Conscience is Judge and Lawgiver.—But the will by no means carries on the government of the kingdom of Mansoul single-handed. True, the will wields the executive power; it is only by willing we are enabled to do; but there is a higher power behind,
whose mandate the will does no more than express. Conscience sits supreme in the inner chamber. Conscience is the lawgiver, and utters the ‘Thou shalt’ and the ‘Thou shalt not’ whereon the will takes action; the judge, too, before whom the offending soul is summoned; and from the ‘Thou art the man’ of conscience, there is no appeal.
‘I am, I ought, I can, I will.’—‘I am, I ought , I can, I will’—these are the steps of that ladder of St Augustine, whereby we
“rise on stepping –stones
Of our dead selves to higher things.”
‘I am’—we have the power of knowing ourselves. ‘I ought’—we have within us a moral judge, to whom we fell ourselves subject, and who points out and requires of us our duty. ‘I can’—we are conscious of power to do that which we perceive we ought to do. ‘I will’—we determine to exercise that power with a volition which is in itself a step in the execution of that we will. Here is a beautiful and perfect chain, and the wonder is that, so exquisitely constituted as he is for right-doing, error should be even possible to man. But of the sorrowful mysteries of sin and temptation it is not my place to speak here; you will see that it is because of the possibilities of ruin and loss which lie about every human life that I am pressing upon parents the duty of saving their children by the means put into their hands. Perhaps it is not too much to say, that ninety-nine out of a hundred lost lives lie at the door of parents who took no pains to deliver their children from sloth, from sensual appetites, from wilfulness, no pains to fortify them with the habits of a good life.
Inertness of Parents not supplemented by Divine Grace.—We live in a redeemed world, and infinite grace and help from above attend every rightly directed effort in the training of the children; but I do not see much ground for hoping that divine grace will step in as a substitute for any and every power we choose to leave unused or misdirected. In the physical world, we do not expect miracles to make up for our neglect of the use of means; the rickety body, the misshapen limb, for which the child has to thank his parents, remain with him through life, however much else he may have to thank God for; and a feeble will, bad habits, an uninstructed conscience, stick by many a Christian man through his life, because his parents failed in their duty to him, and he has not had force enough in himself to supply their omission.
Conscience not an Infallible Guide.—In this matter of conscience, for instance, the laissez-faire habit of his parents is the cause of real wrong and injury to many a child. The parents are thankful to believe that their child is born with a conscience; they hope his conduct may be ruled thereby: and the rest they leave; the child and his conscience may settle it between them. Now this is to suppose, either that a fully-informed conscience is born into an infant body, or that it grows, like the hair and the limbs, with the growth of the body, and is not subject to conditions of spiritual progress proper to itself. In other words, it is to suppose that conscience is an infallible guide, a delusion people cling to in spite of common sense and of everyday experience of the wrong-headed things men do from conscientious motives. The vagaries of the uninstructed conscience
are so familiar as to have given rise to popular proverbs: ‘Honour among thieves,’ ‘To strain out the gnat and swallow the camel,’ point to cases of misguided conscience; while ‘The wish is father to the thought,’ ‘None is so blind as he who won’t see,’ point to the still more common cases, in which a man knowingly tricks his conscience into aquiescence.
But a real Power.—Then, if conscience be not an infallible guide—if it pass blindfold by heinous offences, and come down heavily upon some mere quibble, tithing mint, rue, and all manner of herbs, and neglecting the weightier matters of the law—if conscience be liable to be bamboozled, persuaded into calling evil good and good evil, when Desire is the special pleader before the bar, where is its use, this broken reed? Is this stern lawgiver of the breast no more, after all, than a fiction of the brain? Is your conscience no more than what you happen to think about your own actions and those of other people? On the contrary, these aberrations of conscience are perhaps the strongest proof that it exists as a real power. As Adam Smith has well, “The supreme authority of conscience is felt and tacitly acknowledged by the worst, no less than by the best, of men; for even they who have thrown off all hypocrisy with the world, are at pains to conceal their real character from their own eyes.”
That Spiritual Sense whereby we know Good and Evil.—What conscience is, how far it lies in the feelings, how far in the reason, how far it is independent of both, are obscure questions which it is not necessary for practical purposes to settle; but thus much is evident—that conscience is as essential a part of human nature as are the
affections and the reason, and that conscience is that spiritual sense whereby we have knowledge of good and evil. The six-months-old child who cannot yet speak exhibits the workings of conscience; a reproving look will make him drop his eyes and hide his face. But, observe, the mother may thus cover him with confusion by way of an experiment when the child is all sweetness, and the poor little untutored conscience rises all the same, and condemns him on the word of another.
Facts like this afford a glimpse of the appalling responsibility that lies upon parents. The child comes into the world with a moral faculty, a delicate organ whereby he discerns the flavour of good and evil, and at the same time has a perception of delight in the good—in himself or others,—of loathing and abhorrence of the evil. But, poor little child, he is like a navigator who does not know how to box his compass. He is born to love the good, and to hate the evil, but he has no real knowledge of what is good and what is evil; what intuitions he has, he puts no faith in, but yields himself in simplicity to the steering of others. The wonder that Almighty God can endure so far to leave the very making of an immortal being in the hands of human parents is only matched by the wonder that human parents can accept this divine trust with hardly a thought of its significance.
