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JAMES, CHAP. IV.-VERSE 11.
Speak not evil one of another, brethren.
ONE half of our religion consisteth in charity toward our neighbor; and of that charity much the greater part seemeth exercised in speech; for as speaking doth take up the greatest part of our life, (our quick and active mind continually venting its thoughts, and discharging its passions thereby; all our conversation and commerce passing through it, having a large influence on all our practice,) so speech commonly having our neighbor and his concernments for its objects, it is necessary that either most of our charity will be employed therein, or that by it we shall most offend against that great duty, together with its associates, justice and peace.
And all offences of this kind (which transgress charity, violate justice, or infringe peace) may perhaps be forbidden in this apostolical precept; for the word karaλaλeir, according to its origination, and according to some use, doth signify all kind of obloquy, and so may comprise slander, harsh censure, reviling, scoffing, and the like kinds of speaking against our neighbor; but in stricter acceptation, and according to peculiar use, it denoteth that particular sort of obloquy, which is called detraction, or backbiting; so therefore we may be allowed to understand it here; and accordingly I now mean to describe it, and to dissuade from its practice.
There is between this and the other chief sorts of obloquy
(slander, censuring and reviling) much affinity, yet there is some difference; for slander involveth an imputation of falsehood; reviling includeth bitter and foul language; but detraction may be couched in truth, and clothed in fair language; it is a poison often infused in sweet liquor, and ministered in a golden cup. It is of nearer kin to censuring, and accordingly St. James here coupleth it thereto : he that detracteth from a brother, and he that censureth his brother, backbiteth the law, and censureth the law:' yet may these two be distinguished; for censuring seemeth to be of more general purport, extending indifferently to all kinds of persons, qualities, and actions, which it unduly taxeth; but detraction especially respecteth worthy persons, good qualities, and laudable actions, the reputation of which it aimeth to destroy, or to impair.
This sort of ill practice, so rife in use, so base in its nature, so mischievous in its effects, it shall be my endeavor to describe, that we may know it; and to dissuade, that we may shun it.
It is the fault (opposite to that part of charity and goodness, which is called ingenuity or candor) which, out of naughty disposition or design, striveth to disgrace worthy persons, or to disparage good actions, looking for blemishes and defects in them, using care and artifice to pervert or misrepresent things to that purpose.
An honest and charitable mind disposeth us, when we see any man endued with good qualities, and pursuing a tenor of good practice, to esteem such a person, to commend him, to interpret what he doeth to the best, not to suspect any ill of him, or to seek any exception against him; it inclineth us, when we see any action materially good, to yield it simply due approbation and praise, without searching for, or surmising any defect in the cause or principle, whence it cometh, in the design or end to which it tendeth, in the way or manner of performing it. A good man would be sorry to have any good thing spoiled; as to find a crack in a fair building, a flaw in a fine jewel, a canker in a goodly flower, is grievous to any indifferent man; so would it be displeasing to him to observe defects
in a worthy person, or commendable action; he therefore will not easily entertain a suspicion of any such, he never will hunt for any. But, on the contrary, it is the property of a detractor, when he seeth a worthy person, whom he doth not affect, or whom he is concerned to wrong, to survey him throughly, and to sift all his actions, with intent to descry some failing, or any semblance of a fault, by which he may disparage him; when he vieweth any good action, he peereth into it, laboring to espy some pretence to derogate from the commendation apparently belonging to it. This in general is the nature of this fault. But we may get a fuller understanding of it, by considering more distinctly some particular acts wherein it is commonly exercised, or the several paths in which the detracting spirit treadeth; such are these following.
1. A detractor is wont to represent persons and actions under the most disadvantageous circumstances he can, setting out those which may cause them to appear odious or despicable, slipping over those which may commend or excuse them. There is no person so excellent, who is not by his circumstances forced to omit some things, which would become him to do, if he were able; to perform some things lamely, and otherwise than he would do, if he could reach it; no action so worthy, but may have some defect in matter, or manner, incapable of redress; and he that representeth such person or action, leaving out those excusing circumstances, doth tend to beget a bad or mean opinion of them, robbing them of their due value and commendation thus to charge a man of not having done a good work, when he had not the power or opportunity to perform it, or is by cross accidents hindered from doing it according to his desire; to suggest the action was not done exactly, in the best season, in the rightest mode, in the most proper place, with expressions, looks, or gestures most convenient, these are tricks of a detractor; who when he cannot deny the metal to be good, and the stamp true, he clippeth it, and so would reject it from being current.
