Front Page Titles (by Subject) QUESTION LXXIII.: OF DETRACTION. - Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas, vol. 2 (Summa Theologica - Secunda Secundae Pt.2)
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QUESTION LXXIII.: OF DETRACTION. - St. Thomas Aquinas, Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas, vol. 2 (Summa Theologica - Secunda Secundae Pt.2) 
Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas. A Translation of the Principal Portions of the Second part of the Summa Theologica, with Notes by Joseph Rickaby, S.J. (London: Burns and Oates, 1892).
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Article I.—Is it a suitable definition of detraction, that it is a blackening of another’s character by words?
R. As there are two ways of harming another in deed, openly by robbery or any sort of violence, and secretly by theft and assassination; so in word also there are two ways of harming another, one way openly, by contumely; another way secretly, by detraction. By the fact of speaking out against a man openly and to his face you seem to make light of him, and so to dishonour him; and therefore contumely wounds the honour of him against whom it is uttered. But he who speaks against another in secret seems to fear him rather than to make light of him: hence he does not directly damage his honour but his character, inasmuch as by such secret speeches he does what in him lies to create a bad opinion of him against whom the speaks. For this the detractor seems to intend, and to bend his efforts to this, that credence may be given to his words. Clearly then detraction differs from contumely in two respects: one is the mode of utterance, because the giver of contumely speaks out against a man to his face, but the detractor in secret; the other is the end intended, or hurt done, because the giver of contumely takes away from the honour of another, the detractor from his good name.
§. A detractor is so called, not as diminishing aught of the truth, but as diminishing his neighbour’s good name.
Article II.—Is detraction a mortal sin?
R. Sins of word are to be judged principally by the intention of the speaker. Now the essential purpose of detraction is the blackening of another’s character. Hence he is properly a detractor who speaks ill of another in his absence with intent to blacken his character. Now to take away another’s character is a very serious thing: because among temporal things a good name counts for a thing of particular value, as the loss of it debars a man from many avenues to success. Hence it is said: “Take care of a good name: for this shall continue with thee more than a thousand treasures precious and great.”1 And therefore detraction of itself is a mortal sin. It happens however at times that one utters some words that lessen another’s good name, not with any intention of doing so, but with something else in view. This is not detraction ordinarily and formally speaking, but only materially and incidentally. And if the words by which another’s good name is diminished are uttered for some necessary purpose of good, with due observance of circumstance, there is no sin at all, and that cannot be called detraction. But if they are uttered from thoughtlessness, or from some motive not of necessity, it is not a mortal sin, unless the utterance happens to be so pregnant with serious matter as notably to damage the party’s good name, particularly on the point of personal morality.
Article III.—Does detraction stand pre-eminent above all the rest of the sins that are committed against one’s neighbour?
R.Ordinarily, sins against one’s neighbour are to be weighed according to the hurt that they do him. Now a hurt is greater as the good that is taken away is greater. Of the three goods of man, that of the soul, that of the body, and that of exterior possessions, the good of the soul, which is the greatest, cannot be taken away by another otherwise than merely by giving occasion to its loss, by evil incitement, which does not amount to necessity; but the other two goods, of the body and of exterior possessions, may be violently taken away by another. But because the good of the body is preferable to the good of exterior possessions, the sins that do personal hurt are more grievous than sins against property. Hence of all the sins against one’s neighbour homicide is the most grievous, whereby the life of a neighbour already in actual existence is taken away. Next to that comes adultery, which is against the due order of human generation, by which is the entry to life. After the good of the body are exterior possessions, among which a good name stands above riches, as being nigher akin to spiritual goods: hence it is said, “A good name is better than great riches.”1 And therefore detraction, of its kind, is a greater sin than theft, but less than murder or adultery. However there may be another order determined by aggravating or extenuating circumstances. But incidentally, the gravity of sin is measured with respect to the sinner, who sins more grievously, if he sins of set purpose, than if he sins of frailty and want of care. In this respect sins of speech have some palliation, since they arise easily by a slip of the tongue without malice prepense.
Article IV.—Does the listener sin grievously who endures a detractor?
R. According to the Apostle: “They are worthy of death, not only who do (what is sinful), but they also that consent.”2 Consent in one form is direct [positive,] when one induces another to sin, or takes pleasure in his sin. In another form it is indirect [negative], when one neglects to withstand the sin, being able to withstand it; and this neglect happens at times, not because one has any pleasure in the sin, but through some human respect. We must say then that if you listen to detraction without resistance, you seem to consent to, or concur with, the detractor: hence you become partaker of his sin. And if indeed you lead him on to the detraction, or at least take pleasure in the detraction through hatred of the person whose character is taken away, you sin no less than the detractor, and sometimes more. Hence Bernard says: “To detract or to listen to a detractor, I could not easily say which of these two merits the greater condemnation.” But if you take no pleasure in the sin, but through fear or negligence or shyness omit to rebut the detractor, you sin indeed, but much less than the detractor, and commonly only venially.1
§ 1. No one hears his own detractors, because the evil things that are said of a man in his hearing are not cases of detraction but of contumely.
§ 2. You are not always bound to resist a detractor by charging him with falsehood, especially if you know that what is said is true; but you ought in words to rebuke him for his sin of detraction against his brother, or at least to show that the detraction displeases you by the sadness of your countenance, because, as it is said: “The north wind driveth away rain, as doth a sad countenance a backbiting tongue.”2
[1 ]Ecclus. xli. 15.
[1 ]Prov. xxii. 1.
[2 ]Romans i. 32.
[1 ]And often not even that, if you are much inferior in age or station, or apprehend that any contradiction on your part would only drive the detractor to say stronger things. See § 2. (Trl.)
[2 ]Prov. xxv. 23.