The Nature of Conscience

Nature of Conscience

Conscience is the individual essence of the human race fully glorified, the divine archetype of Man; it takes the place of God on Earth, and is hence to that extent the highest and last.”  




Since the beginning of history, the study of the nature of the human conscience has engendered the highest praise and respect for conscience’s ability to enhance and refine the moral character of humanity. Many philosophers and thinkers speculate about what conscience actually is, but few understand where it came from, how it developed, its inherent nature, its potential for good or ill, its “infallibility”, its limits, its power, or what might become of it in the future. A few scholars agree that conscience arose in the history of human thought during the Classical Greek era and was not present as a mental capacity or soul-force before that time. In fact, there were no words for conscience before the Greek dramatists. The birth of conscience first needed consciousness to develop to the point that the human ego would no longer clairvoyantly perceive beings outside of itself, like the Furies (pangs of conscience), pursuing it relentlessly for wrong deeds until the guilty party could “clear his conscience.” Instead of the wrath of the Furies, the developing ego (“I Am”) consciousness needed to conscientiously listen to the ‘still small voice’ sounding in its moral heart. This ‘still small voice’ appears as an intuition that inspires the ego to act morally with conscious intention, thus creating what Rudolf Steiner calls in his book, The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, “moral technique” – the capacity to act out of intuition.

For ego-development to evolve, the Greek thinker and philosopher needed to internalize the three soul-forces of the Furies and unite them into one ‘voice’ which might inform the thinker about what is right and wrong, good and evil. Once the clear thinker is able to listen to the “voice of moral compunction” based upon the highest scruples and virtuous principles, the need for an external “judges”, like the Furies, was no longer necessary, the process had become internalized with the birth of conscience. Considering the historic reality that conscience has been perceived as both outside, and then later, inside of the human being, it seems as if conscience could be a “force”, an “awareness”, or even a “being” whose origin was previously perceived as outside of the human body and has now entered inside of the human being body and soul. First, as something (some “being”) independent of human consciousness and then later as something intimately integral to ego-consciousness, the human soul, and the spiritual development of the human being.

The human conscience, in our time, carries a certain moral or spiritual association alongside of it that has been partially subsumed by Christians and ignored by hedonistic materialists. This demonstrates again that the human conscience is developing over time as determined by the free will of the individual interacting with a “being” who is a well-spring of moral compunction and advice who informs the soul of misdeeds as fast as lightning strikes. The human “I Am” and the “being” of conscience eventually develop an evolving relationship that takes on the characteristics of a teacher instructing a student when they are headed down the wrong road or about to make a mistake. Much like Socrates’ daemon would tell him when he had taken a wrong path, but did not tell him ahead of time which was the right path.

The Christian Bible references the existence of conscience but makes it a force that is not personal to the individual human being, even though it possesses great moral strength. The Roman Christians, building upon the budding conscience of the Greeks, started to align conscience with its ability to recognize good and evil. Conscience became the tool of God, with His ‘still small voice’ speaking to the hearts of humans who would listen with a moral, loving, pure heart. Eventually, this voice was believed to be the very “Voice of God” helping direct human moral and spiritual development. This “voice” did not tell the person exactly what to do but did admonish them if an action was perceived to be bad; thus, leaving a guilty conscience to hopefully nag the person into the right and moral action.

The development of conscience over time has been studied by many philosophers, but actually hasn’t amounted to much – except for the debate concerning the distinction between “synderesis” [the person’s inclination shaping her moral understanding] and “conscience.” This debate never ended and the results have led us into modern psychoanalytical theories of speculation, like the Freudian belief in an ‘ego, super-ego, and id’, instead of a divinely ordered “I Am”, “conscience”, and “lower self.”

The synderesis is seen by some as primary to conscience, and as such is infallible; whereas the conscience is personal and fallible. Synderesis is pictured as the divine life of wisdom [reference to the Cherubim and Kyriotetes] that the individual refers to when making a moral decision. Synderesis sets the standards for what is wisdom, truth, beauty, and goodness and creates moral precepts and moral instincts by which the individual can make ethical judgments that drive personal action/willpower. When the individual has weighed the ethical situation against their personal synderesis’ advice and storehouse of moral precepts, the person may act with intuition born of love and craft a moral technique to fit each separate situation that calls for moral discrimination.

Essentially, conscience is somewhat like the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil from the Christian Bible. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit, they knew the difference between good and evil. They were warned, like the voice of conscience, but they still had the freedom to violate the commandment of God. With conscience, we are told if something is wrong with our actions because our heart prickles with a sensation that is disharmonious – like disobeying the commandment of God might feel. We may “know” through the human capacity of conscience if an action is right or wrong, even before we take the action. “Knowing” may arrive as quickly as a bolt of lightning, seemingly out of nowhere. This type of knowing, that arises out of the human conscience, is similar to the nature of intuition in the human soul. Intuition inherently “knows” the truth of the matter for good or ill, in the present and often the future.

Many Christians believe that a conscience is given to us from the celestial hierarchy of the Cherubim and that a developed human conscience is somehow directly connected to Christ. The First Hierarchy of Seraphim (Love), Cherubim (Harmony/Cosmic Wisdom), and the Thrones (Willpower) also manifest in great storms through lightning and thunder, a means to bring harmony and divine willpower into stormy clouds. So too, the First Hierarchy participates in the human “intuition of conscience” – the act of knowing – often referred to as a Voice, the Logos, or the Word. This “capacity of knowing” educates humanity concerning the nature of the heavenly virtues through the example of divine grace, love, and mercy. Conscience can be imagined as a moral hierarchical lightning and thunder that reacts to the storms of the soul’s actions; it is an intuition of a higher order that brings harmony, providence, love, and wisdom into the willpower of the human being.

The willpower that feeds the conscience has its home in the hind-brain of the human being which predominately controls volition, spatial awareness, uprightness, and movement. Rudolf Steiner told us that the cerebellum is the most finished and perfected part of the human brain and one of the most mysterious. He actually calls the cerebellum, the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil” which can be imaginatively seen in a cross-section of the organ which resembles a tree with twelve limbs – reminiscent of the twelve cranial nerves that all terminate in the corpora quadragemini, just below the pineal gland in the fourth ventricle. The perfection of the animal kingdom is embedded in the cerebellum of the human being as the organ that demonstrates that humanity is the paragon of creation and the perfection of the most refined elements of all animal species. Essentially, the conscience has a part of the brain that somewhat reflects the development of the human body as a vehicle which interprets the true nature of neurological perception through the sense organ (supersensible organ) of the heart, with the help of the kidneys. The cerebellum, as the imaginative Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, coincidently has the nerves of the spinal cord wrapped around it like the Serpent of Eden wrapped around the Tree of Knowledge.

Through perception, the human heart “reads” the outside world with the help of the conscience which determines the Good or Evil nature of any particular perception needing action, after it compares the perception to the existing body of moral precepts and experiences and listens for the voice of conscience to speak. Thus, the conscience helps the human soul determine what action should be taken in relationship to what the surface of the heart has perceived as the harmonious or disharmonious nature of that which is being perceived. The heart is an organ of perception for the human conscience which rejects the disharmonious perception of Evil while taking into the heart the part of perception that is Good. The Evil perception is rejected by the conscience and the Good is accepted as proper perceptual nourishment. The perception activity of the heart affects the kidney system (heart and reins) and they work together to regulate the fire in the blood that is the action of the Cherubim acting in the cardio-vascular system of the human body. Conscience is a flame that burns upward in human beings.

The insight of Rudolf Steiner concerning the human conscience is the antidote to the simple-minded views of materialistic science, psychology, and philosophy. To Steiner, the conscience has divine sources and is intimately connected to spiritual advancement. To the materialist, the conscience is a nuisance to ignore as quickly as possible so that a pleasure-seeking life of selfishness can flourish without regard to others.

The modern age has been led down the wrong road concerning the moral character of conscience by Sigmund Freud and many other psycho-analysts. In Freud’s shallow interpretation, we find the ‘super-ego’ representing the moral backdrop of the individual’s soul – its conscience – as a critical and moralizing component standing between the ‘ego’ as an organizing agent and the ‘id’ as the home of instinctual desires. If you couple this idea with the rampant materialism found in modern psychology, you are led to a moral dead-end without first having a foundation in spiritual experience or spiritual science. Freud’s super-ego (conscience) has arisen through the impression of the mores, customs, conventions, and cultural habits of the society that a person finds themselves living in. There is no other higher source of moral and virtuous activity than the materialistic, hedonistic habits of our times – according to Freud. Freud’s “super-ego” keeps the person’s wild, animalistic “id” in check via the threats of the penalties of law enforcement for behavior that is deviant. There is little room in Freud’s modern view of conscience for a “divine source” that is a moral being working on the human soul from the outer world. Freud’s “super-ego” has no “super” function to it, no divine source or moral reasoning behind what an individual finds in their personal “super-ego” – just merely human laws made to control societal deviation. Freud lacked the imagination, inspiration, or intuition to see the human soul’s conscience as the seat of the human being’s true spirit, the future potential made real by emulating the moral impulses of the divinely given human conscience.

The mixture of modern psychology, Christian theology, Greek philosophy, Biblical references, and a thorough misunderstanding of Socrates’ relationship to his “daemon” has frequently demoted the understanding of conscience to analogies of demons, doubles, genii, elemental beings, familiars, and a hundred other misnomers for the spiritually generated, moral nature of conscience. In the not too distant future, the human conscience will link people even more with members of the Spiritual Hierarchy and the Holy Trinity as the voice of conscience becomes as real as a friend walking by our side giving us moral support and lovingly sharing refined wisdom to nurture our spirit.

Conscience has become one of the least understand aspects of the human soul and, in fact, has been characterized falsely as something a modern person wants to ignore, diminish, dismiss, and silence. Hedonism and materialism cause the conscience to be “overactive” in the modern world and has, as such, been “turned down” like the volume of a radio. The ‘still small voice’ can’t be heard over the loud blasting of earphones that dampen down the Voice of God – the Word of God – the human conscience.

Socrates said his daemon (not demon) would inform him when he went in the wrong direction. Thus, Socrates learned from his daemon and used it to become wise. He also believed what many Greeks did, that the daemon was a god, a hero, a spirit, or even a teacher if the practitioner knew how to listen to the voice of the daemon – which in this case was perceived as being outside of the human body. It is easy to see that as the human conscience arose in development, it went from being perceived as a distinctly independent being ‘outside of the human body’, to a voice ‘within the human body’ that is now part of the human soul and spirit. This means that conscience was birthed and has a biography of sorts. Therefore, it seems obvious that conscience in the human soul will someday return to its source having advanced and ascended into realms where higher virtues and moral actions of love reign free. All we need to do is learn the language of the developing conscience and we will have the opportunity to use our conscience as Socrates used his daemon, as a close friend and teacher.

Thomas Aquinas, who built a Christian philosophy partially taken from Aristotle and the Greeks, debated the issue of “synderesis” [the person’s inclination shaping her moral understanding] versus “conscience.” The debate raged over which of the two (synderesis or conscience) had a higher or more primary control of human morality via the “Voice of God” – the human conscience. It is somewhat like the “Nature/Nurture” issue, where the question is about which is more important: the moral teachings in the environment (“synderesis”), or the self-generated moral development that comes from listening to one’s own heart (“conscience”). This debate is resolved by the spiritual scientist, Dr. Rudolf Steiner who tells us that, in fact, the Greeks where right: conscience comes from the outside with moral force to advise against mistakes and is a being (or beings, the Furies) who wishes to enter into the human soul. Steiner tells us that this being is from the ranks of the First Hierarchy, the Cherubim – the spirits of harmony and cosmic wisdom. Eventually, the development of humanity’s collective “consciences” help create the lowest physical aspect of Christ, what Rudolf Steiner called the Life Spirit or Buddhi. This indication of Steiner’s concerning conscience is actually beyond the human ability to comprehend. This, and many other mysteries of conscience are revealed through Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual science and can be found nowhere else in the Western esoteric tradition.

