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Obiter Dicta


In The Press

Thomas International Center
February 2009


Ralph McInerny





Man is the animal who talks, but there is talk and talk. Thomas Aquinas distinguished between locutio and illuminatio in the course of discussing communication among the angels. But he illustrates the distinction with reference to human talk.

If you should tell me that you want to visit Sicily, or that you intend to reread Marcus Aurelius, this doubtless tells me what is on your mind, but it does not enlighten mine. It is mere locutio. On the other hand, if by talking you lead my mind from something it knows to some new truth derivative from the premises, then you have enlightened me. This is illuminatio. Sometimes I wish Thomas had stuck with the angels.

The vast majority of what we say to one another must be characterized as locutio; how seldom we lapse into illuminatio. The question arises as to whether or not locutio is morally suspect. Most of what spouses say to one another is locutio. We want to hear all the contingent and vagrant facts about the one we love. Nothing is trivial, everything said takes on interest from the one saying it. Is this a confessable fault? Ought we hold ourselves only to enlightening one another?

Well, ought implies can, as the moralists say, and surely human life could not be lived on such a basis. To restrict our communications to illuminatio would bring about a Grand Silence indeed. We might just as well hold ourselves to communicating in symbolic logic. If illuminatio alone is impossible for us, locutio must have moral credentials.

Not everything that is said to rank under another is thereby being condemned. Apodictic discourse is far more perfect than poetry, infima doctrina, but this does not ban poetic discourse. We cannot live without it. Locutio is, on the criteria Thomas gives, less than illuminatio. But, like Lalage, we must go on, dulce loquentes, dulce ridentes.

Of course there is locutio and locutio. We will have to account for every word we have spoken, a sobering thought. We easily get lost in mere chatter. From time to time the animal who talks should shut up.


Ralph McInerny