CONTAINING COUNSELS CONCERNING THE PRACTICE OF VIRTUE.
Chapter VII --How to combine due care for a Good Reputation with Humility.
PRAISE, honour, and glory are not bestowed on men for ordinary, but for extraordinary virtue. By praise we intend to lead men to appreciate the excellence of certain individuals; giving them honour is the expression of our own esteem for them; and I should say that glory is the combination of praise and honour from many persons. If praise and honour are like precious stones, glory is as an enamel thereof. Now, as humility forbids us to aim at excelling or being preferred to others, it likewise forbids us to aim at praise, honour, and glory; but it allows us to give heed, as the Wise Man says, to our good name, and that because a good name does not imply any one particular excellence, but a general straightforward integrity of purpose, which we may recognise in ourselves, and desire to be known as possessing, without any breach of humility. Humility might make us indifferent even to a good reputation, were it not for charity's sake; but seeing that it is a groundwork of society, and without it we are not merely useless but positively harmful to the world, because of the scandal given by such a deficiency, therefore charity requires, and humility allows, us to desire and to maintain a good reputation with care.
Moreover, just as the leaves of a tree are valuable, not merely for beauty's sake, but also as a shelter to the tender fruit, so a good reputation, if not in itself very important, is still very useful, not only as an embellishment of life, but as a protection to our virtues, especially to those which are weakly. The necessity for acting up to our reputation, and being what we are thought to be, brings a strong though kindly motive power to bear upon a generous disposition. Let us foster all our virtues, my daughter, because they are pleasing to God, the Chief Aim of all we do. But just as when men preserve fruits, they do not only conserve them, but put them into suitable vessels, so while Divine Love is the main thing which keeps us in the ways of holiness, we may also find help from the effects of a good reputation. But it will not do to be over-eager or fanciful about it. Those who are so very sensitive about their reputation are like people who are perpetually physicking themselves for every carnal ailment; they mean to preserve their health, but practically they destroy it; and those who are so very fastidious over their good name are apt to lose it entirely, for they become fanciful, fretful, and disagreeable, provoking ill-natured remarks.
As a rule, indifference to insult and slander is a much more effectual remedy than resentment, wrath, and vengeance. Slander melts away beneath contempt, but indignation seems a sort of acknowledgment of its truth. Crocodiles never meddle with any but those who are afraid of them, and slander only persists in attacking people who are disturbed by it.
An excessive fear of losing reputation indicates mistrust as to its foundations, which are to be found in a good and true life. Those towns where the bridges are built of wood are very uneasy whenever a sign of flood appears, but they who possess stone bridges are not anxious unless some very unusual storm appears. And so a soul built up on solid Christian foundations can afford to despise the outpour of slanderous tongues, but those who know themselves to be weak are for ever disturbed and uneasy. Be sure, my daughter, that he who seeks to be well thought of by everybody will be esteemed by nobody, and those people deserve to be despised who are anxious to be highly esteemed by ungodly, unworthy men.
Reputation, after all, is but a signboard giving notice where virtue dwells, and virtue itself is always and everywhere preferable. Therefore, if it is said that you are a hypocrite because you are professedly devout, or if you are called a coward because you have forgiven an insult, despise all such accusations. Such judgments are the utterances of foolish men, and you must not give up what is right, even though your reputation suffer, for fruit is better than foliage, that is to say, an inward and spiritual gain is worth all external gains. We may take a jealous care of our reputation, but not idolise it; and while we desire not to displease good men, neither should we seek to please those that are evil. A man's natural adornment is his beard, and a woman's her hair; if either be torn out they may never grow again, but if only shaven or shorn, they will grow all the thicker; and in like manner, if our reputation be shorn or even shaven by slanderous tongues (of which David says, that "with lies they cut like a sharp razor " 2 ), there is no need to be disturbed, it will soon spring again, if not brighter, at all events more substantial. But if it be lost through our own vices or meanness or evil living, it will not be easily restored, because its roots are plucked up. And the root of a good name is to be found in virtue and honesty, which will always cause it to spring up afresh, however it may be assaulted. If your good name suffers from some empty pursuit, some useless habit, some unworthy friendship, they must be renounced, for a good name is worth more than any such idle indulgence; but if you are blamed or slandered for pious practices, earnestness in devotion, or whatever tends to win eternal life, then let your slanderers have their way, like dogs that bay at the moon! Be sure that, if they should succeed in rousing any evil impression against you (clipping the beard of your reputation, as it were), your good name will soon revive, and the razor of slander will strengthen your honour, just as the pruning-knife strengthens the vine and causes it to bring forth more abundant fruit. Let us keep Jesus Christ Crucified always before our eyes; let us go on trustfully and simply, but with discretion and wisdom, in His Service, and He will take care of our reputation; if He permits us to lose it, it will only be to give us better things, and to train us in a holy humility, one ounce of which is worth more than a thousand pounds of honour. If we are unjustly blamed, let us quietly meet calumny with truth; if calumny perseveres, let us persevere in humility; there is no surer shelter for our reputation or our soul than the Hand of God. Let us serve Him in good report or evil report alike, with S. Paul; 1 so that we may cry out with David, "For Thy Sake have I suffered reproof, shame hath covered my face." 2
Of course certain crimes, so grievous that no one who can justify himself should remain silent, must be excepted; as, too, certain persons whose reputation closely affects the edification of others. In this case all theologians say that it is right quietly to seek reparation.
1. Ps. lxxxiv. 10.
2. Ps. lii. 2.
3. 2 Cor. vi. 8.
4. Ps. lxix. 7.