Gotta leave port

1 minute read

“If the highest aim of a captain were to preserve his ship, he would keep it in port forever.”

— Widely attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas

Alas, what Thomas actually says is less interesting, dontcha know—it would be nice to have “your guy” get credit in popular culture for something he actually said, verbatim. The Latin has: “Unde gubernator non intendit, sicut ultimum finem, conservationem navis sibi commissae, eo quod navis ad aliud ordinatur sicut in finem, scilicet ad navigandum” (St. Thomas Aquinas, ST 1–2, q. 2, a. 5, in corp.). So the English would be:

Hence the captain does not intend the preservation of the ship that has been committed to him as the ultimate goal, since the ship is ordered to something else as its end, namely for sailing.

To be sure, the pithy quotation attributed to Thomas is compatible with what he says, minus the idea of keeping a ship in port, along with the hint of a captain’s cowardice to set sail.

The source of the attributed quotation seems to be Lon L. Fuller’s The Morality of Law (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969), p. 185, note 27, which in turn was the published and revised version of his 1963 Storr Lecture on Jurisprudence at Yale University Law School. Fuller quotes an English translation in the note, and in the body of the text provides a paraphrase of the translation, a paraphrase that adds the element of keeping a ship in port (note: the term “port” or “harbor” does not appear in Thomas’s Latin or in the translation Fuller provides in the note). Whether Fuller got his paraphrase from another source remains open. But tracking that one down is the work of another early morning, after much espresso. Maybe. Someday.

There, have I ruined it for you?

(Hat-tip to my wife, who saw the quotation in a daily newsletter from the American Nurses Association).