A Child’s Conscience an Undeveloped Capability rather than a Supreme Authority.—Looking, then, upon conscience in the child rather as an undeveloped capability than as a supreme authority, the question is, how is this nascent lord of the life to be educated up to its high functions of informing the will and decreeing the conduct? For though the ill-taught
conscience may make fatal blunders, and a man may carry slaughter amongst the faithful because his conscience bids; yet, on the other hand, no man ever attained a godly, righteous, and sober life except as he was ruled by a good conscience—a conscience with not only the capacity to discern good and evil, but trained to perceive the qualities of the two. Many a man may have the great delicacy of taste which should qualify him for a tea-taster, but it is only as he has trained experience in the qualities of teas that his nice taste is valuable to his employers, and a source of income to himself.
The Uninstructed Conscience.—As with that of the will, so with the education of the conscience; it depends upon much that has gone before. Refinement of conscience cannot coexist with ignorance. The untutored savage has his scruples that we cannot enter into; we cannot understand to this day how it was that the horrors of the Indian Mutiny arose from the mere suspicion that a mixture of hog’s lard and beef fat had been used to grease the cartridges dealt out to the Sepoys. Those scruples which are beyond the range of our ideas we call superstitions and prejudices, and are unwilling to look upon conduct as conscientious, even when prompted by the uninstructed conscience, unless in so far as it is reasonable and right in itself.
The Processes implied in a ‘Conscientious’ Decision.—Therefore, it is plain that before conscience is in a position to pronounce its verdict on the facts of a given case, the cultivated reason must review the pros and cons; the practiced judgment must balance these, deciding which have the greater weight. Attention must bring all the powers of the mind to bear
on the question; habits of right action must carry the feelings, must make right-doing seem the easier and the pleasanter. In the meantime, desire is clamouous; but conscience, the unbiased judge, duly informed in full court of the merits of the case, decides for the right. The will carries out the verdict of conscience; and the man whose conduct is uniformly moulded upon the verdicts of conscience is the conscientious man, of whose actions and opinions you may be sure beforehand. But life is not long enough for such lengthy process; a thousand things have to be decided off-hand and then what becomes of these elaborate proceedings? That is just the advantage of an instructed conscience backed by a trained intelligence; the judge is always sitting, the counsel always on the spot.
The Instructed Conscience nearly always right.—Here is, indeed, a high motive for the all-round training of the child’s intelligence; he wants the highest culture you can give him, backed by carefully formed habits, in order that he may have a conscience always alert, supported by every power of the mind; and such a conscience is the very flower of a noble life. The instructed conscience may claim to be, if not infallible, at anyrate nearly always right. It is not generally mature until the man is mature; young people, however right-minded and earnest, are apt to err, chiefly because they fix their attention too much upon some one duty, some one theory of life, at the expense of much besides.
The Good Conscience of a Child.—But even the child, with the growing conscience and the growing powers, is able to say, ‘No, I can’t; it would not be right’; ‘Yes, I will; for it is right.’ And once able to
give either of these answers to the solicitations that assail him, the child is able to live; for the rest, the development, and what may be called the adjustment, of conscience will keep pace with his intellectual growth. But allowing that a great deal of various discipline must go to secure that final efflorescence of a good conscience, what is to be done by way of training the conscience itself, quickening the spiritual taste so that the least soupcon of evil is detected and rejected?
Children play with Moral Questions.—There is no part of education more nice and delicate than this, nor any in which grown-up people are more apt to blunder. Everyone knows how tiresome it is to discuss any nice moral question with children; how they quibble, suggest a hundred ingenious explanations or evasions, fail to be shocked or to admire in the right place—in fact, play with the whole question; or, what is more tiresome still, are severe and righteous overmuch, and ‘deal damnation round’ with much heartiness and goodwill. Sensible parents are often distressed at this want of conscience in the children; but they are not greatly in fault; the mature conscience demands to be backed up by the mature intellect, and the children have neither the one nor the other. Discussions of the kind should be put down; the children should not be encouraged to give their opinions on questions of right and wrong, and little books should not be put into their hands which pronounce authoritatively upon conduct.
The Bible the Chief Source of Moral Ideas.—It would be well if the reticence of the Bible in this respect were observed by the writers of children’s books, whether of story or history. The child hears the history of Joseph (with reservations) read from
the Bible, which rarely offers comment or explanation. He does not need to be told what was ‘naughty’ and what was ‘good’; there is no need to press home the teaching, or the Bible were written in vain, and good and bad actions carry no witness with them. Let all the circumstances of the daily Bible reading—the consecutive reading, from the first chapter of Genesis onwards, with necessary omissions—be delightful to the child; let him be in his mother’s room, in his mother’s arms; let that quarter of an hour be one of sweet leisure and sober gladness, the child’s whole interest being allowed to go to the story without distracting moral considerations; and then, the less talk the better; the story will sink in, and bring its own teaching, a little now, and more every year as he is able to bear it. One such story will be in him a constantly growing, fructifying moral idea.
