The Tongue, says the Apostle James, is a devouring fire, a world of iniquity, an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. And behold what I would have applied to the tongue of the evil-speaker, had I undertaken to give you a just and natural idea of all the enormity of this vice: I would have said that the tongue of the slanderer is a devouring fire which tarnishes whatever it touches; which exercises its fury on the good grain, equally as on the chaff; on the profane, as on the sacred; which, wherever it passes, leaves only desolation and ruin; digs even into the bowels of the earth, and fixes itself on things the most hidden; turns into vile ashes what only a moment before had appeared to us so precious and brilliant; acts with more violence and danger than ever in the time when it was apparently smothered up and almost extinct; which blackens what it can not consume, and sometimes sparkles and delights before it destroys.
I would have told you that evil-speaking is an assemblage of iniquity; a secret pride, which discovers to us the mote in our brother's eye, but hides the beam which is in our own; a mean envy, which, hurt at the talents of prosperity of others, makes them the subject of its censures, and studies to dim the splendor of whatever outshines itself; a disguised hatred, which sheds, in its speeches, the hidden venom of the heart; an unworthy duplicity, which praises to the face and tears to pieces behind the back; a shameful levity, which has no command over itself or its words, and often sacrifices both fortune and comfort to the imprudence of an amusing conversation; a deliberate barbarity, which goes to pierce your absent brother; a scandal, where you become a subject of shame and sin to those who listen to you; an injustice, where you ravish from your brother what is dearest to him. I should have said that slander is a restless evil, which disturbs society, spreads dissension through cities and countries, disunites the strictest friendships; is the source of hatred and revenge; fills, wherever it enters, with disturbances and confusion; and everywhere is an enemy to peace, comfort, and Christian good-breeding. Lastly, I should have added that it is an evil full of deadly poison; whatever flows from it is infected, and poisons whatever it approaches; that even its praises are empoisoned, its applauses malicious, its silence criminal; its gestures, motions, and looks have all their venom, and spread it each in their way.
Now the first pretext which authorizes in the world almost all the defamations, and is the cause that our conversations are now continual censures upon our brethren, is the pretended insignificance of the vices we expose to view. We would not wish to tarnish a man of character or ruin his fortune by dishonoring him in the world; to stain the principles of a woman's conduct by entering into the essential points of it — that would be too infamous and mean; but upon a thousand faults which lead our judgment to believe them capable of all the rest; to inspire the minds of those who listen to us with a thousand suspicions which point out what we dare not say; to make satirical remarks which discover a mystery, where no person before had perceived the least intention of concealment; by poisonous interpretations to give an air of ridicule to manners which had hitherto escaped observation; to let everything, on certain points, be clearly understood, while protesting that they are incapable themselves of cunning or deceit, is what the world makes little scruples of; and tho the motives, the circumstances, and the effects of these discourses be highly criminal, yet gaiety and liveliness excuse their malignity, to those who listen to us, and even conceal from ourselves their atrocity.
I say, in the first place, the motives. I know that it is, above all, by the innocency of the intention that they pretend to justify themselves; that you continually say that your design is not to tarnish the reputation of your brother, but innocently to divert yourselves with faults which do not dishonor him in the eyes of the world. You, my dear hearer, to divert yourself with his faults! But what is that cruel pleasure which carries sorrow and bitterness to the heart of your brother? Where is the innocency of an amusement whose source springs from vices which ought to inspire you with compassion and grief? If Jesus Christ forbids us in the Gospel to invigorate the languors of conversation by idle words, shall it be more permitted to you to enliven it by derisions and censures? If the law curses him who uncovers the nakedness of his relations, shall you who add raillery and insult to the discovery be more protected from that malediction? If whoever calls his brother fool be worthy, according to Jesus Christ, of eternal fire, shall he who renders him the contempt and laughing-stock of the profane assembly escape the same punishment? You, to amuse yourself with his faults? But does charity delight in evil? Is that rejoicing in the Lord, so commanded by the apostle? If you love your brother as yourself, can you delight in what afflicts him? Ah! the Church formerly held in horror the exhibition of gladiators, and denied that believers, brought up in the tenderness and benignity of Jesus Christ, could innocently feast their eyes with the blood and death of these unfortunate slaves, or form a harmless recreation of so inhuman a pleasure. But you renew more detestable shows to enliven your languor; you bring upon the stage not infamous wretches devoted to death, but members of Jesus Christ, your brethren; and there you entertain the spectators with wounds which you inflict on persons rendered sacred by baptism.
