Synd(t)eresis and Syneidesis
Bill Long 12/09/04
Clearing up the Conscience
In this and the next mini-essay I propose to create a problem that you never knew existed and then to solve that problem. By the end of the next essay, then, you should be saying "Phew for nothing!" Yet, the story of "conscience," which I will tell briefly here, is a window into one of the realities of language. Language accretes. That is, words pick up significations along the way that may or may not have been part of the original meaning. We then "inherit" the words and assume that as we learn and use them that they are true and right and useful to describe life.
Yet the dictionaries we consult, no matter how sophisticated, often just reflect the confusion of the moment when the dictionaries were put together. To unpack the confusion, we need to peel the onion of language, and take it back to the historical origins, which themselves are sometimes only dimly limned in the mists of time.
Starting with the OED
Let's start with words in 2004. The OED has two unfamiliar terms for conscience which have long philosophical and theological pedigrees: synteresis (or synderesis) and syneidesis. The OED defines the former as follows: "A name for that function or department of conscience which serves as a guide for conduct; conscience as directive of one's actions; distinguished from syneidesis." Ok. Synteresis emphasizes conscience as "guide." Then, we look at syneidesis. "That function or department of conscience which is concerned with passing judgment on acts already performed (Contrasted with synteresis)." Here it is conscience as "passing judgment" on one's acts. An 18th century theologian reflected this different assessment of the terms when he said, "By the former (synteresis)...man having as it were a standard within himself of good and evil, he may guide himself in the choice of his actions...by the latter he is able to reflect upon himself...and pass judgment upon himself." Even though the dictionary and author try to distinguish between the two, the distinction is a bit squishy, don't you think? On the one hand it is what one might call the "rule" or "standard" by which you measure things; on the other hand it is the "faculty of judgment." It is getting a bit obscure, even for me.
It is All Just a Big Mistake
So, when confronted with something squishy like this, which theologians and philosophers then want to systematize, I dig beneath the surface. Usually you find utter confusion about 1500 years ago. Here you find something else: probably a copyist's mistake. But in order to get us to understand the possibly copyist's mistake and how medieval theologians then ran with it, tying themselves up in intellectual knots, let's start easily, with the original Greek word(s).
As the Munchkins said to Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, "It's always best to start at the beginning, and all you do is follow the Yellow Brick Road." When we start at the beginning, we discover that there is one word and one word alone for conscience in ancient Greek: syneidesis. The word is composed of the preposition "syn" ("with") and the noun, derived from the verb, meaning "to know." Syneidesis, therefore, is some kind of "knowledge with" or "secret knowledge" or "inner knowledge." It can be translated as "inner consciousness," as "conscience or consciousness of right and wrong" or even "complicity or guilt." Thus, the single Greek word syneidesis captures both the sense of conscience as "standard" and conscience as "passing judgment."
Coming to the New Testament
You can bet your last dollar that a New Testament theologian like the Apostle Paul picks up on the term. And, so do the Pastoral Epistles (I-II Timothy, Titus), those moralistic guides to conduct, written about a generation after Paul, when the white-hot doctrine of justification by faith had lost some of its molten heat and settled into more comfortable patterns of ethical rules. Krister Stendahl, the former Dean of the Harvard Divinity School, made a name for himself in the early 1960s by penning an article entitled "Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West," in which he argues that the Apostle actually stood at the fountainhead of the movements, which were starting to proliferate about 40 years ago, to probe the "inner life." Whether or not we can credit Paul with such influence, Stendahl's observation is sound on one level: Paul is a theologian of the conscience.
Space only permits consideration of a few of Paul's many uses of the term. While speaking of the ultimate spiritual fate of Gentiles who were not "under the (Jewish) law" and had not heard of Christ, he says:
"They show that what the law requires is writen on their hearts, to which their conscience (syneidesis) also bears witness (Rom 2:15)."
A little later in the same epistle he is struggling with the apparent lack of interest in the Gospel among the Jews:
"I am speaking the truth in Christ--I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit--I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart (Rom 9:1-2)."
One other reference will suffice us here. Paul's most detailed discussion of "conscience" is in his advice to the Corinthian Christians about dietary issues (I Cor 10). Because many Christians were first Jews before they became Christians and many of the others were pagans who had frequently particpated in food offerings to their gods, Paul addressed the issue of whether a Christian might, in good conscience, eat food that had been first consecrated to a pagan god. If someone tells him that food has been offered to a pagan god, then, "for the sake of conscience--I mean the other's conscience, not your own," the person shouldn't eat the food so offered (I Cor 10:23-30). Conscience, for Paul, seems to have both the "standard" and "inner judgment" dimensions of the classical term.
This preliminary survey on conscience has shown, so far, that the dual meaning of syneidesis as both standard and inner feeling or judgment is also reflected in Paul. We should, actually, be having fun now, as we have clarity on a term. Let's go to the next essay and see the confusion arise.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long