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, 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.