Yesterday was the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). His most famous work, though never completed, is his Summa Theologiae, which means “The Whole of Theology” or “Sum of Theology.” As Thomas explains in his prologue, this work is intended for beginners:
Because the teacher of Catholic truth is not only obliged to instruct the advanced (prōvectōs instruere), but to him also belongs the education of beginners (incipientēs ērudīre) … my intention in this work is to hand on those things which pertain to Christian religion in such a way as is suitable to the education of beginners.
Though the Summa is vast in scope, it is carefully divided not only into three “parts” (partēs), but each part is itself divided into sub-parts called “questions” (quaestiōnēs), and each question is further divided into sub-sub-parts called “articles” (articulī).
A better translation for quaestiō might be “inquiry,” because at the outset of each quaestiō, Thomas lays out the subject matter to be inquired into or considered.
For example, in quaestiō 60 of the second part of the second part (yes, the second part itself has two parts!), Thomas begins: Deinde considerandum est dē iūdiciō. Et circā hoc quaeruntur sex, “Next we must consider judgment. And on this topic six things are inquired into.” The six things “inquired into” are:
- whether judgment is an act of justice,
- whether it is lawful to judge,
- whether judgment should be based on suspicions,
- whether doubts should be interpreted favorably,
- whether judgment should always be given according to written laws, and
- whether judgment is perverted by being usurped.
Each of these subjects of inquiry occupies a single article of the question. A consideration of what judgment (iūdicium) is will only be complete, according to Thomas, when each of these components of the “question” has been duly inquired into.
The word Thomas uses for each component, articulus, is usually translated “article,” but the term’s original meaning is “a small member connecting various parts of the body”—for example, a “knuckle” or another “little joint.” Behind the technical term lies a metaphor. The whole work that is Thomas’s Summa is like an organic body. Each articulus is the smallest part into which the whole organic unity can be analysed—the basic building block of which the whole is knit together.
But each article has its own organization, too. Take, for example, the third article of question 60—the article that considers whether judgment should be based on suspicion. The article begins with a standard formula: Ad tertium sīc prōcēditur, which is usually translated, “Thus we proceed to the third (article).” But according to Otto Bird—in this illuminating essay —the proper translation is: “It is disputed as follows regarding the third (article).” For Thomas begins, as he does in every article, by introducing one side of a disputed question—the side of his opponents.
This first part of the article is sometimes referred to as the “vidētur quod” because those two words invariably follow the formula sīc prōcēditur. So the present article continues, “It seems that [vidētur quod*] a judgment proceeding from suspicion is not unlawful”—i.e., it seems that it *is lawful, or permitted, to form a judgment of another person based only on suspicion. This is the position which Thomas will end up refuting—although sometimes the relationship between Thomas’s position and that of the “vidētur quod” is more complex than a simple opposition. Thomas sometimes incorporates elements of the opposite side into his own position.
Thomas now develops three different arguments all opposed to his own position.
Suspicion is “an uncertain opinion about some evil.” But when we judge of “particular contingent matters,” every opinion is necessarily “uncertain,” to some extent. Judgment is concerned with human actions, which fall within the category of particular contingent matters; therefore either judgment based on suspicion is lawful or else no judgment is ever lawful.
Some injury is done to one’s neighbor by an unlawful judgment. But evil suspicion exists only in a person’s opinion, and so does not extend to the injury of another person. Therefore a judgment based on suspicion is not unlawful.
Judgment is an act of justice (this was established in the first article of this question). So, if a judgment based on suspicion is unlawful, it must be a kind of injustice, and injustice is always wrong. Therefore a judgment based on suspicion would always be wrong, if it proved to be unlawful. But this is false, because we cannot avoid suspicions, as a Gloss of Augustine says on 1 Corinthians 4. Therefore, a judgment based on suspicion does not seem to be unlawful.
The next part of the article is known as the “sed contrā,” again after its formulaic beginning: “But on the contrary” is what St. John Chrysostom says: that Christians should not despise (dēspiciant) others or hate and condemn them on the basis of mere suspicions.
Bird insists that the proper way to read an article of the Summa is to proceed carefully through each of the arguments on the side of the opposition, even to develop them further until they attain the proportions and force they would have in the mouth of an earnest and eloquent advocate of those views.
And then after reading the sed contrā and seeing that a weighty authority comes down on the opposite side, we should feel perplexed.
