Freedom of Conscience

The humanists may well be right if they do not follow the classical philosophers in developing principles based on the bios theoretikos, or Christian thinkers into a conception of politics orientated toward the sanctification of life. But this question can be answered only through a closer study of their argument. I shall proceed by analysing in some detail their position with regard to a theoretically central problem, to the principle of liberty of conscience . . . .

We may appropriately start from the final judgment passed by [Mr.A.P.] D’Entrèves on the politics of Saint Thomas. When Mr. D’Entrèves proceeds from his impeccable account to an evaluation, he arrives at the following conclusions: “We find that the matters which the State is supposed to leave to the Church are precisely those which the modern man has struggled for centuries to secure against the interference of Church and State alike: such as the pursuit of truth and the worship of God according to his conscience. There is no room for religious freedom in a system which is based on orthodoxy.” “Medieval intolerance . . . was a thorough, totalitarian intolerance.”

On the other hand: “It looks as if, instead of providing us with a complete and elaborate system, Saint Thomas had been concerned with setting forth the principles from which such a system can be constructed. What matters is that the principles should not be betrayed. All the rest is a task for the ‘prudent’ legislator.” “And now in our days the Church and Catholic apologists have brought that teaching even nearer to us in the battle against totalitarianism. We have learnt to appraise a doctrine which is founded upon the vindication of human personality and on the unflinching assertion of the primacy of spiritual values.” Nevertheless: “It is hardly possible for the modern man to accept the system which Saint Thomas coherently founded upon (the ‘primacy of the Spiritual’) without renouncing that notion of civil and religious liberty which we have some right to consider the most precious conquest of the West.”

We sympathize with the sentiments that have inspired the judgment, and we do not doubt the correctness of the facts on which it is based. If nevertheless we take exception to it, it is on the purely theoretical ground that the judgment is couched in terms, halfway between critical concepts and humanist-progressivist ideological symbols. Mr. D’Entrèves does not attack the “primacy of the Spiritual.” What he really does not like is Saint Thomas’ insistence on the use of temporal power for discrimination against Jews and Gentiles, as well as for the criminal prosecution of heretics and apostates. The logical flaws in the expression of his dislike stem more immediately from the anachronistic application of the term coherent system to a medieval “summa” that does not derive propositions from axioms but moves in the tension between reason and faith. “Systems” are a modern invention; and I doubt that one can properly speak of a “system” before Descartes. Hence, the reprehensible demands of Saint Thomas do not follow “coherently” from the “primacy of the Spiritual,” but originate in the spheres of prudence or political expediency, of the mores of the age, and of the Roman Law whose revival was accompanied by a regrettable enthusiasm for construing spiritual divagations as crimes in the legal sense.

From the recognition of spiritual perfection as the highest good of man (in Christianity the beatific vision) there follows nothing at all, as far as I can see, with regard to specific measures that will serve the creation and protection of the environment most favorable to the realization of this good. If the distinction between an inquiry into principles (hierarchy of goods) and prudential measures is not made, if both are treated on the same level as a “system,” the result will be that odd totalitarian intolerance of Saint Thomas, which at the same time is concerned about the integrity of human personality, is “the most important factor of Western civilization,” and is even an ally in the battle against totalitarianism.

Orthodoxy vs. Freedom

In English political thought [the gnostic-Manichaean dualism of orthodoxy and freedom] has its venerable ancestry in Hobbes’s Leviathan with its opposition of the “Christian Commonwealth” to the “Kingdom of Darkness”; and the tradition is both preserved and renewed in Mr.[R.G.] Collingwood’s New Leviathan where the dualism, in the more secularist form of “Civilization” and “Barbarism,” is erected into the principle that defines political cultures and governs the process of history. This dualistic formula, while adequately expressing the political perspective of a gnostic metaphysician, will, however, not pass the test of critical application. The thesis that there is no religious freedom under a system based on orthodoxy must be rejected.

There was, of course, religious freedom in plenty during the Middle Ages, as is attested by the range of religious personalities from Saint Francis to Saint Thomas, by the range of theological speculation from realism to nominalism, by the foundation of numerous special religiones within Christianity, ranging from hermits to military orders, and by the great mystics from Eckhardt to Cusanus. But such concrete reminders should not overshadow the general argument that, whenever a great religious civilization unfolds, somebody must have taken the liberty to create it.

Nevertheless, the thesis [that unlike modern Protestant England, Medieval Christianity was an oppressor of freedom of conscience and religion] has a nucleus of truth; heretics were persecuted, indeed; and some varieties of religious experience were not allowed the freedom to express themselves. The gnostic-Manichaean dualism of orthodoxy and freedom must, therefore, be reduced to the theoretical question: In what respect was religious freedom expanded through insistence on the freedom of conscience? The question is all the more important because even under the new dispensation it is agreed that religious freedom has its limits. When Adamite sectarians were informed by their consciences that the naked truth of God would best be represented by walking in the street without clothes, even a Roger Williams drew the line.

