SINS OF THE TONGUE:
The Backbiting Tongue
Father Belet, of the Diocese of Basle
Translated from the French, 1870 ed.
1. The nature of backbiting. Its various species. Its gravity.
In 1617 someone published a volume entitled, The Horseman’s Book: The Art of Riding, treating the use of bridles, whips, guides, and so on. Such a title is of a nature to give rise to sad thoughts. We have learned how to make bits, bridles, halters and pincers, and how to adapt them to a horse’s head or mouth; we have learned the art of directing these animals at will by means of a small bit. But we possess a tongue so ill-tempered that no bridle can curb it: this raging beast resists bits, halters and pincers alike, knocking down every obstacle in its path. It wants to be as free as a horse in the wild. Let us see what Saint James has to say on the subject: “We put bits into horses’ mouths that they may obey us, and we control their whole body also. But no man can tame the tongue.” (1)
(1) Jas. 3:3-8
Without a doubt, the most poisonous tongue of all is the backbiter’s. It spits its deadly venom to the four winds. It is an evil known throughout the earth. One can never stigmatize and deplore it enough.
Therefore, we shall now study the nature of this evil, its various species, and the gravity of the evils it breeds.
Therefore, what is backbiting or detraction?
Here is the definition given by Saint Thomas Aquinas: “Backbiting is denigration of a neighbor’s reputation by means of secret words.” (2) Indeed, a person may wound someone by word in two ways: openly and to his face (that is, by insulting him); and secretly, when he is absent — and that is backbiting.
(2) St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theoligica, Part II, Section II, Quest. 73, Art. I.
Palladius relates that someone once asked Saint Anthony, “What is backbiting?” and he replied, “It is every sort of wicked word we dare not speak in front of the person about whom we are talking.”
This is truly the nature of backbiters. They cannot do physical harm to those who are absent, so they strike at them with their tongue. Saint Thomas Aquinas says, “Destroying a person’s reputation is a very serious wrong.” (3) And Saint Bernard declares, “Backbiting is a great vice, a great sin, a great crime.” (4)
(3) Ibid. Part II, Section II, Question 83, Article 2.
(4) Saint Bernard, De modo bene vivendi, Chapter 33.
There are eight specific ways in which a man can backbite his neighbor:
1. When he gets carried away by vanity and imputes things against his neighbor that never happened, or when he adds to the truth imaginary circumstances that constitute either a lie or detraction.
2. When he brings a hidden or unknown fault to light. What he says is true, but he should not say it. He backbites, not by saying something untrue, but by wounding his neighbor’s reputation. This is a very common sin among us.
Now you might object, “Do you mean to say I can’t tell the truth ?” No, my friend. It is not permitted, unless you can do so without harming your neighbor. What you say is true, I admit, but it is hidden. The sinner has wounded his conscience in God’s sight, but he has not lost his reputation before men; therefore, you may not weaken or destroy it with your tongue. And even if the sin you reveal is not altogether secret but known only to a few, as long as it is not public knowledge, you are backbiting if you reveal it to someone who was unaware of it And thus you are harming your neighbor.
3. When he exaggerates a crime, be it true, or false. This is a danger to which we readily expose ourselves when we talk about the vices of others.
4. When he relates something about another person that is not evil in any way, but speaks as though his neighbor had done it for evil reasons and adds various explanations such as, “Yes, he did that, but not with God in mind… He’s not so pious as all that; he seeks to please men, he wants to stand out… You should know him, he’s a hypocrite.”
5. When a backbiter declares nothing but is happy to say, “I’ve heard it said that…” or, “There’s a rumor going around…” or when he relates something as if it were doubtful: “So-and-so might not be exactly what you think, I don’t think he is deserving of confidence. His neighbors never heard anything about his holiness, except that only since yesterday has he been rated among the devout.” Or again, when he praises with coldness and reticence. Aulu-Gelle says, “It is more shameful to be coldly and reservedly praised than harshly and bitterly accused.” All these ways of acting must be avoided with the greatest care, for people always seek evil more than good.
6. Backbiting is so subtle that anyone can defame another person with a simple gesture. He hears someone being praised for his integrity, piety or generosity, and he says, “Oh. you don’t know that fellow? I see right through him. Ask me anything about him, I know him inside out.” Or he raises an eyebrow and remains silent; he shakes his head; he turns his eyes so as to have it understood that the person being praised does not deserve it Sometimes a backbiter may keep his mouth shut and just turn his hand two or three times to indicate that the person in question is lightheaded and changes from hour to hour.
7. He can backbite not only with body language but also with silence. He may wickedly say nothing about the integrity or morals of his neighbor, especially when he is questioned about them or when his neighbor is accused of some crime.
