Saturday, June 26, 2010


A Visit from the Murphys

My best friend in the whole-wide world and family are stopping over for a night on their way to visit their families in the Maritimes. Hopefully they'll be able to stay longer later this summer. They are in London, ON, where Peter is just on the verge of finishing his third MA, this time in Library Sciences.

Last Day of School for Isaiah and Sarah-Grace

Rebecca finished up yesterday. The check-out girl (a woman my age) asked me if the kids are excited about this being the last day of school. I'm sure hers were. I said, no, not really - they were too tired, I think. They are - no, we are - not at our best in the morning. Isaiah is quite happy, I'm sure. Sarah-Grace, on the other hand, really enjoys school, and I'm sure will miss her little friend, Taylor.

Lots of parents dread this day. I don't. I like the kids at home and having the chance to do things with them. We don't have any big plans for the summer - swimming lessons, a visit to my brother's family in Toronto, some canoe rides - but it's a great chance to 'get to know them' again. We'll work on some catechism, perhaps see how they're doing in math and spelling, etc.

"God and Man"

I'm all finished the course I've been talking through Christendom. It was really good. As I said, the term paper has been basically finished for a few weeks now, it just needed some finishing touches. The prof., Dr. Kristin Burns, is an acceptional teacher and scholar. I know that this course will really bear positive fruit for my own teaching. Why not include the paper?

The chart did not come out properly formatted, and the footnotes have not been included, but you might still find it of interest. I enjoyed writing it.

Reviling, Backbiting, Tale-Bearing and Derision

St. Thomas lists reviling, backbiting, tale-bearing and derision among the sins against commutative justice. Commutative justice is distinguished from distributive justice, inasmuch as the former concerns the duty individuals owe to each other, and the latter that which the community owes the individual. There are two classifications of the vices opposed to commutative justice: voluntary and involuntary commutations. The above-list concerns involuntary commutations, since in these cases the ‘victim’ of the injustice is not a willing participant in it, unlike, for instance, in the case of usury – considered a voluntary commutation – since the ‘victim’ of usury agrees to it. Involuntary commutations are divided into injuries of deed and of word. Injuries of word are finally divided into judicial and extra-judicial injuries.

As with many of the distinctions Thomas makes, it is not always immediately apparent in what exactly he considers their distinction to lay. We need to pay attention to his technical usage since so very often every-day language treats terms synonymously that he considers distinct. Often enough Thomas borrows his terms (usually their standardized Latin equivalents) from Aristotle, or, less frequently, from other sources. In the case of these specific involuntary commutations he does not rely upon Aristotle, at least not directly and exclusively. In fact, the Nichomachaean Ethics does not mention a single one of them. He draws upon St. Isidore’s Etymologies for ‘reviling’. It is not clear where he derives his definition for ‘backbiting’, even though he cites Ecclesiastes 10:11 as his source, since this passage is somewhat vague. For ‘tale-bearing’ he cites Isidore again, as well as a few Scriptural sources and their glosses, but it is a gloss on Romans 1:29-30 that is determinative for his arrangement of these two vices. Quite uncustomary for him, he offers no source at all for his definition of ‘derision’, but relies on an analysis of the word itself. This unusual array of sources indicates that there must have been an accepted scholastic usage that Thomas was more or less upholding, and that the etymologies he provides simply serve to explain important features of the terms he wishes to highlight, not that he is revising definitions or radically departing from the received tradition.