Rudolf Steiner speaks about conscience and its historical development in relationship to human spiritual evolution in many of his works and has presented the most comprehensive picture of the “Being of Conscience” and its incorporation into the soul and spirit of the human being. There is no way to communicate the profound wisdom Steiner has presented concerning the conscience and all of the elements surrounding it, including: love, compassion, wonder, and consciousness. Later in this article, we will present a selection of quotations from Dr. Steiner that create a comprehensive picture of the developing human conscience, which includes many of the pertinent ideas of thinkers, philosophers, religions, mythologies, and psychologists. It is well worth our time to study the historical progression and growth of the human conscience in standard philosophical studies and historical research. But once you have exhausted those avenues, you will find that only a comprehensive Christian cosmology can illuminate the true spiritual nature of conscience and its relationship to the past, present, and future development of humanity.

But let’s start with an overview of what modern materialism can tell us about our experience of conscience in terms of psychology and the sense-bound philosophies of secular humanism. We learn from simple observations of human psychology that conscience, as commonly used in its moral sense, is the inherent ability of every healthy human being to perceive what is right and what is wrong and, on the strength of this perception, to control, monitor, evaluate and execute their actions. Such values as right or wrong, good or evil, just or unjust, and fair or unfair have existed throughout human history but are also shaped by an individual’s spiritual, cultural, political, and economic environment. The closer our inner state of conscience identifies with the higher perception of these concepts, such as good, right, just, and fair, the higher our “degree of conscience.” It might be said that conscience is the degree of integrity and honesty of each human being because it monitors and determines the quality of one’s actions through a personal moral filter. One who acts with a “clear conscience” has the advantage of feeling at ease, instead of plagued by a “guilty conscience.”

Conscience is often seen as the “highest moral and logical authority” and evaluates information to determine the quality of an action: good or evil, fair, or unfair. Consequently, conscience usually ranks higher than consciousness and, in addition, has the ability and the authority to decide how information will be used, either for good or for ill. Conscience can determine our final decisions for action after evaluating, in a split second, all of the varying parameters. It also seems to be able to predict the outcomes of some actions.

We can decide to act in accordance with or against our conscience at any given moment.

This means that decisions and actions that are in accordance with the dictums of the individual’s conscience can lead to an evolution and refinement of conscience, as a result of feeling better about your actions. On the contrary, if one acts against one’s own conscience, it can lead to an “involution” and a feeling of having a “troubled conscience.” In such a case, the overall “director and judge” of the conscience becomes less distinct or even quiet; its voice cannot be “heard,” and it allows the lower instincts to gain the upper hand and to act accordingly. In this condition, a process begins that creates an inner “irritation”, or inner “itch”, that does not allow a moment of peace – like the Greek Furies chasing a guilty person.

If conscience comes under pressure from the basic instincts and becomes dulled, then the human being will descend more and more into an animal-like state and will then be forced to exclusively serve his own lower instincts. In this compromised state, the information that an individual receives is assessed and utilized according to what is commonly called “self-interest”, a term that has assumed the status of a “divine law” in modern times.

Experience has shown that those individuals who were raised in families with strong moral attitudes can very seldom bypass the dictates of their conscience – what philosophers call “synderesis.” Conscience, being speculated as the noblest function of our moral existence, constitutes the thread that keeps us in contact with our universal nature, the objective Truth, or synderesis.

Consequently, the definition of the “degree of conscience” anyone possesses can be determined as follows: it is the degree to which we participate in the objective Truth, namely the Good or the “Right/Just” –  the “Truth, Beauty, and Goodness” of the Greeks. Realistically speaking, humans probably cannot reach the absolute, but they can come closer to or go further from the absolute depending on the moral quality of their conscience.

Conscience attains a higher level only when the “common good” is put above “self-interest” – when selflessness is valued above selfishness. Examples of those who listened to and abided by their higher moral conscience are the saints and heroes who sacrificed their lives for others. Examples of those who ignore their higher voice of morality and developed a much lower level of conscience are people who deceive, oppress, and take advantage of others for their own personal benefit and feel no guilt – have turned off the inner voice of their moral dictums.

The decisions of people in positions of authority of all kinds depend on this individual state of conscience, whether their decisions will be destructive or constructive which sometimes affect a whole nation or the whole world. This evolution of conscience is an endless effort, one that goes on for as long as one lives; thus, conscience will never be defined as belonging to a certain part of the brain or as a chemically complex compound because the brain changes and evolves exactly because of those processes.

Modern thoughts about conscience are often devoid of spiritual, divine associations that can be found in some religions, like the ‘peoples of the book.’ The Bible tells us about the developing human conscience, which accordingly has been ‘written on the heart’ as the moral law of God. Instead of a psychologically learned habit, conscience is the actual ‘Voice of God’ speaking through the Cherubim the Truth of any matter. This association with such high spiritual beings is the source of that ‘writing on the heart’, and it is incumbent upon each of us to try and learn that “language of conscience written on the heart” so that we can communicate with divine hierarchical beings about how they are willing to help us grow into morally spiritual beings who can then predict the good or ill outcomes of our actions even before we act.

General Observations About Conscience

The Conscience:

  • involves a consciousness of the self rather than of others
  • draws on values to which one feels personally committed or that are “not necessarily shared by others”
  • is self-reflexive insofar as it suggests a “split person”
  • has secret knowledge which it shares with itself
  • original purpose was “retrospective” or judicial
  • later incorporated into its definition a “prospective” or legislative function
  • draws on general moral principles
  • chiefly concerned with their application to the specific circumstances
  • began as a secular concept
  • in the Christian tradition is regarded as susceptible to error
  • is generally cognitive in character
  • possesses motivating or affective power

Biblical Understanding of Conscience

According to most Christian religions, the conscience is fallible, and its standard moldable. The Holy Spirit, in contrast, is always in perfect harmony with God. Even though everyone has a conscience, only believers have the indwelling Spirit. The Holy Spirit has a profound influence on the conscience of a believer.

Christian’s believe conscience is an inner human faculty corrupted by sin and the Fall from Paradise and that the Holy Spirit is the divine agent God uses to begin His redemptive work in a believer. The Spirit takes someone who is dead in sin and darkened in their understanding; Ephesians 4:18 – “being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart”, to someone who has life and the eyes of their heart enlightened: Ephesians 1:17-18 – “That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him: The eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints.”

This transformation and renewal of our conscience is brought about as the Holy Spirit takes residence in our heart and begins to influence our inner being. Part of this divine influence is explained in 1 Corinthians 2 – “But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.”

Every conscience forms a standard based on the general revelation it receives from the Holy Spirit. This is the moral compass written on every man’s heart as we hear in Romans 2:14-15 – “Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.” But a believer’s conscience is largely different in the sense that it is a recipient of special revelation – able to understand the things of the Spirit of God.

The Christian Holy Spirit reveals God’s truth, and God’s truth renews our conscience. As the Spirit educates the believer’s conscience with the things of God, the personal standard formed by the conscience begins to align with the standard of higher Truth. As a result, the renewed inner man becomes increasingly in tune with the will of God.

Saint Paul is still able to boast on multiple occasions that his conscience is in agreement with godliness in 2 Corinthians 1:12 – “For our rejoicing is this, the testimony of our conscience, that in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom, but by the grace of God, we have had our conversation in the world, and more abundantly to you.” More than that, he confidently testified that his conscience was being convicted directly by the Spirit in Romans 9:1 – “I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost.”

A conscience led by the Spirit of God is a conscience captive by the Word of God. Martin Luther similarly stood confident in the conviction of his conscience, saying, “Unless I am convinced by sacred Scripture, or by evident reason, I cannot recant, for my conscience is held captive by the word of God, and to act against conscience is neither right nor safe.”

The Bible’s view of the kidney differs radically from the modern understanding. The kidneys were viewed as the seat of conscience and of ethical feelings and yearnings, and the source of mortality and ethical activity. The kidneys were believed to be associated with the innermost parts of the personality.

In Jeremiah and Psalms, the human kidneys are cited figuratively as the site of temperament, emotions, prudence, vigor, and wisdom. In five instances, they are mentioned as the organs examined by God to judge an individual. They are cited either before or after but always in conjunction with the heart as mirrors of the psyche of the person examined. There is also reference to the kidneys as the site of divine punishment for misdemeanors, committed or perceived, particularly in the book of Job, whose suffering and ailments are legendary. In the first vernacular versions of the Bible in English, the translators elected to use the term “reins” instead of kidneys in differentiating the metaphoric uses of human kidneys from that of their mention as anatomic organs. This has progressed further in recent versions of the Bible, in which the reins (kidneys) are now replaced by the soul or the mind.

In Hebrew tradition, they were considered to be the most important internal organs along with the heart. In the Old Testament most frequently the kidneys are associated with the most inner stirrings of emotional life. But they are also viewed as the seat of the secret thoughts of the human; they are used as an omen metaphor, as a metaphor for moral discernment, for reflection and inspiration and as a metaphor for the human life center.

Great Minds on the Idea of Conscience

“The voice of the heart is the moral conscience of the individual; a type of supersensible-organ that can perceive everything, both inner and outer.”   Tyla Gabriel, The Gospel of Sophia

“The heart speaks with the inner voice of conscience, audible only to each individual alone.” – Walter Holtzapfel, The Human Organs

“Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.” – George Washington

“It is neither right nor safe to go against my conscience.” – Martin Luther

“Science without conscience is the soul’s perdition.” – Francois Rabelais

“There is no witness so dreadful, no accuser so terrible as the conscience that dwells in the heart of every man.” – Polybius

“Conscience is the light by which we interpret the will of God in our own lives.” – Thomas Merton

“Science without conscience is only ruin of the soul.” – Francois Rabelais

“Keep Conscience clear, then never fear.” – Benjamin Franklin

“The Conscience is a thousand witnesses.” – Thomas Hobbes

“Alas, that we should be so unwilling to listen to the still and holy yearnings of the heart! A god whispers quite softly in our breast, softly yet audibly; telling us what we ought to seek and what to shun.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“I feel within me a peace above all earthly dignities, a still and quiet conscience.” – William Shakespeare

“The impressions projected into the physical Man by this Ego constitute what we call conscience. No one else’s opinion should be considered superior to the voice of one’s own conscience. Let that conscience, therefore, developed to its highest degree, guide us in all the ordinary acts of life.” – Helena P. Blavatsky

“A wicked conscience mouldeth goblins swift as frenzy thoughts.” – William Shakespeare

“My conscience hath a thousand several tongues, and every tongue brings in a several tale, and every tale condemns me for a villain. Perjury, perjury, in the high’st degree; Murder, stern murder in the dir’st degree, Throng to the bar, crying all, ‘Guilty!, guilty!’” – William Shakespeare

“Conscience is a blushing, shamefaced spirit than mutinies in a man’s bosom; it fills one full of obstacles.” – William Shakespeare

“Conscience is a thousand swords.” – William Shakespeare

“Just as love is felt as a heart-force; so conscience is the action of this heart-force resonating in harmony with the life of thought. This is the ‘still small voice’ spoken of in the Gospel of John – a golden seed planted from above – that must be nurtured. And so, the acts of will that freely arise through this heart-force – or negate it – will determine the totality of your character; and, as a result, your future life and being. For if you lack conscience, you are not yet truly human, not yet truly living; but only sleeping within an illusory dream of life. Within this dream you are but merely a shadow of life – waiting for humanness to arise – needlessly creating more pain and suffering for oneself and others.” – John Barnwell, On the Human Heart and its Mission

Emerson on Conscience

Some scholars believe that Emerson’s ideas on Conscience can be derived from his elaborate indications on the nature of Genius and Instinct combined. Instinct, for Emerson, brings the individual to the highest qualities of the human being becoming ‘celestial’, not those devolving into animality. Therefore, human instinct has a touch of what Emerson called ‘genius.’ In his words: “Genius is not personal, it is human, the Apotheosis of Man. High Genius is always moral, probity is its ground.” The higher moral nature of the human being is sung by Emerson’s praise of what the human body can teach the soul: “Every breath of air is a carrier of the soul of the world. And when once thy mind knows the law of so much as thine own body, thou hast nothing to learn from galaxies of stars.”