8. Finally, a person is guilty of backbiting if he is publicly blamed for something he did, and he denies his guilt, thereby making his accuser pass for a liar. It is surely not an obligation to publicly admit a fault committed in secret. However, one should justify himself in some other way, saying, for instance, “Those are only words, they don’t prove anything. Whoever heard them may have been mistaken. Don’t believe everything you hear.” This way of speaking is far more acceptable than the first.
That is how backbiting does its diabolical work. It changes costume so slickly, we can hardly recognize it. Malice is ingenious: It spots a beam where there is only a wisp of straw, an elephant where there is only a fly, a mountain high as the Alps where there is only a molehill. It turns dream into reality and taints the virtues of others so skilfully with its own colors that we mistake them for vices.
Look at the backbiter as he prepares to blacken someone’s reputation. He begins by looking severe and modest, lowering his gaze, heaving sighs and speaking in a slow, serious voice. He takes a host of curves and detours to conceal his deadly art. He goes the long way round before shooting his poison. “It grieves me that a man of his caliber should degrade himself to that point,” he says. “It’s not me who would have revealed his hidden crimes, but since everyone Some people spew detraction carelessly and bluntly, just as it comes to their mouth. Others try to conceal the malice they cannot hold in, beneath an appearance of lying modesty. They begin by heaving sad sighs, speaking slowly and gravely, knitting their brows. Detraction slips out with a plaintive air and as though despite themselves, in contrite and grieving tones: ‘I’m really at a loss with him. I don’t hate him, but all my words have been unable to correct him.’ Or else they say, ‘I knew all that perfectly well; I never mentioned it, but since others have, I can’t hide the truth. I admit it with deep sorrow, it is all too true.'”
When Esdras was pondering worriedly on how God governed the world, an Angel appeared to him and asked him three questions. Here is the first: “How do you think someone might be able to weigh fire? Attempt to do it Clever the man who can.” (5)
(5) Esdr 4:5
Now, every page of Holy Scripture depicts backbiting as a burning fire: “What chastisement will be inflicted on you, O treacherous tongue? Sharp arrows of a warrior with fiery coals of brushwood.” (6) “The tongue is a fire,” (7) says Saint James. Solomon says about the godless man, “A scoundrel is a furnace of evil, and on his lips there is a scorching fire.” (8) Indeed, compare the power and speed of fire to the power and speed of the tongue: there is a strong resemblance. When fire breaks its bounds and strikes out, it spreads desolation everywhere. So it is with the tongue: when it escapes from its prison and flies free, it does not return without having wreaked dreadful havoc.
(6) Ps 119:3
(7) Jas 3:6
(8) Prov 16:27
Therefore, the tongue is a fire, and it takes great wisdom to weigh it on an accurate scale. The wiser and more prudent a man is in everything, the more careful he is in measuring his words. “The words of the prudent are carefully weighed,” (9) says the son of Sirach. The wise man’s lips are like the two platters of a scale on which he weighs that fire. But how hard it is to weigh even sparks and wisps of straw! I call sparks the infinity of evils that spring from a single word of detraction. For backbiting harms not only one person, but many: the servants, children and friends of the person it denigrates.
(9) Sir 21:28.
A word spoken thoughtlessly or maliciously is often deadly not only to the one it strikes, but also to his wife, children and entire family. A single spark burns them all and puts them at a disadvantage. Who can say he weighs all his words properly? In the story of Tobias we read that Asmodeus, the prince of sensuality, thought he could weigh the flames of impurity. But where is the hand so refined that it can weigh all the sparks that escape from the backbiter’s mouth?
Then what is a wise man to do? He listens and holds words in his mouth when they try to fly out. As long as he keeps them in his throat, he can subject them to reason and good sense; but once they slip out, there is no way to make them return: they run, they fly, they go on an endless journey. “Fools’ thoughts are in their mouths, wise men’s words are in their hearts,” (10) says the Holy Spirit. A prudent man passes all he wants to say in his heart and he weighs it all before speaking it. This counsel of prudence was religiously observed by the Mother of the Saviour. As the Gospel tells us, “Mary kept in mind all these things, pondering them in Her heart.” (11)
(10) Sir 21:29
(11) Lk 2:51
Sad to say, many people dislike this business of weighing words and deeds; so much so that Suidas rightly observes, “It is a weakness of righteous men that they cannot discern praiseworthy things in a vice-ridden man.” One day the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out thy staff and strike the dust of the earth, that it may be turned into gnats throughout the land of Egypt And gnats came upon man and beast The dust of the earth was turned into gnats throughout the land of Egypt.” (12) Concerning this, a certain author remarks that gnats are tiny but nervous creatures whose sting is very severe.
