The Language Of Conscience

Human life is richly symbolic, and occasionally its poetry is in its ethics

I THINK it was Thomas Carlyle who said that deep in everyone runs a vein of poetry. If pressed, I'm sure he would have agreed that the poems in us are the wings of our conscience.

In spite of the travesty of ideals that greets us daily on every side, human life remains richly symbolic, and occasionally its poetry is in its ethics. Take moral beauty in the world of sport!

I've just come off the phone, speaking to friend Tim on the West Coast. He tells me of a moral precedent set by a Turkish wrestler in the 1984 Olympics there in Los Angeles. In the finals, the Turk was faced by a Japanese opponent whose leg had been injured in an earlier bout. Though aware of his opponent's problem, the Turk refused to "go" for that leg. He lost the gold but he forged an ethic.... An incident to rouse the cynic, but one to delight the poet in us, for it surely flies in the face of today' s preoccupation with winning as a mark of superiority.

And what about this?

You're leading in a cross-country race; you notice that your rival has taken a wrong turn; you shout after him and remain running on the spot until he rejoins you. Then you go on to lose. That was Tim's own experience. He chuckled as he told me. For him, that kind of losing was winning!

The instinct to cry out "ridiculous!" is drowned by an inner cheer. There's something deep in everyone that honors the morality of conscience; for the beauty of conscience is truly in its ethics.

It's all perceptual, of course. As I see it, winning is not coming in first.

In the language of conscience, no achievement should obscure the achievements of others, however less noticeable they may be. We have some redefining to do. Winning is moral victory. It's not being surprised to find values like integrity and humility ahead of everything else in our lives.

Moral victory is moral beauty. It's finding greater virtue in Gerard Manley Hopkins's "dearest freshness deep down things" than in pressing ahead for lost horizons. To quote Marcel Proust: "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes."

In our society, the obsession with "firstness" has created its own hubris. At worst, it becomes the materialism of acquisition. But conscience still preserves our sanity of values. The politics of winning peace, for example, is often a travesty of the art of making peace, but it is conscience that rebukes all casuistry through honoring the worth of individual commitment and struggle.

Conscience is guardian of the ethics of fair play - that smile of human justice. As inconvenient as they may sometimes be to the exponents of winning, these ethics have their keen missionaries who are undiminished by not being "number one." Theirs is the language of conscience that lifts them above the politician's intoxication with human rights.

These champions of conscience are the true trustees of peace. Yes, they have their language. It gleams through the murky waters of amoral thinking. More than ever, it seeks to ensure that the moral and aesthetic intentions of our higher communication coincide. And this language of conscience, as we've seen, is the poetry of conscience. It has its code.

So we must become adept at decoding. That's how the Russians survived. It was through the coding devices of their poets! In the Soviet Union before the dissolution, the real leaders were the poets - not the politicians. Poet-philosophers like Yevgeny Yevtushenko.

The poet's code, of course, is metaphor. When you use metaphor, the literalist has absolutely no idea what you're saying. Whether that literalist is a dictator or a nosy neighbor! I am convinced that this is how the Slavic conscience survived eight decades of communism.

Perhaps in the Russian equation lies the answer to the world's relentless parade of inhumanity and moral idiocy. Here's how succinctly Yevtushenko made his point:

"It was only possible for the conscience of the people to be expressed in a metaphorical way. That's why poetry was a kind of spiritual newspaper of the people."

What's news? The democracy of freedom from favoritism side by side with the aristocracy of individual worth. Whenever before has a culture's history featured such unlikely bedfellows? The coded truth comes clear. The thinker is in the process of deposing the dictator. Participation struggles to replace spectatorism.

Now the people's conscience is penetrating the system. Today, if we're listening, the language of conscience rings out clear as a bell.

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