Emerson defines Conscience for us in his last work entitled, The Natural History of the Human Intellect.

“The obedience to a man’s genius is the particular of faith, and obedience to the moral laws the universal of faith. Whoever attempts to carry out the rule of right and love and freedom must take his life in his hand. He stands for truth, and Truth and Nature help him unexpectedly and irresistibly at every step.”

“Men of character are the conscience of the society to which they belong.”

“Broader and deeper we must write our annals, from an ethical reformation, from an influx of the ever new, ever sanative conscience…”   

Emerson goes further in describing Instinct with the following ideas taken from the same lectures:

“The day comes when each man detects that there is somewhat in him that knows more than he does. A certain dumb [silent] life in life, a simple wisdom behind all acquired wisdom; somewhat not educated or educable, not altered or alterable, a Mother Wit which does not learn by experience, or by books, but knew it all already; makes no progress; does not know more for living long, but was wise in youth as in age. More or less clouded, it yet resides the same in all, saying Aye or No to every proposition. Yet its grand Aye and it grand No are more musical than all eloquence. Nobody has found the limits of its knowledge. What objects soever is brought before it is already well known to it. It judges not by quantity, or by form, but by quality. Its justice is perfect; its look is catholic and universal; its light ubiquitous like that of the sun. It does not put forth organs, but rests in presence. Yet, trusted and obeyed in happy natures, it becomes active and salient, and makes new means for its great ends.

This [Instinct] never pretends. Nothing seems less, nothing is more. Ask what the Instinct [Conscience] declares and we have little to say: He is no newsmonger, no disputant, no talker. Tis a taper, a spark in the great night, yet a spark at which all the illumination of human arts and sciences was kindled. This is that glimmer of inextinguishable light by which men are guided. Though it does not show objects, yet shows the way. This is that sense by which men feel when they are wronged, though they do not see how. This is the source of thought and feeling which acts on masses of men, – on all men at certain times, – with resistless power. Ever at intervals leaps a word or fact to light, which in no man’s invention, but the common instinct, making the revolutions which never go back.

None of the metaphysicians has prospered in describing this power, which constitutes sanity and is the corrector of private excesses and mistakes, public in all its regards, and of a balance which is never lost, not even in the insane. It works by tendency, by surprise, by long bias; its source is deep as the world. This is Instinct, and Inspiration is only the Power excited, breaking its silence; the spark bursting into flame. It belongs to all. It is in the secret of the world. It is in strictest alliance with moral nature: it proceeds from that. It is that which opens to each soul accordingly as it is obeyed, and hereby all contradictions are reconciled. The truth is seen by one mind. ‘A sacred fire without form, shining with a leaping splendor through the profundities of the whole world.’ Wherever the intellect acts, there is an oracle.”

Rudolf Steiner’s Thoughts on Conscience

The following extracts are taken from selections of Rudolf Steiner’s lectures and books that address the origin, nature, and the future development of conscience in relationship to human spiritual evolution. The complete quotation of each extract can be found in the similar quotation in the section below entitled, Rudolf Steiner’s Indications Concerning Conscience.

Rudolf Steiner describes Conscience as:

  • the pangs of conscience that radiate into our consciousness are what is reflected by the heart from our experiences
  • prickles of conscience that stream into our consciousness are the content of our experiences reflected by the heart
  • in logical thinking we experience above all a kind of conscience, and by developing that we establish in the soul (heart) a certain sense of responsibility towards truth and untruth
  • all stirrings of conscience occur at the transition from the emotions to intuition
  • we have now described conceptual intuition as the highest motive – the expression of this voice is conscience
  • that precious possession of the human soul, which speaks like the voice of God in each individual man or woman, warning them of good or evil
  • entered the human soul at about the same time as the Christ Impulse
  • permeation of the Sentient-Soul with the sense of self (the ego-sense) has grown into man’s conscience
  • speaks in the same way in the simplest and most primitive of men, as it does in the most complex soul
  • it says quite simply: that is right! that is wrong! without any theory or dogma
  • speaks like a voice from God, urging man to do what is right that he may press up to the higher ego
  • speaks like an urging impulse; but it is not an impulse
  • speaks with the same power as does the Spiritual-Soul itself when it appears – but yet with elemental, original forces
  • the presence of conscience cannot be denied
  • reveals whether we shall be horrified or happy when we are able to behold our actions in the realm of spirit
  • is a presentiment that reveals prophetically how we shall experience our deeds after death
  • are living signs of the spiritual world
  • begins to enable him to behold the spiritual world consciously
  • a wonderful regulator for the soul life
  • appears to every individual as something holy in the human breast
  • speaks with elemental power in the human soul and is heard by the individual as saying “This you must do, and that you must leave alone”, long before we learn to form ideas concerning good and evil and thus begin to formulate moral precepts
  • a faculty which comes to the fore by degrees and has to be acquired by man’s own endeavors
  • a most sacred individual possession, inviolable by the external world, whose voice enables us to determine our direction and our goal
  • when conscience speaks, no other voice may intrude
  • able to implant itself in the soul’s existence, in community with the Divine-Spiritual world during sleep
  • takes place – albeit as a pure process of soul and spirit – in the metabolic and limbs-system
  • is a power whereby the human being transcends what he is in the physical body
  • is a power whereby the human being is led out beyond the sphere of his impulses, his likes and dislikes
  • can clearly be traced to a certain period of Greek culture
  • in the works of Aeschylus, what we call “conscience” played no part; there were only remembrances of the avenging Furies, and not until we come to the works of Euripides is there any clear expression of “conscience” as we know it now
  • arose only very gradually during the Graeco-Latin epoch
  • which from the time of the Mystery of Golgotha until the goal of the Earth is attained, lives in and inspires the souls of men, weaves the Physical Body of Christ
  • appears quite late, and in the language of the earlier Greeks no word for it exists. The same thing is true of the early periods of other civilizations.
  • came only gradually to be recognized
  • developed fairly late in human evolution
  • is therefore the outcome of experiences spread over a number of incarnations
  • binds itself to the etheric body, becoming in time a permanent characteristic of it because the astral body has been so often convinced that this or that ‘would not do’
  • speaks to us from depths that thinking can never reach
  • occur at the transition from the emotions to intuition
  • actually lives in the world of the Cherubim
  • was at first outside, then entered into the soul and became one of the forces now within it
  • replaced the astral perception of the Furies
  • is a flame of volition in humans that is perpendicular to the earth
  • is something that exists as a standard for our own actions when we go too far in our demands, when we seek our own gain too much
  • acts as a standard placed between our sympathies and antipathies
  • is that which shall set to work as a regulator in the Consciousness or Spiritual-Soul
  • is the mirroring within our inner being of the real spiritual world which weaves and breathes throughout the world of the senses

Novalis on Conscience

“The universe breaks down into an infinite number of worlds, each in turn contained by larger ones. In the end, all minds are one mind. One mind like one world gradually leads to all worlds, but everything has its own time and its own manner. Only the universe as person can understand the relations of our world. Even conscience, this power which generates the universe and meaning, this germ of all personality, appears to me to be like the spirit of the world poem, like the accident of the eternal, romantic confluence of the endlessly changeable totality of life.

The Conscience appears in every perfection, in every fashioned truth. Every inclination and ability transformed by reflection into a universal type becomes a phenomenon, phase of Conscience. All formation tends to that which can only be called Freedom; though by that is not meant an idea, but the creative realm of all being. Such freedom is mastery. To speak accurately, this all-embracing freedom is the essence, the impulse of Conscience. In it is revealed the sacred individuality, the immediate creation of Personality, and every action of the master is at once the announcement of the lofty, simple, uncomplicated world – God’s word. Conscience is the innate mediator of every man. It takes the place of God upon earth, and is therefore to many the highest and the final judge.  But how far was former knowledge, called ethics, from the pure shape of this lofty, comprehensive, personal thought. Conscience is the individual essence of the human race fully glorified, the divine archetype of Man.”  

From: Heinrich von Afterdingen, by Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenburg)  

Thomas Aquinas on the Human Conscience

Aquinas played a significant role in clarifying the concept of conscience and the theoretical problems connected with it. Aquinas assigned to “synderesis” [the person’s moral inclination shaping her understanding] principally a cognitive role. He argued that human beings have a fundamental grasp of right and wrong, which is infallible. Aquinas connected synderesis to natural law, identifying the first practical principles, of which synderesis is the habit, with the general principles of natural law. He occasionally replaced the word synderesis by the term understanding (intellectus), the intellectual virtue of grasping the first principles of reason in his Summa Theologiae. Aquinas understood the directives of synderesis as formal principles, not as concrete moral norms, as habitual knowledge. Conscience is the consideration of a specific case in light of one’s moral knowledge. Moral knowledge comprises the first principles of synderesis, as well as more particular moral directives. For Aquinas, the distinction of generally good, evil, and indifferent acts does not have any bearing on when erring conscience binds and when it does not. Aquinas argued that the binding character of conscience, whether erring or not, means that acting against conscience is always evil.

Aquinas conceived conscience as an act of ordering knowledge – some universal and some particular – to an act, whether past, present, or future. Conscience directs future acts, and regarding past acts, can accuse or excuse. Synderesis turns human nature to good and objects to evil. It gives awareness of the principles of morality to be applied to actions. Synderesis concerns knowing the principles applicable to all actions, and conscience applies knowledge to a specific act. Thus, conscience comes from synderesis. But conscience has limits and can be wrong and need correction. A mistaken conscience does not stop a person’s orientation to the truth, and error can be fixed. Conscience and God’s law both bind for Aquinas, not because conscience is perfect or reason is independent of the law, but because conscience mediates God’s norms to humans doing a particular action. This is done through the application of synderesis, which is always ordered to moral truth, meaning to God.

From: Summa Theologica, by Thomas Aquinas

Conscience acts as a “witness” when it is consciously aware of some personal wrongdoing, whether of commission or omission. It “binds” or “incites” when it makes a judgement that some act should be performed. Finally, it “accuses”, “torments” or “rebukes” when it judges that some past action was either morally acceptable or it was not. Although it is difficult to see how conscience in the first sense – conscience as witness – can function as an application of knowledge to conduct, this seems less problematic in the second and third senses of the term, which harken back to the legislative and judicial senses of conscience found in St. Paul’s writings. Regardless of whether my action is objectively good, evil or indifferent, conscience binds, for it is by means of conscience that an action is proposed to me as good, bad, or indifferent.”

Socrates’ Divine Inner Voice – Daemon

Socrates often mentions that he is guided by a daemon, a kind of divine spirit, oracle, or “sign,” that takes the form of an “inner voice” or non-vocal nudge. The guide never tells Socrates what to do; it only indicates when Socrates is not to do something. Socrates learned over time to listen to this inner divine voice. He acted in service to it. Nothing that he does in his life is untouched by this inner divine voice. He describes it in the Apology: “You have heard me speak at sundry times and in diverse places of an oracle or sign which comes to me, and is the divinity which Meletus ridicules in the indictment. This sign, which is a kind of voice, first began to come to me when I was a child; it always forbids but never commands me to do anything which I am going to do. This is what deters me from being a politician.”

