This I am the apter to believe, because I see some degree of this fault cleave to those, who have eminently corrected all other exorbitancies of the Tongue. Many who would startle at an Oath, whose stomachs as well as consciences, recoil at an obscenity, do yet slide glibly into a Detraction: which yet, methinks, persons otherwise of strict conversations should not do frequently and habitually, had not their easy thoughts of the guilt smoothed the way to it.
It may therefore be no unkind attempt, to try to disentangle from this snare by displaying it; showing the whole contexture of the sin, how tis woven with threads of different sizes, yet the least of them strong enough to noose and entrap us. And alas, if Satan fetter us, tis indifferent to him whether it be by a cable or a hair. Nay, perhaps the smallest sins are his greatest stratagems. The finer his line is spun, the less shadow it casts, and is less apt to fright us from the hook: and though there be much odds between a talent of lead and a grain of sand, yet those grains may be accumulated till they out-weigh the talent. It was a good replay of Plato's, to one who murmured at his reproving him for a small mater, Custom, says he, is no small matter. And indeed, supposing any sin were so small as we are willing to fancy most, yet an indulgent habit even of that would be certainly ruinous: that indulgence being perfectly opposite to the Love of God, which better can consist with the indeliberate commissions of may sins, than with an allowed persistence in any one.
But in this matter of Detraction I cannot yield that any is small, save only comparatively with some other of the same kind which is greater: for absolutely considered, there is even in the very lowest degrees of it, a flat contradiction to the grand rule of Charity, the loving our neighbor as ourselves. And surely that which at once violates the sum of the whole second Table of the Law, for so our Savior renders it, Luke 10.7. must be looked on as no trifling inconsiderable guilt. To evidence this I shall in the Anatomizing this sin apply this Rule to every part of it: first consider it in Gross, in its entire body, and after descend to its several limbs.
1. Detraction, in the native importance of the word, signifies the withdrawing or taking off from a thing; and as it is applied to the reputation, it denotes the impairing or lessening a man in point of fame, rendering him less valued and esteemed by others, which is the final aim of Detraction, though pursued by various means.
2. This is justly looked on as one of the most unkind designs one man can have upon another, there being implanted in every man's nature a great tenderness of Reputation: and to be careless of it, is looked on as a mark of a Degenerous mind. On which account Solon in his Law presumes, that he that will sell his own fame, will also sell the public interest. Tis true, many have improved this too far, blown up this native spark into such flames of Ambition, as has set the world in a combustion; Such as Alexander, Caesar, and others, who sacrificed Hecatombs to their Fame, fed it up to a prodigy upon a Cannibal diet, the flesh of Men: yet even these excesses serve to evince the universal consent of mankind, that Reputation is a valuable and desirable thing.
3. Nor have we only the suffrage of man, but the attestation of God Himself, who frequently in Scripture gives testimony to it: A good name is better than great riches, Prov.22.1. And again, A good name is better than precious ointment. Eccles.7.1. And the more to recommend it, he proposes it as a reward of piety and virtue, as he menaces the contrary to wickedness. The memory of the just shall be blessed, but the name of the wicked shall rot. Prov.10.7. And that we may not think this an invitation fitted only to the Jewish Oeconomy, the Apostle goes farther, and proposes the endeavor after it as a duty, Whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Phil.4.8.
4. And accordingly, good men have in their estimate ranked their names the next degree to their Souls, preferred them before goods or life. Indeed, tis that which gives us an inferior sort of Immortality, and makes us even in this world survive ourselves. This part of us alone continues verdant in the grave, and yields a perfume, when we are stench and rottenness: the consideration whereof has so prevailed with the more generous Heathens, that they have cheerfully quitted life in contemplation of it. Thus Epaminondas alacriously expired, in a confidence that he left behind him a perpetual memory of the victories he had achieved for his Country. Brutus so courted the fame of a Patriot, that he broke through all the obstacles of gratitude and humanity to attain it: he cheerfully bore the defeat of his attempt, in contemplation of the glory it. Twere endless to recount the stories of the Codri, Decii, and Curtii, with the train of those noble Heroes, who in behalf of their Countries devoted themselves to certain death.
5. But we need no foreign Mediums to discover the value of a good name: let every man weigh it but in his own scales, retire to his breast, and there reflect on that impatience he has when his own repute is invaded. To what dangers, to what guilts does sometimes the mere fancy of a reproach hurry men? It makes them really forfeit that virtue from when all true reputation springs, and like Aesop's dog, lose the substance by too greedy catching at the shadow; an irrefragable proof how great a price they set on their fame.
6. And then, since reason sets it as so high a rate, and passion at a higher, we may conclude the violation this interest, one of the greatest injuries in the human commerce; such as is resented not only by the rash, but the sober: so that we must pick out only blocks and stones, the stupid and insensible part of mankind, if we think we can inflict this would without an afflictive smart. And though the power of Christianity does in some so moderate this resentment, that none of those blows shall recoil, no degree of revenge be attempted; yet that does not at all justify or excuse the inflicter. It may indeed be a useful trial of the patience, and meekness of the defamed, yet the defamer has not the less either of crime or danger: not of crime, for that is rather enhanced than abated by the goodness of the person injured; nor of danger, since God is the more immediate avenger of those who attempt not to be their own. But if the injury meet not with this meekness (as in this vindictive age tis manifold odds it will not) it then acquires another accumulative guilt, stands answerable not only for its own positive ill, but for all the accidental which it causes in the sufferer, who by this means is robbed not only of his repute, but his innocence also, provoked to those unchristian returns, which draw God also into the enmity, and set him at war with heaven and earth. And though as to his immediate judgement, he must bear his iniquity, answer for his impatience: yet as in all Civil insurrections the ring-leader is looked on with a particular severity, so doubtless in this case, the first provoker has by his seniority and primogeniture a double portion of the guilt, and may consequently expect of the Punishment, according to the Doom of our Savior, Woe to that man by whom the offence cometh. Matt.18.7.
7. Indeed, there is such a train of mischiefs usually following this sin, that tis scare possible to make a full estimate of its malignity. Tis one of the grand incendiaries which disturbs the peace of the world, and has a great share in the most of its quarrels. For could we examine all the feuds which harass Persons, Families, nay, sometimes Nations, too, we should find the greater part take their rise from injurious, reproachful words, and that for one which is commenced upon the intuition of any real considerable interest, there are many which owe their being to this licentiousness of the Tongue.
8. In regard therefore, of its proper guilt, and all those remoter sins and miseries which ensue it, tis every man's great concern to watch over himself. Neither is it less in respect both of that universal aptness we have to this sin, and its being so perpetually at hand, that for others we must attend occasions and convenient season, but the opportunities of this are always ready: I can do my neighbor this injury, when I can do him no other. Besides the multitude of objects do proportionally multiply both the possibilities and incitations; and the objects here are as numerous, as there are Persons in the world, I either know, or have heard of. For though some sorts of Detractions seem confined to those to whom we bear particular malice, yet there are other kinds of it more ranging, which fly indifferently at all. Lastly, this sin has the aid almost of universal example, which is an advantage beyond all other, there being scarce any so irresistible insinuation as the practice of those with whom we converse, and no subject of converse so common as the defaming our neighbors.
9. Since then the path is so slippery, it had not need to be dark, too. Let us then take in the best light we can, and attentively view this sin in its several branches, that by a distinct discovery of the divers acts and degrees of it, we may the better be armed against them all.