The Humourist (February 19, 1754)

“How melancholy a Reflection it is, that Speech, which was given us to soften the Cares of Life, and for our mutual Assistance, should be converted to so bad a Purpose, as the sullying of the Fame of our Fellow-Creatures.”  —The Humourist

19 February 1954


Justitia partes sunt non violare homines; vercundiae
Non Offendere.  −TULL.1

Man (they say) is a sociable Animal; which is a Character equally applicable to a Beast, if we understand nothing more by the Expression, than an Association  together for our common Security:  It requires no great Penetration to observe Numbers of this brutish Inclination, who seem to have an Intercourse with their own Species, unadorned with the least Spark of social Virtue.

If there are (and no one will dispute it) any Degree of Subordination in Characters, superior to those created by human Foresight, for Order and Distinction, it is Benevolence, mutual Aid, Friendship, and Charity, and these alone form the noblest Picture of true Greatness.

I have heard (with Tears I speak it) Humanity called Weakness, and Generosity pass by the reproachful Terms of Extravagance and Folly.  Very few consider the Causes of Distress; we are apt to affix a Reason, that, instead of pleading in our Favour, calls upon us for Contempt; we seldom distinguish between Calamities produced by Misconduct, the Oppressions of others, or the inevitable Strokes of Fate.

These are the unsocial Brutes, who whisper away their Neighbour’s Reputation, and declare open War against all the Proprietors of Merit:  There is a malignant Spirit that reigns thro’ the World, and imbibes the basest Principles, that teaches us to wish well to none, by which means we say Ill of all:  The conscious Mind, reflecting on its Iniquity, concludes all Minds alike!

The least Glimmering of a Fault, collects innumerable Spectators, to multiply the dormant Evil, and enlarge upon the Nature of it, at the Expence of blushing Innocence.

This is an Observation familiar to us as the most common Occurrence of Life, we are prone to decry Reputations, we have Discernment to pursue the most effectual Methods, and few possess so small a Share of Self-Love, as to be ignorant, that, by unfavorable Comparisons upon a Friend, they raise their own Characters to a temporary Pitch of Glory.

What Man will, at least what Man does, deny that there is Melody in Defamation; there is Music in the Word, and it is certainly a Note as practiced as admired.

There is an Art in sullying a Man’s Reputation, without incurring Displeasure one’s self; and I have frequently remarked, that a Shrug or a Sneer carries more Expression along with it, than the most forcible Language:  I had occasion some Years ago, to employ a Gentleman in an Affair of some Importance, and, as he seem’d diffident of his own Judgment and Experience, I cheerfully proposed an Assistant to him; Mr. Busy-body made me no Answer, but shrug’d up his Shoulders, contracted the Muscles of his Face, sneering, and then with a Crowd of Words approved my Proposal, had no Objections to it, enlarged pretty minutely upon the Necessity of a Man of Parts in a Transaction environed with a Sea of Trouble like that, and ended his Speech with a Look of Reference to his Shrug and Sneer, which made so strong an Impression upon me, that I absolutely pitched another Person, contrary to my own Inclination and particular Bias for that Gentleman.

Another Set of Detractors there are, who, by a seeming Softness of Words, can probe a Reputation.  Plutarch gives an apt Instance of this upon Aristides’s Banishment, whom when a mean Person had proposed to another, being ask’d what Displeasure Aristides had done him, he replied, none, neither do I know him; but it grieves me to hear every Body call him a just Man.2

There are a Kind of Detractors, tho’ last mentioned, not least in the Cause of Evil, who being mean and sordid, will condescend to collect a Catalogue of Stories, to humour a Patron and tickle a Friend.  Such Men as these, do almost come up to a literal Sense of what the Psalmist spoke in a figurative, (and eat up People for Bread;3) dissect characters, and devour good Names, for the monstrous Entertainment of a servile Master.

How shocking is it, to think, that such unwarrantable Favour should be shewn these People, who make no Allowances for Actions which frequently arise from sudden Passions, or are the unhappy Attendants of some Constitutions, or are the Errors of a hasty Judgment, and now are form’d into Crimes, and charged as the highest , when Good-Nature and good Sense must certainly have overlook’d them.

How melancholy a Reflection it is, that Speech, which was given us to soften the Cares of Life, and for our mutual Assistance, should be converted to so bad a Purpose, as the sullying of the Fame of our Fellow-Creatures; and by the Success of Artifice, raising the Admiration of Mankind on the one Hand, and a dreadful Persecution on the other.


1 Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC), De Officiis, Book I:20, “It is the office of justice to injure no man; of propriety, to offend none.”

2 For a full discussion of Aristides’ banishment, see Agathon Associates’ Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, §7-8.

3 Psalms 53:4:  “Have the workers of iniquity no knowledge? who eat up my people as they eat bread: they have not called upon God.”

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