No Rest for the Wicked

One way to diagnose someone with a bad conscience is to look for a certain form of restlessness.  If the conscience is God’s umpire within us, impartial, no respecter of what our desires may happen to be, we cannot simply make it go away.

It does not belong to us.  We may try to drown out its voice by a lot of noise of our own, the chatter and babble of excuse-making and prevarication.  We may plug up our ears or turn our attention elsewhere.  These are the actions of people who know, deep down, that they are doing wrong, and who half wish that things were otherwise.

But when you commit yourself to the wrong by an irrevocable decision, when you do more than make excuses, when you raise up the wrong as right, what happens?  You cannot abolish that umpire, and you cannot overturn the moral law.  It is then that a peculiar restlessness sets in, which is more than unease: a determined drive, a goad, a fury, a spirit of vengeance against the conscience and against good itself.

Milton’s Satan experiences it as it drives him on to the new created world, in revenge “which like a devilish engine back recoils / Upon himself,” while his passions of horror and doubt “from the bottom stir / The hell within him.”  He is, paradoxically, powerless to relent, powerless to cease from seeking power, even though he knows – and he admits it when no one is around to overhear – that while all the devils adore him on the throne of Hell, “the lower still I fall, only supreme / In misery.”

What are the telltales of that fury?  Ghastly exaggeration, for one.  Consider the days when the Clintons and their allies said that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.”  That was a sign of uneasiness.  For the obvious question was, “Why should it be rare?”  We do not say of other morally indifferent things, such as having a wart removed or getting a haircut, that they should be rare. 

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