The Fallible Conscience

Freedom of conscience in the political sense is the right to act according to one’s conscience free of governmental prevention, interference, or subsequent sanction. Conscience itself can be defined as the act, or acts, by which we judge, approvingly or disapprovingly, our conduct in the light of our rational moral knowledge. Conscience in this sense is not infallible. It can err either because the facts of the case requiring our action or inaction are insufficiently known, or because an intricate conflict of obligations resists a correct solution within the time at our disposal, or because our general state of ignorance, our lack of intellectual training and imagination, our moral obtuseness and spiritual perversion, will produce false judgments . . . .

We never know our objective duty because we are not omniscient with regard to the actual situation; we sometimes know a subjective obligation because one or more of the obligations from which we have to select our duty may be simple enough for us to know with certainty the action morally required by what we believe to be the facts of the situation; and we always know our putative duty because we always can form a moral estimate (although exposed to moral error) of what is demanded by what we believe to be the actual situation. The fulfillment of putative duty is conscientious action.

At this point the difficulties begin. In order to be moral, action must be conscientious; a will that deviates from conscience is immoral. Even if his conscience is badly in error, a man must follow it. Does liberty of conscience in the political sense mean that every man must be left free to follow it, even if it advises him to organize a revolution of Fifth Monarchy men or of the proletariat? If we say No, we are back to persecution for the sake of conscience. And since the practice of Western statecraft in fact has said No, the so-called freedom of religion and conscience has never been opposed as a “principle” to medieval persecution. The difference between “persecution” and “freedom” is one of degree; some consciences that would have been persecuted in the Middle Ages are left free in the modern national state — but not all of them by far.

Hobbes’ Analysis

Silences are sometimes quite as noteworthy as positive assertions. The restraint with regard to the issue [of freedom of conscience by the Oxford Politcal Philosophers] is remarkable, and certainly in need of explanation; for it is one of the glories of English political philosophy to have faced the question of conscience and its suppression unflinchingly in the person of Hobbes.

Under the impression of the Puritan revolution one of the greatest psychologists of all times laid down the rule that men who are moved by their religious conscience to civil war, for the purpose of imposing their creed on others, are not moved by the spirit, but are guilty of pride, of superbia in the Augustinian sense, to the point of madness. Hobbes diagnosed passionate self-assertion, the amor sui, as the formative force of the Puritan conscience; he understood its dictates as a manifestation of libido dominandi, not of the spirit of Christ.

This diagnosis tears the problem of moral conscience wide open; beyond conscience lies the spiritual personality of the man who has it. A conscience may be good in the moral sense and nevertheless thoroughly evil in the spiritual sense, as Hobbes’s predecessor in this question, Richard Hooker, had already shown in his acid portrait of the Puritan, in the preface to his Ecclesiastical Polity.

Hobbes, to be sure, was in error himself when he assumed that there was no such thing as a true spiritual orientation of the soul through amor Dei and that every conscientious conviction, when in conflict with the civil order, was thereby proven evil. Nevertheless, in his estimate of the movements of his time he was empirically as shrewdly right as he could be without the conceptual apparatus for the classification of phenomena of this type that is at our disposal today . . . .

The Parlor Game

I shall conclude on an Aristotelian point . . . The polis offers the opportunity for full actualization of human nature.  The fully actualized man is the spoudaios, the mature man, who has developed his dianoetic excellences and whose life is oriented by his noetic self. This is the decisive issue in a philosophy of politics, the issue that the distinguished authors whose work we have discussed studiously avoid.

Under pretext of respect for the freedom of conscience they ignore the fact that conscience, however “good” it may be putatively, can only be as good as the man who has it. A theory of conscience that shies away from ontology, and in particular from a theory of the nature of man, is empty; it is a parlor game in which one can indulge as long as the surrounding society contains enough Christian substances to make at least the worst sort of good consciences socially ineffective; but even under such favorable conditions (as they still exist in England) this nihilistic theory of conscience contributes to the intellectual and moral confusion that paves the way for the best of all consciences, viz., that of the totalitarian killers.

All men are equal, to be sure, or they would not be individuals of one species; but sometimes it is forgotten that the point in which they most certainly are equal is their capacity for evil. Enough of that evil is rampant;  and this is no time to pat the viciously ignorant on the back for being “sincere,” or abiding by their “conscience.” This is a time for the philosopher to be aware of his authority, and to assert it, even if that brings him into conflict with an environment infested by dubious ideologies and political theologies — so that the word of Marcus Aurelius will apply to him: “The philosopher — the priest and servant of the gods.”


This excerpt is from Published Essays: 1953-65 (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 11) (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000)

Eric Voegelin

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Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information about him can be found under the Eric Voegelin tab on this website.