2. He is wont to misconstrue ambiguous words, or to misinterpret doubtful appearances of things: let a man speak never so well, or act never so fairly, yet a detractor will say his words
may bear this ill sense, his actions may tend to that bad purpose; we may therefore suspect his meaning, and cannot yield him a full approbation.
3. He is wont to misname the qualities of persons or things, assigning bad appellations or epithets to good or indifferent qualities: the names of virtue and vice do so nearly border in signification, that it is easy to transfer them from one to another, and to give the best quality a bad name. Thus by calling a sober man sour, a cheerful man vain, a conscientious man morose, a devout man superstitious, a free man prodigal, a frugal man sordid, an open man simple, a reserved man crafty, one that standeth on his honor and honesty proud, a kind man ambitiously popular, a modest man sullen, timorous, or stupid, is a very easy way to detract, and no man thereby can scape being disparaged.
4. He doth imperfectly characterise persons, so as studiously to veil or faintly to disclose their virtues and good qualities, but carefully to expose, and fully to aggravate or amplify any defects or failings in them. The detractor will pretend to give a character of his neighbor, but in so doing he stifleth what may commend him, and blazoneth what may disgrace him; like an envious painter he hideth, or in dusky colors shadoweth, all the graceful parts and goodly features, but setteth out all blemishes in the briskest light and most open view. Every face hath in it some mole, spot, or wrinkle; there is no man that hath not, as they speak, some blind place, some blemishes in his nature or temper, some faults contracted by education or custom, somewhat amiss proceeding from ignorance, or misapprehension of things: these (although they be in themselves small and inconsiderable, although they are some of them involuntary, and thence inculpable, although they be much corrected or restrained by virtuous discipline, although they are compensated by greater virtues, yet these) the detractor snatcheth, mouldeth, and out of them frameth an idea of his neighbor, apt to breed hatred or contempt of him in an unwary spectator; whereas were charity, were equity, were humanity to draw the person, it, representing his qualities with just advantage, would render him lovely and venerable.
5. He is wont not to commend or allow any thing absolutely
and clearly, but always interposing some exception, to which he would have it seem liable: the man indeed, saith he, doth seem to have this or that laudable quality; the action hath a fair appearance, but then if he can, he blurteth out some spiteful objection; if he can find nothing colorable to say against it, yet he will seem to know and to suppress somewhat; but, saith he, I know what I know, I know more than I'll say ;· so (adding perhaps a crafty nod or shrug, a malicious sneer or smile) he thinks to blast the fairest performance.
6. He is ready to suggest ill causes and principles, latent in the heart, of practices apparently good; ascribing what is well done to bad disposition, or bad purpose: so to say of a liberal man, that he is so from an ambitious temper, or out of a vainglorious design; of a religious man, that his constant exercises of devotion proceed not from a conscientious love and fear of God, or out of intention to please God and work out his salvation; but from hypocrisy, from affectation to gain the favor and good opinion of men, from design to promote worldly interests; this is the way of detraction. He doeth well, saith the detractor, it cannot be denied; but for what reason doeth he so? Is it not plainly his interest to do so? Doth he not mean to get applause or preferment thereby? • Doth Job serve God for nought?' So said the father of detracting
7. He derogateth from good actions by pretending to correct them, or to show better that might have been done in their room it is, saith he, done in some respect well, or tolerably ; but it might have been done better, with as small trouble and cost: he was overseen in choosing this way, or proceeding in this manner. Thus did Judas blame the good woman, who anointed our Lord's feet; Why,' said he, 'was not this ointment sold, and given to the poor?' So did his covetous baseness prompt him to detract from that performance, of which our Saviour's goodness did pronounce, that it was a 'good work,' which should perpetually through the whole world' pass for memorable.
8. A detractor not regarding the general course and constant tenor of a man's conversation, which is conspicuously and clearly good, will attack some part of it, the goodness whereof