Nil nisi bonum

You have only to inhabit for a little while the stacks of a library to realize that the fate of most of what we write is oblivion. The act has its moment and is gone. Though its traces remain, the odds are high that no-one will revive them. Historians have come to resist the assimilation of history to memory, and for good reason. Nevertheless history remains, for the public at large, first of all memorial or commemoration. The dead, but for continued recollection, would cease to be altogether. In this world, if not in the next.
Edward Lutyens, Thiepval Memorial to the Missing
(1928–1932). Source: The Great War
Remembering can present itself as an obligation. A disaster, once it has followed its course, brings with the emptiness of loss the desire that the dead must not be forgotten. Whether they are one or many makes little difference. Near our house, at the corner of Grand and Magnolia, a lamppost was for at least a year adorned with flowers and the picture of a young man—a memorial to Dejuan Banks, a blind 16-year-old killed on that corner by a hit-and-run driver. Someone’s duty it was to remember him.
The memorial was testimony to his continuing presence in our world—a presence “by power”, to borrow a phrase from theology. God is immensum by virtue of his presence everywhere; that presence consists not in his being located everywhere (which would imply that he is extended), but by his acting everywhere to conserve all created things. Action here entails existence, because an immediate cause must coexist with its effect. A remote cause need not. It is as a remote cause that the deceased can be known to retain a presence in this world, a presence that depends on the living, and first of all on remembrance.
The Latin tag that supplies the title for this post is de mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est—“of the dead nothing is to be said except good”. I’ve had reason to consider it lately. Last summer, after President Reagan died, there was a range of responses. One that struck me was contained in a post last summer by Jeanne d’Arc at Body and Soul. Here’s an excerpt:
I seem to be almost alone in this feeling, but I can’t stomach attacks on someone who has just died or been hurt. I don’t care who it is. I hated it when I was in high school and a boy in my German classes came in and announced that Ho Chi Minh had just died, and we ought to get out early so we could have a party. I hated it when I was at an anti-war rally in Berkeley and heard that George Wallace had been shot, and a few scattered cheers came from the crowd. I hated the gloating over the bodies of the Hussein brothers, and the photos of the Abu Ghraib guards grinning over a prisoner’s corpse. I don’t think the day someone dies is the time to tell everything bad you know about them.
That said, I don’t think death is an excuse for blatant prevarication or profiteering of any kind either, and anyone engaging in either of those things has to be called on it. I would simply say to anyone who lies about Reagan that the man was no wimp and his memory, if he’s as great a president as his supporters think he is, can stand up to the truth (“Catch up (is not a vegetable)”, 10 June 2004).
Though we perhaps have no duty to say good things about someone who has recently died, we at least ought to refrain from attacks, from gloating. On the other hand, nil nisi bonum does not require us to remain silent when people lie or attempt to profit from the passing of a figure like Reagan:
What principles ought to apply when a political figure who has achieved high rank dies after a long retirement and illness? Surely, his friends are entitled to eulogize him, and his adversaries, if they can find nothing good to say (as, for example, in John Kerry‘s very graceful comment on Reagan) ought to adhere to the principle de mortuis nil nisi bonum.
If the dead man‘s friends insist on eulogizing him by making palpably false claims on his behalf (for example, that he had no significant failures), his adversaries are put in a false position, and risk giving their consent by silence. Still, ugly outbursts such as Christopher Hitchens’s () are to be avoided at all costs, and even well-reasoned and restrained criticism ought to wait at least until he is buried, and, preferably, until the grass is green on his gravesite.
Similar thoughts were prompted by the death of Derrida (see “Hume is probably dead too”). The grass was not yet planted before people weighed in, banishing him in death as they had in life from the ranks of the serious and sensible. The posterity of Derrida, like that of Reagan, will stand up to criticism if his reputation while living was warranted. But criticism is one thing, Schadenfreude another.
Why not speak ill of the dead?
If there is agreement that for some time after their death, the dead ought to be granted a respite from criticism, even that which was in order while they lived, then the unscrupulous can take advantage by offering unwarranted praise in the expectation that the maxim nil nisi will deter people from answering. Withholding criticism or blame is an act of decency; the decency of the many can usually be exploited by the few upon which it has no hold. In that respect there’s nothing special about exploiting the maxim nil nisi, but if there were no such maxim there would be nothing to exploit.
