Of Mockingbirds and Consciences

They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions… 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.

Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)


As I slave away in the law mines, I take my flashes of amusement where I can find them.  One thing that has often amused me is the bizarre names that people these days often curse their children with.  I often find when questioning the mother that the name was from some television show, film, video or song, often with a spelling variant to ensure that the child will be a special little snowflake and have his or her name misspelled for the remainder of the time God allots the child in this Vale of Tears.

Naming kids after a fictional character has always struck me as bizarre:  real people always being so much more interesting than two-dimensional fictional puppets.

An example of the drawbacks of naming a child after a fictional character has been illustrated this week by an interesting little literary-morality tempest being played out this week.  Harper Lee, a one book wonder, To Kill a Mockingbird, has released another book, Go Set a Watchman.  The story behind this book is perhaps more interesting than the tome itself.  Ms. Lee, 89 years old, lives in an assisted living facility, and is perhaps in her dotage.  Go Set a Watchman was written in 1957, the year of my birth, before To Kill a Mockingbird.  It was rejected by a publisher at the time as showing promise but not ready for publication, an accurate assessment I think.  That the book is now being published 58 years later might cause some to suspect the motivations of those now in control of Ms. Lee’s affairs, since for more than a half century she made no effort to have this early work published.  No doubt a book about the behind the scenes machinations that led to the publication of Go Set a Watchman will be forthcoming eventually, doubtless not written by Ms. Lee, alas.  More on this below the fold, with spoilers in regard to Go Set a Watchman.

In Go Set a Watchman, we meet the characters of Scout and her father Atticus Fitch, but they have been transformed.  Scout is now 26 and is visiting her hometown in Alabama.  Her father is 77, infirm, and not enamored at all of the Civil Rights movement that he opposes.  Thus Atticus Finch, great liberal hero, is transformed into a racist!  The New York Times, of course, has an article, go here to read it, about parents who named their kids Atticus, probably not realizing that prior to the novel the most famous Atticus was a friend of Cicero, and are now chagrined by this latest development.

Of course Atticus, as he was portrayed in the book and in the 1962 film on  the novel, which I greatly enjoyed, bore about as much resemblance to most white southerners of the time, as Sidney Poitier did to the average black.  The realities of both groups were both more complicated and ultimately more interesting.  Atticus Finch in the movie, portrayed by Californian Gregory Peck, deploying the fakest of Southern accents, was the ideal white southerner as far as Hollywood was concerned:  a liberal white Northerner with an accent.  (It is a testament to what a tinder box race remains in this country, that if To Kill a Mockingbird were released today as a new film, Peck’s performance would probably be regarded by social justice warriors typing away in their moms’ basements as paternalistic at best, racist at worst.  “How dare he use the term negro! ” “Just what we need, another film where a noble white man attempts to save a helpless black man!  Retch!”)

What makes this more than amusing is the juxtaposition of conscience and sin in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Individual conscience is raised to the skies in the book, as the quotation at the beginning of this post indicates.  It is easy however, to celebrate individual conscience when we support the decision reached by someone who claims to have examined his conscience.  Thus Atticus is a hero in To Kill a Mockingbird because, as following his conscience he defends a black man falsely accused of rape.  However, the same man supports segregation in Go Set a Watchman, presumably after examining the same conscience.  This shows the limitations of conscience as a moral guide and the wisdom of the Church in celebrating not conscience per se, but rather a well formed conscience:

1783 Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings.

Of course individual conscience is the be-all and end-all in To Kill a Mockingbird because the concept of sin is seemingly given short shrift:

“Remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.
“Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy . . . but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

Seemingly perhaps, but perhaps not.  Maybe it was not primarily the conscience of Atticus at work in To Kill a Mockingbird, but rather his understanding that it was a sin to kill an innocent, whether a mockingbird, or a black man on trial for his life due to a crime he was being framed for.  A well informed conscience will stay away from sin, even when winking at it would save us a great deal of trouble, which would certainly have been the case for Atticus if he had not defended Tom Robinson.  In this Vale of Tears we view the world with our fallible eyes and our fallible intellects and it is easy for us to reach mistaken conclusions if we rely on our wits alone.  That is why the concept of sin, and a God who can tell us what a sin is, are essential guides as we make our way through the many dark passages we often have to walk through in this life.