We can define the Greek idea of the daemon in many ways: god, godlike, power, fate, lesser deity, or guiding spirit derived from Greek religion, Mythology, and philosophy. Daemons were possibly seen as the souls of men of the Golden Age acting as tutelary deities, lesser divinities, or spirits, often personifications of abstract concepts, beings of the same nature as both mortals and deities, similar to ghosts, chthonic heroes, spirit guides, forces of nature, or the deities themselves, as found in Plato’s Symposium.

According to Hesiod’s myth, “…great and powerful figures were to be honored after death as a daemon.” In Hesiod’s Theogony, Phaeton becomes an incorporeal daemon or a divine spirit and the people of the Golden Age were transformed into daemons by the will of Zeus, to serve mortals benevolently as their guardian spirits; “good beings who dispense riches, nevertheless, they remain invisible, known only by their acts.” The daemons of venerated heroes were localized by the construction of shrines, so as not to wander restlessly, and were believed to confer protection and good fortune on those offering their respects.

Plato taught that a daemon existed within a person from their birth, and that each individual was obtained by a singular daemon prior to their birth by way of drawing a lot. In Plato’s Symposium, the priestess Diotima teaches Socrates that love is not a deity, but rather a “great daemon. She goes on to explain that “everything daemonic is between divine and mortal,” and she describes daemons as “interpreting and transporting human things to the gods and divine things to men; entreaties and sacrifices from below, and ordinances and requitals from above.”

In Plato’s Apology of Socrates, Socrates claimed to have a daemon (a “divine something”) that frequently warned him – in the form of a “voice” – against mistakes but never told him what to do. By this he seems to indicate the true nature of the human soul, his newfound self-consciousness; somewhat of a kind of spiritual tact checking Socrates from any act opposed to his true moral and intellectual interests.”

Regarding the charge brought against Socrates in 399, Plato surmised “Socrates does wrong because he does not believe in the gods in whom the city believes, but introduces other daemonic beings.” This confusion concerning the budding consciousness of the human conscience shows the developmental nature of the evolution of conscience. The conscience is beginning to be acknowledged in Greek times as a part of the human soul. Or, as Heraclitus said: “character is for man his daemon.”

In the ancient Greek religion, daemon is a peculiar mode of activity: it is an occult power that drives humans forward or acts against them like the Furies chasing a guilty soul. Since the  human daemon is the veiled countenance of divine activity, every deity can act through or as a  daemon, much like the divine acting through the spiritual hierarchy.

For Plato, the daemon is a spiritual being who watches over each individual, and is tantamount to a higher self, or an angel. While Plato is called ‘divine’ by Neoplatonists, Aristotle is regarded as ‘daemonios’, meaning ‘an intermediary to deities[daemons].’

For Proclus, daemons are the intermediary beings located between the celestial objects and the terrestrial inhabitants. Somewhat like a messenger, which is the original meaning for angel.

The Greeks divided daemons into good and evil categories. They sometimes resemble the Arabic  genii in their humble efforts to help mediate the good and ill fortunes of human life. They also resemble the Christian Guardian Angels and the adversarial powers of evil called Satan and Lucifer. The comparable Roman concept is the “genius” who accompanies and protects a person.

Xenocrates explicitly understood daemons as ranged along a scale from good to bad. Plutarch speaks of “great and strong beings in the atmosphere, malevolent and morose, who rejoice in unlucky days, religious festivals involving violence against the self.” Pythagoreans believed: “The whole air is full of souls. We call them daemons and heroes, and it is they who send dreams, signs, and illnesses to men. It is towards these daemons that we direct purifications and holy rites, all kinds of divination, the art of reading chance utterances, and so on.”

In the Greek ‘ruler cult’ that began with Alexander the Great, it was not the ruler but his guiding daemon that was venerated. In the Archaic or early Classical period, the daemon had been internalized for each person whom it served to guide, motivate, and inspire, as one possessed of such good spirits. Similarly, the first-century Roman imperial cult began by venerating the ‘genius’ or ‘numen’ of the Caesars.

Daemons scarcely figure in Greek mythology or Greek art: they are felt, but their unseen presence can only be presumed by the individual inwardly. 

In the Old Testament, evil spirits appear in the book of Judges and in Kings. The use of the idea of the daemon in the New Testament’s original Greek text caused the Greek word to be applied to the Judeo-Christian concept of an “evil spirit” by the early second century AD. Thus, the daemon faded into the Christian concepts of a conscience that is the “Voice of God” in the heart of the human being or an evil spirit tempting the soul.

Rudolf Steiner gives us many prose and poetic descriptions of conscience. He describes its origins, nature, and future development in relationship to human spiritual evolution in many of his lectures and books. We have extracted some of the most poignant remarks and present them in the selections below.

Rudolf Steiner’s Indications Concerning Conscience

The “Place” of Conscience

The Philosophy of Freedom, by Rudolf Steiner, GA 4

“We described the stage of characterological disposition that works as pure thinking, or practical reason, as the highest. We have now described conceptual intuition as the highest motive. The expression of this voice is conscience.”

Therapeutic Insights: Earthly and Cosmic Laws, by Rudolf Steiner, Lecture IV, July 2, 1921, GA 205

Something is reflected from the surface of the heart that is no longer merely a matter of habit or memory but is life that is already spiritualized when it reaches the outer surface of the heart. For what is thrown back from the heart are the pangs of conscience. This is to be considered, I would like to say, entirely from the physical aspect: the pangs of conscience that radiate into our consciousness are what is reflected by the heart from our experiences. Spiritual cognition of the heart teaches us this.”

An Occult Physiology, by Rudolf Steiner, March, 1911, GA 128

The prickles of the conscience are thrown back by the heart, which can be interpreted entirely as a physical phenomenon; prickles of conscience that stream into our consciousness are the content of our experiences, reflected by the heart. This teaches us about the spiritual knowledge of the heart. The processes of life become spiritualized as they complete their reflection on the outside wall of the heart.

Forming of Destiny, The Need for Understanding The Christ, Rudolf Steiner, Lecture I, Prague, April 28-29, 1923, GA 224

“It must be said that the combustion processes in man are altogether different from those in the animal. When the flame of the organic being works horizontally, it destroys what comes out of conscience; there cannot work into this what is derived from the moral out of conscience. The fact that, in the case of the human being, these processes are streamed through by the conscience is due to the fact that the flame of volition in man is perpendicular to the earth. Within this striking in of the moral, of the nature of conscience, the child places himself just as into the external posture of balance. Together with the learning to walk, there darts into man the moral human nature – indeed, the religious permeation of the nature of man.

Wisdom of the Spirit, Pneumatosophy, Lecture III, Imagination – Inspiration – Self-fulfillment,  Intuition – Conscience, by Rudolf Steiner, December 15, 1911, GA 115

“When this has been intensified to the point of its full potentiality in life, this transition reveals what we can call the human conscience. All stirrings of conscience occur at the transition from the emotions to intuition. If we seek the location of conscience, we find it at this transition. The soul is really open laterally on the side of imagination and on that of intuition, but it is closed on the side where we encounter the impact, as it were, of outer corporeality through perception. It achieves a certain fulfillment in the realm of imagination, and another when it enters the realm of intuition – in the latter case through an event.

What Does the Modern Human Being Find in Theosophy?, by Rudolf Steiner, Berlin, March 8, 1904, GA 52

“I want to mention another phenomenon, the conscience. This phenomenon is inexplicable at first. It becomes immediately clear to us if we look at its development. If we know that every soul shows a particular level of development, then we admit that the urge for figure lives in the undeveloped soul. However, if the spirit has drawn the soul to itself, has united more and more with it, the spirit speaks at any moment of sympathy and antipathy. The human being hears the spirit speaking from his soul; he perceives this as the voice of conscience. This conscience can appear only on a particular level of the human development. We never see the voice of conscience with primitive peoples. Later when the soul has gone through different personalities, the mind speaks to the soul.

What we call ‘conscience’ is nothing else than the outcome of the work of the Ego on the life-body through incarnation after incarnation. When man begins to perceive that he ought not to do this or that, and when this perception makes so strong an impression on him that the impression passes on into his etheric body, ‘conscience’ arises.

We must be quite clear what it is that can work upon the etheric body from without. The formation and growth of the etheric body means the molding and developing of the inclinations and habits, of the conscience, the character, the memory, and temperament.”

Health and Illness, Volume II, Lecture I, Fever Versus Shock, Pregnancy, by Rudolf Steiner, Dornach, 1922-23, GA 348

“I have told you this before, though it sounds remarkable: when the ancient Jews of the Old Testament had bad thoughts during the night, they did not blame the bad, unhealthy thoughts on their heads but on their kidneys. When they said, “This night God has affected my kidneys,” they were more correct than today’s medicine. The ancient Jews also said that God reveals Himself to man not through man’s head but directly through the activity of his kidneys and generally through his abdominal activity.”

Health and Illness, Volume II, Lecture V, The Effect of Nicotine, Vegetarian and Meat Diets, by Rudolf Steiner, GA 348

“The next consequence of a thickened heart is that the kidneys become ill, since it is due to the harmonious activities of heart and kidneys that the entire human bodily organization is kept functioning properly. The heart and kidneys must always work in harmony. Naturally, everything in the human being must harmonize, but the heart and kidneys are directly connected. It quickly becomes apparent that when something is amiss in the heart, the kidneys no longer function properly.”

Conscience Arises From Cherubim in Our Blood

The First Class, by Rudolf Steiner, Vol. II: Lesson 13, Dornach, May 17, 1924

“The voice of conscience calls out in an indeterminate way to human consciousness. Usually we do not rightly know what it is – in respect to our moral-psychological comportment – that comes from the mysterious depths of our souls and which we call the voice of conscience. With normal consciousness one does not penetrate so deeply into one’s own being as to reach the voice of conscience. It ascends, but man does not reach it, so he does not look at it face to face.

And when man penetrates meditatively to the distant world of the Cherubim, the wisdom filled beings who live and act throughout the universe, he makes the great discovery that from the world of the Cherubim an impulse enters into him within which the voice of conscience lives. Oh, the voice of conscience is of high origin, high being. It actually lives in the world of the Cherubim. From that world of the Cherubim it weaves itself into humanity and at first resounds from the depths of this humanity in an indeterminate way. But it is a great, mighty encounter when man, through intuition, can come into contact with the field of the Cherubim and encounter the world where his conscience lives and works. It is the greatest personal discovery anyone can make.

In truth it is the spirit from the field of the Cherubim that circulates in the blood that constitutes the voice of conscience. The blood is physical in all the parts of our bodies; but in that it is physical in all the parts of our bodies, it carries the voice of conscience, along with other things. And the waves of Cherubim life interweave in our blood.”

Origin of Conscience

At the Gates of Spiritual Science, Lecture VIII, Individual Karmic Questions, by Rudolf Steiner, Stuttgart, August 22 to September 4, 1906, GA 95

“It is interesting to inquire whether in the historical evolution of mankind there has always been something comparable to what we call conscience. We find that in the earliest times, language had no word for it. In Greek literature it appears quite late, and in the language of the earlier Greeks no word for it exists. The same thing is true of the early periods of other civilizations. We may conclude, then, that the idea of conscience, in a more or less conscious form, came only gradually to be recognized. Conscience has developed fairly late in human evolution.

Conscience is therefore the outcome of experiences spread over a number of incarnations. Fundamentally, all knowledge, from the highest to the lowest, is the outcome of what a man has experienced; it has come into being as a result of trial and error. A motive such as conscience binds itself to the etheric body, becoming in time a permanent characteristic of it because the astral body has been so often convinced that this or that would not do.”