Is it then necessary that your brother should suffer, to amuse you? Can you find no delight in your conversations, unless his blood, as I may say, is furnished toward your iniquitous pleasures? Edify each other, says St. Paul, by words of peace and charity; relate the wonders of God toward the just, the history of His mercies to sinners; recall the virtues of those who, with the sign of faith, have preceded us; make an agreeable relaxation to yourselves, in reciting the pious examples of your brethren with whom you live; with a religious joy speak of the victories of faith, of the aggrandizement of the kingdom of Jesus Christ, of the establishment of the truth and the extinction of error, of the favors which Jesus Christ bestows on His Church, by raising up in it faithful pastors, enlightened members, and religious princes; animate yourselves to virtue by contemplating the little solidity of the world, the emptiness of pleasures, and unhappiness of sinners, who yield themselves up to their unruly passions. Are these grand objects not worthy the delight of Christians? It was thus, however, that the first believers rejoiced in the Lord, and, from the sweets of their conversations, formed one of the most holy consolations to their temporal calamities. It is the heart, my brethren, which decides upon our pleasures; a corrupted heart feels no delight but in what recalls to him the image of his vices; innocent delights are only suitable to virtue.
In effect, you excuse the malignity of your censures by the innocency of your intentions. But fathom the secret of your heart: Whence comes it that your sarcasms are always pointed to such an individual, and that you never amuse yourself with more wit, or more agreeably, than in recalling his faults? May it not proceed from a secret jealousy? Do not his talents, fortune, credit, station, or character, hurt you more than his faults? Would you find him so fit a subject for censure, had he fewer of those qualities which exalt him above you? Would you experience such pleasure in exposing his foibles, did not the world find qualities in him both valuable and praiseworthy? Would Saul have so often repeated with such pleasure that David was only the son of Jesse, had he not considered him as a rival, more deserving than himself of the empire? Whence comes it that the faults of all others find you more indulgent? That elsewhere you excuse everything, but here every circumstance comes empoisoned from your mouth? Go to the source, and examine if it is not some secret root of bitterness in your heart. And can you pretend to justify, by the innocency of the intention, discourses which flow from so corrupted a principle? You maintain that it is neither from hatred nor jealousy against your brother. I wish to believe it; but in your sarcasms may there not be motives, perhaps, still more shameful and mean? Is it not your wish to render yourself agreeable by turning your brother into an object of contempt and ridicule? Do you not sacrifice his character to your fortune? Courts are always so filled with these adulatory and sordidly interested satires on each other! The great are to be pitied whenever they yield themselves up to unwarrantable aversions. Vices are soon found out, even in that virtue itself which displeases them.
But, after all, you do not feel yourselves guilty, you say, of all these vile motives; and that it is merely through indiscretion and levity of speech, if it sometimes happens that you defame your brethren. But is it by that you can suppose yourself more innocent? Levity and indiscretion; that vice so unworthy of the gravity of a Christian, so distant from the seriousness and solidity of faith, and so often condemned in the Gospel — can it justify another vice? What matters it to the brother whom you stab whether it be done through indiscretion or malice? Does an arrow, unwittingly drawn, make a less dangerous or slighter wound than if sent on purpose? Is the deadly blow which you give to your brother more slight because it was lanced through imprudence and levity?
And what signifies the innocency of the intention when the action is a crime? But, besides, is there no criminality in indiscretion with regard to the reputation of your brethren? In any case whatever can more circumspection and prudence be required? Are not all the duties of Christianity comprised in that of charity? Does not all religion, as I may say, consist in that? And to be incapable of attention and care, in a point so highly essential, is it not considering, as it were, all the rest as a sport? Ah! it is here he ought to put a guard of circumspection on his tongue, weigh every word, put them together in his heart, says the sage Ecclesiasticus, and let them ripen in his mouth. Do any of these inconsiderate speeches ever escape you against yourself? Do you ever fail in attention to what interests your honor or glory? What indefatigable cares! what exertions and industry, to make them prosper! To what lengths we see you go, to increase your interest or to improve your fortune! If it ever happens that you take blame to yourself, it is always under circumstances which tend to your praise. You censure in yourself only faults which do you honor; and, in confessing your vices, you wish only to recapitulate your virtues. Self-love connects everything with yourself. Love your brother as you love yourself, and everything will recall you to him; you will be incapable of indiscretion where his interest is concerned, and will no longer need our instructions in respect to what you owe to his character and glory.