The Competition of Authoritative Languages and Aquinas’s Theological Rhetoric

The Competition of Authoritative Languages and Aquinas’s Theological Rhetoric

Jordan, Mark D.

Medieval Philosophy and Theology, vol. 4 (1994)


One cliche in the iconography of Thomas Aquinas shows the saint, abstracted, counting off arguments on his fingers. The image is quite clearly of an effort of memory, but we moderns are liable to mistake what is being remembered. To us, the image seems to show Thomas recollecting principles and excogitating arguments. In fact, Thomas counts off on his fingers terms, topics, and classifications learned from texts that he has inherited. The inherited texts speak a multiplicity of languages.The constant activity of Thomas’s theological writing is to affirm their multiplicity, and so it is not possible to understand him except by hearing how many languages there are.

Modern readers are for the most part deaf to the play of these languages in Thomas, for two sorts of reasons. On the one hand, readers are simply ignorant that they encounter inherited languages— they miss Thomas’s gestures of quotation, allusion, appropriation, correction. On the other hand, they lack ways of understanding how Thomas would have received these languages. Modern readers tend to mistake the reception for eclecticism, for the operation of “sources and influences,” or for a diffident masking of a “system” of Thomas’s own devise.

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