Conscience In Thomas Aquinas:A Philosophical Reflection

Conscience In Thomas Aquinas:A Philosophical Reflection



The modern world is characterized by violence, riots, wars, terrorism, and abortion, which constitute threats to the peaceful co-existence of men.  Analysts have strived to bring out solution to the problem in their various capacities. Both the advocates of peace and terror, theists and atheists explicitly or implicitly




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After payment, text the name of the project, email address and your names to 08064502337 speak and write about conscience and its place in the pursuit of particular causes. Hence the notion of conscience is a point of interest to all.

The term conscience appears in the constitutions of many nations today as well as in the official documents of the church.  Civil rights activists have often used the terms “white conscience”, “public conscience” Christian conscience” and so on, as weapons of remedy against various ills and excesses of ideologies.  Scholastic philosophers are themselves neither unanimous nor constant in their use of the word conscience.

This overview is nevertheless sufficient to show that conscience embodies various meanings and covers situations ranging from view of life to personal conviction, social values and objective standard of conduct for different peoples.  The nature of conscience has, as a result, been variously interpreted as an interior voice, a faculty, an act of judgement, a habit, etc.  The lack or absence of unanimity in the usage and interpretations of conscience by both secular and ecclesiastical writers often blur and make ambiguous its true meaning.  Thus, the ordinary man is all the more perplexed with regard to its function as a norm of morality. In this light, it is an onerous task to arrive at an understanding of the nature of conscience and its obligation.

Authority irks modern man. For him, freedom is the absence of restraint.  In many democratic countries, for instance, freedom becomes equated with irresponsibility.  Often the basis of dissent is sought in conscience, which serves as an arsenal of defense against the demands of authority.  In moral matters, the emphasis is on personal autonomy that refuses to look beyond self, for moral values and guidance.  However, appeals to conscience in cases like these often result in an inability to resolve moral problems.  The consequence is chaotic existence, which has become the mark of our times.

This long essay is an attempt to clarify some of the uncertainty that surrounds the word conscience using the philosophical framework of St. Thomas Aquinas.

  • Background Of The Study

Conscience is man’s nearest guide with regard to his moral decisions on actions.  Man makes a rational judgement over the actions performed or about to be performed in order to know how good or bad they are.  He does this because of the natural inclination to attain happiness and satisfaction.  Hence, conscience is of interest to all.  Teachers make lesson on it, leaders consider it, parents address their children on it, Christians respect it; lawyers act on it; while philosophers examine it critically.

Aquinas’ attention was drawn to the issue of “conscience” as a result of the hot debate on the relationship of conscience and synderesis as well as its nature in the Middle Ages.  He looked into the matter to see if there were any distinguishing features of conscience, its operation in the intellect with regard to the actions of man.  He came out with the conclusion that conscience incites or binds.  There is no doubt that his stand on the issue alleviated the problem to a certain extent.  However, it is still subject to critical examination, because his view appears to be very subjective.

Thomas Aquinas {c. 1225-74} was born into an aristocratic family at Roccasecca in the south of Italy.  He studied philosophy and theology at Cologne with and under Albert the Great.  Aquinas’ best-known work is his Summa Theologia and others like Scriptum Super Sententiarum, Quaestiones Disputatae De Veritate, Summa Contra Gentiles, which he wrote around 1254 to 1273.  He died on March 7, 1274 in the Cistercian abbey at Fossanova.

1.2    Statement Of The Problem

A historical survey of philosophers and thinkers who delved into the problem of conscience shows that conscience and synderesis are inevitable in making moral decisions on actions.  However, man cannot appreciate and appropriate this function of the human intellect without an epistemological cleansing in order to see the relationship between synderesis and conscience.  Aquinas’ doctrine established that conscience has a binding force whether true or erroneous[1]. This means that one who yields to erroneous conscience is not free from a bad act.  Does it imply that one with erroneous conscience must act wrongly?  What measure could be employed to correct the error and how?  The problem of a doubtful conscience entails a feeling of uncertainty about something as to the lawfulness or obligation of an action.  Aquinas’ reply seems naïve: of course, “a man needs only to put aside his error for he is really not in a quandary”[2].

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 1.3     Purpose Of The Study

The main objective of this work is to expose and make a philosophical reflection on Aquinas’ doctrine on conscience, his understanding of conscience and synderesis. An attempt will be made to see the relationship between Aquinas idea of conscience and man as a moral being in quest of ultimate end. I shall attempt also to contribute to resolving the problem of error and doubtful conscience, in addition to what Aquinas has said about the problem.

