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Against Rash And Vain Swearing - Part 2

By Isaac Barrow

      "But above all things, my brethren, swear not." St. James v. 12.

      VII. Let us consider that swearing is a sin of all others peculiarly clamorous, and provocative of Divine judgment. God is hardly so much concerned, or in a manner constrained, to punish any other sin as this. He is bound in honour and interest to vindicate His name from the abuse, His authority from the contempt, His holy ordinance from the profanation, which it doth infer. He is concerned to take care that His providence be not questioned, that the dread of His majesty be not voided, that all religion be not overthrown by the outrageous commission thereof with impunity.

      It immediately toucheth His name, it expressly calleth upon Him to mind it, to judge it, to show himself in avenging it. He may seem deaf, or unconcerned, if, being so called and provoked, He doth not declare Himself.

      There is understood to be a kind of formal compact between Him and mankind, obliging Him to interpose, to take the matter into His cognisance, being specially addressed to Him.

      The bold swearer doth importune Him to hear, doth rouse Him to mark, doth brave Him to judge and punish his wickedness.

      Hence no wonder that "the flying roll," a quick and inevitable curse, doth surprise the swearer, and cut him off, as it is in the prophet. No wonder that so many remarkable instances do occur in history of signal vengeance inflicted on persons notably guilty of this crime. No wonder that a common practice thereof doth fetch down public judgments; and that, as the prophets of old did proclaim, "because of swearing the land mourneth."

      VIII. Further (passing over the special laws against it, the mischievous consequences of it, the sore punishments appointed to it), we may consider, that to common sense vain swearing is a very unreasonable and ill-favoured practice, greatly misbecoming any sober, worthy, or honest person; but especially most absurd and incongruous to a Christian.

      For in ordinary conversation what needful or reasonable occasion can intervene of violating this command? If there come under discourse a matter of reason, which is evidently true and certain, then what need can there be of an oath to affirm it, it sufficing to expose it to light, or to propose the evidences for it? If an obscure or doubtful point come to be debated, it will not bear an oath; it will be a strange madness to dare, a great folly to hope the persuading it thereby. What were more ridiculous than to swear the truth of a demonstrable theorem? What more vain than so to assert a disputable problem: oaths (like wagers) are in such cases no arguments, except silliness in the users of them.

      If a matter of history be started, then if a man be taken for honest, his word will pass for attestation without further assurance; but if his veracity or probity be doubted, his oath will not be relied on, especially when he doth obtrude it. For it was no less truly than acutely said by the old poet, [Greek], "The man doth not get credit from an oath, but an oath from the man." And a greater author, "An oath," saith St. Chrysostom, "doth not make a man credible; but the testimony of his life, and the exactness of his conversation, and a good repute. Many often have burst with swearing, and persuaded no man; others only nodding have deserved more belief than those who swore so mightily." Wherefore oaths, as they are frivolous coming from a person of little worth or conscience, so they are superfluous in the mouth of an honest and worthy person; yea, as they do not increase the credit of the former, so they may impair that of the latter.

      "A good man," as Socrates did say, "should apparently so demean himself, that his word may be deemed more credible than an oath;" the constant tenour of his practice vouching for it, and giving it such weight, that no asseveration can further corroborate it.

      He should [Greek], "swear by his good deeds," and exhibit [Greek], "a life deserving belief," as Clemens Alex. saith: so that no man should desire more from him than his bare assertion; but willingly should yield him the privilege which the Athenians granted to Xenocrates, that he should testify without swearing.

      He should be like the Essenes, of whom Josephus saith, that everything spoken by them was more valid than an oath; whence they declined swearing.

      He should so much confide in his own veracity and fidelity, and so much stand upon them, that he should not deign to offer any pledge for them, implying them to want confirmation.

      "He should," as St. Jerome saith, "so love truth, that he should suppose himself to have sworn whatsoever he hath said;" and therefore should not be apt to heap another oath on his words.

      Upon such accounts common reason directed even pagan wise men wholly to interdict swearing in ordinary conversation, or about petty matters, as an irrational and immoral practice, unworthy of sober and discreet persons. "Forbear swearing about any matter," said Plato, cited by Clem. Alex. "Avoid swearing, if you can, wholly," said Epictetus. "For money swear by no god, though you swear truly," said Socrates. And divers the like precepts occur in other heathens; the mention whereof may well serve to strike shame into many loose and vain people bearing the name of Christians.

      Indeed, for a true and real Christian, this practice doth especially in a far higher degree misbecome him, upon considerations peculiar to his high calling and holy profession.

