SINS OF THE TONGUE:
The Backbiting Tongue
Father Belet, of the Diocese of Basle
Translated from the French, 1870 ed.
4. Listening to backbiters is a great sin.
Certain experiments prove that magnets possess a mysterious and wonderful power. According to Jerome Cardan, if you rub a dagger with a magnet, those it pierces afterwards will not feel it: “In the home of Dr. Lawrence Guascus I saw a needle or a metal point rubbed with a magnet; one could then stick the needle or point into any part of the body without causing any pain. This seemed incredible to me, and I wanted to make sure it was true. So I took a needle, rubbed it with a magnet and stuck it into my arm. I felt the needle’s presence when it had penetrated completely, but I felt no pain whatsoever. In order to be really sure I turned the needle, still stuck in my arm, in every direction. But I felt nothing and shed not a drop of blood. Afterwards, only the point where the needle had entered could be seen.” Cardan adds that Alexander of Verona was the first to perform this experiment, in Milan: he rubbed a sword with oil in order to be able to wound and heal whoever he wished without any pain.
Backbiting resembles that dagger perfectly. You thrust it in, it enters and causes a wound to three people at once: the backbiter, his listener and the person he backbites. The most seriously wounded one of all, the backbiter, feels absolutely nothing.
But we have already talked about him in the preceding chapter. Let us now take a look at his listener.
We will show what an enormous sin is committed, not only by backbiters, but by those who listen to them willingly, and we will enlighten the backbiter and his listeners at the same time.
Homer, the prince of poets, relates how Ulysses acted with his seafaring companions. That prudent fellow knew that the sweet, languorous siren’s song usually softened men and then lured them into the depths of the sea. To safeguard himself and his friends on their way through this hazardous zone, he had them stop their ears with wax and bind him to the ship’s mast until the moment of danger had passed. Thus there are dangers for the ears as well as for the eyes, and one must make sure that they are hermetically sealed.
It is nothing new to encircle fields and gardens with hedges, but it may seem strange to do so for our ears. Yet the Holy Spirit judges it necessary. “Hedge in your ears with thorns,” He says, “listen not to the wicked tongue, and make doors and bars to thy mouth.” (1) The Holy Spirit does not want this hedge protecting our ears to be a flower hedge, but a spiny thorn hedge, to keep the backbiter away.
(1) Sir 28:28
Hedges protect fields against animals and gardens against thieves. So must we have thorns to guard our ears against backbiters. When they come near, they run into brambles when you show absolute disapproval of what they say. Take heed not to lend an ear and listen willingly to them. On the contrary, let them see that you do not care for this sort of conversation. For if you listen willingly to everything others whisper in your ear, what sort of people will you be compared to?
Two dogs gnawing on the same bone is a rare sight, practically a phenomenon. Now, if you see a backbiter and his listener in perfect agreement, the one to speak and the other to give ear, would you not say that they look exactly like two dogs gnawing on the same bone? Two evil people who analyze the behavior of a good man weigh him, sift him and grind him with their words. This is truly the equivalent of chewing bones and cracking them between one’s teeth.
Saint Bernard discusses the gravity of the sin that both the backbiter and his listener commit. “I would have difficulty deciding which of them is more damnable,” he says, “he who backbites or he who listens to the backbiter. Even if we excuse it as wit or banter, every jesting word must be banished not only from our mouth, but also from our ears.” (2) Another man has cleverly remarked, “The devil dances in the backbiter’s mouth and in his listener’s ear.” If you lend a favorable ear to a gossiper and spur him on to speak, you incite him to proceed with still greater freedom, boldness and excess. “The burglar who holds the bag and the thief who slips in the spoils are equally guilty,” says the proverb. The perpetrator and the consenter are both deserving of the same punishment; the same is true of the backbiter and his listener. Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches, “He who hears someone backbiting and does not oppose him appears to approve the author, thus participating in his sin.” (3) Saint Jerome speaks in the same vein: “Beware that your restless ears and tongue do not listen to or engage in backbiting.” (4)
(2) Saint Bernard, De consideratione, Book 2, Chapter 13
(3) Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part II, Section II, Question 83, Article 2.
