The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 10/On the Testimony of Conscience





(First printed in 1744.)

2 COR. i. 12.

——For our rejoicing is this, the testimony of our conscience.

THERE is no word more frequently in the mouths of men than that of conscience, and the meaning of it is in some measure generally understood: however, because it is likewise a word extremely abused by many people, who apply other meanings to it, which God Almighty never intended; I shall explain it to you in the clearest manner I am able. The word Conscience properly signifies that knowledge which a man hath within himself of his own thoughts and actions. And because if a man judgeth fairly of his own actions, by comparing them with the law of God, his mind will either approve or condemn him, according as he hath done good or evil; therefore this knowledge or conscience may properly be called both an accuser and a judge. So that whenever our conscience accuseth us, we are certainly guilty; but we are not always innocent, when it doth not accuse us: for very often through the hardness of our hearts, or the fondness and favour we bear to ourselves, or through ignorance or neglect, we do not suffer our conscience to take any cognisance of several sins we commit. There is another office likewise belonging to conscience, which is that of being our director and guide; and the wrong use of this hath been the occasion of more evils under the sun than almost all other causes put together. For, as conscience is nothing else but the knowledge we have of what we are thinking and doing; so it can guide us no farther than that knowledge reacheth: and therefore God hath placed conscience in us to be our director only in those actions, which Scripture and reason plainly tells us to be good or evil. But in cases too difficult or doubtful for us to comprehend or determine, there conscience is not concerned; because it cannot advise in what it doth not understand, nor decide where it is itself in doubt: but by God's great mercy, those difficult points are never of absolute necessity to our salvation. There is likewise another evil, that men often say, a thing is against their conscience, when really it is not. For instance: ask any of those who differ from the worship established, why they do not come to church: they will say, they dislike the ceremonies, the prayers, the habits, and the like; and therefore it goes against their conscience: but they are mistaken, their teacher hath put those words into their mouth; for a man's conscience can go no higher than his knowledge; and therefore till he has thoroughly examined by Scripture, and the practice of the ancient church, whether those points are blameable or not, his conscience cannot possibly direct him to condemn them. Hence have likewise arisen those mistakes about what is usually called liberty of conscience; which, properly speaking, is no more than a liberty of knowing our own thoughts; which liberty no one can take from us. But those words have obtained quite different meanings: liberty of conscience is nowadays not only understood to be the liberty of believing what men please, but also of endeavouring to propagate that belief as much as they can, and to overthrow the faith which the laws have already established, and to be rewarded by the publick for those wicked endeavours: and this is the liberty of conscience which the fanaticks are now openly in the face of the world endeavouring at with their utmost application. At the same time it cannot but be observed, that those very persons, who, under pretence of a publick spirit and tenderness toward their Christian brethren, are so zealous for such a liberty of conscience as this, are of all others the least tender to those who differ from them in the smallest point relating to government; and I wish I could not say, that the Majesty of the living God, may be offended with more security, than the memory of a dead prince. But the wisdom of the world at present seems to agree with that of the heathen emperor, who said, if the gods were offended, it was their own concern, and they were able to vindicate themselves.

But, although conscience hath been abused to those wicked purposes which I have already related, yet a due regard to the directions it plainly gives us, as well as to its accusations, reproaches, and advices, would be of the greatest use to mankind, both for their present welfare, and future happiness.

Therefore, my discourse at this time shall be directed to prove to you, that there is no solid, firm foundation for virtue, but on a conscience which is guided by religion.

In order to this, I shall first show you the weakness and uncertainty of two false principles, which many people set up in the place of conscience, for a guide to their actions.

The first of these principles is, what the world usually calls moral honesty. There are some people, who appear very indifferent as to religion, and yet have the repute of being just and fair in their dealings; and these are generally known by the character of good moral men. But now, if you look into the grounds and the motives of such a man's actions, you shall find them to be no other than his own ease and interest. For example: you trust a moral man with your money in the way of trade, you trust another with the defence of your cause at law, and perhaps they both deal justly with you. Why? not from any regard they have for justice, but because their fortune depends upon their credit, and a stain of open publick dishonesty must be to their disadvantage. But let it consist with such a man's interest and safety to wrong you, and then it will be impossible you can have any hold upon him; because there is nothing left to give him a check, or put in the balance against his profit. For if he hath nothing to govern himself by but the opinion of the world, as long as he can conceal his injustice from the world, he thinks he is safe.

