Socrates, Guardian Angels, and Conscience

As an undergraduate at Loyola University in Los Angeles (now Loyola-Marymount) in the 1950s, I took a course in classical Greek. I’ll never forget one day when my Jesuit professor waxed eloquently about Socrates, comparing him to great Christian mystics like St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila. There are good grounds for this view. In Plato’s Symposium, we hear about Socrates’ frequent “trances,” in which he would stand, sometimes for twenty-four hours, rapt in contemplation, and then, when all was finished, return to normal life as if nothing had happened.

Friends and acquaintances learned not to interrupt him during these events; he would simply not respond. Socrates also had a “voice” by his side from his earliest years. In Plato’s Apology, the history of Socrates’ trial for “corrupting the youth of Athens,” Socrates revealed that he had always followed a voice he heard from childhood, which always gave warnings to keep him from evil. Aside from that limitation, it left him completely free to do as he willed. Socrates said that if there was anything evil awaiting him after death, he was certain his voice would warn him. So, asked to choose his punishment, and unwilling to leave his countrymen for exile, he chose execution.

It might not be untoward to interpret Socrates’ “voice” as something like the Christian idea of a guardian angel. The similarities are striking. A few Catholic mystics, especially towards the beginning of the twentieth century, actually did enjoy a continual, even life-long, conversational interaction with their guardian angels. (Though my Jesuit professor may not have been familiar with them.)

In Italy, St. Gemma Galgani (1878-1903) received messages from her guardian angel as a teen, and began to have his continual companionship when she was about twenty, after recovering from a grave illness.

St. Gemma Galgani, who listened to her guardian angel

In Germany, Mechtilde Thaller (1868-1919), who chose the name, “Magdalen of the Cross,” after her entry into a St. Grignion de Montfort Association, was gifted at age five with the presence of an archangel in addition to a guardian angel. Her spiritual directors did not allow her to enter religious life; she became a housewife in a difficult, if not extremely cruel, marriage. She not only received practical instructions from her angels, but in typical German speculative fashion, entered into periodic discussions with them about the types and duties of angels, and was offered theological instructions concerning the nine choirs of angels.

In Brazil, Ceci Cony (1900-1939), who later became Sister Maria Antonia, and was instructed by superiors to write her biography, describes how, simple and naive by her own admission, she started seeing her guardian angel at the age of five. Her angel prevented her from harm, as guardian angels have a reputation for doing, but also gave moral instruction. He looked sad if she was thinking of doing something wrong; oftentimes neither sad nor happy, in matters of indifference; and sometimes happy, if she was going out of her way to help poor children, do without the candy that she loved, save other children from embarrassment, and so forth.

It is interesting and significant that, both in the case of Socrates’ “voice” and the experiences of the mystics, the specifically moral instructions had to do with occasional warnings, i.e., with negatives. This does not mean that morality itself is something negative, but that moral directives typically highlight the outer boundaries of permissible human action.

For example, the last seven of the Ten Commandments are mostly negative – laying out some absolute outer limits that we should avoid – don’t steal, commit adultery, kill, commit perjury, etc. The fourth commandment, about honoring parents, can also be read as not dishonoring them. An objective observer would say that these are fairly liberal directives. Most people should be able to avoid killing others, adultery, robbery, and the like with help from God and fellow humans, and reasonable effort.

But would most of us really want to have more specific warnings, like Socrates and the three mystics seemed to have? Would we consider this a great favor, or an intrusion? Would we always follow the guidance given, like Socrates, Ceci Cony, and others? Or argue? Or rationalize and reinterpret?

Does our own conscience offer us clear-cut and forceful warnings about possible evils? When passions are aroused or rationalizations are in operation, it may be difficult to hear the warnings. They may take the form of a vague feeling of distress that can’t be shaken off, as we contemplate some doubtful action. Perhaps, as we look back on our lives, we may even have very vivid memories, including time and location, when these psychic warnings of conscience came our way.