(4) Saint Jerome, Epistolora ad Nepotium, ad Rustic
“I don’t backbite,” you may say, “but how can I stop others from talking?” Look at what sort of pretexts we invent to excuse our sins! Tell me then: If you were passing in front of someone’s house, and his dog came running after you barking and ready to bite you, would you be pleased if his master’s servant did not prevent him? And if he even encouraged the dog to press on after you, would you be able to contain your indignation? Now let’s change the circumstances: When you listen quietly to a backbiter, you are not only letting this dog attack passers-by and bite them, but you are urging him on, for you lend credence to what he says.
“Well, who would ever dare to interrupt someone who is speaking?” you may ask. Listen, and Saint John Chrysostom will answer your question: “I must not limit myself to addressing backbiters, but also implore their listeners to stop their ears and walk in the footsteps of the holy king, who said, ‘Whoever slanders his neighbor in secret, his enemy will I become.’ (5) Tell the person who comes to you and speaks about others, ‘Are you here to praise someone and raise him in my esteem? Then gladly will I give ear and savor all your sweet conversation. But if you intend to speak ill, let me stop you right now; I cannot stand filth and stench. What have I to gain by knowing that someone is evil? Would I not be losing something instead? Talk to him yourself, and let us mind our own business.’ ” (6)
(5) Ps 100:5
(6) Saint John Chrysostom, Homily 3, Ad pop. Antioch.
If you follow Saint John Chrysostom’s advice and shut the backbiter’s mouth in this manner, he will either keep silence or praise the person he came to denigrate. If, on the contrary, you pretend not to notice, and if you do not have the courage to reproach him, you are acting with modesty, I admit; but this is inopportune, and both you and your neighbor will suffer as a consequence.
Saint Augustine, an exemplary bishop, detested backbiters so strongly that he posted the following words on the wall of his dining room as a warning to his guests:
Quisquis amat dictis absentum rodere famam,
Hanc mensam vetitam noverit esse sibi
That is, “People who take pleasure in defaming the reputation of absentees are not welcome at this table.” An excellent maxim for your dining room! This bishop castigated the perverse habit which prevails in meetings, circles and banquets, of gathering information about those who are absent. How often have you heard people say, “He’s got his weak points, you know!… He’s certainly a remarkable person, but his behavior is anything but moral… That preacher speaks divinely; too bad he doesn’t practice what he preaches… That man had every opportunity, but he never learned how to take advantage of them… That person is a veritable paragon of justice, but all he ever thinks about is his pocketbook — money is his only god.” Unfortunately…
Those who have the most laughable behavior
Are always the first to backbite others.
Thus they amuse themselves by making a sport out of detraction and biting their neighbor. That is why, wishing to banish it from his house, Saint Augustine always had someone read at his table, thereby feeding the soul while feeding the body.
One day, however, relates Possadius in an eyewitness account, Saint Augustine had at his table several illustrious guests who forgot the holy bishop’s maxim. Since they were talking too freely about their neighbor, he told them outright “My lords and brothers, stop your conversation or leave this table. Otherwise, I shall have to retire to my room.”
Saint John the Almsgiver, Patriarch of Alexandria, so remarkable for his charity, provides us with a similar example. As soon as he heard anyone backbiting, he would warn him or artfully turn the conversation in another direction. If the backbiter carried on, the patriarch would fall silent and jot down his name. After the person had left, he would give his chamberlain orders to deny that man entry in the future. Saint Jerome rightly observes, “Where there are no listeners, there are no backbiters: the combat will close for want of combatants.” (7)
(7) Saint Jerome, Ad Celant.
King Edmund of England held Bishop Dunstan in high esteem, admiring his virtue and learning alike, and he habitually consulted him in important matters. The king loved the vigor with which he defended justice.
The devil waxed exceedingly jealous over this state of affairs. Hoping to sunder the harmony of these two souls, he conspired with certain men who despised Dunstan, although they feigned friendship and deference. First they assailed the ears of the king, striving to blacken the bishop’s reputation by crafty insinuation. Soon they began backbiting Dunstan openly and moving the king to hatred with sweet flattery, then denigrating the bishop without mercy. They succeeded so well with the credulous king that Dunstan’s entry was forbidden in the royal court.
