On Censure or Backbiting

Benjamin Franklin

The Pennsylvania Gazette

September 07, 1732

Impia sub dulci melle venena latent. Ovid

Naturam expellas furca licet, usq; recurret. Hor.

There is scarce any one Thing so generally spoke against, and at the same time so universally practis’d, as Censure or Backbiting. All Divines have condemn’d it, all Religions have forbid it, all Writers of Morality have endeavour’d to discountenance it, and all Men hate it at all Times, except only when they have Occasion to make use of it. For my part, after having frankly declar’d it as my Opinion, that the general Condemnation it meets with, proceeds only from a Consciousness in most People that they have highly incurr’d and deserv’d it, I shall in a very fearless impudent Manner take upon me to oppose the universal Vogue of Mankind in all Ages, and say as much in Behalf and Vindication of this decry’d Virtue, as the usual Vacancy in your Paper will admit.

I have call’d it a Virtue, and shall take the same Method to prove it such, as we commonly use to demonstrate any other Action or Habit to be a Virtue, that is, by shewing its Usefulness, and the great Good it does to Society. What can be said to the contrary, has already been said by every body; and indeed it is so little to the purpose, that any body may easily say it: But the Path I mean to tread, has hitherto been trod by no body; if therefore I should meet with the Difficulties usual in tracing new Roads, and be in some Places a little at loss, the Candour of the Reader will the more readily excuse me.

The first Advantage I shall mention, arising from the free Practice of Censure or Backbiting, is, that it is frequently the Means of preventing powerful, politick, ill-designing Men, from growing too popular for the Safety of a State. Such Men are always setting their best Actions to view, in order to obtain Confidence and Trust, and establish a Party: They endeavour to shine with false or borrow’d Merit, and carefully conceal their real Demerit: (that they fear to be evil spoken of is evident from their striving to cover every Ill with a specious Pretence;) But all-examining CENSURE, with her hundred Eyes and her thousand Tongues, soon discovers and as speedily divulges in all Quarters, every the least Crime or Foible that is a part of their true Character. This clips the Wings of their Ambition, weakens their Cause and Party, and reduces them to the necessity of dropping their pernicious Designs, springing from a violent Thirst of Honour and Power; or, if that Thirst is unquenchable, they are oblig’d to enter into a Course of true Virtue, without which real Grandeur is not to be attained.

Again, the common Practice of Censure is a mighty Restraint upon the Actions of every private Man; it greatly assists our otherwise weak Resolutions of living virtuously. What will the World say of me, if I act thus? is often a Reflection strong enough to enable us to resist the most powerful Temptation to Vice or Folly. This preserves the Integrity of the Wavering, the Honesty of the Covetous, the Sanctity of some of the Religious, and the Chastity of all Virgins. And, indeed, when People once become regardless of Censure, they are arrived to a Pitch of Impudence little inferior to the Contempt of all Laws humane and divine.

The common Practice of Censure is also exceedingly serviceable, in helping a Man tothe Knowledge of himself; a piece of Knowledge highly necessary for all, but acquired by very few, because very few sufficiently regard and value the Censure past by others on their Actions. There is hardly such a Thing as a Friend, sincere or rash enough to acquaint us freely with our Faults; nor will any but an Enemy tell us of what we have done amiss, to our Faces; and Enemies meet with little Credit in such Cases, for we believe they speak from Malice and Ill-will: Thus we might always live in the blindest Ignorance of our own Folly, and, while every body reproach’d us in their Hearts, might think our Conduct irreproachable: But Thanks be to Providence, (that has given every Man a natural Inclination to backbite his Neighbour) we now hear of many Things said of us, that we shall never hear said to us; (for out of Goodwill to us, or Illwill to those that have spoken ill of us, every one is willing enough to tell us how we are censur’d by others,) and we have the Advantage of mending our Manners accordingly.

Another vast Benefit arising from the common Practice of Backbiting, is, that it helps exceedingly to a thorough Knowledge of Mankind, a Science the most useful of all Sciences. Could we come to know no Man of whom we had not a particular Experience, our Sphere of Knowledge of this Sort would certainly be narrow and confined, and yet at the same Time must probably have cost us very dear. For the crafty tricking Villain would have a vast Advantage over the honest undesigning Part of Men, when he might cheat and abuse almost every one he dealt with, if none would take the Liberty to characterize him among their Acquaintance behind his Back.

Without saying any more in its Behalf, I am able to challenge all the Orators or Writers in the World, to show (with solid Reason) that the few trifling Inconveniencies attending it, bear any Proportion to these vast Benefits! And I will venture to assert to their Noses, that nothing would be more absurd or pernicious than a Law against Backbiting, if such a Law could possibly take Effect; since it would undoubtedly be the greatest Encouragement to Vice that ever Vice met with, and do more towards the encreasing it, than would the Abolishing of all other Laws whatsoever.

I might likewise have mentioned the Usefulness of Censure in Society, as it is a certain and an equal Punishment for such Follies and Vices as the common Laws either do not sufficiently punish, or have provided no Punishment for. I might have observed, that were it not for this, we should find the Number of some Sorts of Criminals increased to a Degree sufficient not only to infest, but even to overthrow all good and civil Conversation: But it is endless to enumerate every particular Advantage arising from this glorious Virtue! A Virtue, which whoever exerts, must have the largest Share of Publick Spirit and Self-denial, the highest Benevolence and Regard to the Good of others; since in This he entirely sacrifices his own Interest, making not only the Persons he accuses, but all that hear him, his Enemies; for all that deserve Censure (which are by far the greatest Number) hate the Censorious;

That dangerous Weapon, Wit,
Frightens a Million when a few you hit:
Whip but a Cur as you ride thro’ a Town,
And strait his Fellow Curs the Quarrel own:
Each Knave or Fool that’s conscious of a Crime,
Tho’ he scapes now, looks for’t another time.

A Virtue! decry’d by all that fear it, but a strong Presumption of the Innocence of them that practise it; for they cannot be encouraged to offend, from the least Prospect of Favour or Impunity; their Faults or Failings will certainly meet with no Quarter from others. And whoever practises the Contrary, always endeavouring to excuse and palliate the Crimes of others, may rationally be suspected to have some secret darling Vice, which he hopes will be excused him in return. A Virtue! which however ill People may load it with the opprobrious Names of Calumny, Scandal,and Detraction, and I know not what; will still remain a Virtue, a bright, shining, solid Virtue, of more real Use to Mankind than all the other Virtues put together; and indeed, is the Mother or the Protectress of them all, as well as the Enemy, the Destructress of all kinds of Vice. A Virtue, innately, necessarily, and essentially so; for —— But, dear Reader, large Folio Volumes closely written, would scarce be sufficient to contain all the Praises due to it. I shall offer you at present only one more convincing Argument in its Behalf, viz. that you would not have had the Satisfaction of seeing this Discourse so agreeably short as I shall make it, were it not for the just Fear I have of incurring your Censure, should I continue to be troublesome by extending it to a greater Length.

 

The Pennsylvania Gazette, September 7, 1732

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