The Riddle of Humanity, The Spiritual Background of Human History, by Rudolf Steiner, Dornach, Lecture XII, August 27, 1916, GA 170

“Up to the end of the Moon period, and on into Earth times, we still lived with the beings of the higher hierarchies in that spiritual world over yonder. In passing through the gates of the senses, we have left it behind. But not everything that our souls developed when we felt ourselves in the company of the beings of the higher hierarchies has been lost to us. We still carry an unconscious remnant with us. Among many other things, this unconscious remnant is also the basis of conscience. This is another way of viewing conscience. The whole of conscience is still inherited from the spiritual world. Only gradually, as we learn to understand the world once more and as we learn how to grasp it spiritually, will we discover a body of moral principles that will shed light on the more instinctive morality that is based on conscience. A morality that is increasingly filled with light will emerge – but, as it goes without saying, only if humanity searches for it!

In passing through the gates of the senses, we have left the spiritual world behind. But not everything that our souls developed when we felt ourselves in the company of the beings of the higher hierarchies has been lost to us. We still carry an unconscious remnant with us. Among many other things, this unconscious remnant is also the basis of conscience. This is another way of viewing conscience. The whole of conscience is still inherited from the spiritual world.”

Macrocosm and Microcosm, Organs of Spiritual Perception, Thinking of the Heart, by Rudolf Steiner, March 29, 1910, GA 119  

“A spiritual organ develops in the neighborhood of the heart, the twelve-petalled lotus-flower. This organ becomes a kind of organ of thinking in one who achieves inner development, and this thinking of the heart is very different from ordinary thinking. In logical thinking we experience above all a kind of conscience, and by developing that we establish in the soul (heart) a certain sense of responsibility towards truth and untruth, without which nothing can be achieved in the higher worlds. Anyone who wants to undergo higher development must for a certain time also undergo training in logical thinking and then discard it in order to pass over to thinking with the heart.

Within intuition, then, we are dealing with the governing will. When this has been intensified to the point of its full potentiality in life, this transition reveals what we can call the human conscience. All stirrings of conscience occur at the transition from the emotions to intuition. If we seek the location of conscience, we find it at this transition. The soul is really open laterally on the side of imagination and on that of intuition, but it is closed on the side where we encounter the impact, as it were, of outer corporeality through perception. It achieves a certain fulfillment in the realm of imagination, and another when it enters the realm of intuition – in the latter case through an event.

Reincarnation and Karma, Origin and Goal of the Human Being, by Rudolf Steiner, Lecture III, Berlin, October 20, 1904, GA 53

“I would like to tell a phenomenon in addition, this is the phenomenon that we can exactly indicate the point in the European history of civilization where one speaks of conscience first. If you follow the whole ancient Greek world and trace the descriptions and accounts, you do not find a word, not even in the ancient Greek language, for conscience. One had no word for it. It may be especially remarkable to hear what Plato tells us about Socrates. In all Socratic dialogues the word is not yet included which appeared in Greece later only in the last century before Christ. Some think that the daimonion (daemon) is conscience. However, this can easily disproved, and, hence, it cannot be considered seriously. We find conscience only in the Christian world. There is a drama trilogy, the Oresteia by Aeschylus. If you pursue these this drama, you see that Orestes stands under the immediate impression of the matricide. He has murdered his mother because she killed his father. Now it is shown to us how Orestes is persecuted by the Furies, and it is shown how he turns to the court and the court acquits him. Nothing else appears than the concept of the gods taking revenge externally. There the process expresses itself in the fear of external powers. Nothing of that exists which the concept of conscience includes.

Then Sophocles and then Euripides follow. With them Orestes faces us quite differently. Why he feels guilty, this faces us here in another way. With these poets Orestes feels guilty because he now owns knowledge to have done something wrong. And from it the word conscience forms in Greek and also in Latin. Having a knowledge of one’s own action, being able to observe oneself, being with one’s own action, this must have developed first.

The Christ Impulse and the Development of the Ego-Consciousness, The Sphere of the Bodhisattvas, Rudolf Steiner, Lecture I, Berlin, October 25, 1909, GA 116

“We can, so to speak, prove historically that there was a beginning to the time when men began to speak of conscience. When this was, is clearly evident. It lay between the periods of two tragic poets: Aeschylos, who was born in the sixth century before our era, and Euripides, who was born in the fifth century. You will find no mention of conscience previous to this. Even in Aeschylos you will not as yet find what could be called the “inner voice”; what he writes of, still took the form of an astral, pictorial apparition; the Furies or Erinyes, vengeful beings, appeared to men. The time came, however, when the astral perception of the Furies was replaced by the inner voice of conscience. Even in the Graeco-Latin period, in which a dim astral perception was still present, a man who had committed a wrong could perceive that every wrong act created astral forms in his environment, whose presence filled him with anxiety and fear as to what he had done. Those forms were man’s educators at that time; they gave him his impulses. When he lost the last remains of his astral clairvoyance, this perception was replaced by the invisible voice of conscience; that means, that what was at first outside, then entered into the soul and became one of the forces now within it.

Human History in the Light of Spiritual Research, Human History, Present, and Future in the Light of Spiritual Science, by Rudolf Steiner, Berlin, February 1, 1912, GA 61

The Greeks gave what appears as an ego-worldview with a miraculous characteristic saying, ‘it begins with marveling.’ However, the dream still lacks another thing. While dreaming we can do the most unbelievable things, and never conscience torments us. Conscience belongs to the ego-consciousness. It appeared only when the ego-consciousness developed. One can prove this, while one compares, for example, the dramas of Aeschylus and Euripides. With Aeschylus there is never talk of conscience, but with Euripides the conscience already plays a role. Conscience appears together with the ego-consciousness in the human development, and dreams lack conscience, it is only an heirloom of the old clairvoyant consciousness.

Strengthening Conscience

The Original Impulse of Spiritual Science, Karma and Details of the Laws of Karma, Rudolf Steiner, Berlin, October 15, 1906, GA 96

“A certain concept that can be explained in the light of karma, is particularly important here. It is the concept of conscience. What arises from a man’s conscience is equally something that has been acquired. He has a conscience, an instinct for what is good, right, and true only because in his past lives, in his experiences during life, in his moral principles, he has molded this conscience. You can provide for the strengthening and enhancement of conscience if you undertake every day to deepen your moral conceptions. Moral conceptions become conscience in the next life and the one after that.”

Conscience and Thinking

Preparing for a New Birth, by Rudolf Steiner, Stuttgart, June 21, 1923, GA 224

“If we consider our moral existence, and the voice of conscience, we can tell ourselves that this conscience speaks to us from depths that thinking can never reach. We may feel all the more inclined to such a view when we see that even the most highly trained thinking, schooled in accordance with normal life, cannot arrive at the moral impulses of a simple, unschooled conscience.

Certainly the voice of conscience, the feeling of compassion, come from inexpressibly deeper sources than our thoughts. Yet these impulses that well up from the depths only find their right place in the human sphere when they are permeated by thought. The voice of conscience, too, only finds its true value by living within our thoughts, so that we clothe in thoughts what the voice of conscience says.

Human Conscience Builds Christ’s Physical Body

Experiential Knowledge of the Supersensible, Ancient Wisdom and the Herald of the Christ Impulse, by Rudolf Steiner, Cologne, Lecture X, May, 1912, GA

“A third force which flows into the human soul as if from a higher world, to which man submits, to which he attributes a higher significance than that of his own individual moral instincts, is conscience. With man’s conscience Christ is most intimately united. From the impulses which spring from the conscience of individual human souls Christ draws his physical body.

The reality of an utterance in the Bible becomes very clear when we know that the etheric body of Christ is formed from men’s feelings of compassion and love: ‘What ye have done unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me’ – for to the end of the Earth’s evolution Christ forms His etheric body out of men’s compassion and love. As He forms His astral body out of wonder and astonishment, His physical body out of conscience, so does He form His etheric body out of men’s feelings of compassion and love.

Faith – Love – Conscience

Anthroposophical Ethics, Lecture III, by Rudolf Steiner, Norrkoping, May 30, 1912, GA 155

“It can be shown that in the old Greek dramas, for instance in Aeschylus, the Furies play a role which in Euripides is transformed into conscience. From this we see that in very ancient times what we call conscience did not exist at all. Conscience is something that exists as a standard for our own actions when we go too far in our demands, when we seek our own gain too much. It acts as a standard placed between our sympathies and antipathies.

Life-wisdom, that which originates in ourselves, we must feel as a divine spiritual regulator which, like conscience, leads securely along the true middle course. Conscience is that which shall set to work as a regulator in the Consciousness or Spiritual-Soul. Faith, love, conscience; these three stars shall be the three moral forces which shall enter into human souls particularly through Anthroposophy. The moral perspective of the future can only be disclosed to those who think of these three virtues being ever more increased.

Conscience – The Voice of God

The Christ Impulse: Lecture 6: The Birth of Conscience, Rudolf Steiner, Berlin, May 2, 1910, GA 116

“The question of the human conscience is one that must stir the very depths of our souls. For centuries philosophers and thinkers the whole world over, have been more interested in this subject than in any other. With regard to the phenomenon of conscience one might easily succumb to the illusion of believing that everything to be found in the human soul to-day, was always to be found there. The human conscience too, – that precious possession of the human soul, which speaks like the voice of God in each individual man or woman, warning them of good or evil – even this precious gift was not always in man’s inner being. Conscience, too, is something that has developed. And indeed it is not so very long ago, comparatively speaking, that the human conscience announced its presence, since when it has developed more and more. Yet precious as this possession is to us, it is not intended that it should continue to live in the human soul in all the ages yet to come, just in its present form. It will develop further, and take different forms; it will discover itself as something which man had to acquire, and which will bear fruit. And in later ages, when these fruits are his, it will be something upon which man can look back, saying: There once was a time when, in the course of my passage through the different incarnations, I was able to embody into my soul that which is now my conscience, and I am now enjoying the fruits of that! Just as we now look back at a time when our souls were in other incarnations and did not possess what we call conscience, so in later times our souls will look back at the present time and exclaim: Hail to that past! Thanks for the gifts which in the past became our human conscience! If we had not then been able to develop a human conscience in our souls, we should now lack what we need for our present life!

From this we see that conscience forms part of the treasures of the soul at the present time, and if we understand something of the nature and being of the human conscience it gives us a sort of understanding of our age, and of its psychic life. Man’s conscience came into being; that is a fact we have often referred to in various connections. If we go back a few centuries into ancient Greece, about five hundred years before the Christian era, we come to the great poet, Aeschylos. When we let the personages depicted by the mighty genius of the old Greek dramatist work upon us, we do not find what is to-day called conscience, or at any rate not designated by that name. Five hundred years before the Christian era the greatest dramatist then existing had no words to express what we now call the human conscience. If he wanted to express that process in the human soul which corresponds to what we now call conscience, he had to do so in this way: – If a man committed the sin of murdering his mother, he was, through the might of the event made to see into the Spiritual worlds and there he perceived certain figures, which were known to the ancient Greek as the Erinyes and later to the Romans as the Furies. Thus, according to Aeschylos, a man who had committed the evil deed of murdering his mother, did not, as he would to-day, hear the reproachful voice of conscience in his inner being; but something drove him to spiritual vision, and he saw around him figures, the avengers of his deed. At the time of Aeschylos this only appeared in special cases. For instance, it became clairvoyant when it was to see what it had brought about in the physical world by its wrong-doing. The soul of Orestes became clairvoyant after the murder of his mother. He then saw the spirits he had aroused in the spiritual world by his deed. They encompassed his soul on all sides. There was nothing of the nature of conscience in his soul; but a clairvoyant consciousness set in, enabling him to see the disorder brought about in the spiritual world by his wrong-doing. In olden times we find that when an evil deed was accomplished, no voice of conscience was heard, for in those days the soul was in a clairvoyant condition and could see what came about in the external world in consequence of a wrong.

