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The Doctor and Student (1518)
Christopher St. Germain
This word conscience, which in Latin is called conscientia, is compounded of this proposition cum, that is to say in English, with; and of this noun scientia, that is to say in English, knowledge: and so conscience is as much to say knowledge of one thing with another thing: and conscience so taken, is nothing else but an applying of any science or knowledge to some particular act of man. And so conscience may sometime err, and sometime not err. And of conscience thus taken, doctors make many descriptions. Whereof one doctor saith, that conscience is the law of our understanding. Another, that conscience is an habit of the mind discerning between good and evil. Another, that conscience is the judgment of reason judging on the particular acts of man. All which sayings agree in one effect, that is to say, that conscience is an actual applying of any cunning of knowledge to such things as are to be done: whereupon it followeth, that upon the most perfect knowledge of any law or cunning, and of the most perfect and most true applying of the same to any particular act of man, followeth the most perfect, the most pure, and the most best conscience. And if there be default in knowing of the truth of such a law, or in the applying of the same to particular acts, then thereupon followeth an error or default in conscience. As it may appear by this example: Sinderesis ministreth an universal principle that never erreth, that is to say, that an unlawful thing is not to be done. And then it might be taken by some men, that every oath is unlawful, because the Lord saith, Matt. 5, Ye shall in no wise swear; and yet he that by reason of the said words will hold that it is not lawful in no case to swear, erreth in conscience; for he hath not the perfect knowledge and understanding of the truth of the said gospel, nor he reduceth not the saying of the scripture to other scriptures, in which it is granted that in some case an oath may be lawful. And the cause why conscience may so err in the said case, and in other like, is because conscience is formed of a certain proposition or question, grounded particularly upon universal rules ordained for such things as are to be done. And because a particular proposition is not known to himself, but must appear and be searched by a diligent search of reason, therefore in search and in the conscience that should be formed thereupon may happen to be error, and thereupon it is said that there is error in conscience: which error cometh either because he doth not assent to that he ought to assent unto, or else because his reason whereby he doth refer one thing to another is deceived. For farther declaration whereof it is, to understand, that error in conscience cometh seven manner of ways. First, through ignorance; and that is, when man knoweth not what he ought to do: and then he ought to ask counsel of them that he thinks most expert in that science whereupon his doubt riseth. And if he can have no counsel, then he must wholly commit him to God, and he of his goodness will so order him, that he will save him from offence. The second is through negligence; as when a man is negligent to search his own conscience, or to enquire the truth of other. The third is through pride; as when he will not meeken himself, ne believe them that be better and wiser than he is. The fourth is through singularity; as when a man followeth his own wit, and will not conform himself to other, nor follow the good common ways of men. The fifth is through an inordinate affection to himself, whereby he maketh. conscience to follow his desire, and so he causeth her to go out of her right course. The sixth is through pusillanimity, whereby some person dreadeth ofttimes such things as of reason he ought not to dread.. The seventh is through perplexity; and this is when a man believeth himself to be so set betwixt two sins, that he thinketh it unpossible but that he shall fall into the one but a man can never be so perplexed indeed, but through an error in conscience; and if he will put away that error, he shall be delivered. Therefore I pray thee that thou wilt always have a good conscience; and if thou have so, thou shalt always be merry; and if thine own heart reprove thee not, thou shalt always have inward peace. The gladness of right wise men, is of God, and in God, and their joy is always in truth and goodness. There be many diversities of conscience, but there is none better than that whereby a man truly knoweth himself. Many men know many great and high cunning things, and yet know not themselves; and truly he that knoweth not himself, knoweth nothing well. Also he hath a good and clean conscience, that hath purity and cleanness in his heart, truth in his word, and right wiseness in his deed. And as a light is set in a lantern, that all that is in the house may be seen thereby; so Almighty God hath set conscience in the midst of every reasonable soul, as, a light whereby he may discern and know what he ought to do, and what he ought not to do. Therefore forasmuch as it behoveth thee to be occupied in such things as pertain to the law; it is necessary that thou ever hold a pure and clean conscience, specially in such things as concern restitution: for the sin is not forgiven, but if the thing that is wrongfully taken be restored. And I counsel thee also that thou love that is good, and flee that is evil: and that thou do to another, as thou wouldest should be done to thee, and that thou do nothing to other, that thou wouldest not should be done to thee, that thou do nothing against truth, that thou live peaceably with thy neighbour, and that thou do justice to every man as much as in thee is: and also that in every general rule of the law thou do observe and keep equity. And if thou do thus, I trust the light of the lantern, that is, thy conscience, shall never be extincted.
Stud. But, I pray thee, shew me what is that equity that thou hast spoken of before, and that thou wouldest that I should keep.
Doct. I will with good-will shew thee somewhat thereof.