On Detractors


The poet Naevius noted that “mortal man is forced to endure many evils.”  (Pati necesse est multa mortalem mala, as quoted in St. Jerome’s Epistulae, LX.14).  Few would dispute this sentence.  One of these evils is the attack of the detractor.  Anyone who has become noted in a field of endeavor will at some point embolden detractors.  Horace tells us:

Such is the condition of kings,

That bolts of lightning strike the mountain tops.[1]

In other words, men of prominence will naturally attract invective from those wishing to cause mischief or spread calumnies.  It cannot be otherwise.  Hearing such attacks can begin to feel like an “itching in the ears” (to use the phrase of St. Jerome) for the man following his own moral purpose.  Jerome warns us that we should resist the temptation to respond to such attacks:

Cave quoque, ne aut linguam aut aures habeas prurientes, id est, ne aut ipse aliis detrahas aut alios audias detrahentes.[2]

This sentence reads:  “beware also, lest you have either an itching tongue or ears; that is, lest you detract from others or you listen to detractors.”  What Jerome means by this is that we should avoid the temptation to respond in a tit-for-tat way to our enemies.  Insults hurled can often come back to wound the hurler.  Jerome’s implication here is that mutual invective inevitably leads to mutual destruction.


By not responding to invective, we train both our enemies and ourselves:  we train our enemies that they cannot provoke us, and we train our own tongues to be silent as necessary.  Let us practice, then to moderate our words, and control our itch for retribution.


[1] Odes II.10.11.

[2]  Epistula LII.14.