I’m just about halfway through my third reading of Umberto Eco’s marvelous first novel The Name of the Rose. Every time I return to it I find something new. It is a murder mystery set in a medieval monastery but it is also so much more. It is a novel of deceit, desire, philosophy, signs, church, state, religion, heresy, power, powerlessness, truth, error, and the difficulties in discerning them in the world. Some of its greatest conflicts are those of conscience.
The last time I read the novel was three years ago, opening it the evening I learned of Eco’s passing in the winter of 2016. Eco’s explanation of the importance of fiction, “On the advantages of fiction for life and death,” is perhaps the greatest lecture on why fiction so often reveals more truth than our clouded everyday experience of reality itself.
It was through reading The Name of the Rose that I first began to understand the relationship between truth, error, religion, and conscience. It was through the background of that fictional world that I was able to better understand the great nineteenth century proponents of conscience and its rights, St. John Henry Newman and Lord Acton.
At Public Discourse Thomas Farr, President of the Religious Freedom Institute, offers an excellent engagement with Newman’s thought on these questions:
John Henry Newman’s teachings provide a proper grounding for freedom of conscience and for the Catholic Church’s duty to defend the truth, both to its members and to society in general. In both of these ways, Newman prefigured the Church’s 1965 Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae. Together, Newman and Dignitatis can help us resist the erroneous notion of the free conscience pointed inward to self and isolated from God and nature. Instead, they teach that a truly free conscience is oriented toward God, who, more intimate to self and nature than anyone or anything, is the only guarantor of true freedom. Since Newman’s time, this error has damaged free societies and entered the Church itself. Following Newman and Dignitatis will permit us to defend true freedom of conscience, both within the Church, and for everyone, everywhere.
Reading these fictional and historical reflections on conscience I turned this morning to the letters of Lord Acton to Mary Gladstone and stumbled upon this wonderful reflection by Lord Acton on the same themes:
We all know some twenty or thirty predominant currents of thought or attitudes of mind, or system-bearing principles, which jointly or severally weave the web of human history and constitute the civilised opinion of the age. All these, I imagine, a serious man ought to understand, in whatever strength or weakness they possess, in their causes and effects, and in their relations to each other. The majority of them are either religious or substitutes for religion. For instance, Lutheran, Puritan, Anglican, Ultramontane, Socinian, Congregational, Mystic, Rationalist, Utilitarian, Pantheist, Positivist, Pessimist, Materialist, and so on. All understanding of history depends on one’s understanding the forces that make it, of which religious forces are the most active, and the most definite. We cannot follow all the variations of a human mind, but when we know the religious motive, that the man was an Anabaptist, an Arminian, a Deist or a Jansenist, we have the master key, we stand on known ground, we are working a sum that has been, at least partially, worked out for us, we follow a computed course, and get rid of guesses and accidents…
a man living in the world, in constant friction with adversaries, in constant contemplation of religious changes, sensible of the power which is exerted by strange doctrines over minds more perfect, characters that are stronger, lives that are purer than his own. He is bound to know the reason why. First, because, if he does not, his faith runs a risk of sudden ruin. Secondly, for a reason which I cannot explain without saying what you may think bad psychology or bad dogma— I think that faith implies sincerity, that it is a gift that does not dwell in dishonest minds. To be sincere a man must battle with the causes of error that beset every mind. He must pour constant streams of electric light into the deep recesses where prejudice dwells, and passion, hasty judgments and wilful blindness deem themselves unseen. He must continually grub up the stumps planted by all manner of unrevised influence. The subtlest of all such influences is not family, or college, or country, or class, or party, but religious antagonism. There is much more danger for a high-principled man of doing injustice to the adherent of false doctrine, of judging with undeserved sympathy the conspicuous adherent of true doctrine, than of hating a Frenchman or loving a member of Brooks’s. Many a man who thinks the one disgraceful is ready to think the other more than blameless. To develop and perfect and arm conscience is the great achievement of history, the chief business of every life, and the first agent therein is religion or what resembles religion.
Umberto Eco once said of the author of the pulp thriller The Da Vinci Code,
“Dan Brown is one of the characters in my novel, “Foucault’s Pendulum,” which is about people who start believing in occult stuff.”
In re-reading The Name of the Rose I have the uneasy feeling that my own intellectual journey may likewise be Eco’s creation: I started believing in the centrality of conscience. If you’d like to become captivated by the nature of conscience Eco is an excellent place to start. Once captivated by conscience St. John Henry Newman and Lord Acton, the modern masters of the subject, are invaluable guides to your own exercise thereof which is the chief business of life.