What is it then that occurs when a wrong is done? Something is brought about by ourselves in the spiritual world. It is a purely materialistic belief that a wrong can take place without anything taking place in the spiritual world; it produces quite definite processes therein, – effects radiate from us which, though invisible to sense perception can be clearly seen by spiritual sight. These spiritual processes, radiating from one who has done wrong, provide nourishment for certain Spiritual beings who are actually present in the spiritual world. Such beings cannot approach man at all times; they can only do so when the radiations resulting from evil actions emanate from him. The moment a man radiates certain spiritual emanations as a result of his evil action, he is surrounded by beings who feed on them. These are the beings whom Aeschylos, the great Greek dramatist, depicts around Orestes. What we today know as the inner voice, Aeschylos represented in external forms because he was so conscious of it; for he knew that in special cases, a certain clairvoyant consciousness which was formerly the common possession of all men, could still be aroused.

We need only trace Greek Art a little further, from Aeschylos to Euripides, who in his tragedies shows us that he already had the idea of conscience. In ancient Greece we can see how the idea of conscience gradually came into being during the last five hundred years before Christ. Look where you will in the old Testament for a word corresponding to what we to-day call conscience: you will not find one. Conscience, as a quality, drew into the human soul; and if, instead of contemplating short spans of time we look at great periods, we see that conscience entered the human soul at about the same time as the Christ Impulse. We might say that conscience followed close on the Christ Impulse; it entered the historical development of the world almost like the shadow of that Impulse. In order to understand this, we must call to mind much that we have learned in the course of past years and make it fruitful for our understanding of what the human conscience really is.

Because of this a force had been developed in the soul of man, together with the Sentient Soul, which could only have been developed through the Sentient-Soul being permeated with the ego-feeling while still quite virginal and uninfluenced by other civilizations. This permeation of the Sentient-Soul with the sense of self (the ego-sense) has grown into man’s conscience. This accounts for the wonderful innocence of conscience! How does it speak? It speaks in the same way in the simplest and most primitive of men, as it does in the most complex soul. It says quite simply: that is right! that is wrong! without any theory or dogma. When it says: that is right, or that is wrong, what it tells us works with the might of an instinct or an urge. You will only find it developed in this way in the West. Therefore it throws its first rays like a rosy dawn, towards Greece and from thence towards Rome, where indeed we find it very strongly developed. We first meet with the word conscience, – conscientia – in the works of the Roman writers. Whereas among the Greeks we only find the first sporadic hints of it in Euripides, we find the Romans quite familiar with it, it had then become a word in general use. This is because of the influence of that strain of culture which came into being through the mutual inter-permeation of the Sentient-Soul and ego-feeling; for the ego-feeling, which lifts men up from the lowest to the highest, already speaks in the Sentient-Soul, – in which hitherto nothing spoke but instincts, desires, and passions, – and speaks there like a voice from God, urging man to do what is right that he may press up to the higher ego.

In this way we can trace the first rise of conscience among the peoples of Europe. From thence it spreads its rays abroad to the other peoples of the Earth. Thus through a wise world-guidance, the humanity in one part of the world was so prepared that conscience could be added as a contribution to the whole collective development of humanity. We have now mentioned everything that can throw light upon conscience. We mentioned that indefinable attribute of conscience, its pressing forth from the depths of the soul. Conscience speaks like an urging impulse; but it is not an impulse. Those philosophers who so describe it, are far from hitting the mark. It speaks with the same power as does the Spiritual-Soul itself when it appears –  but yet with elemental, original forces.

So, we see: Love appears on the earth in the East; Conscience in the West. The two belong together; as Christ appears in the East, so Conscience awakens in the West, that through it Christ may be accepted. In the simultaneous occurrence of the fact of the Christ-Event and the comprehension of it, and in the preparation for these two things in different parts of the Earth, we see the ruling of an infinite Wisdom guiding our development. We have thus indicated the past history of Conscience.”

Conscience as Teacher

Conscience and Astonishment as Indication of Spiritual Vision in Past and Future, by Rudolf Steiner, Breslau, February 3, 1912, GA 143

“As a second fact from which we shall begin, we have the question of conscience. When a man does something, and with a sensitive nature even when he thinks, something stirs in him that we call conscience. This conscience is entirely independent of the external significance of events. We could for example have done something very advantageous to us, and yet this act might be condemned by our conscience. Everyone feels that when conscience goes into action something influences the judgment of an act that has nothing to do with its utility. It is like a voice that says within us: Truly, you should have done this, or you should not have done this – this is the fact of conscience, and we know how strong its warning power can be, and how it can pursue us through life. We know that the presence of conscience cannot be denied.

Thus these two facts, amazement and conscience, are excluded in a remarkable way from the life of dreams. Ordinarily man does not notice such things; nevertheless they throw their light upon the depths of our existence.

How is it with the conscience? Once more it is interesting, that the word ‘conscience’ – and therefore the concept too, for only when we have a conception of something does the word appear – is also only to be found in ancient Greece from a certain time onwards. It is impossible to find in earlier Greek literature, about up to the time of Aeschylus, a word that should be translated ‘conscience.’ But we find one in the later Greek writers, for example Euripides. Thus it can be pointed out precisely that conscience is something, just as is amazement about familiar things, known to man only from a certain period of ancient Greece onwards. What sprang up at this time as the activity of conscience was something quite different among the earlier Greeks. It did not then happen that the pangs of conscience appeared when a man had done something wrong. Men had then an original, elemental clairvoyance; going back only a short time before the Christian era we would find that all human beings still had this original clairvoyance. If a man then did something wrong, it was not followed by the stirring of conscience, but a demonic form appeared before the old clairvoyance, and a man was tormented by it. Such forms were called Erinys or Furies. Only when men had lost the capacity to see these demonic forms did they become able to feel, when they had done something wrong, the power of conscience as an inner experience.

It is really so, that man could never have acquired what lies in his capacity of wonder and what lies in his conscience, if he had not descended. Man descended in order to acquire knowledge and conscience; he could only do so through being separated for a time from these spiritual worlds. And he has achieved knowledge and conscience here, in order to ascend once more with them.

Let us observe the moment of this phenomenon, which is like a living conscience, more exactly. A man has not really any power to do something reasonable, and tosses about on his bed. This is an unhealthy condition which prevents him from getting to sleep. It happens at the moment when we are about to leave the physical plane through falling asleep, in order to ascend into another world; but this is not willing to accept what we call our ‘bad conscience.’ A man cannot fall asleep because he is cast back by the world into which he should enter in sleep. Thus if we say that we will listen to our conscience about some action, this means that we have a presentiment of what the human being will need to be in future in order to enter the spiritual world.

Thus we have in astonishment an expression of what we have seen at an earlier time, and conscience is an expression of a future vision in the spiritual world. Conscience reveals whether we shall be horrified or happy when we are able to behold our actions in the realm of spirit. Conscience is a presentiment that reveals prophetically how we shall experience our deeds after death.

Astonishment and the impulse towards knowledge on the one hand, and the conscience on the other – these are living signs of the spiritual world.

To be able to bring wonder everywhere – that is a memory of the vision before birth. To bring conscience everywhere into our deeds is to have a living presentiment that every deed which we fulfil will appear to us in the future in another form. Human beings who feel this are more inclined than others to find their way to spiritual science.

Human beings once had no conscience but were tormented after evil deeds by the Furies. This was an ancient clairvoyance which has passed away. Then came the middle period when they no longer saw the Furies, but what was brought about by the Furies previously now arose inwardly as conscience. A time is now gradually approaching in which we shall again see something – and this is the karmic compensation. That man has now developed conscience begins to enable him to behold the spiritual world consciously.”

The Voice of Conscience After Death

Life Between Death and Rebirth, The Active Connection Between the Living and the Dead, Rudolf Steiner, Lecture IX, Life After Death, Linz, January 26, 1913, GA 140

“In many people we find a propensity that in everyday life we denote as an immoral characteristic, and that is lack of conscience. In the voice of conscience we have a wonderful regulator for the soul life. A lack of conscience, the inability to listen to the warning voice of conscience, delivers us to yet other powers between the period of death and a new birth.”

Life Between Death and Rebirth, The Active Connection Between the Living and the Dead, by Rudolf Steiner, Lecture X, Anthroposophy as the Quickener of Feeling and of Life, Tubingen, February 16, 1913, GA 140

“If the seer looks back into the lives of such souls before death, he discovers why they are condemned to serve as servants to the spirits of death and disease. The cause lies in a lack of conscience in such souls during their earthly life. In accordance with the extent of their lack of conscience they condemn themselves to become servants of those evil beings. As truly as cause and effect obtain in the case of impinging billiard balls, so, too, must people who have no conscience become servants of these evil beings. That is indeed shattering!

The Birth of Human Conscience

Metamorphosis of the Soul, Paths of Experience, by Rudolf Steiner, Volume Two, Lecture VIII, Human Conscience, Berlin, May 5, 1910, GA 59

“Now if light is thrown on those primordial times by means of clairvoyance in the way already described, what does the seer tell us concerning the human consciousness of those times when a man had, for example, committed an evil deed? His deed did not present itself to him as something he could inwardly assess. He beheld it, with all its harmfulness and shamefulness, as a ghostly vision confronting his soul. And when a feeling concerning his evil deed arose in his soul, the shamefulness of it came before him as a spiritual reality, so that he was as though surrounded by a vision of the evil he had wrought.

Then, in the course of time, this dreamlike clairvoyance faded and man’s ego came increasingly to the fore. In so far as man found this central point of his being within himself, the old clairvoyance was extinguished and self-consciousness established itself more and more clearly. The vision he had previously had of his bad and good deeds was transposed into his inner life, and deeds once clairvoyantly beheld were mirrored in his soul.

Now what sort of forms were beheld in dreamy clairvoyance as the counterpart of man’s evil deed? They were pictures whereby the spiritual powers around him showed how he had disturbed and disrupted the cosmic order, and they were intended to have a salutary effect. It was a counteraction by the Gods, who wished to raise him up and, by showing him the effect of his deed, to enable him to eliminate its harmful consequences. This was indeed a terrifying experience for him, but it was fundamentally beneficial, coming as it did from the cosmic background out of which man himself had emerged. When the time came for man to find in himself his ego-center, the external vision was transferred to his soul in the form of a reflected picture. When the ego first makes its appearance in the sentient soul, it is weak and frail, and man first has to work slowly upon himself in order that his ego may gradually advance towards perfection.

If it was the great cosmic Spirit that had brought the harmful effects of a man’s deed before his clairvoyant consciousness as a healing influence, showing him what he had to make good, so, later on, it was the same cosmic Spirit that powerfully revealed itself in his inner life at a time when his ego was still weak. Having previously spoken to man through a clairvoyant vision, the cosmic Spirit withdrew into man’s inner life and imparted to him what had to be said about correcting the distortion caused in the world-order. Man’s ego is still weak, and the cosmic Spirit keeps a perpetual, unsleeping watch over it and passes judgment where the ego could not yet judge. Behind the weak ego stands something like a reflection of the powerful cosmic Spirit which had formerly shown to man through clairvoyant vision the consequences of his deeds. And this reflection is now experienced by him as conscience watching over him.

How often has the significance of conscience been brought out by the words, no matter whether they are taken literally or metaphorically: “When conscience speaks in the human soul, it is the voice of God that speaks.” And one could scarcely find anyone, however unprepared to reflect on higher spiritual concerns, who has not formed some idea of what conscience is. Everyone feels vaguely that whatever conscience may be, it is experienced as a voice in the individual’s breast which determines with irresistible power what is good and what is bad; what man must do in order to gain his own approval and what he must leave undone if he is not to despise himself. Hence we can say: Conscience appears to every individual as something holy in the human breast, and that to form some kind of opinion about it is relatively easy.

