On the Duty of the Users of Language

1. There is no one who does not know how useful and entirely necessary an instrument of human society language is. For many have inferred from that faculty alone that man was destined by Nature to lead a social life. Hence, as regards its legitimate and profitable use for human society, natural law prescribes to men this duty, that no one deceive another by language, or by other signs designed to express the thoughts of the mind.

2. But, the more thoroughly to understand the nature of language, we must know that there is a twofold obligation as regards language expressed viva voce or in writing. One is that by which users of the same language are bound to apply a certain word to a certain thing, according to the usage of the particular tongue. For neither sounds nor certain shapes of letters naturally mark a certain thing, for otherwise all tongues or kinds of writing ought to be identical. Hence, that the use of language be not in vain, if each were to call a thing by any name he pleased, there must be among the users of the same language a tacit convention, to designate a certain thing by a certain word and no other. For unless there has been agreement upon a uniform application of words, it is impossible to gather from another's speech the thoughts of his mind. Therefore by virtue of that compact every man is bound in common speech to employ words according as the established usage of that language prescribes. Hence it follows also that, although thoughts may possibly be out of harmony with speech, in human life each is thought to have meant just what his words indicate, even though the inward purpose of the mind may be at variance with them. For as to that, nothing can be known except by signs, and thus all use of language would be rendered of no effect, if in the common life the inward thought, which each can feign according to his own caprice, could nullify the meaning of the signs.

3. The other obligation which has to do with language consists in this, that a man ought so to reveal his thoughts to another by language, that they may be clearly known to him. For, since man has the power not only to speak, but also to be silent, and is not bound to disclose what he has in mind openly to all and sundry, therefore there must exist a particular obligation, to impose upon one the necessity both of speaking, and of so speaking that another can understand our thoughts. And that obligation arises either from a particular agreement, or from a common precept of the natural law, or from the nature of the business in hand, in the transaction of which speech is employed. For often there is an express agreement with a man, that he disclose to me his mind concerning some matter of business, for example, if I engage a man to teach me some subject. Often too some precept of the natural law bids me share my knowledge with another, that so I may help him, or avert some harm for him, or avoid furnishing cause or occasion for his suffering harm. Finally, sometimes the affair in hand, begun with another, cannot be completed, unless I disclose my judgment in the matter, as is the case in making contracts.

4. But as it does not always happen that under some one of these beads I am required to make known my mind to another, it is evident that I am bound to indicate to him in speech only such matters as he has a right, either perfect or imperfect, to learn from me; and hence also that, no matter how insistent the questions are, I can rightly conceal things which the other has no right to know from me, and which I am bound by no obligation to reveal.

5. In fact since language was invented not only for others, but also for our own sake, for that reason, where some advantage of mine is involved, and no other man's right is injured, I may so shape my speech as to express something different from what is in my mind.

6. Finally, as those to whom we speak are often so situated that, if they should learn the fact in plain and open language, it would be to their own injury, and we should be unable to accomplish the good end which we have in view, it will therefore be permissible in these cases to use fictitious and figurative language, not directly conveying our meaning and intention to the hearers. For he who desires to benefit a man, and ought to do so, is certainly not bound to do it in a way which would defeat his own end.

7. From these principles we learn what constitutes the truth, devotion to which so highly commends good men; namely, that words should aptly reproduce our thoughts to another, who has the right to know them, and which we are under an obligation, perfect or imperfect, to disclose. And all this to the intent that by knowledge of our mind he may gain some advantage which is due him, or may not suffer an undeserved loss, if incorrectly informed. From this it is incidentally evident, that it is not always a lie even when purposely we do not say what exactly squares either with the fact, or with our thoughts; and thus that logical truth, which consists in the conformity of words to things, does not altogether coincide with moral truth.

8. It is a lie, however, when speech deliberately expresses an opinion different from our real mind, in spite of the fact that the person addressed had a right to know it, and that an obligation rested upon us to let him at least know our opinion.

9. From what has been said it is then established that the stigma of a lie is not incurred by those who employ fictions and fables for the better information of children or the childlike, since they lack capacity for the naked truth. The same is true of others who make use of fiction for a good end which they could not attain by plain language; for example, if they must protect an innocent man, appease the angry, comfort the sorrowing, encourage the timid, persuade the squeamish to take medicines, break down someone's obstinacy, defeat another's evil intention; or in case secrets of state and plans which ought to be kept from the knowledge of others, must be veiled by fictitious reports, and the ill-timed curiosity of others disposed of; or if by tales, in lieu of a stratagem, we baffle an enemy whom we might have injured openly.

10. On the other hand, if a man was indeed bound dearly to indicate his mind to another, he does not escape blame, if he tells merely a part of the truth, or deceives another by ambiguous language, or retains a tacit mental reservation, out of keeping with general practice.

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