Reason is the special characteristic of man, and yet it is a rare thing to find really reasonable men, all the more that self-love hinders reason, and beguiles us insensibly into all manner of trifling, but yet dangerous acts of injustice and untruth, which, like the little foxes in the Canticles, (1) spoil our vines, while, just because they are trifling, people pay no attention to them, and because they are numerous, they do infinite harm.
Let me give some instances of what I mean. We find fault with our neighbour very readily for a small matter, while we pass over great things in ourselves. We strive to sell dear and buy cheap. We are eager to deal out strict justice to others, but to obtain indulgence for ourselves. We expect a good construction to be put on all we say, but we are sensitive and critical as to our neighbour’s words. We expect him to let us have whatever we want for money, when it would be more reasonable to let him keep that which is his, if he desires to do so, and leave us to keep our gold. We are vexed with him because he will not accommodate us, while perhaps he has better reason to be vexed with us for wanting to disturb him. If we have a liking for any one particular thing, we despise all else, and reject whatever does not precisely suit our taste. If some inferior is unacceptable to us, or we have once caught him in error, he is sure to be wrong in our eyes whatever he may do, and we are for ever thwarting, or looking coldly on him, while, on the other hand, some one who happens to please us is sure to be right.
Sometimes even parents show unfair preference for a child endowed with personal gifts over one afflicted with some physical imperfection. We put the rich before the poor, although they may have less claim, and be less worthy; we even give preference to well-dressed people. We are strict in exacting our own rights, but expect others to be yielding as to theirs;–we complain freely of our neighbours, but we do not like them to make any complaints of us. Whatever we do for them appears very great in our sight, but what they do for us counts as nothing.
In a word, we are like the Paphlagonian partridge, which has two hearts; for we have a very tender, pitiful, easy heart towards ourselves, and one which is hard, harsh and strict towards our neighbour. We have two scales, one wherein to measure our own goods to the best advantage, and the other to weigh our neighbours’ to the worst. Holy Scripture tells us that lying lips are an abomination unto the Lord, (2) and the double heart, with one measure whereby to receive, and another to give, is also abominable in His Sight.
Be just and fair in all you do. Always put yourself in your neighbour’s place, and put him into yours, and then you will judge fairly. Sell as you would buy, and buy as you would sell, and your buying and selling will alike be honest. These little dishonesties seem unimportant, because we are not obliged to make restitution, and we have, after all, only taken that which we might demand according to the strict letter of the law; but, nevertheless, they are sins against right and charity, and are mere trickery, greatly needing correction–nor does any one ever lose by being generous, noble-hearted and courteous.
Be sure then often to examine your dealings with your neighbour, whether your heart is right towards him, as you would have his towards you, were things reversed–this is the true test of reason. When Trajan was blamed by his confidential friends for making the Imperial presence too accessible, he replied, “Does it not behove me to strive to be such an emperor towards my subjects as I should wish to meet with were I a subject?