Conscience and Truthfulness

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


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.


Moral Judgment Moral Consciousness Historical Accuracy Essential Truth Good Conscience 
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    See Elizabeth Bruss, Autobiographical Acts: The Changing Situation of a Literary Genre (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).Google Scholar
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    This is the theme of Roy Pascal’s groundbreaking study, Design and Truth in Autobiography (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960).Google Scholar
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    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
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    Jean Starobinski, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988) p. 198.Google Scholar
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    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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