Pangs Of Conscience--A Study in Moral Courage

June 12, 2012

I have recently been deeply moved by the writing of Dmitri Likhachev, a brilliant Russian scholar and philosopher,  who lived during the toughest days of Russia during the 20th Century He endured imprisonment in the gulags and the 900 day siege of Leningrad. Yet his moral spirit never wavered.

Here are some of his words that challenge me to live at my best:

Pangs of Conscience
People have become accustomed to leading double lives – saying one thing and thinking another.  They have lost the ability to speak the truth, the whole truth.  And a half truth is the worst type of lie; in a half truth the lie masquerades as the truth, hidden by a screen of partial truth. 

Conscience always arises from the depth of the soul. True honor is always in accordance with conscience.  False honor is a mirage in a desert. And this mirage is harmful.  It creates false goals which lead to dissipation and sometimes to the death of authentic values.

Honor must therefore be in harmony with conscience.  

How is inner honor expressed?   When a person keeps his word.  When he behaves in a respectable way; when he does not violate ethical norms, acts dignified, does not grovel before a superior or before any “benefactor,” does not conform to outside opinion, is not obstinate in proving his own rightness, does not settle personal scores, does not compensate people he needs with state funds, with various indulgences, with arrangements for his people’s work, etc.  In general such a person knows how to differentiate the personal from the state and subjective from objective, in evaluating his environment.

What are we – afraid?  In truth there is no fear.  Truth and fear are incompatible.  We should fear only our own vicious thoughts, thoughts which are disrespectful toward our friends, toward any person or toward our native land.  There is only one fear we should have – the fear of lying.  Then there will be a healthy moral atmosphere in our society.

What is important to a person?  How should life be lived?  Above all it is essential not to commit any acts which would injure one’s self-esteem.  It is possible not to do very much in life, but if you do not do anything, even a little, against your own conscience, then in this very way you will bring colossal benefit.  Even in our ordinary everyday lives.  But of course there can also be difficult situations in life when a person has a choice before him – to be disgraced in the eyes of those around or in his own eyes.  I am sure that it is better to be disgraced before others, than before one’s own conscience. 

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