:: The Courage to Live Your Conscience ::
Sometimes just having a conscience isnt enough. Sometimes you have to do more than merely feel bad because you know something is wrong. Sometimes you actually have to stand up for what you believe in or, as Mark Twain notes in Huckelberry Finn,
it don’t make no difference whether you do right or wrong, a person’s conscience ain’t got no sense, and just goes for him anyway.
Of course, Scout spends most of the novel just developing a conscience. Its only at the end when she feels bad that she hadnt ever returned the small gifts that Arthur Radley had left for her and Jem that she is actually able to feel badly about her actions.
In this sense, Atticus is very different than anyone else in the novel. He has the courage to live up to his convictions and refuses to give in to public will and go along with the majority:
"…This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience — Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man."
"Atticus, you must be wrong…."
"Well, most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong…"
"They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions," said Atticus, "but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience."
Sounding an awful lot like Thoreau in Civil Disobedience or Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn, Atticus puts personal conscience over majority rule. Clearly without such a belief society would never change, because the majority of the people generally believe what society tells them is right. The only way to break out of that mold is for the individual to trust his own beliefs and insights.
If you dont want your conscience eating away at you and undermining your moral authority, you have to live by its dictates:
"If you shouldn’t be defedin’ him, then why are you doin’ it?"
"For a number of reasons," said Atticus. "The main one is, if I didn’t I couldn’t hold up my head in town, I couldn’t represent this county in the legislature, I couldn’t even tell you or Jem not to do something again."
In the end, our moral authority comes not only from our conscience but from our actions. If we believe something but dont stand up for it, then we are no better than those who hold mistaken beliefs, or those who Joseph Heller indicts when he says, When I look up, I see people cashing in. I dont see heaven or saints or angels. I see people cashing in on every decent moral impulse and every human tragedy.
Considering who he is and what he believes, Atticus could not be a lawyer unless he believed in the justice system as he states in his closing summary in Tom Robinsons trial:
"I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system–that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up. I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this defendant to his family…"
The irony, of course, is that he knows very well this is not going to happen. Hes already told Scout that he is not going to win this case. Paradoxically, he must believe it in order to continue practicing law; yet he knows it is not true precisely because he does practice law, the ultimate Catch-22 for someone with integrity who wants to pursue a legal career.
To take a case like Tom Robinsons and prosecute it as an honorable man requires a special kind of courage, the kind of courage that Atticus tries to teach his children when he sends them to read to Mrs. Dubose:
"…I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew."
This is precisely the same kind of courage that Atticus demonstrates in defending Tom Robinson. He says as much when he tells Scout:
"Atticus, are we going to win it?"
"Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win," Atticus said.
If we all gave up trying to change the world when we knew we were going to lose the battle, we would still be in the dark ages where we stoned people to death for cheating on their husband or where we let people abuse their children because it is none of our business and parents have the right to raise their children anyway they want. [Oops, my bad, that is the kind of world we still live in, isnt it?]
Thank goodness there are people out there who do have the courage to speak out against injustice, even if that injustice is cloaked in the power of giant corporations or the power of the government.
Atticus may put his faith in the courts, but I, like Harper Lee, prefer to put my faith in the First Amendment. As long as we have the ability to challenge the government and those running it, we have the chance to change it. Most of us are going to lose our battles, but in the long run those who justly challenge the system seem to prevail.
At its best, democracy provides the means to change those things that are unjust it just doesnt seem like it at times.