Quotations about   conscience

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A strong man must be militant as well as moderate. He must be a realist as well as an idealist. If I am to merit the trust invested in me by some of my race, I must be both of these things. This is why nonviolence is a powerful as well as a just weapon. If you confront a man who has long been cruelly misusing you, and say, “Punish me, if you will; I do not deserve it, but I will accept it, so that the world will know I am right and you are wrong,” then you wield a powerful and a just weapon. This man, your oppressor, is automatically morally defeated, and if he has any conscience, he is ashamed. Wherever this weapon is used in a manner that stirs a community’s, or a nation’s, anguished conscience, then the pressure of public opinion becomes an ally in your just cause.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) American clergyman, civil rights leader, orator
Playboy interview (Jan 1965)
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Added on 18-Jan-19 | Last updated 18-Jan-19
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Agitation is the marshalling of the conscience of a nation to mold its laws.

Robert Peel (1788-1850) British statesman, Prime Minister (1834-35, 1841-46)
(Attributed)
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Sometimes quoted as "conscience of a people." Widely quoted without source in the late 19th Century (earliest ref. 1881).
Added on 2-Apr-18 | Last updated 2-Apr-18
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There are three possible ways in which the church can act toward the state: in the first place, as has been said, it can ask the state whether its actions are legitimate and in accordance with its character as state, i.e., it can throw the state back on its responsibilities. Secondly, it can aid the victims of state action. The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community. “Do good to all men.” In both these course of action, the church serves the free state in its free way, and at times when laws are changed the church may in no way withdraw itself from these two tasks.

The third possibility is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself. Such action would be direct political action, and is only possible and required when the church sees the state fail in its function of creating law and order, i.e., when it sees the state unrestrainedly bring about too much or too little law and order.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) German Lutheran pastor, theologian, martyr
“The Church and the Jewish Question” (1933)
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On the need for Christian clergy to actively oppose the Nazi regime's persecution of Jews.
Added on 8-Jan-18 | Last updated 8-Jan-18
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To our most bitter opponents we say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) American clergyman, civil rights leader, orator
“Loving Your Enemies,” Sermon, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery (25 Dec 1957)
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No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) American philosopher and writer
Walden, “Economy” (1854)
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Added on 3-May-17 | Last updated 17-May-17
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The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent. In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with him as a person, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like that have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) German Lutheran pastor, theologian, martyr
“On Stupidity” (1942)
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Added on 22-Mar-17 | Last updated 22-Mar-17
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Virtue is not always amiable.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Diary (9 Feb 1779)
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The only guide to a man is his conscience, the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and the sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour.

Winston Churchill (1874-1965) British statesman and author
Eulogy for Neville Chamberlain (1940)

In The Second World War, Vol. 2: Their Finest Hour (1949)
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The ultimate test of man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.

nelson-ultimate-test-of-mans-conscience-wist_info-quote

Gaylord Nelson (1916-2005) American politician and environmentalist
“Ah, Wilderness! Save It,” New York Times (4 Sep 1984)
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Added on 31-Oct-16 | Last updated 2-Nov-16
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Our Passions, Ambition, Avarice, Love, Resentment &c possess so much metaphysical Subtilty and so much overpowering Eloquence, that they insinuate themselves into the Understanding and the Conscience and convert both to their Party. And I may be deceived as much as any of them, when I Say, that Power must never be trusted without a Check.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Thomas Jefferson (2 Feb 1816)
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Added on 3-Aug-16 | Last updated 3-Aug-16
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Money dishonestly acquired is never worth its cost, while a good conscience never costs as much as it is worth.

Jean-Antoine Petit-Senn (1792-1870) French-Swiss poet
Maxims and Ethical Sentences
Added on 26-Jul-16 | Last updated 26-Jul-16
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Beware, beware! he’ll cheat ‘ithout scruple, who can without fear.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) American statesman, scientist, philosopher
Poor Richard’s Almanack (1743)
Added on 19-Jul-16 | Last updated 19-Jul-16
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Opinion, and the just maintenance of it, shall never be a crime in my view; nor bring injury on the individual.

Jefferson - opinion - wist_info quote

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) American political philosopher, polymath, statesman, US President (1801-09)
Letter to Samuel Adams (29 Mar 1801)
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Sometimes misattributed to George Washington.
Added on 1-Jul-16 | Last updated 1-Jul-16
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He without benefit of scruples
His fun and money soon quadruples.