We may note that from about the first third of the Middle Ages and on through mediaeval philosophy, whenever conscience was spoken of, it was always said to be a power in the human soul which was capable of immediately declaring what a man should do and what he should leave undone. However, these medieval philosophers say also that underneath this power of the soul there is something else, something of finer quality than conscience itself. A personality often mentioned here, Meister Eckhart, tells of a tiny spark that underlies conscience; an eternal element in the soul which, if it is heeded, declares with unmistakable power the laws of good and evil.

In modern times, we encounter once more the most varied accounts of conscience, including some which make a peculiar impression, for they clearly fail to recognize the serious nature of the divine inner voice that we call conscience. There are philosophers who say that conscience is something that a man acquires when, by extending continually his experience of life, he learns what is useful, harmful, satisfying and so on for himself. The sum of these experiences gives rise to a judgment which says: “Do this – don’t do that.”

There are other philosophers who speak of conscience in terms of the highest praise. One of these is the great German philosopher, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who pointed above all to the human ego not the transient personal ego but the eternal essence in man – as the fundamental principle of all human thought and being. At the same time, he held that the highest experience for the human ego was the experience of conscience, when a man hears the inward judgment: ‘This you must do, for it would go against your conscience not to do it.’ The majesty and nobility of this judgment, he believed, could not be surpassed. And if Fichte was the philosopher who laid the strongest emphasis on the power and significance of the human ego, it is characteristic of him that he ranked conscience as the ego’s most significant impulse.

The further we move on into modern times, and the more materialistic thinking becomes, the more do we find conscience deprived of its majesty – not in the human heart, but in the thinking of philosophers who are more or less imbued with materialism.

Conscience speaks with elemental power in the human soul and is heard by the individual as saying “This you must do, and that you must leave alone”, long before we learn to form ideas concerning good and evil and thus begin to formulate moral precepts. Moreover, conscience brings a certain tranquility to the soul on occasions when a man can say to himself: “You have done something you can approve of.”

How is it, then, that so pre-eminent and powerful a person as Socrates is not aware of the idea of conscience that we have today, although we feel whenever we approach him, as Plato describes him, that the purest morality and the highest degree of virtue speak through his words? The reason is, that the ideas, concepts, and inward experiences which feel today as though they were innate, were in fact acquired laboriously by the human soul in the course of time. When we trace the spiritual life of humanity back into the past, we find that our idea of conscience and our feeling for it were not present in the same way in ancient times, and therefore not among the Greeks. Conscience, in fact, was born.

Behind the weak ego stands something like a reflection of the powerful cosmic Spirit which had formerly shown to man through clairvoyant vision the consequences of his deeds. And this reflection is now experienced by him as conscience watching over him.

So we see how true it is when conscience is naively described as the voice of God in man. At the same time we see how spiritual science points to the moment when external vision became inward experience and conscience was born.

It is not so very long since the time when the birth of conscience can be seen to occur. If we look back to the fifth and sixth centuries BC, we encounter in ancient Greece the great dramatic poet Aeschylus, and in his work we find a theme which is especially remarkable for the reason that the same subject was treated by a late Greek poet in a quite different way.

Orestes sees before him, in dreamlike clairvoyance, the effect of his act of matricide in its external form. Apollo had approved the deed; but there is something higher. Aeschylus wished to indicate that a still higher cosmic ordinance obtains, and this he could do only by making Orestes become clairvoyant at that moment, for he had not yet gone far enough to dramatize what today we call an inner voice. If we study his work, we feel that he was at the stage when something like conscience ought to emerge from the whole content of the human soul, but he never quite reached that point. He confronts Orestes with dreamlike, clairvoyant pictures that have not yet been transformed into conscience. Yet we can see how he is on the verge of recognizing conscience. Every word that he gives to Klytemnestra, for example, makes one feel unmistakably that he ought to indicate the idea of conscience in its present-day sense; but he never quite gets that far. In that century, the great poet could only show how bad deeds rose up before the human soul in earlier times.

Now we will pass over Sophocles and come to Euripides, who described the same situation only a generation later. Scholars have rightly pointed out – though spiritual science alone can show this in its true light – that in Euripides the dream-pictures experienced by Orestes are no more than shadowy images of the inward promptings of conscience – somewhat as in Shakespeare. Here we have palpable evidence of the stages whereby the idea of conscience was taken hold of by the art of poetry. We see how Aeschylus, great poet as he was, cannot yet speak of conscience itself, while his successor, Euripides, does speak of it. With this development in mind, we can see why human thinking in general could work its way only slowly towards a true conception of conscience. The force now active in conscience was active also in ancient times; the pictures showing the effects of a man’s deeds rose before his clairvoyant sight. The only difference is that this force became internalized; but before it could be inwardly experienced, the whole process of human development, which led gradually to the concept of conscience, had to take its course.

Thus we see in conscience a faculty which comes to the fore by degrees and has to be acquired by man’s own endeavors. Where, then, should we look for this most intense activity of conscience? At that point where the human ego was beginning to make itself known and was still weak, that is something which can be shown in human development. In ancient Greece it had already advanced to the stage of the intellectual soul. But if we look further back to Egypt and Chaldea outer history knows nothing of this, but Plato and Aristotle were clairvoyantly aware of it – we find that even the highest culture of those times was achieved without the presence of an inwardly independent ego. The difference between the knowledge that was nurtured and put to use by the sanctuaries of Egypt and Chaldea and our modern science is that our science is grasped by the consciousness soul, whereas in pre-Hellenic times it all depended on inspirations from the sentient soul. In ancient Greece the ego progressed from the sentient soul into the intellectual soul. Today we are living in the epoch of the consciousness soul, which means that a real ego-consciousness arises for the first time. Anyone who studies the evolution of mankind, and in particular the transition from eastern to western culture, can see how human progress has been marked by ever-increasing feelings of freedom and independence. Whereas man had formerly felt himself entirely dependent on the Gods and the inspirations that came from them, in the West, culture first came to spring from the inner life.

The point is that in the West everything was designed to raise the ego from the sentient soul to the consciousness soul. In the East the ego was veiled in obscurity and had no freedom. In the West, by contrast, the ego works its way up into the consciousness soul. If the old dreamlike clairvoyance is extinguished, everything else tends to awaken the ego and to evoke conscience as guardian of the ego as a divine inner voice. Aeschylus was the corner-stone between the worlds of East and West.

The elements necessary for understanding this were present in the stream of thought that came over from the East; they needed only to be raised to a higher level. It was in the West that souls were ripe to grasp and accept this impulse – the West, where experiences which had belonged to the outer world were transferred to the inner life most intensively, and in the form of conscience watched over a generally weak ego. In this way souls were strengthened, and prepared to hear the voice of conscience now saying within them: The Divinity who appeared in the East to those able to look clairvoyantly into the world – this Divinity now lives in us!

However, what was thus being prepared could not have become conscious experience if the inward Divinity had not spoken in advance in the dawning of conscience. So we see that external understanding for the Divinity of Christ Jesus was born in the East, and the emergence of conscience came to meet it from the West. For example, we find that conscience is more and more often spoken of in the Roman world, at the beginning of the Christian era, and the further westward we go, the clearer is the evidence for the recognized existence of conscience or for its presence in embryonic form.

Thus East and West played into each other’s hands. We see the sun of the Christ-nature rising in the East, while in the West the development of conscience is preparing the way for understanding the Christ. Hence the victorious advance of Christianity is towards the West, not the East. In the East we see the spread of a religion which represents the final consequence – though on the highest level – of the eastern outlook: Buddhism takes hold of the eastern world. Christianity takes hold of the western world because Christianity had first created the organ for receiving it. Here we see Christianity brought into relation with the deepened element in western culture: the concept of conscience embodied in Christianity.

The highest spiritual consciousness says that when conscience speaks, it is truly the cosmic Spirit speaking. And spiritual science brings out the connection between conscience and the greatest event in the evolution of mankind, the Christ-Event. Hence it is not surprising that conscience has thereby been ennobled and raised to a higher sphere. When we hear that something has been done for reasons of conscience, we feel that conscience is regarded as one of the most important possessions of mankind.

Thus we can see how natural and right it is for the human heart to speak of conscience as “God in man.” And when Goethe says that the highest experience for man is when “God-Nature reveals itself to him”, we must realize that God can reveal himself in the spirit to man only if Nature is seen in the light of its spiritual background. This has been provided for in human evolution, on the one hand by the light of Christ, shining from outside, and on the other by the divine light within us: the light of conscience. Hence a philosopher such as Fichte, who studies human character, is justified in saying that conscience is the highest voice in our inward life. On this account, also, we are aware that our dignity as human beings is inseparable from conscience. We are human beings because we have an ego-consciousness; and the conscience we have at our side is also at the side of our ego. Thus we look on conscience as a most sacred individual possession, inviolable by the external world, whose voice enables us to determine our direction and our goal. When conscience speaks, no other voice may intrude.

So it is that on one side conscience ensures our connection with the primordial power of the world and on the other guarantees the fact that in our inmost self we have something like a drop flowing from the Godhead. And man can know: When conscience speaks in him, it is a God speaking.

Shame as a Burning Fire

Macrocosm and Microcosm, Lecture III, The Inner Path Followed by the Mystic, by Rudolf Steiner, March 23, 1910, Vienna, GA 119

“There is in man what is called the sense of Shame, the essence of which is that in his soul he wants to divert the attention of others from the thing or quality of which he is ashamed. This sense of shame in connection with something he does not want to be revealed is a faint indication of the feeling which would be intensified to overpowering strength if he were to look consciously into his own inner being. This feeling would take possession of the soul with such power that it would seem to be diffused over everything encountered in the external world; the man would undergo an experience comparable with that of being consumed by fire. Such would be the effect produced by this feeling of shame.

It is the comparison of the soul with what it would perceive if it had sight of what spiritually underlies the physical and etheric bodies that would evoke the intense feeling of shame; preparation for this is made in advance through all the experiences undergone by the mystic before he becomes capable of penetrating into his inmost being. To realize for himself the imperfection of his soul, to realize that his soul is weak, insignificant, and has still an infinitely long path to travel, is bound to arouse a feeling of humility and a yearning for perfection, and these qualities prepare him to endure the comparison with the infinitely wise structure into which he penetrates on waking. Otherwise he would be consumed by shame as if by fire.

The mystic prepares himself by concentrating on the following thoughts: “When I behold what I am and compare it with what the wise guidance of the universe has made of me, the shame I feel is like a consuming fire.” This feeling gives rise outwardly to the flush of shame. This feeling would intensify to such an extent as to become a scorching fire in the soul if the mystic has not the strength to say to himself: “Yes, I feel utterly paltry in comparison with what I may become, but I shall try to develop the strength that will make me capable of understanding what the wisdom of the universe has built into my bodily nature and to make myself spiritually worthy of it.” The mystic is made to realize by his spiritual teacher that he must have boundless humility.

This normal consciousness, while insufficiently mature, is protected from penetrating into man’s inner self, protected from being consumed in the fire of shame. Man cannot see the Power which protects him from this experience every morning on waking. This Power is the first spiritual Being encountered by one who is about to pass into the spiritual world. He must pass this Being who protects him from being consumed by the inner sense of shame; he must pass this Being who deflects his inward-turned gaze to the external word, to the tapestry of sense-phenomena. Normal consciousness becomes aware of the effect of this Being, but man cannot see him. He is the first Being who must be passed by one who desires to penetrate into the spiritual world. This spiritual Being who every morning stands before man and protects him while he is still immature from sight of his own inner self, is called in Spiritual Science, the Lesser Guardian of the Threshold. The path into the spiritual world leads past this Being.