1.4   Scope Of The Study

I am concerned in this research work with Aquinas’ teaching on antecedent conscience not consequent conscience, since only the former is a norm of morality.  I am bent on finding out exactly the ‘quid’ of his antecedent moral conscience with its attendant obligation.

 1.5     Method Of Research

The method of research is expository and analytical since our objective is to know and understand Aquinas’ thought and it’s   relevance to man as a moral being that acts for an ultimate end.  The word “conscience” throughout the work is to be taken as antecedent moral conscience unless noted otherwise.

  • Division Of Work

The work is divided into four chapters.  The first chapter is the preliminary consideration of the research. The second chapter takes a look at the idea of conscience before Aquinas.  The third chapter exposes Aquinas doctrine on conscience. In the fourth chapter I shall reflect on the relevance of his doctrine to man as a being with ultimate end.  After that we shall conclude the essay.



For a better appreciation of St. Thomas’ idea of antecedent moral conscience, it is pertinent to consider the historical sources of his doctrine, particularly, the views of his teachers especially St. Albert the Great and in general the intellectual environment of his time.  This will enable us comprehend better why Aquinas chose to address the problems the way he did.

  • Ancient Era

The earliest written testimonies that we can consult tell us of recognized principles in morals.  However we find in this era what we may call “judicial conscience”. This means that after an action is performed, conscience passes moral judgment upon it

        2.1.1               Pre-Christian times 1                                   

The Egyptians show the workings of conscience in the “Book of the Dead”. We find an examination of conscience or rather profession of innocence before the supreme judge after death.  Two confessions are given to enunciate most of the virtues: duties to the dead, reverence for God, charity to neighbours, etc.  In China, Confucius {c. 500 BC}, in connection with an idea of heaven, delivered a high morality, and Mencius {c.300 BC} developed this code of uprightness and benevolence as “Heaven’s appointment”.  Greek ethics began to pass from its gnomic condition to gnoseauthon {know thy self}.  When Socrates spoke of a mysterious voice, which he called a “Daimonion”, an interior voice always guiding him and

telling him not to do certain things, he was referring to his conscience.2   The Greek word for conscience, suneidesis first occurs in a fragment of Democritus where it is presented as the cause of the remorse that men experience after the commission of an evil deed and on the contrary, the cause of joy and hope for those who lead just lives, on the other[3].  Cicero translated the Greek “Suneidesis” into Latin as Conscientia.  The English word “Conscience” is a derivative of “conscientia” and it is used frequently than the Greek word. Cicero holds that it is an inner voice that speaks with greater authority than any form of public approval.  For instance, he {Cicero} asserted “Mea mihi conscientia pluris est quam omnium sermo” {I do not set much store by what others think of me; my conscience counts far more with me than the verdict of all other people}[4].  Some writers noted that Plato and Aristotle did not use the noun Suneidesis.  Only the meaning of conscience as judicial was common.  Aristotle, for instance, speaks of the ability of a good man to judge things rightly[5].   It was not found in its moral usage until just before the medieval era.

  •  Pauline ingenuity

St. Paul introduced “conscience” into the New Testament.  The term “conscience” occurs twenty-three times in his epistles.  He introduced clearly the concept of antecedent conscience into the literature of moral doctrine (cf. I Cor 8:7 and Romans 2:15).  Conscience as it were imposes a rule of conduct; yet, for all that, it may be mistaken.  The two new features in the Pauline innovation are that of having authority to legislate, and of being subject to error.  Nevertheless, its rulings, even in mistaken cases, would seem to hold, according to Paul.

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2.2      Medieval Era

Christian philosophers, most of who were fathers of the church, scholastics, dominated this era.  For St. Ambrose, in his De officiis, conscience is the interior judge, infallible and majestic, whose sanction none can escape.  A man’s fortune should be measured, he says, “…according to the state of his conscience within him.  That is an accurate and incorruptible judge of innocence and guilt”[6].  John Damascene defines conscience as the “law of our intellect”7.  St. Basil in his homily In Principium Verborum refers to conscience as “a natural power of judgement”8. Another possible influence on Aquinas in his formation of the notion of conscience is Origen’s commentary on Romans 2:15.  He explains:

Conscience is a correcting and guiding spirit

accompanying the soul, by which it is led away

from evil and made to cling to good9.

This passage highlights three functions of conscience, that of guiding {legislative conscience} correcting {Judicial conscience} and accompanying {Concomitant conscience}. In his De Veritate Aquinas made reference to Origen’s commentary on Romans 14:23

But he who hesitates, if he eats is condemned, because it is not from faith; for all that is not from faith is sin10.

Origen is speaking of antecedent conscience pointing out that to follow a doubtful conscience is to condemn oneself.

