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"SEE no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil," say the three sacred monkeys carved over the gate of the Buddhist temple of Iyeyasu at Nikko.
We all of us speak ill of one another:
"No one," Pascal remarks, "speaks of us in our presence as he does in our absence. The union that exists among men is based solely on this mutual deceit; and few friendships would survive if each knew what his friend says when he is not there, though he be speaking of him in all sincerity and without passion.
"I lay it down as a fact that, if all men knew what they say of one another, there would not be four friends in this world."
If you do away with evil-speaking, you do away with three-fourths of our conversation; and an unbearable silence will hover over every gathering. Evil-speaking or calumny -- for it is extremely difficult to separate the two sisters; and in reality any evil-speaking is likely to be calumnious, inasmuch as we know others even less well than we know ourselves -- evil-speaking, which feeds all that creates disunion between men and poisons their intercourse, is nevertheless the chief motive that brings them together and enables them to enjoy the pleasures of society.
But the ravages which it wreaks all around us are too well-known and have too often been described to make it necessary for us to portray them once again. Let us here consider only the harm which it does to him who indulges in it. It accustoms him to see only the petty sides of men and things; little by little it conceals from him the bold outlines, the great unities, the heights and depths containing the only truths that count and endure.
In reality, the evil which we find in others, the evil which we speak of them, exists within ourselves: from ourselves we derive it; upon ourselves it recoils. We perceive clearly only those defects which are ours, or which we are on the point of acquiring. Within ourselves is kindled the evil flame whose reflection we perceive on others. Each of us diligently searches out, among those who surround him, the vice or the defect that reveals to the clear-sighted the vice or the defect to which he himself is thrall. There is no more ingenuous or intimate confession, even as there is no better examination of conscience, than to ask one's self:
"What is the fault which I most willingly impute to my neighbour?"
You may be sure that this is the fault which you are most inclined to commit and that you most readily see what is happening in the shallows to which you yourself are descending. He who speaks ill of others is, in short, merely his own traducer; and evil-speaking is, in essence, but the story of our own falls, transposed or anticipated.
We surround ourselves with all the evil that we attribute to the victims of our gossip. It takes form at our own expense; it lives and feeds upon the best of our substance; it accumulates all about us, peopling and encumbering our atmosphere with phantoms, at first grotesque, inconsistent, docile, timid and ephemeral, which gradually become persistent, add to their strength and stature, speak with louder voice and develop into very real and imperious entities which ere long will issue orders and assume the direction of most of our thoughts and actions. We are less and less masters in our own houses; we feel our character slowly sapped of its strength; and we find ourselves sooner or later enclosed within a sort of enchanted circle which it is all but impossible to break, a circle in which we no longer know whether we are defaming our brethren because we are growing as bad as they, or whether we are growing bad because we defame them.
We should accustom ourselves to judge all men as we judge the heroes of this war. It is certain that, if any one had the pitiful courage to undertake their belittlement, he would find, in any gathering of these men, almost as many vices, pettinesses or blemishes as in any human gathering chosen at random in any town or village. He would tell you that it contained hopeless drunkards, unscrupulous libertines, uncouth, narrow and greedy peasants, mean and rapacious shopkeepers, callous, lewd and cheating artisans, sordid, envious clerks and, among young men of better birth, idle, presumptuous, selfish and arrogant wastrels. He would add that many of them did their duty only because there was no way of avoiding it; that they went forward, despite themselves, to brave a death which they hoped to escape, because they well knew that they could not escape the death which would threaten them if they refused to face the first. He might say all this and many other things which would appear more or less true; but there is something far more true, which is the great and magnificent truth that enfolds and uplifts all the rest: it is the thing which they really did; it is the fact that they willingly offered themselves to death in order to accomplish what they regarded as a duty. It cannot be denied: if all those who had vices and imperfections and the desire to shun danger had refused to accept the sacrifice, no force in the world could have compelled them to it; for they would represent a force at least equal to that which would have sought to impel them. We must therefore believe that these imperfections, these vices, these ignoble desires were very superficial and in any case incomparably less powerful and less deeply rooted than the great flood of feeling which carried all before it. And this is why, when we think of those dead or mutilated heroes, the petty thoughts which I have described do not even enter our minds. And it is right that this should be so. In the heroic whole they count for no more than rain-drops in the ocean. All has been swept away, all has been made equal by sacrifice, suffering and death, in the one untarnished beauty.
But let us not forget that it is almost the same with all men; and that these heroes were not of a different nature from the neighbour whom we are incessantly villifying. Death has purified and consecrated them; but we are all of us daily in the presence of the sacrifice, the suffering and, above all, the death which will purify and consecrate us in our turn. We are almost all subject to the same ordeals which, because they are less frequent and less glorious, appeal no less to the same profound virtues; and, if so many men, chosen at hazard from among us, have proved themselves worthy of our admiration, it is because, after all, we are doubtless better than we seem; for, while those others mingled in our life, even they did not appear to be much better than ourselves.