Several days later, the king went hunting in the forest. The wildwood was situated on a mountain rimmed with dreadful bluffs. From the very start of the hunt, the first sizeable prey was a handsome stag, worthy of the king’s skill. As the king and his sons pursued it, the animal fled towards the cliff and leaped off, followed by the baying hounds. The king and his mount came upon the fatal precipice at full tilt.
Faced with sudden death, Edmund thought of Saint Dunstan and implored God to save his life in consideration of the holy bishop’s innocence. Imminent danger often wakens lightning inspirations, and frequently the Lord answers with equally blinding speed. At that very moment, the king’s horse was brought to an astonishing halt. The king returned to his castle at once. Speaking to the royal household with mingled joy and dread, he related the wonder that had just been wrought in his favor. “I am twice beholden for my life,” he declared. “I owe it both to God and to His friend Dunstan.”
King Edmund called for the bishop immediately and received him with great honor, asking his forgiveness for having believed the backbiters’ words, and swearing faithful friendship to the end of his days.
This illustrious example shows us how those who lend an ear to backbiting must repair the reputation of others. You can find thousands and hundreds of thousands of backbiters, but where can you find a single person who will restore a reputation unjustly stolen?
People who listen to backbiting can be classified in two different groups. First there are those who hear it reluctantly, and not without certain pangs of conscience. These people are guilty of nothing; they even deserve a reward from God, especially if they express their disapproval with unmistakable hints.
Others remain silent, however, letting no one see whether they agree or not with what is said. When they are blamed for this not very praiseworthy silence, they usually excuse themselves by saying, “I won’t shut anyone’s mouth. Let others say what they like, I wash my hands. I’m not responsible for criticizing everything people say.”
These pacifists are just cleverly fooling themselves. Do they mean that it does not displease them to hear someone outraging their neighbor’s reputation and offending God? Let them know this: they commit a serious sin when they remain silent on hearing such words, especially if they have some authority over the offender. Not resisting error is approving it; not defending the truth when one is able, is oppressing it. If you are content to say nothing when you hear ill spoken of others, people will hardly believe you do not keep bad company yourself.
Other people do not only listen to backbiters, they spur them on to continue their stories by their eagerness in hearing them. They say, “Finish relating the details of what you started saying about that person; I’m anxious to hear the truth. I had already heard something about it, but it was still a bit vague. Tell me everything!”
Still others softly entice and incite backbiters, saying, “People are saying such things about you, and you remain silent? How strange!” This provides a perfect occasion for the backbiter to freely give vent to all the bile that is in his heart. Those people are the guiltiest of all, for they take delight in the evil they hear spoken about others.
Thus, both the backbiter and his listener have got the devil in them, one in his mouth and the other in his ear.
Normally, people who are so credulous as to believe all they hear spoken in this manner will quickly manifest anger and impatience, heaping word upon word, insult upon insult, outrage upon outrage. From this stem unending arguments and enmities: the bonds that hold men together are broken, charity is snuffed out, sincere affection and mutual trust vanish. From this also stems an unbridled desire to do harm, urging us to reveal the weaknesses of others. Hidden beneath a cloak of kindness, we disguise vice with a semblance of honesty and start thinking that it is no longer vice.
Such is not the case, and these words of Saint Bernard will always be true: “Backbiters and their listeners are guilty of the same sin.” (8) When you speak ill of others, or even when you listen to someone backbiting, you should get just as angry with yourself as when someone else backbites you. The man who drinks poison counselled by an evil tongue will die. Therefore, let us teach backbiters these three lessons:
(8) Saint Bernard, De inter. Dom, Chapter 42, and Serm. De tripl. Custod.
Lesson I: Look at yourself and discover your own wretchedness.
Why waste your time with the affairs of others? Take care of your own instead. Who ever named you a reporter of the lives and deeds of others? Curious and absurd man, why do you set foot in other people’s gardens? Find out what is going on in your own house instead, and say with La Fontaine:
Happy the man who stays at home,
Occupied with governing his own desires.