So the maxim is primary. In thinking about this, you could start with a bit of metaphysics. The dead no longer exist; what does not exist has no properties; it cannot, therefore, be affected; in particular the dead cannot be affected by anything we do or say. They are ignorant of any abuse directed at them, but not in the way that you or I might be for lack of hearing about it. They lack all properties, necessarily.
Whether you think with me, I know not; but the famous “De mortuis nil nisi bonum” always appeared to me to savour more of female weakness than of manly reason. […] Censure is not heard beneath the tomb any more than praise. “De mortuis nil nisi verum, de vivis nil nisi bonum,” would approach perhaps much nearer to good sense. After all, the few handfuls of remaining dust which once composed the body of the author of the Night Thoughts, feel not much concern whether Young passes now for a man of sorrow, or for a “fellow of infinite jest.” To this favour must come the whole family of Yorick. His immortal part, wherever that now dwells, is still less solicitous on this head.
The basis of nil nisi bonum cannot be solicitude for the dead, because they are nothing. If the maxim has a basis, it must be found in relations among the living: courtesy or kindness to the survivors, for example; more precisely, in the consequences for the living of whatever is said, in praise or censure, about the dead. So we gather from Croft, & I suspect that many philosophers of a utilitarian bent would agree.
But feelings like those expressed by Jeanne d’Arc don’t seem to be based solely on the gauging of consequences. Even if the Iraqi whose body provided merriment for the guards at Abu Ghraib had no survivors, even if no-one had cared what happened to his corpse, the gloating of the guards would be a fit object of indignation.
It may be that, genealogically, the feelings that give force to the dictum nil nisi bonum are rooted in horror at the desecration of the human body. Speaking ill of the dead would be a symbolic desecration. The import of the word ‘desecration’ is that the body, even when no longer the vessel of a human life, deserves something akin to the respect given to holy things; respect is owed on account of a sacredness conferred on this portion of fleshly matter, a sacredness that rests on its being the material part of a person. The antics at Abu Ghraib, which are the latest episode in the long history of wartime desecration, exhibit contempt for the dead, or something worse—the corpse treated as if it were a trophy, like the severed ears collected by some soldiers in Vietnam.
The maxim has its greatest force when someone has recently died. Even what at other times would be a judicious assessment of virtues and vices is thought to be untoward. Obituaries do not put their subjects on trial; misdeeds, when they cannot be passed over in silence, tend to be viewed with regret (). One source of that temporary shelter from criticism is the thought that the deceased can no longer speak on his own behalfTo which one might reply, with Jeanne d’Arc, that a well-deserved reputation will not suffer, in the end, from immediate postmortem judgments (). But a decent interval—the interval of mourning, perhaps—is granted even those who in life were pugnacious; pugnacious or not, the dead have no recourse; their fate is entirely in our hands.
But the worst among us are denied any shelter. Who would invoke nil nisi on behalf of Caligula? The measure of respect it implies can be forfeited; whom no-one would mourn, no-one will forbear to criticize. It is with nil nisi as with other demands of decency: gross violation, with no change of heart or sign of remorse, exiles the violator from the circle of those to whom decency is owed.
Nothing except good: no-one is obliged to recount even the genuine merits of the deceased. Decency requires at most that we remain silent, for an interval, that we refrain from speaking ill if we cannot speak well.
Caspar David Friedrich, Cemetery in snow (1826),
Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig
A person’s friends may be, as Kleiman says, “entitled” to eulogize him or her; certainly they are permitted to, and may feel a kind of obligation, a debt of gratitude.
Living on
Supposing that duties toward the dead are not simply duties toward the living under another description (the duty to respect the feelings of survivors, for example), what would it be to have a duty toward what no longer exists? A duty of benevolence or piety has an object, the thing for whom one intends the good or for whom one does pious acts; it has an end, which in the case of benevolence includes but need not be limited to the good which is intended for its object. But what good can we do the dead? The good we intend them is a gift without a recipient.
Here are two thoughts. The dead cannot be proximate causes of anything in this world (at any rate I will assume they cannot be). But (as I said before) they can be remote causes. In my father’s will are stated his intentions with respect to his estate, intentions that could not be fulfilled until he was gone. That they should be fulfilled is not within his control; it is up to us (and the more impersonally motivated agents of the state and its laws) to carry them out. Sentiment, if not rigorous metaphysics, suggests that so long as a person has effects in this world, they live on. Not only legal instruments, not only artifacts, but examples, ways of acting, styles—if we imagine that the deceased would like them to be repeated, adopted, imitated—are the bridges of survival. Presupposed by all of them is remembrance and commemoration, remembering together, as we remember those who have perished in war. The first duty to the dead, the primitive act of benevolence, is simply to remember them, to keep them alive in our thoughts.
