Cultural Traits, Culture, Ethics, Life, Morality, Morals, Values

Speaking Ill of the Dead

(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.

13 thoughts on “Speaking Ill of the Dead”

  1. I rather liked my Engineer’s interpretation of the Classical form of the injunction, to wit, that it was implicitly crass to diss someone who was not around to defend himself.

    But shit, Roger Ailes built a whole organization on the principle of dissing people who did not have his “ink by the barrel” privilege. Also, he was a disgusting slimy gelatinous fat fuck who insinuated his revolting attentions on women who were trying to build a career. Who in a perfect world would have said “Stick your dick in a can of pureed pumpkin, Mr. Ailes,” but our world is not perfect.

    And then, the whole business of basing a media empire on xenophobic suspicion and hatred. That thing. I recommend highly:

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I would prefer to not speak ill of the dead during a week or two of the time they have passed, but after that, i would evaluate the deceased deeds, good and bad, without the feeling i should only speak good. I think this is typical of most Westerners.

    Thanks for the new post Paul! 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Christopher Hitchens on the death of Jerry Fallwell: “Nothing but good about the dead. He’s dead. Good”

    There are good reasons for being circumspect about speaking ill of anyone. We should be aware of the coarsening of discourse, which you mention. And linking issues to individuals encourages partisanship and prevents conversations. There are also two reasons, already mentioned his comments, for being particularly circumspect when speaking of the dead. One (in the short run) is respect for the grief of those bereaved. The other is asymmetry; the dead can’t answer back.

    I don’t think either of these apply to public figures. The friends and family of a public figure need to develop thick skins, just like the public figure himself. And such a figure will have plenty of supporters to answer on his behalf.

    Roger Ailes built an instrument of evil and deceit, undermining democracy and disinforming the public, and we should not hesitate to say so.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. “Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”
    –Luke 6, 37-38

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I don’t know who Roger Ailes is (or was) nor do I have any interest in finding out. However, if I could see some benefit in talking about someone, good or ill, I would not hesitate to do so. Just getting oneself riled up is not a benefit.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I think the thing is that once a person is dead, he can’t really argue for himself. Whilst he is alive, he can stand for himself with arguments (whether good or not) to defend himself. Once he’s dead, he can’t defend himself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There people who have died who stand for certain ideas. I am thinking of people like Plato as well as lesser known people. If their ideas are still used, these people are worth talking about even after their deaths.


      1. But then the talks should be strictly ad hominem, with a clear distinction between attacking the idea and attacking the (wo) man who produced it. An idea can stand on its own and there is no necessity to badmouth the person who produced it.

        Liked by 1 person

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