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Conscience and Truthfulness

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Part of the Studies in Literature and Religion book series (SLR)

Abstract

The conscience of the autobiographer may be seen at work both in the past and the present character of the writer, that is, in the author as protagonist and as narrator of his autobiography. Here I discuss the operation of conscience in the author’s present as it shapes the writing of autobiography, that is, conscience as a component of what theorists call ‘the autobiographical act’.1 Particular attention will be given to the autobiographies of Augustine, Rousseau, and Mary McCarthy as I seek to generalize about some of the ways conscience can shape the writing of autobiography. The discussion is organized in terms of three rubrics. First I suggest ways that conscience can be a vital incentive or motivation for writing an autobiography. Second, I analyze certain difficulties and temptations for conscience which are posed by the attempt to present truthfully one’s own character. Thus the first two sections discuss in turn the ways conscience sponsors and monitors the autobiographical act. Finally, I elaborate my understanding of what truthfulness in autobiography means. The most conscientious autobiographers — those, such as Augustine and McCarthy, to whom we attribute a truthful conscience — are both committed to and yet skeptical about achieving a truthful moral judgment of the self.

Keywords

Moral Judgment Moral Consciousness Historical Accuracy Essential Truth Good Conscience 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    See Elizabeth Bruss, Autobiographical Acts: The Changing Situation of a Literary Genre (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Ronald Preston, extending Aquinas’ definition of conscience as ‘the mind of man making moral judgments’, in The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics, ed. James F. Childress and John MacQuarrie (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1986) p. 116. In contrast to this broad definition, some views of conscience restrict the term exclusively to negative judgments about action, and some views see conscience referring always to past actions. The range of theological, psychological, and philosophical issues surrounding conscience may be seen in J. Donnelly and L. Lyons, eds, Conscience (New York: Alba House, 1973);Google Scholar
  3. C. E. Nelson, ed., Conscience: Theological and Psychological Perspectives (New York: Newman Press, 1973);Google Scholar
  4. Eric Mount, Jr., Conscience and Responsibility (Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1969);Google Scholar
  5. and Michel Despland, ‘Conscience’, The Encyclopedia of Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1987) vol. 4, 45–52.Google Scholar
  6. 3.
    Paul John Eakin, Fictions in Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985) pp. 213, 218, 219.Google Scholar
  7. 5.
    Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions, trans. J. M. Cohen (New York: Penguin, 1953) p. 17.Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    Saul Friedländer, When Memory Comes (New York: Avon, 1978) p. 114.Google Scholar
  9. 7.
    M. K. Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957) pp. xv, 8.Google Scholar
  10. 8.
    Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin, 1961) p. 207 (Book X, ch. 2).Google Scholar
  11. 9.
    Karl Weintraub, The Value of the individual: Self and Circumstance in Autobiography (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978) pp. 39–40.Google Scholar
  12. 10.
    Mary McCarthy, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1957) pp. 20–21.Google Scholar
  13. 12.
    Edmund Gosse, Father and Son (New York: Norton, 1963) p. 35.Google Scholar
  14. 17.
    J. H. Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, edited by David De Laura (New York: Norton, 1968) p. 13.Google Scholar
  15. 18.
    C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955) pp. 232–3.Google Scholar
  16. 19.
    See Frederick Kirchhoff, ‘Travel as Anti-Autobiography: William Morris’ Icelandic Journals’ in George P. Landow, ed., Approaches to Victorian Autobiography (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1979) pp. 292–310.Google Scholar
  17. 20.
    Among many recent studies of self-deception, three articles which link the phenomenon to autobiography are Stanley Hauerwas, ‘Self-Deception and Autobiography: Reflections on Speer’s Inside the Third Reich’ in Hauerwas’s Truthfulness and Tragedy: Further Investigations into Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977) pp. 82–98;Google Scholar
  18. and Anthony Palmer and T. S. Champlin’s essays in ‘Self-Deception: A Problem about Autobiography’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, supplementary volume 53 (1979) 61–94.Google Scholar
  19. 22.
    See Kenneth E. Kirk’s Conscience and Its Problems (London: Longman’s, Green & Co., 1927) chapters 5–7, for an interesting Anglican approach to moral casuistry. Other traditional moral categories could be used as a framework for interpreting the conscience of the autobiographer, for example the erroneous, the doubtful, or the perplexed conscience.Google Scholar
  20. 23.
    Krister Stendahl, ‘The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West’, in The Writings of St. Paul, ed. Wayne Meeks (New York: Norton, 1972) p. 433.Google Scholar
  21. 28.
    Avrom Fleishman, Figures of Autobiography: The Language of Self-Writing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983) p. 54. Here Fleishman draws on the work of Pierre Courcelle.Google Scholar
  22. 30.
    This is the theme of Roy Pascal’s groundbreaking study, Design and Truth in Autobiography (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960).Google Scholar
  23. 31.
    Since I completed this manuscript, Timothy Dow Adams published Telling Lies in Modern American Autobiography (Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 1990). Adams shares my view that truthfulness in autobiography can be achieved in many ways, even through lying: ‘My standard is not literal accuracy but personal authenticity. For me, narrative truth and personal myth are more telling than literal fidelity;. the autobiographer’s reasons for telling lies are more important than absolute accuracy’ (pp. x–xi). I would emphasize far more, however, the crucial roles of conscience in defining what counts as lying, in shaping the autobiographer’s confession or implication of a need to lie, and in the justification for lying in the pursuit of ‘personal authenticity’ (Adams) or what I call essential truthfulness.Google Scholar
  24. 40.
    Jean Starobinski, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988) p. 198.Google Scholar
  25. 42.
    James Childress, ‘Appeals to Conscience’, Ethics 89 (1979) p. 319: ‘Although a person’s appeal to his conscience usually involves an appeal to moral standards, conscience is not itself the standard. It is the mode of consciousness resulting from the application of standards to his conduct. For example, the retrospective bad conscience emerges after the moral judgment about the act. Even in the prospective bad conscience, a matter of the imagination, conscience still comes after the judgment of Tightness and wrongness.’CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© John D. Barbour 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.St. Olaf CollegeNorthfieldUSA

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