There are a number of reasons why one should be interested in Thomas’ consideration of these otherwise ‘mundane’ vices. An accurate understanding of his moral doctrine cannot be gained from an exclusively generalized, schematic presentation of his ethical categories. One also needs to be acquainted with the particulars of human intercourse as he understood, a discussion of which is occasioned by his presentation of the specific virtues and vices that are the object of the Secunda Secundae. For instance, one of the most interesting aspects of this treatise, occasioned by the distinction he makes between backbiting and tale-bearing, is his account of friendship. Friendship is clearly important to him, which fact one might not otherwise discern were it not for his explanation of these specific vices. Moreover, were one to understand these vices simply theoretically as ‘vices against justice,’ one would not necessarily gain an appreciation of the intimate sense of humanity that comes across in Thomas’ presentation in the Secunda Secundae, a sensitivity that has so often been missed by his critics. Thomas did not simply treat of justice as some abstract norm governing entitlement. In other words, what we have in this part of the Summa is not an abstract philosophical presentation of the moral life, as in the dialogues of Plato, for instance, the type of presentation that is more interested in definitions than in lived-realities. Rather, within the Secunda Secundae we find a handbook for Christian life itself, one that is satisfying both to intellectuals and to practically-minded people – both of which sides were meant to coalesce in the Order of Preachers. One has to learn to recognize these features in the Summa. One has to learn to recognize the humanity in his thought. It is clear that in Thomas’ mind, one has a right to friendship, to one’s particular friends, and all the good things that this right implies. Underlying this very human sense of the moral life is his doctrine of natural law, of course. When Thomas reasons from the actual life of man to his moral responsibility what he is telling us is that man has a concrete nature, and that upholding the dignity of that nature constitutes the moral duty of every person. This dignity and the moral duty that arises from it needn’t be proved to us apodictically from principles of natural reason alone, since this is theology, and so much of what Thomas asserts about the moral life follows from revelation, the truth of which is very often, not proven, but in some way indicated by subsequent observation.

It is easy to see how these four questions integrate reason and revelation. Although the authorities cited in these questions are predominantly theological (biblical, biblical gloss, and Patristic), Thomas is not directly deriving his meanings from revelation. Friendship, again, is a theme more characteristic of Thomas’ pagan, rather than of his scriptural, sources. Even more centrally, the notion of honor is not per se one at home in Scripture, at least in the same way that it is in Aristotle. Of course, there is nothing anti-Christian about his position vis à vis honor, but it is nevertheless interesting how the quintessential Christian virtue, i.e. humility, makes little appearance in these questions. The respective function of faith and reason is, in the end, accounted for by the function of authority, on the one hand, and proof from argument, on the other. It would be fair to say that Thomas directly derives his terms from the scholastic tradition, which is constituted of a blend of philosophical and theological sources, but that he submits his argumentation to almost unaided rational dialectic. His ‘proofs’ from authority are rather weak; they are more illustrative of use rather than demonstrative of necessity. This highlights, the important, indeed, determinative, function that reason plays in these questions. Again, this is not to say that these terms are derived from natural necessity, a natural necessity that reason alone, or revelation alone, or, indeed, both together, can access, despite the fact that Thomas seems to be insisting that these definitions are not conventional at all. He was well aware of Augustine’s discussion of names in De doctrina christiana, 2.1.1-2.3. In this light we should not equate his pursuit of the ‘best definition’ with out-and-out naturalism.

Although a full understanding of Thomas’ moral doctrine cannot be limited to knowledge of its schematization, it cannot be gained without this knowledge. Why Thomas treats of these four vices in the order - reviling, backbiting, tale-bearing, derision - requires some examination first. Does he treat of them in order of seriousness, does he proceed from the general to the specific, or does he follow some other order of exposition? Perhaps the central assertion in these questions in found in the first article that addresses them, where we find the following:

[S]ince honor results from excellence, one person dishonors another, first, by depriving him of the excellence for which he is honored. This is done by sins of deed, whereof we have spoken above (64, seqq.). Secondly, when a man publishes something against another's honor, thus bringing it to the knowledge of the latter and of other men. This is reviling properly so called, and is done with some kind of signs.

