[War has disturbed] our previous relation to death. This relation was not sincere. If one listened to us, we were, of course, ready to declare that death is the necessary end of all life, that every one of us owed nature his own death and must be prepared to pay the debt – in short, that death is natural, undeniable, and unavoidable. In reality, however, we used to behave as if it were different. We have shown the unmistakable tendency to push death aside, to eliminate it from life. We have tried to keep a deadly silence about death. One’s own, of course. After all, one’s own death is beyond imagining, and when we try to imagine it we can see that we really survive as spectators. Thus the dictum could be dared in the psychoanalysis school: at bottom nobody believes in his own death. Or, and this is the same in his unconscious, every one of us is convinced of his own immortality. As for the death of others, a cultured man will carefully avoid speaking of this possibility if the person fated to die can hear him. Only children ignore the rule… We regularly emphasize the accidental cause of death, the mishap, the disease, the infection, the advanced age, and thus betray our eagerness to demote death from a necessity to a mere accident. Toward the deceased himself we behave in a special way, almost as if we were full of admiration for someone who has accomplished something very difficult. We suspend criticism of him, forgive him any injustice, pronounce the motto de mortuis nil nisi bene, and consider it justified that in the funeral sermon and on the gravestone the most advantageous things are said about him. Consideration for the dead, who no longer needs it, we place higher than truth – and most of us certainly also higher than consideration for the living.
Timely Thoughts on War and Death - Sigmund Freud.
Quoted, apparently, in both Walter Kaufmann’s essay, ‘The Faith of a Heretic,’ [pg 356-7] and Ravi Zacharias’ ‘Can Man Live Without God?’ [pg 159-160], two rather opposing views, one would think! Though how I know about the Kaufmann book I’m don’t know, as I’m sure I’ve never read it. I originally noted the quote back in 1995, so perhaps the details were picked up from Zacharias’ book when I read that.
Freud’s essay is also translated as Timely Reflections on War and Death. Whatever one may now think of his psychoanalytic ability, his remarks in this quote are very much to the point.
The phrase ‘de mortuis nil nisi bene’ means ‘Speak nothing but good of the dead,’ but it’s also known in slightly different guise – ‘de mortuis nil nisi bonum’ – which has been translated as: "Concerning the dead, people should say nothing except good." It apparently derives from Diogenes Laertius. [Back to quote]