Thomass Teaching on Multiple Languages

For those trying to retrace Thomas's conception of linguistic inheritance, there is at least one longer way and one shorter way. The longer way is to begin from Thomas's teaching on the nature of language, to apprentice oneself to the liberal arts of language as Thomas receives them in the trivium, to ascend through the variously self-limiting languages of his arrangement of speculative sciences, and then to grasp, at last, his theological transformations and delimitations of all the previous stages.16 The shorter way, which is just now the only practicable way, is to take up Thomas's explicit remarks on the multiplicity of languages and then to watch his handling of that multiplicity in the structure of his main works. I begin with the explicit remarks, but not before a warning.

14 Scriptum Sent. 2.38.1.1.

15 Peter Lombard, Sententiae in IV libris distinctae 2.38.1.1, ed. Patres C. S. B. (Grottaferrata: Editiones C. S. B., 1951), 1:548.

16 I attempted the first part of this ascent in Ordering Wisdom: The Hierarchy of Philosophical Discourses in Aquinas (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986). I had intended to write a sequel completing the ascent in theology. This book is that sequel — or, rather, a commentary on the impossibility of writing the sequel as I originally envisioned it.

One product of the covert entry of Cartesianism into Scholastic circles was the fantasy of a Thomistic method. Some Thomists hoped that affixing a proper statement of this method as prologue would save the whole corpus from Cartesian doubt or its sequel in Kantian critique. The project met immediate resistance in Thomas's texts. Thomas nowhere speaks for more than a few dozen lines about his procedure. He lets his "method" be read off from his practice. When I say that there are explicit remarks on the multiplicity of languages, I do not mean that the remarks can substitute for an acquaintance with Thomas's handling of particular languages in particular cases. Theological procedure is learned by habituation. The scattered remarks I gather here serve best as invitations to appropriate Thomas's teaching practices at proper length.

Thomas discovers contrary manners of speech in the national languages.17 Within each, there are "common" or "customary" manners of speaking, then technical or special manners (where "technical" translates "artificialis").18 The most prominent technical modes are found in the pedagogically ordered bodies of knowledge, the "sciences" or scientiae.19 The manners of speaking proper to each science are distinguished from the rest in many ways, but chiefly by degree of certainty. Other distinctions of the modus loquendi must be attended to in theology. The circumstances of human embodiment demand extraordinary care when making assertions about the divine.20

There is more than one way of speaking in each science, since different authorities speak differently about the same objects. Sometimes the differences are in the manner of speaking only. Dionysius the Areopagite will speak in a way that is opposed to the Aristotelian, and yet will speak to the same point.21 At other times, a difference in manner of speaking betrays a difference in doctrine. So Aristotle must argue against the Platonic habit of speaking about "Ideas," though he himself will also sometimes speak "in the manner of the Platonists (more Platonicorum)'.'22 The manner of speaking in philosophy can become a matter of style — which is not to say merely a

17 For example, Summa theol. 1.39.3, with regard to plural expressions in Greek and Hebrew for God. Compare Sent. Ethic. 5.7, "according to the manner of speaking among the Greeks (per modum loquendi apud Graecos)." The point is also made at length in the prologue to the Contra err. Graec. pars prior, which will be discussed below.

18 So, for example, the philosophical poems of Empedocles, "which, since they were written metrically in Greek, possess a certain difficulty and are different from the common way of speaking (a communi modo loquendi)" (Sent. Metaph. 3.11).

19 The modus of each science is both its procedure and the limitations on its speech. See especially Super De Trin. expositio cap. 2 and 6.1.

20 De verit. 23.3 corpus; Contra gent. 4.9.6 (no. 3,445).

22 Sent. Ethic. 1.6, to which compare Sent. Politic. 1[a].1.

matter of style. Thomas reproves the obscure style of the Platonists and justifies Aristotle in attacking the misunderstandings to which such a style inevitably gives rise.23

