SINS OF THE TONGUE:
The Backbiting Tongue
Father Belet, of the Diocese of Basle
Translated from the French, 1870 ed.
3. Appropriate names for backbiters. Usual chastisements to which they expose themselves.
Plutarch says that nature has thought of everything: it has given man two ears and only one tongue, since he should listen more than speak. Such was the opinion of a sage formed in the school of Christ: Saint James says, “Let every man be swift to hear and slow to speak.” (1) The tongue is a member hard to govern; it rarely moves without harming itself or others. Anarcharsis the philosopher states, “It is better to trespass with your feet than with your tongue.” We are rarely sorry for keeping silence and often sorry for speaking. The poet Ausonius declares, “You harm no one by your silence, but by your words.”
(1) Jas 1:19
Xenocrates confirmed this truth by his example. As he listened without a word to a conversation in which his neighbor incurred detraction, someone asked him why he alone maintained a stubborn silence. He answered, “I have often regretted speaking in public, but never not speaking.” This quiet reply closed the mouth over those evil tongues.
We have treated the vice of backbiting, its various species and its gravity. We have demonstrated how difficult it is, though necessary, to restore our neighbor’s reputation. Let us now draw the true portrait of a backbiter.
We do no one harm in saying that a spade is a spade, and a cat is a cat. We should call all things by their name.
Now, backbiters have as many names as species. They attack first this person and then that one, putting on a fox skin today and a lion skin tomorrow. Among all the splendid names that apply to flatterers, only one applies to backbiters:
1. Backbiters are dogs. Scripture tells us, “Like an arrow lodged in a dog’s thigh is gossip in the heart of a fool.” (2) A dog will have no rest till he is rid of something lodged in his flank. So it is with a backbiter: as soon as he sees anything with his curious eyes or hears anything with his long ears, he broadcasts it everywhere.
(2) Sir 19:12
The food most suited to dogs is dry bread and bones. But dogs with faces of men eat not only bones; like famished wolves, they need flesh… human flesh. When Job was struck down he said, “Why do you hound me as though you were God, and insatiably prey upon me?” (3) I see you gnashing your teeth like dogs. You insult me; and you bite, devour and swallow my reputation and good name.
(3) Job 19:22
Saint Gregory declares, “There is no doubt that those who indulge in backbiting others, feed on their flesh.” (4) Making himself equal to God, the backbiter pretends to examine hearts and discern the most secret things in man, even his intentions. He would wrest God’s sword from His hand if he could. The backbiter is so fond of human flesh he often spares not even his own relatives.
(4) Saint Gregory, Moral, Book 14, Chapter 14.
After Actaeon had been turned into a deer by the goddess Artemis, his dogs attacked him. He fought like a madman and cried out in vain:
My name is Actaeon, recognize your master! (5)
(5) Ovid, Metamorphosis, Book 3.
But none of the dogs would recognize him as Actaeon. Such are backbiters. They know neither father nor mother; they tear into everyone. Their main activity consists in biting the first comer. The prophet Ezechiel predicted, “Fathers shall eat their sons in the midst of thee, and sons shall eat their fathers.” (6) And Jeremias adds, “Everyone shall eat the flesh of his friend.” (7) With a single bite, the backbiter tears into bishop, archbishop or pope, king or emperor. Though he should be satisfied with beef or mutton on fast days, he must absolutely have human flesh. With his bloody mouth, the backbiter streaks through the public square like a dog. Beware of the dog! Run from him when he barks, “Come along with us! Let us lie in wait for the honest man; let us, unprovoked, set a trap for the innocent; let us swallow them up like hell, alive and in the prime of life, like those who go down into the pit!” (8)
(6) Ez 5:10
(7) Jer 19:9
(8) Prov 1:11-12
2. The sea urchin, armed with points which it uses as feet, is the terror of every fish. Likewise, the backbiter is armed with thorny spines inside and out. No matter where you touch him, beware! Beware of his traps, or you will get caught by his hook! There’s the sea urchin: the backbiter is coming! If you ask him “What’s new?” he will answer you at once, “So-and-so got drunk yesterday. Someone else was gambling with infernal passion. I saw this man entering a house of ill-repute; that one is always fighting; and that other one cheated a salesman out of twenty dollars.” These are the barbs of that sea urchin, these are his words. Therefore, he is the terror of every man. For the Holy Spirit says, “A man full of tongue is terrible in his city, and he that is rash in his word shall be hateful.” (9)
(9) Sir 9:25
3. The backbiter is a beetle and a leech. Saint John Chrysostom remarks, “Everyone flees a backbiter like unhealthy mud, like a leech that feeds on blood, a beetle that feeds in the mire — that is, on others’ defects.” As for you, act like bees: gather flowers from thorns and use them to make your honey.