The Effect of Occult Development Upon the Self and the Sheaths of Man, Lecture V, by Rudolf Steiner, The Hague, March 24, 1913, GA 145

“In the case of a person who has undergone a theosophical development there comes a clear after-feeling regarding what he has said; he feels something like an inner shame when he has expressed what is not right in a moral or intellectual sense; and something like a sort of thankfulness – not satisfaction with himself – when he has been able to express something to which the wisdom he has attained can give assent. And if he feels – and for this, too, he acquires a delicate sensitiveness – that something like an inner self-satisfaction, a self-complaisance with himself arises when he has said something that is right, that is a sign that he still possesses too much vanity, which is no good in his development. He learns to distinguish between the feeling of satisfaction which follows when he has said something with which he can agree, and the self-complaisance which is worthless. He should try not to allow this latter feeling to arise, but only to develop the feeling of shame when he has said anything untrue or non-moral, and when he has succeeded in saying something suitable to the occasion, to develop a feeling of gratitude for the wisdom he now has part in, and to which he does not lay claim as his own, but receives as a gift from the universe.

And if I were to make a diagram of what is thus experienced, it is as though one felt wisdom streaming in from above, coming towards one from above, streaming into one’s head in front and then filling one from above downwards. On the other hand, a student feels that, as though coming from his own body, there streams towards that wisdom a feeling of shame, so that he identifies himself with this feeling, and addresses the wisdom as something given from outside; and feels within himself a region wherein this feeling, which is now the ego, meets the instreaming wisdom bestowed.

And when he perceives it thus he ascends to the higher Beings which only descend as far as to an etheric body and not to a physical human body. On the other hand, he may experience this etheric world wrongly, in a certain sense. Rightly, the etheric world is experienced between thinking and feeling, in the manner just described. The experience is purely an inner process in the soul.

There is a world of genuine higher Spirituality, this we attain through the inter-action which takes place between wisdom and feeling, there we come to the deeds accomplished in the etheric world by the beings belonging to the higher hierarchies.”

Divine Beings Speak Through Conscience

Anthroposophical Leading Thoughts, Anthroposophy as a Path of Knowledge, The Michael Mystery, Memory and Conscience, by Rudolf Steiner, GA 26  

“From the depths of the waking being of the soul’s existence, that which was able to implant itself in the soul’s existence, in community with the Divine-Spiritual world during sleep, sounds forth. This is the voice of conscience.

In Memory the Divine-Spiritual being works directly within the waking man. In Conscience the same Divine-Spiritual being works in the waking man indirectly – as an after-effect.

The forming of memory takes place in the organization of nerves and senses. The forming of conscience takes place – albeit as a pure process of soul and spirit – in the metabolic and limbs-system.

Man is organized out of his own past lives on Earth. This organization is purely of the soul and spirit, and lives in him through the astral body and the Ego. Whatever enters of the life of Divine-Spiritual Beings into this human nature – its influence lights up in a man as the voice of conscience and all that is akin to this.

In his rhythmic organization man has the constant union of the Divine-Spiritual impulses from the two sides. In life and experience of rhythm the force of memory is carried into the Willing life, and the might of conscience into the life in Ideas.”

Wonder, Compassion, and Conscience

The Christ Impulse – Wonder, Compassion and Conscience, The Mission of the Earth, by Rudolf Steiner, Lecture VI, GA 116

Conscience is a third power whereby the human being transcends what he is in the physical body. In ordinary life he will desire this or that; according to his impulses or needs he will pursue what is pleasing and thrust aside what is displeasing to him. But in many such actions he will be his own critic, in that his conscience, the voice of his conscience sounds a note of correction. Final satisfaction or dissatisfaction with what he has done also depends upon how the voice of conscience has spoken. This in itself is a proof that “conscience” is a power whereby the human being is led out beyond the sphere of his impulses, his likes and dislikes.

Wonder (amazement), Compassion (fellow-feeling), and Conscience are the three powers by means of which the human being, even while in the physical body, transcends his own limitations, for through these powers, influences which cannot find entrance into the human soul by way of the intellect and the senses, ray into physical life.

Conscience could not be experienced as a spiritual force sending its voice into man’s world of natural urges, passions and desires, if the material body did not hanker after things against which warning must be given by another power. And so the human being must be incarnated in a physical body in order that he may be able to experience wonder, compassion, and conscience.

The purpose of Earth-evolution is that there may be implanted into the evolutionary process as a whole, powers which could otherwise never have come into existence: Wonder, Compassion and Conscience.

I have told you how the birth of conscience can clearly be traced to a certain period of Greek culture. In the works of Aeschylus, what we call “conscience” played no part; there were only remembrances of the avenging Furies, and not until we come to the works of Euripedes is there any clear expression of “conscience” as we know it now. The concept of conscience arose only very gradually during the Graeco-Latin epoch.

Man could not remain in those worlds because only by coming down into the physical world of Earth-evolution could he receive into himself the forces of wonder, love or compassion, and conscience or moral obligation. Love or Compassion in the souls of men weaves the Ether-Body of the Christ Impulse; and the power of Conscience which from the time of the Mystery of Golgotha until the goal of the Earth is attained, lives in and inspires the souls of men, weaves the Physical Body – or what corresponds with the physical body – for the Christ Impulse. Christ does not build His own Astral Body, but in the wonder that arises in their souls, men share in the forming of the Astral Body of Christ. His Ether-Body will be fashioned through the compassion and love flowing from man to man; and His “physical body” through the power of conscience unfolding in human beings. Whatever wrongs are committed in these three realms deprive the Christ of the possibility of full development on the Earth – that is to say, Earth-evolution is left imperfect. Those who go about the Earth with indifference and unconcern, who have no urge to understand what the Earth can reveal to them, deprive the Astral Body of Christ of the possibility of full development; those who live without unfolding compassion and love, hinder the Ether-Body of Christ from full development; and those who lack conscience hinder the development of what corresponds with the Physical Body of Christ.   

Conscience and Spiritual Development

Spiritual Beings in the Heavenly Bodies and in the Kingdoms of Nature, by Rudolf Steiner, Helsinki, Lecture II, April 4, 1912, GA 136

“The second thing which we as men of the present day must not lose is the degree of conscience we possess in the external world. Here again is something which it is extremely important to observe. You must have often experienced that someone you know has gone through an occult development, and if it is not guided and conducted in the right way, you find that, in relation to conscience, your friend takes things much more lightly than he did before his occult training. His education, his social connection guided him before, so that he did this thing or that, or dared not do it. After beginning an occult development, many people begin to tell lies who never did so before, and as regards questions of conscience, they take things more lightly. We ought not to lose an iota of the conscience we possess. As regards memory, we must only value ourselves according to what we have already become; not according to any reliance on the future, or on what we are still going to do. As regards conscience, we must retain the same degree as we acquired in the ordinary physical world. If we retain these two elements in our consciousness: a healthy memory which does not deceive us into believing ourselves to be other than our actions prove us to be, and a conscience which does not allow us morally to take things more lightly than before, – indeed if possible we should take them more seriously – if we retain these two qualities, our ego will never be asleep when our astral body is awake.

Conscience and Supersensible Knowledge

Supersensible Knowledge, Anthroposophy and the Etherical-Religious Conduct of Life, by Rudolf Steiner, Vienna, September 27-29, 1923, GA 216

“At the moment when we ascend to a direct experience of the health-giving or the disease-bringing spiritual life, we come into contact with the very roots of the moral life of man, the roots of the whole moral existence. We come into contact with these roots of the moral existence only when we have reached the perception that the physical life of the senses and that which flows out of the human being is really, from the point of view of a higher life, a kind of dream, related to this higher life as the dream is related to the ordinary life. And that which we sense out of the indefinite depths of our human nature as conscience, which enables us to conduct our ordinary life, which determines whether we are helpful or harmful for our fellow men, that which shines upward from the very bottom of our human nature, stimulating us morally or immorally, becomes luminous; it is linked up in a reality just as the dream is linked up in a reality when we wake. We learn to recognize the conscience as something existing in man as a dimly mirrored gleam of the sense and significance of the spiritual world – of that super-sensible world to which we human beings belong, after all, in the depths of our nature. We now understand why it is necessary to take what the knowledge of the sense world can offer us as a point of departure and to proceed from this to a super-sensible knowledge, when we are considering the moral order of the world and desire to arrive at the reality of this moral world order.

When we learn to see now through super-sensible knowledge that what is rooted in us as our conscience is, in its essence, the mirroring within our inner being of the real spiritual world which weaves and breathes throughout the world of the senses, we then learn to recognize the moral nature of man as that which forever unites us without our knowing this, even when we sense it only as a still small voice within us, with that spiritual world which can be laid open to us through super-sensible knowledge. Especially will one who sees that the ancient spiritual traditions, super-sensible knowledge handed down from primeval times and continuing until now, have faded away and continue their existence today as pale religious creeds, will be able to see that man stands in need of a new stimulus in this very sphere.

Occultism and Initiation, by Rudolf Steiner, Helsinki, April 12, 1912, GA 136

“The second experience which pertains to the moral sphere and leads us out of our ordinary consciousness, is conscience. If we observe conscience in an unprejudiced way, we can say the following: In life we may love or hate, do or leave certain things undone, under the influence of our instincts and passions, or of sympathy and antipathy, or perhaps we may follow the dictates of education or of social relations – these appear to us from outside. But there is something which never speaks to us from outside, and this we call conscience.

Conscience comes to us from a world – we can feel and experience this – that speaks to us inwardly and can be heard by us inwardly. Conscience influences our ordinary perceptible world, for everything which we can perceive is open to correction when the super-sensible demands of conscience impel us to action. Conscience bears witness to the fact that, in the moral sphere, our soul can be told something which transcends our consciousness. And, again, we find that it is a moral defect if our soul falls into a kind of sleep when conscience begins to speak and does not listen to its voice but only listens to what speaks from the physical environment through sympathy or antipathy, so that these promptings govern the soul’s impulses to action. If we can thus transcend our ordinary consciousness without feeling dazed, conscience is a phenomenon that speaks to the human soul in such a way that it need not take its impulses from any influence coming from the external world.

In regard to beings outside our own self, in regard to experiences transcending our knowledge and our consciousness, we have in the moral sphere the possibility to penetrate into them through compassion and love. Through conscience we listen, as it were, to truths which do not come from the world of the senses.

If it is possible in this way to penetrate into beings outside our own and to take into our souls truths of the kind uttered by conscience, then there is a prospect of penetrating into a world which is not the one given to us during our waking consciousness from the moment of waking up to the moment of falling asleep. It is possible, and this prospect opens out to us through methods we call the methods of initiation.

Whereas imagination, the first stage of initiation, only led us into our inner being by conjuring up a merely visionary world, the process of inspiration leads us to a higher stage. A flash of light breaks in upon our whole visionary world, something that really seems to come out of the spiritual cosmos, as does conscience, and we observe that it speaks to us in the same way in which conscience speaks to us in our ordinary consciousness. Conscience may be compared to the way in which inspiration speaks to the imaginative consciousness; but then imagination passes over to the stage of inspiration, and we enter a real, super-sensible world.

The methods gained through initiation, whose prototypes were compassion and conscience, i.e., experiences of our ordinary consciousness, thus give us an immediate knowledge of processes of the super-sensible world connected with the human being. Initiation therefore becomes the path leading us up into the super-sensible worlds.”

The Soul’s Probation, Scene 10, by Rudolf Steiner

A Voice (representing spirit-conscience):

Feel now what thou hast seen,

Live o’er what thou hast done

Refreshed from Being’s source;

Thine own life hast thou dreamed.

Work out this deed in thee

With noble spirit-light

Regard thy daily task

With force of spirit-sight.