Tales fix attention upon Conduct.—The Bible (the fitting parts of it, that is) first and supreme; but any true picture of life, whether a tale of golden deeds or of faulty and struggling human life, brings aliment to the growing conscience. The child gets into the habit of fixing his attention on conduct; actions are weighted by him, at first, by their consequences, but by degrees his conscience acquires discriminating power, and such and such behaviour is bad or good to him whatever its consequences. And this silent growth of the moral faculty takes place all the more surely if the distraction of chatter on the subject is avoided; or a thousand small movements of vanity and curiosity and mere love of talk are easily called into play, and these take off the attention from the moral idea which should be conveyed to the
conscience. It is very important, again, that the child should not be allowed to condemn the conduct of the people about him. Whether he is right or wrong in his verdict, is not the question; the habit of bestowing blame will certainly blunt his conscience, deaden his sensibility to the injunction, “Judge not that ye be not judged.”
Ignorance of a Child’s Conscience.—But the child’s own conduct: surely he may be called upon to look into that? His conduct, including his words, yes; but his motives, no; nothing must be done to induce the evil habits of introspection. Also, in setting the child to consider his ways, regard must be had to the extreme ignorance of the childish conscience, a degree of ignorance puzzling to grown-up people when they chance to discover it, which is not often, for the children, not withstanding their endless chatter and their friendly, loving ways, live very much to themselves. They commit serious offences against truth, modesty, love, and do not know that they have done wrong, while some absurd feather weight of transgression oppresses their souls. Children will bite and hurt one another viciously, commit petty thefts, do such shocking things that their parents fear they must have very bad natures: it is not necessarily so; it is simply that the untaught conscience sees no clear boundary line between right and wrong, and is as apt to err on the one side as the other. I once saw a dying child of twelve who was wearing herself out with her great distress because she feared she had committed ‘the unpardonable sin,’ so she said (how she picked up the phrase nobody knew); and that was—that she had been saying her prayers without even kneeling up in bed! The ignorance of children
about the commonest matters of right and wrong is really pathetic; and yet they are too often treated as if they knew all about it, because ‘they have consciences,’ as if conscience were any more than a spiritual organ waiting for direction!
Instructing the Conscience—Kindness.—That the children do wrong knowingly is another matter, and requires, alas, no proving; all I am pressing for is the real need there exists to instruct them in their duty; and this, not at haphazard, but regularly and progressively. Kindness, for instance, is, let us say, the subject of instruction this week. There is one of the talks with their mother that the children love—a short talk is best—about kindness. Kindness is love, showing itself in act and word, look and manner. A well of love, shut up and hidden in a little boy’s heart, does not do anybody much good; the love must bubble up as a spring, flow out in a stream, and then it is kindness. Then will follow short daily talks about kind ways, to brothers and sisters, to playmates, to parents, to grown-up friends, to servants, to people in pain and trouble, to dumb creatures, to people we do not see but yet can think about—all in distress, the heathen. Give the children one thought at a time, and every time some lovely example of loving-kindness that will fire their hearts with the desire to do likewise.
Take our Lord’s parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’ for a model of instruction in morals. Let tale and talk make the children emulous of virtue, and then give them the “Go and do likewise,” the law. Having presented to them the idea of kindness in many aspects, end with the law: Be kind, or, “Be kindly affectioned one to another.” Let them know that
this is the law of God for children and for grown-up people. Now, conscience is instructed, the feelings are enlisted on the side of duty, and if the child is brought up, it is for breaking the law of kindness, a law that he knows of, that his conscience convicts him in the breaking. Do not give children deterrent examples of error, because of the sad proclivities of human nature, but always tell them of beautiful ‘Golden Deeds,’ small and great, that shall stir them as trumpet-calls to the battle of life.
The Conscience made effective by Discipline.—Be courteous, be candid, be grateful, be considerate, be true; there are aspects of duty enough to occupy the attention of mother and child for every day of the child-life; and all the time, the idea of duty is being formed, and conscience is being educated and developed. At the same time, the mother exercises the friendly vigilance of a guardian angel, being watchful, not to catch the child tripping, but to guide him into the acting out of the duty she has already made lovely in his eyes; for it is only as we do that we learn to do, and become strong in the doing. As she instructs her child in duty, she teaches him to listen to the voice of conscience as to the voice of God, a ‘Do this,’ or ‘Do it not,’ within the breast, to be obeyed with full assurance. It is objected that we are making infallible, not the divinely implanted conscience, but that same conscience made effective by discipline. It is even so; in every department of life, physical or spiritual, human effort appears to be the condition of the Divine energising; there must be a stretching forth of the withered arm before it receives strength; and we have every reason to believe that the instructed
conscience, being faithfully followed, is divinely illuminated.