Humility and our Reputation or Good Name

August 24, 2021 • 8 min

From Introduction to the Devout Life, page 115
By St. Francis de Sales

Praise, honour, and glory are not given to men for every degree of virtue, but for an excellence of virtue; for by praise we endeavour to persuade others to esteem the excellency of those whom we praise; by honour we testify that we ourselves esteem them; and glory, in my opinion, is nothing else but a certain lustre of reputation that arises from the concurrence of praise and honour; so that honour and praise are like precious stones, from a collection of which glory proceeds, like a certain enamelling.

Now, humility, forbidding us to have any esteem for our own excellence, or think ourselves worthy to be preferred before others, consequently cannot permit that we should hunt after praise, honour, or glory, which are only due to excellence; yet it consents to the counsel of the wise man, who admonishes us to be careful of our good name (Ecclus. xli. 15), because a good name is an esteem, not of excellence, but of ordinary honesty and integrity of life, which humility does not forbid us to acknowledge in ourselves, nor, by consequence, to desire the reputation of it.

It is true, humility would despise a good name if charity stood not in need of it; but because it is one of the foundations of human society, and because without it we are not only unprofitable but prejudicial to the public, on account of the scandal it would receive—charity requires and humility consents that we should desire it, and carefully preserve it.

Moreover, as the leaves, which in themselves are of little value, are, nevertheless, necessary, not only to beautify the tree, but also to preserve its young and tender fruits, so a good reputation, which of itself is a thing not much to be desired, is, notwithstanding, very profitable, not only for the ornament of life, but also for the preservation of virtue, especially of such virtues as are as yet but weak and tender.

The obligation of preserving our reputation, and of being actually such as we are thought to be, urges a generous spirit forward with a strong and agreeable impulse. Let us, then, preserve our virtues, Philothea, because they are acceptable to God, the sovereign object of all our actions.

But as they who desire to preserve fruits are not content to candy them with sugar, but also enclose them in proper vessels, so, although the love of God may be the principal preserver of our virtue, we may, in addition, employ our good name as very convenient and profitable for that purpose.

Yet we must not be over-nice with respect to the preservation of our good name; for such as are too tender and sensitive on this point are like those who, for every slight indisposition, take physic, and, thinking to preserve their health, quite destroy it; so do those who endeavour so delicately to maintain their reputation, entirely lose it; for, by this tenderness, they become whimsical, quarrelsome, and insupportable, and thus provoke the malice of detractors.

The overlooking and despising of an injury or calumny is, generally speaking, by far a more effectual remedy than resentment, contention, and revenge; for a contempt for them causes them to vanish; whereas if we are angry on account of them, we seem to acknowledge them.

An excessive fear of losing our good name betrays a great distrust of its merit, or of the virtue which is its foundation.

As the inhabitants of towns which have wooden bridges over great rivers fear their being carried away by every little flood, but they that have bridges of stone apprehend only extraordinary inundations, so they that have a soul solidly grounded in Christian virtue despise the overflowing of injurious tongues; but those that find themselves weak are disturbed by every discourse.

In a word, Philothea, he that is over-anxious to preserve his reputation loses it; and that person deserves to lose his honour who seeks to obtain it from those whose vices render them truly infamous and dishonourable.

Reputation is but a sign to point out where virtue resides; it is virtue, then, that must be preferred in all, and through all.

Therefore, should anyone call you a hypocrite, because you addict yourself to devotion, or a coward because you have pardoned an injury, laugh at him; for, in addition to the fact that such judgments are passed on us by the weak and foolish, we must not forsake or turn aside from the path of virtue, although we should thereby lose our reputation, because we must prefer the fruit to the leaves, viz., interior and spiritual graces to all external goods.

It is lawful to be jealous, but not a worshipper of our reputation; and as we should not offend the eyes of the good, so we must strive to satisfy those of the wicked.

The beard is an ornament to the face of a man, and the hair to the head of a woman: if one pluck out by the root the beard from the chin, and the hair from the head, it will seldom grow again; but if it be only cut, nay, though it be shaved close, it will soon bud forth anew, and grow stronger and thicker than before; so, although our reputation may be cut, or even shaved close, by the tongues of detractors, which David compares to sharp razors, we must not let ourselves be uneasy, for it will soon shoot forth again, not only as fair as before, but much more firm and durable. But if our vices and wicked course of life take away our reputation it will seldom return, because it is pulled up by the root; for the root of a good name is virtue and probity, which, as long as they remain in us, can always recover the honour due to them.

If any vain conversation, idle habit, fond love, or custom of frequenting improper company, blast our reputation, we must forsake these gratifications, because our good name is of more value than such vain contentments.

But if, for the exercise of piety, the advancement of devotion, or making our way towards heaven, men grumble, murmur, and speak evil of us, let us leave them, like curs, to bark at the moon; for should they, at any time, be able to cast an aspersion on our good name, and by that means cut and shave the beard of our reputation, it will quickly spring up again, and the razor of detraction will be as advantageous to our honour as the pruning-knife to the vine, which makes it spread and multiply in fruit.

Let us incessantly fix our eyes on Jesus Christ crucified, and march on in his service with confidence and sincerity, but yet with wisdom and discretion: He will be the protector of our reputation; and should He suffer it to be taken from us, it will be either to restore it with advantage, or to make us profit in holy humility, one ounce of which is preferable to ten thousand pounds of honours.

If we are blamed unjustly, let us peaceably oppose the truth to the calumny; if the calumny continues, let us also continue to humble ourselves, resigning our reputation, together with our soul, into the hands of God: we cannot secure it better.

Let us serve God in evil and good report (2 Cor. vi.), according to the example of St. Paul, that we may say with David (Ps. xviii.): “For thy sake, O Lord, I have borne reproach, and shame hath covered my face.”

I make an exception, nevertheless, of certain crimes, so horrid and infamous, that no man ought to suffer the false imputation of them, if he can justly acquit himself; and also certain persons on whose reputation depends the edification of many; for in these cases, according to the opinion of divines, we must quietly seek a reparation of the wrong received.

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