instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Hey kids! Let's contradicentibus resistendo!

Someone asked me about the tag-line from St. Thomas that's been in the left-hand corner of this blog from its earliest days. It took a little bit of searching, since I'd long since forgotten where I first found it, and the wording I use turns out to be based on a translation of a translation by Josef Pieper. The quotation comes from the conclusion of On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life, a polemical work defending mendicant religious life -- still a new phenomenon during St. Thomas's lifetime -- as a means to perfection.

St. Thomas introduces the work with these words (to use the Procter/Kenny translation on the "Thomas Aquinas Works in English" page at the Dominican Priory of the Immaculate Conception website):
As certain persons, who know nothing about perfection, have nevertheless presumed to publish follies concerning this state, it is our purpose to draw up a treatise on perfection, explaining what is meant by the term; how perfection is acquired; what is the state of perfection; and what are the employments befitting those who embrace this state.
As polemics go, this is pretty weak stuff, although I expect his opponents were stung by reading that their arguments were "worthless," "absolutely frivolous," or "too foolish to need an answer" (St. Thomas provides an answer).

Still, having said his piece, St. Thomas ends with the following:
It has occurred to me to say these things in answer to those who strive to detract from the perfection of religious life. Nevertheless, I abstain from reproaches. For, “he who utters reproach is foolish” (Prov. x. 18), and “all fools are meddling with reproaches” (Prov. xx. 3). If anyone desire to send me a reply, his words will be very welcome to me. For the surest way to elucidate truth and to confound error is by confuting the arguments brought against the truth.  Solomon says, “Iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of a friend” (Prov. xxvii. 17).

And may the Lord God, blessed for ever, judge between us and them. Amen.

The original Latin of my tag-line is:
Nullo enim modo melius quam contradicentibus resistendo, aperitur veritas et falsitas confutatur.
My own pretend-Wiktionary-can-teach-me-Latin translation would be, "There is no better way than resisting a contradiction to uncover truth and confute falsehood." Here "contradiction" doesn't mean the logical incompatibility of two statements, but the actual act of one person contradicting another.

It's this direct engagement of contradictory opinions, offering argument and counterargument, that St. Thomas sees as the best way for the truth of a contested matter to be seen.

In the ideal case, two conditions hold:
  1. All parties involved want to uncover truth and confute falsehood.
  2. All parties involved are able to understand the arguments offered and see which ones are sound and which are not.
In other words, everyone is both willing and able to see and accept the truth that is uncovered in dispute.

The ideal case does not always obtain. But as long as at least one party is willing and able to arrive at the truth, a direct engagement of arguments is helpful -- and of course there may be third party observers of the dispute, who have no particular investment in either position but are invested in knowing the truth, who may benefit as well.

In St. Thomas's case, I do think he was willing and able to see and accept the truth of arguments contrary to his opinion, though I have to say I can't quite read the conclusion of De Perfectione as a butter-wouldn't-melt invitation to correct his mistakes. He does leave room for having made mistakes; "It has occurred to me to say these things" isn't an assertion of incontrovertible authority. But I get the sense that he expected any contradictory replies -- and note how he's poisoned the well against reproaches by way of replies -- to be mostly further errors for him to confute. (What's Latin for "Bring it!"?)