You may have heard about the porbeagle, or white shark. When safe inside its nest, it draws its eyes into a sac; when it leaves, they reappear on its forehead. It is blind at home and clear-eyed outside. As Socrates once stated concerning an aged man:
He knows everything from afar,
But he sees nothing nigh.
This occurs with many elderly people: show them an object close up, and they cannot see any details; draw it back and they see it better. Thus are many people shocked by the petty sins of others, whereas they are perfectly indulgent regarding their own serious faults. One might say:
The sovereign Maker
Created us all beggars in the same way,
Those of times past and those of today.
For our own faults He made the pocket in the back,
And the one in the front for others who slack.
So then, move the back pocket round in front And if you examine it well, no doubt you will find the defect you are complaining about. All of life’s woes stem from the fact that each person flatters himself, and makes himself as much an enemy of others as a selfish friend of himself. We pluck out the straw from our neighbor’s eye, and we do not see the beam in our own. Like the eye, which does not see the defects of the cheek because it is so close, we are perfectly blind regarding our own weaknesses. Very clever in discerning the slightest imperfections in others, we walk right by our own like blind people, although they are so close we could touch them. And the more sensitive we are when someone speaks ill of us, the bolder we are and the more pleasure we take in glutting ourselves on our neighbor’s vices. We take delight in plunging our eyes and teeth into others’ moral behavior. “They devise a wicked scheme, and conceal the scheme they have devised.” (9) The back pocket is for our own defects, and the front pocket for the defects of others. We do not see the pocket that lies behind our back.
(9) Ps 63:6
Solomon speaks well of men of this caliber. “There is a group that is pure in its own eyes, yet is not purged of its filth,” (10) he says. If an earthen pot were blackened with soot and looked in the mirror, it would not say to the smoked-up kettle, “Woe to you, you are all black!”
(10) Prov 30:12
Christian law speaks in the same manner. When Jesus Christ said, “Let those who believe they are without sin cast the first stone against this woman accused of adultery,” (11) no one dared to be the first. Christians, let us do likewise. If we look at what is going on inside ourself and take care of our own business, we will find no one who better deserves to have stones cast at him than ourself. But the crafty devil catches us one way or the other: either we commit sin ourself, or we accuse those who do. Saint John of the Ladder explains it thus: “The devil tempts us to commit sin; and when he does not succeed, he points scornfully at those who have fallen.” We do not understand our task very well when we neglect our own nettle-choked garden and go to pull up weeds in someone else’s flower bed. Look my friend, stay in your own garden! There are enough burdocks, tares and nettles to weed out right there. Take a hard look at yourself and you will no longer see defects in others. Saint Bernard says, “If you examine yourself well, you will never backbite others.” (12)
(11) Jn 8:7
(12) Saint Bernard, De inter. Dom, Chapter 42
Lesson II: Change the subject.
If you are being chased by a mad bull, throw a coat over his head; while he is wrestling with the coat, run away as fast as you can. When you hear someone backbiting, the best thing you can do is throw a coat in his face — that is, confront his language by changing the subject. And it is not always necessary to take great precautions and act with circumspection, either. Sometimes you can put a sudden halt to a conversation.
Thomas More, the glory of England, renowned for his holiness and learning alike, gave the finest example in everything. No matter where he was, as soon as he heard someone speaking rashly about his neighbor and insulting people who were absent, he would strive to change the conversation. “No matter what one may think,” he would say, “that house is exceedingly well built. Certainly, the one who constructed it has proven that he knew what he was doing.” Thus would he punish or disconcert backbiters.
Plutarch relates that Alcibiades, one of the wisest and greatest men of Ancient Greece, once learned that people were spreading unkind stories about him. He had the idea of replacing them with other stories which, if not better, were at least more innocent. Having recently purchased a magnificent dog, he cut off its tail and let it run rampant through the streets of the city. Some of his friends got upset over this and reproached this great man for doing such a ridiculous thing. “Don’t get angry,” said Alcibiades in his sweetest voice. “The only reason I did it was so that people could aim their malicious zeal at a petty brute. Let them talk about Alcibiades’ dog as much as they like, as long as Alcibiades himself can escape their teeth.” If a tiger kidnaps a little dog, just give it a mirror and it will quickly forget all about the dog.
