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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : Section VII. Of Scoffing and Derision.

The Government Of The Tongue by Richard Allestree

Section VII. Of Scoffing and Derision.

There is also another fault of the Tongue injurious to our neighbor, and that is Derision and Mockery; the striving to render others as ridiculous and contemptible as we can. This in respect of the subject matter differs from the other of Detraction, as much as folly or deformity does from vice: yet since injuries as well as benefits are to measured by common estimation, this may come in balance with the other. There is such a general aversation in the human nature to contempt, that there is scarce anything more exasperating. I will not deny but the excess of that aversation may be leveled against Pride, yet sure scorn and disdain never sprung from humility, and therefore, are very incompetent Correctors of the other; so that it may be said of that, as once it was of Diogenes, that he trampled on Plato's Pride with greater of his own.

2. Nor is this injury enhanced only by the refinement of the sufferer, but also by the way of inflicting it. We generally think those are the severest marks of infamy, which are the most indelible. To be burnt in the hand or pilloried, is a more lasting reproach than to be scourged or confined; and it is the same in this case, for here commonly Wit is the Lictor, which is armed with an edged tool, and leaves scars behind it. The reproach of rage and fury seem to be writ in Chalk or Lead, which a dispassionate hearer easily wipes out, but those of Wit are like the engraver's burn upon copper, or the corrodings of Aquafortis, engrave and indent the Characters that they can never be defaced. The truth of this daily experience attests. A dull contumely quickly vanishes, nobody thinking it worth remembering; but when tis steeled with Wit, it pierces deep, leaves such impressions in the fancy of the hearers, that thereby it gets rooting in the memory, and will scarce be eradicated: nay, sometimes it happens to survive both speaker and hearer, and conveys itself to posterity; it being not unusual for the sarcasms of Wit to be transmitted in story. And as it thus gives an edge, so also does it add wings to a reproach, makes it fly abroad in an instant. Many a poor man's infirmities had been confined to the notice of a few relations or neighbors, had not some remarkable strain of drollery scattered and dispersed them. The jest recommends the Defamation, and is commonly so incorporate with it, that they cannot be related apart. And even those who like it not in one respect, yet are many time so transported with it in the other, that they choose rather to propagate the contumely, than stifle the conceit. Indeed, Wit is so much the Diana of this age, that he who goes about to set any bounds to it must expect an uproar, Acts 19.28. or at least to be judged to have imposed an envious inhibition on it, because himself has not stock enough to maintain the trade. But however sharp or unexpected the censure may be, yet tis necessary that plain, downright truth should sometimes be spoken, and I think that will bear me out, if I say, tis possible men may be as oppressive by their parts, as their power; and that God did no more design the meaner intellectuals of some for triumphs to the Pride and vanity of the more acute, than he did the possessions of the less powerful, as a prey to the rapine and avarice of the mighty.

3. And this suggests a yet farther aggravation of this sin, as it is a perverting of God's design, and abuse of the talent he has committed to men in trust. Ingenuity and quickness of parts, is sure to be reckoned in the highest ranks of Blessings, an instrument proper for the most excellent purposes: and therefore we cannot suppose the Divine wisdom, so much short of Human, as not in His intention to assign it to uses worthy of it. Those must relate either to God, ourselves, or our neighbors. In respect of God, it renders us more capable of contemplating His Perfections, discerning the Equity and excellence of his Laws, and our obligations to obedience. In regard of ourselves, it makes us apprehend our own interest in that obedience; makes us tractable and persuadable, contrary to that Brutish stubbornness of the Horse and Mule, which the Psalmist reproaches, Psa.32.9. Besides it accommodates us in all the concerns of Human life, forms itself into all those useful contrivances, which may make our being here more comfortable: especially it renders a man company to himself, and in the greatest dearth of Society, entertains him with his own thoughts. Lastly, as to our neighbors, it renders us useful and assistant. All those discoveries and experiments, those Arts and Science, which are now the common treasure of the world, took their first rise from the ingenuity of particular Persons: and in all Personal exigencies wherein any of us are at any time involved, we need not be told the usefulness of a wise adviser. Now all these are employments commensurable to the faculty from whence they flow, and that answer its excellence and value; and he that so bestows his talent, gives a good account of this trust. But I would fain know under which of these Heads Derision of our Neighbors comes in: certainly not under that of being assistant to him. It would be a sorry relief to a poor indigent wretch, to lavish out wit upon him, in upbraiding of his misery. And is not this a parallel case? Is it not the same Barbarism, to mock and reproach a man that wants the gifts of Nature, as him that wants those of Fortune? Nay, perhaps it may be more, for a Beggar may have impoverished himself by his own fault, but in Natural defects there is nothing to be charged, unless we will fly higher, and arraign, that Providence that hath so dispensed. In a word, as the Superfluities of the Rich are by God assigned as the store-house of the poor, so the Abilities of the Wise are of the ignorant: for tis a great mistake, to think ourselves Stewards in some of God's gifts, and proprietors in others. They are all equally to be employed, according to the designation of the Donor, and there is nothing more universally designed by him, than that mankind should be equally helpful to one another. Those therefore, whom God hath blessed with higher degrees of sagacity and quickness, ought not to look down on others as the objects of their contempt or scorn, but rather of their care and pity, endeavoring to rescue them from those mischiefs, to which their weakness may expose them, remembering still, that God might have changed the Scene, and made themselves what they see others. It is part of Job's justification of his integrity, that he was eyes to the Blind, and feet to the Lame, Job 29.25. (i.e.) he accommodated his assistances to all the wants and exigencies of others: and sure tis no less the part of a good man to do it in the Mental than in the Corporal defects.