Thomas understands the injuries that are the objects of these vices (i.e., the primary aspect under which the moral character of a virtue or vice is defined) as injuries against a prior kind of excellence. Today we might refer to this excellence which Thomas calls ‘honor’, as human dignity. To define the end of the moral act as the principle source of its moral character is to deviate somewhat from a classic virtue-based ethic, which Thomas might appear to be presenting here, but which he is not altogether abandoning either. He still accords an important role to the agent’s intention. Yet because the end is the primary moral qualifier, it is easy to see the importance of this concept ‘excellence’ in this treatise as a whole. In this light it seems necessary to discuss reviling first because it treats of verbal injuries to honor in general. The next vice, backbiting, is likewise a verbal injury, but when done secretly. When it comes to tale-bearing, Thomas specifies that this vice intends to undermine, not simply a neighbor’s good name, but, more dearly, a particular friendship, or friendships, which is, or are, contingent upon this good name. Finally, derision is a special kind of verbal act of injustice. Whereas the previous vices were all seriously intended, that is, intended by the vicious person to be considered by others as true, the derider wants his verbal assault to be considered a joke. This does not mean that the words are not harmful and the intention not sinful. In fact, Thomas considers these sorts of jokes particularly destructive of one’s honor, because the derider does not even consider his victim significant enough to be treated seriously or secretly. At least with the backbiter, for instance, is implied a certain amount of respect in that the backbiter keeps his attack secret out of fear of the person he is injuring.

Based on the above, one is able to determine that with these four vices Thomas has sought to include all varieties of verbal, non-judicial, commutative injustice. Reviling considered the blackening of one’s name in general and openly. Backbiting does the same, but in a hidden manner. Tale-bearing does not have the man’s name as it specific object, but his friendship(s). Derision is a particular kind of reviling that is not meant fully seriously. Does this account for the all possible objects of involuntary, non-judicial, commutative injustice? Here is the corresponding chart:

Class of Vice Object

Reviling- Destroying name, openly

Backbiting- Reviling, secretly

Derision- Reviling, in jest, to shame

Tale-Bearing- Destroying Friendship

It will be observed that St. Thomas’ order of presentation has been altered in this chart. Thomas’ own presentation generally moves from the general to the specific, although tale-bearing has a somewhat different and more serious object. Back-biting and derision are kinds of reviling, attacks against one’s name per se. Yet they are not simply species of reviling, since, as Thomas tells us, they differ somewhat in the intention of the agent. The secrecy of backbiting denotes a kind of respect, and the jocularity of the derider indicates a certain lack of respect. If we consider backbiting and derision forms of reviling, then Thomas believes that between reviling and tale-bearing he has comprehended the two principle objects of verbal assault – one’s own name (honor) and one’s friendship(s).

It is interesting, and perhaps determinative, for our question how this idea that there are two possible objects of involuntary, non-judicial, commutative injustice lines-up with his doctrine of love. Elsewhere he indicates that there are two objects of love: love of something with respect to oneself (concupiscence), and love of something with respect to one’s loved one (friendship). How do these things line up with the vices we are considering? They do not line up perfectly, since, as we should recall, we are not here treating of all the things for which one may have regard, whereas love is the attitude we have towards all goods universally. In these questions Thomas is only treating of those things that can be treated unjustly by words, words in a certain context. If we were to add to these vices every possible form of injustice then we would be including all the possible objects of love. It is interesting that Thomas understands that the fundamental division in love is between that which is desired for itself and that which is desired for another. This is, likewise, the fundamental distinction he makes with the objects of non-voluntary, non-judicial, verbal, commutative injustice. This reveals, not simply a commitment to logic – because there are other ways in which to imagine love to be fundamentally dichotomized, but more importantly, a high regard for friendship.

Yet it is apparent that despite the logical comprehensiveness that this schema suggests on the one hand, Thomas considered the moral world more complex than is suggested by the above chart. As is clear from q.72, a.1 reply 3, that Thomas is also aware that there are other kinds of ‘verbal assault,’ things by which “a man's faults are exposed to the detriment of his honor”:

Railing and taunts consist in words, even as reviling, because by all of them a man's faults are exposed to the detriment of his honor. Such faults are of three kinds. First, there is the fault of guilt, which is exposed by "reviling" words. Secondly, there is the fault of both guilt and punishment, which is exposed by "taunts" [convicium], because "vice" is commonly spoken of in connection with not only the soul but also the body. Hence if one man says spitefully to another that he is blind, he taunts but does not revile him: whereas if one man calls another a thief, he not only taunts but also reviles him. Thirdly, a man reproaches another for his inferiority or indigence, so as to lessen the honor due to him for any kind of excellence. This is done by "upbraiding" words, and properly speaking, occurs when one spitefully reminds a man that one has succored him when he was in need.

