Of detraction

June 28, 2021 • 11 min

From Introduction to the Devout Life, page 182
By St. Francis de Sales

Chapter XXIX.

Of Detraction

Rash judgment begets inquietude, contempt of our neighbour, pride, self-complacency, and several other most pernicious effects; amongst which detraction, the true plague of conversation, holds the first place.

Oh, that I had one of the burning coals of the holy altar, to touch the lips of men, to the end that their iniquities might be taken away, and their sins cleansed, in imitation of the seraphim that purified the mouth of the prophet Isaias! He that could deliver the world from detraction would free it from a great part of the sins of iniquity.

Whosoever robs his neighbour of his good name, besides repenting of the sin he commits, is also bound to make reparation; for no man can enter into heaven with the goods of another; and amongst all exterior goods, a good name is the best.

Detraction is a kind of murder, for we have three lives, viz.: the spiritual, which consists in the grace of God; the corporal, which depends on the soul; and the civil, which consists in our good name; sin deprives us of the first, death takes away the second, and detraction robs us of the third.

But the detractor, by one blow of his tongue, commits three murders: he kills not only his own soul, and the soul of him that hears him, but also, by a spiritual murder, takes away the civil life of the person detracted.

“For,” as St. Bernard says, “both he that detracts, and he that hearkens to the detractor, have each the devil about them—the one in his tongue, and the other in his ear.”

David, speaking of detractors, says: “They have whet their tongues like serpents” (Ps. cxxxix). Now, as the serpent’s tongue is forked, and has two points, so is that of the detractor, who at one stroke stings and poisons the ear of the hearer and the reputation of him against whom he is speaking.

I earnestly conjure you then, Philothea, never to detract either directly or indirectly; take heed of imputing false crimes and sins, or of aggravating those that are manifest; or of putting an evil interpretation on his good works; or of denying the good which you know to be in him, or of maliciously concealing it, or diminishing it by words; for in all these ways you will highly offend God; but most of all by false accusations, and denying the truth to the prejudice of a third person; for it is a double sin to belie and hurt your neighbour at one and the same time.

They who preface detraction by protestations of friendship and regard for the person detracted, or who make apologies in his favour, are the most subtle and venomous of all detractors. “I protest,” say they, “that I love him; in every other respect he is a worthy man; but yet the truth must be told, he did ill to commit such a treacherous action; she was very virtuous, but, alas! she was surprised,” &c. Do you not perceive the artifice?

As the dexterous archer draws the arrow as near to himself as he can, that he may shoot it away with greater force, so, when these detractors seem to draw the detraction towards themselves, it is only with a view to shoot the dart away with more violence, that it may enter the deeper into the hearts of their hearers.

But the detraction which is uttered by way of a jest is more cruel than the rest. For, as the hemlock is not of itself a very quick, but rather a slow poison, which may be easily remedied, yet being taken with wine is incurable, so detraction, which of itself might pass lightly in at one ear and out at another, sticks fast in the minds of the hearers, when it is couched under some subtle and merry jest: “They have,” says David, “the venom of asps under their lips.” The bite of the asp is almost imperceptible, and its venom at first causes a delightful itching, by means of which the heart and the bowels expand and receive the poison, against which there is afterwards no remedy.

Say not such a one is a drunkard, because you have seen him drunk, for one single act does not constitute a habit. The sun stood still once in favour of the victory of Josue, and was darkened another time in favour of our Saviour, yet none will say that the sun is either motionless or dark. Noah and Lot were once drunk, yet neither the one nor the other was a drunkard; nor was St. Peter bloody-minded, for having once shed blood, nor a blasphemer, though he once blasphemed.

To bear the name of a vice or a virtue it must be habitual—one must have made some progress in it. It is, therefore, very wrong to say, such a man is passionate, or a thief, because we have seen him once in a passion or guilty of stealing.

