The inspiration for this piece is a traditional Chinese painting called “The Vinegar Tasters.” The painting shows three men tasting vinegar. One has a sour expression, one a bitter expression, and one a pleasant expression. The three men are the philosophers Confucius (for whom life was sour), Buddha (for whom life was bitter), and Lao-Tzu (for whom life was joyful).
In this post, I propose three metaphors for three styles of argumentation — three “argumentologies,” if that’s a word (?) — that typify the Dominicans, the Franciscans, and the Jesuits.
First, the Dominicans. The Dominican starts with premises that he trusts as true, likely drawn from the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. He then applies rigorous logic. If the premises are true, then the argument is sound. So the Dominican blindly accepts whatever conclusion he reaches. The problem is that he never does a gut-check on the conclusion to see if it matches everything else he already knows, outside the argument. True premises + rigorous logic = true conclusion, right? But what if the qualms we have with the conclusion reveal flaws in the premises or the logic that we didn’t realize as we were framing the argument? Maybe the premises were false all along? “St. Thomas? Wrong?” No.
For the Dominican, the argument is a great chain, girding the foundations of the world. Woe to the world should the chain prove rusty!
Second, the Franciscans. The Franciscan starts with an insight or whimsical notion that occurs to him while praying or while contemplating nature. Perhaps it’s some new title or prerogative of Our Lady or insight into the Incarnation. The point is that the Franciscan needs to find premises and arguments to support the insight, which he originally arrived at by intuition. Be the argument strong or tenuous, he knows he’s right because of the joy and peace his insight inspires.
For the Franciscan, the argument is a slender thread, from which hangs a beautiful jewel. Woe to the jewel should the thread snap!
Third, the Jesuits. The Jesuit starts with his concrete circumstance and his goal. Likely, his penitent needs an easier modus vivendi, but the moral law provides no obvious “path forward” without considerable hardship. Perhaps a Catholic nobleman in England “needs” to swear that he isn’t Catholic and isn’t hiding priests in priest-holes. Perhaps a modern man and woman find natural family planning too arduous and want to use artificial contraception instead. So the Jesuit seeks an argument that would accommodate the goal while seeming to address the moral principles at stake. Now, what would such an argument need to look like?
For the Jesuit, the argument is a tripwire that sounds an alarm, alerting the Jesuit to hide in his priest-hole. Woe to the Jesuit should the tripwire slacken!