One would like to think that even criminals who do terrible things initially had some resistance and initial misgivings, which they then forcibly silenced or drowned in excuses or rationalizations. In the Acts of the Apostles (9:5 and 26:14) where the dramatic conversion of St. Paul is related, Jesus reminds Paul/Saul that it has been hard for him “to kick against the goad.” Some interpreters see this as a reference to a latent impulse Paul had to join with the Christians.

But I don’t find that convincing. It seems to me to be a reference to what we call the “prick of conscience,” and I imagine something like this causing inner distress when Paul joined with the others in stoning St. Stephen to death as the first Christian martyr (Acts 7:58 and 22:20). It’s sobering to think that even the great St. Paul was able to tamp down conscience, at least temporarily, in the name of God Himself. And it provides an explanation for why in our own day religiously motivated murderers or suicide bombers, believing they are doing a “service for God,” seem insensible to “pricks of conscience.”

Yet it is also heartening to remember that they, and we, may always turn to what Lincoln, facing civil war, eloquently called “the better angels of our nature.”

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.

  • Catholic Tide

    You had me up until the very end where you advocate sympathy for Muslim suicide bombers. (because, after all, there really isn’t any other kind nowadays, is there?)

    Nope, no sympathy for the Muslim suicide bombers. Sympathy and grief and prayers for their victims. Let’s take this opportunity to pray for the victims. Our victims here on 9/11 and on so many other dates all over the world.

  • Grump

    What to make of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”? Some have interpreted this as “epilepsy” which caused blackouts and hallucinations, which might explain his “vision” of Christ on the road to Damascus.

    As the forum skeptic, allow me to pose a simple question: Why does God or his representatives (angels) “speak” to only a few people and not everyone. For most of us, it’s a one-way conversation. Like Woody Allen once said jokingly in a movie, “If only I could hear him say a few words. If he would just cough.”

  • Howard Kainz

    To Grump: The point I was making was that God does speak to us through conscience,but passions and rationalizations obstruct our “hearing.” Also, I added a sentence in the unedited version: “Perhaps also the direct or indirect remarks of others, sometimes friendly or even jocular, provide an external stand-in for conscience.”
    To Catholic Tide: I wasn’t justifying suicide bombers, but trying to figure out how they could ignore the “pricks of conscience” that anyone, if they are truly human, must feel in doing what they are doing.

  • Achilles

    HI Grump,
    I was reading Theology and Sanity by Frank Sheed, and in the first couple of chapters, there is very good explanations of the difficulty our imaginations cause us when we try to cultivate our intellects and wills. He tells us our imaginations have been causing us great problems since the fall of man. Why? Becuase the imagination can only imagine what we can percieve with our 5 senses. Until we deal properly with our imaginations, our real intellectual work can not be done, and what we choose to love with our wills will be directly impacted. Pick up a copy if you can, I think i jsut muddied the waters.
    God bless you Grump, Achilles

  • debby

    hey Achilles!
    what does that book by Frank Sheed say about the use of imagination that St. Ignatius encourages? is he against the use? i just found out that what i do naturally while at Mass and other times of prayer (put myself in the scene-“use my 5 senses”) was a method St. Ignatius taught. i started the book Consoling the Heart of Jesus last night….and the only Sheed i’ve read so far is his great work on the 4 Gospels (i may be off on the exact name) Christ The Lord. he’s a funny kind of guy- you can definitely hear him street preaching in nyc! at your recommendation, i will put it on my amazon wish list (i just lost my job tho so purchase will have to wait).
    and thank you for your kind words the other day. you are right: i am an incarnate sponge. gush, gush. i can’t help it. at 50 i am finally making peace with the “way i am” and trying to just be in Him as He made me.
    i hope He is sanctifying the expression coming forth. i pray one day it is a Spiknard anointing His tired feet. i started out as Dust-maybe He will transform me to Perfume!
    and how i would wash all of my beloved brothers’ and sisters’ feet if allowed! you all encourage me beyond knowing; i do not exaggerate or deserve it, but He loves me through each of you, and i am gushingly grateful! hope i’m not too annoying….