Ogden Nash (1902-1971) American poet
In The Selected Verse of Ogden Nash (1945)
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There is a capacity of virtue in us, and there is a capacity of vice to make your blood creep.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
Journal (1831)
Added on 9-Mar-16 | Last updated 9-Mar-16
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The voice of conscience is so delicate that it is easy to stifle it; but it is also so clear that it is impossible to mistake it.

De Stael - voice of conscience - wist_info quote

Germaine de Staël (1766-1817) Swiss-French writer, woman of letters, critic, salonist [Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein, Madame de Staël, Madame Necker]
Germany [De l’Allemagne], Part 3, ch. 13 (1813)
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If you derive pleasure from the good which you have performed and you grieve for the evil which you have committed, you are a true believer.

Muhammad (570-632) Arabian merchant, prophet, founder of Islam [Mohammed]
The Sayings of Muhammed, #67 [tr. Al-Suhrawardy (1941)]
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The Bible is a sealed book to him who has not first heard its laws from his soul.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
“Trust Yourself,” sermon (1830)
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General, man is very useful.
He can fly and he can kill.
But he has one defect:
He can think.

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) German poet, playwright, director, dramaturgist
“General, Your Tank Is a Powerful Vehicle,” in “From a German War Primer,” The Svendborg Poems (1939) [tr. Baxandall]
Added on 7-Jan-16 | Last updated 7-Jan-16
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General, your tank
is a powerful vehicle
it smashes down forests
and crushes a hundred men.
but it has one defect:
it needs a driver.

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) German poet, playwright, director, dramaturgist
“General, Your Tank Is a Powerful Vehicle,” in “From a German War Primer,” The Svendborg Poems (1939) [tr. Baxandall]
Added on 10-Dec-15 | Last updated 10-Dec-15
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An act is not good because we feel obliged to do it; it is rather that we feel obliged to do it because it is good.

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) Polish-American rabbi, theologian, philosopher
Man Is Not Alone, ch. 13 (1951)
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The guilty think all talk is of themselves.

Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400) English poet, philosopher, astronomer, diplomat
The Canterbury Tales, “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue” (1390?) [tr. Coghill (1951)]
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The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. “But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.” Yes, he can. He must. Not can: must! Because he has this commandment within him. Instead, this “closing off” that imagines that those outside, everyone, cannot do good is a wall that leads to war and also to what some people throughout history have conceived of: killing in the name of God. That we can kill in the name of God. And that, simply, is blasphemy. To say that you can kill in the name of God is blasphemy.

Francis I (b. 1936) Argentinian Catholic Pope (2013- ) [b. Jorge Mario Bergoglio]
Homily (22 May 2013)
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Added on 28-Sep-15 | Last updated 28-Sep-15
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Things said or done long years ago,
Or things I did not do or say
But thought that I might say or do,
Weigh me down, and not a day
But something is recalled,
My conscience or my vanity appalled.

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) Irish poet and dramatist
“Vacillation,” The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933)
Added on 28-Sep-15 | Last updated 28-Sep-15
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Every time I’ve done something that doesn’t feel right, it’s ended up not being right.

Mario Cuomo (1932-2015) American politician
(Attributed)
Added on 8-Jun-15 | Last updated 8-Jun-15
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I shall stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.

John Bunyan (1628–1688) English Christian writer, preacher
(Attributed)

Quoted in M. L. King, Jr., "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" (16 Apr 1963).
Added on 25-Mar-15 | Last updated 25-Mar-15
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We have a backstage view of ourselves and a third-row view of everybody else.

Garrison Keillor (b. 1942) American entertainer, author
(Attributed)
Added on 24-Sep-14 | Last updated 24-Sep-14
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And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

The Bible (14th C BC - 2nd C AD) Christian sacred scripture
1 Kings 19:11-12 (KJV)

Alt. trans.:

  • "Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper." (NIV)
  • "Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence." (NRSV)
Added on 10-Sep-14 | Last updated 10-Sep-14
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Nothing makes one so vain as being told that one is a sinner. Conscience makes egotists of us all.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) Irish poet, wit, dramatist
The Picture of Dorian Gray, ch. 8 [Lord Henry] (1891)
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Many consult their reputation; but few their conscience.