4. But alas, many of us would rather put a stumbling block in the way of the Blind, pull away the Crutch from the Lame, that we may sport ourselves to see them tumble: such a sensuality we have in observing and improving the imperfections of others, that it is become the grand excellence of the Age to be Dexterous at it, and Wit serves some men for little else. We are got indeed into a merry world, Laughing is our main business; as if because it has been made part of the Definition of man, that he is Risible, his man-hood consisted in nothing else. But alas, if that be all the use men have of their understandings, they were given them to little purpose, since mere Idiots can laugh with as much pleasure and more innocence than they; and it is a great instance how extremes may be brought to meet, that the excess of Wit in the one, and of Folly in the other, serve but to produce the same effect.

5. Yet so voracious is this humor now grown, that it draws in everything to feed it. There is not game enough from the real folly of the world, and therefore, that which is the most distant from it must be stamped with its mark. Tis a known story of the Friar who on a fasting day bid his Capon be Carp, and then very canonically ate it; and by such a transubstantiating power our Wits bid all seriousness and consideration be formality and foppery, and then under that name endeavor to hunt it out of the world. I fear moral honesty fares not better with some of them than moral prudence. The old Philosophical virtues of Justice, Temperance, and Chastity are now hissed off the stage, as fit only for that Antiquated set of Actors; and he that appears in that equipage, is by many thought more ridiculous than he that walks the street in his Ancestor's trunk hose. Nay indeed, vice itself is scarce secure if it have not the grand accomplishment of impudence: a puny blushing sinner is to be laughed out of his Modesty, though not out of his sin; and to be proof against their scorns, he must first be so against all the regrets of his own mind.

6. And if mere Ethic virtue, or shame-faced vice have this treatment, Christian piety must expect worse: and so indeed, it finds its professors being, beyond all others, exposed to their scorn and contempt. Nor is it strange it should be so, such men being made, as it is Wisd.2.14. to reprove their ways, they think in their own defense they are to deride theirs. This is it indeed, which gives a secret sting and venom to their reproaches: other men they abuse as an exercise of their Wit but these in defense of the party. So Julian after his Apostasy, thought it a more effectual way to persecute the Christians by taunts and ironies than by racks and tortures, as thinking it more possible to shame than fright them out of their religion. And the stratagem seems to have been reassumed by many in this age, and I fear with too great success: for I doubt not there are divers who have herded themselves amongst these profane Scoffers, not that they are convinced by their reasons, but terrified by their contumelies; and as some Indians are said to worship the Devil, that he may not hurt them; so these choose to be active, that they may not be passive in the contempts flung upon religion: such men forget the dreadful denunciation of Christ against those that shall be ashamed of Him and His words. Matt.8.38.

7. As for those who, upon a juster estimate, find the advantages of piety worthy to be chosen, and take it with all its accessory ignominies, they have the encouragement of very good company in their sufferings. The Psalmist long ago had his share, when not only Those that sat in the gate spake against him, but the drunkards made songs upon him, Psa.69.12. Twas also the Prophet Jeremiah's complaint, I am in Derision daily, everyone mocketh at me, Jer.20.7. Nay, our blessed Lord himself was derided in his life by the Pharisees, Luke 16.14. mocked and reviled at His death by the Priests, the Elders, the Soldiers, nay, by casual passengers, Matt.27.39. And shall the servant think himself greater than his Lord? Shall a Christian expect an immunity from what his Savior has borne before him? (He that does so, is too delicate a member for a crucified head.) No, sure let us rather animate ourselves, as the Apostle exhorts, by considering Him who as well despised the shame, as endured the cross for us, Heb.12.3. and who has not only given an example, but proposed a reward, a Beatitude to those who are reviled for righteousness sake, Matt.5.11. And when this is soberly pondered, twill sure make it easy for us to resolve with holy David in a like case, I will yet be more vile, 2 Sam.6.22.