Guillaume Perald says, “The mouth of the backbiter and slanderer is the basin the devil uses to wash his hands.” That basin contains not holy water, but the impure water of detraction. The devil pours this filthy water onto many; not on their face, true, but on their back. For the backbiter harms people who are absent, not present, just as the leech draws blood from behind. Now, let all who are in the habit of backbiting others learn that oftentimes those who reveal the crimes of others are more sinful than those who commit them.
4. The backbiter resembles a hog. When it enters a garden, a hog does not run into the flowers, but into the manure. The backbiter does not seek to edify, but scandalize; he feeds off forbidden objects.
When Balaam refused to curse Israel, King Balac told him angrily, “Come with me to another place from which you can see only some and not all of Israel, and from there curse it for me.” (10) The king thought the great throng of people was preventing Balaam from cursing it. It is characteristic of backbiters to criticize only a part of what others have done. If they said what their neighbor did before or afterwards, they would be giving their listeners a very different opinion of him.
(10) Num 23:13
Besides, is anything in this world free from all imperfection, safe from all criticism?
The moon is a magnificent heavenly body, but it does have its craters. The sun is far nobler and brighter than the moon, yet it is not perfect in every point. (11) In order to be mistaken as little as possible, look at something on the whole, and its collective symmetry will justify its less perfect parts.
(11) Christopher Scheiner, De macul sol
5. The backbiter resembles the lion and the hyena. Someone once asked Theocritus, “What is the most ferocious animal of all?” and he replied, “In the mountains and forests, I think it is lions and bears. In the cities and towns, it is money-lenders and backbiters.” (12) And since they do not spare even the dead, it is only fitting to compare them to the hyena. Like the wolf, the hyena is so avid for human flesh that it digs into graves and unburies corpses in order to eat their flesh.
(12) Aristotle, De animal, Book 7, Chapter 4
The discreet and prudent man must take great care to safeguard his reputation from the tongues of others. If he knows something blameworthy about others, he should bury it in silence as in good ground. But the backbiter drags the nauseating, rotten flesh of corpses out of their tombs, bringing hidden vices to light and reminding us of crimes that should be forgotten. He resembles the lion and the hyena.
6. The backbiter is a counterfeiter and a thief. He wears down coins so that no one wants them any more. “Lets get rid of this coin,” people say. “It is eaten away, it is no longer any good.” This is how backbiting tongues, with the traps they set, prevent so many from emerging from their tombs; or if they do come out they force them back into their former darkness as soon as they spy an occasion to attack their reputation or fortune.
Many who would behave like honest men and Christians have been bitten so hard by backbiters and so blackened by wicked words that people always find something wrong with them. Emperor Vespasian ordered backbiters and gossipers flogged with rods and then sent into exile. Augustus wanted them burned alive. Antoninus wanted them put to death. For, according to Solomon, it is backbiting “that men find abominable.” (13)
(13) Prov 24:9
True, it is not the worst of evils to be loathed by all, since Christ told His Apostles they would be hated by all men, adding that it would be for His name’s sake.” (14) The backbiter, however, is hated not only by all men, but by God Himself. Saint Paul says, “Detractors are hateful to God.” (15) Follow the advice of Solomon: “Have nothing to do with backbiters, for their destruction arises suddenly, and who can measure their ruin?” (16)
(14) Mt 10:22
(15) Rom 1:30
(16) Prov 24:21-22
Finally — and this is the most appropriate name, more appropriate than any other — the backbiter is a serpent.
The Book of Ecclesiastes says, “If a serpent bites in silence, the hidden backbiter is no less loathsome.” (17) This expression, “bites in silence”, illustrates the genius of backbiting perfectly. Theologians recognize a difference between backbiting and insult: an insult wounds and outrages one who is present; backbiting attacks those who are absent and seeks to weaken their reputation.
(17) Eccl 10:11
Of all the animals, the serpent is the only one the Lord cursed. And among the great multitude of men, if there be any that God especially loathes and detests, it is the backbiter. There are serpents that kill their own mother in order to live; before harming others, the backbiter is of serious detriment to himself and his loved ones. And just as a single snakebite is so infectious that it poisons the entire body, the backbiter uses few words to rob others of their reputation and sometimes their life. The backbiter makes himself the equal of the devil, who justly received the name of serpent. The backbiter poses as a denunciator of his brothers; and when he cannot accuse them, he slanders them. Here is how the poet of Venusia depicts the varicolored skin of the backbiter, similar to the serpents:
“To tear apart an absent friend; to not defend him when he is attacked; to work at inciting indiscreet laughter and to build your reputation on an attitude of mockery; to invent happenings; to betray confidential secrets: such is the behavior of a despicable person. Romans, beware of such a man!” (18)
(18) Horace, Satires, Book 1, Satire 4
Saint Bernard says, “Run from a backbiter as you would run from a serpent.” (19) Serpents do not store venom in their tail. They reserve it in a little sac beneath the tongue or in the hollow of their teeth. Most snakes inject their venom with their bite. Others eject it by spitting; for this reason, Avicenna refers to them as spitting serpents. Like these serpents, backbiters conceal deadly venom beneath their tongues, spitting it out as they speak. Although the deceptively small mouth of this species of viper leaves barely a trace of its bite, it deals out death.