Publilius Syrus (d. 42 BC) Assyrian slave, writer, philosopher [less correctly Publius Syrus]
Sententiae [Moral Sayings], # 254 [tr. Lyman (1862)
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On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it is politic?” Vanity asks the question, “Is it is popular?” But Conscience asks the question, “Is it right?” There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) American clergyman, civil rights leader, orator
Speech, Santa Rita, Calif., (14 Jan 1968)

Recording (at 10:22). King reused speech elements frequently. The same passage can be found in "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution", sermon at the National Cathedral, Washington, DC (31 Mar 1968).
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Whenever the devil harasses you, seek the company of men or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing. Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, aye, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles. We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all. So when the devil says to you: “Do not drink,” answer him: “I will drink, and right freely, just because you tell me not to.” One must always do what Satan forbids.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) German religious reformer
Letter to Jerome Weller (Jul 1530)
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Alt. trans.: "We are soon defeated if we try too hard not to sin. So when the devil says ‘Do not drink’ answer him: ‘I shall drink, and right freely, just because you tell me not to!’"
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CONSCIENCE: The inner voice which warns us someone may be looking.

H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) American writer and journalist [Henry Lewis Mencken]
“This and That,” A Mencken Chrestomathy (1949)
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Consult your conscience, rather than popular opinion.

Publilius Syrus (d. 42 BC) Assyrian slave, writer, philosopher [less correctly Publius Syrus]
Sententiae [Moral Sayings], # 146 [tr. Lyman (1862)]
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Vanity asks the question — is it popular? Conscience asks the question — is it right?

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) American clergyman, civil rights leader, orator
Sermon, Passion Sunday, National Cathedral, Washington, DC (31 Mar 1968)

See also this.
Added on 30-Mar-09 | Last updated 19-Jan-15
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I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) German religious reformer
Speech before the Diet of Worms (18 Apr 1521)
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Formerly there were those who said: You believe things that are incomprehensible, inconsistent, impossible because we have commanded you to believe them; go then and do what is unjust because we command it. Such people show admirable reasoning. Truly, whoever is able to make you absurd is able to make you unjust. If the God-given understanding of your mind does not resist a demand to believe what is impossible, then you will not resist a demand to do wrong to that God-given sense of justice in your heart. As soon as one faculty of your soul has been dominated, other faculties will follow as well. And from this derives all those crimes of religion which have overrun the world.

[Il y a eu des gens qui ont dit autrefois: Vous croyez des choses incompréhensibles, contradictoires, impossibles, parce que nous vous l’avons ordonné; faites donc des choses injustes parce que nous vous l’ordonnons. Ces gens-là raisonnaient à merveille. Certainement qui est en droit de vous rendre absurde est en droit de vous rendre injuste. Si vous n’opposez point aux ordres de croire l’impossible l’intelligence que Dieu a mise dans votre esprit, vous ne devez point opposer aux ordres de malfaire la justice que Dieu a mise dans votre coeur. Une faculté de votre âme étant une fois tyrannisée, toutes les autres facultés doivent l’être également. Et c’est là ce qui a produit tous les crimes religieux dont la terre a été inondée.] 

Voltaire (1694-1778) French writer [pseud. of Francois-Marie Arouet]
Questions sur les miracles (1765)

Alt trans.: "Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities."

Added on 11-Jun-08 | Last updated 17-Jul-15
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Whatever issue may come before me as President — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject — I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise. But if the time should ever come — and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible — when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same.

John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) US President (1961-63)
Speech, Greater Houston Ministerial Association (12 Sep 1960)
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Added on 14-Jan-08 | Last updated 21-Jul-14
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Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism:

The right to criticize.
The right to hold unpopular beliefs.
The right to protest.
The right of independent thought.

The exercise of these rights should not cost one single American citizen his reputation or his right to a livelihood, nor should he be in danger of losing his reputation or livelihood merely because he happens to know someone who holds unpopular beliefs. Who of us doesn’t? Otherwise none of us could call our souls our own. Otherwise thought control would have set in.

Margaret Chase Smith (1897-1965) American politician (US Senator, Maine)
“Declaration of Conscience” (1 Jun 1950)
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That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.

George Mason (1725-1792) American statesman, Founding Father [George Mason IV]
Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776)
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And I know of the Future Judgment,
How dreadful soe’er it be,
That to sit alone with my Conscience
Will be Judgment enough for me.

Charles William Stubbs (1845-1912) British cleric (Bishop of Truro)
“The Judgment of Conscience,” st. 13, Bryhtnoth’s Prayer and Other Poems (1899)
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Conscience is, in most men, an anticipation of the opinion of others.

Henry Taylor (1800-1886) English dramatist, poet, bureaucrat, man of letters
The Statesman: An Ironical Treatise on the Art of Succeeding, ch. 9 (1836)
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