More to explorer


  1. “Questions 0f conscience” that is, the application of admitted moral principles to concrete situations may be far from easy to solve.
    One recalls the well-know episode of Napoléon’s marriage to Marie-Louise, Archduchess of Austria. Cardinal della Somaglia told M. Emery, Supérieur of St. Sulpice and a notable moral theologian that he could not attend without wounding his conscience. M. Emery told him that, in that case, he should on no account do so, for any consideration whatsoever. It transpired that M. Emery had been consulted by a number of the other 18 cardinals, then in Paris, and he had told them he thought they could attend the ceremony with a clear conscience.
    In response to a letter from Cardinal Fesch, the Emperor’s uncle, M. Emery explained this apparent inconsistency. He personally saw no harm in attending, but he had given his advice to Cardinal della Somaglia on the basis that one should never act against one’s own conscience, even if it were erroneous [qu’on ne devait jamais, agir contre sa conscience, même erronée]. He also made an important observation and, I believe, one of general application: “Not that the inconveniences could authorise an assistance that was illicit, but these inconveniences are the strongest reason [une raison très-forte] to consider the more attentively whether it is possible, whether assisting is really illicit and whether the conscience one has formed on that subject is not, perhaps, an erroneous conscience.”
    In the event Cardinal della Somaglia kept to his view, contrary to M. Emery, and did not attend the marriage ceremony.
    Both men, we may suppose, shared the same principles on the indissolubility of marriage, the jurisdiction of the Holy See, remote material cooperation and the obligation not to give scandal; they differed on the application of these principles in the particular case and who is to say which of them was right?

  2. Why is anyone surprised?
    Atticus Finch has been dissected over the years by critics of TKaM as a racist.
    But even a racist defense attorney is bound to do his best for his client which Atticus does admirably, trying to prevent a legal lynching.
    Nowadays we are loath to admit there are gradations of racism but I imagine Finch as an “enlightened” racist for his time; against lynching, in favor of better schools for Negroes but pro states rights and dead set against integration and voting rights.

  3. I saw a Mockingbird yesterday, and its “song” was a croaking sound, not very pretty.

    The novel also exalts empathy as a central axiom of morality–“walk a mile in their shoes” thing; would walking a mile in Joseph Goebbels’ shoes do anything to mitigate his heinous crimes?

  4. Of course Atticus, as he was portrayed in the book and in the 1962 film on the novel, which I greatly enjoyed, bore about as much resemblance to most white southerners of the time, as Sidney Poitier did to the average black. The realities of both groups were both more complicated and ultimately more interesting.

    I’d recall Flannery O’Connor’s remark that literature deals with the possible, not the probable (and Sidney Poitier is who he is, not fictional, and Lee’s work has been semi-autobiographical). While we’re at it, neither Atticus Finch nor his social circle are presented as racial equalitarians. To the extent their views are elucidated, race relations are understood as occurring between patron and client. (The Heck Tate character doesn’t quite work, though). The distinction between the white Southerners in the book does not concern those questions, but whether social order requires innocents be sacrificed and pride requires artifice with really ugly consequences

  5. I didn’t know anyone else called them the law mines 🙂 I always thought he was the embodiment of a noble calling: the criminal defense lawyer. It might have been a notorious white murderer, though not as pregnant with dramatic possibilities, perhaps. As someone who limited his practice to murder and child sex abuse cases, I had several Atticus Finch moments of my own. (And may yet! Count down starts… Now.)

  6. “Besides, it could be a lot worse. One could have been named Adolf, for example. After World War II, Adolph, the more common American spelling, never regained its prewar popularity.”
    I’ve read that the only other name to drop so precipitously droped in the 1990’s: Hillary

  7. To be fair, in Hillary’s case even people who liked her didn’t use the name, because they didn’t want people to think they were naming their daughter for her. (We’ve passed over some names for the same reason– they’re currently in use elsewhere in the family.)

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