Shrewd enough to realize how hard it is for a man in the public eye to escape evil tongues, Alcibiades offered the people of Athens an insignificant creature on which to exercise their petulance in a more harmless manner.
Men with sober tongues should imitate Alcibiades’ example in order to silence hissing backbiters. If you cannot interrupt the conversation, at least try and temper it. Presume the good intentions of those who are absent by saying, “We never really know all the extenuating circumstances. Rumor always swells things way out of proportion.” Thus you will dash cold water on an intemperate tongue and moderate the backbiter’s passion, and possibly even change the course of the conversation.
Lesson III: Withdraw from backbiters’ deadly conversations.
Freeze their tongue with a sudden departure, so at least they know that you disapprove of such language. That is Saint Jerome’s advice: “If you hear someone speaking ill of another, cast him far from you like a serpent; so that, overcome by shame, he will learn to be silent regarding the actions of others.” (13) He learned this from Saint Paul, who says, “I write to you not to associate with one who is called a brother, if he is immoral, or covetous, or an idolater or evil-tongued.” (14)
(13) Saint Jerome, In Reg. Mon, Chapter 22
(14) I Cor 5:11
Cassian relates having seen an elder called Machetus who had obtained a very singular grace from God: as long as people were talking about the things of God he would not feel sleepy, even if the conversation lasted night and day; but if, on the contrary, people were speaking useless words or beginning to backbite their neighbor, he would fall asleep at once.
Those who do not want to imitate this elder, who cannot fall asleep or do not want to, should at least show that they are Christians by indicating their displeasure with some sign. They should do this right at the start of the conversation, when a bucket of water will suffice to put the fire out. For you will have a hard time mastering the fire once it has become a conflagration. “The north wind drives away rain, as does a sad countenance a backbiting tongue.” (15) And Saint Jerome adds, “if you listen to a backbiter with a happy look you encourage him to continue backbiting; he shakes the coals, and then you add the wood. If, on the contrary, you listen to him with a sad, unhappy look he will learn to spare his words when he sees that you are not listening to him willingly. If you do not do this, you show that you are a false brother of the one who is backbiting, or that you are a cowardly friend.”
(15) Prov 25:23
My friends, by acting otherwise — by showing less care for others’ reputation than for our own — we violate the law of Our Lord, who tells us to love our neighbor as ourself. The person who sets fire to his neighbor’s house is sinful, but so is the man who warms himself by the heat of the burning house. If he is not an enemy, then let him carry some water to put out the fire. In the same way, we do harm not only by backbiting others, but also by not stopping those who backbite, encouraging them with praise and applause. A sincere friend not only avoids backbiting, but also does everything he can to bring it to a halt. A devoted brother hides his brother’s dishonorable vices from others, revealing them only to those who are able to remedy them.
Apelles depicted King Antigone as a person with only one eye. However, he also disposed the king’s portrait at an angle whereby his physical defects might be attributed to the painting, showing only that part of his face which could not be seen to disadvantage. (16)
(16) Phil., Hist. Nat. lib, Book 35, Chapter 10
Such are the portraits drawn by a truly Christian hand. It neglects anything vicious in the face of another and shows only whatever is worthy of being seen.
Plato imitated Apelles perfectly, not by hand or brush, but by his care in hiding the vices of others. Someone came to inform him that his disciple Xenocrates had been telling all sorts of malicious stories about him. Plato, careful to avoid believing this badly motivated report, replied, “It is highly improbable.” Since the accuser insisted with every appearance of truth, Plato added, “I cannot believe that I am not loved by someone I love so much.” It availed nothing for the accuser to swear that what he said was true. Not wanting to test whether the man was lying, Plato simply said, “Xenocrates would not have spoken thus unless he thought he were doing me a favor.” (17)
(17) Valer., Book 4, Chapter 1.