The complexities of parsing the manner of speaking in a given passage can be illustrated by Thomas's use of the allied notion of condescension (condescensio). The conception is applied to passages of Scripture in which literally false locutions are explained as concessions to the weakness of the first readers.24 So, for example, the account of creation in Genesis 1 appears to contain scientific and philosophical errors, but they are excused as divine condescension to the cosmological (mis)understanding of the ancient Israelites. Condescensio figures not just in Scripture: every careful teacher employs it. The teacher does not give a student the whole of an art at once, "but slowly, condescending to his capacity."25 Thomas mentions condescensio specifically when noting Aristotle's dialectical acceptance of false views.26 He relies on it implicitly when setting forth the considerations of prudence that limit theological speech in front of those with weak faith or none.27

Thomas does not want to abolish multiple manners of speaking. He means instead to enter into many of them, to adjust them one to another, and to correct them where they are misleading or false. His own favored terms and tropes do not replace other ways of speaking so much as supplement them. Thomas's whole practice as exegete and dialectician is to preserve the multiplicity of inherited languages, even under translation. A translator in particular must appreciate exactly the distinguishing characteristics of any language, and so translation becomes a second point at which Thomas reflects explicitly on inherited languages. His solicitude for translation is famous. Although he did not direct or collaborate with the great Dominican translator, William of Moerbeke, as legend wishes, Thomas was eager to acquire Moerbeke's translations as quickly as they appeared.28 Thomas himself initiated translations of Greek texts needed in compiling his Gospel gloss, the Golden Chain (about which more in a moment).29 Whenever he had to content himself with extant translations, he collated them assiduously.

24 So the primitive cosmology in Genesis, on which see Summa theol. 1.68.3 corpus, 1.70.1 ad 3. For the condescensio of Scripture generally, see Super De div. nom. 1.2.

26 Sent.De sensu 1.5.

27 Consider Super De Trin. expositio proemii; Contra gent. 1.8.

28 See the summary of the negative evidence in Torrell, Initiation, pp. 255-258.

29 Thomas says, "I had certain of the expositions of the Greek teachers (doctores) translated into Latin" (Catena aurea: in Marcum epist. dedic.).

Thomas writes about translation most extensively in Against the Errors of the Greeks (that is, of Greek-speaking or other eastern Christians). He means to explain why certain passages in ancient authorities strike later readers as doubtful.30 Thomas gives as one reason the difference between Greek and Latin as languages. "[M]any things that sound right (bene sonant) in the Greek language often do not sound right in Latin, since Latins and Greeks confess the same truth of faith with different words." Thomas's example is the mistranslation of the Trinitarian term "hypostasis" by "substance." One can say "rightly and with the catholic [or universal] faith" that there are in God three hypostases, but not that there are three substances. Thomas draws a general consequence: "it belongs to the task of the good translator, in translating what belongs to the catholic faith, to preserve the thought (sententia), while changing the manner of speaking (modus loquendi) according to the particularity (proprietas) of the language into which he translates." If a speaker of Latin cannot properly understand every Latin locution with word-for-word literality, how much less can she translate from another language in such a fashion.

Thomas sees clearly that translation is not a mechanical task. It requires, beyond erudition, the virtues of prudent interpretation. In calling for these virtues, Thomas may seem to commit himself unreflectively to the possibility of translation in every case. While he insists that Greek and Latin will diverge "literally,"31 he does not seem to qualify — or to question — the confidence that some translation is always possible. Thomas appears to have eluded one false optimism about translation only to be trapped by another. This is only an appearance. Thomas's confidence in the possibility of trans-latlon is a theological confidence. It extends just to the essentials of faith. He does hold that translation can preserve the sententia of essential theological teachings, that is, the act of judgment or resolution registered by their words. Still the words of any text are not transparent. On Thomas's general account, any mental act is refracted when it is written or spoken.32 A meditated theological doctrine is refracted even more in its authoritative formulations. Thomas reiterates the dispensability of particular theological utterances with regard to the truths they announce or recall. The letter of

30 Contra err. Graec. pars prior prol. The references in the rest of this paragraph are also to this passage.

31 At the end of the discussion on the differences between hypostasis and substantia, Thomas adds, "Nor is it to be doubted that it is also similar in many other [instances]" (Contra err. Graec. pars prior prol.).