Besides, it is found by experience, that those men who set up for morality without regard to religion, are generally virtuous but in part; they will be just in their dealings between man and man; but if they find themselves disposed to pride, lust, intemperance, or avarice, they do not think their morality concerned to check them in any of these vices; because it is the great rule of such men, that they may lawfully follow the dictates of nature, wherever their safety, health, and fortune are not injured. So that upon the whole there is hardly one vice, which a mere moral man may not, upon some occasions, allow himself to practise.

The other false principle, which some men set up in the place of conscience to be their director in life, is what those who pretend to it call honour.

This word is often made the sanction of an oath; it is reckoned to be a great commendation to be a strict man of honour; and it is commonly understood, that a man of honour can never be guilty of a base action. This is usually the style of military men, of persons with titles, and of others who pretend to birth and quality. 'Tis true indeed, that in ancient times it was universally understood, that honour was the reward of virtue; but, if such honour as is nowadays going will not permit a man to do a base action, it must be allowed, there are few such things as base actions in nature. No man of honour, as that word is usually understood, did ever pretend that his honour obliged him to be chaste or temperate, to pay his creditors, to be useful to his country, to do good to mankind, to endeavour to be wise or learned, to regard his word, his promise, or his oath: or if he hath any of these virtues, they were never learned in the catechism of honour; which contains but two precepts, the punctual payment of debts contracted at play, and the right understanding the several degrees of an affront, in order to revenge it by the death of an adversary.

But suppose this principle of honour, which some men so much boast of, did really produce more virtues than it ever pretended to do; yet, since the very being of that honour depended upon the breath, the opinion, or the fancy of the people, the virtues derived from it could be of no long or certain duration. For example: suppose a man, from a principle of honour, should resolve to be just, or chaste, or temperate, and yet the censuring world should take a humour of refusing him those characters, he would then think the obligation at an end. Or, on the other side, if he thought he could gain honour by the falsest and vilest action (which is a case that very often happens) he would then make no scruple to perform it. And God knows, it would be an unhappy state, to have the religion, the liberty, or the property of a people lodged in such hands: which however hath been too often the case.

What I have said upon this principle of honour may perhaps be thought of small concernment to most of you, who are my hearers: however, a caution was not altogether unnecessary; since there is nothing by which not only the vulgar, but the honest tradesman, hath been so much deceived, as this infamous pretence to honour in too many of their betters.

Having thus shown you the weakness and uncertainty of those principles, which some men set up in the place of conscience to direct them in their actions; I shall now endeavour to prove to you, that there is no solid, firm foundation of virtue, but in a conscience directed by the principles of religion.

There is no way of judging how far we may depend upon the actions of men, otherwise than by knowing the motives, and grounds, and causes of them; and if the motives of our actions be not resolved and determined into the law of God, they will be precarious and uncertain, and liable to perpetual changes. I will show you what I mean by an example: suppose a man thinks it his duty to obey his parents, because reason tells him so, because he is obliged by gratitude, and because the laws of his country command him to do so: if he stops here, his parents can have no lasting security; for an occasion may happen, wherein it may be extremely his interest to be disobedient, and where the laws of the land can lay no hold upon him: therefore, before such a man can safely be trusted, he must proceed farther, and consider, that his reason is the gift of God; that God commanded him to be obedient to the laws, and did moreover in a particular manner enjoin him to be dutiful to his parents; after which, if he lays due weight upon those considerations, he will probably continue in his duty to the end of his life: because no earthly interest can ever come in competition to balance the danger of offending his Creator, or the happiness of pleasing him. And of all this his conscience will certainly inform him, if he hath any regard to religion.

Secondly; Fear and hope are the two greatest natural motives of all men's actions: but neither of these passions will ever put us in the way of virtue, unless they be directed by conscience. For, although virtuous men do sometimes accidentally make their way to preferment, yet the world is so corrupted, that no man can reasonably hope to be rewarded in it merely upon account of his virtue. And consequently the fear of punishment in this life, will preserve men from very few vices, since some of the blackest and basest do often prove the surest steps to favour; such as ingratitude, hypocrisy, treachery, malice, subornation, atheism, and many more, which human laws do little concern themselves about. But, when conscience placeth before us the hopes of everlasting happiness, and the fears of everlasting misery, as the reward and punishment of our good or evil actions; our reason can find no way to avoid the force of such an argument, otherwise than by running into infidelity.

