EVEN MORE WORDS
Anadiplosis (Devices V)
Paronomasia et al
Symploce et al.
Legal Words I
Legal Words II
Legal Words III
Bill Long 12/09/04
Yet, before I introduce you to the confusion that arose surrounding the word syneidesis, I must prolong our sense of common understanding and clarity for just a little longer. Perhaps this is reflective of my personality, since I really would like there to be clarity in the world even though so much confusion actually reigns. Thus, let's continue with clarity for just a second more.
We continue this clarity when we realize that syneidesis, when it comes into Latin, is rendered just as we would like it to be: conscientia. The plural is rarely used, but the singular is common beginning about the first century BCE and is a favorite of Cicero in some of his orations. The Oxford Latin Dictionary gives three significations of the term: (1) "The holding of knowledge in common"; (2) The act of being aware of something one has done or is responsible for, consciousness"; and (3) "An inward perception of the rectitude or otherwise of one's actions, moral sense, conscience."
If we stop and think for about 30 seconds, we see that the Latin definitions for conscientia mirror the Greek meanings of syneidesis almost exactly. You can lay one on top of the other and no fingers or legs will stick out. The first meaning is the literal rendering of each part of the word ("con" and "scio"); the second reflects the "conscience as standard" usage of Classical and New Testament Greek; and the third images the "conscience as moral judgment" part of the definition. Couldn't be clearer.
It couldn't be clearer, that is, until we get to the great biblical expositor Jerome--that fourth/fifth century translator of the Bible into Latin and the only comparable intellect to Augustine in the West at that time. Jerome was not only a great translator but a significant Biblical commentator. One of the first problems he encountered in interpreting the Book of Ezekiel was Ezekiel's stirring and strange vision of four living creatures coming out of a cloud in Ezek. 1. It was a "great cloud" that Ezekiel saw, "with brightness around it and fire flashing in the middle of the fire, something like gleaming amber (Exek 1:4)."
He saw four living creatures in the middle of the fire, and each of the creatures had a face. One had the face of a human being, one the face of a lion, one the face of an ox and one the face of an eagle (Ezek. 1:9-10--though the text is unclear, to me, whether each had four faces or each of the four had one face). Inasmuch as Jerome was steeped in Platonic philosophy (though not to the extent of Augustine), he identified the human face as representing the rational part of humans, the lion as the emotional, the ox as the appetitive and the eagle as that :
"which the Greeks call synteresis: that spark of conscience which was not even extinguished in the breast of Cain after he was turned out of paradise, and by which we discern that we sin, when we are overcome by pleasures or frenzy and meanwhile are misled by an imitation of reason (St. Jerome, Commentarium in Ezechielem, I, 1, in Migne, Patrologia Latina, vol. 25, col. 22, mentioned in Fagothey, here)."
All Hell Breaks Loose
Some have suggested that Jerome's use of synteresis here was actually a copyist's mistake in the surviving manuscript tradition, for synteresis is not attested previously to mean "conscience" and the difference between writing synteresis and syneidesis in Greek is not great. Be that as it may, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy is probably correct when it says "while it is unclear that Jerome meant to distinguish the two [synteresis and conscience], the distinction plays a major role in late medieval discussions of conscience." Cite is here.
It is not my purpose here to go into the various throes of medieval theologians/philosophers as they began to distinguish between synteresis and conscience. Suffice it to say that Bonaventure associates synteresis with the affective nature of man, and defines it as the human desire to do right and avoid evil, while he places conscience in the intellectual human faculty and further divides it into the power for discovering the truth of general principles and then the application of the general principles to human life. Suffice it to say that by the time we get to Bonaventure, we have all of a sudden been thrown into a swamp of massive proportions and brackish water, with absolutely no hope of redemption. Later medieval figures muddly the waters still further, and I will save you and myself the effort to clarify these thinkers. If you really are interested in the problem, you can begin with the article cited above. Close reading of it will cure your interest.
So, when the OED was first put together in the 19th century, the English language had various verbal excrescences from the past regarding conscience, filmy traces of concepts that pointed to something from earlier times. It had conscience, the "big" term, that had come from syneidesis through conscientia. In fact, that is all we ever really needed. But then, we had the word syneidesis, transliterated from the Greek. And then, we had synteresis, that mistake that Jerome introduced into the language, which then sent Catholic theologians on a journey they probably have never recovered from. If only the human mind would just for once be content with simplicity when simplicity actually does define what is before us. But that would be asking too much of people, I think. Instead of the prayer of St. Francis, "where there is darkness, (let me sow) light," it must have been the prayer of these divines, "where there is light, (let me sow) darkness." And, they spoke, and behold, there was darkness.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long