That is how we should attenuate and cover the vices of others, instead of exaggerating and proclaiming them everywhere. Solomon advises us, “Do not give heed to every word that is spoken.” (18) And Saint Bernard confirms what he wrote on this subject by saying, “Backbiters pour poison into the ears of those who listen to them.” (19) Both the backbiter and his complacent listener commit sin. If a man with a perfidious tongue advises someone to swallow poison, that person will die. The backbiter furtively robs you of the virtue of charity, and he makes your fraternal love grow cold without your even being aware of it.
(18) Eccl 7:22
(19) Saint Bernard, De modo bene vivendi, Chapters 17 and 37; Serm. De Tripl.
In order to arm himself against this trap, Emperor Constantine said that even if he saw the Head of Christianity commit an atrocious act, not only would he not reveal it, but he would cover it with his cloak. Let us do likewise. Let us keep a mutual watch over our reputations and flee even the shadow of backbiting like the plague, according to the formal exhortation of the great Apostle Saint James, “Brethren, do not speak against one another,” (20) for God will treat us as rigorously as we have treated others. The person who refuses to cover the weaknesses of others will see his own crimes come to the light of day. Do you want others to keep silence regarding your miseries? Then keep silence regarding theirs; put a lock over your mouth and a brake on your tongue. Praise everyone as much as you can. If you cannot, then abstain from condemning them. If you encounter only enormous vices and no virtues, say not a word. If others mention them, change the subject. If you consider it impolite to sharply interrupt the conversation of people older than you, then keep silence. If they ask you what you think about it, be indulgent and temper any excess in their actions by the mildness of your words. Mildness is never lacking to those who seek it.
(20) Jas 4:11
If someone relates certain things you have witnessed, limit yourself to talking about human weakness, and celebrate the virtues of the man whose vices they expose. Say, “Even the greatest men have done things that need to be forgiven.” If they continue condemning your neighbor, see if there is not something praiseworthy in him; and instead of his defects, bring out his virtues, even if he is an enemy. It is surprising how such praise can help to calm hatred and heal wounded friendships. Even those who condemn you for it will secretly approve you and begin loving you for praising their enemy.
Before concluding this treatise on backbiting, which is a vice we can never sufficiently detest let us relate a memorable story:
Two people attached to religion by special bonds were close friends. Unfortunately, one of them had such a venomous tongue that he spared no one in his attacks. When this man was laid low by a serious illness, his friend advised him to think about his salvation and do penance to expiate the sins of his life. But it was as if he were preaching to a deaf man. “Well then,” said the friend, “at least let us make a pact, a pact that will endure beyond the grave. If you die before I do, you will appear to me within a month unless God opposes the idea, and you will teach me the mysteries of the other life.”
To reward the constancy of his friend, the sick person promised he would do it; and God was not opposed. Some time after his death the backbiter emerged from hell all covered with flames and came to see his friend. Recognizing his deceased friend at once, the man was seized with such trembling that he was unable to speak a word or even look upon the flaming ghost.
But the spirit spoke and said, “it is I, your friend, condemned to eternal hellfire. I was brought to the tribunal of the Sovereign Judge at the very moment of my death, and my accusers were all the people I had dishonored by my tongue. Since I could neither deny nor excuse what they accused me of, the Judge — alas! thrice alas! –sentenced me to eternal damnation!” (21)
(21) Fr. John Major. S. J., Theologia Specul. exempl, p. 264.
If such torments are reserved for backbiters, Saint Augustine is certainly not wrong in saying, “When the devil cannot devour someone by leading him into evil, he attempts to defile his reputation in order to weigh him down beneath the outrages of men and the backbiting of evil tongues, and thus draw him into his clutches.” (22)
(22) Saint Augustine, Epistle 137
“Guard against profitless grumbling, and from calumny withhold your tongues; for a stealthy utterance does not go unpunished.” (23)
(23) Wis 1:11
“Which of you desires life, and takes delight in prosperous ways? Keep your tongue from evil,” (24) and especially from backbiting. As much as you will have spared the reputation of others, so much will you spare both your own reputation and your own life.
(24) Ps 33:13-14