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Anthropology and Common Everyday Formulas-

The Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas

Underlying our Day-To-Day Speech

(Lecture at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Departament de Ciències de l'Antiguitat i de l'Edat Mitjana, 23-4-98)

L. Jean Lauand

Universidade de São Paulo -
(English translation by Alfredo H. Alves)


"Thank you", "Congratulations", "Forgive me", "My dear" and several other speech forms common in everyday relationships - in English, in Portuguese and in other languages - contain profound hidden truths for the philosophical study of man.

Although daily use tends to make of them merely empty formalities, these expressions - at first sight so innocent of any implications -, originally touch on important dimensions of human reality.

From the methodological-thematic discussion about speech forms and philosophical anthropology (taking St. Thomas Aquinas as our guide) these formulas of daily intercourse are shown to be authentic cyphered messages, surprising at times to a great degree and full of wisdom... As Isidore of Seville says, without etymology reality cannot be known and with it we at once feel the expressive force of words(1).

For Aquinas, words have a potential for expression that is much greater than we might imagine, so familiar are they to us, so almost automatically do we use them. Hence the attention he pays to the ways of speech, to their context, to the subtleties of ordinary speech forms, both in his own and other languages.


Some methodological points

When philosophy turns to speech forms it is not doing some peripheral, but something that is in the greatest degree essential, something that appertains to the very core of philosophical reflection. For it always has in mind that fundamental truth, stressed in both western and oriental anthropology: that man is, essentially, a being that forgets!(2) And everyday speech, the living language of the man in the street, proves so often to be a reservoir of great experiences that have been forgotten. And if we must retrieve their human content, we should turn with great discernment to this deposit.

It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that we should find in a philosopher of Aquinas' calibre, a philosophy that is in a great degree committed to speech forms. So it would not be amiss to bring to mind some of his methodological principles.

1) Our words often express reality fragmentarily: divisim is the adverb used by Aquinas. For reality is complex and surpasses by far the intellectual capacity of man. Incidentally, the very penetrating observation "no philosopher has ever succeeded in explaining the essence of a fly" is Aquinas'. In contrast to God Who expresses all in a single Word, "we find ourselves only able to express our findings fragmentarily and through many and imperfect words"(3).

2) Another important phenomenon, also linked to the limitations of our knowledge and speech forms is what we might call the sunflower effect. This is elucidated by Aquinas as follows: "Since the essential principles of things are unknown to us, very often in our gropings to signify what is essential, our definitions seize on an accidental aspect"(4). Thus, for example, the whole being of the plant we call the sunflower is expressed by one characteristic only, accidental and peripheral, namely, the heliotropic behaviour of the plant.

3) And regarding this sunflower-effect, Aquinas points out that, very often, for each language there is a different characteristic, aspect, way, through which it tackles any given reality: the same object which protects against water (parapluie) produces a little shade (umbrella). As Aquinas says "different languages express the same reality in different ways"(5).


"Thank you" - the three gradations of gratitude

We have said that the limitations of knowledge are reflected in our day-to-day speech: we cannot express what things are in the measure in which we do not know what these things are.

And besides, very often, a word stresses only one of the many aspects a given reality contains.

Aquinas says that gratitude is a complex human reality (which is why its verbal expression in any given language is fragmentary: only one aspect of it being stressed): "Gratitude comprises several degrees. The first consists in the recognition of (ut recognoscat) the benefit received; the second in giving thanks ("grace", ut gratias agat); the third in repaying (ut retribuat) according to ones means and the most opportune circumstances of time and place" (II-II, 107, 2, c).

This teaching, apparently so simple, is seen in the different ways which various languages express thanks: each of them emphasizing one aspect of the multiform reality of gratitude.

Some languages express gratitude at its first level: by expressing very clearly the recognition of a benefit and this (as in reconnaissance in French) is truly a synonym of gratitude. In this sense, let us take a look at etymology of the English word thank. In the English language, thank and to think, are, in their origin, and this is not by chance, the same word. In defining the etymology of "thank", the Oxford English Dictionary is quite clear: "The primary sense was therefore thought"(6). And in the same way, the German zu danken (thank) has its origin in zu denken (think).

All this, of course, is easy to understand, for as everybody knows, a person is truly thankful who thinks of the favour done to him.

He is thankful who thinks of, ponders, considers the generosity of his benefactor. When this do not occur, there is the very natural complaint: "What lack of consideration!"(7).

From this, Aquinas, pointing out that the greatest negative is the negation of the least positive degree (the last street on the right if you are going one way is the same as the first left if you are going the opposite way) affirms that the absence of recognition, the ignoring of a benefit, is the supreme act of ingratitude(8): "the sick man who is unaware of his illness, does not want any medication"(9).

The Arabic expression of thanks shukran, shukran jazy-lan is directly situated on the second level: the praise of the benefactor and of the benefit received.

