“We Have All a Better Guide in Ourselves…Than Any Other Person Can Be.”

“We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”

–Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

Agree, disagree?

  • Mary C.

    It depends. I love Jane Austen, and agree that much wisdom and wit can be found in her books. Talking about conscience here, though, there’s also the consideration of the misinformed conscience, the poorly trained conscience, or the hardened conscience. There’s also the notions of justification and habit formation to consider.

    A poorly formed conscience, a hardened conscience, a lax or lazy conscience, and conscience that is used to justifying itself while it acquiesces to bad habits – these are not always the best guide.

    At the same time, it’s true that we act for our own happiness. Everything that we do, we generally do, because at the time, we perceive that it will make us happy. Our ultimate motivation is that we are acting towards some good for ourselves, something that will lend to our happiness. It isn’t always the case, though, and so we have reason (and usually some sort or ethical code) to guide us. We can weigh and balance things in light of more distant goals or desires. But if we have a lazy conscience, or a hardened conscience, or even a malformed conscience, this can affect our reasoning and our ability to weigh and balance consequences.

    So while ultimately, I agree with Austen, I think it does depend on the person’s formation to a degree.

  • peninith1

    I don’t think this inner guidance is instantly available or always easily accessible. And of course history–recent American history indeed–is littered with examples of people who ‘prayed on’ a subject, listened to what they thought was the higher law speaking to them and confirming their own inclinations, and went right on into disaster. It’s the inner voice disguised as God, but to me it appears to be self-justification, and it has done incalculable harm.
    And yet. I have found myself able in a real crunch or moral dilemma, to seek within that higher voice, that inner spiritual master, or whatever you want to call it, and discern a clear call to a certain action. Sometimes it’s not an action that pleases me one little bit or conforms to what I would most quickly be inclined to do.
    I think our ‘everyday consciences’ are an amalgamation of automatic reactions that are based on our own values, but also include social norms and expectations, and more or less selfish or convenience impulses–not wanting to be bothered or make a fuss. For example, the self that might let an ethnic slur or joke go by would be hearing a more mixed and corrupted inner voice than the self that hears a clearer command from a higher inner source to take action against a visible and outrageous injustice, even at some risk.
    Seems to me that the other person who commented was right that we need to have a well-formed conscience. But I think in a crisis situation, many of us are surprised to find that clear voice within ourselves that we never realized was there. My reaction to this quotation is that one should not over-trust one’s inner voice, but especially when something important is going on, for sure, LISTEN WELL. Meanwhile, cultivate that inner voice by asking yourself to hear ‘what a spiritual master’ would say about this.

    • RBO

      Peninth1, you are so right. My view is more cynical than yours, though, in that I don’t believe these people who claim to have “prayed and heard the Higher Power” actually have prayed about it at all. I believe many of these people are psychopaths who PREY with an ‘e’. They prey on the desires of those with weak consciences or weak wills — all those who know in their hearts that the actions or platforms they support are driven by greed and self interest, but who need a nice-sounding rationale to take the low road — the path that runs counter to the religious views they espouse.

      • peninith1

        Oh, there are no doubt some conscious hypocrites. However, the more scary (to me) notion is that many people on that road are completely sincere in obeying the dictates of their unconscious mind. They truly are ‘led’ to obey the better angels of their own nature, as they perceive those thoughts. Any notion that they might be acting as automatons in obedience to self will is foreign to their thinking.
        And we, outside the self delusion? Well, the morally demanding question for ME is: “and where am I deluding myself? and in what way am I bowing to my own wishes rather than to a conscious, deeply thought-out choice about what is right and what is wrong?”
        On the whole, I’d say the more comfortable and compatible with your own world view that inner voice sounds, the more keenly you should question it. Also, I have found that the clear, firm, unanswerable dictate from that inner voice tends to arrive whole and commanding and unsought as a burning bush in a moment of crisis and stress. It’s something that demands and directs on the critical instant, not something that I ‘consult’.
        For those dilemmas, I actually do sit myself down and ask myself “what would [spiritual master of your choice] say to me about this?” And then I have to consciously strip away the ‘what I wish’ part of it to get deeper. It’s hard work, but the most worthwhile, ever.

