Nothing is more terrifying than looking deeply into human conscience, says Victor Hugo in “Les Misérables.” “Nowhere can the mind’s eye find anything more dazzling or darker . . . nothing more awe-inspiring, more complex, more mysterious or more infinite,” he warns us. He is plumbing the depths of the torturous choice his hero Jean Valjean must make when he learns that an innocent man is about to be convicted in his place. Should he follow his conscience and ruin his life—or stay silent and live free?
Knowing from Hugo how savage and difficult conscience can be, I heartily applaud Senator Jeff Flake, who yesterday made a similarly tough personal choice, announcing that he would not seek re-election in 2018. Giving up such high-ranking public office seems to be the last thing politicians can conceive of doing. In making such a decision and in explaining it in such a straightforward way, Flake also spells out the challenge and meaning of conscience.
The obvious practical result of Flake’s decision to freely walk away from the perks and prestige of the Senate is analogous to Valjean’s losing all his dignity as generous CEO and town mayor. Admitting his true identity would condemn Valjean to both life at hard labor and public disgrace. Yet doing the morally right thing would save his soul. So he realizes that his decision ― a nearly impossible one ― embodies an ironic disjuncture between God’s wishes and human understanding.
Jeff Flake certainly knew how people would react, yet he didn’t flinch from the essential, moral implications of his decision: “Acting on conscience and principle is the manner in which we express our moral selves, and as such, loyalty to conscience and principle should supersede loyalty to any man or party.”
As a Democrat living on the east coast, I hadn’t heard of Jeff Flake until I read the September Atlantic piece labeled “Is Jeff Flake Too Nice for the Senate?” Impressed with Flake’s decency and civility, I didn’t question the adjective “nice.” Yet given his brave stance for his principles, “nice” is not the word. How about one of these: Courageous. Strong. Honorable. We very nearly need Victor Hugo’s poetic voice and powerful metaphors to adequately convey the difficulty, determination and fortitude inherent in Flake’s moral stance. “Painful fate! He could enter holiness in God’s eyes only by returning to infamy in other people’s!” Infamy for Valjean; lots of derision and, yes, wondrous praise for Flake.
Jeff Flake didn’t shrink from acknowledging essential virtues that lately have seemed far from many politicians’ vocabulary as well as from their actions. He stressed honor and duty: “If I have been critical, it is because I believe it is my obligation to do so. And, as a matter of duty and conscience, the notion that one should stay silent ― and as the norms and values that keep America strong are undermined and as the alliances and agreements that ensure the stability of the entire world are routinely threatened by the level of thought that goes into 140 characters ― the notion that we should say or do nothing in the face of such mercurial behavior is ahistoric and, I believe, profoundly misguided.”
“Our strength comes from our values,” Flake said. And our values depend on our consciences. Victor Hugo, who spent his life seeking to understand why we are here, revealed in his “Thoughts on God” conscience’s divinity:
“Conscience is the internal moral solar spectrum. Sun lights the body. God lights the mind. It’s as though a sort of God’s moon exists deep in every human brain.”
I dare to hope that Senator Jeff Flake’s courageous announcement will awaken more American consciences.