The Use of Invective in Discourse

A professor of mine recently defended St. Jerome for his use of invective in his writings.  St. Jerome is often found making comments about his opponents from which many contemporary readers shy away.  For those readers not familiar with St. Jerome’s style, consult the first paragraph of his work, On The Perpetual Virginity of Mary.  Here are the arguments given in class in favor of the use of invective, as well as some arguments not mentioned but could nevertheless be used:

1.  Many saints used invective in their writings, including St. Jerome and the Fathers of the Trinitarian and Christological controversies.  Therefore, invective is morally permissible.

2.  Invective was an acceptable literary style in Jerome’s time.  Invective helps to break of the monotony of an otherwise technical discussion and helped popularize his writings, which contained sound doctrine.

3. Our Lord uses invective, calling the Pharisees a brood of vipers and hypocrites.  Since Jesus is incapable of acting outside of charity, invective is not wrong in itself.

4.  Those who don’t like invective confuse charity with niceness.  It is often the case that being charitable requires doing something that isn’t nice.  Invective is not nice, but it may be a vehicle for charity.

5.  Invective is acceptable in other spheres of debate, e.g. political discourse.  But if it is acceptable in political discourse, it is acceptable in religious discourse as well.

On the contrary, St. Thomas argues that charity is friendship (ST II-II q.23 a.2).   But friends do not belittle one another, even when correcting each other.  Thus, invective is not charitable.

Our Lord often criticized the pharisees using strong, offensive language.  Since our Lord is a model of charity, it is clear that some acts of invective are also acts of charity.  Nevertheless, it is also true that our Lord knew perfectly the souls of those whom he was criticizing, and thus knew perfectly when his use of this device produced the right effect.  Just as our Lord on earth was free to judge on earth whether a person was destined for heaven or hell (whereas we are not), so too did our Lord know perfectly when invective was appropriate for the instruction of the ignorant and conversion of sinners.  Thus, Invective speech is not intrinsically disordered.

But, since no human person is God, no human person is capable of knowing perfectly when invective will produce the right effect.  Hence, it is difficult to judge whether invective is an appropriate tool in a given set of circumstances for correction or instruction.  For invective used wrongly more often than not has the effect of shutting down discussion rather than enhancing it.  Furthermore, invective tends to place the person in a disposition in which he is unwilling to listen.

Although invective is not intrinsically opposed to charity, nevertheless it is frequently viewed as a sufficient condition of a lack of charity because it is more often than not used in a manner beyond of the limits of Christian charity, as is abundantly clear from experience.  But if invective is so frequently misused and rarely used as a vehicle of charity, and because there are numerous ways to correct and instruct that make no use of invective, we can formulate a general rule that it is better to err on the side of avoiding invective than to err on the side of using invective.  The reason for this general rule mirrors the argument used by St. Thomas when he argues that we ought to interpret our doubts about a persons character for the best (ST II-II q.60, a.4, ad.1):

“He who interprets doubtful matters for the best, may happen to be deceived more often than not; yet it is better to err frequently through thinking well of a wicked man, than to err less frequently through having an evil opinion of a good man, because in the latter case an injury is inflicted, but not in the former.”

The parallel argument against invective is this:  a person never using invective may at times fail to use a tool that is at his disposal for the correction or instruction of another, but he does not sin in failing to use invective when correcting and instructing.  But to use invective wrongly inflicts undue injury on the person being insulted and gives an example of uncharitable behavior to those watching or listening.  Thus, it is better to err on the side of not using invective and not harming the subject than to err on the side of using invective and sinning.

In response to the objections:

1. The Church Fathers were sinners by their own admission.  It therefore does not follow that because certain Fathers exhibited a certain behavior that therefore that behavior is permissible.  Furthermore, if we give the Fathers the benefit of the doubt and assume that they were acting in a manner in adherence with the principles of charity, then it must be said that they used invective in such a way that it constitutes a counterexample to the general rule expounded above.  Nevertheless, the general rule stands, and unless one is sure that he possesses the same prudence that is exhibited in the Fathers, then invective is best avoided.

2. From the fact that such and such was an acceptable cultural phenomenon of the time, it does not follow that therefore such and such is a permissible practice, just as it does not follow that child sacrifice was permissible for the Aztecs because it was an acceptable cultural phenomenon of the time.  Furthermore, the question of whether such and such is morally permissible takes precedence over whether such and such is entertaining.

3. The body of this article is sufficient to answer this objection.

4.  While invective may be a vehicle for charity, it is more often than not abused rather than used correctly.  Since failing to use invective when correcting or instructing does not possess the same potential to fall into sin, it is better to err on the side of not using invective than to sin in its abuse.

5.  While invective is certainly used in political discourse, it does not follow that it is acceptable in political discourse.  More often than not, invective is used in place of argument in political discourse, not for the correction of the ignorant, and is thus more often than not used not for the sake of charity, but for the sake of something more reprehensible.

ADDENDUM:  Question 72 on reviling from the Summa Theologiae II-II directly pertains to the question at hand.  Note what Thomas means by “the dishonoring of a person” and honoring another.  The honor we owe one another extends not just to his good features.  In other words, as in a.1, ad.3, reviling consists in revealing someone’s faults to others.  To use invective against a person clearly falls into this category.  See also a.2, ad.2, in which Thomas discusses when it is permissible to use invective.  Note that he says it should be used seldom, only when very necessary, and for God’s service, not our own.  Thus, to use invective for the purposes of entertaining an audience–as some argued was acceptable–is ruled out.

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