Philology Phriday––Conscience

18 Jun

The evolution of the word conscience is a story that I’ve held close to my heart for many years. I thank Dev for starting this thing called Philology Phriday so that I, Dev, can relieve myself of the emotional baggage––the tale––that has been weighing down on me since I was but a boy.

The word comes from the Latin “conscientia,” a conjugation of the verb “conscire.” The union of con (or together) + scire (or to know), when translated into our everyday English, means something like “to know along with another or to be privy (what a great word) to a matter with another. In this sense, conscience is a shared thing. A general something or other that you and me and you and everyone else we know can share in or not. Whatevs.

In English, the term normally subbed in for the now retired “inwit” (normally around the 65th minute or so) and was used just like it, as a noun of condition (think of words like intelligence, prescience, or prudence). By noun of condition, I mean that, as a noun, conscience indicates, basically, whether I am in the know or out of the know, much like the Latin roots glossed above. Because it was a noun of condition, there were no plural consciences. Just the one.

But one strain of the conscience gene started to evolve in use, becoming something like a member of the mental faculties, and, in this shift, packed with it some very big implications. To come up with an analogy on the spot, think of conscience as a Philosophy professor at your college and your college as your mind. In this newish use, one either has the entity known as conscience or doesn’t, just like a college has professor of Philosophy on the faculty or doesn’t. Soon enough, people like me and you (and yes, you too) started to append their own personal pronouns to their use of the word conscience; as in, “My conscience tells me that your conscience sleeps in a little too late on Sunday mornings and doesn’t brush its teeth every day like it told its dentist at its last semi-annual check-up.”

Seeing this shift can show us a lot. For me it means two things––(1) it gives each conscience an implied air of subjectivity (a word which itself means two things, both individual autonomy and antithetical to any objective, universal, categorical blank (feel free to fill in the blank with whatever you want, like MadLibs)) that then (2) categorizes conscience as a matter of persona, as a part of my person, something that is either good or bad, that I carry with me all the time (like American Express used to propose in its advertisements for its own cards back when I was but a wee (well wee-er) boy of around 12 or 13). This makes me the sole owner, proprietor, and executioner of my conscience. What used to be ours is now mine. And yours. And yours. Except now, mine can be good or bad, and so can yours. And yours.

And here’s my baggage. To take a page out of Existentialist thought, I can’t help but feel an overwhelming, sweat-inducing, discomforting, nauseating sense of utter ambivalence at this new (and prevalent) use of the word. What does it mean that I am sole owner and blah blah blah of my conscience? It can be really empowering in a James-Dean-in-Rebel-Without-a-Cause-except-not-cuz-I-have-a-conscience-which-is-like-having-a-cause kinda way. But then again, its kinda scary to think about. That’s a lot of pressure. The notion makes me feel claustrophobic all of a sudden. I have a friggin conscience whether I like it or not, mister. Oh and I will make it good. I better. But what if I don’t wanna? No, sir, Mr. Dev Himanshu Varma, you have to. I know best. Fine, I’ll have a good conscience. And don’t talk to me like that. I’m your conscience. All right, fine, jeeze, just get off my back, conscience.

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