I have blogged on the subject of Consciousness before, relating it to the philosophy of panpsychism. Consciousness is essentially interior and relates to how we perceive the exterior. (Merriam-Webster define this as “physical or mental wakefulness in which a person is aware of their surroundings”.)
There are many levels of consciousness, such as that of plants, of animals, of ‘soap opera’ humans, of the masses in rigid societies, of the intelligencia of advanced societies, of spiritually realised individuals… The spiritual journey is, essentially the path of raising of consciousness to higher levels.
But this is not enough. The journey also has a moral dimension, encapsulated by the word conscience – awareness of guilt and what is right. (“Moral awareness” – Merriam-Webster)
Interestingly, Merriam Webster suggests that, although both words have the same Latin roots, English speakers were first made aware of conscience in the 13th century, and of consciousness in the 16th century. I note that the former were religiously dominated times, and the latter was around the time of the Reformation and the beginning of the scientific revolution.
I was led into this thought process reading Mick Collins’ book The Restorative Spirit. These two words consciousness and conscience help encapsulate humanity’s and our own developmental needs. And we need both, as they are complementary.
A blog by Steven Martyn expresses the distinction more clearly:
Consciousness is a mental state of knowing. Conscience is feeling that knowledge. The two are always meant to accompany one another because the knowledge is so dangerous if it’s not grounded in the feeling of wholeness and oneness. The feeling part which is so painfully missing these days is like an invisible tendon, connecting us to the whole body of reality. This connection is essential so we remember our wellbeing is inseparable from that of everything else’s well-being. Like the tendon in our arm, our knowledge and conscience guides its actions in an obligatory way to benefit the rest of the body and not just itself. Part of that obligation as a human is to act for change when there is imbalance. You need not look far and it need not be complicated. Usually the changes we need to make are right there in front of us. Generally our obligation in this life is to bring peace, joy and love with you wherever you go and to diminish the unnecessary suffering in the world…From Innocence, Consciousness and Conscience by Steven Martyn
In today’s world the impression is given that we have lost the vital importance of conscience at the very top of our societies, when ego-driven bullshitters such as Trump and Johnson can achieve the highest levels of office in the Western World and ego-driven dictators can ride roughshod over the lives and destinies of whole peoples. I am reminded of the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in 2016:
“We have forgotten one of the most important lessons to have emerged from the wars of religion in 16/17C and the new birth of freedom that followed. A free society is a moral achievement. Without self-restraint, without the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct, and without the habits of heart and deed that we call virtues, we will eventually lose our freedom.”Jonathan Sacks from Ethics reduced to economics.
In other words, raising of consciousness and development of conscience are vital.
Featured image is licensed from Shutterstock.