The inquiry pursued is no easy or trivial one. Reasonable, forceful arguments can be produced on either side of the question. Either side will clearly understand its own position only by careful attention to the opposite side.
Only now, having considered the strength of the arguments on the opposite side and briefly noted an authority on his own side, does Thomas give his own “response”—the name for the part of the article that always begins, Respondeō dīcendum, “I reply that it must be said …”
These words—Respondeō dīcendum-–are usually translated “I reply that” or “I answer that.” Bird resists that common translation, noting that each word in Thomas’s phrase serves a function: respondeō looking back to each of the objections and the sed contrā, dīcendum looking forward to the resolution Thomas now undertakes.
First, Thomas qualifies the definition of “suspicion” employed in the first objection. As Cicero says, suspicion signifies “an opinion concerning some evil when it is based upon slight evidence.” And such “evil opinions” can arise from three distinct causes or circumstances:
A person is evil in himself, and so because he is fully aware of his own wickedness, he readily thinks evil of others.
Secondly, a person is “ill-disposed” (male afficitur) towards another person. “When one person despises or hates another, or feels anger or jealousy towards him, he forms evil opinions about him from slight indications, for everyone easily believes what he wants to be true.”
Finally, suspicion often arises from “long experience” (ex longā experientiā). This is why Aristotle says, in the second book of his Rhetoric, “Old people are especially suspicious, because they have much experience of the faults of others”!
Thomas next concludes that “the first two causes of suspicion manifestly pertain to a perversity of feelings” (perversitās affectūs), but notes that the third cause—being old and having much experience of others’ faults—diminishes the character of the suspicion, because experience contributes to certainty, which is contrary to the nature of suspicion. The idea seems to be that those who have lived a long time, accumulating experience of others’ faults, are not in fact basing their judgments of others on mere suspicion—as the young, who lack their experience, would be forced to.
Thomas further explains that suspicion implies a certain amount of vice, and the farther the suspicion goes, the more vicious it becomes. He defines three distinct “grades” of suspicion: first, a person begins to doubt the goodness of another on light evidence. The next “grade” is when a person assumes the wickedness of another is certain on light evidence. This second grade is where suspicion becomes wrong, or unjust, because it involves “contempt of one’s neighbor.” The third and most grievous grade of suspicion is when a person, acting in the capacity of a judge or jury, proceeds to condemn another person on the basis of suspicion. “And this directly pertains to injustice.”
Thus concludes Thomas’s own “response,” but the article does not end here. For Thomas now returns to each of the earlier objections.
“To the first it must be said” (Ad prīmum dicendum …) that some amount of certainty can be obtained regarding human actions, for example, when something is proved by means of suitable witnesses. In such cases a judgment is rendered not on the basis of suspicion or uncertain opinion, but with a kind of certainty appropriate to the matter—i.e., as we say today, “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
By the fact itself that someone holds an evil opinion about another without sufficient reason, he unduly despises that person and so does him an injury. Merely holding unfounded evil opinions of others is itself a kind of injustice.
In replying to the third objection, Thomas distinguishes between 1) a judgment based on suspicion that proceeds to an exterior act, i.e. a guilty verdict; and 2) an interior judgment (that does not issue in a formal guilty verdict). The latter, he says, is to the former, just as lust is to fornication and anger is to murder.
St. Thomas does not discuss the etymology of suspicion in this article, but the etymology is still relevant. For the word originally possessed a dual character, but then lost one side of its original meaning. And it is the side that was preserved which Thomas deals with in this article.
“Suspicion” goes back to the Latin verb suspicere, which means literally “to look up” or “to look up at a thing.” In particular, it means “to look at with admiration”—i.e., as we say, “to look up to someone.” But alongside that sense of suspicere, there existed a contrary sense, “to look at secretly or askance”—i.e., to mistrust or suspect someone.
St. Thomas’s article lays bare the essentially vicious character of the latter kind of suspicion. But by taking his argument to heart, perhaps we can revive the word’s original significance, by resolutely holding our view of our neighbors above suspicion.1
My friend and colleague Chris Shannon writes a regular column at The Catholic World Report. He recently wrote about the enduring witness of the seventeenth-century Jesuit martyrs Isaac Jogues, S.J., John de Brébeuf, S.J. and their companions.
Christendom College alumna Rachel Hoover also contributes frequently to CWR. She wrote a two-part series recently, considering first why young Catholics aren’t marrying, and then proposing how to help them get married!
And Alan Jacobs has declared 2023 the year of focal practices.