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An essay by George William Curtis

The Public Scold

Title:     The Public Scold
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

The Easy Chair was lately asked whether it thought the office of public scold an agreeable one. There was a certain tartness in the question, as if its real purpose was to learn from the Easy Chair whether It enjoyed that position, and upon looking further it appeared that the question had been suggested by a remark of the Easy Chair's to the effect that a certain class of our fellow-creatures seemed to be disposed to do their duty in a manner that might be improved. But what is an Easy Chair but a kind of censor morum! Would the kind critic of its conduct have it say to the gentleman whose hands are soiled that they are as pure as the morning, and to the tactless dame who makes all her neighbors uncomfortable that her manners are charming?

Probably this is really what the critic meant, for he continued by saying that it is so much better to dilate upon what is pleasant than to discuss the unpleasant aspects of life. That is true. It was the principle of the Vicar of Bray. That reverend gentleman always avoided friction. He was a chip of the Polonius block. The cloud was a camel or a whale, according to the fancy of his companion. The good vicar looked askance at Rome under Henry and Edward, and told his beads piously under Mary, and upon reflection eschewed the mass-house under Elizabeth. He dilated upon the pleasant aspects of affairs. We can imagine him saying to Ridley in the time of Mary, "My dear bishop, why think yourself wiser than your time?" and a little later to Parker, Elizabeth's Archbishop (Ridley having been burned in the meanwhile), "My dear archbishop, Rome, I see, is much too stringent." The Vicar of Bray was not a scold. He was, according to the abused text, all things to all men.

Yet his profession, our censor must remember, was a scolding profession--at least in the sense in which the word is often used. His duty was to admonish and exhort, to adjure his flock to quit the error of their ways. Perhaps he was a poor illustration of it. Perhaps, true to his temperament rather than to his profession, instead of urging repentance because the kingdom was at hand, he was accustomed to say: "Brethren, I observe that you lie and steal and slander your neighbors a good deal. But in such a world as this what is to be expected? We are all poor, weak, fallible things. Which of us can hope to strike twelve every time? Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall. We must all beware of hypocrisy, dear brethren, and of pretending to be better than our neighbors. You remember the Pharisee who thanked God that he was not as other men. Let him be a warning against the sin of presumption. There is the beautiful lesson of the beam and the mote. We must not forget it. We are all miserable sinners, and therefore we must not twit each other with sinning. We ought to tell the truth, my friends. But we don't. We all lie. Let us therefore not scold each other, since we are all equally wicked. But let us avoid Phariseeism and all that assumption of superior virtue which is implied in saying to a foul-mouthed brother that he ought to speak cleanly. Beware of Phariseeism as of the unpardonable sin. Scold not, dear brethren, but talk of the things which are pleasant, and instead of rebuking the liar, commend his goodness to the poor, and instead of silencing the backbiter, praise his subscription to the soup kitchen. For what says Dr. Watts?

"'Let dogs delight to bark and bite.'

Dogs naturally scold, but we, brethren, we have the gift of avoidance, and, O liars, thieves, and slanderers, let us live together in peace, and say nothing about falsehood, stealing, and calumny."

This was probably the tenor of the sermons of the Vicar of Bray, and this was the way that he strove to save souls. But Fénelon and John Knox and Edwards and Whitefield and Wesley and Channing and St. Paul, each in his own way, said, "Thou art the man," and rebuked both the sin and the sinner. Yet all of them were very human and very fallible, and all came very short of the ideal of duty. To point out a defect in a picture, or to exhort the artist to avoid it, is not to declare yourself an incomparable artist. To demand honesty in public affairs is not to proclaim yourself a saint. To say that school-teachers should be thorough and use their common-sense as well as a text-book is not to scold them. Romilly was not a scold because he denounced the unjust criminal laws, nor John Howard because he rebuked the inhumanity of prisons, nor John the Baptist because he exhorted men to repent.

The poets rebuke our lives by the fair ideals that they draw, but they do not scold. If a man preaches a little sermon illustrating the way in which men in a certain profession, let us say, shirk their duty, and somebody cries out, "Don't scold so!" the preacher may safely exclaim, "Fellow-sinner, thou art the man." But the best illustration is closer at hand. If the Easy Chair reproves certain fellow-sinners for remissness in doing their duty, and for that offence is a scold, what is the censor who scolds the Easy Chair for scolding? Let us avoid Phariseeism, brethren, and the assumption of superior virtue.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Public Scold