  • RichardY

    It had occurred to me that we only know anything about Socrates as he appears in the dialogues of Plato. I find myself thinking he may be a fictionalised and idealised character based on the real man. I take the dialogues to be a vehicle for Plato’s thought, whether or not the Socrates we meet is the real Socrates as he existed in life.

  • Louise

    Dear Mr. Grump,

    You know, people go chasing after signs and wonders all their lives, chasing down every “apparition” –our Lady on a piece of toast or a foggy window, looking for this miracle or that locution, or some crying or bleeding statue here, there or the other place. Why? We have the greatest miracle of all==the Holy Eucharist– happening right before our eyes on every altar or every Catholic Church, happening every hour, somewhere in the world, every day of the week. If you really need locutions and signs and apparitions and wonders, well, the devil can supply all of those that your little heart desires.

    But think of Mother Teresa of Calcutta–twenty-five years with not a sense of the presence of God or His holy angels with her, yet she persevered in her work and in loving Him–anyway. Isn’t that the highest peak to reach in the spiritual life, to be able to say, “I love You ANTWAY!, Lord”?

    Many years ago while I was still a Protestant and would have committed hari kari before considering becoming a Catholic, I read a book–by Frederick Beuchner (sp?) a Protestant minister–called “The Magnificent Defeat–a collection of meditations. the one story I remember took place in a small town full of good but doubting people, who wanted a sign from God that would prove, once and for all, His existence. They begged and begged for a sign–anything, “just let us know that our faith is not in vain.” God finally took pity on them and gave in.

    One very dark, very cold winter’s night, when the sky was as black as coal and the stars shone like diamonds, the people looked up and saw the stars rearranging themselves. Soon, the people gasped when they saw, written by God’s own hand with sparkling stars, the words I AM. They stood awestruck.

    One little six-year-old boy was watching this miracle through his bedroom window. There it was–proof of God’s existence. A miracle. God had spoken: “I AM”. Looking up, the boy shrugged his shoulders and said, “So what?”

    Like falling tears, all the stars fell from the sky and soon the sky and all the world and all the people returned to their same old selves and life went on as if nothing had happened.

  • Howard Kainz

    To RichardY: Well Socrates described himself as a mere midwife, who would bring forth truths by his processes of questioning and cross-examination. So he would probably not be disappointed that Plato ended up with ideas that influenced all of Western philosophy. But he was also just about the only philosopher that was martyred for his pursuit of truth, and I suspect the accounts of his “voice” given at the famous trial were not fabricated.

  • Achilles

    Hi Debby, I am the poorest of advocates, for i can barely get one point out at a time. Of course the imagination can be a wonderful aid in its proper order. Like Confucius said about emotions, they are like fire and water and make better servants than masters. It is the same with the imagination. Modernity has married the conceivable and imaginable. Sheed says we have very difficult work to do with the two faculties of our soul, the will and the intellect, and the imagination gets in our way in two ways:

    •1- If concepts are beyond our reach, imagination acts as censor and simply throws them out. The tired and out of shape intellect has a vested interest in rejecting a concept because it saves much trouble
    •2 Since we are Catholic, our Faith binds us to many truths that are beyond the imagination’s reach. Since our imaginations can not outright reject them, it offers to help us as it brings forth many material images. However, in and of themselves, these images and analogies shed no light on the inner most being of God in himself. In the process we often mistake a doctrine for the image and the reality of God cannot threaten our Faith and much valuable work is missed.
    Debby I can’t possibly elucidate here, when you get a chance get Theology and Sanity, you will not be disappointed in Sheed, but you may be in me for butchering this so badly. God bless you sister, Achilles

  • Grump

    Dear Ms. Louise:

    Thanks for the nice story. I’ll look up a little more often and hopefully see some ‘signs in the sky.’ Meanwhile, allow me to point out that Mother Teresa, for all her piety, was wracked with doubts up until the end of her life. Chris Hitchens made much of this in his otherwise obnoxious book.
    To Achilles: No doubt our imaginations have led us down right and wrong paths. Beyond our intellectual abilities and sense apparatus, there is supposed to be a “spirit world,” which is where true faith and belief are said to be cultivated. Herein lies my big void. I cannot discern any spiritual progress at all. Maybe I need to close my eyes and shut off my brain, but somehow I can’t. Those damn neurons keep firing.