The Latin expression of gratitude, gratias ago, with its Italian (grazie) and Castilian (gracias) derivations is relatively complex. Aquinas says (I-II, 110, 1) that its nucleus, grace, has three dimensions:

1) obtain grace, be in someone's grace, obtain his favour, be loved by him, and thereby obtain a benefit from him;

2) grace also means a gift, something not owed but given freely, with no merit on the part of the person upon whom the favor is bestowed;

3) acknowledgement, a giving of thanks on the part of the person benefited.

In his treatise De Malo (9, 1) Aquinas adds a fourth meaning: gratias agere: praise: he should praise who sees that the good that he receives comes from another.

In all that we have seen - the expressions of gratitude in English, German, French, Castilian, Italian, Latin and Arabic - the profound character of the Portuguese form, obrigado, stands out. The Portuguese form, so enchanting and unique, is the only one (together with the Japanese arigatô) to be included, without the shadow of a doubt, on that deepest level of gratitude Aquinas speaks of, the third (in which, naturally, are included the two former levels): the level of "boundenness" (ob-ligatus), of an obligation, of the duty to make a return.


"My dear"

The richness (and precision) in the live vocabulary of any language for a determined topic shows the very great interest attached to that topic. Witness, for example, the incredible richness, in Brazil, of the language of football to describe the great diversity of footwork.

In the same way, Aquinas sets before us distinctions between various "synonyms" in Latin for love, which are of great interest from the point of view of philosophical anthropology. Thus, in affirming (in I Sent. d. 10, q.1, a.5, ex) that the Holy Spirit is the amor or caritas or dilectio of the Father and of the Son, he says that amor, shows the simple disposition of affection for the beloved, while dilectio ("as the etymology of the word shows") presupposes choice and is, therefore, rational. Whereas caritas, the object of our study of this topic, stresses the vehemence of love (dilectio) insofar as the beloved is considered beyond price ("inquantum dilectum sub inaestimabili pretio habetur"), in the same sense as when we say that things (the cost of living, purchases) are dear ("secundum quod res multi pretii carae dicuntur").

And there is a surprising and very significant fact. It is not by chance that the same and only word is used in other languages as well to say "my dear friend" and "beans are dear" ("meu caro amigo", o "feijão está caro"; "mon cher ami" and "les haricots sont trop cher").

To the realistic medieval mind, there is nothing shocking about the word "charity", chosen to designate the love of God (and the love of one's neighbour for the love of God) being the pre-Christian word linked with money, price: charity, the love for the beloved - Aquinas insists - shows that that which we consider of great price (a thing, an object), is very dear: "Caritas dicitur, eo quod sub inaestimabili pretio, quasi carissimam rem, ponat amatum caritas" (In III Sent. d.27, q.2, a.1, ag7)

Thus, when we say "my dear friend" or "my dear Tom" we are using metaphors of price, of esteem, of estimation, from which we derive appreciation.

On the same lines there is the Arabic form of courtesy in the reply to a friend who says he is going to ask for something: "Anta gally wa talibuka rakhiz" ("You are dear (to me) and your request is cheap").

And when we recall that Christ compares the Kingdom of Heaven to treasure that a man comes upon in a field or to a merchant who seeks precious stones; and that to obtain these riches all that the seeker possesses must be sold, we are not surprised that "charity" is the word to denote the good appreciated.



Let us now look at another situation in our day-to-day life, that of felicitations, and go back to the original meanings of the expressions used. Following medieval practice, we shall pay careful attention to the etymology of these expressions.

When we look beyond the fixed formulas, take for example "Congratulations!" (and its equivalent in other languages, the Portuguese Parabéns!, the Spanish Enhorabuena!, the Italian Auguri! etc.), we see that they contain different and complementary indications of the mystery of being and of the human heart.

What exactly do such formulations mean? What do we really mean when we say "Congratulations", "Parabéns" etc.? Each of these expressions has in itself a deep meaning, something "invisible to the naked eye".

Let us begin with the Castilian formula, Enhorabuena!, literally, "in good time (hour)". Enhorabuena indicates that a certain trajectory (the years of study that at long last are rewarded with graduation, the hard work of setting up a business that finally bears fruit, etc.) has come now to its conclusion, and so, this is the (long-awaited) hour for congratulations: Enhorabuena!

It is precisely the fact that is the hour of consummation that makes it one's finest hour! The wisdom of the ancients speaks of "one's hour", of "good hours" and "bad hours". But the "good hour", the "best hour" is that in which the conclusion of something has arrived, the consummation of a work, the arrival at one's destination, the hour that marks the end, which is better than the hour at which something is begun: "Melior est finis quam principium", as the Bible (Ecclesiastes, 7, 8) says.

The English formula "congratulations!" - with the similar formula in German and some other languages - expresses the joy shared with the good fortune of another person: we congratulate, we share in the other's joy.

This sharing of joy is suggested by the deponent form (middle voice) of the Latin verbs gratulor and congratulor. The deponent form indicates that the action described in the verb is neither active nor passive: it is an action which is exercised by the subject and falls back on himself or, in the case of congratulations, the joy that we manifest in felicitating a person is also very much our joy....

