature. What is its source and function? Historically, it has been conceived in many ways, whether as an innate faculty responsible for our capacity to know right from wrong, as the voice of divine guidance, as an ontological hallmark of our individuality, or as the internalization of society’s restrictive pressures and prejudices. That it has been the subject of this rich philosophical reception arouses many questions. What does the capacity to draw moral judgments reveal about our human condition? What does it mean to have our actions laid bare before God? What is involved in being social and political beings responsible to and for others? From Plato to Kant and Fichte, from Rousseau and Mill to Nietzsche and Freud, or from Heidegger to the Prophets and Apostles, this book traces the history of the concept of conscience, highlighting how the capacity to hear and follow its voice forms the heart of man.
This book consists of ten essays that advance a critique of modern subjectivity through a phenomenological interpretation of biblical texts and works of art. The work takes its methodological cue from a thesis we owe most notably to Jean-Louis Chrétien’s recent treatment of the modern novel and subjectivity in Conscience et roman, I: la conscience au grand jour and Conscience et roman, II: la conscience à mi-voix: for us today, the most intimate mode of self-existence is thought to be epitomized by the interior monologue of the self with itself, a relationship which in principle veils nothing from the intruding gaze of the author or reader. Nothing is hidden, for all is laid bare. Against this view that removes any hidden dimension from the searching gaze of others, the book highlights an interiority whose intimacy is due to our always already being exposed, not to a human gaze that knows the secrets of the heart, but to a word prior to any human observation: the Word of God. In analyzing this dimension of tenderness—a depths involving a “cardiognosie” only God fully possesses, as Chrétien says—I call upon the paintings of Bellini, Rembrandt, Osbert, Ossawa Tanner, Pissarro, Caravaggio, Kandinsky, Poussin, Rodin, and Hopper among others.