(12) Ex 8:16-17
Like gnats, backbiters’ words have spread throughout the land and infested every class of society, both sexes, every age and condition, rich and poor, servants and masters alike. Many men are not blasphemers, but few — hardly any — do not backbite. Behold: two righteous men meet and strike up a conversation; you can be sure that even absent individuals will get mixed into their discussion. Then our fine talkers will be obliged to turn their backs — despite themselves, it is true — and receive the blows lying in store for them.
There is practically no society or gathering in which people do not denigrate others who are absent, discharging their critical zeal upon them. Backbiting is a common, vulgar evil, and a horrible, deadly one. Our Lord is so kind that He made a promise saying, “Where two or three are gathered together for My sake, there am I in the midst of them.” (13) Understand this well, however: for His sake, and not for the devil’s sake. The devil is also in the midst of every company where two or three people backbite their neighbor. Saint Antiochus declares, “Backbiting is a devil that never rests.” (14) Therefore, let us follow Solomon’s advice: “Put away from you dishonest talk, deceitful speech put far from you.” (15) Backbiting offers immense dangers; it inflicts great harm and is very hard to heal.
(13) Mt 18:20
(14) Saint Antiochus, Homily 29, De detract
(15) Prov 4:24
It offers immense dangers, for the backbiter inflicts rash judgment on every comer. Intention is what makes for good actions; thus, a work may be excellent even though it might appear despicable. Intentions are not visible, and it is easy to think that something is wrong when it possesses all the qualities of virtue.
Look at the Pharisees. They were scandalized when they saw Jesus healing the sick on the Sabbath, frequenting the company of publicans and going out of His way for unvirtuous men. His holiest actions were turned into a subject for backbiting.
Backbiting is eminently destructive, for it robs a man of what is most precious to him: his reputation. That is why theologians are in unanimous agreement to say that it is more serious than stealing; for a sin is all the greater in that it deprives someone of a greater good. Robbing someone of his reputation is worse than stealing his money, according to the words of Solomon: “A good name is more desirable than great riches.” (16) Backbiting inflicts great harm for it shoots three arrows in a single round and deals a triple death. Saint Bernard assures us of this: “Is this tongue not that of a viper? It is surely very fierce, for it kills three victims with a single sting. Is it not a sharp spear, for it pierces three men in a single throw. The backbiter’s tongue is a sharp sword, a double and even a triple sword, like General Joab’s lance that pierced Absalom as he hung in the oak tree.”
(16) Prov 22:1
Yes, that’s what backbiting is. It pierces its author, his listener and their denigrated neighbor all at once. With one difference, however: the denigrated person is the least wounded of all. The only thing he can lose is his reputation, whereas the backbiter and his listener are wounded — and gravely wounded — even unto their soul.
The backbiter does the most harm to himself, for the stone he casts at another will almost always fall back upon his head. He does harm to his listener by pouring deadly poison into his ears, as Saint Bernard puts it and by infecting him not only with deadly opinions, but also with the poison of envy. Artabanus says, “Only one receives the insult but there are two who commit it.” (17) Finally, the backbiter does harm to those who are absent, delivering them up and betraying them with his insolent tongue.
(17) Artabanus, Apud Herod, Book 7.
Claude Paradin relates a fabulous tale contained in the chronicles of Lorraine, a tale thrice fabulous: (18)
(18) Claude Paradin, In symb. Hero. Number 39.
The virtues and fortune of the House of Lorraine are still documented today in the family’s ancient heralds, three birds pierced with a single arrow. Here is the story of their origin:
The famous hero Godefroy de Bouillon, Duke of Lorraine, was besieging the city of Jerusalem. He shot an arrow against the Tower of David and pierced three birds in a single shot:
Either because God willed it so, or as a result of chance.
Whatever the case, this event proved to be a forecast of the royal dignity reserved for his family. An examination of the coins and insignia of the House of Lorraine will convince anyone of its authenticity.
Whoever backbites someone shoots a flaming arrow and wounds three people at once: himself, his listener and his adversary. Rather, he commits a triple murder, for we all have three lives: the life of the soul, which is the fruit of grace; the life of the body, which we hold in common with animals; and our social life, which depends upon our good name. Now, the backbiter attacks these three lives. He attacks the life of soul and body in himself and in his listener, and he attacks the social life of the person he backbites. Such are the evils that backbiting breeds.
