DEFAMATION differs from contumely in that the one supposes the absence,

the other, the presence, of the person vilified; and again, in that the

former asperses the reputation of the victim while the latter attacks

the honor due or paid to said reputation. A good name is, after the

grace of God, mans most precious possession; wealth is mere trash

compared with it. You may find people who think otherwise, but the

l sentiment of mankind stigmatizes such baseness and buries it

under the weight of its opprobrium. Nor is it impossible that honor be

paid where a good character no longer exists; but this is accidental.

In the nature of things, reputation is the basis of all honor; if you

destroy character, you destroy at the same time its fruit, which is

honor. Thus will be seen the double malice of defamation.

To defame therefore is to lessen or to annul the estimation in which a

person is held by his fellow-men. This crime may be perpetrated in two

different manners: by making known his secret faults, and this is

simple detraction; and by ascribing to him faults of which he is

innocent, and this is calumny or slander. Thus it appears that a man's

character may suffer from truth as well as from falsehood. Truth is an

adorable thing, but it has its time and place; the fact of its being

truth does not prevent it from being harmful. On the other hand, a lie,

which is evil in itself, becomes abominable when used to malign a


There is one mitigating and two aggravating forms of defamation. Gossip

is small talk, idle and sufficiently discolored to make its subject

appear in an unfavorable light. It takes a morbid pleasure in speaking

of the known and public faults of another. It picks at little things,

and furnishes a steady occupation for people who have more time to mind

other people's business than their own. It bespeaks small-ness in

intellectual make-up and general pusillanimity. That is about all the

harm there is in it, and that is enough.

Libel supposes a wide diffusion of defamatory matter, written or

spoken. Its malice is great because of its power for evil and harm.

Tale-bearing or backbiting is what the name implies. Its object is

principally to spread discord, to cause enmity, to break up

friendships; it may have an ulterior purpose, and these are the means

it employs. No limit can be set to its capacity for evil, its malice is

especially infernal.

It is not necessary that what we do or say of a defamatory nature

result, as a matter of fact, in bringing one's name into disfavor or

disrepute; it is sufficient that it be of such a nature and have such a

tendency. If by accident the venomous shaft spend itself before

attaining the intended mark, no credit is due therefore to him who shot

it; his guilt remains what it was when he sped it on its way. Nor is

there justification in the plea that no harm was meant, that the deed

was done in a moment of anger, jealousy, etc., that it was the result

of loquacity, indulged in for the simple pleasure of talking. These are

excuses that excuse not.

There are those who, speaking in disparagement of the neighbor, speak

to the point, directly and plainly; others, no less guilty, do it in a

covert manner, have recourse to subterfuge and insinuation. They

exaggerate faults and make them appear more odious, they put an evil

interpretation on the deed or intention; they keep back facts that

would improve the situation; they remain silent when silence is

condemnatory; they praise with a malignant praise. A mean, sarcastic

smile or a significant reticence often does the work better than many

words and phrases. And all this, as we have said, independently of the

truth or falsehood of the impression conveyed.

Listeners share the guilt of the defamers on the principle that the

receiver is as bad as the thief. This supposes of course that you

listen, not merely hear; that you enjoy this sort of a thing and are

willing and ready to receive the impression derogatory to the

neighbor's esteem and good name. Of course, if mere curiosity makes us

listen and our pleasure and amusement are less at the expense of the

neighbor's good name than excited by the style of the narrator or the

singularity of the facts alleged, the fault is less; but fault there

nevertheless is, since such an attitude serves to encourage the

traducer and helps him drive his points home. Many sin who could and

should prevent excesses of this kind, but refrain from doing so; their

sin is greater if, by reason of their position, they are under greater

obligations of correction.

Although reputation is a priceless boon to all men, there are cases

wherein it has an especial value on account of the peculiar

circumstances of a man's position. It not infrequently happens that the

whole success of a man's life depends on his good name. Men in public

life, in the professions, religious and others similarly placed,

suffer from defamation far more than those in the ordinary walks of

life; and naturally those who injure them are guilty of more grievous

wrong. And it goes without saying that a man can stand an immoral

aspersion better than a woman. In all cases the malice is measured by

the injury done or intended.