(About a 3 minute read)
The death this morning of Roger Ailes prompted someone to ask why it is customary in the West to not speak ill of the dead, and whether there was still any merit to the custom.
Ailes, the co-founder of Fox News who for decades was a leading force in conservative politics in America, died this morning at the age of 77. You can find The New York Times report here. He was, to put it mildly, a controversial figure, one who is certain to be spoken ill of in many quarters today, custom notwithstanding. And, of course, many people will scold those who do speak ill of him on the grounds that it is neither customary nor seemly to do so. But is the custom justified?
Like so many Western cultural traits, the custom of not speaking ill of the dead seems to go back to the ancient Greeks. Around 600 B.C., Chilon of Sparta — one of the “Seven Sages” of ancient Greece — is reputed to have said, “Don’t badmouth the dead”. Around 2000 years later, during the Italian Renaissance, his words were popularized by a humanist monk as, “Of the dead, nothing unless good”. And thus the notion comes down to us today.
I have heard it said that we should not speak ill of the dead in order to honor them, or at least to honor the good they did in life. But I don’t buy into those notions. I think there are people who were so vile that honoring them is borderline immoral. And to honor the good they did amounts to a species of dishonesty in light of the evil they did.
If there is today still some reason not to speak ill of the dead, that reason might have more to do with us than with them. Death is one of the most poignant and powerful reminders that, in the end, we are all human. It seems to me that a brief period of grace — perhaps only the time between one’s death and one’s burial — during which we do not speak ill of the deceased would drive home the lesson of our common humanity.
We live in an age in which nearly everyone is at risk of having their humanity denied by other people at sometime or another. All you need do to see the truth of that is go on anyone of tens of thousands of websites and announce a political opinion that’s unpopular on that site. Sooner or later thereafter someone — perhaps many people — will vilify you, demonize you, dehumanize you. And that is a dangerous situation: At a minimum, it is not conducive to liberal democracy, which rests on compromise; and at worse, wars and genocides are made of such things. A society — or world — can only hold together when it is widely recognized that our commonalities outweigh our differences.
The remembrance that we all have in common the same ultimate fate would help, I think, to put things in perspective for many of us. Moreover, a few days in which we do not speak ill of the dead might go far in reminding of us of that.
Having said all that, I think remarkably controversial figures, such as Ailes, present a special problem. Their deaths almost invariably become political occasions. There is a rush by politicians, pundits, and others to make use of their passing in order to further agendas. It might be noble to refrain from criticizing the dead under such circumstances, but certainly, it is not always practical to refrain.
In general, though, I think the practice of not speaking ill of the dead is a good one. But what do you think? Your comments, views, thoughts, and feelings are welcome.