8. But to return from this digression to those who thus unhappily employ their parts, let me propose to them, that they would borrow every day some few minutes from their mirth, and seriously consider whether this be (I need not say a Christian, but) a manly exercise of their faculties. Alas, when they have rallied out the day from one company to another, they may sum up their account at night in the wise man's simile, their Laughter has been but like the crackling of Thorns under a pot, Ecclus.6.7. made a little brisk noise for the present, and with the sparkles perhaps annoyed their Neighbors, but what real good has it brought to themselves? All that they can fancy is but the repute of Wit: but sure that might be attainable some other way. We find the world affected to new things, and this of Derision and abuse to others is so beaten a road, that perhaps the very variety of a new way would render it acceptable. They are the lighter substances that still swim away with the stream, the greater and more Solid bodies do sometimes stop the current: and sure twere a noble essay of a man's parts to stem this tide, and by a more useful application of their own faculties, convince others that their might be better employed. Tis said of Anacharsis, that at a feast he could not be got to smile at the affected railleries of common Jesters, but when an ape was brought in he freely laughed, saying an ape was ridiculous by nature, but men by art and study. And truly, tis a great contempt of human nature to think their intellects were given them for no better end, than to raise that laughter which a brute can do as well or better.

9. I Would not be thought to recommend such a Stoical sourness, as shall admit of nothing of the cheerful, pleasant part of Conversation. God has not sure been more rigid to our Minds than to our Bodies: and as He has not so devoted the one to toil, but that He allows us some time to exercise them in recreation as well as labors, so doubtless He indulges the same relaxation to our Minds: which are not always to be screwed up to the height, but allowed to descend to those easinesses of Converse, which entertain the lower Faculties of the Soul. Nor do I think those are all employed in those little skirmishes of Wit, which pass familiarly between intimates and acquaintances, which besides the present divertissement, serve to whet and quicken the Fancy. Yet I conceive this liberty is to be bounded with some Cautions: as first in these encounters, the Charge should be Powder not Bullets; there should nothing be said, that should leave any ungrateful impressions, or give any umbrage of a spiteful intent. The world wants not experiments of the mischiefs have happened by too severe Railleries: in such Fencings jest has proven earnest, and Florets have often turned to Swords, and not only the Friendship, but the Men have fallen a Sacrifice to a Jest.

10. Secondly, this is to have the same restriction with all other recreations, that it be made a divertissement, not a trade. Tis an insinuating thing, and is apt to encroach too much upon our time, and God knows we have a great deal of business for this world, and much more for the next, which will not be done with laughing: and therefore, tis not for us to play away too much of that time, which is exacted by more serious concerns. Tis sure we shall die in Earnest, and it will not become us, to live altogether in Jest. But besides this stealth of our time, tis apt to steal away men's hearts too, make them dote so upon this kind of entertainment, that it averts them from anything more serious. I believe I may appeal to some who have made this their business, whether it go not against the hair with them to set to anything else, and having espoused this as their one excellence, they are willing to decry all others, that they may the more value themselves upon this. By this means it is, that the gift of Raillery has in this Age, like the lean Kine, devoured all the more solid worthy qualifications, and is counted the most reputable accomplishment. A strange, inverted estimate, thus to prefer the little ebullitions of Wit before solid reason and judgment. If they would accommodate either Diet at the same rate, they should eat the Husk, rather than the Kernel, and drink nothing but froth and bubbles. But after all, Wisdom is commonly at long running justified even of her Despisers; these great Idolaters of Wit often dashing themselves upon such Rocks, as make them too late wish their Sails had been less, and their Ballast more. For the preventing, therefore, of more such wrecks, I wish the present caution may be more adverted to, not to bestow an unproportionable part of our time or value on this slight exercise of man's slightest Faculty.

