Herman Bavinck on the ancient Greeks and the idea of conscience. Is conscience a universal thing?

Bavinck asks the question in chapter 5 of his ethics page 169,” Why is there relatively little mention of the conscience among the Greeks and Romans when it is such a universal human phenomenon?”

Bavinck made two points here.

1.        Socrates and Plato linked ethics to the polis (city); “For the Greek, the norms for morality, for the good, were objectively present in the laws of the polis and were not specified by the acting subject in their conscience.” Page 169

2.       “Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were intellectualists; this meant that they sought the starting point and standard for conduct in human reason rather than in the conscience” page 169.

Before moving on to how Alexander the Great fits in this; At one time for the ancient Greek keeping the laws of the city state are what made a good person.  Or that using logic and thinking moves the will to do actions that are right or wrong.  Making one’s own decisions seems to be on the backburner.  As we know from history though that war changes things.


Alexander the Great was a warrior and he conquered nations as far as India.  The city states according to Bavinck and he is surely correct lost much of their significance.  He writes on page 170.

“People were directed to themselves and had to find certitude, including moral certitude, within themselves. Individualism and cosmopolitanism gained the ascendency, and philosophy turned more and more to practical matters, coming down from its sovereign heights to answer questions of daily living (Stoicism, Epicureanism, etc.).”

So, from this position conscience became more important in peoples lives.  They themselves as individuals had to make wright and wrong choices.  Bavinck then gives an example of Cicero using conscience to defend one of his friends Titius Annius Milo accused of murder.  Bavinck quotes Cicero

“It is with reluctance that I enlarge upon this topic, since you may think that my discourse lends authority to sin; and you would be justified in so thinking, were not an innocent or guilty conscience so powerful a force in itself, without the assumption of any divine design. Destroy this, and everything collapses; for just as a household or a state appears to lack all rational system and order if in it there are no rewards for right conduct and no punishments for transgression, so there is no such thing at all as the divine governance of the world if that governance makes no distinction between the good and the wicked.”


My Reflection and possible things to think about in the 21stcentury

This section are basically my ideas. I wanted to think deeper about conscience and what I could learn.  All the evidences I have gathered point to conscience being universal to all humans.

There are a lot of sobering thoughts in Bavincks understanding of conscience from the ancient world.  Conscience in our world has matured to be mentioned by The United Nations https://www.un.org/en/observances/conscience-day

I would argue that conscience was found in many religious traditions as well and Bavinck was aware of this. When we think of modernish German philosophy and the ideas of evolution, obviously these ideas came from the East.  Obviously, Bavinck was in contact with the modern German philosophers who were influenced by Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. 

In Hinduism,

 “In the literary traditions of the Upanishads, Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita, conscience is the label given to attributes composing knowledge about good and evil, that a soul acquires from the completion of acts and consequent accretion of karma over many lifetimes.[9] According to Adi Shankara in his Vivekachudamani morally right action (characterised as humbly and compassionately performing the primary duty of good to others without expectation of material or spiritual reward), helps “purify the heart” and provide mental tranquility but it alone does not give us “direct perception of the Reality”.[10] This knowledge requires discrimination between the eternal and non-eternal and eventually a realization in contemplation that the true self merges in a universe of pure consciousness.”

From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conscience

 “The idea of conscience was also alive with Confucius.

“Liangzhi (Conscience)

 Humans are born with innate conscience and the ability to know and act upon it. The term liangzhi (良知) was first used by Mencius, who believed that what man knew by instinct was liangzhi (knowledge of goodness). The term includes ren (), i.e. love for ones parents and yi (), i.e. respect for one’s elder brothers. The concept is an important component of Mencius’ belief in the innate goodness of human nature. The Ming-dynasty philosopher Wang Shouren raised the idea of “attaining liangzhi.” He extended the Mencius’ liangzhi to mean the principles of heaven, maintaining that all things under heaven and their laws were covered by liangzhi. With liangzhi being extended to its fullest (through self-cultivation and moral practice), it is possible to know and put in practice all moral truths. 


What is known without thinking is the innate knowledge of goodness. (Mencius)

Principles of heaven and conscience are the same in essence. (Records of Great Learning) “

From https://www.chinesethought.cn/EN/shuyu_show.aspx?shuyu_id=2152

When Alexander the Great conquered and took his ideas with him to the known world of the time, it is also natural that these ideas came back to Greece.  The building of the Alexandrian Library is an indicator of this. 


Herman Bavincks pointers to conscience in the ‘pagan world’ was alive and well.  Taking Bavincks research on the ancient Greeks and moving into the worlds of religion, conscience is found everywhere.   Next time we will follow Herman Bavinck, the Master theologian’s interrogation of Holy Scripture for the evidences of conscience.

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