Wednesday, 9 April 2014


Conscience and self-knowledge should surely be intertwined.  Assessing the rightness or otherwise of our actions, being morally accountable for them, acknowledging our own intentions require introspection and understanding.

It's odd then that whilst the knowledge of self as a subject of historical study has received lots of interest (particularly from intellectual historians working on contexts as far apart as the study of Socrates, the so-called 'discovery of the individual' in the twelfth century, and the apparent individualism of the Renaissance), there is very little work on the idea of conscience as such.

It's as if conscience is assumed to be a rather a-historical category: so much a part of us as human beings, that one can't subject it to historical study as a motivating or shaping force, akin to political, social and economic motivations.  Or, on the other hand, it is simply subsumed (particularly by medieval historians) into the framework of 'religious motivation'.

Tomb image of Philip IV, Saint Denis, from wikicommons

So I found Elizabeth Brown's recent article in Speculum (2012, no. 1) particularly fascinating (and thanks to Prof D'Avray for pointing it out to me).  It's a study of conscience and moral imperatives as expressed (and felt?) by Philip IV, King of France, and his chief minister Nogaret.  Philip, known as 'the Fair', is a really seminal figure in French history: debates still rage about the extent to which he promoted 'statecraft' in his kingdom, fostered a sense of 'Frenchness', and inaugurated new political forms.  He was also a horriific persecutor - of Jews, heretics, Lombard bankers, lepers, the Templar order, adulterers and so on.  

Image of the Templars from chronicle of Matthew Paris, wikicommons

Elizabeth Brown's detailed analysis shows that conscience is most certainly an important category of historical analysis, profoundly informing Philip and Nogaret's accounts of their own actions.  More importantly perhaps, she shows that conscience was also something which pushed them to behave in particular ways (not least in the drafting of wills and concern for future salvation): conscience doesn't just cause us to reflect on what we've already done, but shapes the way we behave in future.  In Philip's case, for example, his conscience obliged him, reluctantly, to return taxation which had been levied for a military expedition which did not in fact happen.  Perhaps the most dramatic event of the reign, was the arrest of the Pope by Nogaret, on behalf on Philip, in 1303: the Pope escaped and died shortly afterwards (of natural causes).  Philip and Nogaret claimed that conscience was their main motivation.

Boniface VIII. wikicommons.

But even Philip and Nogaret felt uneasy about arresting a Pope.  And it was a desire, perhaps, to appease their troubled consciences, that Nogaret so stridently tried to get the Pope posthumously condemned.

What strikes me here is that the lengthy self-justifications these two engaged in, were undertaken precisely because their consciences weren't quite clear.  They convinced themselves that they were doing the right thing, but this needed a conscious effort.  So this is the point at which conscience and self-knowledge come apart.  Managing conscience effectively in politics often seems to amount to side-stepping true self-knowledge, deluding oneself as to one's true motivations, convincing oneself of the rightness of a cause which one knows, deep down, to be wrong.

My inspiring school history teacher, Miss North, commented that Henry VIII was one of those figures able to delude himself into believing in the rightness of a course of action which he knew really to be wrong.  And she claimed that it's those deluded individuals who are the most dangerous.

In other words, it's in the historical moments and people in which conscience and self-knowledge come apart, that we have most to fear.

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