We mentioned in the above section that backbiting is an evil that is hard to heal. The Holy Spirit declares, “A man who has the habit of abusive language will never mature in character as long as he lives.” (19) When we are in the act of backbiting others, would we want to admit we are backbiting? A sick person who thinks he is well refuses to believe anyone who tells him he is sick and he scorns every remedy. So it is with wounds caused by backbiting. They are healed only with great difficulty; and though they may have been bandaged, they always leave a dreadful scar. Alexander the Great’s laudator used to say, “If you have an enemy, attack him vigorously with insults. He may be able to bandage his wounds, but a scar will always remain.” Thieves speak the same language: “Steal boldly. If you are obliged to pay it back it will never be everything.”
(19) Sir 23:20.
It is remarkable how hard it is for someone to rid himself of an error once it has lodged in his mind. A few words murmured in lowered tones pierce it like a nail driven into a piece of wood; try and pull it out, all your strength will hardly suffice. Once you penetrate someone’s mind with a false opinion, you will have a hard time changing it. In vain will you repeat a hundred times, “I was angry when I said that. I spoke thoughtlessly. Jealousy made me talk that way.” No matter what you say, the first opinion is imbedded too deeply for you to be able to pull it out in one try.
Serpents provide serum against snakebite; scorpions provide oil against the scorpion’s sting; dog hair acts against dogbite. But people wounded by a backbiter’s tongue can heal only with great difficulty, and always imperfectly, even though it be the very tongue which caused the wounds that tries to repair them, as Achilles’ lance healed Telephos, whom he had wounded.
Saint John Chrysostom paints an eloquent picture of the evils of backbiting. “What is the use of sparing birds and fishes if we eat our own brothers?” he says. Indeed, the backbiter rips his brother’s flesh with his teeth and tears his neighbor’s body to shreds. That is what Saint Paul wants to frighten us from when he says, “If you bite and devour one another, take heed or you will be consumed by one another.” (20)
(20) Gal 5:15
And to keep us from sidestepping this admonition, Saint John Chrysostom adds, “Do not tell me, ‘I would be a slanderer only if I lied. I am committing no slander if I tell the truth.’ Error! Speaking evil of others, even if the evil be true, is always a crime. Surely the publican was really a publican and a sinner; but he left cleansed of all his defilements because he was scorned by the Pharisee. You want to correct your brother? Weep, pray to God, warn him by speaking to his heart, advise and exhort him. That is how Saint Paul acted. ‘But backbiting is so sweet!’ you say. Yes, but not backbiting is sweeter still. The backbiter creates deadly anxiety for himself, he is constantly besieged by suspicion and fear. He repents, but too late; he bites his tongue, but in vain; he trembles, for as his words spread, they may cause him grave danger and expose those who repeat them to enmities which so easily could have been avoided.” (21)
(21) Saint John Chrysostom, Homily 3, Ad pop Antioch.
Therefore, let us eliminate every sort of backbiting, knowing full well that were we to eat ashes, all our austerities would be useless to us if we linger in this vice.
Rufinus of Aquilea relates the following incident: Some brothers had been sent by their monastery to visit hermits living here and there in the desert. They came first to an elderly anchorite who gave them sincere and cordial hospitality. To relieve his road-weary visitors, he resolved to treat them as well as he could and openheartedly offer them all he had. Poverty can be generous in its way, not in what it gives but in the dispositions with which it gives. The old man wanted to show this religious magnificence so that his guests, seeing his liberality, would be at ease and freely receive what his charity was not embarrassed to give them. They said evening prayers after a very congenial supper, and then the old man bedded down his guests while he went to rest in another room.
To bring on drowsiness, our travelers began to talk. And one of them said, “What do you think? These hermits eat better than we do in our monastery… “The old man heard all these remarks. He was hurt because his guests were returning his kindness with calumny, but he kept silence. At dawn the next morning, the brothers said they were going to go and visit another hermit As he bid them goodbye, the old man said to them, “Give my greetings to the hermit who is my dear friend, and tell him simply this: ‘Take care not to sprinkle the oil.'”
The brothers repeated his message faithfully. The other hermit understood the recommendation at once, and he served his guests an extremely frugal table, the main meal consisting in dry bread, salt and a little vinegar: that was the substance of the banquet. Soon tiring of such cold hospitality, our travelers moved out that very night with as little fanfare as possible. (22)
(22) Rufinus of Aquilea, Pelagius, Book 10, No. 5.
My friends, stop slandering those who treat you with kindness. Learn to stop backbiting their generosity. The first hermit treated you as guests, but the second treated you as you deserved… as slanderers.
Let us confirm the above with these remarks from Saint Bernard: The backbiter proves, first, that he has no charity. And then, what is his purpose, if not to get others to detest and hate their neighbor? Therefore, the backbiting tongue wounds charity in everyone who listens to it. It kills and stifles charity as much as it can.
Ah, how rare those who order their life in such a way as not to take pleasure in denigrating the lives of others!