St. Francis de Sales’s solution for our toxic public discourse
“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will render an account for every careless word they speak. By your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Mt 12: 36-37)
There are many words to describe the state of the political discourse in the United States today—degraded and debased, vicious and vacuous. “Virtuous,” however, is not among them. There is virtue-signaling, to be sure, but turn on the news or log onto Twitter and you will undoubtedly find politicians and pundits engaged in verbal combat or thinly veiled self-congratulation.
In times like these, the “virtuous speech” counseled by St. Francis de Sales in his Introduction to the Devout Life is downright countercultural (Part III, 26-30). His writings on cultivating this unfashionable virtue are a good place to start if we as Catholics wish to help restore a degree of civility to our public life.
In times like these, the “virtuous speech” counseled by St. Francis de Sales in his The Devout Life is downright countercultural.
Weigh Your Words
The saint encourages modesty in speech and respect for each other in our speech. He writes: “Be careful never to let an indecent word leave your lips, for even if you do not speak with an evil intention those who hear it may take it in a different way.” Weigh your words and the thoughts that ultimately produce those words. This is truly good advice for each of us. “The more pointed a dart is, the more easily it enters the body, and in like manner the sharper an obscene word is, the deeper it penetrates into the heart.”
De Sales teaches that nothing is so opposed to charity as to despise and condemn one’s neighbor. “Derision and mockery are always accompanied by scoffing, and it is therefore a very great sin.” He does encourage, however, good-humored and joking words—pleasant conversation, if you will: “By their means we take friendly, virtuous enjoyment in the amusing situations human imperfections provide us.”
Francis de Sales is particularly hard on “rash judgments” of others. He states that judgments are offenses against God for they usurp the office of the Lord.
“Many men,” he writes, “make a habit of rash judgment merely because they like to play the philosopher and probe into men’s moods and morals as a way of showing their own keen intelligence.” Others, he writes, “judge out of passion. They always think well of things they love and ill of those they dislike.” For de Sales, “the sin of rash judgment is truly spiritual jaundice and causes all things to appear evil to the eyes of those infected with it.”
“Those who look carefully into their consciences are not very likely to pass rash judgments.”
De Sales provides a remedy for this infection: “Whoever wants to be cured must apply remedies not to his eyes or intellect but to his affections, which are feet in relation to his soul. If your reflections are kind, your judgments will also be kind. If your affections are charitable, your judgments will be the same.”
A degree of self-awareness is useful in this regard: “Those who look carefully into their consciences are not very likely to pass rash judgments. Just as bees in misty or cloudy weather stay in their hives to prepare honey, so also the thoughts of good men do not go out in search of things concealed among the cloudy actions of our neighbor. To avoid meeting them they retire into their own hearts and make good resolutions for their own amendment.”
Francis de Sales refers to slander as “the true plague of society.” He says further that “the man who could free the world of slander would free it of a large share of its sins and iniquity.” Slander robs a person of his good name, and it requires reparation.
The saint also underscores that “a single act is not enough to justify the name or vice.” For him, to deserve the name of a specific vice or a virtue, it must be “habitual.” It is, therefore, slanderous “to say that so and so is bad-tempered or a thief simply because we once saw him in a fit of anger or guilty of theft.”
“Since God’s goodness is so immense that a single moment suffices for us to ask for and receive his grace, what certainty can we have that a man who yesterday was a sinner is such today?” de Sales asks.
Virtuous speech comes from prayer, and listening to the voice of God in prayer requires solitude.
Another tip from de Sales: “To avoid the vice of slander we must not favor, flatter, or cherish vice. We must freely and frankly speak evil of evil and condemn things that need condemnation.” There is an important caveat, however. We must be especially careful when condemning a vice to spare as far as possible the person in whom it is found.
To conclude this section on slander, de Sales suggests that “when you hear anyone spoken ill of, make the accusation doubtful if you can do so justly. If that cannot be done, express sympathy for him, change the subject of conversation, remembering yourself and causing the rest to recall that those who do not fall into sin owe it all to God’s grace. Recall the slanderer to himself in a mild way and tell of some good deed of the offended party if you know of any.”
St. Francis de Sales tells us what virtuous speech is and what it is not. But how does one cultivate this virtue? Here, de Sales counsels solitude. He speaks of solitude, in effect, the lack of speech, as going to an out of the way place as Jesus did. He writes that besides “mental solitude,” each of us “must also love real, physical solitude.”
Citing saints of the past who went into the desert for prayer and fasting, de Sales writes that we should remain for some time alone with ourselves in our room or garden. “There you will have leisure to withdraw your spirit into your heart and refresh your soul with pious meditations, holy thoughts, or a little spiritual reading.”
Pope Francis echoes this advice in his encyclical, “Gaudete et Exsultate.” On the subject of prayer, he writes, “Only if we are prepared to listen, do we have the freedom to set aside our own partial or insufficient ideas, our usual habits and ways of seeing things.” The pope adds: “For each disciple, it is essential to spend time with the Master, to listen to his words, and to learn from him always. Unless we listen, all our words will be nothing but useless chatter.” Virtuous speech comes from prayer, and listening to the voice of God in prayer requires solitude.
God of Truth
St. Francis de Sales gives us some final advice on “virtuous speech.” He writes that our language should always be restrained, frank, sincere, candid, unaffected and honest. It is never permissible to speak against the truth. For our God is the “God of truth.” The Holy Spirit does not dwell in a deceitful and tricky soul. Instead, fidelity, simplicity and sincerity of speech are a great ornament of the Christian life.
De Sales writes, moreover, that “nothing is ever gained by harshness. To speak little…does not consist in uttering only a few words but in uttering none that are useless. With regard to speech, we must not look to the quantity but rather to the quality of our words.” Such is the perduring quality, then, of virtuous speech. It is the kind of speech that each of us seeks daily, or should seek daily, to develop in our verbal lexicons in life. For de Sales, such virtue is an integral part of the devout life, the life whose benchmark is always to live Jesus.
Following the path of the devout life gives us genuine joy and hope as we look forward to eternal life with God. It gives us that present assurance that Jesus, Son of the living God, is walking with us individually and is a living presence in his church. He never abandons us as we seek to live lives of virtue both in our solitude and in our speech.