What role does Conscience play in Piers Plowman?

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The allegorical figure of Conscience is there to remind everyone of the standards of Christian living to which they should aspire. He is one of Will's mentors, speaking to him in dreams and visions, guiding this wandering hermit along the path of righteousness. But Conscience himself also becomes a pilgrim, vowing to wander the four corners of the earth until he finds Piers Plowman, who is, of course, an allegorical representation of Jesus.

Although Conscience can lead Will and countless others to the truth, it is only the individual pilgrim who can take that final leap of faith. Ultimately, Christian faith is a matter of will; no pun intended, because Will, like every character in the poem, is an allegory, in this case of the human will. The human will is often weak and prone to temptation; it strays from the path of righteousness in satisfying its earthly desires. But if each pilgrim is to follow Christ truthfully, then it will only be through the proper exercise of this faculty. And Conscience is there to remind us of this.

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Conscience, along with Reason and other abstract qualities, is personified in this medieval work of literature as a character in its own right. The personification is of course very allegorical, as the character of Conscience is used to demonstrate the importance of conscience for those seeking to serve God and live their lives for Him. Conscience appears most prominently in the first vision, where a king proposes that Conscience should marry Lady Mede, who represents both just reward and bribery. Conscience however, refuses to marry Lady Mede, and thus the text sends a very clear message about bribery and how it cannot be practiced or condoned with a clear conscience. In addition, in this first dream sequence, Reason, who is sent for by the king, promises to serve that king, but only if Conscience agrees to be his fellow counsellor. Again, it is implied that in order to make right decisions as humans, both reason and conscience are needed. The role of Conscience throughout this text is therefore to point towards the need of having a good, clear conscience in order to lead a Christian life. Note how this is explored in the following quote, where Conscience, in dialogue with the narrator, talks about charity and receiving alms:

Said Conscience, "By Christ, I can't see that this lies;

But it seems no serious perfectness to be a city-beggar,

Unless you're licensed to collect for prior or monastery."

Here Conscience states that it is impossible to beg for alms unless it is being done for a good cause. This is typical of Conscience's role in the text as he always prompts the various characters to act in good conscience, as his name suggests.

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