2.2.1    Synderesisa Jeromean innovation.

St. Jerome introduced the term “synderesis” in his commentary on the prophecy of Ezekiel.  Having treated three of the mystic animals in the prophecy of Ezekiel as symbolizing respectively three Platonic powers of the soul11: epithumetikon the appetitive, thumikon the irascible, logikon the rational, St. Jerome uses the fourth animal, the eagle, to represent what he calls synderesis. The last, according to the texts employed by him to describe it, is a supernatural knowledge: it is the spirit who groans in man, the spirit who alone knows what is in man12.  The spirit who with the body and the soul forms the Pauline trichotomy13.  Synderesis was the spark of conscience, which was not quenched even in the heart of Cain when he was chased out of paradise.  It is the same spark of conscience, which makes us also feel our sinfulness when we are overcome by unbridled spirit, or deceived by sham reason.  It is natural to identify synderesis with the eagle since it is distinct from the other three elements and corrects them when they err.  And yet we see this conscience overthrown and displaced by some that have no sense of guilt for their sins14.

No disparity seemed to have been made between synderesis and conscience.  But about the year 1152, Peter Lombard included the term “synderesis” in his “sentences” and it became a fixture15.

This generated a lot of problems and questions:  Is synderesis a faculty?  What is its nature? What is its function? et cetera.  The same passage also engendered questions with regard to the nature of conscience.  Various scholars proffered different solutions.  Until the thirteenth century, the idea of conscience remained blurred by a lack of clear distinction with regard to its nature and its relationship with synderesis.

In a bid to tackle the problem, two schools of thought emerged: voluntarism and intellectualism. That is, the Franciscan and the Dominican schools of thought led by St. Bonaventure and St. Albert the Great respectively. The Franciscan school of thought held that the will ‘voluntas’ grasps the first moral principles.   The Dominican school, on the other hand, held that it is an inclination of the intellect ‘intellectus’ to grasp the first moral principles.   

St. Bonaventure in his Commentary on the II Sentences locates synderesis as ‘Calor et pondus’ in the will and distinguishes it from the conscience in the practical intellect, which he calls an innate habit.  For him, as regards general principles in the conscience, the habits are innate; while as regards particular applications, they are acquired16.  Both reason and will have a part to play in our moral life, and each of them needs to be given some direction or inclination towards moral goodness.     Conscience does this for the reason; synderesis does it for the will, where it resides as a natural bias.  Synderesis is a natural movement of the will and is therefore infallible.  Conscience is dependent on reason and thus can err.  Both synderesis and conscience are habits, which have as their object the natural law.  In other words, natural law is distinguishable from these habits.

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St. Albert the Great explains synderesis as a habit of the practical intellect or reason.  It is a formal cause in the direction of action because it inclines to moral good by furnishing the universal judgement of a syllogism.  He remarks:

I hold that conscience is the conclusion reached by practical reason from two premises.  The major premise is supplied by synderesis, which inclines us towards goodness by providing us with the general principle of goodness.  The minor premise is given by reason, which applies the particular to the universal. The conclusion thus reached is conscience17.

He appears to have been the first to explain conscience as the conclusion of practical syllogism and synderesis as a special faculty of the soul in which the Universals of morality are written.  By a way of comparison, the preference of the Franciscan school for the prominence of will and the preference of Dominican school for the prominence of intellect is peculiar to each school.

However, a summary can be made between the two scholars, Albert and Bonaventure.  On synderesis, both agree that it is a faculty of some sort and that it produces in the soul an inclination towards moral goodness.  They differ only in their account of whether it is an inclination of the will or an innate intellectual grasp of the first moral principles. On conscience, both agree that it is connected with the practical reason in its function of making moral judgments. They also agree that it is not a faculty.  They disagree in their understanding and interpretation of the nature of conscience.  For Bonaventure, it is a habit, which belongs to the practical reason, whereas for Albert it is an act of practical reason.  Thus the problem at hand was whether conscience is an act or a habit, whether synderesis is a mere inclination or innate.  This problem was on when St. Thomas was writing and this became the mould in which his position on conscience and synderesis is irreversibly cast.

St. Albert’s concept of conscience as the conclusion of the practical syllogism influenced Aquinas in his notion of conscience.  However, Aquinas went the extra mile to grapple with the problem.

  • Conscience and Synderesis

Conscience is popularly described as “an inner voice” or as the “voice of God”18 that tells us what to do or avoid. But this is a metaphor.  Conscience has got no other voice than ours.  In the traditional sense, conscience could be said to be the intellect’s practical judgement about an individual act as good and to be done, or as evil and to be avoided19.  It is conscience that informs one subjectively about what is good and evil and


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