Lastly, Conscience will direct us to love God, and to put our whole trust and confidence in him. Our love of God will inspire us with a detestation for sin, as what is of all things most contrary to his divine nature: and if we have an entire confidence in him, that will enable us to subdue and despise all the allurements of the world.

It may here be objected, if conscience be so sure a director to us Christians in the conduct of our lives, how comes it to pass that the ancient heathens, who had no other lights but those of nature and reason, should so far exceed us in all manner of virtue, as plainly appears by many examples they have left on record?

To which it may be answered; first, those heathens were extremely strict and exact in the education of their children; whereas among us this care is so much laid aside, that the more God has blessed any man with estate or quality, just so much the less in proportion is the care he takes in the education of his children, and particularly of that child which is to inherit his fortune; of which the effects are visible enough among the great ones of the world. Again, those heathens did in a particular manner instil the principle into their children of loving their country; which is so far otherwise nowadays, that of the several parties among us, there is none of them that seem to have so much as heard whether there be such a virtue in the world, as plainly appears by their practices, and especially when they are placed in those stations where they can only[1] have opportunity of showing it. Lastly; the most considerable among the heathens did generally believe rewards and punishments in a life to come; which is the great principle for conscience to work upon: whereas too many of those, who would be thought the most considerable among us, do, both by their practices and their discourses, plainly affirm, that they believe nothing at all of the matter.

Wherefore, since it hath manifestly appeared, that a religious conscience is the only true solid foundation upon which virtue can be built, give me leave, before I conclude, to let you see how necessary such a conscience is, to conduct us in every station and condition of our lives.

That a religious conscience is necessary in any station, is confessed even by those who tell us that all religion was invented by cunning men, in order to keep the world in awe. For, if religion, by the confession of its adversaries, be necessary toward the well-governing of mankind; then every wise man in power will be sure, not only to choose out for every station under him such persons as are most likely to be kept in awe by religion, but likewise to carry some appearance of it himself, or else he is a very weak politician. And accordingly in any country, where great persons affect to be open despisers of religion, their counsels will be found at last, to be fully as destructive to the state, as to the church.

It was the advice of Jethro to his son-in-law Moses, to "provide able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness," and to place such over the people; and Moses, who was as wise a statesman at least as any in this age, thought fit to follow that advice. Great abilities, without the fear of God, are most dangerous instruments, when they are trusted with power. The laws of man have thought fit, that those who are called to any office of trust, should be bound by an oath to the faithful discharge of it: but an oath is an appeal to God, and therefore can have no influence except upon those who believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of those that seek him, and a punisher of those who disobey him: and therefore, we see, the laws themselves are forced to have recourse to conscience in these cases, because their penalties cannot reach the arts of cunning men, who can find ways to be guilty of a thousand injustices without being discovered, or at least without being punished. And the reason why we find so many frauds, abuses, and corruptions where any trust is conferred, can be no other, than that there is so little conscience and religion left in the world; or at least that men, in their choice of instruments, have private ends in view, which are very different from the service of the publick. Besides, it is certain, that men who profess to have no religion, are full as zealous to bring over proselytes, as any papist or fanatick can be. And, therefore, if those who are in station high enough to be of influence or example to others; if those (I say) openly profess a contempt or disbelief of religion, they will be sure to make all their dependents of their own principles; and what security can the publick expect from such persons, whenever their interests, or their lusts, come into competition with their duty? It is very possible for a man, who hath the appearance of religion, and is a great pretender to conscience, to be wicked and a hypocrite; but it is impossible for a man, who openly declares against religion, to give any reasonable security that he will not be false, and cruel, and corrupt, whenever a temptation offers, which he values more than he does the power wherewith he was trusted. And if such a man doth not betray his cause and his master, it is only because the temptation was not properly offered, or the profit was too small, or the danger was too great. And hence it is, that we find so little truth or justice among us: because there are so very few, who, either in the service of the publick, or in common dealings with each other, do ever look farther than their own advantage, and how to guard themselves against the laws of the country; which a man may do by favour, by secrecy, or by cunning, though he breaks almost every law of God.

Therefore, to conclude: It plainly appears, that unless men are guided by the advice and judgment of conscience founded on religion, they can give no security that they will be either good subjects, faithful servants of the publick, or honest in their mutual dealings; since there is no other tie, through which the pride, or lust, or avarice, or ambition of mankind, will not certainly break one time or other.

Consider what has been said, &c.

  1. Where they can only have, &c. Here the word only is not in its proper place: it should be — "where only they can have opportunity of shewing it."