32 I have argued this from Thomas's texts in Ordering Wisdom, pp. 31—39. What I give here as statement is there formulated as conclusion (p. 39).

the New Testament, for example, is fully subordinate to the law of grace announced through it. Its words are instruments for disposing believers to the inward dictates of the Holy Spirit.33 Again, the church establishes creeds in response to pedagogical needs, but they are always open to qualification and further interpretation in the face of other needs.34 The church gives authority to the words of great theological teachers according to the rule of faith — and only so far as the words serve faith's up-building.35

Each of these teachings emphasizes the subservience of particular words to saving truths. It must be possible to articulate truths essential to faith in every language. There is no language in which salvation cannot be preached. At the same time, there is no guarantee that a preacher or teacher in one linguistic tradition will recognize appropriate formulations of saving truths in another tradition. The capacity for judging translations is an acquired erudition exercised contingently. It is not a form of second sight.

Translation leads to doxography or the tabulation of positions. Translation in the ordinary sense makes doxography possible across linguistic traditions by representing alien views in the prudently chosen equivalents of some common language. Translation in a metaphorical sense is required every time one moves from one manner of speaking to another within the same national language. Having remarked on both these kinds of translation, Thomas considers doxography as well. It would be surprising if he did not, since most of the academic genres within which he writes are doxographical.

Doxography is practiced everywhere in Thomas, but the principles of the practice are nowhere summarized. They cannot be summarized. The doxography of Christian teaching, in particular, provokes controversial questions about the hierarchy of binding authorities. The hierarchy of authoritative texts in theology not only controls doctrinal development, but also enacts a reverse chronology. The most authoritative texts within the church come from the church's beginnings, and so the history of theology can seem a fall from authenticity. Yet Thomas is clearly aware of theological development in the ordinary sense. He insists that the faith must be formulated more explicitly in response to new questions or errors.36 Thomas also knows — how could an author of disputed questions not? — that interpretation must refer to context, including the circumstances of the author. So, for example, Thomas frequently remarks on Augustine's use of Platonic

35 See the striking formulation in Summa theol. 2—2.10.12 corpus.

vocabulary and Platonic argument, and he supplies what he can in order to make that use understandable.37

The most sustained remarks on theological doxography come once again in Against the Errors of the Greeks.38 They are the first reason Thomas gives for our having trouble with certain passages in older authoritative texts. The emergence of new errors with regard to the faith has given occasion for the Church's teachers to formulate contested points "with greater circumspec-tion."39 Aquinas gives as examples the changes wrought in fighting Arianism and Augustine's increasing care with the Pelagians. So Thomas's immediate predecessors, faced with fresh errors, "speak more cautiously (cautius) and almost more selectively (quasi eliminatius) about the teaching of the faith." If certain locutions in the ancients appear incautious, one ought not to despise, reject, or rewrite them. One ought rather to "interpret them reverently (exponere reverenter)."

We are obliged to take this passage in good faith and not to dismiss it as an excuse for exegetical violence in the service of a presumed orthodoxy. Thomas does not mean by "exponere reverenter' imposing a later theological consensus backwards. His point is just the opposite: the earlier writers could not have known the later consensus. Thomas counsels the doxographer to affirm that earlier Christian writers wrote truly even where their remarks now seem incautious or ambiguous. This counsel assumes a ground of faith outside its possible articulations. Community of faith can be meaningfully asserted behind literally discordant articulations. The doxographer is responsible precisely for making the unity of faith manifest through the history of changing articulations. Since changes will never end so long as history continues, theological articulations must continue to multiply. Under multiplication, the doxographer's task is not to cancel earlier formulations, but to save them. Theology ought never to be an abolitio memoriae, the kind of history-unwriting favored by violent orthodoxies. It ought be an act of gratitude towards one's predecessors acted out as charitable attention to them.

Thomas's attention is animated and directed by the needs of the Christian faithful around him. The needs cannot be met by piecemeal reinterpretation. They require that an integral theological truth be spoken anew, in the present. They require, in other words, that Thomas take up reinterpreted authorities into new patterns of theological persuasion.

37 See especially De spir. creat. 10 ad 8.

38 These are not the only remarks on patristic doxography. For surveys of a much larger selection, see Walter H. Principe, "Thomas Aquinas' Principles for Interpretation of Patristic Texts," Studies in Medieval Culture 59 (1976): 111—121.

39 Contra err. Graec. pars prior prol. The references in the rest of this paragraph are also to this text.

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