      Plutarch telleth us that among the Romans the flamen of Jupiter was not permitted to swear, of which law among other reasons he assigned this: "Because it is not handsome that he to whom divine and greatest things are entrusted should be distrusted about small matters." The which reason may well be applied to excuse every Christian from it, who is a priest to the most High God, and hath the most celestial and important matters concredited to him; in comparison to which all other matters are very mean and inconsiderable. The dignity of his rank should render his word verbum honoris, passable without any further engagement. He hath opinions of things, he hath undertaken practices inconsistent with swearing. For he that firmly doth believe that God is ever present with him, and auditor and witness of all his discourse; he that is persuaded that a severe judgment shall pass on him, wherein he must give an account for every idle word which slippeth from him, and wherein, among other offenders, assuredly liars will be condemned to the burning lake; he that in a great Sacrament (once most solemnly taken, and frequently renewed) hath engaged and sworn, together with all other divine commandments, to observe those which most expressly do charge him to be exactly just, faithful, and veracious in all his words and deeds; who therefore should be ready to say with David, "I have sworn, and am steadfastly purposed to keep thy righteous judgments," to him every word hath the force of an oath; every lie, every breach of promise, every violation of faith doth involve perjury: for him to swear is false heraldry, an impertinent accumulation of one oath upon another; he of all men should disdain to allow that his words are not perfectly credible, that his promise is not secure, without being assured by an oath.

      IX. Indeed, the practice of swearing greatly disparageth him that useth it, and derogateth from his credit upon divers accounts.

      It signifieth (if it signifieth anything) that he doth not confide in his own reputation, and judgeth his own bare word not to deserve credit: for why, if he taketh his word to be good, doth he back it with asseverations? why, if he deemeth his own honesty to bear proof, doth he cite Heaven to warrant it?

      "It is," saith St. Basil, "a very foul and silly thing for a man to accuse himself as unworthy of belief, and to proffer an oath for security."

      By so doing a man doth authorise others to distrust him; for it can be no wrong to distrust him who doth not pretend to be a credible person, or that his saying alone may safely be taken: who, by suspecting that others are not satisfied with his simple assertion, implieth a reason known to himself for it.

      It rendereth whatever he saith to be in reason suspicious, as discovering him void of conscience and discretion; for he that flatly against the rules of duty and reason will swear vainly, what can engage him to speak truly? He that is so loose in so clear and so considerable a point of obedience to God, how can he be supposed staunch in regard to any other? "It being," as Aristotle hath it, "the part of the same men to do ill things, and not to regard forswearing." It will at least constrain any man to suspect all his discourse of vanity and unadvisedness, seeing he plainly hath no care to bridle his tongue from so gross an offence.

      It is strange, therefore, that any man of honour or honesty should not scorn, by such a practice, to shake his own credit, or to detract from the validity of his word; which should stand firm on itself, and not want any attestation to support it. It is a privilege of honourable persons that they are excused from swearing, and that their verbum honoris passeth in lieu of an oath: is it not then strange, that when others dispense with them, they should not dispense with themselves, but voluntarily degrade themselves, and with sin forfeit so noble a privilege?

      X. To excuse these faults, the swearer will be forced to confess that his oaths are no more than waste and insignificant words, deprecating being taken for serious, or to be understood that he meaneth anything by them, but only that he useth them as expletive phrases, [Greek], to plump his speech, and fill up sentences. But such pleas do no more than suggest other faults of swearing, and good arguments against it; its impertinence, its abuse of speech, its disgracing the practiser of it in point of judgment and capacity. For so it is, oaths as they commonly pass are mere excrescences of speech, which do nothing but encumber and deform it; they so embellish discourse, as a wen or a scab do beautify a face, as a patch or a spot do adorn a garment.

      To what purpose, I pray, is God's name hooked and haled into our idle talk? why should we so often mention Him, when we do not mean anything about Him? would it not, into every sentence to foist a dog or a horse, to intrude Turkish, or any barbarous gibberish, be altogether as proper and pertinent?

      What do these superfluities signify, but that the venter of them doth little skill the use of speech, or the rule of conversation, but meaneth to sputter and prate anything without judgment or wit; that his invention is very barren, his fancy beggarly, craving the aid of any stuff to relieve it? One would think a man of sense should grudge to lend his ear, or incline his attention to such motley ragged discourse; that without nauseating he scarce should endure to observe men lavishing time, and squandering their breath so frivolously. 'Tis an affront to good company to pester it with such talk.