11. A Third Caution in this matter, is to confine ourselves to present Company, not to make absent Persons the Subject of our mirth. Those freedoms we use to a man's face, as they are commonly more moderate, so they are more equitable, because we expose ourselves to the like from him; but the back blows are disingenuous, and give suspicion we intend not a fair trial of Wit, but a cowardly murder of a man's fame. Twas the precept of the Philosopher, Deride not the absent, and I think it may well be so of the Politician: there being nothing more imprudent as to our civil concerns than the contrary liberty. For those things never die in the company they are first vented in (nay, perhaps the hearer is not willing his wit should so soon expire;) and when they once take air, they quickly come to the notice of the derided Person, and then nothing in the world is more disobliging. Twas a sober precept given one, not so much as to laugh in compliance with him that derides another, for you will be hated by him he derides. And if an accessory be hated, sure much more the principal: and I think I may say, there are many can sooner forgive a solemn deep contrivance against them, than one of their jocular reproaches: for he that designs seems to acknowledge them considerable, but he that mocks them, seems to think them too low for anything but contempt: and we learn from Aristotle, that the measure of anger is entirely taken thence, men being so far provoked, as they imagine they were slighted or affronted. In mere secular wisdom it will therefore become men to consider, whether this trade be like to turn to account; or whether it be worth the while, at once to make a jest and an enemy.

12. And if it be imprudent to make man our enemy, tis much more to make God so, by leveling our blows at anything sacred: but of that I have already had occasion to speak, and shall not repeat; only give me leave to say, that besides the profaner sorts of jests, which more immediately reflect on Him, He is concerned in all the unjust reproaches of our brethren, our love to them being confirmed by the same divine Sanction with our reverence to Him: and sure nothing is more inconsistent with that love, than the exposing them to that contempt we are ourselves impatient of. In a word, what repute soever this practice now has of Wit, it is very far from wisdom to provoke God that we may also disoblige man: and if we will take the Scripture estimate, we shall find a Scorner is no such honorable Epithet as we seem to account it. Solomon does almost constantly set it in opposition to a Wise man: thus it is, Prov.9.8. and again Chap.13.1. and many other places; and on the other side, closely links it with the Fool: and that not only in title, but in punishment too, Judgments are prepared for scorners, and stripes for the backs of fools, Prov.19.29. So that if our Wits think not Solomon too dull for their Cabal, we see what a turn he will give to their present verdict.

13. And if these reproaches which aim also at ostentation of Wit, be so unjustifiable, what shall we say to those that are drawn with blacker lines, that are founded in Malice and Envy, or some undermining design? Every man that is to be supplanted cannot always be attacked with a downright battery: perhaps his integrity may be such, that, as twas said of Daniel, Chap.6.4. they can find no occasion against him: and when they cannot shake the main Fort, they must try if they can possess themselves of the out-works, raise some prejudice against his discretion, his humor, his carriage, and his most extrinsic adherents, and if by representing him ridiculous in any of these they can but abate men's reverence to him, their confidence of him will not long hold out; bare honesty without some other adornment, being looked on as a leafless tree, nobody will trust himself to its shelter. Thus the enemies of Socrates, when they could no otherways suppress his reputation, hired Aristophanes, a Comic Poet, to personate him on the stage, and by the insinuations of those interludes, insensibly conveyed first a contempt, then a hatred of him into the hearts of the people. But I need not bring instances of former times in this matter, these being sufficiently versed in that mystery.

14. It is not strange that men of such designs, should summon all their Wit to the service, make their Railleries as picquant as they can, that they may wound the deeper: but methinks tis but a mean office they assign their Wit, to be (I will not say the Pander, that being in this age scarce a title of Reproach but) the executioner or hangman to their malice. Christ bids us be wise as Serpents, yet adds withal harmless as Doves, Matt.10.18. But here the Serpent has quite eat up the Dove, and puts a Vulture in the place, a creature of such sagacity and diligence in pursuit of the prey, that tis hard for any art or innocence to escape its talons.

15. There is yet another sort of Contumelious Persons, who indeed are not chargeable with that circumstance, of ill employing their Wit, for they use none in it. These are people whose sole talent is Pride and Scorn; who perhaps have attained the Sciences of dressing themselves finely, and eating well, and upon the strength of those excellencies, look fastidiously, and disdainfully on any who want them, concluding if a man fall short of their Garniture at the Knees and Elbows, he is much inferior to them in the furniture of the Head. Such people think crying, O Ridiculous! is an ample Confutation of anything can be said, and so they can but despise enough, are contented not to be able to say why they do so. These are I confess, the most innocent kind of Deriders in respect of others, what they say having not edge enough to cause any smart. The greatest hurt they do is to themselves, who though they much need, yet are generally little capable of a rescue, and therefore I shall not clog the present discourse with any advice to them: I shall choose rather to conclude with enforcing my Suit to the former, that they would soberly and sadly weigh the account they must one Day give of the Employment of their Parts, and the more they have hitherto to embezzled them, the more to endeavor to expiate that Unthriftiness, by a more careful Managery for the future; that so instead of that vain, empty, vanishing Mirth they have courted here, they may find a real, full, and eternal Satisfaction in the Joy of their Lord.

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