On Speaking Ill

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The following is from Alessandro Manzoni’s Observations on Catholic Moral Teaching (1819). The translation is my own. If we followed its wisdom, our politicians would have more freedom to attend to their business, social media might become social, and our churches might become hotbeds of charity.

What is the main and common motive that makes us speak ill of our neighbor? That we love the truth? That we wish to draw a just distinction between virtue and vice? And the usual result—is it, perhaps, that we set forth truth in a clear light, that we honor virtue, and abominate vice?
A simple look at society should persuade us right away of the contrary, and show the true motives, the true features and the common results of ill speaking.

Consider the idle chatter of men. Each in his vanity wants everyone else to notice him, but he meets an obstacle: all the others in their vanity seek the same thing. So they battle with all their skill, sometimes with open force, to win that attention that so rarely is granted them. Why, then, is it so easy for a man to feel comfortable when he declares by his very first words that he is going to speak evil of his neighbor? Why, if not that it holds forth some wretched relief to so many of his passions? And such passions! There is pride, that in its silent work makes us see our own superiority in the abasement of another, that consoles us for our failings with the thought that others have the same, or worse. A miserable way for man to err! Hungry for perfection, he scoffs at the help that religion offers him for progressing toward the absolute perfection that God has made him for, and he busies himself with a comparative perfection instead; he longs not to be the best, but to be first; he wants not to become great, but to weigh himself against others.

There is envy, inseparable from pride: envy that rejoices in evil as charity rejoices in good; envy that breathes more easily whenever a good name is besmirched, whenever it finds less of some virtue or talent. There is hatred, that makes us so quick to find evil; the self-interest that causes us to hate a competitor of any sort. These and others like them are the passions that lead us so easily to speak evil and to listen to it. They explain in part the ugly pleasure we feel in laughing at someone and condemning him. They explain why we are so indulgent and facile in our reasoning when we find fault, while a good deed has to pass a most severe tribunal before we will believe in it or in the just and pure intention behind it. No wonder if our religion does not know what to make of these passions and what they set in action. For how can such materials, sodden and worthless for building, find a place in the edifice of love and humility, of piety and reason, that she wishes to raise up in the heart of all men?

In ill-speaking there is a cowardice that likens it to secret denunciation, casting in high relief its opposition to the spirit of the Gospel, which is all frankness and dignity. For the spirit of the Gospel detests all things covert and sneaking, whereby you can hurt someone without exposing yourself. In the differences that must arise among men when they defend what is just, the Gospel commands a conduct that requires courage. One man can usually censure another without running any risk; it is to strike someone who cannot defend himself; and often with the censure there is mingled some flattery, as ignoble as it is sly, of the person who is to hear it. Never speak evil of a deaf man is one of the profound and merciful prescriptions of the law of Moses (Leviticus 19:14). Catholic moralists who apply it also to one who is absent show that they have entered into the true spirit of a religion which demands that when we find ourselves opposed to another, we keep our charity and we flee from all baseness and discourtesy.

Many say that ill-speaking is a kind of censure that helps hold men to their duties. As if a court stuffed with judges who have interests against the defendant, where the defendant is neither confronted nor heard, where anyone who might take up his cause will be put off or ridiculed, while all the points for the prosecution will be carefully laid out—as if such a court were well suited to diminish the number of crimes! But we can readily observe that we give credence to ill-speaking based on arguments that, if we had any interest in examining their strength, would never suffice to establish even a slight probability.

Ill-speaking makes a worse man out of him who speaks and him who listens, and all too often it makes a worse man out of the victim, too. When it strikes an innocent person (and of all the many sins there are, to accuse someone unjustly is among the worst), what a temptation it poses for him! Perhaps he has traveled the steep path of honesty, seeking the approval of men—full of that notion, commonplace but false, that virtue is always recognized and appreciated. Then, seeing it not to be so in his case, he begins to believe that virtue is an empty name, and his soul, that had fed on happy and peaceful images of applause and concord, begins to taste the bitterness of hatred; and the unstable foundation upon which he has built his virtue gives way. How much happier he would have been, had it made him think instead that the praise of men is no safe reward—no reward.

Alas, if mistrust reigns among men, one of the reasons is the ease with which we speak evil. You see a man shake another man’s hand, the smile of friendship on his lips, and then you hear him run the man down behind his back. How shall you not suspect that in every expression of esteem and affection, some treachery may lie hidden? But trust would grow, and benevolence and peace along with it, if detraction were forbidden. You could embrace a man and be sure that he would not then make you the object of his reproach and derision, and you would do so naturally, with a purer and freer feeling of charity.

Many people think that those who are slow to suppose evil are too simple and inexperienced; as if it shows great perspicacity to suppose that every man in every case will choose the worst! On the contrary: a disposition to judge with forbearance, to weigh each one of a storm of accusations, and to meet real faults with compassion, requires a habit of reflecting on the vast array of human motives, and on the nature of man and his weakness.
When a man hears whispers against him (and informants are the bastard children of those who speak evil), he suffers an injustice that he alone can know, but whose peril everyone else can and therefore are duty-bound to recognize. He has acted in circumstances whose complexity he alone comprehends; his detractor, not privy to the whole, judges him on one bare fact and by rules he cannot apply with any just reckoning; it may be he reproaches the man for not doing what he would have done, perhaps because he does not share the same passions. And even if the censured man is forced to admit that the ill-speaking was no calumny, he will hardly be moved to reconsider his ways. Rather, he becomes indignant. He does not think of reforming himself. He turns to examine how his detractor conducts himself, to find out some weakness in him, to turn the tables. Impartiality is rare enough among men; rarer still among the offended. So do we lapse into a wretched war, the restless business of exposing the faults of others while we neglect our own.

When our interests set us against one another, what wonder is it that wrath and blows are so ready to us, as we pay back evil for evil? We are set up for it, having thought and spoken much evil already. In speech we are accustomed to be unforgiving, to enjoy someone else’s discomfiture, even to tear down people with whom we are not at odds; we treat as enemies people we do not know; how then shall we find ourselves suddenly disposed to charity and calm judgment, when the matter is more difficult and calls for a soul formed by long practice of those virtues? That is why the Church, desiring brotherhood, wishes that men not think evil, that they weep when they see it, that they speak of one who is absent with the same delicacy that our own self-love causes us to use for people in our presence. If you want to govern your actions, rein in your words, and to govern those, set a watch about your heart.

Image: Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee by Philippe de Champaigne

Anthony Esolen

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Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).

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