Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science

Document Type



This dissertation examines the problems confronted by claims of ‘freedom of conscience’ in contemporary political society, and argues that freedom of conscience is a critical foundational component of any free political regime. Yet, conscience is often invoked as the final authority or justification for any choice, regardless whether the action or choice violates the common good. In this case, there is a risk that conscience can become identified with subjectivism, radical individualism, or autonomy. I suggest that a re-examination of the theory of conscience found in Aquinas, especially as it relates to human reason, natural law, and prudence, contributes toward a better understanding of conscience and its place in political life, especially in shaping the common good. I argue that Aquinas’s understanding of conscience points to critical individual, relational, and transcendent elements that constitute and form conscience. The first chapter examines what many scholars consider the contemporary ‘crisis of conscience’ that has been experienced acutely in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and I introduce Aquinas as the interlocutor whose understanding of conscience I examine. The second chapter analyzes the sources that Aquinas draws from to formulate his own twofold theory of conscience as consisting of synderesis and conscientia. Specifically, I examine the important contributions of Aristotle, Cicero, Jerome, Origen, and Augustine. The third and fourth chapters focus on Aquinas’s texts. Chapter three evaluates the development of Aquinas’s work on conscience in two of his earlier works, viz. Scriptum Super Libros Sententiarum and De Veritate. The fourth chapter examines the Summa Theologiae and the Commentary on Romans, wherein Aquinas situates conscience within the framework of natural law. The final chapter juxtaposes Aquinas’s terminology of the primary level of conscience, synderesis, with an alternative concept, viz. anamnesis. Political philosopher Eric Voegelin has also proposed this term as a way of understanding human nature qua rational and political. This chapter considers both the possibility and implications of this alternative term for the primary level of conscience and helps to clarify the place of conscience in political discourse.



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Committee Chair

Sandoz, Ellis