  • Achilles

    Grump, that is all too true! I am the same way, I think we all are, especially today! Faith is belief in things unseen, the signs we look for are in general the wrong signs. We infer far too much from far too little, as in the case of Christopher Hitchens. Mother Teresa lived an interior life we can know practically nothing about regardless of how much she told us. We can see the fruit of her labors and Christ told us “you will know them by their fruits.” Since Freud, we have tried to see people’s roots and in all cases have failed, to what degree remains unknown. St. John of the Cross in The Dark Night of the Soul really gets to what it takes to know God. I think you are right about cutting ourselves off from our senses as best we can, in the dark, in silence, abstaining from food, in prayer, maybe then we will begin to see with the inner eye the light that is “a joy to our intellects and warmth for our wills.” Peter Kreeft said something about how many of us today are possessed by “the spirit of the times” almost like a demonic possession, and we can discern that by seeing if we parrot the conventional statements of our times, in this case especially the ideas about empirical proof for transcendent things. He says that we have the impression that these ideas come from within us and they don’t . Only that difficult and arduous cultivation of our intellects and wills can remove the weeds from our inner landscape. I wish Christ’s light on you Grump, please pray for me. Achilles

  • Louise

    Dear Mr. Grump:

    “I’ll look up a little more often and hopefully see some ‘signs in the sky.’ ”

    No, Mr. Grump. Do not look for signs, up in the sky or anywhere else. That is my point. Signs come and go. We see the signs and eventually grow bored with them and say, “So what?”, and life goes on as before. Faith is not about signs.

    “Mother Teresa, for all her piety, was wracked with doubts up until the end of her life.”

    To say that Mother Teresa did not feel the presence of God is not to say that she doubted His existence. No one can know that. In any event, obedience to His call is what she lived, and she left all the rest–signs, consolations, etc.–in His hands. As should we.

    “there is supposed to be a “spirit world,” which is where true faith and belief are said to be cultivated.”

    I don’t know what you mean here. Sounds kind of spooky to me. Belief, Faith, are, first of all, acts of the will, not manifestations of, or even the results of, feelings. As long as you are continually taking your emotional (feelings) temperature, you will not get where you think you want to go.

    “Herein lies my big void. I cannot discern any spiritual progress at all.”

    You are not supposed to. That’s not your job. That’s God’s prerogative, and He is the only one who can see deeply enough into your soul to do so.

    Perhaps you need to get off this spiritual treadmill with which you just keep ploughing the same furrow over and over again and find a spiritual counselor. Doing so would, at least, offer you the assurance of your own sincerity,

  • Grump

    Louise and Achilles…You manage to keep my engaged. I would pray, Achilles, but, as I said previously, my prayers get no higher than the ceiling.
    Sometimes, I think, I am trying too hard to become a Christian…trying to intellectualize everything; it doesn’t work. What I need is “Christianity for Dummies” maybe. Jesus said we must become like “little children” to enter his kingdom. My wife says I need to grow up sometimes, but maybe I need to “grow down.” : )

  • Louise

    “My prayers get no higher than the ceiling.” I beg your pardon, Mr. Grump? Only God knows how high your prayers went. And, as someone once said to me, “There is only one God and you are not Him.” :))

    There is a book called “Catholicism for Dummies.”

  • Bill McCormick

    This is an excellent piece. It is probably no surprise that Saint Paul’s greatest student, Saint Augustine, left us some of the most penetrating thoughts on self-deception, the varied ways in which we delude ourselves as to the presence and meaning of those pricks.