Although a man has been a long time vicious, yet we are in danger of belying him if we call him vicious. Simon the Pharisee called Magdalen a sinner, because she had been one long before, yet he belied her, for she was then no longer a sinner, but a most holy penitent, and therefore our Saviour defended her against him. The vain Pharisee held the humble publican to be a great sinner (Luke, xviii.), or even perhaps an unjust man, an adulterer, an extortioner, but was greatly deceived, for at that very time he was justified.

Alas! since the goodness of God is so immense that one moment suffices to obtain and receive his grace, what assurance can we have, that he who was yesterday a sinner is not a saint to-day? The day that is past ought not to judge the present day, nor the present day judge that which is past: it is only the last day that judges all. We can then never say that a man is wicked, without the danger of lying; all that we can say, if we must speak, is, that he did bad actions, or lived ill at such a time, that he does ill at present; but we must never draw consequences from yesterday to to-day, nor from to-day to yesterday, much less to-morrow.

Now, though we must be extremely cautious of speaking ill of our neighbour, yet we must avoid the contrary extreme into which some fall, who, to avoid the sin of detraction, commend and speak well of vice.

If a person is indeed a detractor, say not in his excuse that he is a frank and free speaker; if a person be notoriously vain, say not that he is genteel and elegant; never call dangerous familiarities by the name of simple and innocent acts; nor disobedience by the name of zeal; nor arrogance by the name of freedom; nor lasciviousness by the name of friendship. No, Philothea, we must not think to avoid the vice of detraction by favouring, flattering, or cherishing vice; but we must boldly and freely call evil evil, and blame that which is blamable: for in doing this we glorify God, provided we observe the following conditions:

To speak against the vices of another it is necessary we should have the profit, either of him of whom we speak, or of them to whom we speak in view. For instance, when the indiscreet or dangerous familiarities of such or such persons are related in the company of young maids, or the liberties taken by this or that person, in their words or gestures, are plainly immodest; if I do not freely blame the evil, but rather excuse it, those tender souls who hear of it may take occasion to imitate those of whom we speak. Their profit, then, requires that I should freely reprehend these liberties upon the spot, except I could reserve this good office to be done better, and with less prejudice to the persons spoken of on some other occasion.

It is moreover requisite, nay, it is my indispensable duty to speak on the spot, when I am one of the chief of the company, for if I should keep silence, it would look as though I approved of the vice; but if I am one of the least, I must not take upon me to pass censure. But, above all, it is necessary that I should be so exactly just in my words as not to say a single word too much.

For example: if I blame the familiarity of this young man, and that young maid, because it is apparently indiscreet and dangerous, I must hold the balance so even as not to make the fault a single grain heavier. Should there be but only a slight appearance, I will call it no more; if but a mere indiscretion, I will give it no worse name; should there be neither indiscretion nor real appearance of evil, but only that from which some malicious spirit may take a pretext to speak ill, I must either say nothing whatever, or say that and no more.

My tongue, whilst I am speaking of my neighbour, shall be in my mouth like a knife in the hand of a surgeon, that would cut between the sinews and the tendons. The blow I shall give shall be neither more nor less than the truth. In fine, it must be our principal care in blaming any vice, to spare, as much as possible, the person in whom it is found.

It is true we may speak freely of infamous, public, and notorious sinners, provided it be in the spirit of charity and compassion, and not with arrogance and presumption, nor with the complacency in the evils of others, which is always the part of a mean and abject heart.

Amongst all these, the declared enemies of God and his Church, such as the ringleaders amongst heretics and schismatics, must be excepted, since it is charity to cry out against the wolf wherever he is, more especially when he is among the sheep.

Everyone takes the liberty to censure princes, and to speak ill of whole nations, according to the different opinions they hold concerning them. Philothea, avoid this fault; for besides the offence to God, it may bring you into a thousand quarrels.

When you hear anyone spoken ill of, make the accusation doubtful, if you can do it justly; if you cannot, excuse the intention of the party accused; if that cannot be done, express a compassion for him, divert the discourse, remembering yourself, and reminding the company that they who do not fall should return thanks to God; recall the detractor to himself with meekness, and mention some good action of the party in question, if you know of any.

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