The other thought is that a person is, most often, part of one or another group. The most obvious is the family, the name and station of which is borne through the generations by its members, each of whom can hope to live on in the whole of which they are, for some time, a part. The family business or profession is handed on from one generation to the next; in it are realized the intentions of those who sustain it. Needless to say, the heirs do not always relish the tasks laid upon them; the business may be sold off, the offspring destined to become yet another doctor or lawyer may, as Descartes did, opt out & give up his inheritance (in this respect too Descartes is modern). But to the extent that by kinship, profession, or interests we are part of some whole, and we identify the effects of that whole as ours, we survive as partial remote causes of those effects so long as it is active ().
Attitudes are ambiguous: the intentions of those who have gone before us are to be respected, but sometimes the dead weight of the past becomes a burden and must be thrown off. At most there is a presumption in favor of respecting their intentions, a presumptive obligation that for sufficiently good reasons may be waived. The obligation is first of all to the whole of which the deceased was part, and then to the deceased insofar as the “forms” of the whole were realized in their “matter”: one topos of the eulogy is to hold that the departed embodied the virtues of his or her profession, which we the living ought to maintain not only for their own sake, but as a memorial.
The grass is not yet green
If we think of the various philosophical systems of ethics as offering distinct ways of generating warrant for moral claims, then a commonsense maxim like nil nisi bonum may well admit of being accommodated by some or all of them, because in fact it answers to a variety of desires and ends. The consequentialist sees that speaking ill of the dead can cause pain to the survivors; the Kantian finds in the maxim an instance of respect for persons; and so on. Some of what moves people to avoid even justified criticism of the dead during the “decent interval” may prove troublesome for the philosopher even to acknowledge, let alone make reasonable: the dread of desecration, the sense that the dead have not passed away entirely, awe in the face of their irrevocable departure.
I suppose that it is recognition of the complexity of motivations for commonsense maxims like nil nisi bonum that has led people to propose the enriching of moral theory by narrative, by “thick” description. There is something to that, especially with respect to the troublesome forces just mentioned. Understanding them requires something like Bachelard’s psychanalyse or Nietzsche’s genealogy, and the material for such investigations cannot consist in schematic examples of the out-of-control trolley-car type.
But the moral to be drawn from the complexity of motivations is not, I would say, that systematic ethics ought to be abandoned, but rather that its aims should be recast. No system is likely to capture the entirety of moral experience; at best it singles out and amplifies certain aspects of it. To consider in some detail even a minor maxim, without in advance having one or another system in mind—nor even a menu of systems from among which one is emerge victorious—soon leads one to suspect that systems are best thought of not as philosophical analogues to the atomic theory or to the cell theory—that is, not as true or false by virtue of their relation to some underlying foundation of moral judgment—but rather as instruments by which to discern, select, and render more acute the sensibilities expressed in judgment. But here I venture into speculation.
() The reference is to “Not Even a Hedgehog: The stupidity of Ronald Reagan”, Slate, June 7, 2004. By Hitchens’ standards, the piece is rather sedate.
() See, for example, the Blog of Death, Topix.net Obits, the National Obituary Archive, and Wikipedia’s Recent Deaths page, which has links to pages in languages other than English.
() Thus the joke that for some people death is a great career move. It can be, if you take survival to include remote effects. (Perhaps I should say “remote effects referred to the deceased”. If you set store by chaos theory—butterflies causing hurricanes & all that—, then there’s no telling what effects my acts may have. But no-one will refer those effects to me.)
() It seems to be a commonplace among those who disagree with nil nisi bonum to argue that those who dish it out must be prepared to take it, too—even posthumously:
There is, of course, a moral issue in this blackwash that we manifestly relish so much. Hughes’s family and Valerie Eliot must suffer hellishly on days like October 14. Towards the end of his life, Stephen Spender (whose life I am writing) tried to recruit Hughes into a campaign for a biographers’ code of practice. Ted was sympathetic, but declined. Life, he said, was a jungle. Wounds went with the territory—particularly if, like him, you were king of the literary beasts. Too bad about the lioness and the cubs. But fun reading for jackals like us.

LinkJanuary 5, 2005 in Ethics · Society