Arendt and Thoreau on Conscience

The aim of this paper is to explore conscience and its critical nature as it relates to "thinking" and the political world.  Hannah Arendt serves as the starting point for the investigation by providing a conception of conscience.  Her portrayal of conscience as an internal dialogue that stems from thinking raises the question of the relation between the internal and solitary life of the mind and the active and communal elements of public life.  In her essay "Civil Disobedience" she makes explicit reference to Henry David Thoreau, finding his act of disobedience to be nonpolitical, in the sense that he consulted and acted from his own conscience- showing himself as a "good person."  Elsewhere she indicates that thinking and the conscience provide a foundation for the public and political life of the "good citizen."  Drawing from the idea that conscience can serve as a basis for living with others, Arendt's seeming discrepancy between the "good person" and the "good citizen" can be overcome.  By bringing into detail Thoreau's own conception and reliance on conscience it will be shown that Arendt was too hasty in her account of Thoreau.  Additionally, Thoreau poses a question to Arendt that if answered would offer further strength to the relation between thinking and the public world.

The first part of the paper will discuss Arendt's conception of conscience.  This will be done by showing its connection to thinking, as it is understood by Arendt.  The emphasis will focus on the "two-in-one" character of the self.  Conscience is an internal dialogue that takes place between the self and itself.  Socrates epitomizes this relation and his propositions holding that it is better to live in harmony with oneself than with the majority and it is better to suffer wrong than to commit it serve as evidence of this relation.  By additionally considering Arendt's essay "Philosophy and Politics" the way we come to see the world and its inhabitants can be understood as being derived from the internal plurality contained within us.  The recognition of this plurality is found from conscience and it is this that provides access to the public world.  Consequently, in revealing that conscience influences how we view and interact with others the example of Thoreau can regain significance.

Primarily through Walden and "Civil Disobedience" we can see the importance of conscience and being able to keep company with oneself for Thoreau.  He stresses the ability to think without the aid and influence of government and society, fostering a sense of self-reliance that inevitably would provide a critical vantage for the self and the world.  Though he seems to want to dismiss the society of others, his concern is better understood as wanting to incite people to think for themselves in order to better live and act in society.  Thus in a similar way to Arendt we find a prioritization of being able to live with oneself before being able to live with others.

The concluding section finds that conscience in its critical sense is vital for both private and public life, directing one to seek agreement as its criteria. However, in reading Thoreau there is found constant reference to the past in myth and stories. It would seem that Thoreau seeks to use historical and cultural traditions to indicate valuable insights that remain relevant. If this can be maintained then it would seem that one of the partners in the internal dialogue of conscience holds ties to tradition.  This is the question that remains for Arendt, for if within the self there is a connection to tradition then listening to conscience could again serve to orient one to the public world.