Clearly these are regarded as kinds of reviling, which fact complicates the question of how we are to understand – as in the chart above – backbiting and tale-bearing as the species of reviling. If Thomas does not understand backbiting and tale-bearing as species (the primary species?) of reviling because reviling is essentially an open and seriously intended act of verbal injustice, then it stands to reason that the above passage is meant to convey that the proper species of reviling are, and only are, ‘taunts’ and ‘upbraiding’. This makes a certain amount of sense out of the above passage, but it has to be observed, once again, that, as in the case of the first arrangement, wherein backbiting and derision are taken to be the species of reviling, reviling is itself included among the kinds of reviling. In other words, whether we take backbiting and derision as the primary species, or taunts and upbraiding, the problem is that in both cases reviling is listed with them. Are we to understand that reviling is itself a form of reviling? This is problematic, even if not impossible to imagine. After all, among the passions, for instance, which are all in a way love of the good, is included love itself as a specific passion. So a single term can act both as genus and species.

Whatever the solution to this mystery, the problem remains, how can Thomas be said to be offering a comprehensive picture of the injustices inflicted upon a person by words? Thomas is telling us that we can do two things with vicious words: destroy honor and destroy friendship. To destroy anything else – one’s body or one’s possessions – is not to use words but deeds. Is this simplistic or has he adequately treated the matter? Of course, we need to grant Thomas that by ‘honor’ is meant a holistic concept inclusive of all spiritual and psychological aspects of the person, even if our modern notion of personality is not exactly equivalent to Thomas’. Yet perhaps the self-esteem that one draws from things – from which he ought or ought not to draw them – renders Thomas’ dichotomization simplistic? Practically speaking, I draw some part of my sense of ‘honor’ (or self-esteem) from my children (this is both positive and negative), and this can be assaulted both by words and by deeds. God too, whom I love, may be attacked by words, my beloved Church by both words and deeds. The same can be said about the self-esteem I (always negatively) draw from my possessions – my house, my car, my job, etc. To attack a man’s things is to attack a man’s honor. Does Thomas consider this? Would he classify this as the form of injustice called reviling or the form of injustice called robbery or theft? Interestingly, Thomas is aware that the two forms of injustice intertwine. In answering which is worse, theft (which is done secretly) or robbery (which is done openly), he answers that one of the reasons why robbery is worse is that it “not only inflicts a loss on a person in his things, but also conduces to the ignominy and injury of his person, and this is of graver import than fraud or guile which belong to theft.” There is something to this, but even in this case does Thomas entertain the idea that, yes, robbery is particularly vicious because of its effrontery, but that theft is also particularly psychologically jarring because of the sense of uncertainty and helplessness it brings? We must read Thomas – barring any evidence to the contrary – as if he has weighed all the evidence and has yet still decided in favor of robbery’s greater vileness. Likewise, barring contrary evidence, we must interpret qq.72-75 as his full consideration of these vices. This means that he considers that, despite the intertwining that he concedes arises between physical and spiritual harms, there are only two kinds of harm perpetrated by involuntary, non-juridical, verbal commutative injustices: that against one’s honor and that against ones friendship(s). Since he includes murder and robbery, for instance, as deeds against justice, he does not consider these to be primarily psychological harms, but physical harms, even when these are perpetrated against one’s family and one’s dearest chattel.