        • rbo

          Many good points, and much food for thought there!

          • peninith1

            Thanks! I have certainly been thinking this one over. Surely what goes INTO that ‘higher voice’ is not just innate natural virtue and good judgement.
            Mary C. talked about ‘formation.’ I think that’s very important in making, maturing, and expanding the inner voice.
            I’d guess that many people get what little moral formation they receive at quite an early age, and if they continue in a religious tradition this might have a tendency to ossify. Some of the rigidity and relying sort of mindlessly upon the authority of scripture or law and early-learned authoritarian rules I see might come from this. As, equally, complete relativism or inclination to do whatever one wants without worrying about the reasons why could come from lax or minimal formation.
            What I really think we owe to ourselves and the other people we have to live with and around in the world is an ongoing process of formation. We should be paying attention to those great teachers we can encounter by reading, by getting outside our denominational bubble and encountering all kinds of great thinkers (their themes tend to have more in common than in distinction), by observing people who ARE a message in themselves. That can be a lifelong process that will keep maturing, shaping and growing the inner voice.
            I’d hope that as I grow older than I already am (65) I’ll keep incorporating new lessons that could speak to me in crises and decisions that I never contemplated when I was 20.

          • peninith1

            P.S. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with sticking with a religious tradition all your life, as long as you don’t quit thinking about what things really mean when you’re 12!!!!!

          • rbo


  • Maria

    I´m sure there is an inner guiding light inside all of us – we just do not seem to listen very carefully anymore. My inner voice definetely has approved to be worth listening to.

  • you can’t always get what you want. but if you try, sometimes. . . you get what you NEED!

  • QUESTION: are we so sure that happiness is the right goal? Is there a higher target, perhaps we should be aiming for?

    • peninith1

      The higher target . . . seems like God or whatever is the higher law is going to bring us to it, one way or another. Here’s the thing. Most of us have a life to live every day. Clothes to wash, bills to pay, teeth to brush, living companions to be with in a better rather than a worse way, work to do, things to learn. “Happiness” or “a happiness project” seems to me a rational and moderate way to approach this task. Life itself, with its problems, crises, and its inevitable end, is going to call us higher, or at least slam us against a wall. ‘Living well’ in a conscious manner . . . I think that prepares us to ascend, to want or seek to ascend, when life calls us that way. Some of us (Gretchen points wisely to St. Therese) know that there’s a higher calling before we are six years old. Others never figure that out. Meanwhile, there’s how to do the minutes between waking and sleeping, and how to lie down and get that good sleep to equip us for the next day. I think it’s like that Buddhist proverb: before enlightenment, chop wood, haul water; after enlightenment, chop wood, haul water. This is the ground of our being. It’s a righteous work to make it good.

      • I would argue that happiness is not the goal but the result of living “well”. For example, I don’t seek happiness by learning, but through trying to learn I find I am more likely to be happy. Its rather like the difference between “if it feels good, do it” and Joseph Campbell’s advice to “follow your bliss.”

  • Sometimes another person might know us well or be able to ask us a challenging question to help us on our way. Ultimately, though, I think life is learning to know ourselves and then being true to what we know. What we truly know about ourselves – our passions, personality and abilities – is what should guide us.

  • This is rather like “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” While true, it does still require that we seek to improve or train that “eye”, that “self”. By the nature of experience, which is always translated through our senses and by the brain, we can never be utterly objective, but we can seek to see more clearly and be more honest in our thinking. As with any ability or talent, it can be improved or allowed to atrophy, well-used or abused.

  • emd04

    I definitely think so (this is actually one of my Jane Austen favs; I did my senior thesis in college on Mansfield Park). The problem is, we just don’t listen to it!