      XI. But further, upon higher accounts this is a very uncivil and unmannerly practice.

      Some vain persons take it for a genteel and graceful thing; a special accomplishment, a mark of fine breeding, a point of high gallantry; for who, forsooth, is the brave spark, the complete gentleman, the man of conversation and address, but he that hath the skill and confidence (O heavens! how mean a skill! how mad a confidence!) to lard every sentence with an oath or a curse, making bold at every turn to salute his Maker, or to summon Him in attestation of his tattle; not to say calling and challenging the Almighty to damn and destroy him? Such a conceit, I say, too many have of swearing, because a custom thereof, together with divers other fond and base qualities, hath prevailed among some people, bearing the name and garb of gentlemen.

      But in truth, there is no practice more crossing the genuine nature of genteelness, or misbecoming persons well born and well bred; who should excel the rude vulgar in goodness, in courtesy, in nobleness of heart, in unwillingness to offend, and readiness to oblige those with whom they converse, in steady composedness of mind and manners, in disdaining to say or do any unworthy, any unhandsome things.

      For this practice is not only a gross rudeness toward the main body of men, who justly reverence the name of God, and detest such an abuse thereof; not only further an insolent defiance of the common profession, the religion, the law of our country, which disalloweth and condemneth it, but it is very odious and offensive to any particular society or company, at least, wherein there is any sober person, any who retaineth a sense of goodness, or is anywise concerned for God's honour: for to any such person no language can be more disgustful; nothing can more grate his ears, or fret his heart, than to hear the sovereign object of his love and esteem so mocked and slighted; to see the law of his Prince so disloyally infringed, so contemptuously trampled on; to find his best Friend and Benefactor so outrageously abused. To give him the lie were a compliment, to spit in his face were an obligation, in comparison to this usage.

      Wherefore 'tis a wonder that any person of rank, any that hath in him a spark of ingenuity, or doth at all pretend to good manners, should find in his heart or deign to comply with so scurvy a fashion: a fashion much more befitting the scum of the people than the flower of the gentry; yea, rather much below any man endued with a scrap of reason or a grain of goodness. Would we bethink ourselves, modest, sober, and pertinent discourse would appear far more generous and masculine than such mad hectoring the Almighty, such boisterous insulting over the received laws and general notions of mankind, such ruffianly swaggering against sobriety and goodness. If gentlemen would regard the virtues of their ancestors, the founders of their quality--that gallant courage and solid wisdom, that noble courtesy, which advanced their families and severed them from the vulgar--this degenerate wantonness and forbidness of language would return to the dunghill, or rather, which God grant, be quite banished from the world, the vulgar following their example.

      XII. Further, the words of our Lord, when He forbade this practice, do suggest another consideration against it, deducible from the causes and sources of it; from whence it cometh, that men are so inclined or addicted thereto. "Let," saith He, "your communication be Yea, yea, Nay, nay; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil." The roots of it, He assureth us, are evil, and therefore the fruit cannot be good: it is no grape which groweth from thorns, or fig from thistles. Consult experience, and observe whence it doth proceed.

      Sometimes it ariseth from exorbitant heats of spirit, or transports of unbridled passion. When a man is keenly peevish, or fiercely angry, or eagerly contentious, then he blustereth, and dischargeth his choler in most tragical strains; then he would fright the objects of his displeasure by the most violent expressions thereof. This is sometime alleged in excuse of rash swearing: I was provoked, the swearer will say, I was in passion; but it is strange that a bad cause should justify a bad effect, that one crime should warrant another, that what would spoil a good action should excuse a bad one.

      Sometimes it proceedeth from arrogant conceit, and a tyrannical humour; when a man fondly admireth his own opinion, and affecting to impose it on others, is thence moved to thwack it on with lusty asseverations.

      Sometimes it issueth from wantonness and levity of mind, disposing a man to sport with anything, how serious, how grave, how sacred and venerable soever.

      Sometimes its rise is from stupid inadvertency, or heady precipitancy; when the man doth not heed what he saith, or consider the nature and consequence of his words, but snatcheth any expression which cometh next, or which his roving fancy doth offer, for want of that caution of the psalmist, "I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue; I will keep my mouth with a bridle, while the wicked is before me."

      Sometimes (alas! how often in this miserable age!) it doth spring from profane boldness; when men design to put affronts on religion, and to display their scorn and spite against conscience, affecting the reputation of stout blades, of gallant hectors, of resolute giants, who dare do anything, who are not afraid to defy Heaven, and brave God Almighty Himself.

      Sometimes it is derived from apish imitation, or a humour to comply with a fashion current among vain and dissolute persons.

      It always doth come from a great defect in conscience, of reverence to God, of love to goodness, of discretion and sober regard to the welfare of a man's soul.

