I find it interesting that the French expression avoir raison shares an etymology with the English words "reason" and "rational". In a post-truth political era, it is refreshing that the French expression for "being right" is at least etymologically rooted in reason. I wonder, moreover, whether there are connotations of rationality when the French say j'ai raison. In American politics, the words "I'm right" have no connotations of rationality.

Politics aside, the French expression and the English words all derive from the Latin root ratio, rationis. The question I have for this forum is whether the word ratio was frequently used in Roman philosophy, and whether it was used to translate the Greek word λόγος in translations of Greek philosophy. I know what the word means, but I just want to double-check that it's the same word that Roman philosophers used for reason.

Furthermore, are there many Greek and Latin words for "reason" (as, for example, there are many words for "love") or was one word predominantly used to describe this concept?

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    Two remarks: (1) In Italian we have avere raggione for the French avoir raison. I wonder if other Romance languages share the idiom. (2) The word sapientia comes to mind for "reason". Perhaps also mens or animus could work, but I'm not familiar with philosophical use. I can write up a partial answer later, but I'm happy if someone beats me to it – especially since I can only answer partially.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Sep 20, 2017 at 22:15
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    @JoonasIlmavirta Interesting! That begs the question of whether there was a similar Latin idiom for "I am right", but since you did not mention it I doubt there is one (or maybe it developed in later Latin). I just found on Wikipedia that ratio was indeed used to translate λόγος, but I still wonder if this was universal to all translations and whether it has the same resonance in Roman culture that it had in Greek culture.
    – ktm5124
    Commented Sep 20, 2017 at 22:19
  • @JoonasIlmavirta I would give you +2 if I could for the chiasmus which ends your comment.
    – ktm5124
    Commented Sep 20, 2017 at 22:21
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    @JoonasIlmavirta 1) Spanish razón works like raggione and raison: tener razón=to be right. 2) ratio is what philosophers use for reason AFAIK. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas use it that way, as well as translations from Aristotle. As for the classics, judging from L&S, meaning II.B.2 ss., Cicero and Seneca use it, but I can't rule out alternative terms.
    – Rafael
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 1:10
  • I wonder if the Romance idiom comes from Latin at all? Perhaps late Latin, if not classical Latin.
    – ktm5124
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 2:38

1 Answer 1


In his book, De Inventione (and also De Natura Deorum), Cicero discusses the process of rational thought and he generally uses the word ratio to mean reason as an abstract process. For example,

Ac me quidem diu cogitantem ratio ipsa in hanc potissimum sententiam ducit, ut existimem sapientiam sine eloquentia parum prodesse civitatibus, eloquentiam vero sine sapientia nimium obesse plerumque, prodesse nunquam.

(For my own part, after long thought, I have been led by reason itself to hold this opinion first and foremost, that wisdom without eloquence does too little for the good of states, but that eloquence without wisdom is generally highly disadvantageous and is never helpful.) H. M. Hubbell trans.

So, he uses the term ratio ispa (reason itself). So, ratio can be in Latin, as in English, both "a reason" and "reason itself". This use was consistent throughout history. For example, Boethius (480-523) in the De consolatione philosophiae uses the same expression, ratio ipsa.

Another example can be found the letters of Seneca when he compares the thinking of animals to that of humans:

Quid in homine proprium? Ratio. (What is the distinguishing characteristic of man? Reason.)

To answer your second question, the Romans did directly equate λóγος with ratio. For example, from Cicero's De Fato:

Nec nos impediet illa ignava ratio quae dicitur; appellatur enim quidam a philosophis ἀ⍴γòς λóγος, cui si pareamus nihil omnino agamus in vita.

(Nor shall we for our part be hampered by what is called the ‘idle argument' for one argument is named by the philosophers the Argos Logos, because if we yielded to it we should live a life of absolute inaction)

To answer your third question, there is no other word that commonly means reason itself, other than ratio. The word causa can mean "a reason," but is not normally used to mean the process of reasoning. There is a word ratiocinatio which refers to reasoning in a scientific sense, such as a syllogism:

Ratiocinatio est oratio ex ipsa re probabile aliquid eliciens quod expositum et per se cognitum sua se vi et ratione confirmet.

(Deduction or syllogistic reasoning is a form of argument which draws a probable conclusion from the fact under consideration itself; when this probable conclusion is set forth and recognized by itself it proves itself by its own import and reasoning.)

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