Aquinas on Aristotle on Honesty

 Posted by on 18 November 2002 at 3:15 pm  Uncategorized
Nov 182002

In reworking my paper “Excuses Excuses: Undermining Moral Growth in the Concealment of Wrongdoing” for submission to journals, I was reading Aquinas’ comments on honesty from Summa Theologica. His interpretation of Aristotle’s somewhat strange and limited comments on honesty in Nichomachean Ethics caught my attention. Let me explain why, starting with Aristotle’s own views.

In Book 4, Chapter 7 of Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle offers his only real commentary on honesty as a virtue. From our modern perspective in which honesty is a central to ethics, his analysis seems woefully incomplete. Aristotle discusses honesty almost entirely in terms of boastfulness and humility (or “mock-modesty”), i.e. in terms of our own descriptions of ourselves. Thus Aristotle writes:

The boastful man, then, is thought to be apt to claim the things that bring glory, when he has not got them, or to claim more of them than he has, and the mock-modest man on the other hand to disclaim what he has or belittle it, while the man who observes the mean is one who calls a thing by its own name, being truthful both in life and in word, owning to what he has, and neither more nor less (NE 1127a21-25).

Granted, Aristotle does go on to say some more general things about the choice between truth and lies, such as: “falsehood is in itself mean and culpable, and truth noble and worthy of praise” and “for the man who loves truth, and is truthful where nothing is at stake, will still more be truthful where something is at stake; he will avoid falsehood as something base, seeing that he avoided it even for its own sake; and such a man is worthy of praise” (NE 1127a29-30; NE 1127b4-7). Additionally, Aristotle sees many concerns about honesty as being covered by his analysis of justice. But without a doubt, Aristotle’s basic focus is limited to truthfulness as a mean between boastfulness and humility in this discussion.

However, Aquinas’ analysis of Aristotle offers us some additional insight. In his commentary on divisions of lies, Aquinas comments on Aristotle’s two basic types of lies, translated as “boasting” and (strangely) “irony,” in writing:

In this way, according to the Philosopher [Aristotle] (Ethic. iv, 7), lies are of two kinds, namely, the lie which goes beyond the truth, and this belongs to “boasting,” and the lie which stops short of the truth, and this belongs to “irony.” This division is an essential division of lying itself, because lying as such is opposed to truth, as stated in the preceding Article: and truth is a kind of equality, to which more and less are in essential opposition (ST, 2.2, Q 110, A 2).

So Aquinas is clearly seeing Aristotle’s distinction between boastful and humble lies as part of a wider division that applies to all lies, not just to lies about oneself. At first glance, Aquinas’ general distinction seems to map directly onto our modern notion of the difference between lies of omission and lies of commission. A humble lie, one which “stops short of the truth,” seems to be a lie of omission, one in which important truths are left unsaid. The boastful lie, one which “goes beyond the truth,” seems to be a lie of commission, one in which actual falsehoods are told. However, I’m not certain the mapping works on a deeper analysis.

Aristotle’s mean of truthfulness may actually be more appropriate to my concept of “the relevant truth” discussed some of my various lectures on honesty, namely “The Virtue of Honesty” and “White Lies, Black Lies.” The relevant truth, after all, concerns how much information we to reveal to whom and under what circumstances. Consequently, errors of “extremes” (of telling either too much or too little) are possible, while virtue consists in hitting the mean. Such is not the case for the basic, binary choice in honesty of whether to “fake reality” or not.

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