      From such evidently vicious and unworthy sources it proceedeth, and therefore must needs be very culpable. No good, no wise man can like actions drawn from such principles. Further--

      XIII. This offence may be particularly aggravated by considering that it hath no strong temptation alluring to it, that it yieldeth no sensible advantage, that it most easily may be avoided or corrected.

      "Every sin," saith St. Chrysostom, "hath not the same punishment; but those things which may easily be reformed do bring on us greater punishment:" and what can be more easy than to reform this fault? "Tell me," saith he, "what difficulty, what sweat, what art, what hazard, what more doth it require beside a little care" to abstain wholly from it? It is but willing, or resolving on it, and it is instantly done; for there is not any natural inclination disposing to it, any strong appetite to detain us under its power.

      It gratifieth no sense, it yieldeth no profit, it procureth no honour; for the sound of it is not very melodious, and no man surely did ever get an estate by it, or was preferred to dignity for it. It rather to any good ear maketh a horrid and jarring noise; it rather with the best part of the world produceth displeasure, damage, and disgrace. What therefore, beside monstrous vanity and unaccountable perverseness, should hold men so devoted thereto?

      Surely of all dealers in sin the swearer is palpably the silliest, and maketh the worst bargains for himself, for he sinneth gratis, and, like those in the prophet, "selleth his soul for nothing." An epicure hath some reason to allege, an extortioner is a man of wisdom, and acteth prudently in comparison to him; for they enjoy some pleasure, or acquire some gain here, in lieu of their salvation hereafter, but this fondling offendeth Heaven, and abandoneth happiness, he knoweth not why or for what. He hath not so much as the common plea of human infirmity to excuse him; he can hardly say that he was tempted thereto by any bait.

      A fantastic humour possesseth him of spurning at piety and soberness; he inconsiderately followeth a herd of wild fops, he affecteth to play the ape. What more than this can he say for himself?

      XIV. Finally, let us consider that as we ourselves, with all our members and powers, were chiefly designed and framed to glorify our Maker, the which to do is indeed the greatest perfection and noblest privilege of our nature, so our tongue and speaking faculty were given to us to declare our admiration and reverence of Him, to exhibit our due love and gratitude toward Him, to profess our trust and confidence in Him, to celebrate His praises, to avow His benefits, to address our supplications to Him, to maintain all kinds of devotional intercourse with Him, to propagate our knowledge, fear, love, and obedience to Him, in all such ways to promote His honour and service. This is the most proper, worthy, and due use of our tongue, for which it was created, to which it is dedicated, from whence it becometh, as it is so often styled, our glory, and the best member that we have; that whereby we excel all creatures here below, and whereby we are no less discriminated from them, than by our reason; that whereby we consort with the blessed angels above in the distinct utterance of praise and communication of glory to our Creator. Wherefore, applying this to any impious discourse with which to profane God's blessed name, with this to violate His holy commands, with this to unhallow His sacred ordinance, with this to offer dishonour and indignity to Him, is a most unnatural abuse, a horrid ingratitude toward Him.

      It is that indeed whereby we render this noble organ incapable of any good use. For how, as the excellent father doth often urge, can we pray to God for mercies, or praise God for His benefits, or heartily confess our sins, or cheerfully partake of the holy mysteries, with a mouth defiled by impious oaths, with a heart guilty of so heinous disobedience.

      Likewise, whereas a secondary very worthy use of our speech is to promote the good of our neighbour, and especially to edify him in piety, according to that wholesome precept of the Apostle, "Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may administer grace unto the hearers." The practice of swearing is an abuse very contrary to that good purpose, serving to corrupt our neighbour, and to instil into him a contempt of religion; or however grievously to scandalise him.

      XV. I shall add but two words more. One is, that we would seriously consider that our Blessed Saviour, who loved us so dearly, who did and suffered so much for us, who redeemed us by His blood, who said unto us, "If ye love Me, keep My commandments," He thus positively hath enjoined, "But I say unto you, Swear not at all;" and how then can we find in our heart directly to thwart His word.

      The other is, that we would lay to heart the reason whereby St. James doth enforce the point, and the sting in the close of our text, wherewith I conclude: "But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath; but let your yea be yea, and your nay nay, lest ye fall into condemnation," or, "lest ye fall under damnation." From the which infinite mischief, and from all sin that may cause it, God in mercy deliver us through our Blessed Redeemer Jesus, to whom for ever be all glory and praise.

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See Also:
   Against Rash And Vain Swearing - Part 1
   Against Rash And Vain Swearing - Part 2


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