(19) Saint Bernard, De modo bene vivendi, Sermon 17
Cleopatra had a horror of swords and wounds. When she requested a quick and easy death, she was killed by a snakebite. The backbiter often delivers great blows while making little noise. The wounds he leaves are scarcely visible, but he inflicts mortal damage to the reputation of others.
Beware of him! Run from him! The backbiter is deadlier than a snake in the grass, and there is practically no remedy for his venom. Such was the chastisement with which the Lord once threatened the Hebrews. “For behold, I will send among you serpents against which there is no charm: and they shall bite you.” (20) According to the Roman philosopher Seneca, a snake is easier to handle when it is very cold. (21) Its poison is still potent, no doubt, but the snake is too numb. If we lend credence to Elianus and Pliny, serpents at the mouth of the Euphrates River are very dangerous to foreigners but not to natives of the region; the serpents of Syria, especially those by the Euphrates, will not harm Syrians in their sleep. Syrians, the Psyllae in Africa, the Ophites of Cyprus and Hellespont, and the Marsi in Italy are all anguigenous, and they have no fear of any serpent. The Egyptians even tame asps.
(20) Jer 8:17
(21) Seneca, Epistle 42
It is not so with the backbiter’s tongue. Nothing can temper it and everyone fears it, natives and foreigners alike. It attacks, bites and kills everyone, friend or foe, good or evil, asleep or awake. Saint John Chrysostom states, “A person who backbites performs the devil’s work. Backbiting is an unruly demon.”
“God is all feet all hands, all eyes,” says Saint Augustine. And I would add that He is also all ears; for nothing escapes Him, and “detractors are hateful to God”. Do not attempt to excuse yourself by hedging, “That’s what people are saying, and they are convinced. I’m just telling you what I heard.” My friend, it is illegal to resell adulterated or stolen merchandise. You heard something? Well, act as though you had not. This is advice of the son of Sirach: “Let anything you hear die within you; rest assured, it will not make you burst.” (22)
(22) Sir 19:10
Do not excuse yourself by saying, “But these are only petty sins,” for a little spark is often enough to produce a conflagration. This is always true with the backbiting tongue. You say they are petty sins. So if you knew more serious things, wouldn’t you say them? No, wounding your neighbor’s reputation, even lightly, is no little thing. Killing someone with the pen is no less a homicide than killing him with the sword.
Cassian was killed by the hand of a child and pierced with little wounds, but he was no less dead than if he had fallen beneath the hand of Hector or Achilles. The weaker the hand that strikes, the slower the death and the more painful the torment. The smaller the pinpricks of backbiting may seem, the more dangerous the wounds they make. God never lets them go unpunished. Scripture tells us, “He who speaks against his brother, or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law.” (23)
(23) Jas 4:11
Thomas of Cantimpre, the coadjutor of the Bishop of Cambrai, declares that with his own eyes he saw how horrible and surprising was the vengeance reserved for this vice: “I once knew a religious man (sacerdotem), more religious in name than in deed, whose tongue reached such a point of shamelessness that his only pleasure lay in covering others with infamy and in relating every lie one can imagine. Finding himself at death’s door, he was whipped into such a frenzy that he began beating himself and tearing his tongue with his teeth, thus showing everyone that his tongue was the real cause of his torment.” The Book of Ecclesiastes says, “Be not hasty in your utterance. God is in heaven and you are on earth; therefore let your words be few.” (24) You have not yet gone to that land beyond the blue. Nor shall you enter it if you do not amend your vicious ways; you will fall into the pit of fire. Do you want to save your soul? Then hold your tongue and swear off the passion of backbiting.
(24) Eccl 5:1
There was another religious in England, a monk more by his habit than by his habits, rather like the one we just mentioned. His backbiting tongue had such a hard bite that he slashed everyone he met. He was about to die, and his brothers implored him to think seriously about the journey he was about to make, since it was a matter of eternity. “Spare your exhortations,” he said, “they are totally useless!” They spoke to him of divine mercy, trying to get him to trust in God, using every possible means to lift his thoughts to the things of heaven. The dying man stuck his tongue out and tapped it with his hand, saying, “This evil tongue is what has damned me!” Scarcely had he spoken these words when his tongue suddenly swelled so greatly that it was impossible for him to return it into his mouth. Thus, while breathing his last, this unfortunate man taught us with his dreadful example to learn from others’ mistakes and watch what we say. (25)
(25) Fr. John Major, S. J., Theologia Specul exempl. P. 265
“He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from trouble.” (26)
(26) Prov 21:23