1. It is indeed true that in matters enjoined by authority, a man is not
bound beyond the intention of that authority, and that in matters to which he
elects to bind himself, he is not bound beyond what was his own intention. And
yet as one cannot judge of another's intention, except from actions and signs
that impress the senses, a man is consequently considered in a human court as
bound only to that which a sound interpretation of those indications suggests.
Hence, for a right understanding of laws, as well as of agreements, and for the
performance of the duty involved, it is of the greatest importance to establish
rules of sound interpretation, for words especially, as the commonest sign.
2. With regard to ordinary terms this is the rule: words are regularly to be
interpreted in their proper and well-known signification, imposed upon them not
so much by propriety or grammatical analogy or consistency with derivation, as
by popular usage,
"to whom belongs
The rule, the law, the government of tongues."
3. Terms of the arts are to be explained according to the definitions of men
versed in the particular art. But if technical terms are differently defined by
different persons, expressing in ordinary terms what we mean by the other word
makes for the prevention of suits.
4. Conjectures too are needed, to draw out the real meaning, if either
single words or a group of words are ambiguous; or if some parts of a discourse
seem to contradict each other, yet so that by applying a skillful explanation
they can be reconciled. Where the contradiction is certain and evident, the
later statement will annul the earlier ones.
according to the subject-matter. For the speaker is always presumed to have
in view the matter of which he was speaking; and hence the meaning of his words
is always to be adapted to the same.
6. As for the effect and consequences, this is the rule: when words, simply
and literally taken, would entail either no effect, or an absurd one, there
must be a slight departure from the commonly received meaning, in so far as the
necessity of avoiding the meaningless or the absurd requires.
7. From related statements are derived the strongest conjectures ; for a man
is presumed to be consistent Statements are related, locally speaking, or
merely as regards their origin. For the former this is the rule: if in some
passage of the same discourse the meaning has been plainly and clearly
expressed, obscurer wordings are to be interpreted by the plain expressions.
Related to this is another rule: in the accurate interpretation of every
discourse one must give attention to the preceding and following statements, to
which the intervening are presumed to adapt themselves and correspond. For the
latter kind of statement this rule is observed: an obscure expression of one
and the same man is to be interpreted by his own clearer expressions, though
manifested at a different time and place; unless it is quite plain that he has
changed his mind.
8. It is also of the greatest advantage to a search for the true meaning,
particularly in the case of laws, to examine the reason for the law, or that
cause and consideration which moved the lawgiver to make this law, especially
when it is evident that this was the one reason for the law. For this we have
the rule: the interpretation of a law which agrees with the reason for its
passage must be followed, and that which differs from the same must in turn be
rejected. Also, when the one adequate reason for a law ceases, the law itself
ceases. But when there were several reasons for the same law, it does not at
once cease entirely with one of these, since the remaining reasons may suffice
to sustain the force of the law. Often, too, the mere will of the lawgiver is
sufficient, though the reason for the law may be unknown.
9. We must observe, besides, that many words have more than one
signification, a looser, and a stricter sense: also that the content is now
favorable, now invidious, now indifferent. The favorable is that which makes
equal terms for both parties, or regards the common advantage, or maintains any
formal acts, or promotes peace, etc. Invidious is whatever burdens one party
only, or one more than the other, or carries with it a penalty, or nullifies an
act, or changes existing conditions, or promotes war. Indifferent is, for
example, anything that does indeed change existing conditions, but in the
interest of peace. For these this is the rule: the favorable is to be
interpreted more broadly, the invidious more strictly.
10. From other sources than words there are also conjectures, which have
this effect, that an interpretation is sometimes to be broadened, sometimes to
be narrowed. Yet one may more easily find reasons which persuade one to narrow
an interpretation, than to enlarge it. The law, then, can be extended to a case
not mentioned in it, if it is established that a reason which fits the present
case was the only one which influenced the lawgiver, and was considered by him
in its general bearing, and in such a way as to include similar cases as well.
A law must also be extended to meet those cases which are devised by the evil
ingenuity of men, in order to outwit the law.
11. On the other hand, the restriction of words expressed in general terms
occurs either from an original defect of intention, or from a conflict between
a case that arises and the intention. That a man is presumed not to have
desired a thing from the beginning is understood (1) from an absurdity which
would otherwise follow; and this no man of sound mind is thought to have
desired. Hence general terms are to be restricted, in so far as otherwise an
absurdity would result from them. (2) From the absence of that reason which
alone prompted the man's will. Hence, under a general expression, cases with
which the one adequate reason for the law does not square, are not included.
(3) From the absence of the subject-matter, which the speaker is always thought
to have had in mind. Hence general terms are always to be adapted to that same
12. But the fact that a case subsequently arising conflicts with the
intention of him who made some disposition, is discovered either from the
natural reason, or from some sign of his intention. The former happens, if a
departure from equity would be unavoidable, unless certain cases were excepted
from the general law. For equity is the correction of that in which the law
fails on account of its universality. For since not all cases can be foreseen,
or stated, on account of their infinite variety, therefore, when general terms
are to be applied to special cases, we must except those cases which the
lawgiver would have excepted, if he had been consulted in regard to such a
case. But it is not permitted to have recourse to this equity, unless
sufficient indications compel us so to do. The most certain of these is this:
if it should appear, that the natural law would be violated, in case one wished
to follow strictly the letter of the human law. Next in importance: if it be
not indeed unlawful to follow the letter of the law, but still, in a humane
view of the matter, it seem too severe and intolerable, whether for all men in
general, or for certain persons; or if the end appear not worth buying at so
high a price.
13. Finally, exception must be made to a general expression, if words found
elsewhere do not indeed directly conflict with the present law or agreement,
but on account of a certain element in the situation cannot be observed at the
same time, here and now. Here, then, there are certain rules to be observed, so
that we can understand what law ought to be preferred, in case both cannot at
the same time be satisfied: (1) What is merely permitted, gives way to what is
commanded. (2) What must be done at a certain time, is preferred to what can be
done at any time. (3) An affirmative precept gives way to a negative. Or when
an affirmative precept cannot be met, without violating the negative, the
fulfillment of the former must be omitted for the present. (4) As between
conventions and laws otherwise equal, the special is preferred to the general.
(5) As between two performances, which at a particular moment conflict, one of
them having more honorable or useful reasons than the other, it is proper for
the latter to give way to the former. (6) An agreement without oath yields to
one with an oath, when both cannot be satisfied at the same time. (7) An
imperfect obligation yields to the perfect. (8) The law of beneficence, other
things being equal, yields to the law of gratitude.
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