Conscientious Citizenship: Arendt and Aquinas on Conscience and Politics
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This paper explores two theories of conscience and their potential impact in the lives of citizens in political society. First, it considers Hannah Arendt’s concept of secular conscience, which points to Socrates as the paradigm. He is a citizen who, according to Arendt, is responsible solely to himself and to his own internal dialogue that will preserve his individual moral integrity. Yet, as I argue, Arendt’s account of Socratic conscience fails in two important respects: first, Socratic conscience is limited to the individual and has little or no political influence, a problem Arendt herself acknowledges. Second, such an account cannot make sense of the notion that individual, moral thinking could be a bulwark against political evil. I offer a different account of conscientious citizenship grounded in the theory of conscience offered by Thomas Aquinas. Since the two thinkers are not considered to hold much in common, I demonstrate the possibility of bringing the two into dialogue. Then, I argue that Aquinas offers a solution to the two problems identified in Arendt’s theory. Specifically, I argue that by focusing on a relational aspect of conscience, citizens can share convictions of conscience with political potency. The relational aspect of conscience serves to help correct an erroneous conscience and can serve as a bulwark against political evil.
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