Joyce ends Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man with the celebrated lines: "Welcome o life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race."
This epiphany has come for the book’s main character, Stephen Dedalus, at the end of a long struggle which has involved, randomly, reflections on hell and beauty, dalliance with prostitutes and abortive pursuit of a religious vocation.
Earlier, as he is forging his own conscience, Stephen declares to classmate Cranly his non serviam, appropriating in deliberately shocking fashion the phrase attributed to Lucifer by Milton:
“I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile, and cunning.”
The sense of a furtive and chaotic inner life being opposed to a composed but fraudulent exterior dominates the three central chapters of Portrait as Stephen dares to wear the mask of holiness before the tabernacle while his soul is a living mess of corruption.
His crisis of conscience is Irish and Catholic in its terror, ardour and intensity. In Ulysses, Joyce contrasts Leopold Bloom and Stephen who, "steeled in the school of old Aquinas and drilled in the moral discipline of Loyola . . . can never escape the need for analysis and self-accusation".
Joyce's forging of a new conscience amounts to, in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, delivering to fiction those secret processes of the unconscious that had never previously been articulated in respectable literature.
The sound barrier of Joyce’s enterprise was social reticence, the wall or facade between the private and the public self, affirmed in their different ways by both Victorian England and Irish Catholicism. Breaking this barrier was the supreme achievement of his fiction.
John Henry Newman was held in high regard by Joyce as the master of English prose. And what can be in no doubt is that conscience is held in the highest regard by John Henry Newman. Throughout Newman’s work, conscience is most frequently understood as something akin to consciousness and as nothing less than the surest pathway to God. For Newman, conscience commands.
He states this in most dramatic terms: “Were it not for this voice, speaking so clearly in my conscience and my heart, I should be an atheist.”
In his 1850 work, On Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching, Newman describes conscience as "the aboriginal vicar of Christ". It is the priority implied in this that is at the basis of Newman's later 1875 declaration that he would drink "to conscience first and to the pope afterwards". Newman is retrieving and revivifying the tradition, going all the way back to Paul in Romans, of conscience as implanted in our nature.
Conscience and revelation
Unlike reformers such as Luther and Calvin, he sees this nature as strengthened – not annihilated – by revelation; conscience and revelation "recognise and bear witness to each other". His words on drinking to conscience before the pope come, of course, in the context of the debates which succeeded the 1870 definition of papal infallibility.
His 1875 Letter Addressed to His Grace the Duke of Norfolk, where the words appear, was itself triggered by Gladstone's 1874 offering The Vatican Decrees in their Bearing on Civil Allegiance which, based on a misapprehension of the precise significance of the definition as Newman successfully points out, was effectively a version of the "no man can serve two masters" argument.
Newman’s subtlety of intellect is shown in how, in his letter, he refutes both Gladstone’s suggestion that we cannot trust a Catholic who believes in something like papal infallibility to be a good citizen and any attempt at a strong, ultramontane (Roman) interpretation of the newly defined doctrine itself.
This definition has nothing to do with the laws of the land, he declares. All morality and all religion derive from and depend on the inviolable sovereignty of conscience. He insists on the “duty of obeying our conscience at all hazards”.
This is an edited version from a talk, Still Uncreated? Joyce, Newman and the Irish Conscience, delivered by the late Dr Pádraic Conway of UCD's Centre for Newman Studies at the 2011 Percy French Summer School. The summer school continues from tomorrow at Castlecoote House, Co Roscommon. Speakers include Mary O'Rourke, Abbot Mark Patrick Hederman, Fr Brendan Hoban, Dr Ethna Regan, Dr Pauric Travers and Dr Luke Gibbons. Details at www.percyfrench.ie, with a full version of Dr Conway's talk