The Arabic mabruk! conveys the character of a blessing on the gift that we felicitate someone on.

With the captivating Portuguese form Parabéns! it is precisely this that we want to express, that the goal attained should be used well (parabéns means "for what is good"); since any good that is obtained (the gift of life, money or the gaining of a diploma) can, obviously, be used for either good or evil.

The Italian auguri, auguri tanti! is a forecast that the good celebrated is merely an omen of more good things to come.


Deepest Sympathies - Pesame

"Burdened with sadness...", so goes a song by Paulinho da Viola, the "Prince of Samba". Sadness is - it is evident - a burden. And to carry the burden of a pain or of sadness, there is nothing better, says Aquinas, than the help of friends: "For sadness is like a heavy burden whose weight is lightened when shared by many: thus the presence of friends"(10).

We thus see why condolence (condolere - suffer, grieve with) is expressed (in Portuguese and in Castilian) by "pêsames", from "peso" (weight), so that "pêsames" is literally "pesa-me", "I will help you to carry the weight of your sadness".

"Forgive me"

"Perdonare" (to forgive) is a late Latin form and is not found in Aquinas' writings. The usual corresponding word used by him is parcere. However we do find in Aquinas the philosophical reasons which explain the etymology of the modern forms: perdoar (Port.), perdonar (Cast.), perdonare (Ital.), pardonner (Fr.) etc.

In defining the meaning of this Latin prefix per, the Oxford English Dictionary says "Thoroughly, perfectly, extremely, very: with adjs. and advbs., as peracutus very sharp, peracute, perdiligens very diligent, perdiligent, perfervidus, perfervid".

And so "perdonare" appears as the superlative of donare (to give). The same happens in English and German: forgive and vorgeben.

What is Aquinas' thought in connection with the theme of pardon and how he relates it to the maximum of giving? There are biblical and liturgical influences in his ideas. In liturgy Aquinas is impressed by the prayer which he often quotes(11), from the Mass of the 10th Sunday after Pentecost (in the revised liturgy, the 26th Sunday of the Ordinary Time) which goes: "Deus qui omnipotentiam tuam parcendo maxime manifestas" ("God, you show your omnipotence principally in forgiving..."). And he affirms that God's pardon is a superior power to that of creating heaven and earth (II-II, 113, 9, sc).

And the Latin translation of the epistle to the Ephesians (4, 32) says: " kind and 'give' yourselves to one another as also God has 'given' you in Christ"(12).

And in II Cor 2, 10 "To whom you 'give', I also 'give', and what I have 'given' etc."(13). Aquinas has no doubts in this matter: giving, above all, is not the giving of money, or time, or any other thing; it is forgiving(14). And he concludes in his usual terse way, with significant id ests "Donate, id est parcite" (Super II ad Cor. cp 12, lc 4) and "Donantes, id est parcentes" (Super ad coloss. cp 3 lc 3).

1."Nisi enim nomen scieris, cognitio rerum perit" (Et. 1, 7,1) and " Nam dum videris unde ortum est nomen, citius vim eis intellegis" (Et. 1,29,2).

2.Cf. the chapter "Memory and Education" in Interfaces, São Paulo, Hottopos, 1997, p. 91 et seq.

3. "Quia enim nos non possumus omnes nostras conceptiones uno verbo exprimere, ideo oportet quod plura verba imperfecta formemus, per quae divisim exprimamus omnia, quae in scientia nostra sunt" (Super Ev. Io. Cp 1, lc1).

4. "Et quia essentialia principia sunt nobis ignota, frequenter ponimus in definitionibus aliquid accidentale, ad significandum aliquid essentiale" (In I Sent. ds25 q 1, a 1, r 8).

5. "Diversae linguae habent diversum modum loquendi" (I, 39, 3 ad 2).

6. Oxford English Dictionnary, 2nd. ed. on CD-Rom, 1994.

7. Seneca, too - quoted by Aquinas, II-II, 106, 3 ad 4 - says that there can be no gratitude if what is strictly owed is not surpassed, "ultra debitum". "You did not more than your duty" ("Ministerium tuum est") and other similar expressions, are, as we see, very old formulas...

8. "Est gravissimum inter species ingratitudinis, cum scilicet homo beneficium non recognoscit" (In II Sent. d.22 q.2 a.2 r.1).

9. "Quia dum morbum non cognoscit, medicinam non quaerit", ibidem.

10. "Quod tristitia est sicut onus grave quod quanto plures transsumunt fit levius ad portandum et sic presentia amici delectabilis" (Tabula libri Ethicorum, cpt).

11. For example in II-II, 113 9, sc and In IV Sent. d.46, q.2, a.1, cag1.

12. "Estote autem invicem benigni misericordes donantes invicem sicut et Deus in Christo donavit nobis".

13. "Cui autem aliquid donatis et ego nam et ego quod donavi si quid donavi propter vos in persona Christi".

14. "Giving here signifies forgiving..." (Super II ad Cor. cp 12, lc 4).