In light of the question of whether or not Thomas has presented a comprehensive account of the vices of speech, his position appears to be strengthened when it is considered how broadly he defines one of the two objects of these verbal injustices, that is to say, friendship, when he says “that which is loved with the love of friendship, is loved, not simply and for itself, but for something else.” Although it is not apparent from his treatment of friendship in II-II, q.74, I think it is consistent with his thought to attach this broad definition of friendship to the object of tale-bearing. This means, to take a bizarre example, that the injustice of tale-bearing may be perpetrated against me even if my ‘friend’ in this case is a cat. My cat is my friend when it is the case that I love something, not because of the thing itself, but because of the love I bear my cat.

If we are correct to define ‘friendship’ in this broad manner, is there yet anything left out of Thomas’ account of the commutative injustices that involuntary, non-judicial words can affect? What about words that affect my regard for things that previously gave me joy? Would Thomas consider this to be an attack on my honor or my friendship? If someone disparages a possession of mine so as to lesson my regard for it, this seems like an injustice akin to the ones we have been discussing. Does such a verbal attack destroy my friendship with this possession or does it harm my self-esteem, i.e., is it reviling or tale-bearing? It is not robbery, since my possession has been left intact. Does it matter whether the verbal assault was leveled because of some intrinsic quality of the things itself or specifically because the thing is mine? Whatever answer he would likely give, it is sufficient to say that Thomas has not investigated all of the above scenarios in this brief treatise (i.e. qq.72-76), and this for no other reason than that this is not the objective of the Summa. Nevertheless, he has presented his arrangement in a generally comprehensive and satisfactory manner. It is likely the case that Thomas would consider further discussion of these vices best carried out in a sermon or scriptural commentary. To treat any further of the arrangement of the species of reviling – are they reviling, taunting and upbraiding, or reviling, backbiting and derision? – would, according to his own habit, have been the preoccupation of the much more detailed quodlibets, if he were to treat of them anywhere.

This treatise on the involuntary verbal commutative injustices is not the center of the Summa. In fact, the subject matter being what it is should occupy no place other than the periphery of a treatise of morals. Aristotle does not even directly include a discussion of this matter in the Nichomachean Ethics. This is not to say that such vices do not gravely impede spiritual progress and that they should not be taken seriously by us. In fact, that Thomas includes them in the Summa tells us that they should be considered serious obstacles to the spiritual life. Thomas’ treatise on justice is the single largest unit in the Secunda Secundae. This part of the Summa is arranged around two principle motifs: Paul’s theological virtues and Plato’s cardinal virtues. For instance, whereas the theological virtues altogether occupy 56 questions, the treatise on justice itself spans 66. Thomas clearly believed that justice was at the very heart of the moral life. Because this was an idea that is traced back to his pagan sources does not make it inimical to Christianity. It is naturally to be wondered how much of Thomas’ sense of honor and excellence was owed to these same pagan sources. Aristotle never touched on nor thought of humility as a virtue, of course. And so even in this unlikely spot, Questions 72-76, we catch a glimmer of the difference between Thomas’ and Aristotle’s conceptions of justice, a glimmer that serves to allay our suspicions about how little Thomas’ moral doctrine was based on revelation.

Even though Thomas never mentions humility or modesty in QQ. 72-5, it is, again, to the qualitative difference between his sense of ‘human excellence’ and that of Aristotle that we must point to in order to underline the fundamental manner of their divergence. There are also specific instances in this treatise that we may point to in order to begin to reveal this difference. For instance, we might contrast Thomas appeal to Christ’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, again, with Aristotle’s account of the magnanimous man. An even more decisive instance that reveals the Christianity of Thomas’ position is indicated in the article that Thomas devotes to the question of whether or not one should himself suffer reviling. Thomas’ mixed reply to the problem can be best summarized in his words: “The daring of the railing reviler should be checked with moderation, i.e. as a duty of charity, and not through lust for one's own honor,” and “When one man prevents another from being reviled there is not the danger of lust for one's own honor as there is when a man defends himself from being reviled: indeed rather would it seem to proceed from a sense of charity.” Although I cannot say that I agree with every aspect of his answer in this article, there is no disputing the fact that Christian revelation lies at the heart of Thomas’ account of the involuntary verbal commutative injustices.


  1. That was interesting and edifying, Colin. Thanks for posting.