Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Talking about the dead--and the living

"De mortuis nihil nisi bonum" is a Latin phrase indicating that one should only say good things about the dead--literally,"of the dead, nothing unless good," The maxim does not derive from Latin literature but from the Greek writer Diogenes Laërtius in his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, where he attributes it to Chilon of Sparta. Since both men were Greek, the original aphorism was rendered as τὸν τεθνηκóτα μὴ κακολογεῖν ("Don't badmouth a dead man"). In 1432 Italian theologian Ambrogio Traversari translated Diogenes' work into Latin, establishing the now familiar wording.

In practice the admonition only seems to apply to the recently deceased, for few would aver that one should say only good things about, say, Attila the Hun, Torquemada, or Adolf Hitler, As with many such pieces of advice it is to be used with discretion.

On learning of the decease of her arch-rival Joan Crawford, Bette Davis is reputed to have remarked: “'My mother told me never to speak badly of the dead. She's dead.... Good.”

Witty, but it doesn’t address the issue head on. Why s h o u l d n ‘ t one speak ill of the dead? One clue is that the current formulation, by Traversari, comes from a time when belief in Purgatory was still common, in fact obligatory in the Christian world. Prayers and masses were offered for the departed who resided in that harrowing place of purgation in hopes of speeding their liberation. By the same token, emphasizing the faults of a dead person could delay his or her departure from Purgatory

Why then should modern secular persons follow this principle of denial? It beats the hell (sic) out of me.

I would like to propose the following principle. As far as possible, we should refrain from saying negative things about the living. Such comments are hurtful. After folks are gone, though, they have no sentience and cannot feel any anguish about things that are said about them. Of course this does not mean that one should simply reverse the motto: De mortuis nihil bonum--say nothing good about the dead. That would be extreme. But one should be free to mingle observation of the good with the bad. If it is feasible, though, the living should be spared.

PS I admit that for me this principle is more a thought experiment than anything else. My sharp tongue and pen have long been notorious. But perhaps I could try harder.



Blogger Arsinoe said...

It has always been my assumption that one refrains from speaking badly about the dead solely in the immediate aftermath of the passing. The reason for doing so is to avoid inflicting further pain upon those who were close to the diseased and genuinely mourn the death.

If one knew the deceased and was close to them, it might be appropriate to mention some totally human eccentricity or foible--especially if it is humorous--as part of a eulogy.

Otherwise, I think, it is just good manners to wait .a few weeks or months before, publishing a critical review of the dead person, his work or contribution (or lack thereof) to the community

7:55 AM  

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