THE Eighth Commandment concerns itself with the good name of the

neighbor; in a general way, it reproves all sins of the tongue, apart

from those already condemned by the Second and Sixth commandments, that

is to say, blasphemous and impure speech. It is as a weapon against the

neighbor and an instrument of untruth that the tongue is here


By a good name is here intended the esteem in which a p
rson is held by

his fellow-men. Call it reputation, character, fame, renown, etc., a

good name means that the bearer is generally considered above reproach

in all matters of honesty, moral integrity and worth. It does not

necessarily imply that such esteem is manifested exteriorly by what is

technically known as honor, the natural concomitant of a good name; it

simply stands for the knowledge entertained by others of our

respectability and our title to honor. A good name is therefore one

thing; honor is another. And honor consists precisely in that

manifestation on the part of our fellows of the esteem and respect in

which they hold us, the fruit of our good name, the homage rendered to

virtue, dignity and merit. As it may therefore be easily seen, these

two things--a good name and honor--differ as much as a sign differs

from the thing signified.

The Eighth Commandment protects every man's honor; it condemns

contumely which is an attack upon that honor. Contumely is a sign of

contempt which shows itself by attempting to impair the honor one duly

receives; it either strives to prevent that honor being paid to the

good name that naturally deserves it, or it tries to nullify it by

offering just the contrary, which is contumely, more commonly called

affront, outrage, insult.

Now, contumely, as you will remark, does not seek primarily to deprive

one of a good name; which it nearly always succeeds in doing, and this

is called detraction; but its object is to prevent your good name from

getting its desert of respect, your character supposedly remaining

intact. The insult offered is intended to effect this purpose. Again,

all contumely presupposes the presence of the party affronted; the

affront is thrown in one's face, and therein consists the shocking

indecency of the thing and its specific malice.

It must be remembered that anger, hatred, the spirit of vengeance or

any other passion does not excuse one from the guilt of contumely. On

the other hand, one's culpability is not lessened by the accidental

fact of one's intended insults going wide of the mark and bearing no

fruit of dishonor to the person assailed. To the malice of contumely

may, and is often, added that of defamation, if apart from the dishonor

received one's character is besmirched in the bargain. Contumely

against parents offends at the same time filial piety; against God and

His saints, it is sacrilegious; if provoked by the practice of religion

and virtue, it is impious. If perpetrated in deed, it may offend

justice properly so called; if it occasion sin in others, it is

scandalous; if it drive the victim to excesses of any kind, the guilt

thereof is shared by the contumelious agent.

Sometimes insult is offered gratuitously, as in the case of the weak,

the old, the cripple and other unfortunates who deserve pity rather

than mockery; the quality of contumely of this sort is brutal and

fiendish. Others will say for justification: "But he said the same, he

did the same to me. Can I not defend myself?" That depends on the sort

of defense you resort to. All weapons of defense are not lawful. If a

man uses evil means to wrong you, there is no justification, in

Christian ethics, for you to employ the same means in order to get

square, or even to shelter yourself from his abuse. The "eye-for-eye"

principle is not recognized among civilized and Christian peoples.

This gross violation of personal respect may be perpetrated in many

ways; any expression of contempt, offered to your face, or directed

against you through a representative, is contumely. The usual way to do

this is to fling vile epithets, to call opprobrious names, to make

shameful charges. It is not always necessary that such names and

epithets be inapplicable or such charges false, if, notwithstanding,

the person in question has not thereby forfeited his right to respect.

In certain circumstances, the epithet "fool" may hold all the

opprobriousness of contumely: "thief" and "drunkard" and others of a

fouler nature may be thus malicious for a better reason. An accusation

of immorality in oneself or in one's parents is contumelious in a high

degree. Our mothers are a favorite target for the shafts of contumely

that through them reach us. Abuse is not the only vehicle of contumely;

scorn, wanton ridicule, indecent mockery and caricature that cover the

unfortunate victim with shame and confusion serve the purpose as well.

To strike one, to spit on one and other ignoble attacks and assaults

belong to the same category of crime.

The malice of contumely is not, of course, equal in all cases;

circumstances have a great deal to do in determining the gravity of

each offense. The more conspicuous a person is in dignity and the more

worthy of respect, the more serious the affront offered him; and still

more grave the offense, if through him many others are attainted. If

again no dishonor is intended and no offense taken, or could reasonably

be taken, there is no sin at all. There may be people very low on the

scale of respectability as the world judges respectability; but it can

never be said of a man or woman that he or she cannot be dishonored,

that he or she is beneath contempt. Human nature never forfeits all

respect; it always has some redeeming feature to commend it.